In This Article Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the New Testament and Early Christianity

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Journals and Book Series
  • Primary Sources
  • Gender and Sex/Sexuality Theory
  • Postcolonial Theory
  • The “Linguistic Turn” and Historiography

Biblical Studies Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the New Testament and Early Christianity
Todd Penner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0131


The study of gender, sex, and sexuality in early Christian literature is largely the product of more recent developments in the study of ancient texts. A combination of the evolution of contemporary feminist criticism and the so-called linguistic turn in the study of history (with its attentiveness to the socially constructed nature of historical study in light of the relativity of language itself), both emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the shift to gender, sex, and sexuality arises from increasing attention to the body, with a focus on how it is constructed and how it functions in discourse and society. For fairly evident reasons, earlier scholarship on ancient Christianity did not pay attention to these factors (they would have been deemed nonserious, puerile, and inappropriate). The earliest work that was done in this respect would likely be traced to scholars such as Rosa Söder. Her work on the early Christian apocrypha brought in elements of the “exotic,” which had clear affinities with some of the erotic facets prevalent in these noncanonical texts. Even here, of course, clear discussions of sex and sexuality were quite out of the question. The seminal and humanities-field-changing work of Michel Foucault (see Introductory Works) shifted historical study in a decidedly different direction from the work that came before him. His focus on the socially constructed nature of ideas, societies, and language changed the way scholars thought about the past. In particular, his uncompleted three-volume work, The History of Sexuality, formed the basis for historical analysis that followed, particularly in classical studies that then filtered into the study of early Christianity. Foucault was most interested in how discourses and perceptions of the self (and others) developed within societal-historical matrices, and how meaning was both localized within that context but also, in many ways, contributing to a longer genealogy of development of meaning over time (that is, the meaning of “sex” is determined by a specific historical context but is also indebted to those historical connections that preceded in time). Foucault is much more interesting and valuable for his method than he is for his particular conclusions. His work focuses on elite, male sources, and he has often been criticized for this by feminists. That said, most scholars doing work on gender, sex, and sexuality utilize his method, even as their conclusions may be different. Foucault’s method, but not necessarily his specific conclusions, forever transformed the field of the humanities (this fact is often a cause for confusion in contemporary perceptions of Foucault’s legacy). His work has to be read if one is to understand the general direction of the discussion. In the following treatment, the three terms “sex,” “gender,” and “sexuality” are distinguished as follows: “sex” refers to making biological distinctions between “man” and “woman”; “gender” refers to the types of social and cultural performances relative to particular sex-distinctions (being “male” and female” in behavior); and “sexuality” refers to the expression and orientation of desire, subjectivity, and passions connected with both sex and gender (and includes but is not exclusive of issues related to the distinction between “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality”). Finally, sources outside of English are rarer in this field of study than in more traditional approaches related to the field of biblical studies. The primary reason for this is that the specific emphasis on sex, gender, and sexuality is a distinctly Anglophone area of study. Those scholars who do produce work in other languages (particularly important here is Italian) find their work rather quickly translated into English. It should also be said that the field of gender studies is quite a mix of approaches and methods. Depending on who defines the field, it looks dramatically different. In order to make this entry as broadly appealing as possible, in what follows there is a conscious attempt to offer a range of approaches and understandings, from more sophisticated theoretical studies to more traditional feminist approaches to works that simply reflect historical study on “women” and “men.” There is a slight preference given to theoretically informed historical methods and inquiry, but the overall coverage in this entry is broad.

