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European Electronic Journal for Feminist Exegesis

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Carly Daniel-Hughes

Fantasy Echoes. Critical Reflections on “Women” & the Feminist Historiography of Early Christianity[1]


“A story always starts before it can be told. When did feminism become a word that not only spoke to you, but spoke you, spoke of your existence, spoke you into existence?...What did it mean, what does it do, to hold on to feminism, to fight under its name; to feel in its ups and downs, in its comings and goings, your ups and downs, your comings and goings?”

                                               – Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life[2]


There was no better moment to begin your graduate work at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) then in 1998, if what drew you there was a passion for feminism and the historical study of ancient Christianity. When I arrived at HDS, there was a sizable and expanding body of feminist work in these areas, and critical resources to undertake it (not to mention all of the feminist work taking place in allied fields). There were path-breaking professors working at the intersections of feminism, gender theory and early Judaism and Christianity; a sizable number were circulating in and around Cambridge: Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Bernadette Brooten,[3] Joanna Dewey,[4] Gail Yee,[5] Ross Shepard Kraemer,[6] and my own supervisor, Karen King.[7]

As keen graduate student, I came into HDS imagining that my work, like that of the feminist scholars surrounding me, could address the needs of a collective of which I was part and to whom I felt responsible: “women.” Connections and histories were forged in this pursuit (sometimes with intention and other times as the rumbling bass of unconscious desires), connections between me and my mentors, between all of us and the “women” in the past, whether in early Christianity or in my own familial genealogy. Yet I was only beginning to understand then that the production of this collective identity was, and continues to be, heavily scrutinized in feminist and queer theory.[8] As I will go on to elaborate here, I have only in recent years understood that my hopeful attachment to it came with a cost, amplifying my disillusion with the academy and raising the existential stakes of academic pursuit for me, and I hazard, for others as well. It is one we are perhaps now better prepared to reflect on, with the critical distance of time and the persistent, nagging questions about “diversity” and marginalization that plague the Society of Biblical Literature and the field of biblical studies in which we labor.[9] Critical reflection, I suggest, is necessary for feminist scholars if we care not just about the vibrancy of feminist work, but the conditions under which we do that work in the academy.

In The Fantasy of Feminist History, Joan Wallach Scott develops the concept of “fantasy echo” as an analytic to explore how the identity “women” coalesced in the Republican French feminist movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Echo serves as “a gloss” on the psychoanalytic concept of fantasy, “a reminder” that “identity…is constructed in complex and diffracted relation to others.”[10] Fantasy echo describes the mechanism by which the feminists Wallach Scott analyzes could “transcend history and difference” and see themselves, and their audiences, as part of  “a vast, undifferentiated collective” of women stretching back in time.  By means of a fantasy echo, feminists imagined themselves in “similarly structured scenarios” with women who had come before them.[11] Two dominant scenarios that played themselves out for these eighteenth and nineteenth figures: the female orator and the maternal fantasy. In the first, the orator, a woman seemingly contravenes the bounds of her gender, occupying speaking positions that are the domain of men; in the maternal, a woman derives pleasure from the bonds of a shared sisterhood. Both fantasies, the orator and the maternal, also neatly capture the dominant affective impulses of Anglophone feminist historiography of early Christianity too, particularly for the decades of the 1970–1990s, the very work that I consumed and drew me (and many other women) into this subfield.

Take, for instance, feminist historical analyses by scholars like Jane Schaberg or Karen King, which restored the historical Mary Magdalene from repentant harlot to teacher and apostle.[12] In the extra-canonical Gospel of Mary,[13] as King, for instance, has shown Mary Magdalene imparts special knowledge (a vision offered to her by the resurrected Christ) to a group made up entirely of male disciples.[14] Two of them, Andrew and Peter, openly question her right to be among them, to teach what Christ had told her to them, a potential transgression. (Indeed Peter takes it just this way: “Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her?” To which is Mary is stunned; her right to teach finally defended by Levi: “Peter you have always been hot tempered…if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?”).[15] Feminist historiographical work that shows up such moments in early Christian literature solicits a libidinal charge that comes from trespassing perceived “social and sexual boundaries.” It is this charge that garnered women’s excitement about this historical work both inside and outside of the academy. It drew animosity for the very same reason.[16] What the orator fantasy could also do is consolidate feelings about and experiences of discrimination into a coherent narrative. Fantasy can create the conditions for agency and self-determination. And so, women outside the academy looked to this feminist work to kindle their own sense of religious authority.[17] For my own part, this scholarship enabled a conflation of Mary’s erudition and teaching in the Gospel of Mary with that of my feminist professors – and what I hoped would one day be my own.

