University of Pennsylvania Press

Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion

Series Editors: Daniel Boyarin, Virginia Burrus, Derek Krueger

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

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Specters of Paul

Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought

By Benjamin H. Dunning

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.

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Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority

Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century C.E.

By Heidi Marx-Wolf

The people of the late ancient Mediterranean world thought about and encountered gods, angels, demons, heroes, and other spirits on a regular basis. These figures were diverse, ambiguous, and unclassified and were not ascribed any clear or stable moral valence. Whether or not they were helpful or harmful under specific circumstances determined if and what virtues were attributed to them. That all changed in the third century C.E., when a handful of Platonist philosophers—Plotinus, Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus—began to produce competing systematic discourses that ordered the realm of spirits in moral and ontological terms.

In Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority, Heidi Marx-Wolf recounts how these Platonist philosophers organized the spirit world into hierarchies, or "spiritual taxonomies," positioning themselves as the high priests of the highest gods in the process. By establishing themselves as experts on sacred, ritual, and doctrinal matters, they were able to fortify their authority, prestige, and reputation. The Platonists were not alone in this enterprise, and it brought them into competition with rivals to their new authority: priests of traditional polytheistic religions and gnostics. Members of these rival groups were also involved in identifying and ordering the realm of spirits and in providing the ritual means for dealing with that realm. Using her lens of spiritual taxonomy to look at these various groups in tandem, Marx-Wolf demonstrates that Platonist philosophers, Christian and non-Christian priests, and gnostics were more interconnected socially, educationally, and intellectually than previously recognized.

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Textual Mirrors

Reflexivity, Midrash, and the Rabbinic Self

By Dina Stein

As they were entering Egypt, Abram glimpsed Sarai's reflection in the Nile River. Though he had been married to her for years, this moment is positioned in a rabbinic narrative as a revelation. "Now I know you are a beautiful woman," he says; at that moment he also knows himself as a desiring subject, and knows too to become afraid for his own life due to the desiring gazes of others.

There are few scenes in rabbinic literature that so explicitly stage a character's apprehension of his or her own or another's literal reflection. Still, Dina Stein argues, the association of knowledge and reflection operates as a central element in rabbinic texts. Midrash explicitly refers to other texts; biblical texts are both reconstructed and taken apart in exegesis, and midrashic narrators are situated liminally with respect to the tales they tell. This inherent structural quality underlies the propensity of rabbinic literature to reflect or refer to itself, and the "self" that is the object of reflection is not just the narrator of a tale but a larger rabbinic identity, a coherent if polyphonous entity that emerges from this body of texts.

Textual Mirrors draws on literary theory, folklore studies, and semiotics to examine stories in which self-reflexivity operates particularly strongly to constitute rabbinic identity through the voices of Simon the Just and a handsome shepherd, the daughter of Asher, the Queen of Sheba, and an unnamed maidservant. In Stein's readings, these self-reflexive stories allow us to go through the looking glass: where the text comments upon itself, it both compromises the unity of its underlying principles—textual, religious, and ideological—and confirms it.

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Thorns in the Flesh

Illness and Sanctity in Late Ancient Christianity

By Andrew Crislip

The literature of late ancient Christianity is rich both in saints who lead lives of almost Edenic health and in saints who court and endure horrifying diseases. In such narratives, health and illness might signify the sanctity of the ascetic, or invite consideration of a broader theology of illness. In Thorns in the Flesh, Andrew Crislip draws on a wide range of texts from the fourth through sixth centuries that reflect persistent and contentious attempts to make sense of the illness of the ostensibly holy. These sources include Lives of Antony, Paul, Pachomius, and others; theological treatises by Basil of Caesarea and Evagrius of Pontus; and collections of correspondence from the period such as the Letters of Barsanuphius and John.

Through close readings of these texts, Crislip shows how late ancient Christians complicated and critiqued hagiographical commonplaces and radically reinterpreted illness as a valuable mode for spiritual and ascetic practice. Illness need not point to sin or failure, he demonstrates, but might serve in itself as a potent form of spiritual practice that surpasses even the most strenuous of ascetic labors and opens up the sufferer to a more direct knowledge of the self and the divine. Crislip provides a fresh and nuanced look at the contentious and dynamic theology of illness that emerged in and around the ascetic and monastic cultures of the later Roman world.

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A Traveling Homeland

The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora

By Daniel Boyarin

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Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity

Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam

By Thomas Sizgorich

In Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity, Thomas Sizgorich seeks to understand why and how violent expressions of religious devotion became central to the self-understandings of both Christian and Muslim communities between the fourth and ninth centuries. Sizgorich argues that the cultivation of violent martyrdom as a path to holiness was in no way particular to Islam; rather, it emerged from a matrix put into place by the Christians of late antiquity. Paying close attention to the role of memory and narrative in the formation of individual and communal selves, Sizgorich identifies a common pool of late ancient narrative forms upon which both Christian and Muslim communities drew.

In the process of recollecting the past, Sizgorich explains, Christian and Muslim communities alike elaborated iterations of Christianity or Islam that demanded of each believer a willingness to endure or inflict violence on God's behalf and thereby created militant local pieties that claimed to represent the one "real" Christianity or the only "pure" form of Islam. These militant communities used a shared system of signs, symbols, and stories, stories in which the faithful manifested their purity in conflict with the imperial powers of the world.

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Writing and Holiness

The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East

By Derek Krueger

Drawing on comparative literature, ritual and performance studies, and the history of asceticism, Derek Krueger explores how early Christian writers came to view writing as salvific, as worship through the production of art. Exploring the emergence of new and distinctly Christian ideas about authorship in late antiquity, Writing and Holiness probes saints' lives and hymns produced in the Greek East to reveal how the ascetic call to imitate Christ's humility rendered artistic and literary creativity problematic. In claiming authority and power, hagiographers appeared to violate the saintly practices that they sought to promote. Christian writers meditated within their texts on these tensions and ultimately developed a new set of answers to the question "What is an author?"

Each of the texts examined here used writing as a technique for the representation of holiness. Some are narrative representations of saints that facilitate veneration; others are collections of accounts of miracles, composed to publicize a shrine. Rather than viewing an author's piety as a barrier to historical inquiry, Krueger argues that consideration of writing as a form of piety opens windows onto new modes of practice. He interprets Christian authors as participants in the religious system they described, as devotees, monastics, and faithful emulators of the saints, and he shows how their literary practice integrated authorship into other Christian practices, such as asceticism, devotion, pilgrimage, liturgy, and sacrifice. In considering the distinctly literary contributions to the formation of Christian piety in late antiquity, Writing and Holiness uncovers Christian literary theories with implications for both Eastern and Western medieval literatures.

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Zayd

By David S. Powers

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