Book Reviews

Sex in Antiquity

Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World.

Mark Masterson, Nancy Soren Rabinowitz, James Robson Oxford December 17, 2014

Sex in Antiquity collects thirty articles on various topics related to sex, sexuality, and gender in the ancient world. The introduction (1–12) can be divided into two parts. First, the editors describe current approaches to these issues (1–7). Many Christians who think of sexuality as based on the physical male/female distinction will find current academic discussion on this area confusing and/or frustrating. For example, how does one classify a “transgendered” individual? However, the physical male/female distinction is not foundational in modern academic discussion. Whatever one may think of such issues, it is necessary to be aware of current discussion in order to engage our culture in any meaningful way. The article also includes some history and mentions important studies. However, a thorough introduction needs to be found elsewhere. The article’s bibliography is a good place to start (10–12). It is important to recognize that modern notions of sexuality and gender are not necessarily the same as ancient notions (this is briefly introduced on page 5). Various modern approaches are legitimate, but some are of more value for interpreting the Bible. The remainder of the introduction describes the content of the chapters (7–12).

The volume is divided into three parts based on geography and time: the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome. The first part is the shortest, with only five articles. Two directly address issues in the Old Testament. First, Susan Ackerman (“‘I Have Hired You with My Son’s Mandrakes’: Women’s Reproductive Magic in Ancient Israel,” 15–29), acknowledging debate, suggests that fertility magic is described in Genesis 30:14–16 and 38:28 without biblical censure; however, in Ezekiel 13:17–23 it is condemned (17–18, 21). Ackerman suggests that reproductive magic was common in ancient Israel (21–23), but since such practices happened in a domestic setting and were usually performed by women, they, like women and domestic affairs generally, are under-represented in the Bible (23–25). This is an interesting article, but there is no evidence about how prevalent reproductive magic was in Israel. The conclusion here depends on the presence of ritual magic in the Genesis texts. It is also possible that the Genesis stories, like many in Genesis, reflect events prior to the Law, while Ezekiel’s harsher treatment is based in the Law.

The second article directly related to the Old Testament is Elna K. Solvang’s “Guarding the House: Conflict, Rape and David’s Concubines” (50–66). This article reflects on and compares the attempted genocide in Rwanda, specifically the violence against women, and Absalom’s sexual use of David’s concubines in public (2 Sam 16:22). It begins by discussing the use of sexual violence in war (51–55). This is difficult to read. The horrors of the violence perpetrated against women in Rwanda are described in some detail. Absalom’s action against David’s concubines is rape. This activity is used in war to demonstrate power to supporters, to show victory to others, and to bind supporters together (60–61). Once these types of acts are committed, there is no turning back. In contemporary wars, the victims of rape often carry a long-term stain of shame. The ten concubines of David lived out their days as widows (2 Sam 20:3). The discussion of a contemporary action alongside a biblical story helps one understand a little better (at least emotionally) what the concubines experienced. They are no longer just a passing note in a story of rebellion. This article also provides excellent information about ancient Near Eastern households, especially the role of concubines (56–59). The other articles in this section are also of interest. Topics such as fertility and gender (30–49) and normal sexual boundaries (67–79) are discussed. We also read that males in Mesopotamia were never too young or too old for sex as long as they were able to enjoy it (Gwendolyn Leick, “Too Young—Too Old? Sex 2 Age in Mesopotamian Literature,” 80–95).

Part Two contains thirteen articles devoted to Greek sexual issues. Most of these discuss texts and practices before the New Testament period, but much has sustained relevance for New Testament times. Topics include orgies in classical Athens (which appear not to have been generally acceptable or desirable, 99–114), prostitution, and specific literary texts and characters. Two themes are prominent and each is a focus in three articles. First, pederasty, the sexual relationship between adult men and (adolescent) boys, is explored. Andrew Lear argues against many and suggests that the Greek world generally accepted and idealized the practice; it was only classical Athens that began to question it (“Was Pederasty Problematized? A Diachronic View,” 116–36). Considering art, Walter Duvall Penrose Jr. suggests that at least one city had a view of the afterlife that included strong drink and sex, including pederasty (“Before Queerness? Visions of a Homoerotic Heaven in Ancient Greco-Italic Tomb Paintings,” 137–56). Finally, boys and prostitutes in symposia (drinking parties) are compared and contrasted. Allison Glazebrook argues that, although there are similarities, there was a desire to distinguish the future male citizen from the female prostitute and that in some way the prostitute served as a negative example for the boys’ education in sexual ethics (“‘Sex Ed’ at the Archaic Symposium: Prostitutes, Boys, and Paideia,” 157–78).

The second theme in this section is rape. Kathy L. Gaca looks at Homer and Greek drama and concludes that the goals of warfare included the raping and forced marriage of the enemy’s women (“Ancient Warfare and the Ravaging Martial Rape of Girls and Women,” 278–97). Edward M. Harris considers selective evidence to show that Greece was not a “rape culture”; men were concerned with a woman’s desire and whether she wanted to engage in the sex act (“‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in Women’s Desire,” 298–314). James Robson observes that, unlike later comedies, in older comedies such as those by Aristophanes, rape occurs only in fantasies (“Fantastic Sex: Fantasies of Sexual Assault in Aristophanes,” 315–31).