The maternal fantasy, on the other hand, is on display in feminist calls for “sisterhood.” This fantasy is premised on the recovery of a pre-Oedipal love, to quote Wallach Scott, “a desire distinct from and potentially prior to that which is associated with heterosexuality, with phallic economies, with men.”[18] The world of women conjured by feminist calls for solidarity and action, notes Scott, “is one in which women find pleasure among themselves, or ‘jouissance d’elles-mêmes,’ in Luce Irigaray’s words.” What is it that women share “among themselves”? “The historian’s pleasure…is in finding herself party to this scene of feminine jouissance,” Scott writes. [19]

The feminist historiography of early Christianity has long invoked this fantastic scene. Key to my argument here: The movement of fantasy is not unidirectional – that is, it is not simply the result of projection from non-academic women, or keen graduate students, onto ancient materials and feminist scholars who analyze them. Rather fantastic affinities with biblical women and the scholars promoting those images were encouraged by the ambience of this feminist historiography itself: “the women’s bible,” “the discipleship of equals,” “wo/men church,” “love between women,” or “the lost world of early Christian women.”[20] What is being conjured in these titles and concepts if not a homosocial space of women’s pleasure?

In early Christian studies, the Acts of Thecla has been the text that has most readily aligned with feminine jouissance. It is the extra-canonical story of an elite woman who abandons marriage and family to follow the apostle Paul’s message of celibacy. Saved, remarkably, from death on multiple occasions, she ultimately finds support among the women of Antioch. (Paul, a poor excuse for a mentor, has long left her behind). In the end, she baptizes herself, dons a male cloak, and spends her final days as an iterant missionary. Feminist work on the Acts of Thecla in the 1980s popularized the view that here was a narrative that contained the memory of widows’ oral storytelling; one that spoke to women’s motivations and intentions to what drew them to the Jesus movement; one that is filled with a range of female characters (including, household slaves, and improbably, a lioness) who come to Thecla’s aid.[21] Paul, who has for most of the narrative abandoned Thecla, now suddenly wishes her well with a commission: “Go and Teach the word of God.” This reads as a lame and late-coming blessing for a woman who has just finished an inspired speech that spared her life and gathered around her women who cry out “praise to God.” There is much in this short narrative to evoke the jouissance of the feminist historian.

Thecla could nicely support the orator fantasy too, a reminder that the orator and maternal fantasies sustain each other. Feminist scholars have repeatedly emphasized Thecla’s gender inversions, her cross-dressing, and her brazen acts of public speech and transgressive self-baptism. They have variously allied the text with the early-third century Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas because perhaps they can be read in either of these fantasy scenarios, orator and maternal. Perpetua too is unafraid to challenge men in the public-space of courts or arenas. Yet she has an intense bond with her female slave, Felicitas. And she is a mother who at once nurtures and resists her maternal role. Perpetua, like Thecla, in short, has complicated relationship to femininity and to masculinity.[22]

By the time that I entered my doctorate under Karen King’s supervision in the early 2000s feminist historians were largely denying themselves pleasurable encounters with texts like the Acts of Thecla. Informed by the linguistic turn, and the work of scholars like Elizabeth Clark, feminist historians of early Christianity had to take seriously the theoretical insights of post-structuralist theory, the rhetoric of texts and how women were being deployed as constructs in them.[23]

One thing that these post-structuralist approaches did was place feminist historians at a greater distance from their subjects: women.[24] It became harder to use early Christian writings to advance feminist political aspirations. The route was more circuitous when we did.[25] In the mature period of feminist historiography operating out of some erotic charge that homosociality provided no longer seemed possible, or entirely ethical. Fantasies of solidarity ignored feminists of color who pointed out – and for decades at this point – that white feminists were masking critical differences in their emphasis on women as a singular collective, thereby obscuring and appropriating others’ lives and histories.[26] In the 2000s feminists no longer stood on sure ground to found “women’s history”: subjectivity, the body, agency, and identity had come under the force of challenge and critique (and they remain so). Yet this fantasy of feminist solidarity persisted (even if more elusive) in feminist biblical scholarship that now problematized, but still remained attentive to “women” as its object.

