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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #107 Torjesen 1996 “Martyrs, Ascetics, and Gnostics: Gender-crossing in Early Christianity”


Full citation: 

Torjesen, Karen Jo. “Martyrs, Ascetics, and Gnostics: Gender-crossing in Early Christianity” in Ramet, Sabrina Petra (ed). 1996. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-11483-7

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers with an anthropological angle on how gender is viewed within the context of specific cultures. I have only covered the articles that are relevant to my project.

Torjesen, Karen Jo. “Martyrs, Ascetics, and Gnostics: Gender-crossing in Early Christianity”

I've had rather loose criteria for including articles from this collection, but most have only a slight relevance to the Project. This one focuses on gendered concepts of virtue in the social climate of early Christianity and how it was necessary for women to discard traditional "feminine" virtues in order to participate not only in the scripts of proselytizing and martyrdom, but simply to aspire to salvation. The relevance to the LHMP is in examining normative expectations for women's lives.

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This article examines the specifically Christian uses of gender-crossing in a cultural context with highly polarized gender roles. Masculinity was associated with “honor”, the aggressive pursuit of military virtues such as courage, loyalty, and glory, and both the need and willingness to defend one’s claim to them. Femininity, in contrast, was associated with chastity and the protection of sexual purity, where the driving force was the avoidance of shame due to the loss of these attributes. This avoidance of shame pressured women to restrict their activities to within the household, in contrast to male virtue, which required public performance of masculinity.
Situations that contradict these models are common in the mythology of early Christianity. The martyrdoms and near-martyrdoms of women frequently involve not only active participation in the public sphere, but being subject to treatment that should provoke shame (such as being stripped naked in public) or being made to be a public spectacle in the arena. When the hagiographic focus moved from direct martyrdom to asceticism, female figures now defied the expectation of shame in taking up public teaching activities as well as simply rejecting the normative roles of wife and mother. A further transgression of feminine expectations could involve taking on a masculine identity to enter a monastic community (often under the guise of being a eunuch). When discovered, such women might still be praised as having elevated herself to the status of a man, and therefore becoming worthy of salvation. As a model, they followed texts such as one in which Jesus defends Mary Magdalene’s right to be among the apostles, saying, “I will lead her so as to make her male, that she may become a living spirit like you males, for every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” The intent may be the same as the texts that speak of “neither male nor female” but the central model is masculinity.
[When I began reading this article, I expected it also to touch on the ways in which Christian ideals subverted paradigms of masculinity, but it ended up not going there.]

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