Searching for Christian Heroines from History? Look to the Early Church
I, Amy, am often asked why I became a historical theologian of early Christianity—what it was that gripped my imagination and pricked my desire to contribute to the 2,000-year-old conversation by Christians speaking about God. For me it was sitting in an undergraduate class and hearing about the controversial second-century prophetesses Priscilla and Maximilla. All of a sudden my charismatic tradition, which before had seemed to me to be a novel force for mobilizing the church, had a history beyond the New Testament.
Almost 15 years later and on the cusp of doctoral work, I was approached by Sarah, a 20-year-old pastor’s daughter, after a service at my small urban church in Aurora, Illinois. She asked, “What is my role now in the church as a single, young adult woman? Where do I fit?” I knew Sarah well, and her earnest question confirmed that part of my journey as a theologian was to answer her question and to tell some stories about women in early Christianity and how they were instrumental in constructing the church and its teachings.
In graduate school in the 1980s, I, Lynn, read Julian of Norwich’s Showings; I was pregnant with my first child. The juxtaposition is important, for Julian’s vision includes a rich reflection on Christ as our Mother. This 14th century anchorite gave me my first glimpse of women’s influence and authority in the life of the church. I wanted to investigate more and plunged into the church fathers’ work. If reading Julian’s Showings was like a walk in a gentle summer rain, then Tertullian’s hateful comment, “Woman is the devil’s gateway,” stung like hail in a thunderstorm. I decided to abandon the exploration for a time, for lack of a suitable guide to help navigate the unfamiliar terrain.
Recent scholarship, however, has provided important methodological insights that allow today’s readers to navigate the early Christian texts’ rhetoric concerning women and the category of female. Greater attention is now paid to the role and influence of women in theological conversations and controversies. In this context, I have since resumed my journey into the world of Christian women in the early church.
The Greek myth of Pandora gives us some context for understanding women in world history. According to the myth, not only was Pandora created as a punishing “gift” after man had stolen fire from Prometheus, but also she, the first of womankind, opened a jar out of curiosity and released all kinds of evil. This story not only denigrates the creation of woman but also blames her for the ills of the world. Pandora introduces difference into a homogeneous world by her very presence, her femininity a dangerous enigma that brings catastrophe. Pandora serves as the archetype for the dangerous female, and women have been trying to revise or reconstruct (or at times embrace) this myth ever since.
Feminists have shone the spotlight on history and literature, demonstrating how the oppression of women is deeply entrenched, systemically permeating political structures, domestic life, and religious devotion. Of course, Christianity is not immune to the charge of denigrating women and in fact has often been the appropriated force behind the subjugation of women and even the instigator of atrocities against various groups of women. Our approach stands over against both those works of modern scholarship that simply lament and dismiss the church fathers as hopelessly misogynistic, as well as those that take a naive, pious perspective on the evidence, for both approaches fail to deal analytically with the sources.
Within these early Christian writings, we find disparaging comments about women or the female sex as well as active engagement and genuine conversation with learned women. We have examples of women living their lives with creative energy and mobility, taking opportunities as they arise, owning agency and demonstrating religious conviction in ways that surprise modern sensibilities, and contributing to the variegated story of early Christianity. We are fortunate enough to have accounts of some of these ancient and modern women.
Thecla was a protomartyr whose story in the Acts of Paul and Thecla reverberated from the mid-second century well into the Middle Ages and was used as a meme for theological and philosophical reflection and ethical direction. Perpetua, an early martyr whose testimony, “I am a Christian,” sealed her fate, was memorialized in the yearly liturgical cycle of the church. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, declared her Christian identity by opening the imperial coffers to build imposing basilicas in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Both Helena and Egeria, a wealthy woman from the western edges of the empire, set out on pilgrimages that were much more than personal quests for spiritual renewal.
Another influential mother, Monica, the mother of Augustine, is remembered by her son for her tireless commitment to prayer for his salvation, her bright mind for philosophical dialogue, and her maturity in faith that drew them both into communion with God. A woman named Macrina embraced the monastic life and guided her brothers, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea, in spiritual and philosophical teachings. Melania the Elder and her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, along with Paula and Marcella, give us examples of aristocrats-turned-ascetics who abdicated their wealth and powerful societal positions in order to establish monasteries, promote scholarship, and participate in key doctrinal discussions of their day. We also know of two empresses of the Theodosian court, Pulcheria and Eudocia. Pulcheria was the powerful sister of the Christian emperor Theodosius II who influenced two of the most important councils in church history; Eudocia became Theodosius’s wife, as well as a poet and pilgrim who was often at odds with the imperial house.
Historical accounts tell us that these women contributed to the lively contemporary philosophical discussions surrounding human nature, the human body, and the future of humanity. Women like Paula and Melania the Elder participated in these debates and helped shape early Christianity with their intellectual acuity and their desire to live lives marked by devotion to God. We do not have nearly enough of these accounts, but what we do find is that Christian women often had to navigate the tricky congress between their femaleness and the faith, tradition, and Scriptures that they held so dear. Women of various regions, backgrounds, situations, and temperaments from the earliest centuries of Christianity assumed authority, exercised power, and shaped not only their legacy but also the legacy of Christianity.
The point of highlighting these connections is not to show direct cause and effect or to identify some line of “orthodox” women that preserved a “pure” Christianity. Instead, we want to show how women were right in the thick of everything, how their participation and contributions were vital to the construction and maturation of the early church, and how men and women depended on one another for the sake of their love for Christ.
By telling the stories of Christian women in the patristic period—and taking seriously their Christian beliefs (doctrine, worship, Scripture, and community)—we can remember a fuller and richer Christian history and engage in our own communities with a stronger, sharper, and sophisticated appreciation for the Christian women of the past. Simply put: Reading texts about and by early Christian women helps us expand our understanding of what the Christian story is.
This adapted excerpt from Christian Women in the Patristic World has been published with permission by Baker Academic. Lynn H. Cohick (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and the author of several books, including Women in the World of the Earliest Christians and commentaries on Philippians and Ephesians. Amy Brown Hughes (PhD, Wheaton College) is assistant professor of theology at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.