Resurrecting Parts

Early Christians on Desire, Reproduction, and Sexual Difference

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Taylor Petrey
Routledge Studies in the Early Christian World
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , July
     2015.
     134 pages.
     $143.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138906532.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Taylor G. Petrey’s Resurrecting Parts: Early Christians on Desire, Reproduction, and Sexual Difference is a well-researched book concerning the ancient Christian discourse about bodily resurrection. Petrey examines the extant sources on the resurrection from the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries in order to demonstrate that, although the debate over bodily resurrection may have been somewhat settled in the 4th century, orthodoxy was still being debated and formed in the 2nd    century. Furthermore, Petrey demonstrates what the ancient discourse on the resurrection can tell us about how ancient Christians viewed sex, sexuality, and embodiment.

This book investigates each of the extant sources on the resurrection, including many of the more important theological sources from the 2nd century. Petrey includes works from Psuedo-Justin Martyr, the Nag Hammadi corpus, Athenagoras, Iraneus, and Tertullian. The author argues that all these sources maintain that resurrection would include aspects of the material body, although these authors vary in some ways about why that is and what it means.

Petrey is particularly interested, however, in the way these authors describe how genitals are involved in this bodily resurrection. According to the author, even those Christians who argued for a bodily resurrection took issue with that resurrection including certain “parts.” The sources examined in this book, however, argue that the bodily resurrection does include the sexual organs, despite the lack of sexual desire or acts after the resurrection. All these authors struggled to develop an eschatological theology that answers “how can the resurrected substance be the ‘same’ person, but also different so as to render it worthy of heavenly existence?” (70).

Although they maintained that sexual function would no longer exist for the resurrected body, for the authors of these ancient sources, genitals were needed to maintain personal identity. Therefore, sexual difference was viewed as necessary to maintain one’s identity even post-resurrection, despite Paul’s assertion that “there is no male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).

Moreover, ancient authors maintained this assertion of sexual difference in order to preserve a gendered hierarchy. For example, Petrey demonstrates that while Tertullian defends the bodily resurrection, he does so by reproducing contemporary rhetoric on sexual difference, namely, that the body is associated with female receptivity and passiveness and that the soul is associated with male penetration and activeness.

Furthermore, the separation of body parts from sexual desire and acts, which are viewed as too “low” to be part of the resurrected body, also denigrates the flesh, especially women, who were often viewed as more associated with flesh. Therefore, Petrey argues this view is not as pro-body as it first appears. Rather, they “are, in actuality, advocating a particular kind of body and flesh” (4, italics added). This is one of Petrey’s key interventions into studies on ancient Christianity; the discourse is not so much concerned about whether the flesh is involved in the resurrection within the development of orthodox theology, but rather about what kind of flesh is involved. For these ancient authors, the answer is overwhelmingly the sexually differentiated flesh, but also the flesh void of any sexual desire or acts. Sex then, according to Petrey, acts as a signifier for the 2nd-century Christian theologian.

Working through this important concept of sex as signifier, Petrey also takes into account current theories on gendered embodiment and sexuality—particularly, Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. Petrey writes that the “poststructuralist challenge” to the assumption that sex is natural and gender is socially constructed “informs [his] analysis” (4). However, the implications of current theories are only discussed in the introduction and conclusion of the book; the body chapters are more concerned with meticulous investigation of each ancient source and what they say about bodily resurrection.

Petrey also brings up some current implications his research may have in the introduction and the conclusion. According to the author, his work is not involved in thinking about the past as “radically different from our own, or alternatively the source of our own modern categories,” but, quoting Brook Holmes, that it is “a resource for thinking about gender in the twenty-first century” (6).

In his conclusion, Petrey gives a little more information for how his work can have current implications for feminists, especially those involved in feminist theology. He gives the example of theologian Beth Felker Jones, who developed a feminist theology along the same lines as these ancient authors regarding the resurrection, in which she keeps the “essential” parts of materiality while eliminating the non-essential: social hierarchies (105). Petrey devotes a little less than a page on the current implications, focusing much of this on the work of Felker Jones. The book could use much more fleshing out of these ideas rather than just focusing on one person who is currently doing this. How this work impacts current ideas about gender embodiment and sexuality could be an important feature of this book and should be given more attention.

Resurrecting Parts is a meticulous book on 2nd-century ideas about the resurrection. Overall, Petrey accomplishes his goals for demonstrating that theologians in the 2nd century had multiple views on how to solve the issue of bodily resurrection, and that these views largely maintained sexual difference as the central location of embodied identity while disposing of sexual desire and acts in the resurrected bodies.

While this work is short, it is specific, with chapters on each ancient author. Therefore, it is useful for anyone studying any of the authors featured within it. Furthermore, it is helpful for anyone interested either in ancient Christian discourse about the resurrection or views on sex and sexuality.

           

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kathryn Phillips is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Taylor G. Petrey is the Lucinda Hinsdale Stone Assistant Professor of Religion and the Director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program at Kalamazoo College.

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