Holy Women, Holy Words: Early Christian Women, Social History, and the "Linguistic Turn"
Elizabeth A. Clark
It is a striking--and disturbing--fact that historians can locate no feminine equivalent of Peter Brown's "holy man." To be sure, Susan Ashbrook Harvey and Sebastian Brock named their book of translations Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, 1 yet an inspection of its contents suggests that most "holy women" described in these texts were martyrs (with extra luck, dying as virgins); 2 none appears to function as the precise female counterpart to the "holy men" described by Brown. In addition to martyrs such as these, we hear much in early Christian literature of women ascetics--but again, they do not function as "holy men."

Early Christian sources concerning asceticism vary in the denseness of their coverage of women, from "none" in the Historia monachorum, 3 to [End Page 413] "nearly none" in Theodoret's History of the Monks of Syria, 4 to "some" in the Apophthegmata patrum, 5 to "considerable" in Palladius' Lausiac History. 6 The fullest treatment of women, however, lies in the letters to and memorials of women by writers such as Jerome, 7 and in the full-blown vitae of women such as Olympias, Macrina, Melania the Younger, and Syncletica. 8

Yet, oddly, the fuller the accounts of such early Christian "holy women," the less they look like Peter Brown's "holy men." The women about whom vitae are composed are not those who illustrate the social mobility or "achieved status" of Brown's "holy men"; 9 their status rather derives from their vast inherited wealth and social position, whose prestige they carry into monastic life. 10 It is their aristocratic status that renders them fearless to confront threatening governors and coercive emperors, as the cases of Melania the Elder and Olympias suggest. 11 The patronage they exercise is not rural, as is that of so many "holy men": 12 [End Page 414] the women are largely identified with cities and towns--Constantinople, Jerusalem, Rome, Bethlehem. 13 Nor is their patronage of the sort that Brown describes (resolving disputes, forwarding lawsuits, helping villagers to meet tax demands). 14 Rather, they appear to follow older, urban-oriented models of patronage--except that their gifts are now for establishing churches and monasteries, not for the erection of statues and civic buildings, or the endowment of clubs and guilds. 15 Moreover, they are not generally recorded as having worked miracles during their lifetimes, as are "holy men": Gregory of Nyssa adds a few such miracles to the end of his Vita Macrinae, 16 while feats paltry in both kind and number are reported in the Latin version of the Life of Melania the Younger. 17 After her death, Olympias' body is said to work miracles, 18 but we hear of none during her lifetime. Nor are Jerome's women miracle-workers. The "holy women of the Syrian Orient" described by Ashbrook Harvey and Brock occasionally elicit a miraculous event by their mere presence, 19 but such deeds are said to occur "not by her will or by her word," 20 in contrast to the intentional cures, exorcisms, and other wondrous feats worked by Brown's "holy men." Women may be said to have Christ "in" them, since as baptized Christians they have "put on [End Page 415] Christ" (Gal 3.27), 21 but it is not said that Christ is "made accessible" through them, as it is for Brown's "holy men": 22 "gender-bending," although prevalent in ascetic literature, did not, apparently, stretch this far. Thus the women whom we might have imagined as the female counterparts of Brown's "holy men" in fact are not.

Yet there is, I think, a further reason why our confidence regarding the recovery of "holy women" is shaken. It is the fullest, most detailed, sources pertaining to women ascetics that give us the greatest pause. These texts are the most "literary," the most rhetorically constructed, and hence, I shall suggest, should arouse the most hermeneutical suspicion. Far from uncovering "the women themselves," we encounter literary set pieces by male authors. The very "literariness" of these texts constitutes the first theoretical problem I wish to address, before I turn to the documents pertaining to women's asceticism for a reconsideration of what they offer: holy women? holy words? whose words?

Feminist historical scholarship has, these past decades, been rudely challenged by questions posed by literary theorists. Many feminist historians, however, argue that the post-structuralist critique of "objectivity" seems to preclude historians' weighing of evidence according to agreed-on disciplinary standards; "representation" is deemed so problematic that readers might discount any connection between people of the past and the description of them in historians' records; categories are so fractured that we are forbidden to speak of "women" anymore; the decentering of the male subject eventually leaves no space for the female subject, either. Why, many feminists query, are we told to abandon "subjectivity" just at the historical moment when women have begun to claim it? Why, Nancy Miller asks, was the "end of woman" authorized without consulting her? 23

Although feminist historians willingly question the "objectivity" of knowledge (at least of "male knowledge"), they dispute the radical anti-foundationalism implied by some forms of post-structuralism. Many feminist historians believe that if we abandon "subjects," we have no ground for critique. 24 If we jettison "agency," the historian's interest in [End Page 416] change and causality is undercut. 25 Anti-foundationalism is deemed apolitical (or worse). Thus many feminist historians back away from the radical implications of the theoreticians' epistemologies--but nonetheless reject a retreat to the views of representation and "reality" that prevailed a century ago. How, they wonder, might they profitably combine literary theorists' emphasis on the role of language in shaping "reality" with more traditional historical concerns for the extratextual world? What, for example, might we be able to claim about "holy women" and "holy words" in late ancient Christianity? I thus turn to narratives of fourth- and fifth-century women ascetics in order to explore the possible profit of theory.

