Ghostwriting the Daughters of Men: Whose Writing Is It Anyway?
In Episode 2 we talk ancient Jewish fanfiction, why makeup made the angels fall, and the ever-present problem of ghostwriting with Dr. Annette Yoshiko Reed.
You’ve heard of the human fall story in Genesis 3, but what about the angelic fall stories in Genesis 6, 1 Enoch, and the Testament of Reuben? And is the misogyny we find in ancient texts always misogyny?
Dr. Annette Yoshiko Reed is a Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School. Previously teaching in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, her research is incredibly wide-ranging. She’s written extensively on early Christianity, Second Temple Judasim, and famously their intersections and partings. Take a look at her books Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity or Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism, among others. After a BA at McGill and a masters at Harvard, Annette earned her PhD at Princeton University. She is currently working on a book on memory and forgetting.
[podcast theme music plays – an upbeat, Mediterranean detective vibe]
Emily Chesley: Welcome to Women Who Went Before, a gynocentric quest into the ancient world! I’m Emily Chesley…
Rebekah Haigh: … and I’m Rebekah Haigh…
Emily: …scholars, friends, and your hosts.
[podcast theme music plays]
Rebekah: Today’s episode, “Ghostwriting the Daughters of Men: Whose Writing Is it Anyway?” explores ancient Jewish fanfiction, why makeup made the angels fall, and the ever-present problem of ghostwriting.
Emily: Every book has an author, and when you browse through a Barnes and Noble or scroll through Amazon, their names are conveniently emblazoned across the covers. Alphabetized by surname, even. And if as a kid you didn’t know whether the T.S. Eliot was a woman or a man, you could flip to the back cover and check the picture. Neat. clear. Straightforward.
Rebekah: But sometimes it isn’t quite so clear-cut. Is an author the person who originally narrated stories about their own life experiences and feelings? Or is it the person who wrote down those stories? Ghostwriters have risen in popularity in recent years, as celebrities seek help writing their life stories in pithy prose. Simone Biles’ 2016 autobiography was written “with Michelle Burford.” Prince Harry’s autobiography is being “collaborated on” by J.R. Moehringer.1 There’s great speculation that Mark Twain helped write Ulysses S. Grant’s “auto”-biography.2 Some ghostwriters simply help the celebrities organize their thoughts. At other times the famous person shares a few stories with the writer, and the ghostwriter essentially pens the whole book. In an editorial landscape like this, how should you interpret the name boldly stamped across the cover?
Emily: Works of fiction have been ghostwritten too. The first 35 books of the popular preteen series The Babysitters Club were indeed written by Ann M. Martin, whose name stands on the cover. But what isn’t so clear from the covers is the fact that she hired Peter Lerangis to write some of the later novels. He expanded the plot outlines and characters she created. Lerangis also ghost-wrote for the middle-grade Sweet Valley High series.3 The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers were written by Alexandre Dumas–as you probably remember from high school literature class. But did you know he had help? In the form of Auguste Maquet.4 Sometimes authors even ghostwrote for themselves: via a “pen name.” To revisit Mark Twain, was it him who published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or was really it Samuel Langhorne Clemons? Was that crime novel by J.K Rowling, or was it by Robert Galbraith – the name etched on the dust jacket? We want to identify authors so as to praise their artistic genius, to credit them correctly for their labor. But for any number of reasons–from criminal to intentionally creative–names can obscure an idea’s original source.
Rebekah: Ghostwriting permeated the ancient literary scene too, through writing as if you were someone else. Scholars call this pseudepigraphy. A corpus of mystical treatises that combined Christian theology with Neoplatonic thought spread like wildfire through the Greek and Latin churches. They were most certainly written in the fifth or sixth century, but their author (whose identity scholars still have not deduced) claimed to be Dionysius the, a first-century Athenian whom the Apostle Paul evangelized in Acts 17. And speaking of Paul, stay tuned for Episode 3 when we introduce you to some of the Pauline letters that weren’t written by our itinerant preacher.
Emily: The challenge of uncovering an author’s identity becomes even more acute for historians seeking to recover the voices of real women from the ancient past. Certainly, we find female names, stories, and even speeches in ancient Mediterranean texts; but discerning the author behind those stories can be a herculean task. For instance, when the New Testament Gospels recorded the songs of Mary the mother of Jesus (Lk 1:46–55) or Elizabeth (Lk 1:1–45) – whose words were they really? Mary’s and Elizabeth’s? Or the Gospel writer? Or the church community that told stories about Mary and Elizabeth and perhaps passed on their words to the Gospel writer? Last episode we introduced some of the tools and the hindrances to unearthing real ancient women. The challenge of identity is another one we’ll grapple with throughout the season.
Rebekah: There were some female writers in the ancient world. But their fingerprints are rare and difficult to determine with any certainty. One great example of texts that, on the surface, seem easy to ascribe to women writers but become increasingly tentative the more you dig, are the Sibylline oracles. The sibyl was originally a Greek female figure who uttered notoriously ambiguous poetic predictions about the future, while in an ecstatic frenzy under divine influence. According to legend, the sibyl at Delphi predicted the capture of Helen and the fall of Troy. Writing around the fifth century BCE, Heraclitus describes her as having “… raving lips uttering things mirthless, unadorned, and unperfumed, reaches over a thousand years with her voice, thanks to the god in her” (frag B92).
