Reviews of the Enoch Seminar 2021.12.08

Kathy Ehrensperger and Shayna Sheinfeld, eds. Gender and Second-Temple Judaism. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020. Pp. 260. ISBN: 978-1-9787-0786-3. $105.00. Hardback.

Susan Marks
New College of Florida

As an important methodology for investigating early Judaism, the study of gender has made great strides in the past decades. It has developed from the first critical attempts to “add women” in order to re-envision an ancient world remarkably devoid of such awareness, to more sophisticated explorations of how a given work or collection constructs gender. All of which will explain my surprise that we still must encounter an apologia desiring a readership still out of reach: “Going forward, women’s scholarship and scholarship on women should not be construed as optional ‘identity politics.’ Rather they must be accepted as essential to so-called ‘regular’ scholarship” (39). But why look for these other readers? What am I? Chopped liver? I am a reader and I am here, eager for what this volume offers. The extensive bibliographies and indices of this volume reveal that, in addition to myself, there are many interested in exactly what the volume has to offer—gender and Second Temple Judaism.

The real question becomes, how will we read this volume? On the one hand, there will of course be those who are interested in the Testament of Job, or Paul, or Josephus, or numerous other subjects discussed, who will glean an individual essay from various databases, and request it through interlibrary loan. On the other hand, readers of the whole volume will appreciate what it contributes to current scholarship because its excellent essays are up-to-date, probing, and together offer an exceptional reading experience of similar, yet slightly different, approaches. In this review, I have chosen to further highlight the possibility of reading together essays that speak to each other, and have therefore rearranged the chapters with this goal in mind. Four different (admittedly imperfect) sections divide the chapters as follows:

1) Historiography and review of previous scholarship on gender and Second Temple Judaism (The Introduction and Chapter 1)
2) Did women participate? (Chapters 9, 10, 12, 2 and 7)
3) Construction of Masculinities (Chapters 3, 11 and 6)
4) Construction of Femininities (Chapters 5, 4 and 8)

These divisions emphasize the shared wisdom and contested ground among essays that employ related methodologies or ask similar questions.

Historiography and Review of Previous Scholarship on Gender and Early Judaism

In the introduction (1-21), Shayna Sheinfeld argues that “this volume is intended to push the disciplinary boundaries of gender in the Second-Temple period” (15). To this end she determinedly addresses terminology, consciously providing up-to-date definitions of the most basic, and thus the most challenging terms. She states that Judaism exists as “part and parcel of the Hellenistic and Roman world” (3), and tries to avoid the pitfalls of post-Pauline distinctions (5). Similarly, she promises a focus on “scripture not canon” (6). She presents a business-like outline of several methodological possibilities, including considering gender symbolically; recalling the larger category of social history; using a historical critical approach; applying the gender-critical lenses of generosity or suspicion; recognizing slippage; and not forgetting material evidence (7-13). Finally, she offers a short overview of the volume’s essays.

For readers newer to this area of study, or anyone wanting a new glimpse, Sara Parks offers an excellent overview of scholarship to date (Chapter 1, “‘The Brooten Phenomenon’: Moving Women from the Margins in Second-Temple and New Testament Scholarship,” 23-44). She makes the interesting choice of considering together, “honed methods and ethics of interpretation” (29), emphasizing the ways our understanding of gender also always recognizes the hierarchies and abuses perpetuated by lenses blind to such questions. She leaves some, but not much, space for her own research, nodding to the way that “paying attention to women and gender helped me think about longstanding text-critical and source-critical questions in different ways and, in the case of Q, in new ways” (38).

Did Women Participate?

In the past five decades, scholars have asked important versions of the question of whether women participated in various aspects of ancient practice, recognizing ways that their presence has been overlooked due to the narrow assumptions of earlier readers. As several authors have noted, these interpretations have current, real-world implications concerning female leadership, which make the answers more fraught and methodological awareness more necessary. This volume helps the reader wrestle with important nuances of these questions by presenting five different essays that pursue a variety of approaches, with some answering, yes, women did serve these unexpected functions, and others concluding, no.

