In recent decades,
a great deal of work has been done to reconstruct
our understanding of the ancient world and the early
church, particularly in regard to the women who participated
in early Christian communities. Enriched by interdisciplinary
collaboration with cultural and social anthropologists,
the findings of archeologists and the interpretations
of art historians, we can visualize a fuller, more
colorful picture of women's lives in the late Classical
period than we have had available to us heretofore.
There was a much greater
diversity of ministries available to early churchwomen
than we have been led to think by the historiography
of the past. It is now clear that the "open commensality"
of Jesus was absolutely scandalous; the nearly infinite
implications of women and men actually eating together
are hard for modern people to grasp. Contemporary
and interdisciplinary biblical scholarship has helped
widen our knowledge of what open commensality meant
in that social context. Psychology has brought some
insight into the shadowy corners in the divided minds
of the men of the early church, immersed in a deeply
honor/shame-based culture and desiring social acceptability
for the sake of church growth. Mimetic theory, as
it has germinated following the work of Rene Girard,
can provide some further tools to analyze and interweave
the historical fragments in order to discern wider
systemic patterns at work.
Other than the well-known
statement of Caiaphas, in the Gospel of John's passion
narrative, that "It is better for one man to
die for the people than that the whole nation should
perish" (John 11:50), there is no more concise
formulation of the scapegoat mechanism in action than
the sentence that is placed in the mouth of Simon
Peter in the last part of the Gospel of Thomas: "Make
Mary (Magdalene) leave us, for women are not worthy
A close friend of
mine, with a long record of church-based social activism,
recently reminded me that: "The Orthodox are
the Orthodox not because they are fight, but because
they won." My understanding of what Girard has
brought to our ability to see into our cultural shadows
makes it imperative that we look at history and myth,
as written by those who won, with deep suspicion and
an ever-present concern for what has been silenced
and covered. This is the process of normalizing a
view; relentlessly pursued by what Walter Wink calls
"the domination system." I ask you to suspend
what you think you may know about some cherished church
My approach uses both
art history and mimetic theory, learned from the community
of scholars working with tools uncovered by Rene Girard,
to compose a picture of what happened during the long
mystification and traditionalizing process. Art history
can play an important part in helping clarify what
affect the early church battles over dogma had on
people and culture in the long centuries that followed.
Simplistically depicted as a struggle of true-believing
Orthodoxy over a bewildering assortment of heresies
unhelpfully labeled "gnosticism," the history
of the early church, as it is most commonly written,
bears the perduring stain of mimetic rivalry.
I contend that women
were the sacrifice that got the early church to a
state that the victorious called "unity."
This can be read in the surviving texts, both in and
between the lines, and also in the visual tradition.
Who is and is not present or absent in the icons,
frescoes, woodcuts, and canvasses? What do these compositions
say about their subjects as cultural objects? Given
all the knowledge now available about the lives of
women in the early church, who is conspicuous by their
of the early Christian communities, such as Margaret
MacDonald and Luise Schottroff, have offered practical
and convincing circumstantial evidence for the robust
presence and activity of women from all livelihoods
and class levels in fostering the new religion. Women
were often very successful as evangelists precisely
because they could permeate barriers between the "inside"
realm of women and the "outside" realm of
men, either by the power-behind-authority of matriarchs
in noble households (a la the present-day examples
of Barbara and Laura Bush). or through the intermediary
functions of craftswomen and tradeswomen who staffed
the workshops associated with wealthy houses. Schottroff,
in particular, has emphasized the stark necessity
that women had to work alongside their husbands in
trades and agriculture, and that there was no such
thing as a stay-at-home farm wife or fish wife. Raw
economics precluded such a luxury.
Women's tending of
home and children was so much of an expectation that
no special mention or commendation of it was thought
of; and by the time of the Roman occupation of Palestine
and the displacement of the peasantry off the land,
the outside labor of women for supplementary income
meant the difference between living or starving to
death. So there were many peasant women working in
the fields as hired laborers and shepherds, in workshops
of all sorts, and as fisherwomen.
Women lived their
lives in the tension between social standards that
required women to stay indoors and hidden away as
the coveted symbols of honor and shame-based cultural
systems; and economic forces driving them out and
into the fields and the streets of the city. Women
in the Dustbowl era had to do sharecropping and migrant
picking to secure their families' survival. In the
Ellis Island immigration period, it was sweatshops
and piece work at home in their tenement kitchens-all
the while cooking meals, raising children, and caring
for the sick and elderly. It was no different from
the state of economic desperation so common to the
majority of the women living in first-and second-century
Palestine. Incorporating this understanding changes
the way we exegete passages such as the Parable of
the Lost Coin or the way we picture life on the shore
of the Galilean Sea. This is fundamental to expanding
our understanding of women in the time of Jesus.
