Her Share of the Blessings: Women’s Religions Among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World

Her Share of the Blessings: Women’s Religions Among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World
Ross Shepard Kraeiner, Oxford University Press, 1992. $24.95

What if these scenes were a part of our tradition?

“On his deathbed, Job has distributed his earthly goods to his sons, whereupon his three daughters complain. He assures them that their inheritance is a finer one, ami gives them each mysterious, indescribable shining bands. When they complain that such bands cannot sustain their lives. Job counters that not only will the bands sustain them, they will lead the women to life in the heavens. Wrapping themselves in the bands, the daughters chant angelic hymns. . . . “

“The feast is shared by women also, most of them aged virgins, who have kept their chastity not under compulsion, like some of the Greek priestesses, but of their own free will in their ardent yearning for wisdom. Eager to have her [wisdom] for their life mate, they have spurned the pleasures of the body and desire no mortal offspring, but only those immortal children which only the soul that is dear to God can bring to the birth unaided. . . .”

Feminist fantasy? Not according to Ross Shepard Kraemer and other feminist historians. These quotes, though little known, are a part of our tradition. Taken from accounts of Jews in Greco-Roman antiquity, they are part of what some scholars point to as mounting evidence of female agency in early Judaism. Traditional scholarship has frequently ignored or overlooked the occasional evidence that women once had more than a passive role in communal religious life. But hundreds-of- years-old synagogue inscriptions show that a female community leader was not unheard of in a Greco-Roman synagogue.

Kraemer brings evidence from these early inscriptions as well as from contemporary accounts of Jewish women who seem to have escaped the child-bearing pressures of Roman aristocratic society by escaping to a monastic life. Such evidence affords us a tantalizing glimpse of what may have been written out of history.

Of course this sort of reconstructive scholarship can only offer us hypotheses. “As I have indicated,” Kraemer reminds us, “whether the text reflects the actual behavior of some Jewish women we can only surmise.” Evidence is sparse and often inconclusive, and this can be frustrating for those of us who want definitive history. This frustration defines a central problem of women’s historical scholarship: in a tradition which has documented only male-centered activities, we simply do not have written evidence of much of women’s history.

Nevertheless it is remarkable what Kraemer is able to reconstruct for us— visions of women’s instrumental roles in early Judaism, Christianity, and paganism, a chapter detailing “Heresy as Women’s Religion: Women’s Religion as Heresy,” and so on. Her Share of the Blessings is an important scholarly book, and a valuable contribution to our modern myth of the past. Perhaps when we have decades of reconstructive feminist scholarship behind us, the history of women’s place in our early tradition will become still more definitive.