The story we tell of early Christianity tends to focus almost exclusively on the church fathers and their contributions leading to major developments in Christian theology. Women’s contributions are often seen as ancillary to the development of the church and the fundamental theological discussions of early Christianity. When Lynn H. Cohick and I were working on our book Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries (Baker Academic, 2017), we started with stories of women like Thecla, Perpetua, Macrina, Monica, Pulcheria, and others who came from various regions, backgrounds, and situations. We asked how they exercised power and authority and shaped both their legacy and the legacy of Christianity. It became clear that women contributed substantially to the theological development of early Christian communities. Women were there. They were in the middle of those theological conversations. They were innovating and living lives of devotion and service, just like their male counterparts.
With Christian Women in the Patristic World, we wanted to offer an accessible, academic volume that would demonstrate the variety of women and the range of experiences and contributions they made. We wanted to draw on the recent excellent historical and theoretical work about women in Late Antiquity and then focus on the theological contributions of these women. 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 more sophisticated appreciation for the Christian women of the past. Reading texts about and by early Christian women helps us expand our understanding of what the Christian story is.
Each story we include in the book resonates with me in some way but a few that stand out. In ch. 4, we trace the transition of Christianity from persecuted superstitio (an illegal religion) to favored religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine. A major source from this time was Eusebius of Caesarea’s Church History, which includes the account of the martyrs of Vienne and Lyons. This letter relays the events of a localized persecution that happened in the Roman province of Gaul. Several Christians are named in the account, but it is Blandina, a young slave girl, whose story captured my imagination.
A slave in the Roman Empire lacked the status of a human being; Blandina was a res, a possessed “thing.” While her mistress is portrayed in the text as a handwringing wreck, Blandina is filled with such immense power that her torturers cannot break her even after an entire day of exhausting their expansive repertoire of cruelties. According to her torturers, her body is broken and she should die. Instead, she is compared to a “noble athlete” who is strengthened in the conflict. She clings fast to her identity – “I am a Christian woman, and nothing wicked happens among us” – which affords her freedom from pain amid the brutality. The recounting of her tortured body resisting death to die on her own terms serves as a purposeful parallel to Jesus’s approach to his own death. In John 10:18, Jesus speaks of how he chose to lay his life down: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
The martyrs showed their mettle by remaining alive against all expectations. Blandina stood out among the group for her posture as she hung on a stake to be picked apart by birds. The author of the letter interprets this image as follows: “She seemed to be hanging in the shape of a cross, and by her continuous prayer gave great zeal to the combatants, while they looked on during the contest, and with their outward eyes saw in the form of their sister him who was crucified for them, so that she persuaded those who believe on him that all who suffer for the glory of Christ have forever fellowship with the living God” (Hist. eccl. 5.1). The birds and beasts gave Blandina a wide berth; so again, Blandina was taken back to jail to await another attempt to kill her. The author of the letter interprets her endurance through trials as mounting proof of her defeat of the devil and encouragement for fellow Christians.
What strikes me about this story is how Blandina, classified as a thing by her persecutors, is empowered as an agent of Christ in her suffering. Her extended endurance in the face of torture and death was a rebuke of established power structures. The martyrs embodied Christ’s power in weakness, again and again in the face of fallen, worldly powers. Theirs was a different politic, a different identity, a different kind of power. The church was especially moved in many ways by women martyrs because it was even more confounding to the Romans – the more weakness was embodied (e.g., a slave girl) the more Christ was obviously embodied in their witness.
Researching Augustine of Hippo’s mother Monica offered me an opportunity to think about how women were represented in early Christian writings. Two of Augustine’s earliest works (On the Happy Life and On Order) feature Monica as a participant in philosophical discussions, with wisdom due to her stalwart faith. Additionally, in his Confessions, Augustine recognizes Monica’s voice had spoken on behalf of God throughout his troubled youth. Through their relationship, each came to new understandings of God. Thus, Augustine’s remembrance of his mother threads throughout his retrospective account of his return to Christianity. His journey is intertwined with his mother’s; Monica’s story is Augustine’s story, and vice versa.
In fact, while Augustine mentions several people who either assisted his journey back to God or traveled along with him, it is clear from the Confessions that his mother was his mainstay. Augustine compares Monica’s longsuffering tenacity and trust for his eventual conversion to Christianity to God’s guardianship of his life. Augustine’s relationship with his mother was not perfect, of course; he chafed under the pressure of her sometimes myopic and rigid vision for his life. In remembering Monica, though, Augustine recognizes her voice as God’s voice in the silence and as the beacon that helped guide him on his return. According to Augustine, Monica drew from the deep well of a cultivated inner life and vigorously clung to her conviction that Augustine would become a man of faith. She was also relentless, following him as he moved to new geographical places, as well as new ideological places, and always seeking advocates or angles to provoke him to faith.