Collections of oracles attributed to the sibyl seem to have become a rather ubiquitous cultural phenomenon. And who wouldn’t want to know if their war was going to succeed or their crops would fail? So tantalizing was she as a mythical prophetess, many laid claim to her, though they continued to fear her powers. Virgil tells of a sibyl who prophesied near Naples: “the Cumaean Sibyl chants from the shrine her dread enigmas and booms from the cavern, wrapping truth in darkness” (Aeneid 6.98–100, trans. Fairclough and Goold, 1916).5 Sibylline doppelgangers multiplied across the ancient world – even as far as Libya and Persia!
Emily: Starting in the second century BCE, Jews and later Christians also adopted her as their own, writing a collection of 14 books or oracles under her name. In the Jewish Third Sibylline Oracle, the oracle roots herself in the biblical tradition by claiming to be Noah’s daughter-in-law, living during the time of the Flood. An excellent way to establish the credibility of your revelation was to associate the author of your text with a heroic primeval ancestor. It’s even better when you can one-up the Greeks and Romans by claiming your sibyl’s heavenly knowledge is older than their sibyls’. Though her fiery prophecies were directed against Jewish enemies, she follows the same poetic template as her Delphic and Cumaean counterparts. At the end of the oracle she dismisses her doubters’ claims that she is an insane, foreign, lying demigoddess. “But when everything [that I have prophesied] comes to pass, / then you will remember me and no longer will anyone / say that I am crazy, I who am a prophetess of the great God” (Third Sibylline Oracle, lines 816-818, trans. Collins, 1983).6
Rebekah: Despite what the text asserts, these lines of poetry don’t give us access to a real prophetess. If you haven’t guessed it already, it’s pretty difficult to imagine that any of the surviving “works of the sibyls” were written by one of these original oracles. There were too many texts, for one thing. They were too well-crafted and literary to be off-the-cuff, spontaneous poems uttered in an oral trance. They frequently invoked political upheaval, ostensibly giving prophecies about the future but more likely commentary on current events. These prophecies were almost certainly all ghostwritten by generations of writers making truth claims for their communities using the pen name of the sibyl.
Emily: Another Jewish literary tradition linked women with heavenly knowledge and the mythic heroes of Genesis: the story of the Watchers. In the Testament of Reuben, probably finalized around the second century CE, this patriarch cautions his sons that women are evil, and while a woman cannot force a man into sex, she can still take men captive through her tempting appearance. To illustrate his warning, Reuben points to the tradition of the angelic Fall. Genesis 6 tells a fable of human sin that attempts to explain evil in the world. The angels fell from heaven, joined with the daughters of men, who then bore their monstrous children (Gen 6:1–4). According to Reuben, the angels saw the appearance of women and transformed themselves into men to fulfill their lusts. You can almost hear him shaking his fist in his sons’ faces: “Beware, therefore, of porneia and if you wish to be pure in mind, guard your sense from every woman” (T. Reuben 5:1-6:1, trans. Hollander and de Jonge, 1985).7
Rebekah: Another fanfiction adaption of the angelic fall story wove in a new theme: divine knowledge was dangerous when possessed by a woman. According to the Book of the Watchers, composed in the turn of the third to second century BCE,8 the fallen angels revealed illicit knowledge to their human wives: make-up and jewelry (1 En. 8:1), and of course magic and other forbidden arts (1 En. 7:1; 9:8). According to attributed author Enoch, yet another primeval patriarch, certain forms of knowledge are dangerous in the wrong hands, perhaps especially in the hands of women.
Classical Greek authors, too, seemed to have some fear of heavenly revealed knowledge when women were involved. Remember Heraclitus? Even as he appreciated the sibyl foretelling the future because it helped Greek military strategy, he still said she was raving and dangerous due to the god speaking through her.
Emily: This brings us to our guest, Professor Annette Yoshiko Reed is the new Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School. Previously teaching in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, her research is incredibly wide-ranging. She’s written extensively on early Christianity, Second Temple Judaisim, and famously their intersections and partings. Take a look at her books Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity or Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism, among others. After a BA at McGill and a masters at Harvard, Annette did her PhD here at Princeton University. She is currently working on a book on memory and forgetting. We’re so excited to dive into some legends with her!
Rebekah: You’ve done work on pseudepigraphic writing, which for our listeners is writing in the name or persona of somebody else—like the apocalyptic books of Enoch that claim to be written by this primeval Jewish sage. So ghostwriting is also something we can think about when we encounter texts connected to women. How do you think about authorship, the fact that even the texts that supposedly record women’s speech or prophecies like the Sibylline Oracles or Mary’s song in Luke 1 were still probably written by men?
Annette Yoshiko Reed: Now that’s a great question. I mean most of my work has been on so-called Old Testament Pseudepigrapha like the writings associated with Enoch and 1 Enoch or works like Jubilees that are associated with Moses, which I kind of take for granted are both by men about men and also attributed to men of the past.
In that context, it’s interesting to think about issues of authorship because they don’t quite fit our modern contexts. And they challenge us to think about what it is to kind of imaginatively voice a position of knowledge, or, you know, use a kind of imaginative sense of setting a set of teachings into the distant past into kind of a different place or time. And you know, mostly like in the case of Enoch, the far, far distant past—the time of the flood. In the case of Moses, imagining what happened at Sinai.
And one of the things I find interesting is that you know until recently, part of the thing that I actually had not thought about was how this can encompass women. So you know, when I work on Enoch materials, so the Book of the Watchers is like, what, my favorite text, I can probably say with some confidence. It should be everyone else’s favorite text too!
It talks about fallen angels who descend to Earth before the flood, you know, their hybrid sons. And it gives us within the text a lot of different perspectives. Enoch, a man on earth who’s a scribe who then later travels to heaven. And later, the Qumran Book of the Giants imagine what that looked like from the perspective of the giants.
