Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Meghan R. Henning's "Hell Hath No Fury"

Meghan R. Henning is associate professor of Christian origins at the University of Dayton. She is the author of Educating Early Christians Through the Rhetoric of Hell.

Henning applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Hell Hath No Fury: Gender, Disability, and the Invention of Damned Bodies in Early Christian Literature, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Hell Hath No Fury we find ourselves in chapter three, witnessing hell freezing over in the Apocalypse of Paul. Chapter three looks at the tortures of early Christian hell that equate female, enslaved, and disabled bodies with sin:
In the Apocalypse of Paul 42, Paul sees those who deny the resurrection in a place of extreme cold and snow that will never become warm: “And I looked from the north towards the west and I saw there the worm that never rests, and in that place there was gnashing of teeth. Now the worm was a cubit in size and it had two heads. And I saw there men and women in the cold and gnashing of teeth.” Here the text combines the eternal punishment tropes of gnashing of teeth and the worm that never dies with a third element: extreme cold.

The gnashing of teeth as a reference to emotional distress is found throughout the Septuagint ( Job 16:9; Ps 34:16; 36:12; 111:10; Lam 2:16). In Greek literature, gnashing teeth can refer to anger or the passions. The expression “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in Matthew influenced the early Christian apocalypses in which we find different interpretations of those who weep and gnash their teeth in the places of eternal punishment (Matt 8: 12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; cf. Luke 13:28a; Sibylline Oracles 8.231). For an early Christian thinker like Origen, this feature inspired the question of why resurrected bodies would have teeth at all. In contrast to the Apocalypse of Paul, however, Matthew and other early Christian authors often connected “gnashing of teeth” with Gehenna and fiery punishment rather than with cold.

In judicial settings chattering teeth were a sign of guilt or nervousness. Cicero associates chattering teeth with “fright as paralyzing fear which causes paleness, trembling and chattering teeth” (Tusc. Disp. 4.8). Such fright is associated with losing control of one’s body across a broad span of time (e.g., Homer, Il. 10.375–80; Libanius, Or. 23.20). In a punitive context chattering teeth are connected not only to fear and guilt, but also to the excessively cold conditions of prison.
This page is a great indicator of what the book is about, thinking about the ways that the images of hell in the early Christian apocalypses draw upon the bodily realities of their audiences. Those who deny the resurrection are subjected to the extreme cold of a subterranean ancient prison and the illness that might come from living there. The loss of bodily control that comes from extreme cold was a symptom specifically associated with women’s bodies in antiquity.

As early Christians develop their ideas about the damned body, the womanly, out of control body becomes a mechanism for policing sin. Damned bodies are not simply a mirror for ancient ideas about bodily conformity, they reinforce those ideas and intensify them by assigning them eternal significance. In hell the female and the disabled body are on display as monstrous emblems of sinful souls. The cultural fear of effeminate, disabled bodies is used as a weapon to control behavior.

What we don’t get to see on page 99 is the way that this logic is not only present in ancient Christian depictions of hell, but gets transmitted to us today through Dante, who read the Apocalypse of Paul, and whose work has had a tremendous influence. As a result, ancient ideas of criminal justice and many of the ableist and misogynistic notions of the body in the early Christian apocalypses have been assigned lasting significance. The Epilogue of the book invites readers to think about other ways in which we bring hell to earth today, weaponizing our own society’s bodily norms.
Learn more about Hell Hath No Fury at the Yale University Press website.

Marshal Zeringue