Conspicuous in their absence: women in early christianity.
Lisa Bellan-Boyer
Cross Currents, Spring, 2003

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 of life."

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 traditions.

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 absence?

Contemporary scholars 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 Middle East.

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 or mistress.

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. (1)

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 be preserved.

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 life.

"Pure vessel" 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.

The "true-believing" (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.


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Lisa Bellan-Boyer 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 Museum.

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