Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Susanna Drake, Slandering the Jew: Sexuality and Difference in Early Christian Texts. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Pp. 176. ISBN 9780812245202. $55.00.

Reviewed by Chris L. de Wet, University of South Africa (

Version at BMCR home site


One of the unique features of the Divinations monograph series is that the authors read late ancient texts through the lens of various critical theoretical frameworks. It is also this approach that has led to the success of the series, which has produced numerous noteworthy studies. This installment in the series, by Susanna Drake, continues in this vein and provides a compelling reading of several late ancient, mostly Eastern, authors. Discussion of Western tradition is scant. The aim of the study is to examine anti-Jewish slander in late ancient Christian texts, with a focus on the discourse of sexuality as an apparatus for constructing difference. The book follows, more or less, the same argumentative line as Jennifer Knust,1 who also investigates sexual slander in early Christianity, only focusing on an earlier period.

The Introduction deals with preliminary contextualization and methodological issues. This section is rather general, giving an overview of the dynamics of sexual slander and the pathologization of lust as a passion and marker of identity in ancient Jewish and Christian invective. More interesting is the methodology of the study, and here, the book is perhaps over-ambitious. Several complex approaches are suggested in the opening pages (pp. 5-8), including the dynamic between power-discourse and subjectivation (Foucault), critical gender theory (Butler), and ethnicity studies and postcolonial criticism (Bhabha, etc.). While all of these trajectories operate at various stages of the book, often quite successfully, at times the methodological strands are not always cohesive, and postcolonial criticism gets the lion's share of application.

The first chapter addresses the carnalization of Israel and Jewish identity in the works of Paul, Barnabas, and Justin. The most important and convincing point in this chapter is that 'the incipient trope whereby Jews were represented as sexually deviant developed, at first, without reference to Paul' (p. 28). Drake, then, argues that sexualized alterization of Jewish identity began with Justin and Barnabas, and then briefly traces its development in Diognetus, Melito, and Ignatius. The chapter does very well in answering the how question in this regard, but the why question is left somewhat moot. What circumstances, historical, social or otherwise, led to the sexualized anti-Jewish invective that Justin and Barnabas utilize, and in turn, how did this type of invective affect religious and cultural conflict in this period? This aside, Drake successfully sketches the springboard of slander that became quite pronounced in the works of Origen, the topic of the next chapter.

Of all the authors examined in Slandering the Jew, Origen certainly receives the most discussion in the book. Chapter 2 focuses on Origen, along with most of Chapter 3. The outstanding contribution of the second chapter is the linking of sexual slander to exegetical practices. Drake meticulously shows how Origen mediated his carnal invective by the differentiation of scriptural hermeneutics – by imposing a Pauline flesh/spirit dichotomy, Origen equates the literalness of Jewish interpretation with their carnality, whilst Christian allegorical readings are symptomatic of purity and spiritual maturity. Origen effectively rewrites Paul into his own anti-Jewish textual violence. This chapter surely stands out as exemplary in the book.

Chapter 3 examines Christian interpretations of the Susanna narrative. This chapter breaks the apparent chronological flow of the book, but not in an unfavourable sense. It is a welcome intermission, with several photographs of early Christian art depicting Susanna in Roman catacombs; yet it also exhibits continuity with the previous chapter by devoting much attention to Origen's reading of Daniel 13. After some useful introductory remarks, Hippolytus' reading is discussed, and Drake then uses it as a point of departure to show how Christian literature not only sexualized the narrative of Susanna, but also how it functioned in attributing gendered categories of socio-religious identity. This categorization is evident in both Hippolytus and Origen, who depict Christians as in the feminine sense 'in terms of chastity, vulnerability, and victimization' (p.66), while Jewish (masculine) power is 'violent and invasive' (p. 73). Unfortunately the chapter treats other important sources like Clement, Methodius, Asterius and Pseudo-Chrysostom only in passing, neglecting texts that may show significant continuities and discontinuities.

Chapter 4 investigates sexualized anti-Jewish rhetoric in John Chrysostom's Sermons against the Jews. The examination is based on the use of the terms malakoi and pornai. This chapter supplements the earlier work of Wilken2 quite well, especially by focusing on the rediscovered manuscript of the second discourse of the homiletic series. Building also on the work of Sandwell,3 Drake argues that Chrysostom's sexualized anti-Jewish invective 'functioned as a discursive strategy to "fix" the identity of the Other' (p. 96). We therefore have a discursive violence in Chrysostom, a violence acting within processes of subjectification, where identities are constructed not necessarily as reliable descriptions, but more for the sake of maintaining out-group difference. It is a sound and sober excursus of the Sermons against the Jews, with convincing theoretical conclusions.

The short Conclusion ties the various chapters together both thematically and theoretically. The development of anti-Jewish sexual slander is characterized as an instance of discursive violence: 'Early Christian leaders' recourse to sexual and gendered invective in their production of Jewish-Christian difference marked an insidious "process of subjectification" – one that helped to create the conditions for programs of dehumanization and violence' (p. 103).

In conclusion, Drake provides a fascinating overview of the development of anti-Jewish sexual slander in the writings of the late antique Christian East. The main strength of the book is its descriptive analysis of discursive violence in the aforementioned texts, with a creative, yet ambitious, theoretical scope of application. Drake does an excellent job of examining the pervasive dynamics of sexual slander. Along with some of the problems mentioned above, the one lacuna of the book is that she does not relate the discursive violence to real historical incidents of conflict, and perhaps relates it to counter-invective against Christianity. In all fairness though, the Conclusion does list this as an avenue for further research (pp. 104-105), but one cannot help but ponder the limits of a discussion of violence that is somewhat separated from its material realization. Another question that remains is how historical incidents of violence and conflict also shaped their discursive counterparts. The nature and dynamic of this interplay between events of violence and the formation of discursive and textual violence in late antiquity remains a question. That being said, the book is clear about its objective in outlining the discursivity of sexual and gendered slander against Jewish identity, and its conclusions are well-supported by the data that was gathered and interpreted. It is a creative and, with its focus on the East, a much-needed addition to the study of late ancient invective and sexuality.


1.   Jennifer W. Knust, Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
2.   Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
3.   Isabella Sandwell, Religious Identity in Late Antiquity: Greeks, Jews and Christians in Antioch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.