First we may note some ways in which the accounts of women ascetics differ from those of their male counterparts. Whereas the male subjects of asceticizing hagiography most frequently "leave culture for nature," 26 women ascetics are more often represented as adopting forms of "house asceticism" in which they conduct their renunciations in their familial households (Macrina in Cappadocia and Marcella in Rome), or they form monasteries for women, often in cities (Olympias in Constantinople, the two Melanias in Jerusalem, Paula in Bethlehem). 27 The women's vitae contain fewer exotic features than do those of male ascetics: no hippocentaurs, no friendly lions to dig their graves. 28 The women's lives represent their subjects as gradually intensifying their renunciations, not as breaking totally with "civilization" (a motif that Caroline Walker Bynum also notes as characterizing the medieval women saints she has studied). 29

Is our historical quest impeded or illumined by bringing the literary and critical issues raised above to the interpretation of these accounts? [End Page 417] First, the feminist desire to uncover "real women," to hear "real female voices," recedes even further when theoretical critique is directed to these texts, for they are nothing if not literary productions: it is no accident that the vitae of early Christian women saints have been studied in relation to the novels or romances of the first centuries of the Common Era. Several of these novelistic narratives about Christian women claim to be written by eyewitnesses. 30 Does this not lend weight to their "authenticity"? Certainly some commentators have thought so, claiming that even when the authors indulge in commonplaces regarding their heroines, the stories are nonetheless "true" because the authors knew the women of whom they wrote. 31 Thus the author of Melania the Younger's vita (presumably her monastic disciple, Gerontius) prefaces his tale with the disclaimer that he has so much material at his disposal that he will not be able to tell his readers every detail of Melania's life, or the narrative would be "interminable." 32 Likewise, Gregory of Nyssa, writing the vita of his sister Macrina, tells the correspondent who requested the account that he has not the time or space to report everything that Macrina said or did; his treatise is becoming too long already. 33 These moves, common in literary rhetoric, signal that we are dealing with self-consciously literary narratives of a strongly panegyric flavor. They are "literature," not simply "documents" (in case you wish to make that distinction) and hence are readily subject to literary analysis and critique.

Moreover, historians of late antiquity see these tales as rich mines for the construction of social history, even when they turn a skeptical eye on [End Page 418] the reports of miracles and demons. From the Life of Melania the Younger, for example, we learn that senatorial families might have property in more than six provinces of the Roman Empire; 34 that their yearly incomes, quite apart from their land, might be 120,000 gold solidi; 35 that it took about forty days to make the overland journey between Constantinople and Jerusalem, even when there was a ready supply of pack animals provided at government expense. 36 From the vita of Olympias, the companion and benefactor of bishop John Chrysostom of Constantinople, we learn that even a relatively "nouvelle" aristocrat such as she had real estate in four provinces, besides her possessions in Constantinople that included three houses, baths, a mill, and various suburban properties. Her vast wealth, we are told, enabled her to donate ten thousand pounds of gold and twenty thousand of silver to the Church. 37

Details do not always, however, concern money. The Life of Syncletica narrates at length a different feature of the saint's life, namely, her illnesses. We hear in grim precision about the progress of a gum disease that decayed her facial bones, left black holes in her mouth, and rendered her so odiferous that her fellow nuns could not bear to come near her. 38 Other accounts give different kinds of details, for example, about the women's reading habits: Melania the Younger read the lives of the Fathers "as if they were dessert," 39 and her grandmother, Melania the Elder, read through the works of such theologians as Origen, Gregory Nazianzen, and Basil of Caesarea "seven or eight times," according to Palladius. 40 We find vivid notice about the organization of a women's monastery in Jerome's narration of the life of Paula. 41 Occasionally we [End Page 419] are told the direct speech of the women: thus Marcella's retort to her mother who was urging her to wed a wealthy elderly senator, "If I wished to marry, I would look for a husband, not an inheritance"; 42 or Paula's warning to the nuns in her Bethlehem monastery, "A clean body and a clean dress mean an unclean soul." 43 Do not such texts invite us to feel that we hear the women's very voices? Do not such details "pin down" the vitae into the world of "history?"

Yet--and here we move to some theoretical rejoinders--such details are precisely what literary theorist Roland Barthes has named "the effect of the real" (or "the reality effect"), which he claims was a strong marker of the French realist novel as it developed in the nineteenth century. In these novels, an impulse toward "narrative luxury" piled up details not necessary for the development of the plot or the depiction of character. 44 What was the function of such detail, Barthes puzzled? What was "the significance of the insignificance"? To make the reader believe the truth of the illusion that was being constructed. The technique, he claims, was borrowed by novelists from earlier history-writing, 45 and before that, can be seen in the ancient narrative practice of ekphrasis. 46 Barthes further asks how the historical form of narration differs from that we find in "imaginary accounts" such as novels and dramas? Not at all, he answers. Narration, whether used in an historical essay or in a novel, serves as "the privileged signifier of the real"; narrative structure becomes both "the sign and the proof of reality." 47 To put the matter more bluntly: the very details that social historians argue give veracity to a text are here repositioned as a creative artist's attempt to create an illusory reality in the reader's imagination. [End Page 420]

Another problematic issue to which literary theorists and "metahistorians" point, I have suggested, concerns the narrative structure of traditional history writing--in our case, we can think of such texts as the Life of Melania the Younger and the Life of Olympias. Since narrative "predominates in both mythical and fictional discourse," Hayden White warns, historians should be wary of it as a "suspect" style for "speaking about 'real' events." 48 The function of narrative, White argues, is to produce notions of "continuity, wholeness, closure, and individuality that every 'civilized' society wishes to see itself as incarnating. . . ." 49 Moreover, in narrative construction, White continues, historians work over the "traces" of past events--to the events themselves we have no access--and endow them with "'symbolic' significance." 50 In this creation of narrative history, the historian employs the same techniques that Freud identified as the "dreamwork"--"condensation, displacement, considerations of representability, and secondary elaboration. . . ." 51 Thus the narrative structure of these texts raises questions about the "historicity" of what is contained therein. They are, perhaps, little different from novels.

