Fellow servants in the Lord: Tertullian on women, the body, and sexual difference in Roman Carthage
Thostenson, Kathryn Marie
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This thesis offers an examination of Tertullian’s views on women, the body and sexual difference that is primarily historical in interest, with the aim of providing an assessment of how the women in his own community might have heard his ideas, and how they did or did not advance a vision of sexual equality. Previous scholarship on Tertullian and women has foregrounded his theological commitments or sought to place his ideas within the wider Christian tradition. However, there has been little acknowledgement of how his specific historical context influenced his ideas. Moreover, a clear framework for evaluating how egalitarian these ideas are is similarly lacking. This thesis addresses the shortcomings of previous scholarship on Tertullian and women in several ways. First, it situates his work firmly within his specific historical context. To this end, after a general introduction in chapter one, chapter two offers a detailed examination of the Carthaginian Christian community in which Tertullian lived and worshipped, and the position of women within that community. In a similar vein, chapter three offers a thorough exploration of contemporary medical theories about the body, which as I show, represent broad societal consensus about what constituted sexual difference, and thus also, the ideas that were intellectually speaking, in competition with Tertullian’s own. Second, in chapters four through six, the thesis engages in a detailed examination of how Tertullian’s anthropology of sexual difference, as articulated in his narratives about the body’s creation, redemption, and resurrection, compare to those of his secular, medical contemporaries. In offering this comparison, I provide Tertullian a fair hearing by judging his ideas in relation to his non-Christian peers, and with due appreciation of his specific historical context. Third, the thesis employs the theoretical work of feminist scholar Toril Moi as an evaluation framework. Moi’s theory is appropriate for the aims of this thesis as it acknowledges the complexity and diversity of embodied human existence in a concrete, historical way, and articulates a clear vision of what sexual equality should look like—namely, for women to stand as universal representatives of humanity without denying their sexed identity. By assessing Tertullian’s ideas about sexual difference through the lens of Moi’s theory, I provide a clear and nuanced evaluation of how successful his ideas are in advancing this vision of sexual equality. Tertullian’s anthropology of sexual difference reflects an appreciation of the specific challenges facing Christian women in Carthage, a fact that is best represented by the centrality of the body to his thought. At times, this appreciation leads Tertullian to contest dominant non-Christian opinions about the female body and women’s roles. He is most radical in his narrative of the creation and vision of the resurrection—both of which articulate a positive message about the inherent ontological worth and equality of female and male bodies alike. Yet he is decidedly less so when it comes to his discourse on how Christians should navigate the present life and exercise ascetic disciplines. On these topics, Tertullian is conservative in his recommendations for men and women, reflecting more closely non-Christian assumptions about male and female bodies that fix women in the subordinate position of a sexual hierarchy. The disparity between these discourses is explained by the constraints of a deeply sexist set of cultural institutions that governed Tertullian’s life and the lives of the people in his community. These institutions ultimately limited Tertullian’s capacity to advocate for radical equality in the daily lives of the men and women of his community, but were more effectively challenged in his vision of primordial and eschatological states where men and women are not bound by secular institutions, but live in the fullness of God.