In her provocative book, Holy Misogyny, April D. DeConick brings her expertise as a historian of early Christian and Jewish thought to bear on the issue that she terms “the prickly thorn of Christian theology and ecclesiology, the absence of ‘Lady God’ and its consequences” (ix). DeConick argues that misogynist hermeneutics, theology, and social structures are not the root issue. Instead, such things are the by-product of misogynist conceptions of the female body, sacralized in the scriptures and in ecclesial traditions which frame it as naturally deficient over against the male body.
DeConick begins her account with a two-part overview: the loss of the female aspect of God within the Hebrew Scriptures (chapter 1), and the “neutering” of the Holy Spirit (chapter 2). DeConick argues that during the Babylonian exile the male priests, “whether consciously or not,” banished the Hebrew goddess by reinterpreting their past and reframing their long-standing “orthodox worship” of her as idolatry (14). Memories of the Hebrew goddess lived on, argues DeConick, “when she reemerges in the early Christian tradition as the Holy Spirit” (15). But the “erasure” continued, and DeConick notes its advance via such figures as Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria, while “subtle shifts” take place, such as linking the “Mother Spirit” to the Church or reassigning her role to “male entities in the Trinity” (33). Even the Syrian Christians, initially lauded for their understanding of the Spirit as “Mother” (21), underwent a similar shift, though not until the fifth and sixth centuries (33).
After chronicling this history, DeConick spends the remainder of the book wrestling with the complex issue of the underlying causes for this loss of the feminine aspect of God. DeConick’s investigation begins with the foundational narratives on sex and gender found in the Gospels (chapter 3) and in Paul’s letters (chapter 4). Jesus and Paul both exhibit the typical Jewish ambivalence toward sex: good, and yet requiring limits. Yet, though Jesus was “a man concerned for women’s issues during his own time and place” (51), Paul displays the first detectable impulses to reframe Christianity in patriarchal terms. Chapter 5 discusses the rejection of marriage by the early encratic groups, while chapter 6 looks at the fascinating case of some Gnostic groups that cast the sex act as a sacred ritual. Within the Apostolic churches (chapter 7), DeConick finds the deterioration of the female aspect of God most pronounced, concomitant with an increasing exclusion of women from ecclesial leadership. She argues, e.g., that concern over the “Christian public image” (112) motivated leaders like Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria to reinterpret gender roles in the church on restrictive terms imported from Roman household codes. Chapter 8 examines the “competing memories” of Mary Magdalene, whose image was used to bolster and embody the agendas of diverse groups of ancient Christians. In her last chapter, DeConick bluntly summarizes her thesis: “A bogus, yet sacralized, representation of our past has been used to control and subject half of the Christian population to the other half” (147). This subjection, she argues, continues even today, going so far as to liken both the Catholic refusal to ordain women and the Southern Baptist revocation of women’s ordination to the “separate but equal” of the Jim Crow laws (151). For Deconick, the fight for women’s equality in the churches “can never be won on the turf of the traditional churches” because “as long as the Bible’s devaluation of the female body as part of the natural order of creation is viewed as sacred, as holy misogyny, no reasonable argument can dislodge it” (153).
Whether or not one is wholly convinced of all the particulars of her conclusions, DeConick has written a daring book worth engaging. Though at times one may desire more nuance regarding DeConick’s more-than-implied causal links (e.g., that the “neutering” of the Holy Spirit led to the rise in the cult of the Virgin, p. 37) or further clarity regarding her use of terms (e.g., encratism as comprising a “movement” that dates as early as Paul’s Corinthian church?, p. 76), the collective weight of the evidence she has gathered commands serious attention. Scholars of early Christianity will certainly benefit from her study, yet DeConick’s book remains accessible to a non-specialist readership—a fact underscored by the choice of endnotes over footnotes and the thorough, but not exhaustive, index.