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Specters of Paul

Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought

By Benjamin H. Dunning

Publication Year: 2011

The first Christians operated with a hierarchical model of sexual difference common to the ancient Mediterranean, with women considered to be lesser versions of men. Yet sexual difference was not completely stable as a conceptual category across the spectrum of formative Christian thinking. Rather, early Christians found ways to exercise theological creativity and to think differently from one another as they probed the enigma of sexually differentiated bodies.

In Specters of Paul, Benjamin H. Dunning explores this variety in second- and third-century Christian thought with particular attention to the ways the legacy of the apostle Paul fueled, shaped, and also constrained approaches to the issue. Paul articulates his vision of what it means to be human primarily by situating human beings between two poles: creation (Adam) and resurrection (Christ). But within this framework, where does one place the figure of Eve—and the difference that her female body represents?

Dunning demonstrates that this dilemma impacted a range of Christian thinkers in the centuries immediately following the apostle, including Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian of Carthage, and authors from the Nag Hammadi corpus. While each of these thinkers attempts to give the difference of the feminine a coherent place within a Pauline typological framework, Dunning shows that they all fail to deliver fully on the coherence that they promise. Instead, sexual difference haunts the Pauline discourse of identity and sameness as the difference that can be neither fully assimilated nor fully ejected—a conclusion with important implications not only for early Christian history but also for feminist and queer philosophy and theology.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: Sexual Difference and Paul’s Adam-Christ Typology

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pp. 1-27

French philosopher Alain Badiou opens a manifesto on his theory of the subject with the question, “Why Saint Paul? Why solicit this ‘apostle’ who is all the more suspect for having, it seems, proclaimed himself such and whose name is frequently tied to Christianity’s least open, most institutional aspects:...

Part I. The Platonic Woman

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Chapter 1. The Many Become One: Theological Monism and the Problem of the Female Body

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pp. 31-50

In this chapter and throughout this section of the book, I take up the problem of “the Platonic woman”—that is, the ways early Christians who were informed (at least in part) by the tradition of Philo and other platonizing philosophers navigated the question of sexual difference and, in some cases,...

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Chapter 2. Desire and the Feminine: Clement of Alexandria’s Displacement of Eve

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pp. 51-74

In articulating his theological anthropology, Clement of Alexandria makes clear that the difference between male and female is a temporary element of human existence to be shed at the eschaton: “For in this world only is the female distinguished from the male, ‘but in that world, no more.’ There the rewards...are held in store not for male and female but for the human person."1...

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Chapter 3. What Sort of Thing Is This Luminous Woman? Sexual Dimorphism in On the Origin of the World

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pp. 74-94

Whereas numerous platonizing Christian texts locate the difference of the feminine in terms of desire, lack, and derivativeness, in this chapter I turn to another kind of attempted solution to the early Christian problem of “the Platonic woman”—as seen in Tractate II, 5 from Nag Hammadi (known as On the Origin of the World). Like Clement...

Part II. Flesh and Virginity

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Chapter 4. Virgin Earth, Virgin Birth: Irenaeus of Lyons and the Predicaments of Recapitulation

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pp. 97-123

In this section of the book, I turn to a second paradigmatic early Christian strategy for situating sexual difference in relation to Pauline typological categories: the move to build a more complicated framework than that which we see in Paul—one that includes not only Adam and Christ, but also Eve and Mary as typological representatives of sexually...

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Chapter 5. The Contrary Operation: Resignifying the Unpenetrated Body in Tertullian of Carthage

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pp. 124-150

Scholars have paid a great deal of attention to the question of whether the North African theologian Tertullian of Carthage was a misogynist. And there would seem to be ample textual support for an affirmative answer—most notably the notorious opening chapter from De cultu feminarum (The Apparel of Women) where Tertullian vigorously...

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Conclusion: Specters of Paul

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pp. 151-157

In a 2009 New Yorker article, Joan Acocella identifies what she sees as being at stake in the current flurry of academic interest in “rehabilitating” the figure of Judas Iscariot that has accompanied the discovery of the Gospel of Judas: “Cumulatively, the commentaries on the Judas gospel are amazing in their insistence on its upbeat character. Jesus ridicules...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 159-162


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pp. 163-216


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pp. 228-242


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pp. 243-249

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pp. 251-252

I have been incredibly fortunate to receive support from several institutions in the form of both funding and leave time, without which this book would not have been possible. I was able to finish the manuscript during the year I spent as a Research Associate in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School. I want to thank Ann Braude, the program’s director, and Liz Sutton ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812204353
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243079

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Daniel Boyarin, Virginia Burrus, Derek Krueger See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794700613
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Specters of Paul

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Subject Headings

  • Bible. N.T. Epistles of Paul -- Theology.
  • Sex differences -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History of doctrines -- Early church, ca. 30-600.
  • Women -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History of doctrines -- Early church, ca. 30-600.
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