BMCR 2020.04.20

The narrative self in early Christianity: essays in honor of Judith Perkins

Judith Perkins, Janet E. Spittler, The narrative self in early Christianity: essays in honor of Judith Perkins. Writings from the Greco-Roman world supplement series, 15. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2019. xi, 245 p.. ISBN 9781628372519 $40.00 (pb).

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[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In her 1995 book The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era, Judith Perkins showed that a diverse range of literary works from the early Roman empire, both Christian and non-Christian, constructed the human subject as a sufferer. Although she included medical and philosophical works in her analysis, Perkins highlighted the role of narratives—novels, “apocryphal” acts of the apostles, and martyrdoms—in creating this suffering self, and she argued the Christian discourse produced the self that it needed to form itself as a community of sufferers. The Suffering Self and Perkins’s 2009 Roman Imperial Identities in the Early Christian Era practice and encourage a cross-disciplinary approach to early imperial culture that integrates diverse sources and treats narratives as socially productive works of discourse and not just entertaining. Perkins has facilitated such scholarship also through her participation in professional organizations such as the Society of Biblical Literature and the International Conference on the Ancient Novel, where she not only has acted in institutional leadership roles but also has informally mentored younger scholars.

This collection of twelve essays honors Perkins by exploring the ways that ancient narratives construct identities, develop ideas, and circulate through culture. The essays are framed by an Introduction that discusses the significance of Perkins’s work and by a Bibliography of the honoree’s publications through 2018. With the exception of MacDonald’s chapter on Judith, all the essays focus on early Christian works and traditions. Five of the twelve study or take as their point of departure the Acts of Thomas and its “spin-off,” so to speak, Acts of Thomas and his Wonderworking Skin. Together they validate Perkins’s view that narrative can function in powerful ways to form and disseminate religious selves and concepts.

Concerning the Acts of Thomas, Jo-Ann Brant notes that, although the narrative shows little interest in the distinctive characteristics of the India in which it mostly takes place, it shares with Buddhist works the rhetorical strategy of promoting asceticism by creating aversion to sex, the body, and reproduction; Brant’s intriguing parallels might be illumined by the increasingly rich theoretical literature of comparative asceticism. Comparison with the late fourth-century Latin letter known as the Letter of the “She-Ass” enables Virginia Burrus to discern in the perplexing death of the ass that carries Thomas (Acts of Thomas 41) “a witness to the faithfulness of his own enduring love” (31); her graceful essay invites the reader to a new understanding not only of one scene in the Acts but also of religion itself and its effects beyond language. Jennifer Glancy finds that the Acts subordinates identities defined by geography, language, gender, family, sex, and enslaved status to affiliation with Christ. She rightly turns to the motif of Thomas as Jesus’ twin as central to the work’s construction of the self, but she must have composed the essay before the publication of Charles M. Stang’s comprehensive treatment of this theme (Our Divine Double, Harvard University Press 2016), and she eschews analysis of the “Hymn of the Pearl,” which arguably provides the hermeneutical key to the twin motif in the prince’s recognition of himself in his garment “as in a mirror” (112). Jeannie Sellick uses Jesus’ famous dissuasion of the bridal couple from consummating their marriage in Acts of Thomas 11–16 as the occasion to explore the motivations of early Christians who participated in so-called spiritual marriage. Using primarily John Chrysostom’s rhetoric against the practice, she highlights the possibility of male-female friendship as one of its attractions; it would be interesting to ask whether there are signs of this interest in the Acts. Janet Spittler’s perceptive essays shows how the little known but fascinating Acts of Thomas and his Wonderworking Skin connects suffering to Thomas’s identity as “doubting” (John 20:24–29) and constructs a model of the self as enduring pain.