Women could function
as fluid intermediaries in part, because they "didn't
count." As a consequence, they could escape notice,
or "fly under the radar" in conducting house
churches, catechizing converts in pagan households,
seeing to the needs of prisoners, and acting as "look-outs."
Margaret MacDonald's insightful mining of Greco-Roman
records provides a vivid description of how valuable
these ministries must have been in fostering the early
church. The orders of widows provided the believing
community with a safety net that was even commended
by Christianity's pagan critics: well-off widows took
in poor widows, who looked after orphans, thus forming
viable and sustaining "family."
The patronage of wealthy
widows accounts for much travel under sponsorship
for both female and male evangelists, as for other
types of emissaries, and it is well known that travel
was extremely important in nurturing the early church.
The Deacon, Phoebe, is one example of a traveling
woman, and the Ethiopian eunuch traveling as the emissary
of Candace are some examples from canonical texts.
Mary Magdalene, the "Apostle to the Apostles"
and John the Evangelist are said, in Eastern Church
tradition, to have traveled together as partner-evangelists.
This may have been
a model of partnership ministry that was not uncommon
in the early church, and might well account for Paul's
reference to "sister-wives" in First Corinthians.
It would have been a very effective model in that
time and place, as well as many others: the men more
able, in terms of social acceptability, to speak in
public places and proselytize on the streets, and
the women able to go places denied to the men: in
the confines of private, family space, and in the
workshops and warehouses of those who supplied the
material needs of large households.
Roman critics slandered
early Christians by spreading rumors having to do
with this cult of wicked, home-wrecking women under
the spell of evil men: they will insinuate themselves
inside your honorable household and subvert it, with
their sexual immorality, hysteria, witchcraft, incest,
and cannibalism. Later, orthodox churchmen concerned
with fostering church growth and assimilation used
these very same languages of contagion and scandal
about fellow Christians in putting down the groups
of heretics and "Gnostics" in which women
played significant roles, controlling and subduing
the "house churches" in the process. The
perennial reappearance of these coded attributes of
sin and scandal should sound a bell for those with
an ear for the mimetic processes at work, as they
lead up to acts of sacrificial violence.
In both the first
and second centuries, the radical hospitality and
table culture of the house churches, following the
example of Jesus, was an invitation to scandal: Uncovered
women, eating and talking with men-teaching men! They
could be nothing else but prostitutes and courtesans.
Celibate women-in particular-were thought of as sexual
deviants and outlaws, because of their defiance of
the enforced convention. They rebelled against the
state, which imposed strict marriage and childbearing
requirements on women, backed up by severe punishments
written into the Roman law codes. The very existence
of Christian women who had deliberately chosen a life
of celibacy posed an embarrassment to the honor of
the law-abiding, paternalistic Roman household. It
is instructive to recall a twentieth-century example
of similar marriage and childbearing requirements
for women: Nazi Germany.
"Holy in body
and spirit," they challenged the cultural structures
of the honor/shame system, which MacDonald has succinctly
described with the sentence: "Men defend honor,
women embody shame." Sadly, it is not hard to
find this system hard at work in our own historical
period, fuelling millions of episodes of domestic
violence, perhaps most dramatically illustrated by
the prevalence of "honor killings" in the
The Pastoral Epistles,
especially 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus, reveal the
ambivalent position of celibate women in the church
community. Paul and his followers endorsed celibacy,
but this led to many dilemmas of practical theology:
believing women married to pagan husbands, the legally
mandated remarriage of young widows (under sixty),
Christian women who defied their paterfamilias by
refusing arranged marriages to pagans, etc. As the
ideal of celibacy placed into practice began to impact
public opinion about Christians, churchmen revealed
what Luise Schottroff calls a "divided mind"
toward women who embraced celibacy as a way to an
independent, spiritually free way of life. This "divided
mind" is evident in the second-century text:
The Acts of Paul and Thecla, sometimes known as just
The Acts of Paul. Hmm....
Thecla becomes a follower
of Paul after hearing him preaching outside her window,
where she is transfixed by his words. Leaving family
and fiance, she becomes active in a house church and
lives under the protection of the wealthy widow, Tryphaena.
