Specters of Paul: Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought

Specters of Paul: Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought

Specters of Paul: Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought

Specters of Paul: Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought


The first Christians operated with a hierarchical model of sexual difference common to the ancient Mediterranean, with women considered to be lesser versions of men. Yet sexual difference was not completely stable as a conceptual category across the spectrum of formative Christian thinking. Rather, early Christians found ways to exercise theological creativity and to think differently from one another as they probed the enigma of sexually differentiated bodies.

In Specters of Paul, Benjamin H. Dunning explores this variety in second- and third-century Christian thought with particular attention to the ways the legacy of the apostle Paul fueled, shaped, and also constrained approaches to the issue. Paul articulates his vision of what it means to be human primarily by situating human beings between two poles: creation (Adam) and resurrection (Christ). But within this framework, where does one place the figure of Eve--and the difference that her female body represents?

Dunning demonstrates that this dilemma impacted a range of Christian thinkers in the centuries immediately following the apostle, including Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian of Carthage, and authors from the Nag Hammadi corpus. While each of these thinkers attempts to give the difference of the feminine a coherent place within a Pauline typological framework, Dunning shows that they all fail to deliver fully on the coherence that they promise. Instead, sexual difference haunts the Pauline discourse of identity and sameness as the difference that can be neither fully assimilated nor fully ejected--a conclusion with important implications not only for early Christian history but also for feminist and queer philosophy and theology.


Sexual Difference and Paul’s
Adam-Christ Typology

One of the central games of life in most cultures is the gender game,
or more specifically the multiplicity of gender games available in that
time and place. the effort to understand the making and unmaking
of gender, as well as what gender makes, involves understanding
the workings of these games as games, with their inclusions and
exclusions, multiple positions, complex rules, forms of bodily
activity, structures of feeling and desire, and stakes of winning,
losing, or simply playing. It involves as well the question of how
gender games collide with, encompass, or are bent to the service of,
other games, for gender is never, as they say, the only game in town.

—Sherry Ortner, Making Gender

Sexual difference is the site where a question concerning the relation
of the biological to the cultural is posed and reposed, where it
must and can be posed, but where it cannot, strictly speaking, be

—Judith Butler, Undoing Gender

French philosopher Alain Badiou opens a manifesto on his theory of the subject with the question, “Why Saint Paul? Why solicit this ‘apostle’ who is all the more suspect for having, it seems, proclaimed himself such and whose name is frequently tied to Christianity’s least open, most institutional aspects: the Church, moral discipline, social conservatism, suspiciousness towards Jews?” Nevertheless, Badiou does solicit Paul, even going so far as to christen . . .

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