Women and Religion in Greco-Roman Antiquity: Tying it Together

by Ariel Bloomer '13

Andrew Jacobs

Each class day, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Andrew Jacobs walks into Humanities 102 wearing a bold necktie. The unusual prints — an illuminated manuscript or historical motif — showcase his love for academic disciplines such as religion and history. The ties just hint at what’s ahead for students. His class, “Women and Religion in Greco- Roman Antiquity (Religious Studies 170),” explores questions about virginity and martyrdom in Christianity,  the role of women in Greek and Roman life, the authority of Jewish women within their communities, even the idea of “magic.” What tie could capture all that?

Through primary sources, like Paul’s letters, selections of Syriac hymns, and Euripides’ The Bacchae, we study how women were represented through text. The goal of the class is to study these ideas as rooted, not stuck, in the past. This semester, discussions of pagan priestesses and women’s religious authority turned into a lively debate on Hillary Clinton’s authority in her roles as First Lady and Secretary of State. The Vestal Virgins bring to mind the Miss Universe pageant, and Maenads could not be discussed without watching a clip from last season of True Blood.

Why do events and ideas thousands of years old continue to resonate in our society? A modern audience continues to be captivated by stories and characters fixed in the past, whether it’s the adventures of Xena: Warrior Princess or the 2009 film Agora, a fictionalization of the death of Hypatia, a female philosopher and mathematician who was lynched in Alexandria in 415 CE.

Connecting antiquity to the present is one goal of RLST (Religious Studies)170. According to Jacobs, who came to Scripps in 2009, religious studies acts as a sort of mirror, giving “a really interesting opportunity to confront assumptions about modern society.” RLST 170 and several other Scripps offerings in the intercollegiate religious studies curriculum use gender as the lens through which to analyze antiquity and religion, an important role Scripps plays in the cooperative program in religious studies across the five Claremont Colleges. Exploring gender issues of antiquity allows us to consider more clearly, and with more critical distance, gender issues of today.

Like many Scripps classes, RLST 170 draws students from a range of disciplines. The course itself incorporates religion, history, and gender and women’s studies, and students come from those disciplines as well as the arts and sciences. As a self-designed creative writing major, I find the course fulfills my gender studies requirement and serves as a source of inspiration for my writing. From Greek and Roman mythology to ill-fated saints, I’ve found that Greco- Roman Antiquity is packed with fascinating stories waiting to be elaborated and told to the world.

Each student, depending on her background and interests, will ultimately take very different ideas and lessons from the course. But for all students, says Professor Jacobs, religious studies provides “a good exercise in critical thinking.”

From my perspective, it’s a fascinating exercise, too.


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