The Feminine Man in Late Antique Ascetic Piety

Nonna Verna Harrison

A number of scholars have examined the theme in early Christian theology and spirituality of women acquiring masculine virtues or even apparently becoming male as a way of attaining perfection. Recently Kerstin Aspegren and Kari B鴕resen have highlighted this idea, and they regard it as a key to understanding concepts of the human in Late Antique culture.1 They see it as revealing the androcentrism of the culture, which they perceive as equating full or ideal humanity with maleness. According to this interpretation, the concept of surpassing gender limitations, which also occurs in many Late Antique texts, is in actuality a disguised form of the truly central concept, i.e., becoming male and negating the feminine.

My contention is that this interpretation of gender in early Christian anthropology, and more generally in much Late Antique ascetic spirituality, is mistaken. It overlooks many texts that speak of the need for men to acquire feminine qualities in order to achieve the ideal. In Plato as well as in Jewish and Christian writings, this is expressed in terms of desire for the divine, intimate receptivity to it, and the consequent fruitfulness of spiritual childbearing. Aspegren and B鴕resen dismiss these passages and deny that they speak of genuine feminine virtues. They see them as recommending only the deadening passivity and submission androcentric men wished to ascribe to women. However, the texts themselves indicate that something much more positive is involved. They suggest that often the philosophers, Jews, and Christians who in various ways attempted and taught a serious ascetic quest for human wholeness came to recognize that both masculine and feminine qualities, as the culture understood them, are necessarily included in the wholeness they sought.2 Accordingly, ascetic leaders sometimes encouraged men and women to utilize the skills and tasks already assigned to them within the Late Antique household as starting points for pursuing broader spiritual goals beyond the social well-being of the family, in the process engaging in new practices that crossed the boundaries of traditional gender categories. At other times they endeavored to construct alternative ascetic societies with reconfigured gender roles and definitions.

In their ascetic anthropologies Plato and Philo identify the feminine with sensuality and attempt to exclude it as the lowest level of human existence, but for both it reemerges at the highest level as spiritual desire, receptivity and fruitfulness. Both thinkers exhibit considerable misogyny, which has been thoroughly documented,3 but what is more interesting is that in spite of this misogyny they ultimately affirm feminine virtues for men. This shows that their anthropologies cannot after all be consistently androcentric.

It was a commonplace in the Greek philosophical tradition that no one virtue can be perfected without all the others, that the virtues are a unity.4 It follows from this that genuine human wholeness includes the good qualities ascribed by the culture to both men and women.5 In this sense women are called to become masculine in addition to being feminine, and men are called to become feminine in addition to being masculine. Thus the limitations and harmful misuses of the qualities associated with both genders are to be surpassed. This means that the transcendence of gender rather than maleness as such emerges as central to the ascetic ideal for a broad range of figures among Late Antique philosophers, Jews and Christians.

In this context, "transcendence of gender" does not mean a change in the biology or ontology of the human person. It means surpassing the boundaries of gender concepts delineated by Graeco-Roman culture. However, this entails an affirmation that human characteristics and possibilities as such are central to what men and women are and can become and that differences linked to their biological maleness and femaleness are secondary features of their human identity and vocation.

This thesis can only be adequately supported by a lengthy study, which is not possible here. The present paper will briefly summarize the results of my examination of what Plato, Philo and Origen say about the feminine man and spiritual childbearing.6 I will then look more closely at selected texts from two early Christian writers who were influenced by Origen, namely Methodius of Olympus and Didymus of Alexandria, where the themes of becoming masculine and becoming feminine are combined in interesting ways.

In Plato's Thaeatetus 150�1, Socrates presents himself as a midwife who helps young men bring to birth the ideas with which they are pregnant. In accordance with his preference for the noetic over the corporeal, he contrasts the intellectual childbearing of men's souls with women's bodily childbearing. For him, in the truest sense men are better at being feminine than women are. This sentiment reflects the disparate educational opportunities and social structures that shaped the lives of men and women in classical Athens, but it also discloses Plato's androcentrism. Aristophanes' speech in the Symposium and the passage in bk. 5 of the Republic recommending that women and men have equal opportunities to participate in civic and intellectual life and leadership both point toward the theme of androgyny. Yet in both places Plato explains that in general men prove to be better and stronger. Thus, for him the transcendence of gender remains incomplete, but it is developed more consistently by later writers who were influenced by him.

David M. Halperin has sought to offer a fresh explanation of Plato's understanding of spiritual childbearing in what has become a famous essay. He contends that Plato's concept is an example of the phenomenon of couvade observed by anthropologists in various cultures, that is a male imitation of pregnancy and other aspects of female reproductive functioning. Halperin understands this as a strategy whereby men "arrogate to themselves the power and prestige of female (pro)creativity," thus seeking to denigrate and displace the feminine altogether.7 If this interpretation is correct, the notion of spiritual childbearing cannot be re garded as affirming femininity in any genuine sense after all. However, in a recent article the Talmudic scholar and cultural critic Daniel Boyarin has offered a different interpretation of couvade that agrees with my thesis as against Halperin's negative view.8 He argues that this male imitation of female reproductive biology at bottom expresses an awe and admiration at the manifest capacity of women's bodies to produce and nurture life through childbearing and lactation. He suggests further that this admiration evokes in men an often unconscious desire to be women and an anxiety about the lesser capacities of their own bodies. It would follow that couvade is an attempt to compensate for this lack. The resulting male envy of the female can sometimes turn toward hostility and thus mis ogyny, but the underlying motivation is a quest for imitation of women's generativity based on admiration.

If Boyarin's view is correct, as I believe, men's love for the feminine is more basic than their hatred, and the hatred itself is a twisted form of love. The ascetic tradition emphasizes how human drives, though often misdirected in destructive ways, can and should be redirected through effort and practice toward good purposes. Male envy of the feminine can thus through concepts of spiritual childbearing and nurturing be transformed into an expansion of narrow culturally constructed ideals of masculinity to include a fruitful cultivation and exercise of virtues perceived as feminine. My suggestion is that this cultivation of virtues is a recurring motif in much Late Antique ascetic theory and practice.

