Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender, and History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean

Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender, and History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean

Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender, and History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean

Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender, and History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean


In her latest book, Ross Shepard Kraemer shows how her mind has changed or remained the same since the publication of her ground-breaking study,Her Share of the Blessings: Women's Religions Among Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Greco-Roman World(OUP 1992).Unreliable Witnessesscrutinizes more closely how ancient constructions of gender undergird accounts of women's religious practices in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean.

Kraemer analyzes how gender provides the historically obfuscating substructure of diverse texts: Livy's account of the origins of the Roman Bacchanalia; Philo of Alexandria's envisioning of idealized, masculinized women philosophers; rabbinic debates about women studying Torah; Justin Martyr's depiction of an elite Roman matron who adopts chaste Christian philosophical discipline; the similar representation of Paul's fictive disciple, Thecla, in the anonymous Acts of (Paul and) Thecla; Severus of Minorca's depiction of Jewish women as the last hold-outs against Christian pressures to convert, and others.

While attentive to arguments that women are largely fictive proxies in elite male contestations over masculinity, authority, and power, Kraemer retains her focus on redescribing and explaining women's religious practices. She argues that - gender-specific or not - religious practices in the ancient Mediterranean routinely encoded and affirmed ideas about gender. As in many cultures, women's devotion to the divine was both acceptable and encouraged, only so long as it conformed to pervasive constructions of femininity as passive, embodied, emotive, insufficiently controlled and subordinated to masculinity.

Extending her findings beyond the ancient Mediterranean, Kraemer proposes that more generally, religion is among the many human social practices that are both gendered and gendering, constructing and inscribing gender on human beings and on human actions and ideas. Her study thus poses significant questions about the relationships between religions and gender in the modern world.


For a number of years, the Society of Biblical Literature sponsored a session at its annual meetings at which a senior scholar was invited to reflect back on her work and views. Were it not such an egregiously generic title, this book might easily be called by the title of that session: “How My Mind Has Changed, or Remained the Same.” It bears, in ways that I find somewhat startling, a striking resemblance to the outlines of my doctoral dissertation, so much so that another title might well be, “The dissertation I would have written thirty-three years ago, had I only known then what I know now.”

In the early 1970s, as a neophyte graduate student in a new doctoral program then called History of Religions: Greco-Roman, at Princeton University, I took an imaginative course on ancient Mediterranean religions in which we attempted to pursue as many of the sources and issues as possible in E. R. Dodds’s major work, The Greeks and the Irrational. Dodds’s study included an appendix on Maenadism, the ecstatic worship of the Greek god Dionysos, attributed primarily to women in art, in Euripides’ play the Bacchae, and in

1. For some sense of the significance of this title for a program that encompassed the full range of the religions of Greco–Roman antiquity, including but scarcely limited to early Christianity and ancient Judaism, I recommend Smith 2004b. Although this essay, “When the Chips Are Down,” chronicles Jonathan Z. Smith’s intellectual biography, it contains highly relevant remembrances of the major currents in my field in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the years I was in college and then graduate school.

2. Dodds 1951.

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