Miller’s “Women in Early Christianity”

About: this paper was submitted to Dr. David Nystrom at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class on Women, the Bible, and the Church.

 

If anyone would like to study about leadership and women from the first century A.D. through the fifth century A.D., coming to terms with the texts from that time period is absolutely essential. Patricia Cox Miller put together a book that gives such a student the opportunity to do just that, to become acquainted with the texts from the first through fifth centuries A.D. regarding leadership and women. Miller’s book, Women in Early Christianity: translations from Greek texts, is a collection of documents from the relevant time period that concern women from the male’s perspective, both positive and negative. Although Miller’s collection of texts concerning women from the first century A.D. and forward provides the reader with the ability to read about the various views concerning women and leadership, it fails to give any direction to the reader for dealing with the texts provided, and it does not provide any information to the crucial Jewish roots of Christianity regarding the Jewish perspective on women and women leadership from the same time period as the other texts. Before we proceed to critiquing this collection of texts concerning women, we must first grasp the heart of the content of the book by summarizing the sections of each chapter.

Miller’s book does not employ any texts written during the first through fifth centuries A.D. that were written by women, because such texts that were written by women during that era have not been preserved for us today in the same way that texts written by men have been preserved (2005, 1). Men wrote all the texts contained in Miller’s collection. These texts portray how men viewed women throughout the time period that we are looking at, what they expected of women, and what they thought was acceptable for a woman to do in terms of leadership. Miller notes in her introduction that the men that wrote about women during our selected time period were primarily interested in “women’s roles as teachers, prophets, martyrs, widows, deaconesses, ascetics, virgins, patrons, wives, mothers and sisters, and metaphors” (2005, 1). Therefore, such categories are what Miller has organized the texts into.

Miller does well to note that in the broader context of leadership within the first century A.D., women had a large role. Miller notes that it was not until the second century A.D. that the Church began to organize itself according to the male-oriented societies that it lived in (2005, 5). It was in this society that women were defined by their roles as wives and mothers while men were defined by their roles as public authorities and political figures (2005, 5). After she established that the Church did not become male-oriented like the culture around it until the second century A.D., Miller rightly shows that women did have a large leadership role in the first century A.D. with three main points. First, she points out that both women and men led house churches during the first century A.D. (2005, 6). Second, Miller points out that Paul supported women’s public prayers and prophecies so long as they were veiled (2005, 6). Third, she points out that there were women among Paul’s notable missionaries, even identifying one woman by the name of Junia as “foremost among the apostles” (2005, 6). However, in the end, the high view of women as ones who can lead lost out to the cultural view regarding women, so that as the Church began to structure itself, it patterned after its surrounding culture and the leadership roles of women heavily declined (2005, 7). Although women were no longer perceived as authoritative figures, they did have a role to fulfill in the Church. Women did have a part in the male-oriented and structured Church as widows and also as deaconesses (2005, 7).

Apart from leadership, Miller spends much of the space in the book regarding texts that focus on women and virtues that they ought to pursue, such as asceticism and virginity, and examples of women with such virtues. In particular, the virgin female captured the imagination of the Christian authors, since it was this kind of female that was believed to have the ability to overcome the perceived and understood disadvantages of the female gender (2005, 8). In addition to women, virtues and female exemplars, Miller also spends a good portion of space on marriage. She shows how the Christian understanding and practice of marriage had been primarily shaped by the surrounding culture of the Church, which in turn affected the role of women, for in the broader context of the Graeco-Roman culture that the Church resided in men functioned in the public sphere while women operated in the private (2005, 13). Finally, Miller addresses the various themes that women were used to depict. The texts concerning such images demonstrate how powerful the images of women were to the authors (2005, 14).

Miller’s choices for including the texts in this book concerning women within the topics of leadership, virtues, marriage and images combine to give the reader a good conglomerate of texts concerning women from the first through fifth centuries A.D. However, do these texts do anything else other than beg to be read? These texts do nothing more than beg to be read, because Miller neglects to provide any direction with what we can do with these texts, so all we can do is read them unless we know anything of anthropology, sociology or Graeco-Roman culture and history to make anything of the collection of texts.