Many historians, needless to say, denounce such theoretical incursions onto their intellectual turf. Thus the distinguished ancient historian Arnaldo Momigliano: "History is no epic, history is no novel, history is not propaganda"--and why not? Because historians subject themselves to "the control of evidence" in a way that the authors of epics and novels do not. 52 But this is precisely the point that Roland Barthes would dispute: does not the historian (here, the writer of a saint's life) create a [End Page 421] sense of his or her subject's veracity in the same way that the novelist does? I think we can see the same literary phenomenon at work in the early Christian vitae I have described: we are led to accord considerable "truth" to the account because so many "effects of the real" have been summoned up. How far should an historian press such a hermeneutics of suspicion? What kind of histories will they write if what they took to be social detail is now recast as literary construction? These are questions that historians now must ponder.

A further type of literary/critical issue is raised by another feature of these vitae: their tendency to present their heroines as teachers of wisdom. Earlier twentieth-century scholars argued as to whether texts such as the Life of Anthony were modelled on the lives of "pagan" philosophers. 53 Not only is the ascetic hero Anthony modelled as a paragon of self-restraint (highly important for a Hellenistic philosopher), he also confounds secular philosophers with his wisdom, despite his alleged lack of education. 54 The message is clear: Anthony's philosophical wisdom is God-given, not laboriously learned in the schools of Athens. A second message is also clear: the ascetic as "philosopher" is a literary topos.

It is one thing, however, for male ascetics to be represented in the tradition of philosophers--and another thing, for women. Given the general patristic denigration of women's mental capabilities, it is surprising to note that all the women ascetics I have here mentioned are represented as the purveyors of wisdom, whether they teach only within their own monasteries (as do Syncletica and Paula) or are represented as carrying the message of asceticism and orthodoxy to a wider audience (so Melania the Elder, who sounds apocalyptic warnings to male and female Roman aristocrats; 55 Melania the Younger, who gives anti-Nestorian lectures to the Constantinopolitan aristocracy; 56 or Jerome's Roman friend Marcella, who is represented as entering the public arena to argue against the doctrines of Origen). 57 Of the Life of Syncletica's 113 chapters, 83 are devoted to a presentation of her teaching, a modified Origenism now familiar from the ascetic instruction of Evagrius [End Page 422] Ponticus. 58 Thus Syncletia is depicted as giving advice on the examination of one's "thoughts" (logismoi, here as in Evagrius, demonic temptations); 59 she counsels "pure prayer" techniques 60 and ways to avoid the various sins that tempt ascetics (gluttony, lust, sadness); 61 she warns that crafty demons may represent themselves as more ascetically rigorous than ascetics themselves; 62 she wars against the teachings of astrology and fatalism. 63 Her advice to ascetic practitioners is as detailed as that which we find in the accounts of male ascetic teachers of a philosophic stripe.

The most spectacular representation of a woman saint as philosopher, however, doubtless comes from Gregory of Nyssa's two treatises on his sister Macrina, namely, her vita, and On the Soul and the Resurrection. Here, Macrina stands as Gregory's teacher of wisdom (and hence as teacher to other men); in fact, she is repeatedly called by Gregory "my teacher." Gregory makes clear that Macrina had not received a philosophic or even a literary education (as had he and his brother Basil of Caesarea), pagan literature containing too many "undignified" tales about women. Thus her education consisted almost solely of the study of Scripture 64 --yet, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, she discourses at great length on theodicy, the human condition, the future life and the soul. 65 In her vita, Gregory only briefly notes these as themes on which she spoke, but in On the Soul and the Resurrection, he provides Macrina with an expanded platform--indeed, Macrina talks for nearly seventy pages! Here she instructs her brother on the Epicurean denial of providence and espousal of atomistic theory; 66 on humans as the microcosm of the universe; 67 on the relation of the soul and body in the afterlife. 68 She speaks of the love that draws us to the Good. 69 She evinces [End Page 423] knowledge of Aristotelian logic, 70 and borrows analogies from contemporary astronomy and physics to score her points. 71 Do not such accounts encourage us to believe that fourth-century Christian women could expound the same theological and philosophical wisdom as their male counterparts? Are these women not heroines who can be added to the pages of "her-story"? Not without some nuance, I would suggest.

First, Gregory's presentation of Macrina is not original, but borrows from an obvious philosophical precedent: Macrina is modelled on Socrates' muse Diotima of the Symposium, while her words in the dialogue on the soul and the afterlife owe much to Plato's Phaedo. Diotima, you will recall, instructed Socrates on the nature of true love, and it is her teaching that he reports to his male companions at the dinner party that is the setting of Plato's Symposium. She has reached the summit of wisdom and shares her riches with worthy philosophers such as Socrates.

Moreover, we might also note that ancient Hebrew and early Christian literature represents "Wisdom" as a woman--a feat no doubt assisted by the feminine gender of the nouns for "Wisdom" in both Hebrew and Greek (hochmah and sophia). Is there not then Biblical as well as philosophical precedent for casting women as the embodiments of wisdom? Such arguments have found a sympathetic reception with many contemporary Christian women, in part because they are easy to appropriate for present political purposes: Wisdom-as-woman stands as an encouraging motif.

Feminist historians of Christianity have similarly looked to the portraits of Macrina and other women teachers and philosophers as providing a helpful counterweight to the slurs on women found so frequently in patristic literature. Images of Marcella standing down Origenist "heretics," of Melania the Younger denouncing the errors of Nestorius, of Macrina lecturing her brother on the relation of soul and body in the afterlife, can strengthen contemporary feminist visions. Yet, we must ask--and here comes the theoretical critique--are these depictions of philosophical women unambiguously "good" for the feminist cause?