In the Symposium, Plato develops the theme of spiritual childbearing in several ways. Instead of the midwifery of the Thaeatetus, he depicts an ideal homosexual relationship within which a mature man teaches a younger man philosophy and virtue so that he becomes fruitful in intellectual, cultural and civic endeavors. Here the beloved plays the feminine role, while the older lover expresses the masculine. Yet in this dialogue the highest form of spiritual childbearing occurs when the philosopher reaches his greatest maturity, and here he acts in a feminine manner. He reaches this point by moving through love for a specific beautiful youth to love of all physical beauty and from there to love of beautiful principles. Finally he arrives at loving and receptive contemplation of divine Beauty in itself, which is ultimate truth. He is impregnated by the divine and thus brings forth the truest intellectual and cultural offspring. Significantly, in this process the physical aspects of homoerotic love are completely left behind.

After Socrates' speech about spiritual love and childbearing, which is the dialogue's climax, Alcibiades interrupts and offers a speech in praise of Socrates. It presents him as a perfect ascetic who is immune to the hardships of war and can stand immobile concentrating on an idea for 24 hours but who is also uniquely immune to Alcibiades' amorous advances.9 Plato's point is that physical eros can be used for good, but as one matures it is best to transcend it entirely by redirecting its energy toward the immaterial realm.

Jewish and Christian writers make use of these Platonic themes, sometimes alluding explicitly to the Symposium as Philo and Methodius do.10 However, they modify the concepts so that the homosexual aspect is no longer explicitly present. The first stage in Plato's ascent is bypassed. Instead of ascending to higher forms of love by reaching the spiritual through the experience of the sensual, the ascetic is called to turn away from things of sense toward noetic realities, another very Platonic move. But Philo and the Christian ascetics utilize and channel eros toward the divine in an apophatic and allegorical way instead of directing it through material bodies in hope of reaching higher realities within and beyond them. Thus virginity replaces physical love as the locus of spiritual intimacy and fruitfulness. In ascetic uses of allegory, the reader transfers a text's meaning from the sensual to the spiritual realm. This hermeneutical redirection of focus parallels and helps to enact the corresponding redirection of desire and attention in ascetic practice itself.11 Thus, gender concepts are allegorized little by little in the Symposium as Platonic homosexuality is gradually sublimated into love for the divine. In contrast, gender concepts are thoroughly allegorized from the outset in Alexandrian Jewish and Christian asceticism.

In the Jewish and Christian texts, they are also reconfigured in terms of male/female relationships, and so the positive feminine qualities involved in the process are more explicitly affirmed. In this Late Antique cultural context, it was possible to imagine a man becoming feminine symbolically or spiritually in a way perceived as good although to recommend his feminization in a physical sense or in terms of everyday social roles would have been unthinkable.12 However, let me suggest that this could well have had beneficial practical consequences for men's self-perception and ethical conduct. It would have enabled at least some of them to envisage and strive to achieve virtues and facets of self-understanding and inner wholeness otherwise closed to them in their culturally constructed anxiety to preserve and express unambiguous masculinity.

In Philo, Platonism is combined with Jewish spirituality and exegesis. So for him the human person's intimate encounter with a transcendent personal God becomes more central and more focused than Plato's quest for contemplation of the idea of Beauty or of the Good. In addition, the Scripture offers many male and female figures and their relationships for Philo's interpretation. Hence for him gender allegories as well as spiritual marriage and childbearing become recurrent motifs in a way that did not occur for the Athenian philosopher. In my opinion, his misogyny, however real, is a less important reason for his emphasis on gender symbolism than is the synthesis of Platonic anthropology with Jewish spirituality. He perceives the interactions among the various parts of the Platonic soul reflected in the interactions among male and female figures in the Biblical narrative. Thus, his primary concern is with the "masculine" and "feminine" faculties within every human person as they are rightly or wrongly used in the service or disservice of virtue and communion with God. This is why the gender symbolism in his exegeses often shifts, so that for instance virtue or wisdom may be masculine in one place and feminine in another, and virtue may be either the mother or the offspring in spiritual generation.13 This shifting symbolism is not an end in itself but an instrument the exegete uses to express the ascetic psychology of his Platonic Judaism. The concepts this spirituality employs to describe the soul and its transformation and ascent to God, such as mind and sense, virtues and passions, disclose what he understands as most real in human ontology and experience. This ultimately transcends gender despite his great reliance on gender language. Accordingly, he speaks of the ideal human created in God's image, the higher aspect of each human person and the mature ascetic as beyond male and female.14

In his fascinating book Carnal Israel, Daniel Boyarin highlights the androgynous dimension in Philo's anthropology and focuses on the "double creation" theory expressed in De Opificio Mundi. With great subtlety and sophistication, he argues that this Platonizing transcendence of gender involves a devaluation of woman, the body and sexuality through an identification of the authentically human with implicitly male disembodied spirit. This analysis presupposes that the biologically sexed body is in itself at the core of human identity, a belief that perhaps is rooted in culturally constructed male androcentrism and the feminist theories that mirror it in their attempts to overturn it. Let me suggest that in an attentive study of Late Antique texts stemming from philosophical, Christian and Hellenistic Jewish circles, one needs to distinguish carefully among attitudes toward the body, the feminine and sexuality. Ancient writers did not always lump them together as some contemporary theorists do, but often made nuanced distinctions.

In an article responding to Boyarin's book, David Winston shows that Philo and Hellenistic philosophers are not monolithically negative toward women, the body or marriage.15 Moreover, the Cappadocian Fathers are generally negative toward sexuality but view women positively.16 They strongly affirm the value of the human body, its capacity for transformation and union with the divine in ascetic practice and in the resurrection, and its positive role in the eschaton as a mediator joining the divine with the material universe.17 Clement of Alexandria affirms the positive value of sexuality and parenthood within marriage but seeks to reconfigure life within the traditional structures of the Late Antique household as preparation for a further stage of marriage when the older husband and wife would live together as brother and sister ascetics.18 Thus he values the culturally prescribed masculine and feminine roles in the family while reorienting them toward a higher purpose. They can thus serve to train women and men in virtues that later enable their communion with the divine. When this occurs, aspects of human body and soul shared by both genders become central, namely the capacities for virtue, ascetic practice and contemplation, while the biological and cultural factors that differentiate them become more peripheral. Thus, the refocusing of attention toward "androgyny" need not negate either the body or marriage, either the feminine or the masculine. Its aim is to affirm what is perceived as the fundamental human vocation.

