Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.09.18

Benjamin H. Dunning, Specters of Paul: Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.  Pp. x, 252.  ISBN 9780812243079.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Robert H. von Thaden, Jr., Mercyhurst College (


Dunning's bold book examines early Christian systems that expand Paul's typological reading of Christ as a second Adam into full-fledged theological anthropologies that account for sexual difference. That is, Dunning explores "a perduring problem at the heart of Pauline theological anthropology: the difficulty of situating sexed human subjects (male and female) within an anthropological framework bookended by two enigmatic figures—Adam, the first human, on the one hand, and Christ, the 'second Adam' on the other" (p. 4). The main question this "Pauline problematic" raises for later interpreters is whether Adam is to be understood as representative for humanity in general or whether he stands for the "first man in a specifically male sense." Or does Paul mean him to stand for both (p. 12)? Add to this Adamic conundrum Paul's teaching in Galatians 3:28—that in Christ there is no male or female—and we should not be surprised at the plurality of later voices that try to achieve a coherence that Paul's letters appear to resist. The problem for early Christianity (and for scholars of this period) is that Paul is as influential as he is confusing (see already 2 Peter 3:15-16).

Dunning's book does not simply serve historical goals, however; this is also a constructive project as well. Following Dale Martin, Dunning argues that his work is meant to disrupt "common sense" readings of early Christian theological anthropology (p. 3) in order to demonstrate that each attempt to "solve" the problem of sexual difference "actually contains the seeds of its own undoing, unraveling on terms internal to the argument itself" (p. 5). This lack of stability, for Dunning, opens up space for feminist and queer theologies to think with Christian tradition— a tradition always already marked by difference, plurality, and open ended problems (see pp. 25 and 152).

In his introduction Dunning efficiently lays out the main problem and he also gives us a well written crash course in cultural theory, esp. the various ways theorists deal with complex categories such as sex, gender, and sexual difference. He also demonstrates how differently these notoriously slippery and culture-bound categories were deployed in antiquity. Dunning skillfully demonstrates how this theoretical toolbox can help us unpack early Christian theological anthropologies. For the introduction alone, Dunning's book deserves a wide audience.

The book is divided into two sections that, according to Dunning, describe the two main ways early Christians tried to solve the problem of sexual difference. The three chapters of part I, "The Platonic Woman," describe a number of examples of Christian monism. In the sources explored in this section, the problem of sexual difference is solved by the eschatological eradication of the feminine/female. This eradication can mean—depending on the text—her complete erasure, her transformation, or her re-absorption back into the rational male. The two chapters of part II, "Flesh and Virginity," explore sources that treat "the feminine not as an anomaly in need of eradication, but rather as a legitimate—if always secondary—supplement to the masculine" (p. 153). These sources expand the Pauline Adam- Christ typology to include virginal female bodies (e.g., Eve, Mary, the "virgin" earth). Each chapter of the book provides a clear and nuanced description of the body of work under discussion (with even more description and analysis occurring in the extensive endnotes). All of the solutions offered in these texts, Dunning argues, are not as firm or as cohesive as the problem solvers would have us believe. After his careful descriptive analysis in each chapter, Dunning demonstrates what he argues are the internal inconsistencies and fissures within every "solution" to the Pauline typological problem.

Chapter 1, "The Many Become One: Theological Monism and the Problem of the Female Body," is in many ways a second introduction. Here Dunning's primary aim is to explore three early so-called Valentinian texts. He begins by explaining how the confluence of Platonic ideas and Galatians 3:28, which he (with Dennis Ronald MacDonald) argues represents an example of a fairly widespread dominical saying, provided fruitful conceptual resources for the development of Christian monism wherein the feminine/female problem is solved via eradication. After examining the "understated whisper of [the Pauline] typology" (p. 42) in The Tripartite Tractate, Dunning explores two Valentinian texts which he argues rely more overtly on Paul's authority and typology: the Excerpts from Theodotus and the Gospel of Philip. Since the Gospel of Philip does not display the theological monism of the other two, its placement in this chapter strikes me as a bit odd. Dunning argues the latter two texts "reflect two paradigmatic early Christian strategies" for dealing with sexual difference (p. 32). While this heuristic is useful, it probably should have been placed in the Introduction itself with the discussion of the Gospel of Philip located in part II of the book. Dunning's desire to treat these three Valentinian texts together works at cross purposes with the organizational logic of the rest of the book.

Chapter 2, "Desire and the Feminine: Clement of Alexandria's Displacement of Eve," begins by focusing on Clement's teaching found in Protrepticus 11 while drawing on ideas found in the Paedagogus and the Stromaties to flesh out his theological anthropology as Dunning's argument progresses. Clement's project calls for the complete "eschatological eradication" of desire (typically configured as feminine); yet, the relational nature of desire found within Clement's thinking complicates this theological goal. As Dunning notes, "Clement may be trying to bring the creation narrative of Genesis and the theological anthropology of Paul together within a Platonic framework that does not fully have room for such a partnership" (p. 73).