Start, for example, with the model of Diotima. Here, David Halperin's essay, "Why Is Diotima a Woman?" provides sobering food for thought. 72 [End Page 424] Halperin first notes the oddness of having a woman serve as the instructor in love for a group of male pederasts, such as are gathered at Plato's Symposium. Critiquing previous answers which scholars have ventured for "why Diotima is a woman," Halperin centers on two themes which men associated with women in the consideration of erotic issues: mutuality/reciprocity, on the one hand, and procreativity/productiveness, on the other. 73 These values--reciprocity and creativity--were needed for a male philosophical culture, Halperin argues, but were not available in the Greek cultural construction of male-male sex relation. 74 These allegedly "female" traits are rather used to legitimize the male philosophic enterprise: woman provides a tool with which men can "think" the values of their culture. 75 But then femininity is not referential--Diotima is not a woman--but figural, a "woman." She stands for something else, namely, as a trope for Socrates himself, the quintessential philosopher. 76 She is, Halperin argues, an "inversed alter ego" of the male protagonist; she is not truly a female "Other" to the male philosopher, but "a masked version of the same," what Julia Kristeva calls a "pseudo-Other." 77 It is not her presence as a woman that is here valued; she is rather (in Halperin's words) "a necessary female absence," "an alternate male identity whose constant accessibility to men lends men fullness and totality that enables them to dispense (supposedly) with otherness altogether." 78

Likewise, does not the Hebrew and early Christian Wisdom tradition provide a positive statement about "real" women insofar as God speaks in the guise of a female figure, "Lady Wisdom"? Here Howard Eilberg-Schwart's essay, "The Nakedness of a Woman's Voice, the Pleasure in a Man's Mouth: An Oral History of Ancient Judaism" disturbs such a positive assessment. 79 Eilberg-Schwartz reminds his readers that although [End Page 425] God's relation to Israel as a collective entity is depicted in imagery of male and female, this marital and sexual imagery is abandoned when God is depicted as relating to individual male Israelites. 80 And here, enter Lady Wisdom: since God's relation to an individual Hebrew male cannot be represented in terms of homoerotic relation (masculinity being firmly linked to "heterosexual desire and procreation" in the ancient Hebrew tradition), female Wisdom serves as mediator between a male God and a male Israelite, 81 metaphorically buffering any notion of God's homoerotic association with Israelite men. On this reading, the "female" identification of Wisdom in the very passages of the Hebrew Bible sometimes cited by contemporary feminists to celebrate women appears less as a positive feature in and for itself, less an exaltation of "real" women's rationality and good counsel, than as a cover and veil for what otherwise would be unspeakable.

I would suggest that a similar analysis might apply to Gregory of Nyssa's portrayal of Macrina in his two treatises concerning her. In this light, Macrina is not herself a teacher of wisdom, but a trope for Gregory: he is, in contemporary parlance, "writing like a woman." Gregory has appropriated woman's voice. 82 Although we cannot believe that we have here the "real" Macrina, we can identify three functions that the trope of Macrina serves for Gregory. First, she serves as a tool with which Gregory can think through various troubling intellectual and theological problems that confronted male theologians of his day; in a special way, she exemplifies Peter Brown's claim (borrowing Levi-Strauss' phrase) that Christian males, as well as other ancient men, used women to "think with." 83 As I have noted, the details of Macrina's [End Page 426] teaching would not have been available to a woman educated only in Scriptural reading, not in philosophical schools. Rather, in On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory through Macrina ponders the acceptability of a modified Origenism that skirts "dangerous" theological points. 84 Although Gregory has Macrina claim that she will pose her own arguments, not borrow them from others, 85 she is clearly mouthing Gregory's own attempt to "tame" Origen into Christian respectability. Thus while Macrina outrightly rejects the notion of the soul's "fall" into the body, 86 she subtly preaches a non-physical conception of hell. 87 She also changes Origen's equation of the body with the "coats of skins" that Adam and Eve received after the first sin (Gen 3.21) into the "skins of irrationality" that beset human life--sex, birth, old age, and so on. 88 Thus a first "Macrina-function" is to serve as a mouthpiece for Gregory's revised Origenist theology.

The themes on which Macrina discourses can be paralleled in the writings of Gregory in which he speaks in his own voice. Thus, for example, Gregory offers the same teachings as "Macrina" does on the constitution of the world, 89 and on the relation of the soul to the body (especially the denial of a preexistent "fall"). 90 He explores the notion that humans are a microcosm of the universe 91 and opts for a non-literal understanding of the "coats of skins" (Gen 3.21) that, while avoiding Origen's identification of the "coats" with "bodies," nonetheless associates them with "fleshliness" and "the capacity for death." 92 Gregory, like "Macrina," rejects fatalistic teaching 93 and understands future punishment [End Page 427] not as eternal hellfire but as a remedial correction designed to return humans to their original condition. 94 Gregory also stresses in works written in his own voice, as he does in his role as pupil of Macrina in On the Soul and the Resurrection, that a teacher is necessary for the Christian seeking to find "philosophy." 95 The teaching assigned to Macrina in this text, in other words, turns out to be Gregory's.