In the article cited above, Winston, a leading Philo scholar, observes that most specialists deny that in De Opificio Mundi the ideal human created in the divine image refers to an androgynous being. However, even if this is so, Philo's thought as a whole clearly focuses on the human soul's psychological, moral and spiritual capacities and activities as they relate to each other and to God and the human body's collaboration in these activities. Thus, his primary interest is in things that characterize all humans as human, not aspects of human experience belonging only to one gender or the other. The recurrent motifs of androgyny that Boyarin observes in his writings serve to indicate that this is where his focus lies. So do the allegories that employ gendered symbols to name the various psychological or moral impulses within every human person.

Philo's discussion of virginity and spiritual childbearing in De Cherubim 40� is a good example of this. He says that the wives of the patriarchs, Sarah, Leah and Rachel, are not women but virtues. They are impregnated not by their husbands but by God, the true Father, and bring forth virtues as gifts not for God, who needs nothing, but for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Philo goes on to say that these matriarchs are actually virgins, at least allegorically, and for the Alexandrian exegete this meaning is more important than the literal sense, which he acknowledges and dismisses as uninteresting at the beginning of the passage. For him, human feminine qualities are divided between the symbols of "woman," which generally has a negative valuation, and "virgin," which is positively charged.19 Our text concludes that when a man is united with a virgin, he makes her a woman, but when a woman is joined to God through spiritual purification and communion with him, he makes her a virgin again. That is, he removes her sensual passions and impregnates her with virtues.

This allegory illustrates several important themes in Philo's gender language. He often contrasts the intellect, represented as masculine, with the senses, represented as feminine. The senses and the desires and emotions connected to them are good when governed by the mind but produce evil when they take charge of the human person apart from the mind. Given the Late Antique cultural setting, it is understandable that this mobile and receptive aspect of the soul is depicted as feminine. Because it is so energetic and open, its behavior provides the key to one's spiritual progress or regression, and the mind cannot achieve its spiritual goal without its cooperation and participation. It can be influenced for good or ill by the realities it receives and in collaboration with them it can be immensely creative and productive of various results. Thus this "feminine" aspect of the soul is not evil but potentially very good, though it is in need of redirection and transformation through divine grace and ascetic training.

The split in Philo's symbolism of the feminine between woman and virgin reflects a corresponding split in Plato's anthropology between the desire and receptivity of the senses, which he regards as the lowest part of the soul, and the desire and receptivity of the mind, expressed in the philosopher's contemplation of divine Beauty, which he regards as the highest. Though Plato tries to keep intellect and senses separate, in the spiritual ascent depicted in the Symposium the same human drive, eros, and by implication the same part of the soul or indeed the whole person, is redirected from matter toward the divine. This division yet unity of the feminine aspect of the soul represents an unresolved tension within Plato's anthropology. The same tension finds further expression in Philo's split of the feminine into the negatively charged "woman" and the positively charged "virgin." This anthropological underpinning also explains why in his allegories woman and virgin can so easily change into each other as the person's moral and spiritual condition undergoes transformation.

Notice also that for Philo the concept of virginity is most closely linked with receptivity to God and spiritual childbearing. It names not so much the absence of intimate activity as the transfer of that activity from the material to the spiritual realm. The human person receives life from God or his Logos or Wisdom and brings forth virtues and good works. For the Alexandrian Jew, virginity is actually virgin-motherhood. At this point, his anticipation of later Christian concepts in truly striking.

Philo employs allegory to redirect the ascetic reader's attention from the literal sense of the biblical narrative toward the inner experiece and transformation of his or her soul and its modes of encounter with the divine. The patriarchs and matriarchs become symbols naming present psychological and spiritual entities and events recognizable to the exegete and his audience. Philo's allegories aim not to transform concrete biblical history into vague abstraction but rather to use a language of ascetic spirituality current in his cultural context to reconfigure the sacred text's meaning so as to unite it with the concrete lived experience of the reader.

Origen and other early Christian exegetes continue this reading practice but with an added Christological dimension. They bring together the narrative of Hebrew Scripture and the inner life of the reader through the mediation of Christ who is understood to be incarnate at a point in history but also considered to be actively present both in the events narrated in the text and in the reader's present experience. Thus, in Christian exegesis the spiritual entities that appear somewhat abstract for Philo, such as Logos, wisdom and virtue, become focused in the concrete personal figure of Jesus Christ who became incarnate at a specific time and place and in other personal figures associated with him, such as Mary his mother. Through allegory, the biblical text becomes a locus of encounter not only with one's own soul but also with Christ experienced as immediately and personally present to the reader. In this context, gender language takes on another level of symbolic meaning. Besides naming different aspects of the human self as in Plato read through Philo, it can name various dimensions of the human person's relationship with Christ and with related realities such as the Church conceptualized as corporate feminine personality and the person of Mary.

My suggestion is that in much patristic literature, gender language often belongs to one of three interrelated levels of meaning. (1) It can have a literal sense, referring to the biology of the human body or the ontology of the human person, as when men and women are both said to be made in the image of God. (2) Allegorically, it can have a moral or psychological sense as so often in Philo, where human faculties, virtues or vices that occur in both men and women are symbolized through gender categories current in Late Antique culture as masculine or feminine. Much of the descriptive and prescriptive language about the "masculine woman" as soldier or athlete and the "feminine man" as virgin or mother belongs in this category. (3) A further level of allegory refers to mystical or eschatological relationships between the human person and the divine. This occurs in Plato's Symposium when the philosopher is impregnated by the divine and in Philo when the virgin soul is united to God as Father and Husband and brings forth virtues. In Christian exegesis this level receives greater focus and emphasis. It is used to describe how the human being both encounters and is identified with Christ, Mary or the Church. Thus, for example, the Christian, whether man or woman, becomes symbolically feminine as bride and mother of Christ and symbolically masculine as a newly born male child identified with him. It is evident that the moral level of meaning leads naturally into the mystical level, since virtue, for example, is the fruit of human ascetic effort but is also the grace-bearing presence and activity of Christ, who is the fullness of virtue in person. A synergy between human and divine thus characterizes spiritual life.

