Thekla and Perpetua; or, How Women Can Become Men
The myth of the primal androgyne—that is, an anthropology whereby souls are engendered and only the fallen body is divided into sexes—is thus a dominant structuring metaphor of gender for the early church and for the Christian West as a whole. There are many different versions of the application of this myth. In some versions of early Christianity, all Christians must remain celibate, and in that spiritual existence a total eradication of gender difference becomes imaginable. In some communities such celibate men and women lived together in the same dwellings, arousing the suspicion and calumny of their pagan neighbors and the ire of more establishment Christian leaders. In other communities, more in tune with the Pauline and deutero-Pauline message, there was a two-tiered society: the celibate, in which some form of gender parity obtained, and the married, for which the hierarchical Haustafeln (tables of household practice found in the “deutero-Pauline” Colossians and Ephesians) were the definitive ethic. This could be accompanied by more or less approbation of the married state, more or less privilege for virginity/celibacy over marriage. In every case, however, virginity was privileged to greater or lesser extent over the sexual life, and, more to the point of the present argument, it was only in virginity, that is, only in a social acting out of a disembodied spiritual existence, that gender parity ever existed (Clark 1986). Female humans could escape being “women” by opting out of sexual intercourse. Just as in Philo, virgins were not women but androgynes, a representation, in the appearance of flesh, of the purely spiritual non-gendered, presocial essence of human being. For all of these forms of Christianity, as for Hellenistic Judaism, this dualism is the base of the anthropology: equality in the spirit, hierarchy in the flesh. As a second-century follower of Paul, Clement of Alexandria, expressed it, “As then there is sameness [with men and women] with respect to the soul, she will attain to the same virtue; but as there is difference with respect to the peculiar construction of the body, she is destined for child-bearing and house-keeping” (Clement 1989, 20). As this quotation suggests and Christian practice enacts, this version of primal androgyny provided two elements in the gender politics of the early Church. On the one hand it provided an image or vision of a spiritual equality for all women—which did not, however, have social consequences for the married; on the other hand, it provided for real autonomy and social parity for celibate women, for those who rejected “the peculiar construction of the body,” together with its pleasures and satisfactions. As Clement avers in another place, “For souls themselves by themselves are equal. Souls are neither male nor female when they no longer marry nor are given in marriage” (Stromateis 6.12.100, qu. in Macdonald 1988, 284).
Much of the paradigmatic literature of early Christianity involves this representation of gender and its possibilities. Elizabeth Castelli has described the situation with regard to one of the earliest and most explicit texts of this type, The Gospel of Thomas:
The double insistence attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas saying—that Mary should remain among the disciples at the same time as she must be made male—points to the paradoxical ideological conditions that helped to shape the lives of early Christian women. At once they are to have access to holiness, while they also can do so only through the manipulation of conventional gender categories. (Castelli 1991b, 33)
As I have suggested, however, these were not the paradoxical ideological conditions only of Christianity but similar indeed to paradoxes of contemporary Judaism as well. The Therapeutrides, too, have the same access to spirituality as their male counterparts—for all of them, however, at the expense of conventional gender categories. One of the most striking representations of such manipulation of gender is the story of the martyr Perpetua, brilliantly analyzed recently by Castelli (1991b). This story enacts both sorts of gender erasure. On the social level, the marks of Perpetua's gendered status are indicated by her leaving of her family, renunciation of her husband (who is not even mentioned), and eventual giving up of her baby, together with a miraculous drying up of the milk in her breasts, that is, a sort of symbolic restoration of virginity. The crux of the story, however, and of Castelli's argument is that in Perpetua's dream in which she becomes a man and defeats her opponent in the gladiatorial ring, her victory is, in fact, paradoxically a representation of her death as a martyr, while defeat for her would have meant giving in to her father, renouncing her Christianity, and continuing to live (42). Life in the spirit represents death in the body and the converse, and the erasure of conventional gender is thus also an event in the spirit. This is, then, a drastic version of Paul's eradication of gender in Christ.