Gerbern S. Oegema offers a thoughtful reading of the gendering of 2 Maccabees 7 (Chapter 9, “Female Authorship in Jewish Antiquity,” 171-184). He highlights the provocative verse that concerns the mother of the seven martyred sons “reinforc[ing] her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage” (2 Macc 7:21), connecting the language of female and male to the LXX Genesis 1:27 and other texts. He thereby emphasizes connections to creation and wisdom, and by extension, resurrection, rather than underscoring the inferiority of the female in this gender statement (175). Oegema similarly offers substantive parallels to Isaiah 66 (181). Ultimately, I found the argument that this portrait of the mother in 2 Maccabees “could” have resulted from female authorship less compelling. While I appreciated the review of Greek female authors and the possibility of Salome being a patron, I was troubled by the essentializing notion that “only mothers fully understand the pain and new life that come with giving birth . . . and what it means to lose the life of one’s own child” (182). In other words, Oegema answers, yes, a woman could have authored this text, but I thought that his thoughtfully nuanced and productive reading of this text was far more impressive.

Tal Ilan offers an interesting, close reading of Josephus’s presentation of a powerful, unnamed woman, which perhaps suggests the power that Pharisaic women had as patrons (Chapter 10, “Pheroras’ Wife: A Pharisee Woman,” 185-195). Ultimately, Ilan argues that the wife’s story is “considerably longer and more eventful than the account of any other royal woman in her status,” suggesting that the decision by Josephus’s source, Nicolaus, “not to name her was consciously taken. She was in his eyes so evil that he wanted her name erased” (193). Ilan deftly reveals the competing drives of the narrative, which presents this wife as both a slave woman and as a woman from a family wealthy enough to pay the fine for 6000 Pharisees (187). There are additional questions of gender that Ilan unearths but does not develop, such as how this text constructs gender, or the pornographic use of violence, when she simply notes, “that here torture is expressly mentioned and Herod is the one who uses it to threaten the woman” (192). Ultimately, this chapter like the one before it, concludes that women had significant roles that have not yet been thoroughly studied.

Angela Standhartinger offers the third and last affirmative vision of unseen leadership roles by women in this volume (Chapter 12, “Female Officiants in Second-Temple Judaism,” 219-240). She deftly interrogates the question of female officiation, acknowledging both the limits of literary sources and the prevalent pattern of women participating in ritual in other Hellenistic and Roman sources, concluding that she hopes “to have made the existence of Jewish liturgical officiant plausible” (230). She examines an extensive bibliography and offers thoughtful nuanced arguments, focusing particularly on the Testament of Job and Philo’s discussion of the Therapeutrides.

In contrast to the optimism about glimpsing women’s leadership above, Amy-Jill Levine more skeptically revisits methodologies used to support the idea that women participated in the itinerancy of the Galilean group around Jesus (Chapter 2, “Women Itinerants, Jesus of Nazareth, and Historical-Critical Approaches: Reevaluating the Consensus,” 45-64). Upon closer inspection she concludes that these methodologies do not stand up to sustained scrutiny nor support the idea that women traveled with the historical Jesus. She questions the multi-pronged approach in historical Jesus studies, which is based on the “criteria of authenticity,” concluding, for instance, that “the criterion of multiple attestation, the third prong of the classical historical critical approach, also fails to deliver” (50), because the words “follow” and “serve” can be interpreted in more than one way. For instance, “’Follow,’ akolutheo, appears approximately ninety times in the New Testament, where in most cases it does not suggest wandering from place to place.” Developing this argument, Levine points towards possible patronage of women rather than itinerancy, ultimately suggesting that the multiple sources begin to look like “the same story with variants, each serving the narrative purposes of the Evangelists” (52). Levine concludes that women could have traveled with Jesus, but we have no evidence. Since she admits that many will not likely give up this image so quickly, she steers readers instead to ask more questions about women’s roles in households, whether hosting or serving as patrons, as well the impact that a traveling Jesus who “siphoned men . . . away from their homes” (58) had on these households, which may have created new roles or revealed existing ones.