What then is Macrina's function in this dialogue? In addition to the obvious point that Gregory wishes to laud his esteemed (and now-dead) sister, and his use of Macrina to "speak" Gregory's own revised Origenism, there are, I think, additional "Macrina-functions." One of them is also theological: Macrina herself provides a living example of Gregory's teaching that in God's first creation of humans "in the image of God" (Gen 1.26-27), there was no sexual division. Since humans are created in the image of the Prototype, the Son of God, in whom "there is no male and female" (Gal 3.28), maleness and femaleness cannot be assigned to the original creation but emerge only at a second stage, when God, foreseeing the "Fall" with its resultant penalty of death, provides for sexual reproduction by differentiating males and females. 96 The "image," in other words, represents the universal nature of humanity, not the differentiated "Adam," a thing of the earth. 97

Most important, this first "image" pertains to our rational capacities, not to the bodies which differentiate the sexes. 98 As a virgin who rejects marriage, Macrina has already begun to regain that primal presexual condition in which the rational "image" remained pure 99 --if in fact she lost it at all (Gregory believes that some righteous people, such as Moses, retained the pure "image of God" in themselves and thus were able to exemplify it to others). 100

Moreover, according to Gregory's Homilies on the Song of Songs, the [End Page 428] heroine of that Biblical book represents the woman who (as in Psalm 45.10-11) leaves her people and her father's house to look to the true Father in Heaven; she is "adopted" into the divine family, becoming a "sister" to the Lord. 101 Perhaps Gregory pictured Macrina as such. Likewise, she may well have served as a model for Gregory of those who "keep their fountain sealed" (Song of Songs 4.12), that is, those whose intellectual properties remain untouched and "whole," not wasted on thoughts of external and bodily things. 102 Since as virgin and as Christian "philosopher" Macrina has rejected sexual desire and has lived so as to exhibit the rationality of the "integral" mind, it is no wonder that Gregory writes at the beginning of the Vita Macrinae that he does not know whether it is correct even to call her a "woman," since she seemed to surpass that category. 103 This topos of ascetic literature regarding women renunciants acquires a precise designation in Gregory's theology: Macrina exemplifies the primal rational human who is "without sex." 104

Yet another way in which Gregory uses "Macrina" is as a shaming device for Christian men: "even weak women reach this summit of wisdom and rationality . . . and look at you!" Here, men are urged to strive for Gregory's (a k a "Macrina's") level of philosophical reflection. Just as the young Macrina worked a "cure" for her brother Basil's vanity at his oratorical skill, 105 so the description of her abundant virtues serves to prod less dedicated Christians to lives of more strenuous renunciation. Gregory fears that if he neglects to record the details of her life, her story will remain "useless" (ano\phe\les) 106 --"useless," that is, for the instruction and chastisement of others. Although Gregory does not here deploy an explicit rhetoric of shame, as do some of his monastic and ecclesiastical colleagues, 107 his picture of Macrina and her "philosophy" nonetheless stands as an implicit critique of "weaker" Christians, including Christian men.

Thus we should perhaps be cautious in assuming that Wisdom-cast-as-woman provides an unproblematic positive evaluation of "real" women. [End Page 429] Just as scholars of Gnosticism soon backed away from linking the exaltation of Sophia to the empowerment of "real" women--after all, she is depicted as responsible for the disruption of the pleroma and the entrance of woe to the universe 108 --so too our pleasure at discovering that early Christian women can be depicted as embodiments of "Wisdom" may require restraint: the representation may have nothing to do with the empowerment of "real" women or with an exaltation of "the feminine." To be sure, it is more positive to have women depicted as wise and beneficial than as ignorant and malevolent (as they all too often are in ancient texts). Nonetheless, the leap from "representation" to the extratextual world crosses a wide and ugly ditch whose expanse we historians should take care not to underestimate.

How might this theoretical approach impact the analysis of women and gender in other early Christian texts? It seems clear that we must move beyond the stage of feminist historiography in which we "find" another forgotten woman and throw her into the historical mix. I do not mean to belittle the enterprise of "recovery"--after all, I have done a good bit of it myself, and I believe these labors have served some useful functions. That moment of recovery was, of course, politically charged: it constituted a celebratory move that lauded our "foremothers."

The current moment, more attentive to linguistic and social theory, is considerably less celebratory in its conclusions: we cannot with certainty claim to hear the voices of "real" women in early Christian texts, so appropriated have they been by male authors. Yet interesting work may continue to examine how "woman," how gender, is constructed in early Christian texts, but will also move beyond purely linguistic concerns to explore the social forces at work in these constructions. 109

Do we, then, have either "holy women" or their "holy words"? While these texts give us no such clear vision, the "holy woman" leaves her "traces" (as deconstructionists like to say). Through an exploration of these "traces," as they are imbedded in a larger social-linguistic framework and reflected through male eyes, she lingers on. "Afterlife" comes in different forms--or so we should know from the study of Christian history and theology.

Elizabeth A. Clark is John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion, Duke University.

* A longer version of some portions of this essay appears in Church History 67 (1998): 1-31. I wish to thank members of the North Carolina Research Group on Women in the Middle Ages and Early Modernity, colleagues and former Duke graduate students (especially Dale Martin, Gail Hamner, and Randall Styers), and Dyan Elliott for criticisms and suggestions.

1. Sebastian P. Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, The Transformation of the Classical Heritage, 13 (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987).

2. The following women whose martyrdoms are told in Holy Women so die: Martha (p. 71); Tarbo (pp. 74, 76); Thekla and her companions (pp. 79, 80); Anahid (p. 94); some of the women martyrs of Najran (p. 108); Mary (p. 124); Febronia (p. 165).

3. The anonymous author of the Historia monachorum devotes no chapters to women; in translating the work to Latin, Rufinus of Aquileia does not add any women. Rufinus, however, raises the number of virgins/nuns living in the region of Oxyrhynchus from 5000 to 20,000, while keeping the male monastic population constant at 10,000 (PL 21, 409).

