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Early Christian Debates Offer New Insights Into Old Problems


Benjamin Dunning, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology, studies how early Christians tried to incorporate the female form into their theological framework.
Photo by Patrick Verel

In the second and third centuries, Christians spent a lot of time creating, debating and refining ideas about what it meant to be a sexually differentiated human being created in God’s image.

According to Benjamin Dunning, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology in Fordham College at Lincoln Center, their deliberations can light the way for modern Catholics and other Christians to restart conversations about the place of gender in religion.

“Many debates in the church about sex and gender are totally stalled,” he said. “Having some historical perspective on how early Christians wrestled with similar issues, I can see how their experiences could offer some critical leverage to approach current conversations in a new way.”

Dunning recently returned to Fordham from a yearlong research fellowship in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School. He was the first man to hold a fellowship in the program in its 35-year history. Dunning used his time there to completeSpecters of Paul: Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

The book takes its starting point from the writings of the apostle Paul, who established a way of thinking about what it means to be human in terms of two paradigmatic figures: Adam and Jesus Christ.

“You’ve got Adam, who represents creation; and Christ, who represents resurrection. For Paul, and for the early Christians who followed him, what it means to be human had to be situated somewhere in the middle, between those two poles,” Dunning said.

“The problem that emerges here for many early Christians has to do with embodiment—and more precisely, the body in relation to the figure of Eve. If human embodiment is going to be determined by Adam and Christ—who are at least in some sense male—what about Eve’s body? Where does she fit? And what does the difference of her specifically female body mean for this kind of theological framework?”

Dunning said he used the word “specters” in the book’s title because Christian theology from antiquity forward has been haunted by this problem, which Paul’s writings set up but never solve.

The starting point for the early Christians who approached this problem was a perspective—common to many thinkers in the ancient world—that women were not a complementary or “opposite” sex, but simply less fully formed versions of men. Christians built on this idea in at least two different directions—both of which, according to Dunning, were ethically problematic.

“One strategy is to treat the feminine as a kind of temporary mistake, or as something that came about as a result of sin or desire,” Dunning said. “In the beginning, you had Adam, who was kind of androgynous but also vaguely male. The sexual difference of Eve was somehow an aberration—a screw-up.”

According to that way of thinking, at the end of time, Christ would undo the difference and humanity would collapse into an undifferentiated person who somehow remains nonetheless fundamentally masculine.

The other solution, he said, was to take the framework of Adam and Christ and build a subsidiary framework using Eve and Mary. Thus, the difference of the feminine has a legitimate place and female bodies are not an aberration.

“They have their role, they matter theologically and they will endure at the end of time, but always at a lesser point on the hierarchy—never of equal status to Adam and Christ,” Dunning said.

“So it’s not necessarily a better solution from the standpoint of contemporary feminist theology. It’s one that values female flesh in its specificity and its difference, but still treats female difference as a problem that needs to be managed.”

These were not the only arguments put forth by early Christians, according to Dunning. In fact, documents such as the Gnostic On the Origin of the World offer a third possibility.

“The Pauline framework establishes Adam as the first Adam and Christ as the second Adam. Christ was a kind of a recapitulation of everything Adam was, only where Adam screwed it up, Christ got it right,” Dunning said.

On the Origin of the World rewrites the script and says we’re not going to have two Adams like Paul said; we’re going to have three Adams, and we’re going to make Eve the second Adam,” Dunning explained.

“So we’re going to give her Jesus’ place in this way of thinking, which is an incredibly radical move. It was popular in certain circles, but with the emergence of orthodoxy, you can see why early Christians wanted to suppress this as heretical.”

Dunning said these are the seeds of debates about gender and sexuality that are still alive in the church.

“There’s a lot that we can learn from seeing how rich and complicated this was at the beginning, how many different possibilities and trajectories were in play,” he said.

Dunning’s current research builds on Specters of Paul, focusing on a group of contemporary Marxist philosophers who have embraced Paul’s writings. Although they’re very different from early Christians (they’re atheists, for starters), Dunning said that when it comes to the ways in which these philosophers treat questions of gender and sexuality, he has detected what he called “the repetition of an ancient gesture in a new, very modern key.”

“What my preliminary research suggests is that though dressed up differently, there’s a real genetic connection between how some of these folks are dealing with the difference of the feminine still, as a problem, and moves that these early Christians were making in the second and third centuries,” he said. “There’s a lot that’s problematic there that needs analysis and discussion.”


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