Christianity, like most religions, has been dominated by men, even if a majority of adherents are women. While this is true, there have always been women who have made their mark on the expansion and development of the faith. The question is, how do we bring signs of this influence to light? Where should we look? In the case of the Patristic era of the church, that is the first five centuries of its existence, women left quite few traces of their influence. There are martyr stories, theological writings, and artwork, to name a few examples. Too often, however, we have ignored the evidence. Fortunately, there have been historians and theologians, who have taken the time to unpack the evidence and bring it to our attention. Such is the case with Christian Women in the Patristic World. I find it interesting that the title includes reference to the “Patristic world,” acknowledging the male dominant context from which these stories are extracted.
Christian Women in the Patristic World is the product of the labors of Lynn Cohick, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and Amy Brown Hughes, assistant professor of theology at Gordon College. These two scholars have done an excellent job bringing the stories of important women who left their mark on the Christian faith. In contrast to some scholars, who have cast a wider net to take in representatives from non-orthodox movements, they have chosen to focus on women who would have been considered theologically orthodox, and who were active agents in the development of the Christian faith. Thus, one will not find discussion of Gnostic texts or even of the Montanists. What they want to do is look "at women of various regions, backgrounds, situations, and temperaments from the earliest centuries of Christianity and remembering the many ways they assumed authority, exercised power, and shaped not only their legacy but also the legacy of Christianity" (p. xxv).
While this is first of all a scholarly endeavor, the two authors admit that the book is also an act of advocacy for the place of women in Christian life and leadership. Writing from within an evangelical context, that has often put limits on women leadership, they would like to bring to light stories of women who actively engaged in ministry and theological scholarship. While the territory they trod has been covered in previous efforts, the decision to focus on more mainstream voices is likely wise considering the audience they are addressing.
The authors begin with the story Thecla, who appears in a second century work as a companion of Paul, and in their words is a "protomartyr and virgin of the church." I have known about this story, but they bring much more detail about its early and lasting influence in the church. Thecla served as an example of ascetic lifestyle and as time passed became an honored figure in the early church, with pilgrimages being made to her shrines as early as the fourth century. With the story of Thecla as the starting place, the authors move on to introduce us to the stories of Perpetua and Felicitas, women who were mothers and martyrs in third century North Africa. They stand out because they stood up to their family systems, gave up their babies, and faced the arena with strength and courage. I was surprised to not read more here about the connection that some have made with Montanism, a second century charismatic movement that featured women prophets (and Perpetua and Felicitas have visions) and were present in North Africa. As they note, Tertullian did affirm the orthodoxy of the message, even if the form it took stood apart from the mainstream of the church.
The opening chapters deal with martyrdom, but as time passed the focus moved from martyrdom to other forms of religious life. Since much has been made of catacomb art, and the presence of pictures seemingly depicting women engaged in liturgical acts, they devote a chapter to catacomb art. One of the questions they raise is whether the women pictured in the artwork are Christians. As they note catacombs were not the domain of only Christians, and the artists who created the art might not have been Christian. So, they suggest caution when interpreting the artwork. Still, they acknowledge that this intriguing. With this conversation serving as transition, we move more fully into that moment when the church moves from facing martyrdom to embracing asceticism as the culture moves from pagan to Christian.
The remaining five chapters explore the role of women in a post-toleration era. They begin with Constantine’s mother, Helena, whose pilgrimages to Palestine played a significant role in creating the foundations for later pilgrimages. The authors share stories of the churches she planted and the pilgrimage sites that were established. Helena might have been one of the earliest pilgrims to the Holy Land, and she left her mark on the land, but she also served as an example to other women who would follow in her footsteps. While the journey to Palestine might be dangerous, many women made the trips. Some of these women, like Egeria left detailed accounts of their journeys to encourage others to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They also explore the lives of theologically important women such as Macrina, the sister of Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea, a leader in ascetic movement and a theologian in her own rite. There are stores of Paula, Marcella, and Melanias, also ascetics and scholars, who were connected with Jerome and supported his work financially. They too had connections to the Holy Land.
Finally, they introduce us to two politically powerful women, the empresses Pulcheria and Eudocia, both of whom played important roles in the theological debates of the fifth century. Pulcheria, sister of the emperor, was an opponent of Nestorius and backer of Cyril of Alexandria. In the end she was able to bring Leo I into the conversation leading to the Chalcedonian definition. Eudocia was the emperor's wife, and a learned theologian as well. She was closer to Nestorius, and ended up in Palestine, writing theology. Both women played important roles in setting the stage for the future in ways that the emperor did not. They too had connections to Palestine.
None of the women were priests. None were counted among the first rank of theologians. Nonetheless, they all left their mark on the church, and many of them influenced important theologians, including Augustine, Gregory and Basil, and Jerome. They also inspired Christians to stand firm in the face of martyrdom. Finally, the continue to be witnesses to the Christian faith to this day.
We are indebted to these two scholars for their excellent work. They demonstrate deep insight and careful scholarship. While they might have pushed the boundaries some to suggest that women were taking priestly leadership in the church, they have wisely focused on more provable points. While I appreciate the decision to focus on mainstream women, I wish they had given more attention to Montanism (New Prophecy), especially in relationship to Perpetua and Felicitas. While Montanists were separatists, they were largely orthodox, and they featured women prophets in their communities. That could have been a helpful choice. That aside, this is an excellent book that should be widely read by anyone wanting a fuller picture of life in the early church.