The fantasy of feminist solidarity can fall apart in subtle ways too. The setting for this failure need not be grand, involving large-scale critiques of language, agency and subjectivity. It can also entail the fine-grained encounters between people. Feminism analyzes power and its effects, attending to how gender serves in those operations. But its critical tools are not often enough turned to nitty-gritty power dynamics at work in feminist academic contexts, between faculty, between mentors and students, between students, and between those occupying the same race and gender. As feminists, we might be aware that assertions of a shared identity as women masked differences and renders invisible the conditions of women of color and queer women. Yet some feminists have been less willing to critically consider the power dynamics at play in claiming to do justice on behalf of marginalized people, or I think more regularly, how our claims to be doing justice lend our speech and our actions moral authority that can render invisible the more proximate structures of power circulating within our academic institutions and circles, and our role within these. “There is no guarantee that in struggling for justice we ourselves will be just,” Sara Ahmed states in Living a Feminist Life.[27]

The hyper-intellectual environment of my Harvard graduate program facilitated meaningful encounters and intense affiliations across groups of students and faculty, but it enabled certain devastations – to which I will only gesture here. I was not alone in feelings of despair and insecurity, as conversations with my peers has revealed. I wonder: why were encounters with faculty and other students so vulnerable making? Why did they feel so consequential? I am not saying that my experiences were more wounding than others. I know this absolutely not to be the case (it would be obscene to ignore how race, sexuality and disability would only have magnified the disaffection that I am naming here). Rather my point is that the academy enables conditions in which dissolution and self-doubt thrive – conditions that constrain us all, and some more than others.

Part of what made me, and my peers, vulnerable to moments of existential doubt were the feminist affiliations and deep (but carefully managed) investments that were part and parcel of our sub-discipline. “Auto-identification,” noted Eve Sedgwick is “strange and recalcitrant.”[28] It is not easily shaken off. My doctoral work trained me to feel embarrassment about any explicit longing for feminine jouissance. Yet there remained in me a sensibility that I owed my allegiance to these female scholars, that there was some common ground we occupied that should make our relationship operate smoothly. So often the opposite was the case. These relationships appeared more vexing, harder to understand. Reflecting on the tensions that circulated in and amongst women in one of her early feminist seminars, Eve Sedgwick wrote: “Afterall, to identify as must always include multiple processes of identification with. It also involves identification as against; but even did it not, the relations implicit in identifying with are…quite sufficiently fraught with intensities of incorporation, diminishment, inflation, threat, loss, reparation, and disavowal.”[29]

It did not occur to me that my identification with feminist professors might work in the other direction, their identification with (and against) me. This movement of auto-identification necessarily rendered us uncertain figures for one another. Tensions, disappointments, abuses of power, these do not only describe interactions in feminist academic circles, of course. But in the affective landscape cultivated by feminist historiography in which I was caught up (with colleagues and professors, whether by our choice or not), there was a risk unremarked upon. Utopic visions of solidarity and shared transgression gave the impression that we could count on certain loyalties and affections, and thus, face fewer difficulties. When inevitably these surfaced, what could we make of them? What did we do with them? Fantasies (unmarked as such) left me without the critical tools to understand what was happening. Now, as a professor with graduate students of my own, I can see that it left them without those tools too.

Even as I write this there is a troubling thought that I have engaged in a form of betrayal – by suggesting that a utopic homosocial tenor persisted in the orbit of the feminist historiography in which I (and many of us) were disciplined, and that as unnamed, it did harm to the allegiances it was meant to cull and sustain. I worry that talking about the fracture of fantasies implies something of a longing for that failure (and with it gives credibility to those openly hostile to feminist politics). But what if such a critique is not so withering? Addressing how the fantasy fractured can create the conditions for gratitude (both intellectual and more) for the feminist historiography that formed us, even as it attends to the limits of this work.

