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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Elizabeth Meaghan Matheson, Religion

On Her Lips, From God: Sexual Violence, Charismatic Speech, and Authority in Early Christianity

Monday, October 16, 2023
1 p.m. – 4 p.m.

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Dolly Grewal



When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


This dissertation is a feminist historical literary analysis of select early Christian narrative sources in which epistemology and charismatic speech are linked to sexual violence: the Hypostasis of the Archons (HypArch), the Acts of Paul and Thecla (ATh), and the Acts of the Apostles (Acts). I read these narratives in a broader debate within early Christ communities about whose charismatic speech could obtain divine status. I argue that sexual violability and assault figures into the texts’ representations of authority. Moreover, these sources rely on dominant ancient understandings of sexuality that normalized the sexual violability of marginal groups, including women, ethnic others, and enslaved persons.

The introductory chapter outlines my methodology, the context of speech and authority in early Christ assemblies, and dominant conceptions of sexuality and gender related to sexual violence. Chapter one addresses Eve’s rape in HypArch and shows how this sexual violence undermines her prophetic role and place in the text’s soteriological vision. In chapter two, I examine the narratives of Norea, Eve’s daughter and the protagonist of HypArch, and Thecla (ATh), and demonstrate that, though early Christian sources assume the normativity of sexual violence, they also imagine moments in which characters (in this case, high-standing women) could resists such violence. The final two chapters consider sexual violence, charismatic speech, and authority in the representation of three enslaved persons in Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), the prophetic enslaved girl (Acts 16), and Rhoda (Acts 12). Reading these scenes in the context of the sexually violent nature of ancient slavery, I show how Luke’s rhetoric relies on the inherent sexualization of enslaved persons to bolster the image of the Way and prop up the apostles while undermining the authoritative potential of these figures.

This dissertation reveals how some early Christian configurations of knowledge and charismatic power were tied to sexual status and often left the normalization of sexual violence unexamined. In making this assertion, I link understandings of sexual violence past and present that follow from the #MeTooMVMT, such as, how victim/survivors in our own time are held in suspicion and how institutions and academic subfields, including early Christian studies, have been complicit in enabling a culture of predation.

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