4. Theodoret devotes two chapters out of thirty in his History of the Monks of Syria to women (chps. 29-30).

5. The alphabetical version of the Apophthegmata patrum reports on the sayings of four women: the wife of Eucharistos the secular; Theodora; Sarah; Syncletica. That women's speech is curtailed in relation to men's also in the acta of the martyrs is stressed by Francine Cardman, "Acts of the Women Martyrs," ATR 70 (1988): 146.

6. In the Greek version, 19 of the chapters partially or wholly concern women (#3, 5, 6, 28, 33, 34, 41, 46, 54-57, 59-61, 63, 64, 67, 69).

7. E.g., Jerome, epp. 22, 23, 24, 38, 39, 54, 75, 79, 107, 108, 123, 127, 130.

8. Vita Olympiadis (SC 13bis, 406-49); (Gerontius), Vita Melaniae Iunioris (SC 90, 124-271); Vita Syncleticae (PG 28, 1488-1557); Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae (SC 178, 136-267).

9. Peter Brown, "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity," in idem, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982; original in JRS 61 [1971]: 80-101); I quote from the reprinted version, pp. 138-39.

10. See my essays, "Friendship between the Sexes: Classical Theory and Christian Practice," in Clark, Jerome, Chrysostom, and Friends: Essays and Translations (New York/Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, 1979), 35-106; "Ascetic Renunciation and Feminine Advancement: A Paradox of Late Ancient Christianity," ATR 63 (1981): 240-57, reprinted in Clark, Ascetic Piety and Women's Faith: Essays on Late Ancient Christianity (Lewiston/Queenston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1986), 175-208; The Life of Melania the Younger: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (New York/Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, 1984), esp. 83-109.

11. For Melania the Elder, see Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 46 (Butler, 134-35); for Olympias, see Vita Olympiadis 3 (SC 13bis, 412).

12. Peter Brown, "Town, Village and Holy Man: The Case of Syria," in Society and the Holy, 158-59.

13. Olympias in Constantinople; Melania the Elder and the Younger in Jerusalem; Paula in Bethlehem; Marcella and other friends of Jerome in Rome. Macrina's monastery was on the family estate in the countryside. See Susanna Elm, 'Virgins of God': The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), chp. 2 and p. 210 for a discussion of how part of her brother Basil's strategy to triumph over "heretical" asceticism was to move monasteries away from cities. The location of Syncletica's retreat is not known (presumably a monastery near Alexandria?: Vita Syncleticae 4; 100).

14. Brown, "Rise," 116. A counterexample could be cited: Melania the Elder's protection of ascetics from the wrath of a hostile ruler (Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 46 [Butler, 134-35]).

15. On Christian women's patronage, see my "Patrons, Not Priests: Gender and Power in Late Ancient Christianity," Gender & History 2 (1990): 253-73.

16. Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 37-39 (SC 178, 258-66). As noted by Elena Giannarelli, women saints of the fourth century tend not to work miracles ("Women and Miracles in Christian Biography [IVth-Vth Centuries]," Studia Patristica 25 [1993], 377).

17. (Gerontius), Vita Melaniae Iunioris 60-61 (Latin text in Santa Melania Giuniore, senatrice romana: Documenti contemporanei e note, ed. Mariano del Tindaro Rampolla [Roma: Tipografia Vaticana, 1905]), 34-35. Giannarelli ("Women and Miracles," 378-79) labels Melania a "second level mediatrix" in that her miracles are accomplished through the martyrs and a holy man's relics.

18. Sergia, Narratio de Vita Olympiadis 9 (text in Joseph Bousquet, "Recit de Sergia sur Olympias," ROC 12 [1907]: 255-68); ET in Clark, Jerome, 145-57.

19. Of Mary (Holy Women, 125); of Febronia's corpse (Holy Women, 176).

20. Of Mary (Holy Women, 125).

21. Of Thekla and her companions (Holy Women, 79).

22. Peter Brown, "The Saint as Exemplar in Late Antiquity," Representations 1.2 (1983): 10, cf. 16.

23. Nancy K. Miller, "The Text's Heroine: A Feminist Critic and Her Fictions," in Conflicts in Feminism, eds. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller (New York/London: Routledge, 1990), 118, discussing Foucault's essay, "What Is An Author?"

24. Carol Thomas Neely, "Constructing the Subject: Feminist Practice and the New Renaissance Discourses," English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 13.

25. Myra Jehlen in Judith Walkowitz, Myra Jehlen, and Bell Chevigny, "Patrolling the Borders: Feminist Historiography and the New Historicism," Radical History Review 43 (1989): 35, cf. 39. Paul Smith in Discerning the Subject (Theory and History of Literature, 55 [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988], xxxv, 152, 157) argues for keeping the notion of "agency" in some form so that we can have "resistance" (leftist politics needs at least a "trace" of an "actor"). With her interest in "performativity," Judith Butler links "agency" to "repetition"; see her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York/London: Routledge, 1990), 145-46.

26. Evelyne Patlagean, "Ancienne hagiographie byzantine et histoire sociale," AnnalesESC 23 (1968): 114, borrowing from Levi-Strauss.

27. See Clark, "Ascetic Renunciation"; Elm, Virgins of God, esp. chap. 1.

28. As in Jerome's Vita Pauli 7, 16 (PL 23, 22-23, 28).

29. Caroline Walker Bynum, "Women's Stories, Women's Symbols: A Critique of Victor Turner's Theory of Liminality," in Anthropology and the Study of Religion, eds. Frank Reynolds and Robert Moore (Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1984), 105-25.