These three kinds of gender language correspond to the three levels of exegetical meaning identified in Origen's De Principiis 4.2.4 as linked to body, soul and spirit. This threefold scheme, sometimes expanded to fourfold, became standard in much patristic and Medieval exegesis.20 In Late Antiquity, writers and readers took for granted that texts could be read on these diverse levels, and perhaps others as well. These reading practices brought the text into realms of discourse that were already familiar and important to the readers, involving such topics as philosophical/ascetic psychology and spiritual love. Exegete and audience could slip easily from one level to another without confusing the nuances of meaning and context proper to each level. Thus, they would have had no problem with the transcendence, crossover or paradoxical transformation of gender categories in symbolic or allegorical language, although they may have had inflexible culturally constructed presuppositions about how gender worked in everyday literal speech and social activity. This openness to the symbolic enabled them to explain and understand human characteristics and activities that did not fit the culture's received gender concepts, which involved stereotypes too rigid to explain much human behavior, particularly ascetic behavior. Thus, the reconfiguration of familiar concepts through symbolism and allegory also allowed Late Antique men and women to envision cultural transformation and helped them to initiate it at least in some ascetic, philosophical and religious circles.21 Although the overarching structures of familial and civic roles remained in place, alternative social structures could emerge especially among ascetics.22 Moreover, within existing familial structures, people's self-concepts and inner lives and at least some attitudes and manners of approaching culturally prescribed activities could be transformed through philosophical and religious ideals so as to enable growth toward greater wholeness for both men and women.23 Ideas of the "masculine woman" and the "feminine man" need to be understood in this setting.

A major study would be required to examine in depth how well the model outlined here describes the ways in which gender language is used in early Christian texts. Such a task cannot be attempted here. In the remainder of this essay we will explore some examples of early Christian texts that employ gender language at the different levels outlined above.

With Origen the content of spiritual childbearing and its theological and spiritual context become more concrete and explicit than in Philo, as I have suggested. For him, Jesus Christ is personally the divine Logos and the perfect fullness and unity of all the virtues, so he is the true offspring in spiritual childbearing. In the Third Homily on Genesis, � 7, Origen says, "What does it profit if I should say that Jesus has come in that flesh alone which he received from Mary and I should not show also that he has come in this flesh of mine?"24 This occurs through receiving him into oneself in the life of the Church and practicing virtues and good works in accord with God's commandments. The ascetic life of Christians is thus an extension of the incarnation. They come to be identified with Jesus, but, as Origen says in Fragment 281 on Matthew, they are also identified with Mary. He writes, "Every soul, virgin and uncorrupted, which conceives by the Holy Spirit, so as to give birth to the Will of the Father, is the Mother of Jesus."25 Note that for Origen the Son of God is the Father's will in person.26 In later Christian writers such as Gregory of Nyssa, the place of Mary in relation to the soul's spiritual childbearing will become more explicit.27 For Origen and Methodius, the mother figure who provides a model for the human individual is most often the Church. However, it is clear already with Origen that as Greek Christian spirituality develops, the wisdom and virtue which remain somewhat abstract for Philo become concretely focused in two persons with whom one can identify and enter into communion, the Mother of Christ and her Son, who is the Logos incarnate. Spiritual childbearing becomes a dimension of ascetic life in which the human person, whether male or female, shares the modes of existence of both of them, to the extent possible, and this involves both feminine and masculine qualities, as we shall see.

In the Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs, � 2, Origen speaks of the movement of the human faculty of desire toward either material or spiritual things. When this desire is spiritual, it is a love and longing for the Word of God, Christ, who becomes the soul's Bridegroom. Their marriage is abundantly fruitful in spiritual offspring, that is, knowledge, virtues and good deeds. In this generative process, the soul is the bride and mother while Christ is ultimately both father and child. Notice that in this context the moral and mystical levels of allegory are so closely interrelated that they are virtually identical. Thus, for Origen, the transfer of attention and desire from the sensual to the noetic realm which characterizes Platonically inspired ascetic psychology intrinsically involves personal communion with Christ.

These and similar ideas are developed further by Christian writers who were influenced by Origen, to whom we will now turn. In the late third century, Methodius of Olympus wrote a dialogue called the Symposium which is modeled on Plato's famous work but with considerable differences. The topic discussed by Plato's male characters is homoerotic love, but Methodius' characters are all women and their conversation is about virginity. He may have written the book for a community of women ascetics, though it is safe to assume that his audience, or at least the audience that continued to read and preserve his work, included men as well. He represents the apostle Paul as bride of Christ and spiritual mother,28 so it is not inappropriate to include his text in a study of the feminine man.

This Symposium is highly allegorical and allusive and stresses the third, mystical level of meaning defined above, but the second, moral level is included within the third. That is, the interactions among masculine and feminine figures also involve the psychological and moral activity and transformation of the human soul's faculties. In ch. 3.8� Eve's creation from Adam is interpreted in terms of the saving work of Christ. Just as the first woman emerged from the side of Adam while he slept, so when Christ slept in death on the Cross, the Church was formed from his flesh and bone. She becomes the chaste and fruitful bride and mother who in collaboration with him brings forth believers through teaching and baptism. Yet Methodius explains that this female figure is identified with the individual as well as the collectivity. She is also every Christian soul who makes spiritual progress by receiving the seed of the Logos, nurturing it and bringing forth the virtues.

