This collection of essays (five new and five previously published) is the third, and most sophisticated, of Ilan’s trilogy on women in ancient Judaism. While Ilan’s first book focused on the evidence for women in ancient texts and inscriptions (Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine: An Inquiry into Image and Status) and her second on methodology (Mine and Yours are Hers: Retrieving Women’s History from Rabbinic Literature), the essays in this volume demonstrate an integration of feminist critical methods into the critical reading of texts and material culture.
The essays address a range of literary and material sources for ancient Jewish history. The two chapters in part one, “Women and Sects,” explore, first, the relationship of aristocratic women to the Pharisaic movement and, second, the attitude of Beit Shammai toward sexuality and the legal position of women in society. In the second part, “Women and Sources,” a series of chapters explores the literary relationship of Josephus and Nicolaus of Damascus through their respective presentations of women; the texts of Esther, Judith, and Susanna as propaganda for the reign of Hasmonean queen Salome Alexandra; the rabbinic use of Ben Sira, again through the lens of attitudes toward women; the development of Beruriah in the rabbinic tradition; and the use of skeletal remains for the study of gender and social history. A third section, “Women and the Judaean Desert Papyri,” includes chapters that explore the identity of Julia Crispina, the evidence for premarital cohabitation, and the question of women’s ability to divorce their husbands as presented in the papyri.
Among these well-written and interesting essays, several stand out for their content or methodological innovation. The first chapter (previously published in Harvard Theological Review) explores the relationship of the Pharisees to certain elite Jewish women of the Second Temple period (mentioned by both Josephus and the rabbis). Through an innovative reading of the sources Ilan recreates a history of that relationship, which she grounds in the Pharisees’ status as an opposition party. Elite women, she finds, supported the Pharisees not because they proposed egalitarian rulings but merely because the sectarians were willing to accept their support and “refrained from enacting detrimental rules” against women (p. 37). Once the Pharisees came to power their need for such support decreased, and the relationship ended.
Similarly interesting is Ilan’s reading of the stories of Esther, Judith, and Susanna as compositions intended to serve as propaganda for the first century bce reign of Queen Shelamzion (Salome Alexandra). All three narratives map a female hero “onto a male setting, sometimes onto an all-male story” (p. 143), and each explicitly addresses questions about gender and the nature of woman. At the same time, these compositions are no feminist’s ideal; they “do not openly promote women’s leadership, nor are they revolutionary in nature” (p. 153). Ilan’s evaluation suggests a possible historical origin for this view of female Jewish leadership.
A particular strength of this volume is Ilan’s presentation of textual traditions and their development. In an exploration of the Beruriah legend (chap. 6), for example, Ilan shows a facility for careful readings of layers of interpretation. She begins by arguing that the legend is grounded in the memory of a real person (a “historical Beruriah”), then goes on to show how later generations of rabbis added layers to the picture, each apparently “perplexed” by the image of an educated woman in the homosocial world of the tannaim (p. 194). Equally thought-provoking is the discussion of skeletal remains as evidence for the social history of this period (chap. 7). The chapter provides an analysis of sex ratios and infant mortality but also goes beyond these basics to a discussion of what this evidence might say about domestic and everyday violence in ancient Jewish circles.
Reading this volume in light of Ilan’s earlier work on women in ancient Judaism reveals a progression in her scholarship, from an uncritical focus on “women,” to a concern for feminist critical awareness, and now to an argument for an integrated feminist historiography that transcends rather than merely complementing earlier masculinist histories. Ilan takes steps toward such a historiography here, with bold and often audacious historical interpretations that should be understood as possible readings of the evidence, and not as final analyses of historical fact. As she notes in chapter 1, “it is true that the evidence [e.g., for her thesis on Pharisees and their female supporters] is scanty, but it is scarcely thinner than that adduced in support of claims made in Second Temple historiography [that] have gained universal acceptance” (p. 31). In light of these historiographical claims, better framing chapters would have been helpful (the book has a brief introduction but no concluding chapter). As a contribution to the ongoing feminist critical discussion of ancient Judaism, however, these essays offer new insights and provocation for much future scholarship.