- Slandering the Jew: Sexuality and Difference in Early Christian Texts by Susanna Drake
Two major themes in recent analysis of the construction of Christian identities in late antiquity have been gender and anti-Jewish polemic. In this slim volume (105 pages plus endnotes), Susanna Drake brings the two together through a series of studies of patristic representations of Jews as characterized not just by “the flesh” but by sexual lust and excesses. This is not a new finding, and Drake consciously stands in the same tradition as Daniel Boyarin and Virginia Burrus (editors of the Divinations series); thus the analysis works within the frameworks of cultural studies, postcolonialism, the exploration of hybridity, and gender studies (appealing to familiar names such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Homi K. Bhabha). The authors examined also are familiar ones: first, St. Paul (who is found to be innocent of the later pattern), Justin, and Barnabas; then Origen, followed by a chapter specifically on early Christian interpretation of the story of Susanna; and finally St. John Chrysostom’s Sermons against the Jews, which is where the framing introduction started. A conclusion offers brief reflections both on the way that here, as elsewhere, the use of sexuality to produce difference also can be used to legitimate violence and also on the ambiguities inherent both in the hybridity characteristic of such Christian discourse and in the potential sites for resistance. Although the chronological ordering, and the attempt to trace the tradition back to Justin and Barnabas, might suggest otherwise, the material is too diverse and scattered to allow for any argument for continuity or development. Drake recognizes that other second-century authors, including Ignatius, the Letter to Diognetus, and Melito, do not combine sexual and anti-Jewish polemic, but she does not do the same for the contemporaries of Origen or of Chrysostom. Indeed, what is disappointing is the largely narrative account within its methodological framing of “identity discourses.” Each of these authors has already been studied and in greater detail; in many cases, the passages cited also are well worn and have come to consist of a catena of illustrative texts, inevitably taken out of their broader literary context. This means that there is no analysis of their contextual rhetorical function, nor any assessment of the proportion of such material, or its relationship to other nonsexualized polemic or to polemic against other groups. Drake acknowledges the earlier Jewish roots of the intersection of sexuality and personal and communal integrity, but does not ask how this is transformed in this material. Further, it is notable that a majority of the sources cited are homiletic and exegetical, but whether or not this might be worthy of investigation is not seriously considered, other than noting the link with literal interpretation. Drake notes, even in Chrysostom, the continuing appeal to the destruction of Jerusalem, but does not ask how, 300 years after the event, such an appeal worked and whether that should have consequences for how other elements in the polemic would be heard. There also may be a danger of overinterpreting, so that the vocabulary of “desire” is always assumed to be sexual (and translated “lust”) [End Page 584] and is extracted from longer and more diverse catalogs of vices to be shunned. The scholarly trajectory that Slandering the Jew represents has done an important service in alerting us to the intersection of strategies of a polemic whose primary purpose is the construction of identity, but which retains the potential for articulation in violence. Yet, the risk of repeated accounts of these strategies is one of continuing to operate with and so reproducing the rigid categories that they claim to detect, rather than problematizing them, exposing internal variation and experimentation or change, or situating them in the much more diverse early Christian discursive practices. Perhaps this volume will provoke such further work.