Then Methodius identifies another form of spiritual childbearing in which mature Christians function as virgin brides of Christ by helping him through teaching and thus bringing forth beginning believers as children. When these children progress, they too become mothers receptive to the seed of the Logos. It is in this context that Paul is cited as an ex ample. The teacher/student relationship is understood in terms of spiritual childbearing by Plato, as we have seen. By the time of Methodius, this is a traditional theme. Yet notice how with him the gender imagery differs from that of Plato. For the Athenian philosopher, the teacher is the older male lover, while the student as younger male beloved plays an implicitly feminine role, and the offspring is intellectual creativity. When the beloved has become a mature man, he in turn can love and teach another youth, so ultimately the same persons engage in both the masculine and feminine dimensions of this activity. For Methodius, the divine Logos is the husband and father, the teacher is mother, and the offspring are the students, human persons entering into salvation and not only ideas. For the Christian writer, there is greater emphasis on the involvement of a transcendent personal God as well as the eternal value of human persons. Moreover, the feminine aspect of humanity, understood as receptivity to the Logos and creative fruitfulness in collaboration with him, is named explicitly and highly valued. Notice how the teacher, whose task of intellectual structuring and molding of others is usually regarded in the Platonic tradition as masculine, can here be seen as feminine. Teaching also involves listening and learning as well as the nurturing symbolized by the long and patient maternal work of pregnancy and child rearing.

In Christological discussions, the Greek Fathers rarely mention the maleness of Christ as something significant. This is probably because they generally saw his assumption in the incarnation of the nature common to all human persons as essential to his salvific work and hence to his identity. They regarded those characteristics he shares with some humans and not others as less essential.29 However, one famous exception to this rule occurs in ch. 8.4�of Methodius' Symposium, a text that speaks of Christ as the perfect man and the Christian as becoming male in union with him. Aspegren cites it as strong evidence of the androcentrism of early Christian anthropology.30 Let me suggest, however, that when this passage is read closely quite a different picture emerges.

Methodius is commenting on Rev. 12.1-6, which speaks of a woman from heaven clothed with the sun who bears a male child destined to rule all nations. The Symposium identifies her as the Church, the bride of Christ who bears many children through baptism. As a wife receives unformed seed from her husband and in time brings forth a perfect human being, so the Church is continually conceiving those who take refuge in the Word, shaping them according to the form and likeness of Christ, and in time making them citizens of the age to come.

Notice how the whole of this present life and not only the catechumenate or moment of baptism is represented as a period of gestation from which one is born into the resurrection. This means that the Church's work of modelling human persons into the form of Christ extends to all of their earthly spiritual life and growth. This maternal nurturing is immensely valuable and creative. To see how high Methodius' opinion of the Church's motherhood really is, it is instructive to compare this passage to what he says about bodily childbearing elsewhere. In Symposium 2.4� he describes human generation in terms of an elaborate metaphor of a house hidden in clouds with windows at the back. Men deliver lumps of clay through these windows to an artist inside who shapes them into statues and in time gives them back to the same men through their windows. In accordance with much Late Antique physiology, Methodius appears to understand the male seed as the sole source of the child's life,31 as the lump of clay is the material that becomes the statue. However, he sees God as present inside the mother's womb giving form to the human offspring, as the artist in the house fashions the clay. God's creative activity within the woman makes the most important contribution to the process of generation, and the human father's only work seems to be delivering the material. In Symposium 8.6, cited above, it is the Mother Church who fashions human material into the form of Christ. She herself does the artistic work analogous to what in ch. 2.4�is ascribed to God.

The passage explaining the maleness of the Church's offspring follows in ch. 8.7-8. Methodius first says that the male child is a collectivity, a people who return from feminine passions and immorality to the unity of the Lord. This text echoes a standard misogynist topos in which virtue symbolized as male is contrasted with passion or vice symbolized as female. However, the importance of this topos to Methodius' thought should not be overestimated. It needs to be read in the context of the positively charged feminine imagery of the Church as mother which precedes and follows it.

After this comes the Christological passage, which I will quote:

Now I think that the Church here is said to bear a male child since the enlightened authentically receive the features and image and manliness of Jesus; the shape of the Logos' likeness is imprinted on them and is born within them by exact knowledge and faith, so that Christ is noetically born in each one. And because of this the Church is pregnant and in labor until Christ is formed and born within us, so that each of the saints by participation in Christ is born as Christ, as it says in a passage of Scripture, "Do not touch my anointed [= christs], and do my prophets no harm" [Ps. 104.15], so those who are baptized in Christ become christs by participation in the Spirit, and here the Church through pregnancy effects their illumination and transfiguration in the Logos.32

Then Methodius quotes Eph. 3.14�, where Paul prays that Christ will dwell in his disciples' hearts. Our text goes on to say that the Church bears Christ the male child within the faithful as they are converted and baptized, but she also "has brought forth and continues to bring forth" this child in their hearts (8.9,11), presumably throughout their lives.

This material needs to be understood in the context of the other passages from the Symposium we have cited. We saw earlier that Methodius identifies the Church with every believer as well as with the mature who teach others. Here he says that Christ is conceived and brought forth within each human person, who then becomes Christ through union with him. This shows that the Church's spiritual childbearing functions on several levels at once. The human person, as participant in the Church, can bring forth Christ within herself, and as teacher she can bring him forth in others. In bearing the male child, she also becomes that child through union with him. This is the moment of "becoming male" that feminist scholars have emphasized. Yet it is crucial to observe that the same person who becomes Christ is also continually giving birth to him in herself and may mature so as to give birth to him in others as well. In becoming Christ, she or he also becomes the Church through union with her. This means that Methodius' perfect male is simultaneously and through precisely the same process a perfect female. For every man and woman, spiritual maturity includes both masculine and feminine char acteristics.

It is important to note that when Methodius speaks of Christ as the male child, the context is an allegorical meditation on certain themes in theological anthropology and spirituality, not a conceptual analysis of the ontology of Christ's humanity or divinity. This means that the text is not discussing the kinds of Christological questions that would become issues in the debates surrounding the Ecumenical Councils. Thus, its focus is not the literal maleness of the Savior's human body but rather his symbolic masculinity as Bridegroom of the Church, which becomes his symbolically feminine bride and also is transformed into a new creation as his mystical body. The new creature identified with him through participation is the "male child." It can come forth within each human person, whether woman or man.