You know, in my work it actually only occurred to me very, very recently to also think about women’s voices, and the case of the Sibylline Oracles is the most extensive case that we have of that. And one of the things I’ve kind of thought about both from my own experience and also from scholarship is that our scholarly worlds are one in which we could imagine our ancient authors thinking about the time way before the Flood and what it might sound like or feel like to occupy that space, or what it might sound like or feel like to, you know, even be like a giant [laughs] occupying that space. But we’ve had a lot more trouble imagining women.
So I really love the Sibylline Oracles as that example. Because they somehow remind us that in antiquity it was easier for ancient authors to imagine it, than it often is for modern authors, which I think really kind of hits hard.
Within scholarly practice we really think of expertise or knowledge and especially revelation as voiced by men in ways it challenged, you know, women in the field to this day. I also think that it makes it hard for us to look back to antiquity and to try to say, you know, “in antiquity, it wasn’t necessarily that case that we would just assume oh obviously a woman’s voice would mean that this isn’t a position of knowledge or position from which someone, you know, doesn’t even have to be a woman.” But someone might want to speak it through that voice.
Emily: Absolutely, and we will get to modern assumptions in a little bit. But I want to pick up on the Sibylline Oracle, which you brought up, because you’ve written about this. And you’ve pointed out that this is the only surviving text from the Second Temple Period that uses a female voice to make claims about heavenly revealed knowledge and prophetic truth.9 The Greek world accepted the idea that women were vehicles for divine knowledge, right: the sibyls, prophetesses like Cassandra, Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi… But how is the Jewish Sybil imagined in the Third Sibylline Oracle, and maybe, how does the text relate the act of prophecy to her gender or not?
Annette: That’s a great question. I think part of what’s interesting about the Third Sibylline Oracle is that it dates from around the same time that we have these really intensive imaginings of voices from before the flood. So Enoch and so forth. And also, these counter claims of “Jewish knowledge is more ancient than Greek knowledge, more ancient than Babylonian knowledge, more ancient than Egyptian knowledge.”
And so I think part of what’s interesting about the sibyl is that she gets put into this conversation. The Third Sibylline Oracle does so in a way where she’s, you know, seems to be the daughter-in-law of Noah, so she also is put back into antiquity. Her gender in one way allows her to be kind of slid into a genealogy, because the genealogies of Genesis don’t really include women.
In the book of Jubilees, for instance, this is also something they want to fill in, or kind of have a sense of like, having women in those genealogies. But in some ways it’s an opportunity. You’re able to say, “Oh yeah, also, there’s somebody else here, even if you don’t see them.”
So I think the Sybil— Different people think different things. I think of the symbol of the Sibylline Oracle as kind of, she’s a counter-Homer and also a counter-muse, you know? Let’s say the Sibylline— you know, if we accept that most of the Third Sibylline Oracle as being from the 2nd century BC and reflecting Ptolemaic Egypt, so the idea of appealing to muses, you know at a time with the library of Alexandria is particularly powerful, and also the Third Sibylline Oracle is the one that makes explicit reference to Homer.
So Homer is depicted as her first reader, and also her first plagiarist. [Rebekah and Emily laugh] I think every woman scholar knows the feeling of reading something an idea she got in some, you know, sometimes more famous man’s work! So it definitely resonates even if that’s not its intended view! [laughs wryly]
But I think the gendering is actually very powerful. So Homer is a man who’s, you know, seeks inspiration from muses. Whereas the sybil in the Third Sibylline Oracle, she’s inspired by a masculine God and she’s not like, asking for inspiration. She’s so filled with it that she’s bursting forth. And not only that, but Homer gets the kind of secondary result of this, so he only reads what she writes, and he doesn’t quite really get it right anyway.
And Ashley Bacchi has done this beautiful job of really drawing out, you know, how the interplay with Homer is on different levels within the text. So the explicit reference, but also this sense of, you know even the kind of the way that the language functions. So the sibyl becomes like the muse for Homer, but also she one-ups him because she’s the one who has access to real divine knowledge.
Emily: The original and better Homer!
Rebekah: Which is pretty significant because Homer is so crucial to classical education. It’s basically the Greek Bible. So do you think the Jewish sibyl is making a claim about the nature of prophecy and revelation as well? The oral access to the divine being perhaps preferable to the written sort?
Annette: The Third Sibylline Oracle really emphasizes voice and seems to also really emphasize the importance of extending the biblical prophetic tradition in speech. It’s hard to tell whether that’s contrary to kind of an Alexandrian scholasticism that’s interested in books, in writings, and like the Ptolemies being interested in the prestige of like, bookishness. It might be a reaction to that.
It also has an interesting counterpart to you know other Jewish texts at the same time, so like, works associated with Enoch, the Book of the Watchers, that really emphasize the scribe.
So I think you have these two poles: on the one hand these two visions of what should happen to biblical prophecy in the Hellenistic age, one of which is the sibyl, who’s really extending the kind of embodied power of the embodied voice; and then the other of which is Enoch, who’s becoming a scribe in place of a prophet. So it’s the scribe who can travel to heaven. It’s a scribe who’s like an angel; it’s a scribe who’s taught by angels; it’s a scribe who writes. So writing is like what connects heaven and earth.
There’s a lot of focus in modern scholarship on that image. You know, people call it like the dawn of apocalyptic! But it’s a good reminder the sibyl that other things are going on too.
