Book Review by Bob Beutel
A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity, by Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald with Janet H. Tulloch. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2006
Chapter One – Introduction
The study of women in the early church is pervaded by three polarities: Patriarchy vs. the discipleship of equals; women in public vs. private domains; and ascetic vs. domestic lifestyles. Three assumptions inform this investigation: masculine language, the honor/shame system, and the functions of house churches.
Chapter Two – Dutiful and Less than Dutiful Wives
The roles of married women in the early church are not well described in the available literature, unlike lives of single women: widows and celibates. What we have learned about the intricate roles of Roman wives in general tends to persuade us that married couples such as Prisca and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia, and Philologus and Julia were very influential in the church. Even the reports of negative behavior of married couples illustrates the importance of wives in the life of the Christian community: Anania and Sapphira in Acts were equally culpable for concealing assets from the apostles and equally punished. Polycarp prays that the Lord grant Valens and his wife true repentance for avarice associated with idolatry. Hermas and his wife in The Shepherd of Hermas, a mixture of biography and literary reworking, so that the family becomes a literary mirror of the whole community, are both punished for their own wrongdoings and those of their adult children.
Chapter Three – Giving Birth, Labor, Nursing, and the Care of Infants in House-Church Communities.
Although we are not used to thinking in these terms (perhaps because childbirth most definitely lacks decorum), it is important to remember that house churches were places of women giving birth. They were places of women’s labor (including sometimes very difficult labor), delivery, deaths of infants and mothers in childbirth, nursing babies, and the precarious work of keeping a baby alive from the first fragile days into the first few years. On the basis of the frequency of births and the presence of children, house-church meetings must have been noisy and bustling places. The sounds of a woman in labor somewhere in the background, the crying of infants, the presence of mothers or wet nurses feeding their children, little toddlers under foot, children’s toys on the floor – all could have been part of the atmosphere.
Chapter Four – Growing Up in House-Church Communities
Roman literature demonstrates that children were present in everywhere in contemporary households, to the point of their taking scandal from adult improprieties. Later patristic documents giving attention to the placement of children during church meetings or the appropriateness of infant baptism reflect a commitment to the inclusion and valuing of children. Women were at the center of all this, from birth, through child care, and through education of children in the home, including girls. The lifelong spiritual formation of women by other women is referenced in the later Pastoral Epistles.
Chapter Five – Female Slaves: Twice Vulnerable
The entrance of Christian faith into families seems to have made little difference to the institution of slavery. The best that can be said is that writers of the early church picked up the most humane thinking of their day. The lingering question is whether those early Christians thought, contrary to custom, that sex with one’s own slaves was abusive and wrong. Female slaves were unlikely to have been encouraged to be celibate, as that would be an economic liability. One of the things that characterized early Christianity, as in Judaism, was that slaves were expected to make their own choices as to religious adherence.
Chapter Six – Ephesians 5 and the Politics of Marriage
Ephesians 5:22-33 (“Wives, submit to your husbands…Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the Church”) reflects the conventional culture of the day surrounding marriage. Note that the writer says “submit”, and not “obey” as he does to children and slaves. Many women of the Church would not have fit the model of elite Greco-Roman literature, being slaves, divorced and abandoned wives, or women disobeying pagan husbands on account of Christian allegiance. The “bride of Christ” imagery of the church as pure, faithful, and united may or may not have bestowed dignity upon women who had little control over their bodies and destinies.
Chapter Seven – Women Leaders of Households and Christian Assemblies
We know from as far back as Proverbs that women were expected to be the managers of their households, with or without a husband. Widows, in particular, are known to have hosted house churches. They likely had leadership positions in the assembly because they were the hosts: it was normal for the host to select the menu and to preside over the entertainment or conversation. Women were found in civic leadership roles by the early Roman period. These women had their own businesses and had income to support the church functions.
Chapter Eight – Women Leaders in Family Funerary Banquets
The catacomb of SS. Marcellino e Pietro in Rome has eight banquet scenes which show women apparently leading toasts (“Love” and “Peace”) during funeral services. These could be indicative of the leadership roles of women during other liturgies.
Chapter Nine – Women Patrons in the Life of House Churches
Patronage was common in Roman times, in which the elite would give financial and other support to artists, writers, and others, who in turn would submit to the donor, in the sense of give honor to that person. Likewise in Christianity, there was little difference between the patronage of men and women, but the patronage function was an essential ingredient in the life of house churches. Ultimately, the patronal power began to be absorbed into the hands of the bishop
Chapter Ten – Women as Agents of Expansion
Women did move in and out of houses and shops, taking risks and leading people – including children – to join the movement, without permission from the proper church or civil authorities. They did so while conducting their daily business. This combination of boldness, affront, and concealment is one of the most interesting and little understood features of the rise of early Christianity. Missionary partners of Paul include Andronicus and Junia, Prisca and Aquila, and Euodia and Syntyche. Those women identified by Paul as benefactors, deacons, co-workers or apostles almost certainly were involved in evangelization, even travelling throughout the Mediterranean, like Phoebe.
Chapter Eleven – Conclusion
Discovering a Woman’s Place: Review and summary of foregoing chapters.