The Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian is a Presbyter of the Church of South India and Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Ethics at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.
From "Martyrs and Heretics: Aspects of the Contribution of Women to Early Christian Tradition," in Prasanna Kumari, ed., Feminist Theology: Perspectives and Praxis, Gurukul Summer Institute 1998 (Chennai: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, 1999), pp. 135 – 153. Used by permission of the author.
In listening to the voices of women in the early church and to the reporting of,and interpretation of, these voices by dominant male interpreters, we can glimpse the church as a movement in flux, in which paths yet untrodden were becoming pilgrim routes.
"For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."
"Christianity did enlarge the possibilities for women. The really important shift in belief here is that commitment to God may require, in both men and women, abandonment of duties to family and State. For the first time, women (some women) could reject marriage and child-bearing, and live at home with their mothers, or in solitude, or in a community of women. Prayer and Bible study could displace domestic life, whereas literature and philosophy had had to fit round it. Women had always been able to take part in religious cult and make offerings to the gods, but they could now achieve lasting fame by devoting their wealth to the Church and themselves to God’s service. Spiritual struggles became as interesting as politics; women still hardly ever wrote books, but people wrote books about women." 
These two quotations, one from source material and the other from a perceptive commentator, indicate the various levels of ambiguity regarding women that existed both in the very early period, at the time of the emergence of the New Testament, and at the time when Christianity had become the established religion of the Roman Empire. While it may be true that "women hardly ever wrote books," modern research has indicated that there are at least two ways in which the role of women in the early church can be reconstructed. Firstly through an analysis of the extant writings that we have by women, and secondly through an analysis of what men wrote about women. In this presentation, I will focus on two aspects of women’s experience or the interpretation of women’s experience, which I hope will give us an entry into our discussion of feminist/womanist perspectives and praxis in the early church. I will be focusing on the writings of Tertullian, who plays a prominent role in the history of Christian doctrine not only because of his development of a vocabulary to express the doctrine of the trinity, but also because of his writings to and on women, and his understanding and interpretation of women’s experiences. Limiting our analysis to this period (the end of the second and the first two decades of the third century) and concentrating on one "Father," is important because thereby one can evade the tendency to stretch the material and moreover avoid superficiality. In addition, when one has wrestled with such material, one has a greater grasp of those issues and themes which played a dominant role in the construction of attitudes toward women, and also contributed to the self-understanding of women in the time of the early church.
Such an exercise is also important not because it involves some kind of antiquarian interest devoid of contemporary relevance but because it is something which ought to be undertaken in coming to terms with attitudes and responses to the "role" of women in the church today. An important point to be borne in mind is that made by Elizabeth A. Clark who writes:
Presumably feminist theorists would agree that narrative can be used not only to open up the past and connect it with the present, but to sketch a vision of the future: here, narrative acquires a potentially utopian function. Given the varying political functions of narrative, it will be of interest to note how frequently the Church Fathers deploy narrative to restrict women’s activities in their own day, to offer ‘strategies of containment.’
For those of us working and writing in the Indian context, it must be underlined that this is not an activity alien to the reality of the present. In his Presidential Address to the North American Patristic Society in 1994, Frederick W. Norris acknowledged that "some of the most interesting voices interpreting early Christian texts are Christian theologians from Africa, Asia, and Latin America," and that some of them "make historical comments and acknowledge that their sense of what the texts mean is formed by their present commitments and their membership in specific communities." When this is so, then, it is in search, not so much of answers, but rather of a better understanding and appreciation of "the truth that scientific study of the ancient tradition of the Church is indispensable to success in comprehending the roots of differences and in discerning the centre of Christian theology," that we ought to approach the texts produced by the early church.
It is through the re-reading and reappropriation of texts from the early period of the formation and quest for identity of the church that one can reclaim, question, and integrate the experiences of women, recognising that – then as now – the "universalizing effect of the Christian master narrative … concealed the subaltern status of many of its characters."
At the same time, I recognise that it is as a male reader that I have come to the reading of texts from the early church and I have been chastened and challenged by warnings such as those articulated by Tania Modleski who writes
Recognizing that women have long been held prisoners of male texts, genres, and canons, many feminist critics have argued for the necessity of constructing a theory of the female reader and have offered a variety of strategies by which she may elude her captors.