While carefully celebrating the successes and questions of the earlier scholarship that celebrated women’s roles in John, Adele Reinhartz briskly embraces three concrete questions of her own (Chapter 7, “Women and Gender in the Gospel of John,” 137-153). First, she wonders: “how, if at all, should concerns about the role of women in twenty-first-century churches affect our assessment?” Second, she inquires “how should we situate John’s Gospel…in the context of…first-century Judaism?” Finally, she asks what is the “use of female imagery for our understanding of the early Jesus movement?” (138). With respect to those seeking precedents for expanded roles for women in twenty-first century churches, Reinhartz wonders, “if we do not require this tie [of contemporary practice to scriptural paradigms] for the practice of slavery, why do we do so for the practice of patriarchy?” (141). As far as situating John within first-century Judaism, she finds that methodologies describing the practices of Jesus, without comparing him “with any other individual or group,” fare better, given concerns about anti-Judaism found in some earlier scholarship (143). Finally, Reinhartz revisits her earlier work, stating that “some fifteen or more years after writing” on women in the Johannine community as influencing some of the content of John, she now refuses to assume that a Johannine community pre-dated the writing of the Gospel; thus, she explains that the examples of women in John serve literary and future purposes without necessarily alluding to particular communal relations (146). Taken together, these five essays unearth a wealth of possible readings concerning women and the many complications that make reading them so challenging and important.

Construction of Masculinities

While questions concerning the construction of gender affect how we investigate women’s participation in early Judaisms, they also open up a myriad of other ways to conceptualize the interactions of individuals, the ways they navigate expectations, wield power, or how society’s construction may further or foreclose some of these possibilities. Three essays look specifically at various versions of masculinity, recognizing that the constructedness of gender allows for new insights into untold aspects of Second Temple Judaism. Kathy Ehrensperger offers a careful, incisive investigation of Paul’s masculinity (Chapter 3 “Paul, the Man: Enigmatic Images,” 65-84). She observes that Paul admits himself beaten and bruised, thus feminized in ways that should disqualify him to be the powerful “vir.” So how does he wield the power that he does? In so doing, she also outlines how “the concept of gender was not binary based on some kind of biological perception, but a socially constructed scale of degrees of masculinity and femininity respectively which marked hierarchies of status, power and value” (69). Further, she considers that if we understand that part of Paul’s internal structure of authority may have had scriptural roots and that Paul like Moses encountered the limits of human power in relationship to God. This needed, nevertheless, to be translated to audiences unfamiliar with these sources. She explains that “[Paul] taps into another aspect of the Roman masculinity discourse and tries to switch the perspective” (73). He paints himself as a fighter, who “through the power of God, remains in charge of his destiny . . . and thus refutes the feminizing, emasculating charges” (76). In exploring masculinity, Ehrensperger also recognizes that “since such qualities are not biologically confined to males,” this masculine power “could also be attributed” to the women in his movement (76).

Gabriella Gelardini looks at the construction of gender in Josephus’s account of the Galilean Zealots (Chapter 11, “Cross-dressing Zealots in Josephus’s War Account,” 197-217). Gelardini contends that Josephus portrays the Zealots as effeminate and violent in order to sink his rival, a Galilean commander of the Zealots, in the eyes of history. In addition, by having the actions of these Zealots and the resulting abandonment of Jerusalem by the Jewish God echo Nero’s actions and consequent abandonment by Roman gods, Josephus makes his boss Vespasian look like “just what the people wish for, a man called by a divine hand” (211). To reveal the complexity of what Josephus has done, Gelardini navigates Jewish bans on homosexual practices as well as Roman acceptance. She argues that the abrupt ending of this acceptance with Nero’s immorality and violence “damaged the office of emperor and seems to have prompted a crisis of masculinity in the empire” (210). Gelardini’s wide-ranging yet sharply focused enquiry provides a model for further studies and leaves no doubt that a nuanced understanding of gender proves crucial for understanding Josephus.

Daniel Vorpahl focuses on patriarchy, demonstrating the ways that Jubilees strengthens the patriarchal message in the Jacob-Esau narrative through the appearance of Abraham and the revised relations of others because of Abraham (Chapter 6, “The Reinforcement of Patriarchy and the (De)Construction of Gender Roles in Jubilees’ Reception of the Jacob-Esau-Narrative,” 119-136). He compares the amount of speech and action of characters as they appear in Genesis and Jubilees (125-6). Rebekah speaks more in Jubilees than in Genesis, while Abraham speaks four times more than any other character. Abraham’s presence influences the narrative in many ways. For instance, “Concerning the preference of Jacob, Abraham is overtaking Rebekah’s role, turning her conflict with Isaac into a patriarchal controversy” (128). Finally, “male gender characteristics become of secondary interest as Jubilees’s reception of the Jacob-Esau narrative is less focused on individual genders but instead focused on the structural roles within a patriarchal system in which the male-female hierarchy is immanent” (130). While the next essay discussed will explore an alternate reading of this same text, Vorpahl emphasizes the power of a systemically reinforced masculinity.