What if, instead, we identify our fantasies, the orator, the maternal, the ones that propelled feminist history of early Christianity for a time, sustained some important affiliations, came together, but then fell apart, and necessarily so? “Feminism,” writes Ahmed in the quote that opens this essay, “has its ups and downs, its comings and goings.” Naming how fantasies emerged and then collapsed can allow recognizing that the affective tenor that surfaced in the feminist scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s, and was institutionalized in the 1990s, did change the social and political landscape (if disproportionately in favor of “white, middle-class, professional women”).[30] We need not pine for its loss, or unwittingly replicate its negative effects. In light of psychoanalytic theory that supports me here, fantasy is integral to intersubjective lives and to the projects that animate all of us. It is not enough, indeed impossible in this framing, to simply be rid of it.[31] It is possible, however, to be more attentive to its enigmatic movements.

It is 125 years after the first woman, Ann Ely Rhoads, joined the SBL. Feminist scholarship has obtained its place in biblical and religious studies. If not always certain, secure enough to welcome appreciation for and critique of what has been done, and also consideration of where we might go. I suggest with others that what ultimately defines feminist inquiry may not be a haunted collectivity of “women,” but rather a collective impulse toward the critical, and the possibility of social and political transformation.[32] What defines feminism, in this rendering, is a relentless, but necessarily shifting interrogation of normative knowledge, of power and exclusion, and their effects. If that is the case, to rephrase Sara Ahmed, perhaps our business is not just to advocate that feminists work in academic institutions, but for feminist work of this kind on those institutions and their cultures?[33]

[1]This paper is drawn from a chapter entitled “Mary Magdalene in the Fantasy Echo: Reflections on the Feminist Historiography of Early Christianity,” Pages 135–158 in Re-Making the World: Categories and Early Christianity. Essays in Honor of Karen L. King. Taylor Petrey, Carly Daniel-Hughes, Benjamin Dunning, Laura Nasrallah, and AnneMarie Luijendijk, eds. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019. This longer chapter weaves the discussion here with a consideration of Karen L. King’s contribution to the field of early Christian studies. King is currently the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University and author of titles including Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2003) and What is Gnosticism? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[2] Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 4.

[3] She is Kraft-Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis University (Waltham). 

[4] She taught at Episcopal Divinity School (Cambridge) for thirty years and served as its Dean as well.

[5] She joined the faculty of Episcopal Divinity School in 1998.

[6] She taught at Brown University (Providence) where she was hired as Professor of Religious Studies in 2000.

[7] Outside of biblical studies, there was a rich repository of feminist scholars working in theology and the history of Christianity, for instance, Sara Coakley, Clarissa Atkinson, Ann Braude, and Amy Hollywood. In Boston, students also had access to scholars working in other institutions, such as Carter Heyward, Kwok Pui-Lan, and Mary Daly.

[8] See Scott, The Fantasy of Feminist History Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011). 


9 It is critical to stress that scholars of color have been working in the field of biblical studies  

for many decades, as the essay by Shively T.J. Smith on Clarice Martin importantly notes. Yet

such work remains still “at the margins” of our field.

[10] Scott, Fantasy of Feminist History, 53.

[11]Scott, Fantasy of Feminist History, 57.

[12] Scott, Fantasy of Feminist History, 53.

[13] Rediscovered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Gospel of Mary has been preserved in Coptic the Berlin codex and two papyrus fragments. Likely originally wrttien in the second century, it contains a post-resurrection dialogue in which Mary relates a vision shown to her by Jesus regarding the soul’s ascent.

[14] See King, Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2003) and Jane Schaberg, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament (New York: Continuum, 2006); other studies include Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene: The First Apostle. The Struggle for Authority (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Divinity School Press, 2003). 

[15] Translation from King, Gospel of Mary 10, pgs. 1718.