Bearing these points in mind, I would like us to examine some case-studies which present attitudes regarding women in the time of the early church. These texts and studies do not exhaust the various ways in which women were perceived, and their roles commented upon, by writers of the early church, but they offer points of departure for a discussion on the contribution of women to the life and witness of the early church without forgetting that the "ancient sources and modern historians agree that primary conversion to Christianity was far more prevalent among females than among males" in the time of the early church.
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Martyrs: "… so great a woman… ."
The first great Latin writer and theologian from Carthage in Roman North Africa, Tertullian (c.155 – c.230/240) had a convoluted relationship with the various currents and movements which struggled to gain prominence in the second half of the second century and the first half of the third century. Tertullian recognised that, as martyrs, women were on par with men, but when it came to church organisation and the duties and functions therein, "he gave them a considerably more circumscribed role," and "never includes women in a hierarchy of the church." This is clearly exemplified in his harsh comments regarding women in his treatise On the Dress of Women (De culta feminarum) where he writes:
God’s judgement on this sex lives on in our age; the guilt necessarily lives on as well. You are the Devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that tree; you are the first forsaker of the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not brave enough to approach; you so lightly crushed the image of God, the man Adam; because of your punishment, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die. And you think to adorn yourself beyond your "tunics of skin" (Gen. 3:21)?"
In other treatises, too, like On the Veiling of Virgins (De virginibus velandis) and Exhortation to Chastity (De exhortatione castitatis) continued on the theme that "the Church was a somber assembly. No person in it, and much less a woman, could dare to claim to be exceptional." Insisting on the importance of the veil for women, responding to a situation where a group of young women in the church of Carthage, claiming that the status and virtue achieved by their renunciation freed them from social conventions (which insisted that women remain veiled in church), boldly took their positions in church with faces uncovered and head unveiled, Tertullian reiterates forcefully that there is great danger in such actions because
[t]he very concupiscence of non-concealment is not modest: it experiences somewhat which is no mark of a virgin, – the study of pleasing, of course, ay, and (of pleasing) men. Let her strive as much as you please with an honest mind; she must necessarily be imperilled by the public exhibition of herself, while she is penetrated by the gaze of untrustworthy and multitudinous eyes, while she is tickled by pointing fingers, while she is too well loved, while she feels a warmth creep over her amid assiduous embraces and kisses. Thus the forehead heardens; thus the sense of shame wears away; thus it relaxes; thus is learned the desire of pleasing in another way!
What is to be noted here is the significance given to the male gaze which is prioritized in determining the behaviour of women. Peter Brown in analysing this and other texts from Tertullian writes that the "misogyny to which Tertullian appealed so insistently was, in his opinion, based on unalterable facts of nature: women were seductive, and Christian baptism did nothing to change this fact."
If this is so, then the role of Tertullian in preserving, through redaction, the dramatic, movingly vivid account of the martyrdom of a recently baptised young woman, the Roman citizen, Perpetua, in the amphitheatre of Carthage in about the year 203, ought to give us clues to the understanding of his attitude towards women as members of the church as opposed to women as martyrs. This attitude is encapsulated in the remark made by a perceptive analyst of the complex processes at work in the early church, Robin Lane Fox, who begins his chapter entitled "Persecution and Martyrdom," with the words: "The most excellent Christians in the early Church were neither virgins nor the visionaries. They were the Christians whom pagans put to death." The exceptional courage and unshakeable conviction exhibited by women martyrs had been documented before the time of Tertullian. Among the martyrs at Lyons in 177, was the domestic slave, Blandina, of whose death – being finally killed by having her throat cut, after surviving horrible tortures including ruthless scourging, being roasted on a red-hot griddle, and being gored bloody by a bull while bound in a net – it stands recorded that even the pagans themselves admitted that none of their women had ever endured so many terrible tortures. Such a death only served to reinforce the idea prevalent in the church that "[t]he martyrs were, after the Apostles, the supreme representatives of the community of the faithful in God’s presence. In them the communion of saints was most tangibly epitomised." Keeping this in mind we need to consider whether this company was seen as something exclusive and, in a sense, separate from the community of faithful worshippers; in other words, did different rules apply to those who claimed the martyr’s crown and to those who pursued a different path of Christian obedience?