Emily: Does the fact that the sybil is overcome and clearly doesn’t speak on her own but is speaking the words of God that are bursting forth of her—and there’s some assumptions implicit in this question that maybe are not correct, but—does that help make her words acceptable as a woman’s words because they’re not originally a woman words? Or is that a wrong assumption that this would even be an issue.
Annette: I’m not entirely sure whether it’s marked like that in the text. it’s always tricky to know when those are our questions and when they’re their questions. And it’s interesting, if we look, for instance, at you know, early Christian reception of Sibylline materials, they don’t seem to really care that she’s a woman. It doesn’t bother them. It bothers modern scholars a lot more. [laughs]
I think there’s a way in which you do have a notion of, the truth of what she says is clear ‘cause she’s, you know, it’s overwhelming her. She’s a conduit. But I don’t know how much that thus differs from, you know, the prophets we read in the Hebrew Bible who are also kind of very emotional and very troubled by the act of prophecy.
Rebekah: So picking up this notion of differing depictions, we see in the Sibylline Oracles a positive portrayal of women in that they possess divine knowledge. But there was a strong literary Jewish tradition that associated women and heavenly knowledge in potentially negative ways. So you’ve also written about Genesis 6, which is a story of another fall, the fall of angels and their marriage to human women. So in the Jewish afterlives of this fall story, how were women linked with angels and demons?
[laughing] Too big of a question?
Annette: [laughs] Too exciting question of a question for me! How long do you have?
Emily: As long as you have!
Annette: When I first started studying the fallen angels materials, I actually pretty much resisted thinking about women in them. They’re not mentioned a lot in the Book of the Watchers. They’re mentioned in 1 Enoch 8, but pretty much in passing. And I’ve often been troubled by the temptation to say, “Oh well, this is obviously about how terrible it is that these angels revealed knowledge to women; that knowledge must be magic ’cause women and magic are always associated.” You know, witches. So I think there’s some tempting stories that are, are tempting for the wrong reasons.
Rebekah: No pun intended! Tempting stories. [laughs]
Annette: Exactly! I was like, oh, did the women draw down the angels by virtue of, you know, make up? The story of fallen angels teaching humankind about secrets which include civilizing arts like metalworking, makeup, knowledge, divinatory knowledge about the stars and sun and moon—they’ve been interpreted in two different ways within the tradition with respect to the place of women therein. In some cases, I think the references to women are just treated to mean everybody. So men and women. Everybody.
And in other cases it’s really highlighted that the women are part of the problem here. Part of the problem is that knowledge was given to women. And in some cases even to the degree that it’s implied that women had a place in bringing down a fallen angel. So women, because if they learn cosmetics were thus able to tempt angels down. So they’re given a—we are given—a bigger role in having caused enormous cosmic disruption. Basically means, like you know, women in makeup are partly to blame for the Flood. [laughs]
But I do think in the reception you do find both, and that’s important to note. It’s not just when women are associated with knowledge that knowledge is always bad. In some cases that knowledge isn’t bad. Or they’re only depicted as being part of a broader set of humankind, and in other cases they’re drawn out.
Emily: In one of your articles about the story of the Watchers you argue that the problem in the text is not as modern scholars have taken it sometimes, that women are inherently bad or sex is evil. In the original text. But rather that the sin in Genesis 6 is the crossing of this divinely-established boundaries: angels descending into human territory and taking on human behavior.10 So how does recognizing what the actual sin is in the original text, change how we read the women in that story?
Annette: That’s a good question. I mean, Genesis 6 doesn’t give us much to work with. [laughs] But if we do go to the Book of the Watchers, which is you know the earliest, more extended version of that same material— I think part of what’s interesting is that it really emphasizes the question of breaching boundaries. So there, the question of you know, “what did they do wrong? What did the fallen angels do wrong?” Part of it is sexual sins.
But there’s a very poignant part of it where God himself is talking to Enoch about what he should tell them they did wrong, what he should talk to the fallen angels and say. And he’s basically saying, you know, there’s some realms for spirits who live forever and dwell in heaven, and there are other realms for flesh, people, you know, dwell on earth. And it’s not that people don’t live forever, actually. It’s that people have children. It’s for human men that women are meant because the immortality on earth is through, through children. I find this really poignant because there’s a case in which when you read this, the figures of the Watchers, the fallen angels become very poignant because this is they wanted, they wanted kids.
And when you read it like that, the whole text they’re concerned with their children. They, you know they’re worried about the giants. You know, they’re worried about their children. They’re very, like, upset about the fate of their children. So it becomes this kind of interesting window also in terms of kind of the complexity, you know, not just of gender in terms of women, but also gender in terms of men and those associated with them—in this case angels, who are depicted in a much more capacious fashion than we usually think of, you know gender in antiquity. Or gender in the present.
So I think that’s part of what it gets us is: it allows us to see a more variegated and larger range of difference around questions of gender, both male and female, within antiquity, which thus in turn when we position ourselves or think about where we are in relation to that, kind of helps to open our imagination.
Emily: That’s beautiful.
Rebekah: We’ve alluded to this already in our conversation, but in your work you’ve discussed the modern habit of tending to presume degrees of misogyny in ancient depictions of women and ancient texts in general. The modern lens we sometimes can’t help but wear. Can you reflect a bit more about these assumptions and why readers should resist them and not presume them?
Annette: Yeah the modern assumptions about misogyny I, I find them fascinating because they’re widespread. Even in those who have an interest in recovering or recuperating a more equitable or kind of fancifully inclusive view of history. Through practices of reading we can sometimes assume that there’s something that, you know, a stable concept of misogyny that is you know in the past as well as the present. And then our job is basically when we’re reading these past sources about women that we’re assuming you know, is this, are these depictions of women good or are they bad? And we’re like, sorting them into these two piles without realizing sometimes that the actual task of sorting is something that’s a way in which we are imposing our concepts of gender—including our particular binary concepts of gender—back onto a range of texts that may not be expressing in the same fashion.
