A Brief Review of Unmanly Men: Refiguring Maculinity in Luke-Acts, by Brittany E. Wilson

51Og9mZMRaL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_For nearly fifty years, feminist critics of the New Testament have grappled with Luke’s treatment of women in his two-volume work. Once hailed as a radical pro-woman gospel for its numerous named female characters who speak and interact with Jesus, recent studies have complicated this initial claim by critiquing the actual extent to which women in Luke-Acts function as dynamic characters rather than mere “props” in the narrative. Not unrelated to these feminist critiques of Luke-Acts is Brittany E. Wilson’s central claim in Unmanly Men, a groundbreaking work in the nascent field of critical masculinity studies. If you want to understand Luke’s attitude toward women, Wilson says, it is equally helpful to understand the author’s approach toward men. Wilson’s argument: By creating male characters that undermine elite cultural norms for manliness, the author of Luke-Acts has generated a theo-political narrative that redefines or “refigures” masculinity in light of human weakness and divine faithfulness.

Unmanly Men consists of six chapters divided into three parts followed by a concluding section. In Part I, Wilson provides an overview of masculinity in the ancient Greco-Roman principate, roughly contemporary with the composition of Luke-Acts. Here she relies heavily upon primary sources, and offers a brilliant synthesis of the ancient literature pertaining to “manliness”. Among the canonical gospels, Luke is, of course, uniquely suited to Wilson’s thesis, since the Third Gospel alone is addressed to a specific reader: “Most Excellent Theophilus,” an elite (presumably Gentile) male.

Parts II and III comprise analyses of major and minor Lukan characters who embody the thesis of Unmanly Men. Wilson proposes four examples that best illustrate her argument: Zechariah (Luke 1:5-79), the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39), the Apostle Paul, and Jesus. Each chapter focuses upon various events and characteristics that undermine ancient conceptions of masculinity: Zechariah is struck mute by Gabriel and subsequently relinquishes his paternal right to name his own son; the Ethiopian eunuch is a foreigner who lacks the physical apparatus needed to procreate; a zealous Saul is blinded by the Lord on the road to Damascus; and Jesus remains silent at his trial before being led away and nailed to a cross. Each of these men is at the mercy of a force beyond his control, subverting the Lukan audience’s expectation of what constitutes the Roman ideal of manhood. Moreover, Wilson argues, this subversion of their masculinity makes a unique theological statement about the characters’ weaknesses and subsequent reliance upon God as the source of true power rather than virility, an idea that complements Luke’s thematic overturning of traditional power structures and cultural mores.

Elite Roman status, a chiseled body without physical deformity or disability, the exercise of free speech as well as the practice of self-restraint, access to financial and social capital (but not so much luxury as to be perceived as pampered or “soft”), a deep voice, a measured gait, the willingness to dominate competition by means of violence if necessary (but not too quick to anger, so as not to be perceived as overly “passionate,” a feminine trait), sexual control over one’s own body as well as those of others—with criteria for masculinity like these, Wilson’s readers may rightly wonder the extent to which her thesis can be useful for New Testament study; given the vast and complex range of actions and attributes that constituted masculinity in the ancient Mediterranean world, virtually no character at all in the Gospel of Luke (let alone in any other narrative in the entire New Testament!) lives up to the Greco-Roman ideal of a “manly man”. Still, Unmanly Men offers a compelling argument for better understanding Luke’s grasp of gender norms and how the Gospel subverts them. Elegantly written, this book is accessible to the undergraduate student and equally useful to the graduate student seeking to explore the intersecting disciplines of New Testament social science and literary criticism and gender studies.


[Note: The final, definitive version of this review will be published in a forthcoming issue of Review & Expositor by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © Joshua Paul Smith]


4 thoughts on “A Brief Review of Unmanly Men: Refiguring Maculinity in Luke-Acts, by Brittany E. Wilson

    • Good question, Howard. Sorry I’m just now getting around to responding to your comment and question. In her first couple chapters, she notes how different “waves” of feminism have read Luke’s female characters—with views ranging from liberated to present-but-still-subjugated. But Wilson’s contention is that you can learn more about Luke’s views on women by understanding how he depicts masculinity, so she deals more with subversion of tradition masculine roles in Luke than with the women specifically.


      • Thanks for the reply… I’d forgotten it had not gotten a response. I’m thinking someone (you?) should pursue more study and publication of the effect of both Jesus and Paul, with the rest of very early Xnty, on gender roles, subjugation of traditional ones, relation to compassion and charity, etc.

        From studying Acts, the Gospels and Paul quite a lot in recent years (as a progressive more than orthodox Xn) one of the related q’s that comes to mind is how much was shared or similar in the Jewish Christian practices and the Gentile Christian ones led most significantly by Paul. Now, via Luke’s bridging work (not entirely historical or “fair” in an academic sense, in my view), it appears the direct disciples of Jesus, largely building the Jewish Christian line, were similar to Paul in attitude and practice on this. Trouble is, that line pretty much disappears from written texts (and in prominence) soon after the destruction of Jeru. in 70.

        I believe that Luke’s reassertion of Paul’s basic theology and approach influenced at least G. of Matt. and John (perhaps indirectly), plus how we read them all, including the probably earlier Mark. But even with such caveats, it’s clear that Jesus was subversive and “feminist” for his time. That said, I wonder if Paul was actually the more subversive or ground-breaking, perhaps for 2 reasons: 1) His own inter-cultural, inter-religious milieu in Tarsus and affinity for Gentiles, work with them, had him leaning toward more dissolution of “boundaries”, including gender role distinctions (“…neither male nor female…”, respect for female colleagues, etc.). 2) His “Christianity” was in more fluid Greco-Roman cultural settings vs. the Jewish setting of the immediate disciples of Jesus, practicing what I consider a sect of Judaism more than a novel religion built on Judaism (as with Paul’s churches).

        Paul was in some conflict with at least Peter and seemingly James and the others over such largely cultural issues, perhaps for his entire ministry (my leaning, vs. the view of only brief conflict, resolved by the Jeru. Council, etc.). While gender expectations and roles were not central (apparently) in these conflicts, I’d not be surprised if they were another aspect of the tensions. And if Jesus was “revolutionary” in this area, I’m not sure we can assume James et al carried over fully his views and practices. Are you?


      • Though I identify more as a Christian than as a progressive, I’m not sure about Jesus’s ‘feminist’ tendencies carrying over with James and Peter. I am sure, however, that Paul was much more progressive than even Jesus regarding women, marriage, and dominant social hierarchies. I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again: I have a feeling that the historical Paul and I would get along much better than the historical Jesus and I would.


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