Construction of Femininities

Chontel Syfox looks at various constructions of Rebekah’s gender (Chapter 5, “Traversing the Boundaries of Gender: Rebekah’s Usurpation of the Patriarch Role in the Book of Jubilees,” 101-117). She argues that “there are many different ways of expressing a particular gender identity” (101-2). Syfox explains that when Jubilees rewrites Genesis, Rebekah “is still a woman doing her gender by performing reproduction and protective functions” (107). By contrast, in the scenes that Jubilees creates of her summoning Jacob, blessing him, and offering a testament at the end of her life, “Rebekah crosses gender boundaries” (109). Syfox makes sure we understand, however, that after Rebekah concludes this necessary work, she no longer occupies this gender. Jacob will not leave upon her saying so, but instead will await his father’s direction. She concludes, “Rebekah’s gender nonconformity is not a marker of the hegemonic construction of femininity in Jubilees but rather a subordinate femininity that is temporarily permissible in order to serve divine purposes” (111). Methodologies of gender serve to construct deep arguments about Jubilees in both this essay and the one above, as each reaches slightly different conclusions.

Sarah E.G. Fein looks particularly at the construction of child-bearing (Chapter 4, “From Pain to Redemption: 1 Timothy 2:15 in its Jewish Context,” 85-100). She argues that we can understand 1 Timothy 2:15 as an interpretation of Genesis 3:16 and “Jewish readings of this verse that understood childbirth—for all women—as a redemptive act” (85). She pulls together many sources, both Hebrew and Greek, some more compelling than others. She ultimately asks concerning childbirth whether the commandments requiring observance could have appeared as “opportunities for sanctity.” This provides a wonderful bridge to 1 Timothy and the salvation it offers. She raises intriguing questions about interpretation and takes important linguistic care, emphasizing that the word “childbearing” appears nowhere else in the New Testament (90).

Finally, Francis Borchardt considers the limited authority assigned to femininity in the Sibylline Oracles (“Chapter 8, “The Framing of Female Knowledge in the Prologue of the Sibylline Oracles,” 155-170). Previously dismissed as uninteresting, Borchardt shows how the prologues situate the sibyls in relation to male figures from the past so as to suggest that “the knowledge these women transmit would apparently be lost if not for men” understanding and curating these oracles (161). Thus, “in order to establish the oracles as authoritative specimens of divine wisdom the prologue presents the embodiment, transmission, and divine origins of those performances by suppressing feminine sibylline agency and simultaneously emphasizing the masculine mediation of this knowledge” (156).

The wonderful insights in this volume exist because of the questions they ask concerning gender. Together, the essays in this volume constitute a tour de force of twenty-first century explorations into Second Temple Judaism. Almost all chapters reflect a carefully thought and well-articulated methodology pursuing a myriad of questions pertaining to the study of early Judaism and showcasing revelations made possible only by a focus on gender. It is a measure of the study of gender having “arrived” that the reader of this volume may enjoy the cumulative effect of reading several essays that wrestle with similar challenges, building a highly nuanced exploration of the issues at stake. For these reasons this volume would be quite appropriate for an individual scholar-reader, a graduate seminar, or for someone preparing for their comprehensive exams. Readers will also benefit from the excellent index of authors, which allows for the easy follow up of newly encountered authors and for tracing connections between essays.

Finally, this volume makes a particular contribution to the burgeoning field of study on masculinities. I do need to note, however, that the volume’s exploration of gender is limited to masculinities and femininities, without much focus on alternative or gender-fluid understandings of sexualities. The one piece on cross-dressing mostly considers this practice as a rhetorical move to emphasize deviance, treating the subject of homosexuality with appropriate care but without it being the central focus (see discussion of Chapter 11). Thus, other books on gender must still be written. In the meantime, this volume simultaneously codifies developing methods and plows new ground.