So I think, I mean that’s what makes it interesting to me is, you know, part of the project “oh let’s recover the voices of women. You know these are positive and these are negative.” It was an important first step in a lot of ways. But I also think that it has been limited in that we sometimes forget to see ourselves.
Emily: Something I have been reflecting on through your work is maybe, how do we take into account other factors of creating these texts? So thinking particularly about the kind of rhetorical training that the authors of the text must have had and the Sibylline Oracle in particular, kind of brought it to mind because it’s this very rhetoricized, like, speaking in the voice of somebody else. Which seems very much like prosopopoeia—this rhetorical exercise in paideia where you have to deliver a speech in the persona of another human being or historical figure, inanimate object, another person. Maybe if we can’t get at the question of gender, are there other kind of unifying characteristics that we can parse out in these ancient texts as something that we can know about the author?
Annette: I think this is definitely the world from which we’re seeing these, like, pretty complicated examples of authorizing from different figures, precisely in the Hellenistic age among Jews. So including the Sibyllines but also a range of other materials as well. So I think those two things are definitely connected, even if they’re not directly connected. This is the world in which it makes sense. That is a form of literary practice and also kind of performance of expertise and intellectual skill.
One of the things I find fascinating which you know also relates to gender, but not just to gender, is the way in which that type of insight also on the one hand destabilizes our search for author. So who was the author in that case? [laughs] Because the author is by design unstable.
And on the other hand, I think one of the things it does— It also is kind of an interesting example of the types of attention to positioning and also kind of quest for empathy that in contemporary times around issues of gender, race, power, marginality, and any number of fashions. Like we’re often, you know, trying very hard to figure out.
So I think on the one hand, you know there’s a caution about thinking about modern concepts of authorship where we have some kind of clear sense of intent of an author who’s imagined to be totally stable, and you know in, usually his, intent.
And on the other hand, I think we have this kind of contemporary resource. Where we’re not the first ones to ask these questions, even if in the past they were asking them for quite different reasons.
Modern concepts of authorship that have often been applied to ancient texts don’t even do justice to modern concepts of authorship. Especially when people read ancient texts, they’re always assuming like somebody has like, kind of some stable intention or so forth.
I mean you could read two different works by Josephus and it doesn’t work. So it, it’s a very— It’s a way, I think, that we try to make the most of what we have. Because we have the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew, Matthean community they all feel this way! But, so you know the temptation makes sense. But I also think it doesn’t do justice to kind of any literary practice that we actually know.
Emily: You’ve suggested here and in your published work that we should move beyond generalized readings about quote-un-quote “misogyny,” towards as I understand it, more particularizing readings that notice where men are elevating women or there’s a gray area rather than just a stark black and white. And one of the texts you’ve kind of talked about is the Testament of Reuben. I wonder if you could tell us, how does the Testament of Reuben invert modern expectations about the agency of the male gazer versus the female gazee?
Annette: So I appreciate that you’ve chosen some really random article! [laughs]
Emily: [laughs] Sorry!
Annette: No, no, that’s great! I was thinking the other day, you know everybody has, like you know, articles that people you know, oh somebody cites this article a lot. So I’m thinking you know, of like you know, what article do you wishpeople read that they don’t? And honestly it’s that one! [laughs]
Because there I went into this whole optic theory rabbit hole [laughs], which is my favorite thing about the article. And no one’s ever cited it. So I I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about it here. [laughs]
Emily: Good, I loved it. We both loved it.
Annette: I sometimes cite it in other articles in the hopes that someone will read it! It doesn’t seem to happen. You know, seriously! [laughs]
Anyway, in popular culture—I mean it originally comes out of film theory—but in popular culture the concept of the male gaze is so widespread. And we assume seeing and being seen is something that is gendered between men and women. So you know, you see this everywhere, this male gaze concept. It’s been very influential. It fits with a lot of things.
One of the things I suggest in respect to the Testament of Reuben is that especially when there’s description of fallen angels looking at women that doesn’t necessarily fit with our concept of the male gaze. Because of the complexity of ancient optic theory, which is different than modern concepts of seeing.
I find this fascinating. [laughs] First of all, because ancient optic theory is very strange! [laughs]
But it goes to show, you can have, you know, a difference with respect to whether the see-er or the seen is the person in power. The person who is seeing is intaking. But basically the, the soul is permeable and sight is one of the entry points of permeability. So when one sees something or somebody, that’s also something that is like able to impact you know, one’s soul or so forth. So that the see-er is not necessarily the kind of, not necessarily the agent. They can also actually be very vulnerable. So the opposite.
I was really focusing on it in respect to gender with this reminder that when we make kind of assumptions about gendering in our ancient sources— And it’s so tempting to find, like, the stories that we want to find or that seem familiar to us. You know, women as witches! These are, these are all things that are appealing in part because they’re familiar. And we do have, you know, this temptation, even those who really can talk about cultural contingency of gender, you know, can have this temptation of finding things that are familiar to us in the past. And especially you know, in some cases to think about it in terms of, you know, equity in the present. Like, hah this has been going on forever!
You know, even kind of these basic concepts like “what does it mean to see and be seen?” may not be stable across different cultural settings and different historical settings. So we should really back way up reading our texts. And when we think about how gender functions in a text, we should back up and think how gender functions, but also not be so quick to assume that we see something that we seem to recognize from our present that that’s actually what’s going on.