The best representation, however, of an androgynous status for Christian celibate women in late antiquity is the story of Thekla, also treated by Castelli. This apocryphal female companion to Paul refuses to marry, cuts her hair short like that of a man, dresses in men's clothing, and accompanies Paul on his apostolic missions. Castelli notes with regard to this and similar stories:
It is striking that in all of these narratives, the women who perform these outward gestures of stretching dominant cultural expectations related to gender are also embracing a form of piety (sexual renunciation and virginity) which resists dominant cultural expectations vis-à-vis social roles. (44)
If my reading of Philo and Paul and of the general cultural situation is compelling, however, this connection is not so much striking as absolutely necessary. Insofar as the myth of the primal, spiritual androgyne is the vital force for all of these representations, androgynous status is always dependent on a notion of a universal spiritual self which is above the differences of the body, and its attainment entails necessarily one or another (or more than one as in the case of Perpetua) of the practices of renouncing the body: ecstasy or virginity or physical death. We thus see that from Philo and Paul through late antiquity gender parity is founded on a dualist metaphysics and anthropology, in which freedom and equality are for pre-gendered, pre-social, disembodied souls, and is predicated on a devaluing and disavowing of the body, usually, but not necessarily, combined with a representation of the body itself as female. On my reading, then, Christian imaginings of gender bending/ blending do not really comprehend a “destabilization of gender identity.” Rather, insofar as they are completely immured in the dualism of the flesh and the spirit, they represent no change whatever in the status of gender (cf. Macdonald 1988, 285). All of these texts are mythic or ritual enactments of the “myth of the primal androgyne” and, as such, simply reinstate the metaphysics of substance, the split between Universal Mind and Disavowed Body. It is striking how closely they match Beauvoir's critique of “the very disembodiment of the abstract masculine epistemological subject,” as described by Butler:
That subject is abstract to the extent that it disavows its socially marked embodiment and, further, projects that disavowed and disparaged embodiment on to the feminine sphere, effectively renaming the body as female. This association of the body with the female works along magical relations of reciprocity whereby the female sex becomes restricted to its body, and the male body, fully disavowed, becomes, paradoxically, the incorporeal instrument of an ostensibly radical freedom.
This trap is, I claim, based in the material conditions of heterosexual marriage, if not—even more depressingly—in the material conditions of heterosexuality itself, and precisely to the extent that Paul was unwilling to disallow or disparage marriage, as some of his more radical followers were to do, something like the pronouncements of Corinthians 11 and the Haustafeln became almost a necessary superstructure. Rather than “resting on the assumed natural differences between the sexes institutionalized in patriarchal marriage,” as Fiorenza puts it, I would imprudently suggest that patriarchal marriage—that is, at least until now—produces such naturalized gender differences (Fiorenza 1983, 207). To be sure Christian women had possibilities for living lives of much greater autonomy and creativity than their rabbinic Jewish sisters, but always on the stringent condition and heavy price of bodily renunciation. Let me make myself absolutely clear: I am not allying myself with Christian conservatives who argue that Paul's pronouncements in Galatians 3:28 did not have social meaning. Paul's entire gospel is a stirring call to human freedom and universal autonomy (cf. Fuller 1985). I think that, within the limitations of Realpolitik, he would have wanted all slaves freed, and he certainly passionately desired the erasure of the boundary between Greek and Jew (Fiorenza 1983, 210). In arguing that “no male-and-female” did not and could not mean a fundamental change in the status of wives, I am not arguing that he was inconsistent (nor being inconsistent myself) in the name of the preservation of male privilege, but rather I am suggesting that Paul held that wives are/were slaves and that their liberation would have meant an end to marriage. Jews and Greeks need ultimately to cease being Jews and Greeks; slaves need to cease ultimately to be slaves, and the equivalent is that husbands and wives need ultimately to cease being husbands and wives, but Paul feels that the last is unrealistic for most people, even Christians: Because of immorality, let each man have his own wife and let each woman have her own husband (7:2). When Paul says, “the form of this world is passing away” (7:31), it seems to me that he is doing two things. On the one hand, he is emphasizing why it is not necessary to engage in radical, immediate social change, in order to achieve the genuine radical reformation of society that he calls for, and on the other hand, he is explaining why having children and families is no longer important. Procreation has no significance for Paul at all. From Paul on through late antiquity, the call to celibacy is a call to freedom (7:32–34). Virgins are not “women.” Rabbinic Judaism, which rejected such dualism and thus celibacy entirely, strongly valorized the body and sexuality but cut off nearly all options for women's lives other than maternity, trapping all women in the temperate and patronizing slavery of wifehood. This should not be read, however, as in any sense a condemnation of Christianity, nor, for that matter, of rabbinic Judaism, for I suspect that all it means is that people in late antiquity had not thought their way out of a dilemma which catches us on its horns even now—in very late antiquity.