Did Ancient Women Read Books?

Author Sarit Kattan Gribetz joins us for a Q&A about “Women as Readers of the Nag Hammadi Codices" published in the Journal of Early Christian Studies. (Article can be found at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/709379.)

How did you delve into this area of research?

A decade ago, I took a graduate course, co-taught by Elaine Pagels and Lance Jenott, about the Nag Hammadi Codices. Rather than studying the individual texts as second or third century compositions of largely unknown origin, as they are usually studied, the course challenged us to explore them as material objects – that is, as Coptic texts bound together in fourth- or fifth-century codices and buried near monasteries in the desert of Upper Egypt. The focus of analysis thus shifted from the composers and transmitters of these texts to their translators and readers, and from regarding each individual text on its own to thinking about its place within a text collection. Who might have been interested in such texts in fourth- or fifth-century Egypt? What might they have found theologically compelling or otherwise relevant to their lives? In what context might they have read, performed, or studied these texts? How did the binding together of different treatises into a single codex shape the interpretation of the individual texts and of the texts in relation to one another? Why were they ultimately hidden? These questions led to a semester of lively and intense seminar discussions.

When it came time for me to write my seminar paper, I realized that one dimension of the existing scholarship especially puzzled me. Much ink had already been spilled about the Nag Hammadi’s possible readers, and scholars debated whether they were monks, urban intellectual elites, so-called Gnostics, or others. But no one raised the possibility that, among any of these proposed groups, women could have been among the readers. This fact, though, seemed important, because so much of this scholarship focused on reader response – how various audiences might have read the texts. Forgetting that women might have been among the texts’ audiences seemed to me a significant oversight, not least because it prevented us from discussing how women might have understood these texts or related to them. Given that some of the central themes and stories within the Nag Hammadi texts revolve around virginity, rape, motherhood, and so on, I worried that overlooking the text’s women readers obscured not only an important dimension of the codices’ reception but also of our interpretation of the texts themselves. 

My first task was to figure out whether it was possible to imagine women as readers in late antiquity. Looking back, the answer is now obvious to me: though women’s literacy rates were never as high as men’s, plenty of women knew how to read and write, and some must have been voracious readers. This is not the impression that most people – even most scholars of late antiquity – have about women’s literacy in this period. But there is abundant evidence for it, much of which I document in my article. I relied on the meticulous work of scholars such as María Jesús Albarrán Martínez, Raffaella Cribiore, Kim Haines-Eitzen, Harry Gamble, AnneMarie Luijendijk, Erica Mathieson, Roger Bagnall, and Eija Salmenkivi, who have examined the evidence in great detail. Much of it came from the very same region where the Nag Hammadi Codices had been discovered. Letters authored by women, books copied by women, artistic renderings of women reading texts – all of it was hiding in plain sight. 

Once I established that it is absolutely possible that women could have been among the Nag Hammadi Codices’ readers, I set out to answer the far thornier questions of whether and how we might take the gender of readers into account in our analyses of the texts. I make some modest proposals regarding this topic in the article, which I hope people will read and contemplate together with me. 

How important is it to examine the role ofin ancient times like your essay does?

One of the lessons I learned in the process of writing this article about women readers is that there is often a lot more evidence about women in antiquity than we assume. Sometimes, I am struck with the uncomfortable realization that modern scholars and scholarly communities might be more misogynistic than the texts and communities they – that is, we – study. I developed this hunch while working on a different article, titled “Zekhut Imahot: Mothers, Fathers, and Ancestral Merit in Rabbinic Sources,” recently published in the Journal for the Study of Judaism. Rabbinic texts from late antiquity develop a theological idea that later generations benefit from the merit accrued through the good deeds of their ancestors. In modern scholarship, this idea is usually translated as “patriarchal merit” or “merit of the fathers,” rather than as “ancestral merit” (the Hebrew term “avot” can be translated exclusively as “fathers” or inclusively as “ancestors”). I was curious to know whether this theological idea included matriarchs or whether the rabbis only imagined the patriarchs to accrue merit for subsequent generations. I suspected that they only had patriarchs in mind, because scholars never mentioned matriarchs in their studies of this idea. To my surprise, once I had examined all of the relevant ancient sources, I learned that rabbinic texts contain many references to the matriarchs who accrued merit, and that they even had a special term for this – “zekhut imahot,” matriarchal merit – that paired with “zekhut avot.” Indeed, the very earliest example of the idea of ancestral merit, found in a third-century rabbinic commentary of scripture, concerns none other than the matriarch Rachel. It wasn’t ancient rabbinic sources, but rather modern rabbinics scholarship, that had erased the women in the texts by omitting them from the discussion.  

What impact does the identity of potential readers of the codices have on the way we view them today?

There’s an elegant ambiguity to your question. Do you mean “the identity of potential readers of the codices” in antiquity or in the present? I think that they both matter for how we view the codices, and that both are intertwined.