And I think you know a lot of times when people right about, you know, kind of attitudes towards gender and sexuality, they tend to start with a framework that has already predetermined a lot of the answers.
So for me that optic theory example is, you know, less about optic theory, but more about this case in which it’s just this reminder that something as simple as you know “the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were beautiful” that does not necessarily mean the same thing to different people at different times.
Rebekah: Pivoting to an even wider lens for thinking about history, you’re currently exploring how ideas are forgotten intentionally or unintentionally—left out of a community’s collective memory—and what that act of forgetting tells us about the community itself. In episode 1, we talked about how very rare it was for women to be written into a text in the first place. It was usually a conscious choice by a male scribe to include them in a story, often because the woman was a social outlier in some way. So what does the absence or presence of women in ancient texts, this communal memory or forgetting of women if you will, mean for our recovery of history?
Annette: Part of what I find fascinating is the degree to which the presumption that our archives and histories are and can be total is itself a form of forgetting. You know, it’s actually quite fascinating that we can have, you know, whole histories that barely mention women at all, never talk about the perspective of women, that within modern scholarly culture are commonly presumed to be complete.
So it is presumed that it is possible to tell a history without half the people in the world! Easily! That this is not a problem. And that’s what I find so fascinating in terms of forgetting. As you, we can talk about things that are left out, texts that become marginalized, texts that become lost, figures who are overwritten. We can, you know, I have these whole taxonomies of forgetting. But to me it’s all against that background, like the background of what it means to take a partial history and project it as if complete.
And you know the case of women is just one example, but it’s one particularly powerful example. The puzzle isn’t, you know, why don’t we have more views of women? The puzzle is why do we presume that you can leave out so many people and still have a history that is, you know, the history of the Jews. Or you know, whatever, the history of Christianity! You have so little material about women in both cases and also so much confidence that you can otherwise build the entire framework. And just like, stick in some footnotes.
You know, I actually think, you know, gender aside, just kind of across all sorts of different lines you know geographical diversity, you know, other sorts of— many other sorts of difference. The challenge is, how do we tell histories that we admit are partial and fragmentary? Because they’re partial and fragmentary. And this is, you know, one example of that.
Emily: You’ve actually led really well into this next question we have, but much of your work has not been on women and gender, as we’ve alluded to, and you’ve said that you intentionally did not position yourself as a scholar in those areas. How do you personally situate women’s history and the study of gender in antiquity within the broader study of history? So if we are going to try and tell fuller stories, how do we go about doing that?
Annette: Yeah, that’s a tricky question. I do not think of myself as a scholar of women and gender, in part because the theorization of gender is itself an incredibly complicated and sophisticated theoretical field in which I was not trained.
I find it strange when it’s assumed that anyone who identifies as female automatically is able to partake in what is actually an incredibly complex and sophisticated field. You know, I’m happy to take insights from that, but I also think that it is a theoretical discussion that is incredibly sophisticated and incredibly complex. And there’s something that’s very belittling I think of that to assume, “oh, you just have to be, you know, just identify as a woman; you can like, do this, whatever. Just, you know, submit an article! I’m gonna invite you to a conference.”
And I say this because all those things have happened to me. [laughs] He says, “oh, you know you can talk on it. I’m sure you can teach on this.” Why would I? Why would you assume I could teach on this? “oh of course, yeah, I’m sure you have something to say at this conference on, you know, women and gender.” It’s like, why would I have something to say unless you know…?
So I have not, you know— I don’t have that training, and I haven’t written about it. And it’s something that I always feel like I’m a bit of an interloper. I mean precisely because I don’t want to, you know, reinscribe, that concept. It’s like, “oh, this isn’t really theory; like any woman can talk about this.” So it’s only identity, not actual intellectual work. It’s intellectual work. You know, sophisticated subfields of debates and so forth.
That said, you know to the times I’ve been pushed to say something and then said something—’cause I also don’t want to devalue it as being an area to talk about. So that’s the kind of, you know the challenge—
I do think that it is an area where it is one among many examples of how we can try to imagine more integrative histories. You know, we’re a starting point for that project in a lot of ways. We’re starting point for it along lines of gender, along lines of you know ethnic and other types of difference, along lines of you know different classes of society, along questions about you know Eurocentrism and different kind of geographical foci, along questions of you know, which languages count as ancient? [laughs]
You know, someone says “ancient history” like you know where you’re talking about. Which if you think about is ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense.
We have many lines to think about. And I think the more integrative histories, that the theorization of gender is among those resources that we have for trying to think about how to write history differently, both from and to a more capacious arise.
Well, I don’t have any answers to this you know? But I do think it’s like, this is part of our kind of project. And it’s also a project because many of our fields you know formed in the 19th century in a pretty narrow demographic range.
You know if you, we could talk about the historiography of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity we’re really talking about like, not a lot of towns with like, just some mostly German men. And you know, I love 19th-century scholarship [laughs]! But we don’t have to treat it as if that’s like what we have to do forever.
Learning it is also relativizing it. If you place it where it is one of the things you also realize is we’re not limited by those questions. You know, and that’s partially one of the ways I go about thinking about this historiographical question, is like, particularizing the origins of our fields.
But yeah, the other direction is, you know, experimenting with opening up. And I think it’s an experiment.
Rebekah: Coming full circle, we started by talking a lot about your forthcoming article on the Sibylline Oracles. But what our audience might not know is that it had a long and meandering journey. What prompted you to write this piece on women and gender, and what was the story of this article?