In the modern world, women in positions of power are often described derogatively as “domineering” or “bossy.” In Late Antiquity, women like Monica often exerted less-official, relational power that is equally open to denigration and aspersions. Nevertheless, referring (as some have, especially in popular renderings) to Monica as the “queen of helicopter parents,” a nag (a common epithet leveled specifically against women in familial relationships), or even, jokingly, a “stalker,” amounts to a misunderstanding of both Monica and Augustine. (For an overview of some perspectives in modern scholarship that tend to distort Monica, see Judith Cherlis Clark, “To Remember Self, to Remember God: Augustine on Sexuality, Relationality, and the Trinity” [262–63], and Anne-Marie Bowery, “Monica: The Feminine Face of Christ” [71–73], in Feminist Interpretations of Augustine, ed. Judith Chelius Stark [Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007].) Augustine and Monica certainly had their issues – stubbornness and bouts of drama certainly run in that family – but to belittle their relationship in such terms does a disservice both to the texts and to what Augustine is trying to convey. Monica is the key to his journey back to God; without her, the Augustine we know does not come into view. Throughout the Confessions, we get the sense that Monica’s pursuit, even when parochially hued, felt in retrospect like God’s love and mercy following him all his days (Ps 23:6), conscientiously prodding Augustine’s “unquiet” heart. For Augustine, Monica’s relentlessness was God’s relentlessness.
While I enjoyed writing each chapter, I had the most fun learning and writing about Empress Pulcheria and Empress Eudocia. These women were contemporaries, but they were very different. Pulcheria grew up in the imperial family, while Eudocia was elevated from relative obscurity. Pulcheria committed herself to Christianity and virginity from a very young age, and Eudocia converted because of her marriage but became devoted to Christianity later. Both women were heavily involved in theological affairs. While Pulcheria became the darling of the orthodox and was praised at ecumenical councils, Eudocia lived out her days far from Constantinople and perhaps even far from orthodoxy. In Pulcheria we have a born leader whose life revolved completely around God and empire. In Eudocia we have a poet and pilgrim who was likely no less devoted to God and made her own way in the world. They offer us an opportunity to consider the interactions between two women in power at the same time. These empresses challenged me to think in new ways about women’s influence, authority, and legacy in Late Antiquity.
Eudocia captured my interest as one of the few women from Late Antiquity whose works have survived, at least in part. The empress wrote biblical hexameter paraphrases of Zechariah and Daniel (not extant), an eight-book sequence on the Octateuch (the first eight books of the OT, also not extant), a hagiographical paraphrase on the martyrdom of Cyprian of Antioch (martyred during the Diocletianic persecution, extant in part), and the Homerocentones (a cento using Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, extant). The Homerocentones is fascinating and unlike most of the works we have from early Christianity.
One of the best ways to understand a cento is to see Eudocia as a quilter of poetry, searching the Odyssey and the Iliad for scraps of text and stitching them together to make a new whole. Centoists imitated the style of Homer or Virgil, borrowing their lines and retaining the hexametric form. For it to be a true cento, Eudocia could not use any biblical names or terms; her only palate was Homer. A skilled centoist had to preserve the integrity of the source text as much as possible but also allow Homer to contribute to the story, which, in this case, is a 2,400-line poem that tells the redemptive story of the Bible from the creation of the world to the ascension of Christ.
Eudocia’s cento hinges on humanity’s need for redemption because of the fall and Christ’s role in fulfilling that redemption. Her retelling of the core of salvation history in Homeric hexameter could be counted as a serious contribution to the contemporary debates on Christology. Her Christology is practical, dealing with the question of whether Jesus was “good news” for those steeped in Greco-Roman culture. Eudocia certainly thought so. For her, this was an obvious and appropriate utilization of Homer’s texts because their beauty and order was properly the purview of the Christian God. Thus, it was fitting that the most beautiful words tell the most beautiful story of the salvation of humanity in Christ.
Embraced by Tradition
About halfway through a class on early and medieval theology last fall, one of my students reflected on what he was learning (most of it for first time) and mused, “I feel held by the tradition.” His comment struck me because it takes work and empathy to listen to the stories of and learn from those in our own families who are a few decades older than us, let alone those who lived centuries ago and are removed from us by language, location, and culture. Yet, Christianity doesn’t make sense without the story of God’s relationship with the people of Israel, God showing up in first-century Palestine, or the witness of both those who saw him in the flesh and those who have remained faithful to that witness ever since. That “great cloud of witnesses” is always with us and they instruct us through their lives of devotion, treatises, letters, art, churches, and whatever other physical and textual connections they left behind. Without those witnesses, our Christianity becomes untethered, impersonal, and small. Learning about those who’ve gone before us in the faith brings connection, family, and breadth to our faith; and, on experiencing the embrace of the witnesses, we feel the security and intimacy of being “held by the tradition.”
This is the experience I had when I first began reading about these women. It was like realizing for the first time that Christianity had always been for me as a woman. You would think that would be obvious but it wasn’t. When the story isn’t told in a way that includes you, you don’t think the story is about you. We all need these stories about women told for what they are – central to the development of Christianity. The moment we relegate women as tangential to the history of Christianity, that’s when it becomes normal to treat women as ancillary to theology, scholarship, and the work of the church. Unfortunately, this is already par for the course in some academic arenas and in far too many churches. This should tell us that we’ve not been telling the story well for a long time. We hope our book helps us relearn the story of the early development of Christianity, not merely for the sake of knowing it but so that all of us can feel “held by the tradition.”