Among the essays not focused on the Acts of Thomas, Kate Cooper studies a remarkable scene in Prudentius’s martyrdom of Cassian, in which a mob of boys stab and pierce their teacher’s body with their styles; she shows how the value that Christians assigned to pain could accommodate and reinterpret the everyday violence of the schoolroom and possibly encourage sympathy even for pagan teachers. The essay is a model of cultural history that is attentive to ambiguity and nuance. Meira Kensky persuasively interprets the fifth-century Acts of Timothy as an attempt to render Ephesus as a city of holy places and thus worthy of pilgrimage. Dennis MacDonald argues that the author of Judith “borrowed heavily from Greek poetry, most notably Euripides’s Bacchae and Homer’s Il. 14” (133); he believes that his findings support his controversial readings of Mark, John, and Luke-Acts as being modeled after classical Greek literature, especially Homer. Ilaria Ramelli traces the “spatial, literary, and linguistic translations” of the Mandylion (“towel”) (188), an image of Christ’s head and beard, from its origins in the legend of Abgar of Edessa and the disciple Addai into the Middle Ages. The journey she reconstructs includes many intriguing turns, but readers of this review will most likely be interested in a claim that Ramelli has made before: that the Abgar-Addai legend has historical roots in actual political correspondence between Abgar V Ukkāmā (4 bce–7 ce, 13–50 ce) and the Roman emperor Tiberius; according to Ramelli, Abgar “wrote to Tiberius about Jesus’s execution by Pilate and Caiaphas’s party” (173), which he would have to have done within only a few years of Jesus’ death because Tiberius died in 37 ce. But would the routine crucifixion of a troublesome Galilean peasant have come to the attention of a distant king like Abgar? One wonders whether even Pontius Pilate knew much about it (despite the gospel accounts). Shelly Matthews criticizes her fellow biblical scholars for their interpretations of Luke 23:41, in which one of the thieves crucified with Jesus admits that he and the other robber deserve their punishment, but asserts that Jesus has done nothing wrong. In her view, modern exegetes have correctly understood that this statement serves Luke’s apologetic interest in establishing that the executed Jesus was innocent and thus that Christianity is no threat to the Roman state; nonetheless, they have failed to point out that Roman crucifixion, like lynching in the modern United States, was cruel and unjust because they are “protected by class and racial privilege from the possibility of ever facing judicial, quasi-judicial and/or extrajudicial torture” (167).

The book’s most ambitious paper must be that of David Konstan, who proposes to set forth (in twelve pages!) “a radical redefinition of Jesus’s conception of sin, as it is revealed to us in the gospels and certain other canonical books of the New Testament” (121): he argues that for Jesus (as the gospels present him) hamartia (“sin”) is “the failure to believe in Jesus’s divinity, as revealed through his miracles” (128), not a discrete immoral act. Although Konstan does repeat phrases like “as it is revealed to us in the gospels,” he tends to ascribe this teaching to the historical Jesus: “Jesus’s own message was simpler: his presence was self-revealing and the supernatural quality of his acts unmistakable, and together they offered an immediate occasion for trust in his divinity” (132). The scholar of the New Testament immediately has several questions: How did this conception of sin travel from Jesus and his original followers, who spoke Aramaic, to the Greek word hamartia? Are we to understand that all four canonical gospels and Acts, which display remarkable diversity on many central ideas (e.g., on whether and how Jesus is divine), are uncharacteristically unanimous on the meaning of this word? What are we to make of the frequent plurals of hamartia in passages cited by Konstan himself? How does Paul, who wrote before any of the evangelists and considered hamartia a cosmic power who rules over people (Romans 5:21), fit into this scheme? The author promises further studies on this topic, which I and others will read with interest.

Nicola Denzey Lewis offers one of the true gems of the collection in her study of the feast of Saint Cristina of Bolsena, a small town in Tuscany. Each year, on 23 and 24 July, residents of Bolsena perform a large-scale passion play in honor of this female martyr, in which teenagers and young adults enact tableaux of Cristina’s grisly tortures. Lewis examines how late ancient and medieval martyrdom accounts reflected male clerical fantasies and anxieties about female bodies, and she shows that the modern spectacle subverts “Christian moral power over the secular state” (69). This essay demonstrates how stories of pain and the suffering body can in different ways support and undermine regimes of power and make conceptions of the self meaningful, even playful.

As in most edited volumes, the essays in The Narrative Self in Early Christianity vary in quality and interest. The collection as a whole, however, testifies to the productive power of Judith Perkins’s insight that narrative not only entertains, but also creates meaning, supports or undermines dominant ideologies, and creates selves for readers to adopt or resist.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Janet E. Spittler 1
Aversion as a Rhetorical Strategy in the Acts of Thomas and Buddhist Traditions, Jo-Ann Brant 7
Religious Asses, Virginia Burrus 25
The Master’s Voice: Martyrdom and the Late Roman Schoolroom in Prudentius’s Passio Sancti Cassiani, Kate Cooper 33
Sex, Suffering, Subversion, and Spectacle: The Feast of Saint Cristina of Bolsena, Nicola Denzey Lewis 51
Alienated Identity in the Acts of Thomas, Jennifer A. Glancy 73
Ephesus, Loca Sancta: The Acts of Timothy and Religious Travel in Late Antiquity, Meira Z. Kensky 91
Jesus’s Sense of Sin, David Konstan 121
The Jewish Agave and Hera: A Mimetic Reading of the Book of Judith,  Dennis R. MacDonald 133
The Lynching Tree and the Cross: James Cone, Historical Narrative, and the Ideology of Just Crucifixion (Luke 23:41), Shelly Matthews 147
The Spatial, Literary, and Linguistic Translations of the Mandylion, Ilaria L. E. Ramelli 171
Drunk in Love: Who’s Afraid of a Spiritual Marriage? Jeannie Sellick 193
Suffering Thomas: Doubt, Pain, and Punishment in the Acts of Thomas and his Wonderworking Skin, Janet E. Spittler211
Bibliography of Judith Perkins 1974–2018, 229