Chapter 3, "What Sort of Thing Is This Luminous Woman? Sexual Dimorphism in On the Origin of the World," engages a particularly gnarly Nag Hammadi text that, Dunning argues, "cites the Pauline typological framework and relies on its conceptual apparatus." Like the other texts examined in part I, "the cosmological framework" of On the Origin of the World is "largely informed by the intellectual resources of the Platonic tradition" (p. 75). Unlike Clement, however, this text resists Paul's theological anthropology and creates a novel system that does not map easily onto the dominant ancient model of gender (p. 76). As such, Dunning argues that "the text introduces a fundamental dimension of alterity into the origins of sexually differentiated humanity, rendering the separation between the sexes as a marker of inassimilable difference" (p. 77).

Chapters 4 ("Virgin Earth, Virgin Birth: Irenaeus of Lyons and the Predicaments of Recapitulation") and 5 ("'The Contrary Operation': Resignifying the Unpenetrated Body in Tertullian of Carthage") return us to similar strategies in dealing with sexual difference that Dunning introduced in his discussion of the Gospel of Philip in chapter 1. In these chapters Dunning explores two thinkers who "move to build a more complicated framework than that which we see in Paul—one that includes not only Adam and Christ, but also Eve and Mary as typological representatives of sexually differentiated humanity" (p. 97). Indeed, the earth itself is brought into the typology by each of these thinkers. Each argues that sexual difference is essential to the created order and will survive the eschaton, albeit for different reasons. Yet Dunning argues that their theological anthropological systems break down around the problematic meanings that "virginity" prompts within their rhetoric. While the feminine/female survives, she exists as an uneasy remainder that is never fully resolved.

Dunning's expansive and careful research, clear argumentation, and well written prose are laudable. One minor critique I have involves the title and the main contention that the texts under examination are all engaging a specifically Pauline problem. While the title allows Dunning to play off of Derrida's Specters of Marx, alerting the meaning aware reader to the influence of Derrida on Dunning and his contemporary interlocutors, I wonder if Dunning grants Paul more than is his due. I was unclear whether Dunning means to argue that Paul is actually the root of all of the theological anthropologies he examines (in a genetic sense), or whether Paul is simply a useful heuristic (much like the heuristic of using the Excerpts from Theodotus and the Gospel of Philip as two ends of a paradigmatic spectrum in ch. 1). Dunning himself seems aware of the issue, even though he never definitively resolves it. He notes in the conclusion that the unresolvable problem of sexual difference is " at least partially inherited from the generative silences in Paul's theology of creation and resurrection" (p. 152, emphasis mine).1 Certainly for Irenaeus and Tertullian a causal relationship to Paul is clear, but it is less clear for some of the other theological anthropologies Dunning analyzes.

My second critique revolves around how Dunning argues that each theological anthropology he examines "actually contains the seeds of its own undoing, unraveling on terms internal to the argument itself" (p. 5). Dunning has amply demonstrated that none of these theological anthropologies successfully deal with every loose end. Yet, I question the way he emphasizes logical consistency in some places throughout the book. Critiquing the logical inconsistency of typological argumentation is always a fraught enterprise and can create straw man arguments. Internal (and rhetorical) coherence, after all, is not the same thing as logical consistency.2 While Dunning certainly never loses sight of the typological and paradoxical nature of the arguments he assesses, at times I wished for a more nuanced understanding of what some cognitive scientists refer to as "selective projection." That is, the ability of the mind to make sense out of rhetoric by selecting which meanings certain linguistic cues prompt, and knowing which to leave out of the equation.3 Again, I believe that Dunning is absolutely correct in his assessment that every Christian theological anthropology is unable to resolve sexual difference fully (why else would Christians keep at it for 2,000 years?). My concern is that he pushes the expectation of logical consistency a bit too far thereby undermining his case. To quote Timothy Beal out of context: "you can't fail at something you're not trying to do."4 However, given how feminist and queer theologies are treated in some (many?) corners of the academy (not to mention the church), I can certainly understand why Dunning felt the need to present his carefully researched description and analysis in the way he does.

In the final analysis, Dunning has performed an extremely valuable historical and constructive service. Those of us who study intractable issues of embodiment in early Christian rhetorical worlds have much to learn from this excellent book.


1.   See also, e.g., pp. 19, 22-24, 39, 42-43.
2.   See, e.g., Margaret Y. MacDonald and Lief E. Vaage, "Unclean but Holy Children: Paul's Everyday Quandary in 1 Corinthians 7:14c," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73 (2011): 537.
3.   Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 47-48; 71-73.
4.   Timothy Beal, "The Bible is Dead, Long Live the Bible," The Chronicle of Higher Education 57, no. 33 (April 22, 2011), B6-B8.

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