[16] Scott, Fantasy of Feminist History, 20. A well-known example from the field of feminist biblical studies would be the work of Jane Schaberg on the gospel infancy narratives. In her 1987 monograph, Schaberg argued that behind Matthew and Luke’s birth stories lay not a tradition of virgin birth, but rather of Mary’s illegitimate conception of Jesus as the result of rape. Jane Schaberg endured intense animosity, including verbal attacks, threats of harm and tenuous status within her university in response to its publication; see The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives. Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield University Press, 2006), 3–10.

[17] See for instance, Cullen Murphy, The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998) and Barbara Kantrowitz and Anne Underwood, “The Bible’s Lost Stories,” Newsweek Magazine December 8, 2003, 49-59. Both of these titles are discussed in the longer chapter from which this essay is drawn.

[18] Scott, Fantasy of Feminist History, 65.

[19] Scott, Fantasy of Feminist History, 65.

[20] The Women’s Bible refers to the commentary and translation project undertaken by Elisabeth Cady Stanton and a committee of women. This effort is evoked in the work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and the terms “discipleship of equals” and “wo/men church” are also hers (taken up by other feminist scholars as well), see, In Memory of Her, 7–14, 140–155, and in the “New Introduction,” xxx–xxxv. The other expressions here appear in book titles, namely Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Nicola Denzey, The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007); more recently, Kate Cooper, Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women (New York: Overlook Press, 2013). It is particularly interesting to read Cooper’s forward in this monograph in light of the maternal fantasy (it details the story-telling of her mother and grandmother); her reading is somewhat of a surprise given that her earlier work challenged the notion that the Acts of Thecla was a gynocentric text, see Ross Shepard Kraemer, Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender, and History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 127–33.

[21] For feminist scholarship on this text, see Kraemer, Unreliable Witnesses, 120–36. For a discussion of early work on it, Shelly Matthews, “Thinking of Thecla: Issues in Feminist Historiography,” JFRS 17:2 (2001), 39–55.

[22] For example, Gail P. Streete, Redeemed Bodies: Women Martyrs in Early Christianity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009).    

[23] Two important articles appeared in the same year: Elizabeth A. Clark, “Holy Women, Holy Words: Early Christian Women, Social History and the Linguistic Turn,” JECS 6:3 (1998): 413–30 and “The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the Linguistic Turn,” CH 67:1 (1998): 1–31. Feminist scholars, of course, are now thinking through the implications of the material turn, a corrective to post-structuralist approaches that seemed to grant language too much epistemological priority and eschewed attention to materiality.  

[24] Clark, “The Lady Vanishes,” 5.

[25] See Kraemer, Unreliable Witnesses, especially 1–11.

[26] References here could be manifold: the work of bell hooks, Angela Davis, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzadúla, Audre Lord, and Gayatri Spivak. In the field of biblical studies, as well, the work of Kwok Pui-Lan, Clarice Martin, Renita Weems, Dolores Williams and Elsa Tamez to name but a few powerful and critical voices.

[27] Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 6.

[28] Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 59.  

[29] Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 61.  

[30] Scott, Fantasy of Feminist History, 37.

[31] For a complementary set of reflections that also deploys fantasy but to look at pedagogy and notions of “mastery,” see Maia Kostrosits’ chapter “Darkening the Discipline: Fantasies of Efficacy and the Art of Redescription,” in The Lives of Objects: Material Culture, Experience, and the Real in the History of Early Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2020.

[32] A notion in sympathy with Wallach Scott’s introductory chapter “Flyers into the Unknown,” The Fantasy of Feminist History, 122 and the essay by Judith Butler “The Question of Social Transformation” in Undoing Gender (New York, NY: Routledge Press, 2004), 204231.

[33] This framing is part of her new work on “complaint”; see https://www.saranahmed.com/.

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Carly Daniel-Hughes, Th.D., is Associate Professor of Religions and Cultures at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Her research focuses on the study of sexuality, gender, and the body in early Christianity. Among her publications is The Salvation of the Flesh in Tertullian of Carthage: Dressing for the Resurrection (Palgrave 2011), and co-editor of The Bloomsbury Reader in Religion, Sexuality and Gender co-edited with Donald Boisvert (Bloomsbury 2016).

© Carly Daniel-Hughes, 2020, lectio@theol.unibe.ch, ISSN 1661-3317

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[ Inhaltsverzeichnis ] [ Contents ] [ Table des matières ]