Introductory Works

In entering into gender, sex, and sexuality analysis of early Christian texts, it is helpful to have some familiarity with seminal studies in the field of gender criticism. Gender-critical study emerged out of feminist criticism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The seminal work Beauvoir 1961—with the tagline “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman born”—changed the frame of reference for feminist study. Irigaray 1985 provided a critical bridge between the earlier feminist work and the psychoanalytic study that was to follow, particularly with her critique of the phallogocentrism (phallus-centered logic) of much of modern (and earlier) discourse on sex and sexuality. But it was the field-changing Butler 1990 that pushed the study of gender beyond the focus of previous feminist analysis, the latter being viewed as limiting in its preoccupation with women and females. Butler’s criticism, in fact, was that feminists ended up reaffirming many of the same oppressive structures (for example, patriarchy) that they themselves imagined they were undermining. Butler in many respects brought in an element that Foucault’s historical work (Foucault 1978, Foucault 1988a, Foucault 1988b) had ignored: the more overt political agenda of feminism became a critical component of gender-critical analysis. Moreover, Butler’s work also resulted in attention to masculinity and male identity, both as entities in themselves and in relationship to constructions of femininity and female identity. The study of perceptions of homosexuality and nonnormative gender and sexual performances also received renewed attention as a result of the emphasis in Butler 2004 on queer identities (those that challenge the normative by “queering” it). Most recent work on ancient history is indebted to both Foucault and Butler for the development of historical analytic frames of study. Laqueur 1990 clearly represents a sea change in the study of ancient sexuality, becoming something of an amalgam of various theoretical approaches that had developed in the preceding years. It is also important to note that the focus on gender study very quickly aligned itself with the field of postcolonial studies, since gender was understood to be intricately connected to specific historical social, political, cultural, and economic matrices of life. Thus, the turn to colonial-critical analysis brought with it a focus on how gender perceptions and conceptions were shaped, manipulated, and reconfigured within, in relation to, and under colonial/imperial rule. There is a clear application of this emphasis to early Christianity as it took shape within a Roman imperial/colonial context, and much of the recent work on early Christianity and Roman imperialism draws out this connection. Finally, attention must also be paid to the reshaping of historical inquiry in light of the “linguistic turn,” and the manner in which historical inquiry was reconceived as a result, moving away from the perception of discipline as having an “objective” core. This “new historiography” included a focus on nonelite historical peoples, groups, and contexts, as well as an interest in the subjectivity of the historian and the relative nature of historical (re)construction.

  • Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York: Bantam, 1961.

    E-mail Citation »

    The book that started it all. Gender and even sex/sexual identity are framed as socially constructed phenomena. Although lengthy, this book is approachable, and still well worth reading. Much of the feminist analysis of the 1970s and 1980s drew heavily on Beauvoir’s ideas.

  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    This was Butler’s first major work, and in many respects it is still the field-changing publication. Butler here offers a serious critique of feminism and its frequent complicity in the very structures of power and domination it sought to resist. Not an easy read—but important.

  • Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Butler more fully focuses on developing the “gender” side of her earlier work and represents the development of her thought post–Gender Trouble. Her focus here is on the regulation of gender and sexual performance, as well as a clearer move toward the “performative” in terms of understanding how humans construct gender and sexual identities.

  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, An Introduction: The Will to Knowledge. New York: Vintage, 1978.

    E-mail Citation »

    Basic introduction to not only Foucault’s History of Sexuality project but also his broader structure of thought. “Power” is the operative word here, but it is power conceived in complex and fluid terms. There is “no outside of power” for Foucault—and that frames all his work.

  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 2, The Use of Pleasure. New York: Vintage, 1988a.

    E-mail Citation »

    This volume focuses on the Greeks. Foucault makes here his critically important argument that what sex means in the ancient world is different from what it means today. This book, even more so than the third volume, clearly reveals his larger methodological structure, particularly the social and economic meaning of sex.

  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 3, The Care of the Self. New York: Vintage, 1988b.

    E-mail Citation »

    Foucault here turns to the Roman period, which, in his mind, is moving toward the emergence of the Christian sexual ethic. The second volume is superior, but the third is also critically important to read.

  • Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

    E-mail Citation »

    Irigaray is a master critic of the Freudian legacy but at the same time is well aware of the difficulties of escaping the current framework and shaping a “female” discourse that operates outside of the masculine domain. Lyrical and poetic to read, Irigaray is steeped in the psychoanalytic tradition.

  • Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    An accessible and interesting read, Laqueur offers a broad sweep of the development of sex and sexuality perspectives from the ancient world to the modern. His particular contribution is to show the development from a “one-sex” model (“man” is the norm, and “woman” is derivative) to a “two-sex” model (both “man” and “woman” are conceived as separate, distinct sexes).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.