This nexus of symbols functions at an anagogical level where the concern is not the physiology of Christ as human but his union in love as divine with his creation, symbolized as a marriage. It is continuous with the ancient theme of God's love for his unfaithful wife Israel as expressed in the Hebrew prophets. This Christological "masculinity" refers primarily to the Lord's divine aspect, where it cannot have a literal sense, since God radically transcends creaturely characteristics including human gender. In the text quoted above, it is linked to his character as the Logos, i.e., the principle of rationality, a virtue associated with the masculine in Late Antique culture though at least potentially active in any human person as human. So this text is a moral allegory as well as an anagogical one. To bear the "male child" within oneself is to become united with Christ personally but also to acquire and practice rationality, which is initially a divine attribute but becomes a human virtue also through the presence of the divine image within the human self and through grace and ascetic effort.

The meaning, context and application of this gender language has shifted as it is transferred from the literal level of culturally prescribed human social behavior to two other contexts, (1) the inner world of the ascetic (male or female) self where all "masculine" and "feminine" virtues and faculties of soul are available, and (2) the realm of interpersonal relationship between human and divine. Within these two spiritual contexts, the social boundaries delimiting the areas of human experience open to women and men are absent. The existence and activity of the human as such is operative, so the same woman or man functions as the mother and the male child, the bride and the participant in the Logos. Further, the aspect of Christ encountered in the context Methodius describes here is not primarily his human masculinity but rather his divine character as source of "masculine" virtues and as spiritual Bridegroom of the whole human community. The meanings of allegorical gender are not delimited by biological anatomy or social boundaries in him any more than in other persons. However, for Methodius and his Late Antique readers, Christ's human maleness naturally appears as a divinely manifested icon disclosing these aspects of his divine character and relationship to humanity. His human maleness thus owes its theological significance to a cluster of symbolic meanings which point to something very different from a univocal reinforcement of the culturally contextualized existence, conduct, social roles or value of men and women defined as gendered beings. It does not imply that men are more fully human or closer to God than women because of their maleness. It names dimensions of human relationship with the divine in which women and men alike can participate.

The combination and interaction of masculine and feminine within each human being is also discussed in a Commentary on Genesis by the fourth century exegete Didymus of Alexandria, to which we now turn. He offers four interpretations of Gen. 1.27, "Male and female he created them." While three of these are allegorical, the first is the literal sense and concerns human ontology. Here Didymus affirms that woman is consubstantial with man, that they both belong to the same human species, and that God ordained the gender distinction for the sake of procreation. This suggests that for him the ontological difference between the sexes is exclusively physiological. Moreover, he states that woman too is made in the image of God and that both genders possess the same capacities, namely, to imitate God, to participate in the Holy Spirit and to acquire virtue.33 Clearly, Didymus regards these spiritual and ascetical capacities shared by women and men alike as the truly important aspects of humanity. The gender distinction that exists by God's creative act on the corporeal level is less essential than what occurs on the noetic level.

The exegete goes on to describe aspects of human noetic existence through his three allegorical interpretations of Gen. 1.27, where gender language symbolizes realities other than the bodily features that distinguish men from women. The secondary status of gender in human ontology allows it to be transcended through an ascetic transfer of focus to modes of activity common to men and women, namely, the acquisition of virtues and participation in the divine. Exegete and reader enter a realm of discourse in which the literal meanings of gender concepts are emptied of significance, so they become available to be filled with other meanings through allegory. Then they come to name aspects of spiritual experience available to both men and women as humans. In these allegories, interesting examples of gender crossover and paradox can freely emerge.

The first of these is a moral allegory that recalls Plato's discussion of spiritual childbearing as occurring in the relationship between teacher and student. Didymus says that the male is the more mature person who implants the seeds of instruction into the less mature, who is allegorically female. He adds that while God makes humans either men or women in the realm of the senses, on the noetic level humans can choose for themselves which to be and can switch from one gender to the other. Thus, the feminine soul who learns well grows to maturity and can become a masculine teacher of others. On the other hand, a masculine teacher can regress through negligence and become barely able to accept others' instruction. Having lost her maleness, she can then be said to be feminine, though one could remark that in such a poor spiritual condition her feminine receptivity is not functioning well either. Didymus says later in the passage that the student should receive seeds from the teacher, give them form and bring forth divine virtues, so that she matures into a perfect man.34 Here again is the theme of "becoming male," as Kari Vogt has noted,35 but as before it needs to be read in context.

As we have seen, Methodius represents the teacher as feminine, but for Didymus he is clearly masculine. It would appear that the Alexandrian exegete privileges maleness more unequivocally than his predecessor from Olympus, but let us consider what else the text says. Didymus' second allegorical interpretation of Gen. 1.27 belongs to the third, spiritual category. It identifies the divine Logos as male, as the Bridegroom of the Song of Songs, while the whole of noetic created nature is his bride. This presumably includes angels as well as humans, or perhaps all the created intellects in Origen's sense. Yet more specifically, our text says the bride signifies the Church or the mature soul who is able to be in harmony with the Logos who implants seed into all of noetic nature so that she receives from him virtue and true doctrine.36 Here, as we saw in Plato and Philo, the feminine, which before was regarded as inferior, reemerges as a central characteristic of the most perfect human person. Didymus does not go on to say that this perfect "female" is also best qualified to be the "male" teacher of others, though this would be the logical conclusion. It seems that for this exegete spiritual life has three stages, the lowest being the receptive feminine student, the second the mature masculine teacher and the highest the bride taught directly by the Logos, who is again feminine. Didymus has acknowledged the possibility of gender reversals, and they appear to occur repeatedly within the process of spiritual growth.

The final interpretation of Gen. 1.27 is another moral allegory in which the human person is the man who fears the Lord in Psalm 128. He has a fruitful wife by whom he begets many children, and he is identified with the man in Proverbs who loves and is espoused to feminine Wisdom. Again, his spouse is right intention and faith, and their offspring are divine actions, words and thoughts. All these children are male and perfect since they are strong and thus produce vigorous spiritual growth and battle effectively against the powers of darkness.37 This passage echoes some texts in Philo where the Patriarchs, for example, are married to virtues and with them beget good actions.

