- Slandering the Jew: Sexuality and Difference in Early Christian Texts by Susanna Drake
In this book, Susanna Drake surveys developments in early Christian discourse against the Jews that eventually produced a dynamic wherein Christians and their mode of biblical interpretation were depicted as spiritualized and chaste, while the Jews and their modes of interpretation were slandered as sexually loose. Generally persuasive, this book considers changes from the first century CE into the fourth.
In the first chapter, “The Making of Carnal Israel: Paul, Barnabas, Justin,” Drake writes about Paul and the various distinctions he drew between his own recommendations for those he was guiding in his letters and his characterizations both of the gentiles (who were given over to porneia, that is, things sexual or whoredom) and of the Jews who had not accepted Jesus and who remained attached to the various “literal/historical practices of Israel, especially circumcision and sacrifice” (27). As Drake’s later discussions of Origen and John Chrysostom demonstrate, the Jews did come to be associated with Paul’s characterization of the gentiles as devoted to porneia. But the specific connection to Paul that would be developed by these later thinkers was not taken up until the third and fourth centuries. Concluding the first chapter, Drake offers up the Epistle of Barnabas and Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, both from the second century, as exemplary of the way that the Jews were slandered as carnal, but as yet with no association of this slander with Paul.
The second chapter, “Origen Reads Jewishness,” links this developing slander to Paul through the influential writings of Origen. Dedicated to allegorical interpretation and highly supersessionist (regarding the Jews as a dead-end surpassed by the fulfillment that is Christianity) in his outlook and strategies, Origen connected Jewish reading practices, which he characterized as overly literal, to a shameful and overly sexual way of life. The Jews, in his view, were “not only carnal interpreters but also performers of [End Page 528] carnal acts” (44). Origen proposed the dichotomy of Christian and Jew as a realization of Paul’s dichotomy of spirit and flesh. Featuring discussions of Christian interpretations of the Old Testament story of Susanna, Drake’s third chapter, “Sexual/Textual Corruption: Early Christian Interpretations of Susanna and the Elders,” demonstrates that modes of exegesis and modes of living were intertwined such that the Jews came to be seen, especially in the thought of Origen, as carnal and hypermasculine in comparison to the spiritual and chaste Christians.
In the book’s fourth chapter, “‘A Synagogue of Malakoi and Pornai’: John Chrysostom’s Sermons against the Jews,” Drake treats Chrysostom and his notorious sermons against the Jews in the fourth century. Concerned by what he saw as disquieting hybridity developing in Christian identity/identities in Antioch, Chrysostom forcefully drew distinctions between Christian and Jew, distinctions that arose from previous representations, especially Origen’s. But he upped the stakes. In Chrysostom’s formulation, Jewish men were carnal, dedicated to assertive and hypermasculine displays of sexual desire, and likely to lead whorish Jewish women astray. But not only these things: they were also soft (malakoi), drunken, and bestial. These sermons were and are repellent in their intent and imagery (see, for example, 89). Drake concludes the chapter by alluding to Homi Bhabha’s notion of the fixative properties of the stereotype. She argues that Chrysostom was endeavoring to portray Jewish identity as both eternally unchanging and yet disordered at the same time. While this discussion was perhaps a little too short to be entirely convincing, it still is surely the case that Bhabha’s notion that “difference is frequently articulated in terms of race and sexuality” is illuminating and surely on topic in the present instance (97).
In the conclusion to the book, Drake sensibly asserts that textual dynamics observable in the various works she discusses “shaped and produced the reality of Jewish disenfranchisement” in the Roman Empire as a whole (101). Considering directions for possible future research, she wonders whether analysis of...