This month we caught up with Kate Cooper, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Manchester, who has a recent book published called The Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women. You can visit her website and follow her on Twitter (@kateantiquity).
Your new book explores the ‘forgotten’ women of early Christianity. Why do you think that they have been airbrushed from history?
It all comes down to a sad fact of human nature. People tend to commemorate the parts of history that reflect their own concerns. For 1500 years, the Christian memory-keepers were mostly male clerics and monks, and – bless them – they wrote histories that served the institutions they worked for. Human nature hasn’t changed, but the social landscape has. Now we are in a situation where many people – including the Pope! – believe that it’s time to sweep away a certain complacency that has distorted Christianity. Many of us want to know more about the invisible people – not the ones who were central to the power games of institutions. We want to hear more about the quiet people who let their lives be transformed by love, which is what Christianity at its best has always been about. That’s where the women come in – their stories speak to this new mood.
From your research, how prominent and integral was the role of women in the early church? How did this change over the first 500 years of Christianity?
From the very beginning, women were central. The story starts, of course, with Mary of Nazareth, and her unbelievably brave act of carrying an illegitimate child in a society where violating sexual codes could lead to a punishment of death by stoning. The New Testament shows women playing a central role in the group around Jesus, and this continues in the earliest churches, which were informal groups linked together by family and friendship networks. At the beginning there was no organized structure connecting them. Sometime in the second century, a faction began to argue that women should not play a leadership role – or at least that their role should be restricted. The anti-women faction was never entirely successful – well into the middle ages we see nuns and deaconesses doing wonderful things. But they received a major shot in the arm in the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine decided to re-organize the churches and give the leaders a role in local government. Only men could serve in these re-styled leadership roles, since only men could be elected to public office under Roman custom. Women continued in the ancient role of deacon, and this could be quite a powerful role, but the changing role of priests and bishops created a new dynamic. It was a turning point.
Who do you think was the most influential woman in the ‘band of angels’ in the early church? Which female had the most formative influence over the rise of Christianity?
I’ve already mentioned Mary of Nazareth, but another figure who was terribly important was Mary Magdalene. The idea that she was a repentant prostitute is actually a medieval legend invented by Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century. But the real Mary Magdalene was one of the disciples closest to Jesus. The second-century Gospel of Mary remembers an argument among the disciples about whether the Church should accept the teachings which Jesus gave to Mary in private, as a special sign of his faith in her. Naturally, the Apostle Peter was remembered as arguing that no one should believe a woman! Many people believe the Gospel of Mary was a heretical text, but it was never condemned as such – it seems simply to be an alternative point of view, from a period when Christianity was very diverse.
Why were women attracted to Christianity? What did it offer them that society and wider culture did not?
The early Christian emphasis on generosity of spirit was a rare and precious thing in an ancient patriarchal society. For women, it was inspiring to be part of a group that proclaimed that even the weakest member of the group had the same importance as the strongest. In ancient village communities, women had responsibility for children, the elderly, and the sick – how could they not love a teacher who valued this demanding and often thankless work?
Nowadays, many accuse Christianity of being a patriarchal religion. Do you think that this is a fair assumption after researching the roots of this religion?
Christianity came into the world in a Middle Eastern society that was obsessed with male honour, so it would be surprising if it carried no baggage as a result. But from the very beginning, Jesus preached the equality of all people. Some people aren’t aware that modern feminism is the brain-child of nineteenth-century Christian women who wanted to bring Christianity back to its core values – feminism has its roots in nineteenth-century Christian radicalism alongside the movement to abolish slavery. There have been inspiring and radical women in every century, and we need to hear more about them. It seems crazy to turn our back on the amazing tradition of women’s Christianity just because some powerful men in the movement have misbehaved – Christianity has not been the only movement in history to suffer from that particular problem.
Do you feel that your research supports the contemporary argument for women bishops in the Church of England?
Yes, because it shows that the arguments about male headship are not part of the core of Christianity – they come from a second phase, which lasted from the second to twelfth century, in which the medieval institutional structure emerged. But the male-orientated institutional take-over didn’t succeed in keeping women from playing a central role – it just meant that they received less recognition.
It also shows that the current feeling that the Church of England is out of touch with its membership is nothing new. Historically, the institution has often been out of touch with the values and needs of the faithful, so there always has to be a cycle of reform and renewal.
What were the challenges that you faced when writing this book?
The real difficulty was in writing beautifully, not boringly! Often, I had to read between the lines of the ancient writers, drawing on decades of study to see what a first- or second-century person was getting at. Sometimes that makes a huge difference. It’s not so difficult, if you’re a trained historian – it’s fascinating, like putting together the clues of a murder mystery. The real difficulty is in helping the reader to see what you see, without getting bogged down in the details. I had to write draft after draft!
We are fascinated by Chloe of Corinth who Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1. How far is it acceptable to speculate about her, and her position, in the early church? Where are the barriers when expanding on Biblical texts?
She is a woman of mystery, isn’t she? When we meet an elusive figure like Chloe, we have to think hard. It’s not so much a matter of speculating as making sure we consider all the possibilities. Often, it’s refreshing to pay special attention to the possibility that seems most unlikely. In the case of Chloe, there are two main possibilities. The apostle Paul says in his letter that some Christians ‘from Chloe’s household’ have been complaining about what is going on in Corinth. I really sounds as if Paul was angry with Chloe. He mentions her without sending a greeting and a word of praise, which would be quite an insult if she was the leader of a house-church. But it is also possible that Chloe wasn’t Christian at all – she was a woman of means, and the Christians in her household may actually have been her slaves – in ancient Greek talking about someone’s ‘household’ can be short-hand for the slaves they own. She was the owner of Paul’s friends, not the head of their church, then his talking about her behind her back is not nearly so insulting.
And lastly, which early Christian woman inspired you the most and why?
It has to be Thecla. According to a second-century legend, she was a thirteen-year-old girl who was inspired by the Apostle Paul’s preaching and decided to cut off her hair and dress as a young man in order to join his disciples. At first, Paul discouraged her, but she was so dedicated to the faith that she literally walked through fire to prove her devotion. The ancient tale of Paul and Thecla is really quite alarming – it goes on and on about the ordeals Thecla had to face to prove herself. Finally, at the end of the story, Paul sends her off on as a missionary on her own, charging her to ‘Go, and Preach the Word of God!’ Not only was Thecla incredibly plucky, but she was able to stand up to the Apostle Paul! It’s not certain that she actually existed, but she was a much-loved saint in the ancient churches, and she is still revered as one of the Apostles by the orthodox churches.
There is a raft of evidence to suggest that even in the most conservative families young women were routinely encouraged to follow Thecla’s example – more than one of the great early bishops had a sister named after her. I just love the fact that being a ‘good girl’ in early Christianity meant striking out on your own and talking back to male authority figures!
Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women is published by Atlantic Books; for a reader’s guide and info about talks and events, visit Band of Angels on Facebook.