She travels and evangelizes, eventually becoming a
spiritual teacher in her own right, independent of
Paul. As a result of this boldly public ministry,
several attempts are made to kill her. Celibate Thecla
is accused of sorcery and adultery. In an echo of
Peter's denial, Paul stands weakly by as Thecla is
stripped in public. Accused of being shameless, she
is ritually shamed. As she is traveling with Paul
in Antioch, a Syrian named Alexander sexually assaults
her, but she escapes and causes him to be ridiculed.
For this mortal blow to his honor, she is sent to
the beasts in the arena.
Why has Thecla disappeared?
Saint Thecla was removed from the Vatican's list of
official Saints in the 1960s, when St. Christopher
and many others were also removed. There is a continuing
tradition about her in the Eastern Churches, though
it is but a glimmer.
Looking at Church
hagiographies about early Christian female martyrs
shows that conflicted, ambivalent thinking about their
sister Christians continued in the minds and hearts
of the Christian men who set down their stories.
The medieval repression
of the Beguines is only one later example of how this
ambivalence carried on. In the hagiographies, female
saints who resisted the patronal systems of Mediterranean
household law by clinging to celibacy and dying as
martyrs are generally depicted in the most passive,
meek, and mild terms-like sacrificial lambs. Their
roll call is a long one: St. Ursula and the 11,000
Virgins, St. Barbara, St. Catherine, St. Agatha, St.
Lucia, et al.
Women of the early
church who were known to not be purely virginal were
even more problematic to the honorable status of the
men in the community. Female slaves were expected
to be sexually available to their owners, and former
slaves came with this in their (often immediate) past.
How did the church's valuation of celibacy work for
them? How easy for them to declare themselves a 'born-again
virgin by choice" in the wording of today's faith-based
sexual abstinence for teens movement? That female
slaves were active participants in church communities,
and even bore some leadership authority is attested
to by the correspondence of Pliny the Younger to the
Emperor Trajan, circa 112 G.E., in which he reports
on the torture of two female slaves (ancilla) who
are called deacons (ministra). Pliny states that these
two deacons had been turned in by an informant. MacDonald
posits the likelihood that they either annoyed the
pagan patriarch of the household they belonged to
and were simply dumped on Pliny, or sacrificed in
order to deflect suspicion from a Christian master
All the major objections
against "Gnostic" groups mimicked pagan
criticisms of early Christians, and included all the
major headings from the list of archaic accusations
familiar to mimetic theorists. As orthodox doctrine
developed in the Byzantine era, it distinguished itself
from the horde of heretics by claiming that their
theology was more incarnational, thereby affirming
the true humanity of Christ. While the centuries wore
on, however, Greco-Roman goddess attributes and social
conventions migrated onto churchwomen to reflect social
systems of honor/shame, "good girl/bad girl"
dualities. This was calcified into the culture of
the Roman Church by Pope Gregory (for whom the chant
form is named) in the sixth century, in a famous series
of sermons that merely made official what had been
a popular trend for some time.
This was to conflate
all the women who supported and participated in the
life and ministry of Jesus into as few women as possible,
making the many Marys into one honorable Mary and
one Mary who bore the mark of shame. Mary, the Mother
of Jesus, like her son, become less and less Jewish
and more and more divinized She became increasingly
separated from all other women, "blessed among
women" so as to become ostracized from them,
or they from her. One can never be as good as the
Blessed Virgin Mary, no matter how unassailable one's
bodily purity may be or how selfless a mother. You
could be "as good" as Mary Magdalene, though.
Mary Magdalene's reputation
as a prostitute, however undeserved, clings to her
today, despite having been officially rescinded by
the Vatican in 1969 and thoroughly deconstructed by
New Testament scholars and historians of church art
such as Jane Schaberg and Susan Haskins. The stain
of a reputation is a hard thing to lose even now--clearly
impossible for the women who embodied the shame and
honor of their house church communities. By the Medieval
period, Magdalene Houses all over Western Europe provided
the public with a steady supply of designated penitents
who enacted the community's shame, functioning as
female versions of the Spanish colonial orders of
Penitente. Interestingly, while the Beguinage where
independent communities of women lived and worked
were violently suppressed, the Magdalene Houses for
public penitents were officially fostered and supported.
