Blessed Among Women?
Mothers and Motherhood in the New Testament
- ISBN: 9780190677084
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: November 2017
In Blessed Among Women?: Mothers and Motherhood in the New Testament, Alicia D. Myers proposes to interrupt common assumptions about mothers and motherhood in New Testament (NT) and early Christian writings that have led interpreters to treat maternal language and imagery in these texts as “transhistorical and ornamental, rather than contextual and substantive” (157). She pursues this aim by embedding her own lucid readings of key passages in frameworks provided by ancient medical, philosophical, and sociopolitical traditions from the Hippocratic and Aristotelian to the late biblical and Imperial Augustan. Her argument throughout is that NT and early Christian texts reflect conceptions of, and attitudes toward, motherhood and maternal bodies that are at least as “ambiguous” and “ambivalent” (two adjectives that appear repeatedly in every chapter) as those found in the wider cultural contexts within which the Jesus movement arose and spread. Writings by early Jesus believers that feature maternal themes both “utilize and subvert constructions of gender and identity in the Greco-Roman world as a means of communicating the apocalyptic vision of God’s final victory in a new age” (40). Understanding how this occurs is a vital step in meeting the challenges posed by these “writings whose influence persists in explicit and implicit ways in western societies” where women’s bodies—and especially maternal bodies—“are visceral locations of contention in public policy, daily life, and religious settings” (13).
A single encompassing observation undergirds and organizes all the analyses that comprise the argument of the book: namely, that in Greco-Roman (including early Christian) understanding and practice, “perfection is masculine” (149). Concomitantly, the feminine is deficient, and “masculinization” describes the process through which feminine bodies and persons may strive for—or be moved in the direction of—greater perfection.
After a moving preface followed by a general introduction and overview, Myers provides a first chapter that lays out, in broad strokes, ancient Mediterranean theories about human anatomy, physiology, embryology, and pathology within a broadly binary sex/gender system. In the remaining three chapters before her summarizing “Conclusions,” Myers explores NT and early Christian treatments of mothers and motherhood employing three particular rubrics: (a) conception and gestation, (b) breastmilk and nursing, and (c) childbearing in relation to immortality and salvation.
Chapter 3, “Conceiving Christ and Community: Mary, Mothers, and God’s Household in the Gospels and Acts,” considers narratives of Jesus’s origin and conception through the lenses of “ancient embryological and parturitive theories” (43). Myers aptly argues that “Matthew’s and Luke’s focus on a holy Spirit’s involvement in Jesus’ conception is not only ‘spiritual,’ but profoundly corporeal since ancients understood the spirit [pneuma] to be crucial to the formation of a child in utero” (70). John goes a step further, she observes, by absenting a mother altogether from Jesus’s origin story and depicting the Christ as “the result of ideal masculine generation as the embodiment of God’s Logos—the ordering and life-giving principle ... [that] generates, orders, and sustains the entire cosmos” (70). Later Jesus believers, as depicted in the Gospels and Acts, then, become regenerated by this same holy pneuma and divine Logos through Jesus, making them children (sons) of a new household, with God alone as parent and paterfamilias. Mary’s maternal “blessedness,” it seems, is a function of her willing submission to God in becoming a necessary vessel, temporarily imbued with God’s (masculine) power, and yet ultimately remaining a “child” in the motherless household begotten by God through Christ.
Chapter 4, “Taste that the Lord is Good! Breastmilk and Character Formation in the New Testament,” traces ancient theories about breastmilk that characterize it as “a pedagogical and character forming substance” (78), as well as a “transformative” transmitter of male “seed” that could forge “not just love, but loyalty” among kin (106). Such understandings inform nursing metaphors employed by men like “Mother Paul” in Galatians 4, I Thessalonians 2, and I Corinthians 3 (96), metaphors that are also applied to male divinity in the NT and early Christian writings. Given that all of the “nurses” and “breasts” in these texts are associated with males who supply “superior, more masculine, breastmilk to their charges” (107), Myers closes this chapter by wondering about the “inescapable blending of masculine and feminine” in such passages, as well as about “what such uses of feminine imagery and simultaneous displacement of biological mothers meant for actual girls, women, and mothers in early Christian communities” (107). Both questions remain undeveloped.
Chapter 5, “Salvation and Childbearing: Does Motherhood Matter?” situates the insistence on marriage and motherhood that runs through the NT’s pastoral epistles and household codes squarely within its early Roman Imperial context. At the same time, Myers also examines the ways in which some later Pauline traditions—such as those found in the Acts of Thecla—and early martyr accounts like the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas appropriate these same Augustan-era values, but subvert and transmute them by substituting the “seed” of the divine word and its promised immortal offspring for the human sperm and generations of earthly children committed to the perpetuation of Roman power. All paths of “motherhood” serve to “masculinize” the women who participate in them and thereby move them farther along a masculinist axis toward freedom, salvation, virtue, and perfection. They also demand feminine submission: the pastoral epistles and household codes require submission of wives to their earthly fathers and husbands, whereas for “Thecla and Her Childless Sisters,” (134) “submission to God may involve repeated, and very public, insubordination to human men” (147). “Motherhood may matter” to believers in both camps, argues Myers, “but it is relegated to a status below a female believer’s submission to her divine Paterfamilias” (147).
Blessed Among Women? should provide a rich—perhaps even revelatory—resource for college and divinity-school students interested in its themes. The gender analysis throughout is conventional, and many intriguing questions are left open for others to explore. Unfortunately, Myers’s express desire that the book somehow contribute to overturning similarly ambivalent valuations of womanhood (and corresponding glorifications of masculinity) found in contemporary American culture (157-60) seems unlikely to be realized anytime soon.
Cynthia Baker is Professor of Religious Studies at Bates College.Cynthia BakerDate Of Review:December 4, 2018