A bit later in the Commentary, Didymus comments on Gen. 1.28, "Increase and multiply." Here he repeats some of the same themes with variations. In regard to the literal sense, he remarks in opposition to encratism that God has blessed the means by which humans procreate children.38 Allegorically, he returns to the concept of the teacher as male and the student as female, adding that the children, that is, the student's good works, are the offspring of both her and her teacher since their combined effort produces them. Then he offers another interpretation, namely, that "increase" refers to spiritual growth. He goes on to speak of Paul as a teacher who is sensitive to his disciples' different stages of spiritual maturity. The apostle gives milk to those who are children (cf. 1 Cor. 3.2), an activity that involves the ideal "masculine" teacher in motherly nurturing. Then instead of serving solid food to the perfect, he gives them in marriage as pure virgins to Christ, the divine Bridegroom. Then Christ himself makes them truly fruitful, since they receive from him abundant spiritual knowledge and virtue.39 In this passage, the text makes another telling reversal, this time not in gender itself but in the value and status of the feminine. It has suddenly switched from naming the impoverished and perhaps unstable receptivity of the beginner dependent on a human teacher to the pure and glorious receptivity of Christ's perfect bride.

We can conclude that for Didymus as for Plato, Philo, Origen and Methodius the feminine is a complex and ambivalent symbol. Echoing the strain of misogyny present within Classical and Late Antique culture, it can name the lowest aspects of human existence, passion and sensuality, yet it can also symbolize some of the highest dimensions of human experience, virginity, desire for the divine and receptivity to it, and the creative and nurturant abundance of spiritual motherhood with its invaluable cultural, intellectual, moral and mystical fruit. Because these qualities are irreducible aspects of the perfection sought by many philosophers, Jews and Christians, their anthropologies cannot be consistently androcentric. They may try to reject the feminine at the start of the spiritual journey, but it returns at the end purified and gloriously transformed.

These allegorical texts contain many surprising shifts and reversals in gender imagery. This is because in ascetic practice, all the human faculties and virtues need to be developed and collaborate with each other in various ways. Desire, receptivity and the nurturing of interior life are indispensable, as are rational self-control, vigorous action and combat against evil. In the context of Late Antique gender concepts, the first three of these qualities are summed up in the feminine symbol of the fruitful virgin-mother, while the second group are symbolically masculine. This masculine aspect is represented allegorically as either husband or child of the feminine, or in reality both. The two genders are thus equally necessary to the inner wholeness to which each human person is called. If one asks which has priority, the question is akin to the proverbial puzzle of the chicken and egg. The male impregnates the female, but the female bears the male. In the language of Greek patristic ascetical theology, the male in some sense corresponds to praxis and the female to contemplation, each of which ultimately supports the other and also flows from it.

Besides describing the ascetic's internal psychology, these gender allegories often speak of the richness, dynamism, intimacy and mutual collaboration of interpersonal relationships among ascetics. They highlight in particular the relations between teacher and student of exegesis or philosophy, between spiritual guide and disciple. The language of erotic love points to the great warmth, closeness and intensity that can occur in these kinds of relationships. One thinks of Socrates and Alcibiades but also of the rabbi and his disciple or the desert father and his spiritual son. Among Jews and Christians these forms of male bonding were generally not homosexual, but they surely involved a quality of emotional closeness that is absent in many friendships among men today, and they no doubt included what one might perceive as feminine aspects.40

Finally, the love between bride and bridegroom symbolizes the union between the human and God, which is also characterized by measureless richness, dynamism, intimacy and mutual collaboration. In Christian spirituality, one is called to encounter and receive Christ but also to participate in Christ and even become him through assimilation into his body. In Methodius' symbolism, this means one functions as both feminine and masculine. As bride, one encounters him and then as mother receives his life and brings it forth again. But one's offspring, the male child, is oneself refashioned, and also Christ, or indeed oneself, refashioned into him, that is, into a member of his body.

The texts studied in this paper express anthropological ontologies in which gender is transcended along with allegories that make abundant and varied uses of gender imagery. When read closely, the allegories appear to be saying that masculine and feminine aspects are both present and need to be developed within each human person, among persons engaged together in ascetic life, and in those seeking to encounter the divine. This means that alongside the theme of the manly woman is the theme of the feminine man, though both genders also preserve and utilize faculties and virtues culturally identified as their own. In the ascetic quest for perfection, the limitations of culturally constructed gender stereotypes are thus surpassed, yet not by a negation of either the feminine or the masculine but by a wholeness that includes both.


1. Kerstin Aspegren, The Male Woman: A Feminine Ideal in the Early Church, ed., Ren� Kieffer (Uppsala, 1990); Kari Elisabeth B鴕resen, ed., Image of God and Gender Models in Judaeo-Christian Tradition (Oslo, 1991).

2. Please note that this analysis is based on study of the ancient sources in their historical context. Any attempt to bring Late Antique concepts into dialogue with the theories of C. G. Jung lies outside the scope of this study, and reflection on his thought was not involved in its preparation. Perhaps this is an avenue that other more qualified scholars would like to pursue. However, they would be wise to take care not to read his complex and very specific conceptual framework into ancient texts and cultural worlds.

3. See Aspegren, The Male Woman, 16-32, 79-98; and Dorothy Sly, Philo's Perception of Women (Atlanta, GA, 1990).

4. Hans-J黵gen Horn, "Antakoluthia der Tugenden und Einheit Gottes," Jahrbuch f黵 Antike und Christentum 13 (1970): 5-28.

5. In addition, Late Antique writers often contrasted virtue and strength as masculine with vice and weakness as feminine. However, my suggestion is that this misogynist antithesis was far from expressing all they believed about the feminine, perhaps even in spite of themselves.

6. I have discussed Plato and Philo more fully in "The Allegorization of Gender: Plato and Philo on Spiritual Childbearing," in Vincent. L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis, ed., Asceticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 520-534. Let me refer the reader to this essay for a more detailed explanation and defense of the interpretation summarized in the present article.

