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AN EARLY CHRISTIAN FEMINIST?

Source: AN EARLY CHRISTIAN FEMINIST?

There are passages in the New Testament that portray radical equality between women and men (cf. Gal. 3:28).  We also see hints of the significant roles played by women in the early church.  The Gospels portray women among Jesus’ closest followers, faithful even in the face of the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus (cf. Mt. 27:55-56, 28:1-10; Mk. 15:40, 16:1-10; Lk. 24:10-11; Jn. 19:25-26).  In Paul’s letters we glimpse the Christian workers Phoebe, Prisca, and Mary (Rom. 16:1-6).  Junia is described as “prominent among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7). Chloe led a congregation (I Cor. 1:11), and Apphia’s house served as the church (Phlm. 2).  According to theBook of Acts, also the church in Jerusalem met in the house of a woman—Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12-17).  We encounter Lydia, who was instrumental in opening the mission in Philippi (Acts 16:12-15), and we’re told of the important leadership roles of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and “certain other women” who gathered as equals the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-14). And scattered throughout the New Testament we encounter numerous other signs that women have not received just due for the significant roles they played in establishing Christianity.

So, why do the important contributions of the first Christian women lay half-buried in the ancient texts, in need of being unearthed, while the contributions of their male counterparts are everywhere described?  One answer is that the New Testament is composed of documents written by men—the evangelists, Paul, Peter, John, James, Jude.  Would we, then, have a different view if some of the writings had been composed by women?

Ahnna Lise Jennings’ summary and observations of the early Christian writing The Acts of Thecla follows.  A 1924 English translation of the Acts is available online, incorporated into a larger writing that details the Acts of Paul.  D. R. MacDonald argues that the original stories about Thecla were told by and circulated among women (Dennis Ronald MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983). But what do you think?  Enjoy!  And please share your ideas with us.

AHNNA LISE’S SUMMARY AND OBSERVATIONS:

The Acts of Thecla is an extra-canonical book, popular at the end of the second century [Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into The New Testament (Oxford University Press: New York. 2003), page 113].  According to the story, the protagonist, Thecla, is engaged to an important man in her hometown when she hears Paul preaching.  She is transfixed by his sermon urging chastity. To the displeasure of her mother and her suitor, Thecla converts, breaks off her marriage, and becomes a follower of Christ.  Then, leaving her family behind, she becomes a traveling celibate preacher. Her journeys takes her through persecutions and dangers.  But with a little support from Paul, a lot of support from other women, and even more faith in God, Thecla overcomes all trials to become an important figure in the Church.

From a feminist theological perspective this story is interesting. Because of lack of information and inconsistency in the sources, historians and theologians have not been able to figure out exactly what role women played in the Church.  Did Thecla serve as a role-model for early Christian female disciples and martyrs?

Why was this book not canonized? My guess is that it was left out of the Bible because it did not fit the patriarchal image of the Church that the Roman empire wanted to portray. Roman society was male-centered.  When Constantine and the men at the various councils met, would they have been keen to add books like this one about women who were strong and disobeyed authority?

The emphasis on chastity and virginity is also interesting. The Greco-Roman pantheon included two important and powerful goddesses, Athena and Artemis. They were the strongest, most feared, and most respected of the goddesses. Both derived their power and reputations from their virginity and gave strength to the notion that adult women that maintained their virginity retained power.  The vestal virgins, priestesses of Athena and (especially) Artemis, were the most important women in the community.  They also enjoyed more autonomy than other women. They were not owned by any man nor did they have to answer to one. Following the example of the goddesses they served, these women used their virginity to make themselves more masculine and therefore more powerful. Being a virgin meant that they were undefiled by men.  By not having succumbed to sexual passion, these women retained mystical, earthy powers considered innate to females.

Today, virginity is seldom seen as a sign female power. The emphasis on purity and exclusivity came during the High Middle Ages.  Whereas Thecla chose virginity because Paul preached about the blessings that it would bring to all followers of Christ, many present-day Christians emphasize the expectation that women “must save themselves” for their husbands.

Another interesting theme in this book is how the women of the story join forces with one another. Thecla is protected by all the females around her except for her mother–whom she is reconciled to at the end of the story. The women create a community around Thecla.  When Thecla’s  own mother is displeased with her and tells the court to have her killed for her disobedience, Thecla is adopted and protected by another woman who then becomes a mother-figure to her. Even the lioness protects Thecla in the arena where she is to be executed. The community of women shouts, wails, encourages, and most importantly empathizes with Thecla throughout all her trials. As the women come together, they create a protective aura around Thecla.  As a group, their power is substantial.  Again, in Greco-Roman culture the power of women in groups was feared, so much that they were (with the exception of Sparta) sometimes prohibited from gathering in groups. The play Lysistrata by Aristophanes is a comedy about that very fear. The women come together and use their collective power to disrupt the men’s war. What is that power?  It’s the female power to withhold sexual intercourse from the men.

At several points in the account, Thecla was stripped naked. This sexualizing of Thecla, increases Thecla’s power as a virgin. The male characters in the story, while burning with desire, are powerless when trying to overcome Thecla’s chastity. The results are usually disastrous for the men, as Thecla calls upon God for protection and relief.  (This pattern of a woman devoted to prayer, visions, and a life of chastity, who needs God’s protection from men intent on stripping and raping her, in fact, reappears in many of the accounts of female saints.)

I wish that this book had been canonized because Thecla was so strong. She is a preacher–and she was a good one at that. Her ministry was sanctioned by Paul, the very man whose words are so-often twisted to keep women out of Church leadership roles today. Maybe if the Acts of Paul and Thecla had been canonized, it would not have taken so long for the Church to see that women are wonderful creations of God that deserve to be respected and loved in the same way the Church has always respected and loved men.

About religiousjourney

I'm a professor at Emory & Henry College and operate the religiousjourney.com blog.

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