The casting of Mary
Magdalene as a prostitute happened concurrently with
the development of the Cult of the Virgin Mary, and
this is no coincidence at all. Gradually, pagan goddess
attributes sorted themselves out between the "good"
girl and the "bad" girl with astonishing
continuity: portraits of Mary, the Mother of Jesus,
were decorated with starry crowns and crescent moons,
attributes of the ever-virgin Athena/Diana. Pomegranates
and vineyards, attributes of Demeter and Persephone
and the Syrian Mother Goddess, become associated with
Mary Magdalene. Many of the clues to this syncretic
divination process have their roots and ruins at Ephesus,
the great temple city dedicated to the Mother Goddess
centuries before the Greek conquest. A city that was,
of course, a center of Paul's ministry. It is said,
in the Eastern Church's tradition, to be a place where
Mary, the Mother of Jesus spent time in her later
years. It is also the place where Mary Magdalene is
said to have been buried.
White doves were an
attribute of the Syrian Mother Goddess, and of Venus
to the Romans. So familiar to Christians as the symbol
of the Holy Spirit: in the classical period, white
doves were strongly associated with this then-ancient
Temple at Ephesus. Demolished in the Byzantine era,
the great columns of the Temple to the Mother Goddess
at Ephesus were transported to Constantinople by Justinian
to become the great columns in the Cathedral of Hagia
Sophia, or Holy Wisdom. They are still there today.
Between the time when
Christianity became a state-sponsored religion and
the period of the schism between the Eastern and Roman
Churches, the Cult of the Virgin gradually crystallized
into its own form of inherently anti-incarnational
"Gnostic" heresies, and the process of "becoming
what you profess to hate," a basic principle
of mimetic theory, had come full circle. The "law
of anti-idolatry" spoken of so eloquently by
Sandor Goodhart calls us to unpack this history, to
look at what kinds of sacrifices women and their friends
have had to make in order for the domination system
to ensure that the repetitive duality of who can wear
the white dress and who must wear the red dress will
Theologies of Mary's
immaculate conception and emphases on "pure vessel"
and "ever virgin" language about her isolates
and denatures her in a way not far distant from the
kind of Goddess who is spawned from the forehead of
her Father. Because this "blessed among women"
is said in legends to have visited Mount Athos in
Greece, for centuries the Orthodox monasteries there
have dedicated themselves to barring female humans
and domestic animals from the place of pilgrimage,
calling this an honor to Mary. Of course, the monks
have no way of preventing Holy Sophia from sending
female flora and fauna there, anyway. And a question,
for me, hangs in the air: Wouldn't this way of being
"honored" make a real flesh-and-blood Mary
feel lonely? When she had her important news to tell,
the Mary of the text sought out the company of other
women-her cousin, Elizabeth, and the circle of women
that were certainly a big part of her cousin's village
theology has been the subject of long dispute between
the Eastern and Roman Churches, and then the Roman
Church and the Protestant Reformers and secular Enlightenment.
These rivalries reached a climax in the middle of
the nineteenth century with the declaration of the
Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and were closely
tied to the declaration of the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility.
These are intimately related to the idea of Mary as
a cosmic "Beatrix Mundi," of which John
Paul II is so fond. What does it mean for a Church
hierarchy that refuses to even consider the ordination
of women, to call Mary "The Queen of Priests"
in the ordination liturgy?
It is critically important
to pay attention to language about the Church, who
genders it, and how it is done. Hearing Cardinals
talk about how the Church is working to uphold Her
honor is quite instructive in this era of sexual scandal.
(as the term "orthodox" is commonly translated)
leadership of the Church became what they professed
to hate. This can be detected in the phenomenon of
"reversing the text." This is something
the early Church "fathers" accused opposing
groups of doing on a regular basis--turning a text
inside out and standing it on its head so that it
means the opposite of what it says, solely for the
evil purpose of spreading chaos and confusion.
As concerns the place
of women in the faith community, two texts come immediately
to mind as nominations for orthodoxy's "text
reversal." First is Matthew 23:9, where Jesus
says: "Call no man on earth your father, for
you have one Father who is in Heaven." Structuring
that title as a necessary resume requirement for Churchly
office has proven to be a reversal of this instruction
from Jesus, turning away from his radical re-visioning
of what it could mean to be family to one another,
and back toward the old paternalistic domination system
of the pagan world.
The second text is
the frequently ignored (excluded from the common lectionary)
passage in Luke 11:27, a scene which also appears
in the Gospel of Thomas 79:1-2. When Jesus is on the
street, a woman calls out to him: "Blessed is
the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed
you!" He answers: "Blessed rather are those
who hear the word of God and obey it!" Beyond
virginity, honor/shame based patriarchal systems value
women primarily for their fertility, especially for
being "fruitful" in bearing strong sons.
I read this text as a rebuke of the woman for her
admiration (envy'?) of Mary as a particularly blessed
mother. Jesus tells her that is not what it's about:
in the realm of God, biology is not destiny.