30. Often itself a literary fiction: see Hippolyte Delehaye, The Legends of the Saints: An Introduction to Hagiography, tr. V. M. Crawford (1907; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1961), 71. For more traditional scholars, a sign of the work's authenticity; see George Luck, "Notes on the Vita Macrinae of Gregory of Nyssa," in The Biographical Works of Gregory of Nyssa, ed. Andreas Spira, Patristic Monograph Series, 12 (Cambridge, Mass.: The Philadelphia Patristic Foundation Ltd., 1984), 21-22.

31. So Ruth Albrecht, Das Leben der heiligen Makrina auf dem Hintergrund der Thekla-Traditionen (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986), 42-43 (the Vita Macrinae is "ein sehr authentisches Bild"). Elizabeth A. Castelli, on the other hand, notes that since the name "Syncletica" is a pun, some have thought that the Vita Syncleticae did not refer "to an actual woman," but was a fictitious invention. See Castelli, "Translation" (of the Vita Syncleticae) in Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook, ed. Vincent L. Wimbush (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 267 n. 7.

32. Vita Melania Junioris, prologus (SC 90, 124, 126); ET of the Greek vita in Clark, Life of Melania the Younger, 25-82.

33. Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 18 (SC 178, 200).

34. Vita Melaniae Junioris 11 (SC 90, 146); Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 61 adds Aquitania, Taraconia, and Gaul, as well.

35. Vita Melaniae Junioris 15 (SC 90, 156); in the Greek version, the income is attributed to Melania's husband Pinian; in the Latin version, to Melania herself.

36. The trip to Constantinople is described in Vita Melaniae Junioris 51-56 (SC 90, 224-40); the Latin version adds the precise figure of "40 days." She leaves Constantinople at the end of February and arrives home just before Holy Week (Vita 56-57).

37. Vita Olympiadis 5 (SC 13bis, 416, 418).

38. Pseudo-Athanasius, Vita Syncleticae 111 (PG 28, 1556).

39. Vita Melaniae Junioris 23 (SC 90, 174). Which Lives would then have been available? Perhaps those of Antony and Martin, and Jerome's three monastic Vitae? See discussion in Jacques Fontaine, "Introduction," Sulpice Severe, Vie de Saint Martin (SC 133.1, 77 n. 1).

40. Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 55 (Butler, 149), a chapter now deemed to pertain to Melania.

41. Jerome, ep. 108.20 (CSEL 55, 334-36).

42. Jerome, ep. 127.2 (CSEL 56, 146).

43. Jerome, ep. 108.20 (CSEL 55, 336).

44. Roland Barthes, "The Reality Effect," in Barthes, The Rustle of Language, tr. Richard Howard (1984; New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), 141-42.

45. Ibid., 143, 146-48.

46. See discussion in F. R. Ankersmit, History and Tropology: The Rise and Fall of Metaphor (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 140-41. Commentators on early Christian texts often claim that even when ekphrasis abounds, as it does in the Vita Macrinae, the descriptions nonetheless convey "a personal note": so Eugenio Marotta, "Similitudini ed ecphraseis nella Vita s. Macrinae di Gregorio di Nissa," Vetera Christianorum 7 (1970): 283.

47. Roland Barthes, "The Discourse of History," tr. Stephen Bann, in Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook, vol. 3, ed. E. S. Shaffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 7, 18. Also see Hayden White, "'Figuring the Nature of the Times Deceased': Literary Theory and Historical Writing," in The Future of Literary Theory, ed. Ralph Cohen (New York/London: Routledge, 1989), 23-24.

48. Hayden White, "The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory," History and Theory 23 (1984); reprinted in White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 57; also see White's essay, "The Discourse of History," Humanities in Society 2 (1979): 1-15, for an illuminating discussion of the "history of historiography."

49. Hayden White, "Droysen's Historik: Historical Writing as a Bourgeois Science," History and Theory 19 (1980), reprinted in White, Content of the Form, 87. Peter De Bolla notes White's emphasis on the moralizing character of narrative ("Disfiguring History," Diacritics 16 [1986]: 50). Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva attack narrativity as an "ideological instrument"; see discussion in White, "The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and Desublimation," Critical Inquiry 8 (1982), reprinted in White, Content of the Form, 81.

50. White, "Droysen's Historik," 102.

51. Hayden White, "Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination," History and Theory 14 (1975): 60.

52. Arnaldo Momigliano, "The Rhetoric of History and the History of Rhetoric: On Hayden White's Tropes," in Comparative Criticism, 261.

53. Richard Reitzenstein, "Des Athanasius Werk uber das Leben des Antonius," Sitzungsberichte, Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften: Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, 5 (1914): 30-32.

54. Athanasius, Vita Antonii 72-73 (PG 26, 944-45).

55. Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 54 (Butler, 147).

56. Gerontius, Vita Melaniae Junioris 54 (SC 90, 232, 234).

57. Jerome, ep. 127.9 (CSEL 56, 152).

58. For a survey of these, see Elizabeth A. Clark, The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 60-84.

59. Pseudo-Athanasius, Vita Syncleticae 26, 88 (PG 28, 1502, 1504, 1541).

60. Ibid., 29 (PG 28, 1504-05).

61. Ibid., 29, 40, 49 (PG 28, 1505, 1512, 1516-17).

62. Ibid., 53 (PG 58, 1520).

63. Ibid., 81, 88 (PG 58, 1536, 1541).

64. Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 3 (SC 178, 148, 150). George Luck observes that there is not a single certain quotation from a pagan author in the entire Vita ("Notes," 29).

65. Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 17 (SC 178, 198).

