Gendering War and Peace in the Gospel of Luke

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Caryn Reeder
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , October
     2018.
     274 pages.
     $105.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781108471398.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the study of the gospels, the politics and poetics of gender, war, and peace have rarely been taken seriously together as ideologically linked or comprising an interwoven scaffolding that undergirds the gospel itself. Caryn A. Reeder’s Gendering War and Peace in the Gospel of Luke ambitiously attempts redress in this area. In so doing, Reeder makes a significant contribution to intersectional understandings of the New Testament gospels by a methodological commitment to a multilayered, multimedia approach to the question of what all these issues have to do with one another and what that might mean for the fate of Jews, Gentiles, and the Jerusalem they may or may not get to inhabit.

Each chapter explores a different aspect of how war and peace are gendered and how gender is war-laden and peaceful. Although there persists in New Testament studies a cottage industry of gender-critical and “empire-critical” scholarship wherein many scholars have observed and debated the extent to which Luke (and Acts) is negotiating Roman imperial ideology and rhetoric, Reeder’s innovation (and intervention) is to read the gospel against the background of specifically gendered war/peace imagery of the Flavian period: that of Roman and non-Roman female bodies shown in various relationship to fertility, pregnancy, and the early stages of motherhood, as well as male and female figures betraying different gradations of masculinity and man-power.

In her first chapter, Reeder proposes that Luke’s late 1st-century audience would have been familiar with imperial propaganda and local interaction with war: triumphal processions; war trophies and memorialization of battle and defeat in multiple media forms; and encounters with military personnel, veterans, prisoners of war who became slaves, and other human agents of Roman warmongering and peacemaking. In light of this context, a different Lukan gendered sensibility emerges: the pregnancy of Mary and Elizabeth could be read as a declaration of fertility and infancy that brings in a “new age,” juxtaposed with declarations of the “good news” (of peace, war, probably both), warnings and predictions of Jerusalem’s destruction, and both judgment and blessings surrounding women and children.

Such exploration of imagery and its possible connections to Luke’s thought-world continues in chapter 2, wherein Reeder examines Roman constructions of masculinity and femininity in relation to imperial discourses of war and peace. In an attempt to move beyond a simple binary association of masculinity with violence and femininity with victimization, Reeder suggests that in Luke there is affirmation, renegotiation, and subversion of “normal” constructions of gender. For example, the communal meals, household visits, and public teaching spaces become sites where Jesus and the people around him both reify and upend traditional gender expectations. In chapters 3 and 4, Reeder turns her attention to historical analysis of Roman military operations and occupations, and specifically the underexplored roles that women and children played in the machinery of warfare. As it turns out, women and children were woven into narratives of ancient warfare as fortifiers of the city boundaries, preparers of soldiers for battle, and visible spoils of war in defeat. Given that women and children feature prominently in Luke’s repeated warnings about the destruction of Jerusalem, the historical background Reeder explores offers much interpretive potential.

Extending this potential is Reeder’s appraisal of the visual rhetoric of gendered war and peace in chapter 5: in biblical and Greco-Roman discourses as well as in iconographical contexts, images of female fecundity on monuments to “peace,” the handing over of infants from mothers to emperors, personified cities and provinces in various postures of slavery and mourning, and females bearing breasts and talking about their wombs to stop violence are too numerous to ignore. Reeder argues persuasively that Luke’s story, against the grain of its background, positions infertility and childlessness/child loss—and not fertility and childbirth—as a blessing, thus reconfiguring “peace” as that which comes out of, and not at the expense of, (feminized) defeat. 

In her final chapter, Reeder synthesizes her work and suggests pathways for further engagement. Her focus on the various ways that femaleness and maleness are represented in war and peace—alternately vibrantly pregnant and smashed and left to die, breastfeeding and breasts out in devastation, fighting wars valiantly and defeating death on a cross—come into fuller view as threads in a comprehensive Lukan narrative of war, victory, peace, and defeat on different than usual terms. The infancy narratives, predictions of Jerusalem’s destruction, and Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are all linked together through gendered rhetorics of war and peace—where nothing, then as now, is as it seems. 

It has long been observed in the study of the New Testament and early Christian discourses that the Gospel of Luke features far more female characters and stories that map gender than other canonical gospels. New Testament scholars have also repeatedly noted that Luke appears to be concerned with the rhetorics of violence, war, and peace. Often, tropes and passages concerning gender, war, and peace in early Christian literature are treated as isolated problematics for historical reconstruction and contemporary interpretation, on the one hand, and as mysteriously hyperbolic, symbolic, and/or allegorical, on the other. And in contemporary “empire-critical” scholarship, it could be argued that an overly simplistic focus on early Christian “resistance” or “assimilation” vis-à-vis Rome misses larger patterns, complications, and contradictions in these texts and on the ground. With a natural facility, Reeder negotiates the history of scholarship and a copious number of primary sources in this seemingly overworked area. In the process she renders complex arguments and intersections understandable and compelling and opens the door for further intersectional questions and analysis. Reeder’s insightful, creative, and nuanced work will reward close reading and careful study.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Todd Penner has a PhD in New Testament and Christian origins from Emory University.

Date of Review: 
October 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Caryn A. Reeder is Associate Professor of New Testament at Westmont College.

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