Annette: I often think this is probably my strangest article in some ways, which is saying a lot! [laughs] I write a lot of strange articles! And I write a lot of experiments. It’s one of the things I love about articles. And also there’s a lot of work to do, but we should also embrace that with trial and error and play.
So I was, I was asked to give a paper at a conference on women and gender in Second Temple Judaism. So I said, “Oh I don’t work on women and gender, so you know, these issues.”
But I did want to be supportive because it was this case in which it was within a forum, the Enoch Seminar, that has often not included a lot of women. You know, so as a result I said this is a very important project. It’s very important to kind of show up, be supportive. But then I had to write something! [laughs]
So because I’m, you know, don’t really do feminist theory, I was reading around. And I came upon was Donna Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges,” which is a classic article which I love. [laughs] And part of the power of this article is—it’s from the late 1980s, and in some ways I often think of it as a kind of feminist equivalent to bell hooks’ “Choosing the Margins” essay. Which, they’re within, you know, a year of each other. These incredibly, two powerful pieces.
But anyway. You know, one of the things she [Haraway] talks about is the importance of embodied knowledge and positioned [knowledge]. Like the problem with objectivity as being the projection of an ostensibly disembodied I onto knowledge that is actually only for those who are permitted not to have a body. That’s how she describes it. So you know, those of us who are women or you know, not white or whatever, you know the feeling of— You know, your body is always noticed when you’re in a room. Whereas our male colleagues don’t necessarily have that same experience. So the idea that who can we pretend doesn’t have a body? [laughs] And this idea that somehow this is a concept of objectivity. And this, you know, whose voices are allowed to be disembodied. You know, I thought this was kind of a very interesting way to approach the Sibyllines.
So I did this experiment! And my experiment was that in my paper I only cited women in the body of the text. So only women were above the line. I cited men very rarely, and they’re only below the line. It was a very interesting experience, experiment. Cause I actually found myself almost viscerally confused by it, cause the habit is, you know, “I have to cite such-and-such important man in the first 5 pages of this article.” You know, you actually feel it, and that’s how you think of it as practice.
And I was thinking, “Oh yeah, actually Haraway is right.” You know we—you know including me as much as I could read and think about this—our actual embodied practice sees expertise in certain voices and not certain voices. And it’s embedded. It’s really, you know, part of the way, you know, we see the world. So I went through. I cited women.
Luckily part of my inspiration for that is there are these two incredible dissertations written on the Sibylline Oracles, one by Ashley Bacchi and the other by Olivia Stewart Lester. Then and in both cases I was really able to say, you know, these are the people I’m going to put at the front of the article.
I enjoyed the experiment, and I also thought that it kind of drew out things that I hadn’t noticed. And I wouldn’t have noticed if I thought, “oh, you know, there are these male voices from long ago that I should be putting in the forefront.”
What was interesting about the paper was its reception because it seemed to make a lot of people uncomfortable for reasons they could not wholly identify. And part of that, I immediately— At first I thought, “Oh my experiment worked and it’s not just me” like it’s not just me, like am I just like a kind of trained in such an old fashioned way that I have to follow these practices? That this was also really spoke to a culture of what counts as a voice of expertise. And you know, who you cite, who you cite where, and kind of these invisible rules for you know, what sounds authoritative and whose voices don’t sound authoritative, which in this case include women talking about gender.
So initially I thought I would not publish the piece as a result because I thought it wouldn’t make it through peer review. But it’s funny! It’s funny that I even thought that. That I thought, “oh the rules of citation— I broke the rules of citation, so I cannot put this, I cannot publish this.”
Emily: We can read the antediluvian Genesis myths and their later adaptations as quintessential examples of patriarchy and sexism: women with secret knowledge as threats to the human race, raving oracles, human women blamed for seducing angel men. Of course ancient authors would claim women were at fault for what they wore and how they acted!
But this may be too hasty a reading.
Rebekah: In the Jewish medieval text Midrash Bereshit Rabbati, we get yet another version of the angelic fall story.11 God tests the angelic ringleaders from the Enochic literature to see if they can resist the temptations of earth. While they still fail, one of the daughters of men is transformed into a heroine. When an angel approaches and demands she submit to him, Asterah instead tricks him into revealing a key snippet of heavenly knowledge: the secret password by which an angel could ascend to heaven. Putting her purloined knowledge to good use, this wise woman escapes angelic advances by using the password and ascending to heaven. God rewards her with immortality. Secret heavenly knowledge did not always mean punishment when it came to women. In this twelfth-century reading, Asterah the daughter of men does not doom the human race with her pilfered knowledge. She is valorized, even immortalized.
Emily: Sometimes modern scholars dive into ancient texts assuming we will find misogyny therein. And so we do. We make assumptions about cultural reception, and what the earliest authors meant versus what they said. But our cultural valances weren’t necessarily their cultural valances. Our seeing wasn’t necessarily their seeing. Our assumptions about authorship–even ghostwriting–might not have been theirs. As Annette pointed out, while the trope of women as magical temptresses is present in some ancient literary texts, modern readers lose something when we focus exclusively on a quest to find misogyny. Historically, interpreters can and did read the story of the angels’ fall a variety of ways. Not all of which involved misogyny and gendered knowledge.
Rebekah: It is easy to pause on the patriarchy woven into the Sibylline Oracles. The characterization of madness and frenzy that marked them as suspicious. The framing of a divine prophetic spirit forcing itself upon a woman.
