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Be quiet, have babies, or go to Hell?

July 28, 2011

Women: Jesus loves you. But he might be rather cross with you if you don’t adhere to certain models. There’s the Titus 2 woman, who stays at home, subject to her husband, lest by not doing so she put others off Christianity entirely. Then there’s the 1 Timothy woman:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

St. Paul even has something to say to the Corinthians on the subject:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

Or does he? The ideas found in the likes of the letters to the Corinthians, Timothy, and Titus, have come to underpin an understanding of Christian womanhood from the Church Fathers, to Knox’s writings on the  “Monstrous Regimen of Women,” to modern proponents of so-called “Biblical Womanhood,” to the on-going debates about whether women can be priests or bishops. However, they may not have been written by St. Paul – indeed, there is a growing scholarly consensus that they were not. For example, the letters to Timothy describe church offices in a way that is more characteristic of the developed church hierarchies of the 2nd century AD than of the time of St. Paul. Questions have been raised about the authenticity of the style and vocabulary of the letters to Timothy and Titus (though the volume of text is perhaps not sufficient for such analyses), and the passage in 1 Corinthians 14 is often believed to be an interpolation – especially as it contradicts Paul’s instructions to women in the rest of the letter. Instead, composition dates in the late 1st century or early 2nd century AD has been suggested. This is interesting, as the more putatively-Pauline corpus of letters are generally much more friendly and inclusive with regard to women, discussing their role in prayer and prophecy, and addressing and commending female church leaders and officials. The Acts of the Apostles, perhaps the earliest record we have of the early church (it was most likely written before the gospels), also refers to women such as Prisca and Lydia, who take leadership roles, run businesses, and make important financial contributions. Sadly, there either never existed, or does not survive, any significant body of writing from this very earliest period of the church. Instead, we find a great proliferation of writing from the 2nd century AD onwards which seems to share the aims of these passages: there are spurious apostolic guides to Christian living such as the Constitution of the Holy Apostles or the Didascalia Apostolorum, which stress that women should cover their heads, not take part in church leadership or ritual, and that female behaviour is directly connected to pagan opinion about Christianity: “for pagans laugh to hear women teaching” warns one. This idea is not the sole preserve of pseudo-apostolic texts. In 248AD the Christian apologist Origen wrote a treatise in reply to the polemic of a pagan philosopher, Celsus, against Christianity, in which he responds to his criticisms. Strikingly, one is the suggestion that Christianity is a religion that only attracts foolish women, children and slaves:

This statement also is untrue, that it is only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the divine word wish to make converts. Such indeed does the Gospel invite, in order to make them better; but it invites also others who are very different from these…

In effect, the very earliest Christians were an apocalyptic cult. While salvation cults were popular in the period, with new imported gods like Mithras, Cybele and Isis attracting large followings, and even Judaism attracting interested ‘god-fearers’, Christianity was considered rather odd. Indeed, to appreciate the full strangeness of Christianity’s ascendancy to a 1st century AD Roman, imagine if you went 2,000 years into the future and discovered that Heaven’s Gate had become a major world religion. The earliest Christians not only followed a peasant from the awkward, boring end of the empire, but one who had died in a shameful manner reserved for criminals and slaves. They were believed to be potentially cannibalistic and incestuous, and obsessively fixated on violent death through martyrdom. They thought that Christ would return within their lifetimes, rendering earthly status and roles void of importance. However, as Christians realised that they were working with a much longer apocalyptic framework, they became more culturally accommodating: to survive and proselytise, they needed to allay the fears of their pagan neighbours that not only were they not an apocalyptical cannibal cult, but that those joining them did not have to worry about losing their status, lifestyle or women. Thus, we find awkward segues from the likes of Galatians 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

To Clement of Alexandria’s commentary on it with regard to the negation of gender:

Those whose life is common have common graces and a common salvation… ‘for in this world,’ he [Luke 20:34] says, ‘they marry and are given in marriage’, in which alone the female is distinguished from the male, ‘but in that world [heaven] it is so no more.’

Biologically, philosophically, intellectually and religiously, people in the ancient world considered women to be different (and generally inferior) to men. A message that suggested they might, in some circumstances, not be was just too problematic – hence the need to suggest that the differences only applied in the hereafter. Women, and their role in the church, were a PR liability for those who wished to gain more pagan converts to the growing faith.

Such feelings were all the more pressing as Christianity developed, because there were many groups in which women were playing prominent roles. The church historian Eusebius writes about the Montanists, a sect who believed in continuing prophetic revelation, and their female priests. Epiphanius, cataloguing heresies, writes of women in Arabia who “bake cakes for Mary” and “function as priests for women.” He also gives more details about the Montanists, saying that:

They acknowledge the sister of Moses as a prophetess as support for their practice of appointing women to the clergy.

