Catherine Murphy

Associate Professor, Religious Studies

Phone: (408) 551-1909

Current Work

I am beginning a project that examines the function of grain and bread distributions as boundary-marking mechanisms in the Roman Empire and in the early Christian church.My working thesis is that these distributions were not need-based "doles" or charitable allocations, but were rather rewards for membership or citizenship, marking the recipients as people worthy of sustenance in the economy of the group.

The Romans initiated a free monthly grain distribution to some 150,000 male citizens of Rome in 58 BCE, and maintained this allocation and the elaborate support mechanisms it required for several centuries.This type of distribution was fairly unique to the imperial capital, though elite leaders in provincial cities also stabilized their grain markets so as not to jeopardize the dogma of Rome's provisioning prowess.In fact, this prowess was interwoven in the political theology of the empire: on statues, coins and altars Pax (peace) or Roma (Rome) are depicted with symbols of the earth's fecundity, thus correlating the Roman peace to the fruitfulness of the earth and the provision of its citizens.

The Christian book Acts of the Apostles, drafted some time between 80 and 115 CE, tells the story of the earliest Christians after Jesus' death, positioning the community in terms acceptable to the Roman Empire and thus diluting the threat they might be though to pose (their leader, after all, had been executed by Rome).Of the many ways the Christians mimic Roman practice, two are focal for this project: like the Romans, Christians distribute food regularly to their "citizens," and like the Romans, gender and ethnic boundaries limit this distribution among members of the group, at least initially.Preference is clearly given to men.This research probes the subaltern position of the author of Acts and the ways that the distribution of food becomes a locus for negotiating the relationship to empire, which is always also a negotiation of gender and ethnicity.

Representative Publications

My research generally doesn't focus on gender, but one of my current projects does.  I'm working on an article that I'm provisionally calling "Performing Citizenship: Ethnic and Gender Boundaries in Grain Distributions among Imperial Romans and Early Christians."  I presented an early version of this paper to the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion panel at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco in November 2011.  I'll present an updated form to the Gender, Globalization and Empire Faculty Study Group in October 2012.  And I received a course release in Spring 2013 from the Provost's Faculty Research Course Release Initiative Pilot Program to bring the project to completion. I also co-chair the Gender, Globalization and Empire Faculty Study Group with Naomi Andrews in the History Dept.  There is an associated pathway as well.  While not a publication per se, the primary purpose of the group is to provide conversation partners for faculty doing research and teaching at the intersection of these topics (Click here to learn more).