The account of the martyrdom of Perpetua, who at the time of her death was twenty-two and had a nursing infant, is remarkable in so far as the source material that is available to us has not only readactional sections but also sections which claim to be written directly by Perpetua herself. "This account gives us a rare insight into the thoughts of a Christian martyr and an even rarer insight into the experience of a woman in the early days of Christianity." The actual account of the martyrdom, which follows dramatic and moving appeals to Perpetua to respect her father’s grey hair and to have pity on her mother and siblings, to have consideration on her nursing infant son, is poignant and evocative. Those martyred along with Perpetua included the slave woman Felicitas, who shortly before had given birth. On the appointed day
Perpetua went along with a shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of the God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze. With them also was Felicitas, glad that she had safely given birth so that now she could fight the beasts, going from one blood bath to another, from the midwife to the gladiator, ready to wash after childbirth in a second baptism.
We read that those to be martyred were scourged by a gauntlet of gladiators because they had enraged the crowd by gesturing to the Roman procurator that though he had judged them, he would be judged by God. After having experienced this they rejoiced because they had partaken in the suffering of their Lord. Regarding Perpetua, we then read
For the young women, however, the Devil had prepared a mad heifer. This was an unusual animal, but it was chosen that their sex might be matched with that of the beast. So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.
First the heifer tossed Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for her pin to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.
Then she got up. And seeing that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her her hand, and lifted her up. …
[Those who had survived till then were gathered in the usual spot for their throats to be cut]. But the mob asked that their bodies be brought out into the open that their eyes might be the guilty witnesses of the sword that pierced their flesh. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord as the people wanted them to, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence and without moving … . Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.
This passage is rich not only in factual descriptions but also in erotic symbolism. It is not for nothing that the description of the death of the martyrs is described as their passion ("passio"). It has been pointed out that "over the course of the first centuries of the empire … the noun passio (also derived from the same verb ‘to suffer’) came to have a positive valuation to refer to the ‘passionate’ experience of heterosexual intercourse, where the inferior role was properly played by a woman and in which the man experienced his rightful pleasure. This passion was good. In his writings the Christian ideologue Tertullian commonly employed the word, and so was able to play on the dual meanings of passio as sexual pleasure in heterosexual intercourse and in the physical suffering of the body." Given this, what can we then say regarding Tertullian’s attitude to those women whose life is bound to the routine, ritualistic framework of their life within society and within the church? Two passages offer us a clue: In his treatise De Exhortatione Castitatis (Exhortation to Chastity) he writes
It is laws which seem to make a difference between marriage and fornication. Besides, what is the thing that which takes place in all women and men to produce marriage and fornication? Commixture of the flesh, of course; the concupiscence whereof the Lord put on the same footing with fornication. "Then," says (someone), "are you not by this time destroying first – that is, single – marriage too?" And (if so) not without reason; inasmuch as it, too, consists of that which is the essence of fornication. And since these considerations may be advanced, even in the case of first and single marriage, to forward the cause of continence, how much more will they offer a prejudgement for refusing second marriage?
This theme of moderation within the "indulgence to marry" and the rejection of second marriage is also found in the treatise addressed to his wife Ad Uxorem where he says
Wherefore, so far as we can, let us love the opportunity of continence; as soon as it offers itself, let us resolve to accept it, that which we have not had strength (to follow) in matrimony we may follow in widowhood. The occasion must be embraced which puts an end to that which necessity commanded. How detrimental to faith, how obstructive to holiness, second marriages are, … .
Thus, Tertullian, was faced with the dilemma of reconciling, on the one hand, his ideas regarding women who, through martyrdom, exhibited to the supreme degree how a Christian could die, and, on the other, his ideas regarding how a Christian woman ought to live and conduct herself within the church, an institution struggling to present itself as an alternate model within a pagan society. Tertullian upheld martyrs, who through the immediacy of their act render superfluous the necessity of repeating and arguing about discipline and order within the ongoing life of the church, since, as he warns the authorities of the state: "Your most refined cruelties are to no purpose. We become more numerous each time you reap: the blood of Christians is a seed." For him there was no problem in upholding as models women, who in their torn bodies had approximated to themselves the suffering of Christ, who did not have to be instructed about their bodies in relation either to society, the church, or to men. This is illustrated by the comment made in the previous generation about Blandina, "through whom Christ proved that the things that men think cheap, ugly, and contemptuous are deemed worthy of glory before God, by reason of her love for him which was not merely vaunted in appearance but demonstrated in achievement."
The role of the body as the "axis of salvation" cannot be underestimated in Tertullian. For him, the body in so far as it approximated to the body of Christ, was instructive; however, in so far as it approximated to society, it had to be admonished.