The Montanists also apparently attributed a “special grace” to Eve:

Because she first ate of the tree of knowledge.

For them, the negation of gender in Galatians 3:28 seems to have been taken rather more literally. Epiphanius says:

Women among them are bishops, presbyters and the rest, as if there were no difference of nature. ‘For in Jesus Christ there is neither male nor female.’…Women among them are ordained to the episcopacy because of Eve.

A popular text of the 2nd century AD was the story of the (possibly apocryphal) St. Thecla, who featured in The Acts of Paul and Thecla, in which the young noblewoman is so overcome by Paul’s sermons on virginity that she runs away from her family and fiancé to join him, dressed as a man. When apprehended, a miraculous storm saves her from being burnt at the stake, and she continues to travel with Paul, spreading the gospel. When a nobleman tries to rape her, she fights him off and is put on trial for injuring him, ultimately being sentenced to be eaten by wild beasts – however, the female beasts miraculously defend her from the male ones. During this dramatic encounter, she baptises herself in a pond full of seals. This story seems to have been both incredibly popular and incredibly problematic. Tertullian, the first of the church fathers to write in Latin, deals with the issues it raises at length, noting that the story of Thecla was being used in discourse to justify allowing women to baptise, before strongly asserting that

It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church [1 Cor 14], but neither is it permitted to her to teach nor to baptise, nor to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, nor to say in any sacerdotal office.

Perhaps even more interestingly, 1 Timothy seems to explicitly respond to the story of Thecla, rebutting the asceticism and dietary rules that it supports, denying the possibility of women taking roles beyond the Greco-Roman norm, and even describing an incident from the Acts without reference to Thecla at all, naming the very men who inform Thecla’s fiancé of her conversion as men who cause difficulties for Paul. The letter also includes a warning not to listen to “old wives tales.” Whether Thecla existed is less important than the fact that her story is evidence of the clearly fraught debate about women’s role in the church.

While the side advocating Greco-Roman norms for women seems to have triumphed in the textual record at this early stage (1 Corinthians 14, for example, bears a remarkable resemblance to the speech of the moralist Cato about women’s political involvement in Livy’s History of Rome: “‘What sort of practice is this, of running out into the streets and blocking the roads and speaking to other women’s husbands? Could you not have made the same requests, each of your own husband, at home?”), we can find evidence of women continuing to take much more diverse roles in the church until considerably later. We continue to find deaconesses, like Phoebe, and – especially crucial in the light of arguments that ‘deaconess’ was a lesser role – women described as deacons, well into the 5th century. One, notably, while described as a deacon, also has many of the characteristics of the virtuous widow of 1 Timothy – as if seeking to integrate the differing traditions and to be a ‘good Christian woman’ in many ways. A letter is preserved from 494AD from Pope Gelasius to three churches in Southern Italy and Sicily:

Nevertheless, we have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars and to take part in all matters delegated to the male sex, to which they do not belong.

We also have an account of Atto of Vercelli, an early medieval bishop, who was questioned by a monk about the appearance of seemingly female titles like “presbytera” (‘priestess’) and “deacona” (‘deaconess’). Atto uses the example of Phoebe to suggest that women were origionally ordained:

For just as those women called presbyterae had assumed the duty of preaching, offering and instructing, in the same way clearly the deaconesses had assumed the duty of ministering and baptising, a practice which today is not at all in use.

Funerary monuments attest such female ‘presbyterae’, and one noted (if controversial) 9th century AD mosaic even seems to commemorate a female bishop: Episcopa Theodora, who appears alongside Mary and two female saints. Her title, a feminisation of the Latin “episcopus”, has been defaced, casting some doubt on the suggestion that “episcopa” innocently refers to a bishop’s wife in an age before clerical celibacy.

Such references are far outweighed by the growth of more orthodox structures for women, such as orders for widows and virgins. Virgins, too, initially proved problematic grounds for the integration of Christianity and Greco-Roman society, as adult, un-married women were not a cognitive category in a society where infanticide rendered ‘excess’ women a rarity. However, these orders were seen as a more controlled way for women who did not wish to enter into conventional structures to be contained, and many of these early proto-nuns exercised great influence.

All of this having been said, it is difficult to say with any certainty what the role of women in early Christianity was meant to be, or indeed, whether it was meant to be anything beyond what people made it. I do not purport to offer any conclusive image of “early Christian womanhood”, but simply to suggest that whatever it was, it was considerably more complex than it is often considered to be – something with wide-ranging implications. There are some using 1 Timothy to justify domestic violence and rapeAnders Breivik’s idea of  ‘white, Christian Europe’ involves obedient, breeding women. Or, less histrionically, those arguing that priests have always and can always only be male show us that this is not just an issue of historical niceties. This leaves aside entirely the implications for those within the Christian faith for how women have been, and should be able to be, allowed to relate to God.

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