The missing pieces
of history surrounding the family life of this woman
of first-century Palestine (and all the other women
of her era); and the structures of the sacred that
have been erected to fill those pieces in still have
power to provoke the honor/shame reflex today. Lest
you doubt this, I remind you of Mayor Giuliani's rage
at the Brooklyn Museum over the Chris Ofili painting/collage
of the Madonna, adorned with pictures clipped from
pornographic magazines and elephant dung.
The overarching cultural
motifs clarified by mimetic theory are evident in
this history. It is a history in which real women
lived out their lives in social systems where their
roles were largely circumscribed, as symbols of family
honor and social acceptability. Their passion and
commitment still shine through, if we will not neglect
to keep their lamps faithfully filled. In their time,
the women of the early church were sacrificial victims
to a rivalry over honor and "true belief."
Let them now be inspired and inspiring "Sheroes
for Christ"-models of resistance and reform.
(1.) On Sunday, January
19, 2003, ABC "World News Tonight" aired
a segment on the Magdalene Houses of Ireland. Terry
Moran, the anchor introduces the segment by relating
how this has become yet another variety of scandal
in the Roman catholic Church, and with a few phrases
about the history of the Magdalene House system. The
news writers for the network provided him with this
sentence: "These workhouses in Ireland were named
after Mary Magdalene, who is identified as a repentant
prostitute in the Gospel of Saint Luke."(?!)
The broadcast went on to talk about the recent coverage
of this story on BBC-TV, and shows clips from a BBC
docudrama about the Magdalene Houses, tided: "Sinners."
Operated as profit-making convent laundries, they
were actually prisons, dumping places for "wayward"
girls and unwed mothers, some of whom spent their
entire lives in these dismal places. Told that they
must remain there to "wash away their sins,"
the girls and women were called by numbers, not names.
Hilary Brown, the correspon dent reporting from County
Cork, interviewed two of the surviving witnesses to
the cruelties of the Magdalene Houses, Sadie Williams
and Mary Norris, who have campaigned for a memorial
to the women who died in the Magdalene House system,
known as the "Irish Gulag." The last Magdalene
House was closed seven years ago, in 1996. There was
at least one in every city in Ireland.
Diane. Encyclopedia of Women in Religious Art. New
York: Continuum, 1996.
Diane. In Search of Mary Magdalene: Images and Traditions.
Catalog of an Exhibition at the Gallery of the American
Bible Society, April 5-June 22, 2002. New York: American
Bible Society, 2002.
Capps, Donald. Jesus:
A Psychological Biography. St. Louis: Chalice, 2000.
and Judith W. Mann. Orazio and Artemesia Gentileschi.
New York: The Metropolitan Museum Of Art and New Haven:
Yale University Press, 2001.
H.. Herbert Haag ,Joe H. Kirchberger, and Dorothee
Solle. Mary: Art, Culture, and Religion Through the
Ages. New York: Crossroad, 1997.
Goodrich, Norma Lorre.
Priestesses. New York: Harper Perennial, 1989.
Haskins, Susan. Mary
Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. New York: Harcourt Brace
and New York, 1993.
Heller, Ena Giurescu,
ed. Icons or Portraits? Images of Jesus and Mary from
the Collection of Michael Hall; Catalog of an Exhibition
at the Gallery of the American Bible Society, July
26-November 16, 2002. New York: American Bible Society,
Y. Early Christian Women And Pagan Opinion: The Power
of the Hysterical Woman.
University Press, 1996.
M. Venus In Sackcloth: The Magdalen's Origins and
Metamorphosis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University
Press, also Feffer and Simons, London and Amsterdam,
Miller. Robert J.
The Complete Gospels. Sonoma: Polebridge. 1992.
Schaberg, Jane. The
Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha,
and the Christian Testament. New York: Continuum,
Lydia's Impatient Sisters: A Feminist Social History
of Early Christianity. Louisville: Westminster John
Solle, Dorothee, Joe
H. Kirchberger, and Herbert Haag. Great Women of the
Bible in Art And Literature.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
Steinberg, Leo. The
Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern
Oblivion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Torjesen. Karen Jo.
When Women Were Priests. New York: Harper Collins,
Allen. Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument
for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1996.
combines theology and biblical studies with interests
in art history and psychology in her interdisciplinary
and intercultural work. An extensive performing arts
background and time spent in Eastern Europe and among
the Russian Orthodox community inform her interfaith
work. She is a researcher on the staff of the Newark
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