Heretics: "… these wretched women… ."
Tertullian’s position regarding those he considered "heretics" has been summarized by Eric F. Osborne, as follows:
Heretics have no fixed point in history or in logic from which to base their argument. For this reason they fail in two obvious ways: they regress infinitely in their argument, with a neurotic curiosity, and they divide incessantly into more and more sects which destroy the unity of the church. The rule of faith provides a basis for reasoning which limits the fantasy of heretics and unites the church universal.
Tertullian’s attitude to baptism is also revealed in his treatise on the theme of baptism, De baptismo, which was written as a vehement reaction against the teaching of a certain woman. According to Tertullian, this teaching had as its aim the destruction of baptism as known in the church. Tertullian’s reaction is to unambiguously affirm the otherness of what is offered by the "heretics", and argue that they do not have the same God, the same Christ, or even the same baptism.
Hence it is intriguing that the convoluted and enigmatic life of Tertullian should take an unexpected turn, where in disgust with the teachings of the "established" church, especially in its teaching on post-baptismal sin and its growing dependence on the office of the bishop, he forsook this expression of Christianity for the Montanist movement (and finally, perhaps, for his own sect), with its heavy emphasis on the role of the Spirit and on purity. Active in the Montanist movement were the prophetesses Priscilla (Prisca) and Maximilla. However, it has been noted that for Tertullian, "the women prophets are the vehicles of the Holy Spirit, to be listened to with respect, but are not given a role in the hierarchy of Tertullian’s system." For him, who approved the injunction that women ought not to speak in church, "they may prophesy, presumably because this was the Holy Spirit speaking and not the woman. Well before he had become deeply committed to the Montanist cause he quotes with approval examples of women prophets uttering inspired words …, as well as when he has become wholly a Montanist partisan … ." For Tertullian, what was attractive about the movement was that it presented an alternative in terms of purity, which did not automatically lead to an alternate hierarchy. Having said this, it would be worthwhile to extract what had been said about or by the women prophetesses, in a movement which came to be judged heretical by the "established" church.
The following oracles from the early Montanist period have been culled by Hultgren and Haggmark from scattered references in Tertullian and other sources, like dossiers of "heresies":
– [The Spirit speaks:] Desire not to die in bed, nor in delivery of children, nor by enervating fevers, but in martyrdom, that He may be glorified who has suffered for you. (Tertullian, De Fuga 9.4; cf. Tertullian De Anima 55.5.)
– [The Paraclete says through the prophetess Prisca:] They are flesh and [yet] they hate the flesh. (Tertullian, de Resurr. Mort. 11.2.).
– [The holy prophetess Prisca proclaims:] A holy minister must understand how to minister holiness. … (Tertullian, De Exhort. Cast. 10.5.)
– [Quintilla or Priscilla says:] In the form of a woman, says she, arrayed in shining garments, came Christ to me and set wisdom upon me and revealed to me that this place [= Pepuza] is holy and that Jerusalem will come down hither from heaven. (Epiphanius, Haer. 49.1.2-3).
– [Maximilla says:] After me, says she, there will be no more prophets, but [only] the consummation. (Epiphanius, Haer. 48.2.4.)
– [Maximilla says:] Listen not to me, but listen to Christ. (Epiphanius, Haer. 48.12.4.)
– [Maximilla says:] The Lord has sent me as adherent, preacher and interpreter of this affliction and this covenant and this promise; he has compelled me, willingly or unwillingly, to learn the knowledge of God. (Epiphanius, Haer. 48.13.1.)
– [The Spirit says through Maximilla:] I am chased like a wolf from [the flock of] sheep; I am not a wolf; I am word and spirit and power. (Eusebius, HE 5.16.17).
What strikes one in reading these extracts is the confidence of the prophetesses in their own mission and the affirmation of their status, coupled with an interpretation of Christ, "in the form of a woman," laying the seal of approval on their ministry. It is of no surprise to us that Epiphanius (the Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus), writing in 375 – 378, almost two centuries after the birth of the Montanist movement, in his book Panarion (Medicine Chest against all heresies), could pass judgement on the Montanists as follows:
"Come now servants of God, let us assume a manly mind and banish the madness of these women. The whole deception is female; the disease comes from Eve, who was deceived long ago." (Panarion, 79.2)
Such heresy bashing has a long tradition behind it. About a century and a half earlier, Hippolytus, writing in Rome in about 230, in his work Refutation of all Heresies, comments that some people
have been rendered victims of error from being previously captivated by [two] wretched women, called a certain Priscilla and Maximilla, whom they supposed [to be] prophetesses. … But they magnify these wretched women above the Apostles and every gift of Grace, so that some of them presume to assert that there is in them a something superior to Christ. … They introduce, however, the novelties of fasts, and feasts, and meals of parched food, and repasts of radishes, alleging that they have been instructed by women.
