The Rape of Eve

The Transformation of Roman Ideology in Three Early Christian Retellings of Genesis

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Celene Lillie
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , January
     2017.
     364 pages.
     $79.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781506423364.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Celene Lillie’s The Rape of Eve is a substantial contribution to recent scholarly discussion regarding how texts found among the Nag Hammadi codices participate in larger Mediterranean discussions of cosmology, empire, power, and sex/sexuality. Lillie’s book, as she sets out in the introduction, builds upon previous work that had connected the Rulers in certain Nag Hammadi texts to Roman imperial powers in order to demonstrate that the authors and readers of these three early Christian texts (that is, The Secret Revelation of John [SRJ], The Reality of the Rulers [RoR], and On the Origen of the World [OnOrig]) utilized and subverted such literary tropes. Lillie makes clear that she does not intend to find a source-critical Urtext standing behind these early Christian narratives, but rightfully focuses on their intertextual features and ability to participate in narratives beyond those traditionally labeled “Christian.” She expertly employs feminist, postcolonial, empire-critical, and trauma theoretical approaches throughout the work and demonstrates that these narrative (re)tellings of the past, whether “Roman” or “Christian,” reveal how various people and groups were debating the Roman Empire’s imagined violent, sexualized past, present, and future.

The Rape of Eve is divided into five chapters. The first focuses on various Augustan-era Roman origin narratives that revolve around rape and sexual violence, such as the stories of Mars and Rhea Silvia, the Sabine Women, Sextus Tarquinius and Lucretia, and Appius Claudius and Verginia. Here, Lillie masterfully tells these stories to her readers and elucidates how such textual imagery was used alongside visual imagery in the Augustan era. She turns, for example, to the frieze of the Basilica Aemilia and the Sebasteion in Aphrodisias to demonstrate that Rome’s imagined sexually violent origins were quite literally part of the architectural composition of the early Roman Empire: ­­the Roman Empire was built upon and out of these narratives. In her second chapter, Lillie examines how Ovid’s Metamorphoses––particularly the narratives of Apollo and Daphne, Jupiter and Io, and Pan and Syrinx––also participate in larger Roman imperial constructions of hierarchy, sexuality, and colonization. Perhaps the most significant point made here is that the three sexually-violated women in these narratives are literally objectified in their transformations. This is most apparent, as Lillie notes, for Daphne, as she morphs into an immobile laurel tree and is violated and exploited by Apollo, who eventually turns her into an object of conquest: “she is the captive who symbolizes the triumph of the victor” (138). Lillie reveals how each of these narratives demonstrates Roman conceptions of physical and psychological violence done to these transformed women, as they are never able to return to a “pure” or “un-colonized” body after such acts of sexual violence.

In chapters 3 through 5, Lillie turns to the narratives of Eve in SRJ, RoR, and OnOrig in order to provide a synoptic reading of the three texts and to examine their intertextual relations to the Roman narratives of rape and conquest mentioned above. In her synoptic reading of the texts, she points out some shared characteristics: for example, that all the narratives understand Eve to be a divine emissary sent to assist Adam, and that they all understand mutual love between Adam and Eve to act as a foil to the sexually-unilateral violence of the Rulers. Here, Lillie provides us with what I consider to be the most groundbreaking discovery from The Rape of Eve––namely, how these three Nag Hammadi texts read Genesis and distinguish between the characters of God (Hebrew: Elohim; Greek: Theos) and Lord God (Hebrew: Elohim Yahweh; Greek: Kurios ho theos). As Lillie masterfully demonstrates, the authors used Platonized readings of Genesis, similar to those found in Philo of Alexandria or in Valentinian interpretation, which led them to distinguish between the deity or deities at work in Genesis 1-5. She uncovers how the division of deities at work in Genesis might help explain the narrative ambiguity regarding which God created the Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge, who created Eve and the serpent, which God gave the prohibition not to eat from the tree, how Cain was born, and in whose image Seth was born. Finally, Lillie ends these chapters by examining how SRJ, RoR, and OnOrig both use and resist Roman narratives of sexual violence, and in particular, whether a pax Romana founded on sexual violence is truly justifiable. In contrast, the Eve narratives condemn sexual violence as truly violent rather than “necessary” and demonstrate how rape can be used for wrongful subjugation of both Eve and her children. For future scholarship regarding early Christian interpretation and reaction to sexual violence, I hope that we can use The Rape of Eve as a springboard to explore the ever-increasing complexity and queering of this space. Are there ways that early Christians imagined Eve’s healing beyond mutual heterosexual union with Adam (279)? Are there ways that they conceptualized Eve as more than a helper who was intended to produce vessels of light for Adam and his progeny (280-81)? How can we imagine Eve’s embodiment and maintenance of both active and passive multitudes? How does Eve stand as both one part of a whole with Adam, yet simultaneously a whole in herself?

Overall, The Rape of Eve is a testimony to Lillie’s magnificent use of contemporary theoretical frameworks and historically-informed hermeneutical practices. She not only demonstrates that early Christians participated in––and often resisted––Roman imperial narratives of sexual violence and conquest, but also that the sexually-violated character of Eve in some Christian narratives is important for us to encounter and experience. Lillie’s interpretation of Eve shows that we can use early Christian material as a source of hope and healing amidst rape and sexual violence: “She [Eve] is marked by the violation, but all she is is not collapsed into that one moment, that one experience” (290).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Chance Everett Bonar is a doctoral student in New Testament/Early Christianity at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Celene Lillie completed her dissertation at Union Theological Seminary under the direction of Hal Taussig and Brigitte Kahl.

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