Women and Authority in Early Christianity


14 July 2018

My reflection this week end is about a book I strongly recommend to all readers, and especially to men in ecclesiastical leadership and hierarchical positions: CRISPINA AND HER SISTERS: WOMEN AND AUTHORITY IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY by Sister Christine Schenk, CSJ (Fortress Press)

Thanks to Christine Schenk and many other researchers and historical theologians, we have come to a much better understanding of the place and role of women in early Christianity. They were central figures and their stories and lives have been obscured too long by male scriptural scholars and theologians with paternalistic (and often misogynist) barrel vision.

As Laure Brink noted in her recent (July 11, 2018) review in the National Catholic Reporter, “Schenk’s research and writing took three years to accomplish. She explored visual imagery found on burial artifacts of prominent late third- and fourth-century Christian women….Schenk analyzed 2,119 images and descriptors of sarcophagi (stone coffins) and fragments from the third to fifth centuries.” This is no small thing. Women played a very significant institutional role in early Christianity.

Christine Schenk’s observations about her book are very much to the point. Her goal is “allowing men, and especially women, to retrieve the memory of influential women whose witness has for too long been invisible or distorted in Christian memory” with the “hope that drawing attention to these ancient images of early Christian women in iconic authority portrayals may help us reset our preconceived mental models.”

Schenk begins with the socio-cultural context of women in early Christianity (chapter one) and clearly notes that the rapid growth of Christianity was due in no small measure to the ministry and patronage of women who welcomed early Christian missionaries, both male and female, into the complex social network of Greco-Roman households. She then moves on (chapter two) to examine women’s exercise of authority in the first-century Christian churches as reflected in Paul’s letters, Acts, and other early Christian writings. Paul, for example, has an impressive list: Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’s mother, Julia, and Nereus’s sister. Peter Lampe, theologian and Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Heidelberg, deduces that women may have been more active than men in the first-century Christian community in Rome.

Chapter three provides a broad overview of methods used by art historians to analyze early Christian art as well as the interpretive challenges of relating it to the history of early Christian women. Then (chapter four) one has an analysis of the earliest frescos depicting Christian women found at the catacombs of Priscilla. We then embark on a study of late ancient Roman funerary practices (chapter five): a fascinating journey into the history and culture of the late Roman Empire.

In chapter six, Christine Schenk zeroes in on the underlying assumption of her book: that late third- through fifth-century Christian portrait funerary art is an important source of information about early Christian women as persons who exercised religious authority and influence. Chapter seven examines the implications of female iconography.

Chapter eight is titled “Women and Authority in the Fourth Century: Integrating the Literary Evidence.” This concluding chapter explores what can be known from the literary sources about the Christian women who lived during this dramatically transformative time in church and empire.

History educates, confirms, inspires, and motivates…… And this is a very fine historical study.

I conclude with a bit of serendipity. This morning, my wife and I participated in a Belgian, Roman Catholic funeral for the wife of a friend. It was an impressive and memorable service. The presider, dressed in white, speaking and singing in a wonderfully warm and reassuring way was a woman. I couldn’t help thinking, with a gentle knowing smile, about Crispina, her sisters, and author Sister Christine Schenk.

Jack

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