Here we face the paradox: On the one hand we have harsh criticism against the role played by women, criticised by many later church fathers, including Jerome and Chrysostom, which Elizabeth A. Clark seeks to interpret in terms of a "downhill" trajectory for women after the time of the New Testament, where the gifts of grace had to be seen as limited, and a reinterpretation of the virtues of women in the Bible could be used as models to chastise women in the present, leading the Fathers to theologically and practically "rationalize the curtailment of women’s earlier freedom." On the other hand we have the example of Tertullian who could join the movement, turning his back in disgust on the "mainline" church, which in his opinion had become too deeply compromised in its adjustment to the society of the time. While Tertullian’s disillusionment could be due to the rapid decline of Christian community life, which he traces back to moral laxity in the sphere of sexual behaviour, the decline, as he understood it, could also be due to a tension in the life of the community provoked by a more and more hierarchical understanding and ordering of life, which neglects the horizontal relationships, affecting the very texture of Christian communities. This paradox cannot be wished away, but can be explained along the following lines: For Tertullian, the women prophetesses were not people with whom he came into direct contact, since the movement he joined was one which held to their memory, but one in which they, coming from a time two generations before Tertullian, were most probably no longer physically present. Thus, what probably attracted Tertullian was the emphasis on the Spirit of holiness and truth. It is clear that Montanism was built on the search for personal purity as the surest way to salvation. Hence for Tertullian, it was not the hierarchical positioning of women that was important at this time, but the role they played in promoting the guidance of the Spirit. Thus, they were not seen as those threatening the stability and order of the church, but rather those who had, through the intervention of the Spirit, called upon the church to recover and reappropriate that which seemed to be neglected and lost.
In her "Introduction," to a special issue of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, which had as its theme "The Markings of Heresy: Body, Text, and Community in Late Ancient Christianity," Virginia Burrus noted that the essays collected
exhibit interest in the social and discursive processes of "demarcation" by which orthodoxies define, and thereby in some sense create, heresies — not only as the inevitable cartographic by-products of the impulse to draw boundaries and create centers, but also (paradoxically, and in multiple ways) as necessary sources of "nourishment" for orthodoxies themselves.
These texts raise the pressing issue of our understanding of what can be termed "orthodox" and what, often deliberately, was dismissed as "heretical." In trying to understand the contribution of women to the early church, it must be recognised that the role they played in nourishing orthodoxy cannot be underestimated, whether this nourishment came directly from within or, as often was the case, from the fringes, or even from "without".
Conclusion: "… if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?"
As we reflect on the meaning of these responses today what we cannot forget is that
[f]or all the creaking rigidities of our ancient sources, and for all the intellectual skills demanded of a modern scholar in rendering them intelligible, it would be deeply inhumane to deny that, in these centuries, real men and women faced desperate choices, endured privation and physical pain, courted breakdown and bitter disillusionment, and frequently experienced themselves, and addressed others, with a searing violence of language. … The texts bring us up against pains and sadnesses that lie close to us as our own flesh. The historian’s obligation to the truth forces us to strive to make these texts intelligible, with all the cunning and serenity that we would wish to associate with a living modern culture.
The contribution of women to the early church, though a long-neglected topic of research, is now becoming a field in its own right. Our analysis has shown us that it is in listening to the voices of women and to the reporting of, and interpretation of, these voices by dominant male interpreters, that we can glimpse the church as a movement in flux, in which paths yet untrodden were becoming pilgrim routes, where self-appointed male guides were acting very often as policemen in disciplining people on these paths, and acting to prevent over-ambitious sorties into by-ways, or even attempts to forge an alternate route. In spite of this, we catch a glimpse of women and men, responding to what they sensed was a new movement inaugurated by a man from Galilee, a man who tried to break so many of the social conventions of his time, a response informed by the possibility of change and transformation, even though what he "actually taught often became a matter of bitter dispute … ."