The final part, consisting of twelve articles, is devoted to Rome. The practice of pederasty is again discussed in Amy Richlin’s article, “Reading Boy-Love and Child-Love in the Greco-Roman World” (352–73). This excellent article includes a brief discussion of the history of recent scholarship on the practice (353–35). Romans clearly used slave boys for sex and desired free-born boys as well. However, there was some measure of protection for the latter (352, 355). Also, it appears that even young children may have been used in this way (359–68). It is emotionally draining to read about a practice so abhorred today that was accepted with little question by the Greeks and Romans. Richlin refreshingly states, “Pederasty did overlap with what we now call pedophilia; in discussing it as a social practice we can now no more view it through the lens of cultural relativism than we can slavery” (p. 368).

In addition to other topics in this section, four articles relate in some way to masculinity and the construction of manhood. Judith P. Hallet discusses male sexual inadequacies and their relationship to what culture considered normal masculinity in “Making Manhood Hard: Tiberius and Latin Literary Representations of Erectile Dysfunction” (408–21). Kelly Olson looks at what wearing certain pieces of clothing was intended to communicate (“Toga and Pallium: Status, Sexuality, Identity,” 422–48). This study is important because, as Olson writes, “Roman ethicists saw aesthetics and morality as being inextricably linked” (424). Such cultural assumptions make the Christian nature of internal conversion more powerful than we sometimes consider today.

A very important contribution about Roman conceptions of sexuality and sexual roles is made by Deborah Kamen and Sarah Levin-Richardson in “Revisiting Roman Sexuality: Agency and Conceptualization of Penetrated Males” (449–60). Those with some exposure to this topic are aware that the ancient Greeks and Romans did not view people as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, etc.; rather, they were classified as either penetrator or penetrated (often with the terms “active” and “passive” respectively). Social status and, for women, biological gender (although this may be an implication of social status), determined what was proper for an individual. Building on other studies, this article successfully argues that this model is too simplistic and that the active/passive terminology as used here can cause some confusion. To be “active” does not necessarily demand one be a penetrator. Another helpful article that is somewhat related is Craig Williams’s “The Language of Gender: Lexical Semantics and the Latin Vocabulary of Unmanly Men” (461–81). Williams helps clarify confusing vocabulary. Although the focus is on Latin, the chapter clarifies distinctions of this period generally. These four articles are helpful for anyone interested in this subject but will be especially useful for those engaging in study of contemporary same-sex issues.

The remaining four articles all deal with post-New Testament topics. These include an article by Barbara K. Gold discussing an early text probably written by a woman, Perpetua (“Remaking Perpetua: A Female Martyr Reconsidered,” 482–99). Gold argues that although Perpetua’s voice has been lost through later editors and commentators on her text, some are now rediscovering it through modern approaches. Steven D. Smith describes two strategies employed by some writers in same-sex relationships to express themselves during a time when such relationships were persecuted: writing about a love triangle or writing from the perspective of a female towards a male (“Agathias and Paul the Silentiary: Erotic Epigram and the Sublimation of Same-Sex Desire in the Age of Justinian,” 500–16). This is another article that is helpful for those interested in contemporary same-sex issues.

Each article concludes with a bibliography. A single, helpful index appears at the end of the book. It includes ancient authors, modern authors, and subjects (552–67).

The articles in this volume “seek to intervene in existing debates, open up new areas for study, and articulate the authors’ latest thinking on the subjects of sex, gender, and sexuality in antiquity” (p. 7). They are “new and forward-looking essays, not a summation of where we had been” (1). Essentially, the volume attempts to “revisit and renegotiate our relationship with the past” (7). This approach has its benefits and drawbacks. It is helpful to see the current state of the discussion. However, it has the potential of being dated as things shift. Nevertheless, given the quality of these articles, this volume will remain important for the foreseeable future. Also, such an approach is more helpful to those who already have some experience with the subject. It is less helpful as an introduction. The studies are highly specialized and there are few overviews of major areas. A word of caution is needed. Some articles contain rather explicit descriptions and may offend some. However, such descriptions contribute to the topic of discussion. The articles are all academic and there is nothing that seems to be included for sensational reasons.

This volume brings to mind another significant volume in an important series, Thomas K. Hubbard, ed., A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014; reviewed in Bibliotheca Sacra 174 [January–March 2017], 118–21). Both volumes contain much of value for anyone interested in sexuality in the ancient world. A number of the contributors are the same (Blanshard, Boehringer, Cyrino, Gaca, Glazebrook, Lear, Masterson, Olson, Williams). Hubbard’s volume is more general in scope and thus will be more helpful for those interested in an introduction. The Masterson, Rabinowitz, and Robson book is of most interest to those familiar with the field and those working in the specialized areas it covers. Also, the latter has a section devoted to the ancient Near East. Bible students doing advanced work in New Testament (and, to a lesser extent, Old Testament) will benefit from both as they provide contextual material from the world in which the Bible arose.

Book reviews are published online and in print every quarter in Bibliotheca Sacra. Subcribe Today

Review
Jul 21, 2018
D. Scott BarfootD. Scott Barfoot
Teams That Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church Leadership. One of the greatest theological insights embodied in the triune God, the biblical institution of marriage, and the local church is the worship-inspiring and transformational...
Review
Jul 21, 2018
Joseph D. FantinJoseph D. Fantin
Acts: An Exegetical Commentary. Volume 4: 24:1–28:31. Now complete, Craig Keener’s four volume, 4501 page (xlii + 4459), 10¾ inch (27.5 cm) wide, 19 lb (8.62 kg) commentary, with more than 45,000 ancient nonbiblical references on...