From the Many to the Few

Kate Cooper reassesses Brent Shaw’s 1994 article on women in the early Church, which reveals a key historical principle.

Graffiti from the catacomb of Domitilla in Rome of a woman in the early attitude of prayer next to Christian symbols of the doveWhile Constantine was waging the civil war that would result in his conversion at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the Christians of Carthage were arguing over how to treat the bones of the holy dead: ‘In AD 312 at Carthage, Lucilla, a wealthy woman of high social standing, refused to apologise for her practice of bestowing a kiss on a holy relic.’

Writing in 1994, Brent Shaw argued that it was a woman who triggered a contest that would divide Christianity – or perhaps the tendency of the clergy to dismiss a woman’s views. ‘Caecilian, the priest who dared to reprimand her, suddenly found himself opposed for election to the vacant position of Bishop of Carthage by a male slave from Lucilla’s own household, Majorinus … who defeated Caecilian in the election.’ Thus began a century of theological controversy, resulting in, among other things, the medieval tradition of capital punishment for heretics.

Shaw’s survey considered a quarter-century of historical argument about women’s role in the early churches, finding in favour of the argument, then contested, that women’s authority had started strong in the circle around Jesus, but was gradually sidelined over the first four centuries. His treatment has proved remarkably prescient. He singles out, for example, the importance of martyrdom in the spread of public sympathy for Christianity.

Women, it will be remembered, played a prominent role in the martyr phenomenon. ‘In their public demonstration of courage, or bodily resistance, of iron-willed and open confrontation with supreme figures of authority – from their own fathers to the Roman governors who put them on trial – women martyrs were perhaps the most difficult case with which the Church had to cope.’ The willingness to die for the faith could change the balance of power among the faithful and in wider society.

Yet the historian today feels, reading Shaw, how heavily medieval paradigms still weighed on historians a generation ago. Barely below the surface of his treatment is his struggle with an idea, first put forward by the Syrian bishop Eusebius of Caesarea in the early fourth century, that within hours of the death of Jesus the Church was already moving at a stately but inexorable pace toward the highly centralised institution it would become under Constantine.

More recent scholarship tends to take a very different view of the earliest centuries. Here, the sociology of modern religions has had a game-changing impact. Perhaps most influential has been Rodney Stark’s fieldwork on how new religious movements spread virally through friendship and family networks, applied by Stark himself to the earliest Christian churches in The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Re-Considers History (1996). Equally influential has been demographic work drawing on modern census data, which suggests that only 10 per cent of self-identified members of modern religious groups find value in engaging with the institutional structures that claim to represent them.

What happens if we take seriously the idea of early Christianity as a household-based ‘viral movement’, as vital and ungovernable as the new religious movements of the 21st century? For one thing, it changes the meaning of the terms ‘elder’ (presbyteros), ‘supporter’ (diakonos), and ‘supervisor’ (episkopos).

It is now well-documented that all three of these terms were used repeatedly of women across the first centuries. But more unsettling is the work of lay Catholic historians such as Gary Macy, whose The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination (2008) argues that even in Eusebius’ day the terms ‘presbyter’ and ‘bishop’ did not refer to established offices as we understand them – a development which would not take place until the 12th century – and Gary Wills, whose Why Priests? (2013) sees the emergence of the clergy as the work of an eccentric minority, able, through a brilliant media campaign, to distort and re-direct the nature of the Christian movement. Early Christianity may not have been an institution, or even a single religion, at all.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina opens with the observation that happy families are all alike, while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. A related principle may be at play in the writing of history. Histories tend to remember elements of the past that flatter the present, the reason why things ought to be just as they are. It is when there is uncertainty over how things ought to be that historical writing tends to be at its most interesting.

Read the original article, Women in the Early Church

Kate Cooper is the author of Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women ( Atlantic Books, 2013).


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