The identity of the interpreter is always implicated in the interpretation, however complicated and counterintuitive (and potentially inaccessible to scholars) the impact might be. That’s true of both ancient interpreters and contemporary interpreters. And that’s one of the reasons why having diverse communities of scholars – communities composed of scholars from different racial, ethnic, religious, geographical, and class backgrounds, those of different genders and sexualities, those with divergent disciplinary and political views, those with varied life experiences, and so on – is so important for producing the most rigorous and honest scholarly work. Everyone brings new perspectives to their subjects of study, and the more diverse the people at the table (or the library), the more varied the questions we ask and compelling the answers we propose. 

Why did the idea of women readers of these ancient texts occur to me, and not to previous scholars? That’s a complicated question to answer, but part of the answer is that I was a woman reading these texts in a room full of men. Professor Pagels led the seminar, but other than her I was the only woman in the course. (That was not, by the way, an anomalous experience: I was the only or one of the only women in most of my graduate courses). The gendered dynamics of my own study environment piqued my curiosity about the gendered dynamics of ancient reading environments as well. Looking back, this was certainly one of the reasons why I even thought to ask the questions that I did.  

Including different kinds of scholars takes deliberate effort. When we add more chairs to the table, we need to be willing to change the shape of the table itself to accommodate everyone. That is literally what happened in a subsequent semester when, due to a complicated pregnancy, I found myself on bedrest. Professor Pagels moved a sofa into the seminar room so that I could continue participating in our weekly meetings, and Lance Jenott came to my home to teach me Coptic twice each week. 

In my article, I suggest that considering different kinds of ancient readers prompts us, contemporary scholars, to read the same texts from varied perspectives. Metaphors of a woman’s rape or personifications of female deities, for example, likely resonated differently depending on who read them. Considering the range of receptions of these texts reminds us that the texts likely meant different things to different people – and that we ought to take the fullest view possible when we try to historically contextualize the ancient texts, their readers, and their meanings.

What made the Journal for Early Christian Studies the right venue for your research?​

I think about my scholarship as one voice in a vibrant conversation. When I publish an article, I try to figure out into which conversation I’d like to intervene and where that conversation is unfolding. In the case of my article about women readers of the Nag Hammadi Codices, JECS was one of the venues where conversations both about the Nag Hammadi Codices as text collections and about women/gender in early Christianity were taking place, and so it seemed like a perfect fit. I cite several JECS articles: Lance Jenott and Elaine Pagels’ 2010 examination of Codex I; Karen King’s 2011 analysis of sex and gender in the Secret Revelation of John; Michael Kaler’s 2014 study of Codex VI; Ally Kateusz’s 2015 piece about the ascension of Mary; and Paul Linjamaa’s 2016 investigation of female figures in the Interpretation of Knowledge. Once I had submitted my article for review, I appreciated the professionalism with which JECS’s editor, Stephen Shoemaker, the anonymous reviewers, and the editorial team handled my article and the publication process. I hope that my article contributes to larger conversations in the field of early Christianity and religion in late antiquity.

Where do you hope the ideas from this essay take you next?

My JECS article is one of several articles I’ve recently published about women in late antiquity: women’s roles as creators and transmitters of traditions; metaphors of women’s bodies in ancient texts; constructions of gendered conceptions of time; the connotations of particular ancient terms for women; and so on. In the course of writing these articles, I accumulated a list of more general methodological reflections about the study of women and gender in antiquity – challenges I faced, lessons I learned along the way, unexpected revelations. Now, I’m turning those notes into a reflective essay about scholarly practices in our field and how we might think more critically about the way we approach gendered dimensions of the past. 

I’m also in the midst of writing a new book, titled Jerusalem: A Feminist History, which builds upon the underlying concerns of my JECS paper: why are women so easily erased from the histories we write?  How do we think about history differently when we place at the center of our interpretive projects women and others who played important roles in the past, but who were left out of the narrative because of their gender, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity, and other aspects of their identities and relative powerlessness? This book will argue that women were central to every aspect of Jerusalem’s history, from antiquity to the present, and that focusing on Jerusalem’s women illuminates new aspects of the city’s history.

One day, I also hope to write a book that examines the role that imagination plays in our constructions of late antiquity, and about the heuristic and analytical potential of even more creative imagining. I’m fascinated by how much implicit imagining scholars of antiquity do on a regular basis, and how we decide what is permissible and legitimate to imagine, and what not. I wonder: how can we harness imagination to expand our understanding of the past, rather than limit it? In my JECS article, I questioned why scholars of the Nag Hammadi Codices allowed themselves to imagine male readers but not female readers, even though there is plenty of evidence for women’s literacy in the region of Upper Egypt at precisely the period when the codices would have circulated. In this next project, I’d like to critically examine more expansively the role that imagination already plays as well as the role that new forms of imagining could potentially play in the study of religion in antiquity.

Ultimately, in all of these projects, I’m interested in the power of historical narratives and the ethics of storytelling. 

Sarit Kattan Gribetz is Assistant Professor in the Theology Department at Fordham University. Her first book, Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press. She is now writing her second book, titled Jerusalem: A Feminist History