66. Gregory of Nyssa, De anima et resurrectione (PG 46, 24).

67. Ibid. (PG 46, 28).

68. Ibid. (PG 46, 76-79).

69. Ibid. (PG 46, 93, 96-97).

70. Ibid. (PG 46, 53).

71. Ibid. (PG 46, 32-33, 36-37).

72. David M. Halperin, "Why is Diotima a Woman?" in Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York/London: Routledge, 1990), 113-51.

73. Ibid., 137, 138-39, 144. See also Luce Irigaray's emphasis on the fecundity of love in Diotima's speech: "Sorcerer Love: A Reading of Plato's Symposium, Diotima's Speech," in Revaluing French Feminism: Critical Essays on Difference, Agency and Culture, eds. Nancy Fraser and Sandra Lee Bartky, tr. Eleanor Kuykendall (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), 64-76.

74. Halperin, "Why is Diotima," 150, 137.

75. Ibid., 144, 145 citing Helene Foley.

76. Ibid., 149-51.

77. Ibid., 145.

78. Ibid., 149, 151.

79. In Off With Her Head! The Denial of Women's Identity in Myth, Religion, and Culture, eds. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz and Wendy Doniger (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 165-84; discussion at p. 180, citing Claudia Camp and Raphael Patai. Gregory of Nyssa, on the other hand, in commenting on Proverbs 4.6-8 does not flinch from stating that both men and women can be married to Wisdom, citing Galatians 3.28 for support: De virginitate 20 (SC 199, 500, 502).

80. Eilberg-Schwartz, "The Nakedness of a Woman's Voice," 173-74, 177.

81. Ibid., 180.

82. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Displacement and the Discourse of Women," in Displacement: Derrida and After, ed. Mark Krupnick (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), 190, for a critique of Derrida on this point, after a sympathetic (and useful) review of Derrida's advancement of feminine figurations. Arnaldo Momigliano accepts the role of Macrina in the vita and De anima et resurrectione at face value: "Macrina is here Socrates to her brother Gregory" ("The Life of St. Macrina by Gregory of Nyssa," in Momigliano, On Pagans, Jews, and Christians [Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987], 208; the essay was originally printed in The Craft of the Ancient Historian: Essays in Honor of Chester G. Starr [New York, 1985], 443-58).

83. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 153.

84. Lawrence R. Hennessey notes that Gregory had "tamed" his Origenism before he wrote De opificio hominis and De anima et resurrectione ("Gregory of Nyssa's Doctrine of the Resurrected Body," Studia Patristica 22 [1989], 31-32).

85. Gregory of Nyssa, De anima et de resurrectione (PG 46, 25).

86. Ibid. (PG 46, 112-13).

87. Ibid. (PG 46, 85).

88. Ibid. (PG 46, 148-49).

89. Gregory of Nyssa, De opificio hominis 1 (PG 44, 128, 129, 131).

90. Ibid., 28 (PG 44, 229, 232-33).

91. Ibid., 16 (PG 44, 177, 180); Gregory faults the notion as too "lowly" for the Christian affirmation of human creation.

92. Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio catechetica magna 8 (Jaeger 3.4, 30); De virginitate 13 (SC 119, 422).

93. Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio catechetica magna 31 (Jaeger 3.4, 76-77); De opificio hominis 16 (PG 44, 185); cf. the arguments of Gregory's Contra fatum (PG 34, 145-74). Gregory's critique of determinism is explored in David Amand de Mendieta, Fatalisme et liberte dans l'antiquite grecque (Louvain: Bibliotheque de l'Universite, 1945), Book 2, chp. 9.

94. Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio catechetica magna 8 (Jaeger 3.4, 32).

95. Gregory of Nyssa, De virginitate 23 (SC 119, 524-28); De perfectione (Jaeger 8.1, 195-96).

96. Gregory of Nyssa, De opificio hominis 16 (PG 44, 181, 185). Note Verna Harrison's summation: "Gregory argues that there is no gender in the eternal Godhead since even within the human condition gender is something temporary" ("Male and Female in Cappadocian Theology," JTS, n.s. 41 [1990]: 441).

97. Gregory of Nyssa, De opificio hominis 22 (PG 44, 204).

98. Ibid., 16 (PG 44, 185).

99. As do virgins, according to Gregory of Nyssa, De virginitate 13 (SC 119, 422-26); cf. Hom. in Canticum Canticorum 15 (Jaeger 6, 439-40), on Song of Songs 6.2; according to Gregory's teaching here, we recover the image when we model ourselves on Christ.

100. Gregory of Nyssa, De opificio hominis 18 (PG 44, 196).

101. Gregory of Nyssa, Hom. in Canticum Canticorum 4 (Jaeger 6, 115).

102. Ibid., 9 (Jaeger 6, 275-76).

103. Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 1 (SC 178, 140).

104. Verna E. F. Harrison notes how Gregory also can allow "Wisdom" to change genders in his First Homily on the Song of Songs ("Gender Reversal in Gregory of Nyssa's First Homily on the Song of Songs [Studia Patristica 27 [1993], 35-36).

105. Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 6 (SC 178, 162).

106. Ibid., 1 (SC 178, 140, 142).

107. See Elizabeth A. Clark, "Sex, Shame, and Rhetoric: Engendering Early Christian Ethics," JAAR 59 (1992): 221-45, esp. 230-35, for examples.

108. See various essays in Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism, ed. Karen L. King (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), especially Anne Pasquier's "Prouneikos: A Colorful Expression to Designate Wisdom in Gnostic Texts," 47-66.

109. See Elizabeth A. Clark, "Ideology, History, and the Construction of 'Woman' in Late Ancient Christianity," JECS 2 (1994): 155-84.

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