But perhaps instead we could pause on the fact that numerous ancient authors, over the course of multiple generations, chose to ghostwrite under the persona of a woman. That women were accepted as purveyors of divine truth. In the opening lines of the Third Sibylline Oracle, she addresses anthropoi (ἄνθρωποι). Depending on how you choose to read this Greek word, she could be speaking only to men or to a multitude, the whole human race.
Emily: The author John Green has said, “It’s easy for me to understand that I contain multitudes, but rather than understanding that of other people, too often I imagine them as merely sick or merely poor or merely ‘them’ to some ‘us’ that includes me.”12 Ancient texts and their ancient authors can be othered in much the same way. When we assume “them” to be worse than an implicitly-improved, modern “us” we automatically erase certain possibilities from the stories. And vice versa. We can damage our own eyesight with our assumptions.
Sometimes, what you seek is what you find.
Rebekah: If you enjoyed our show, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, or wherever you get your podcasts. Check out our website womenwhowentbefore.com or find us on Twitter @womenbefore.
This podcast is written and produced and edited by us, Rebekah Haigh and Emily Chesley. Our music was composed and produced by Moses Sun. This podcast is sponsored by the Center for Culture, Society and Religion, the Program in Judaic Studies, and the Stanley J. Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies all at Princeton University.
Emily: Thanks for listening to Women Who Went Before. And don’t forget: women were there!
[closing podcast music plays]
- Rachel Deahl, “Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows,” Publishers Weekly, November 12, 2021.
- Zach RIchter, “Four Great Autobiographies Written with the Help of a Ghostwriter,” The Writers for Hire.
- “Peter Lerangis on Ghostwriting the Babysitter’s Club and the Future of YA Lit,” The Airship, nd; Bio, PeterLerangis.com, nd.
- Henry Samuel, “Alexadre Dumas novels penned by ‘fourth musketeer’ ghost writer,” The Telegraph, February 10, 2010; and “7 Books You Never Knew Were Ghostwritten,” Understanding Publishing, March 28, 2018.
- Virgil. Eclogues. Georgics. Aeneid: Books 1-6, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, rev. G. P. Goold, Loeb Classical Library 63 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916), 539.
- Third Sibylline Oracle, trans. J. J. Collins, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983), 380.
- M. de Jonge, Testamenta xii patriarcharum, 2nd ed., Pseudepigrapha veteris testamenti Graece 1 (Leiden: Brill, 1970); translation follows H. W. Hollander and M. de Jonge, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 101–102.
- Martha Himmelfarb, “What Goes On in the Heavenly Temple? Celestial Praise and Sacrifice in Ancient Judaism and Christianity,” in Atonement: Jewish and Christian Origins, eds. Max Botner, Justin Harrison Duff & Simon Dürr (Eerdmans, 2020), 172.
- Annette Yoshiko Reed, “Gendering Revealed Knowledge? Prophesy, Positionality, and Perspective in Ancient Jewish Apocalyptic and Related Literatures,” 10th Nangeroni Meeting: Gender and Second Temple Judaism conference paper, June 20, 2017, 5.
- Annette Yoshiko Reed, “Gendering Heavenly Secrets? Women, Angels, and the Problem of Misogyny and ‘Magic’,” in Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World, eds. Kimberly B. Stratton and Dayna S. Kalleres (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 111 and 117.
- Midrash Of Shemhazai And Azael, Midrash Bereshit Rabbati. Edited by Hanokh Albeck (Jerusalem: Mekitze Nirdamim, 1940), 29.14-31.8.
- John Green, “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” vlogbrothers video, Youtube, June 9, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FPpwxHtXLU.
- 7 Books You Never Knew Were Ghostwritten.” Understanding Publishing. March 28, 2018.
- Bio. PeterLerangis.com. Nd.
- Rachel Deahl. “Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows,. Publishers Weekly. November 12, 2021.
- John Green. “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” vlogbrothers video. Youtube. 9 June 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FPpwxHtXLU.
- Martha Himmelfarb. “What Goes On in the Heavenly Temple? Celestial Praise and Sacrifice in Ancient Judaism and Christianity.” Pp. 171-192 in Atonement: Jewish and Christian Origins, eds. Max Botner, Justin Harrison Duff, and Simon Dürr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020.
- M. de Jonge. Testamenta xii patriarcharum. Second Edition. Pseudepigrapha veteris testamenti Graece 1. Leiden: Brill, 1970.
- Midrash Of Shemhazai And Azael, Midrash Bereshit Rabbati. Edited by Hanokh Albeck (Jerusalem: Mekitze Nirdamim, 1940), 29.14-31.8.
- The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Volume 1. Edited by James H. Charlesworth. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.
- “Peter Lerangis on Ghostwriting the Babysitter’s Club and the Future of YA Lit.” The Airship. Nd.
- Annette Yoshiko Reed. “Gendering Heavenly Secrets? Women, Angels, and the Problem of Misogyny and ‘Magic’.” Pp 108–151 in Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World. Edited by Kimberly B. Stratton and Dayna S. Kalleres. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- –––. “Gendering Revealed Knowledge? Prophesy, Positionality, and Perspectivein Ancient Jewish Apocalyptic and Related Literatures.” 10th Nangeroni Meeting: Gender and Second Temple Judaism conference paper. June 20, 2017. Pp. 1-27.
- Zach Richter. “Four Great Autobiographies Written with the Help of a Ghostwriter.” The Writers for Hire. Nd.
- Henry Samuel. “Alexadre Dumas novels penned by ‘fourth musketeer’ ghost writer.” The Telegraph. February 10, 2010.
- Virgil. Eclogues. Georgics. Aeneid: Books 1-6. Translated by H. Rushton Fairclough. Revised by G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library 63. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916.