7. David M. Halperin, "Why is Diotima a Woman? Platonic Eros and the Figuration of Gender," in David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, eds., Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World (Princeton, 1990), 257-308, 285.

8. Daniel Boyarin, "Jewish Masochism: Couvade, Castration and Rabbis in Pain," American Imago 51 (1994): 3-36.

9. The ascetic dimension of Plato's philosophy is admirably described by Michel Foucault in The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, 1985).

10. Philo, De Vita Contemplativa 61; Methodius, Symposium.

11. See my "Allegory and Asceticism in Gregory of Nyssa," Semeia 57 (1992): 113-130. Daniel Boyarin makes a similar point in Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley, 1993), 8-9. He remarks that "allegory is thus . . . a mode of relating to the body" (8).

12. On gender concepts and roles current in Late Antique society, see Paul Veyne, ed., A History of Private Life I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA, 1987); and Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York, 1988). Karen Jo Torjesen provides useful discussion of some virtues prescribed in Late Antiquity for men and women in When Women Were Priests (San Francisco, 1993), 111-132.

13. Philo, Questions on Genesis 4.99, De Fuga et Inventione 50-51, De Abraham 99-102.

14. Richard A. Baer, Philo's Use of the Categories Male and Female (Leiden, 1970).

15. David Winston, "Philo and the Rabbis on Sex and the Body," Poetics Today, forthcoming.

16. See my "Male and Female in Greek Patristic Theology," Journal of Theological Studies, n.s., 41 (1990): 441-471.

17. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 38.9-11.

18. Clement, Stromateis 3.

19. Sly, Philo's Perception.

20. The classic study is Henri de Lubac, Ex間鑣e medi関ale: Les quatre sens de l'蒫riture, 4 vols. (Paris, 1954�64).

21. David Dawson, Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria (Berkeley, 1992).

22. See Susanna Elm's lucid and suggestive analysis of diverse alternative ascetic lifestyles among Christian women and men in fourth century Cappadocia and Egypt in 'Virgins of God': The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 1994). While her narrative descriptions are brilliant and the discussion of Basil's family, for example, is unsurpassed, some of her presuppositions and conclusions are open to question. Her apparent assumption that when male and female ascetics collaborate in their daily work they are probably living under the same roof cannot be accepted as given without specific concrete evidence of this practice. They could easily have lived across the street or across the village from each other, thus anticipating the double monasteries that became traditional in much later Christian history.

Elm's attempt to link creative and autonomous alternatives for ascetic women to "heretical" movements and her argument that within "orthodox" circles the male hierarchy eliminated these opportunities as cenobitic monasticism became institutionalized also appear unconvincing to me. Although much detailed historical study would be needed to confirm this fully, I suggest that especially in the East (and perhaps in the West also) the rich diversity she portrays has continued to exist in many places to this day. Compare the stories of traditional nineteenth century Orthodox women ascetics narrated by Brenda Meehan in Holy Women of Russia: The Lives of Five Orthodox Women Offer Spiritual Guidance for Today (San Francisco, 1993).

23. This is apparent in some ascetically inspired Christian ideals of marriage such as those of Clement of Alexandria, Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom, a topic I hope to explore elsewhere. See Clement, Stromateis, bk. 3; Gregory, Orations 8 and 18, Carmen 1.2.1, lines 215-275; Catharine P. Roth and David Anderson, trans. St. John Chrysostom on Marriage and Family Life (Crestwood, NY, 1986).

24. Ronald E. Heine, trans. Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, Fathers of the Church 71 (Washington, D.C., 1982), 101; Henri de Lubac and Louis Doutre leau, ed. Orig鑞e: Hom閘ies sur la Gen鑣e, Sources chr閠iennes 7 bis (Paris, 1976), 140.

25. Erich Klostermann, ed., Origenes Matth鋟serkl鋜ung III: Fragmente und Indices, Origenes Werke 12:1, Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte (Leipzig, 1941), 126. Translation in Henri Crouzel, Origen: The Life and Thought of the First Great Theologian, trans. A. S. Worrall (San Francisco, 1989), 124.

26. Crouzel, Origen, 125.

27. Gregory of Nyssa, De Virginitate 2.

28. See below.

29. See my "Male and Female in Cappadocian Theology."

30. Aspegren, Male Woman, 158-160.

31. There are also other Late Antique views of reproductive biology that attribute a greater role to the mother as contributing actively to the child's being and life. On the whole subject, see Thomas W. Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA, 1990).

32. Herbert Musurillo, ed., Methode d'Olympe. Le banquet, Sources chr閠iennes 95 (Paris, 1963), 220. Herbert Musurillo, trans., St. Methodius: The Symposium, a Treatise on Chastity, Ancient Christian Writers 27 (Westminster, MD, 1958), 113, several times in this passage renders as "begetting" forms of gennavw, which can mean generation by either a male or female parent. Given the context, this is particularly misleading. See H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon, revised by H. S. Jones and R. McKenzie (Oxford, 1968), gennavw, gevnnhsi", s.v.; and G. W. H. Lampe, ed., A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford, 1961), gevnnhsi", s.v.

33. Pierre Nautin and Louis Doutreleau, Didyme l'Aveugle: Sur la Gen鑣e, Sources chr閠iennes 233 (Paris, 1976), 158.

34. Nautin and Doutreleau, Didyme l'Aveugle, 158-162.

35. Kari Vogt, "'Becoming Male:' A Gnostic and Early Christian Metaphor," in B鴕resen, ed., Image of God, 172-187.

36. Nautin and Doutreleau, Didyme l'Aveugle, 160.

37. Nautin and Doutreleau, Didyme l'Aveugle, 162.

38. Nautin and Doutreleau, Didyme l'Aveugle, 164.

39. Nautin and Doutreleau, Didyme l'Aveugle, 172.

40. See Daniel Boyarin, "Dis/Owning the Phallus: Male Sexuality and Power in Early Christianity and Judaism," paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago, November 1994. Something analogous could probably be said about the desert mother and her spiritual daughter, though we have much more literary evidence about relations among male ascetics.