The texts concerning leadership roles in the Church demonstrate that women were at one point in time in the history of the Church capable and authoritative leaders as teachers, prophets, widows and deaconesses in some fashion or another. However, the role of teacher became heretical for women to publicly partake in (2005, 17), as did the role of prophet (2005, 31). The arguments that do not allow such roles to be filled by women were based on poor logic. As is the general case of the majority of the provided texts, the argument against women in leadership is founded upon arguments from silence. In one of the an excerpts from Didascalia apostolorum, the argument against women leadership in the public sphere rests on the fact that Jesus himself did not specifically command that women should teach, and therefore women are not allowed to (2005, 31). Men used such arguments of silence to deny women leadership roles in the public domain. All women who held any authoritative public leadership role were declared to be heretics. The main text that Miller incorporates into her collection, which positively looks upon a woman as a good teacher, is written by a male regarding his sister (2005, 22-29). This text functions to show that women could be teachers in the family, but it says nothing of women being teachers in public. The only real role women could have in the end was that of a deaconess, and in that role women taught and served women, but never men, and furthermore, this role was challenged by some. Many more texts were included regarding the other topics, to which we will now address.

The texts that Miller included in her section regarding women and their behavior as either virgins or wives basically perceive women to be inherently shameful. A woman, for example, who exposes her throat while drinking from a cup is immodest (2005, 71). Again, she is shameful for using perfume (2005, 72-73). Because of the perception that women were shameful beings, the virtue of virginity and the virtue of chastity were perceived as the way by which women can overcome their shamefulness, and it was only the chaste virgin that would have some sort of role in the Church (2005, 192). However, John Chrysostom did have good perceptions of marriage as well as the ascetic life, so asceticism was not the only lifestyle aspired to (2005, 268-76). The thoughts and ideas regarding these virtues, chastity and virginity, were exemplified in several different stories of heroines and biographies of women, who become models that men directed women to for guidance on how to live.

Miller focuses on the use of metaphorical images of women to make particular theological points at the end of the book. The first theological image portrayed with a woman is the metaphorical depiction of Eve who represented disobedience (2005, 289). However, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was understood by some to be the reversal of Eve, and was thus the second theological image portrayed with a woman in the book (2005, 289). Furthermore, feminine imagery is used to depict God, the Church and even virtues (2005, 307).

The texts that Miller compiled into this book help give the reader a sense of the male-minded perspective regarding women from the first through fifth centuries A.D., but the book does not do anything more than that. We know from reading this text that women were held in much less esteem than men, except in family situations where siblings or mothers are looked upon with much adoration. We know from reading this text that women were thought to be rulers of the private domain only and never the public, so that teaching publicly became problematic for women. Yet, we do know that women did serve a role in the Church as deaconesses, and some, whether heretical or not, did teach. As a whole, however, this book does not offer anything else than that, because the book must have been designed for those who have had Graeco-Roman cultural-historical academic training. Without this particular background, the book is nothing more than a collection of texts that do not inspire any substantial conclusions for the reader regarding women in ministry, but it does give the essential sources and background texts that scholars reference when making such conclusions.

The book failed to include any texts regarding women from a Jewish, rabbinic background. Nothing from the Mishnah or Gemara was included. No comments from rabbis were given. The fact is that if we are to understand women in early Christianity, we must understand first where Christianity comes from, which is Judaism. Christians during our selected time period were widely influenced by Judaism. It is also safe to say that at least in part the Jews from the area that we now label as Palestine were influenced by the Roman culture that invaded them. Therefore, if we are to understand Christianity, we have to come to an understanding of both Roman culture of that time and Judaism, since they together form the basis of how Christians during that time period thought and understood how things should operate, including leadership roles and women within the Church. This book only provides one step of several to understanding women in early Christianity, because it neglects to give Jewish texts or Roman cultural background while only giving Greek texts.

Women in Early Christianity: translations from Greek texts does well to provide how the early Church viewed women both publicly and privately throughout the first through fifth centuries A.D. However, it failed to give any sense of direction for understanding women in early Christianity and what impact that should have on us today. What are we to make of these texts? Miller does not say. On top of that, only Greek texts are provided. Nothing representing the Jewish influences was in the book, which is sad, because we cannot forget that Jesus and Paul were Jews who were raised and taught as Jews, so the Jewish understanding regarding women is necessary for understanding how the early Christians perceived them. Despite the lack of direction for making use of the material provided and the absence of documents concerning the Jewish perspective, the book provides good information for understanding the various views regarding women and leadership that were held from the first century A.D. and forward. At the very least, we can leave the text with some indication of the views of the early Church regarding women throughout the selected period in history, which serves to give us a start to the subject of women in early Christianity and beginning a search for coming to some conclusions regarding this subject.

Bibliography

Miller, Patricia. 2005. Women In Early Christianity: translations from Greek texts.

Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press.

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