Book review by Terence L. Dosh
Women Officeholders in Early Christianity by Ute E. Eisen · Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 2000
In this exhaustive review of previous literature on women officeholders in the early Church, the author diagnoses an ancient, limited, patriarchal vision of the past which historians and Church leaders have accepted as the true reality. The epigraphic evidence presented and analyzed here stands as a firm corrective to the misreading of texts that are often politically motivated. Furthermore, an earlier method of examining only literary sources has given way to a new, indispensable way, that of archaeology that examines epigraphical evidence and papyri.
“The focus of the book is on Christian women in the ancient Church and the early Middle Ages who were active in theology and Church politics, either as holders of official positions in the Church or as persons acting independently of the institution itself.” The author examines epigraphic and papyrological evidence that “identifies women through functional titles, and thus shows them to have been office holders or persons exercising official functions.” Even when treating matters that repress women, the existing conflict reveals women as officeholders.
It is “a different way of seeing.” The women here are perceived as independent, active subjects in history. Hence these texts are about specific women, not just women in general. These are texts that are not negative, but rather positive, and transmit a living tradition about women.
The earlier way of selecting and interpreting literary texts produced a paradigm in which women as officeholders were simply ignored, but “Exegetical and Church-historical scholarship has shown that through an altered perspective women can be made visible in their political, economic, and cultural activities.” Both the New Testament and ancient Church sources show “a great many women to be active in important religious positions.”
What is required is a re-reading of Christian tradition. Most of this information comes from the “lower genres,” such as letters, hagiography, apocryphal acts of apostles, and other marginal texts. Something similar may be said of non-literary sources such as inscriptions and papyrus letters, painted and sculpted images, and archaeological sources. A new examination of these non-literary texts is also required.
Gender distinctions in Latin and Greek do matter. The central problem is that the masculine plural functions as “gender neutral.” Hence by the use of the generic masculine, women are made invisible. In the New Testament “persons who exercise specific functions are without exception grammatically masculine, e.g. saints, the elect, apostles.” Roles of leadership are always masculine. There are no leaders in the feminine gender. However, women were important in the early Church. There was an early egalitarian period. What led to a decline in the egalitarian Church was the inculturation of Christianity to Greco-Roman culture. “Newer research tells us we can no longer work with the image of one-dimensional society designated as ‘patriarchal.’” Social history is proving to be as complex and multivalent as the history of Christianity, and hence to the re-discovery of women as leaders in the early Church.
Women in Church offices were influenced by the social roles of women in Greco-Roman society, where women did a wide range of work. “The study of ‘great women’ is now shifting to the study of ‘ordinary women.’” Hence the stereotypes of women in Church offices are now being re-examined. We can no longer presume that “women’s history and religion were identical with man’s history and religion.”
The sources to be mined are abundant. There are more than 50,000 Christian inscriptions extant, compared with 2,000 Jewish inscriptions. Most of the Greek inscriptions on tombs are in Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and Palestine, whereas most of the Latin inscriptions are found in Italy and North Africa. The importance of these tomb inscriptions is significant since they are not just “monuments of literature, but of life.” “These inscriptions have repeatedly forced a revision of our historical knowledge. The history of research has shown