Saint Paul’s letters show women playing leading roles in the earliest Christian communities. Yet, by the fourth century, women’s ministry was very limited. Why?
In the Roman Empire, women’s roles were limited by the expectation that their speech was domestic. If it was inappropriate for women to speak in public, they could not be priests or bishops. However, this lecture will reveal how some Christian women subverted these conventions to become preachers and teachers.
Support the show
A lecture by Morwenna Ludlow recorded on 5 April 2023 at Barnard's Inn Hall, London.
The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website: https://www.gresham.ac.uk/watch-now/women-christianity
Gresham College has offered free public lectures for over 400 years, thanks to the generosity of our supporters. There are currently over 2,500 lectures free to access. We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to learn from some of the greatest minds. To support Gresham's mission, please consider making a donation: https://gresham.ac.uk/support/
A young girl sits by her window in a Mediterranean town watching a steady stream of women go eagerly into the house opposite somebody is teaching. The girl can't see who it is, but she can hear his voice across the narrow street and she is transfixed. Despite the best efforts of her mother and her fiance to distract her, she remains frozen to her seat like a spider clinging to the window as her mother puts it. And what teaching has kept her wrapped attention? It's a call to a new way of life to follow Jesus Christ, to put aside the things of the world, and most importantly, for this young girl to reject marriage. The man was St. Paul and the young girl was Thecla. She did eventually leave her window, we are told, and her mother and her fiance. She followed Paul and after a few adventures pursued her own career as a Christian preacher and teacher.
About 300 years later, another girl of the same age was also due to be married. Her fiance was making a name for himself in a good profession as a rhetorician. Alas, he died before their wedding day. Other suiters came to seek her hand for she was beautiful and of a wealthy family, but she was also a young girl with a strong mind. She firmly declared that her promise of marriage was in fact a real marriage, that her fiance was not utterly dead, but rather a soul awaiting the resurrection and that therefore she could not marry another, was determined to spend the rest of her life by herself. And by this she meant staying in her family home, regulating her life with a routine of prayer. The singing of Psalms and manual labor probably will work, baking bread and the other tasks of managing a household. Within a few years, this young woman had turned her whole household, including her mother, their female servants and slaves into a Christian aesthetic community. A men's community joined them based in a further corner of the family's country estate, and by the end of her life, she was the leader of a monastery of both women and men.
This woman was Macrina and her biographer tells us that her remarkable life was set in train by the secret name she was given by her mother at birth, and that was Thecla. So what can this pair of vivid stories about remarkable women tell us about early Christian women leaders? The first story comes from the acts of Paul and an anonymous text, which was probably composed in the second century ad, although it clearly mimics the earlier acts of the apostles. The second story is taken from the biography or rather hagiography of Macrina written by her brother, Gregory of Nyssa. Macrina is also mentioned in a couple of epigrams by a family friend, and she plays the central role in Gregory's Christian dialogue on the soul and the resurrection. We'll return to these texts in due course, but as for the question of what they can tell us about early Christian women leaders, scholars have been quick to point out that there are many problems with treating them as straightforward historical sources. For a start, there are graved outs as to whether Thecla even existed despite the fact that she was perhaps the most celebrated female saint in late antiquity whose cult rivals that of the Virgin Mary.
And while few doubt Macrina's existence, we can tell little about her own sense of vocation or motivations For our only evidence comes from texts written by men, albeit men who knew her very well. In the second half of the 20th century, a first stream of feminist historians eagerly tried to recover the lives of early Christian women, like these women who were hiding in plain sight in early Christian texts, but who were woefully understudied. Later historians however, have been more cautious. For example, in her famous study, the Lady Vanishes, Elizabeth Clark warned against seeking to recover women pure and simple. From these texts she wrote, we cannot with certainty claim to hear the voices of real women in early Christian texts. So appropriated, have they been by male authors? But I wonder, does the lady vanish completely? We must indeed treat these texts with caution, especially when they describe the virtues and vices of women through a distinctly male gaze. But even so, we know that to put it bluntly, many early Christians were women. Furthermore, some of these were deemed important enough to feature in men's writing, and we need to ask why women feature conspicuous. In the letters of Paul who describes women as his coworkers
Over the next few centuries. They appear in the lives of saints and martyrs, and in the texts describing the origins of monasticism, great fathers of the church such as Basil Gregory of Nazianzus, Chrysostom, Jerome and Augustine wrote two women, women who are clearly influential in their Christian communities. So after the uh, over the past decade or so, scholars have drawn together a substantial and exciting body of evidence pieced carefully together from literary texts, inscriptions, and other sources that shows that women did indeed exercise leadership. In the early church. There were almost certainly women priests. There may have been some women bishops. There were undoubtedly many women. Deacons who assisted in liturgy prepared women for baptism and played an important role in the baptismal right itself. Several early church theologians complain about women doing too much in the way of baptizing and teaching. The tendency of earlier generations of church historians was to assume that these women almost by definition, must have been associated with marginal movements within Christianity, but there simply is not enough evidence to support the view that all of these women were heretics.
A pattern does emerge from this evidence as the Christian Church developed. So women's public roles became more circumscribed For this reason. The stories of women like Thecla and Macrina have sometimes been used to paint a picture of decline, an exciting initial phase of freedom in which women could preach and teach like Thecla, followed by a period of increasing restriction until the point at which the leadership of women like Macrina existed only in certain specific and semi-private settings. Most historians now have accepted that broad passion pattern of increasing restriction. But the question of assessing the nature of early Christian women's leadership has been complicated by the way in which various members of modern Christian denominations want to use this evidence. In relation to the question of women's ministry today, the question can be skewed either way. Some want to read texts about early Christian women as fictions, or they minimize the impact of women by portraying them as marginal in one way or another. Many people holding this position would deny there was ever an early period of women's leadership. There was simply no women apostles. Others, however, want to maximize any small piece of evidence for women's leadership that they can according to this view, not only were their women apostles, but women's leadership was more pervasive and lasted longer than most people think.
Most historians however, settle for a position somewhere in the middle, and as I've just noticed, most accept a broad pattern of increasing restriction in women's leadership in Christianity. With regard to my lecture today, I would like to focus not only on the consequences of changes in women's leadership, but on asking why those changes took place. Certainly they seem to parallel the growth and the increasingly public nature of the Christian Church, especially after the accession of the emperor constant time. Even though changes in worship and church organization had begun to happen before his rule, Christianity certainly gained a more public and confident profile afterwards. But why should public religious ritual rule out women's participation? After all, women in Roman society could offer sacrifices, lead rituals, and hold formal roles as priestesses and the administrators of temple sites.
Need therefore to look somewhere else to explain the changes in women's roles rather than focusing on the question of what women could and could not do, especially with regard to sacramental ministry. I want to focus on another question. What could early Christian women say in the ancient world, even more so than today? Speech was an expression of power. Effective leadership depended on the kind of public speech that was deemed authoritative, reliable, and persuasive. This was the kind of speech that took place in the public assemblies, law courts, army parades, and the imperial court patas. We shall see there were cultural expectations around who could speak where in the Roman world on the whole, good girls did not speak in public, or at least they didn't speak in the public context that I have just mentioned. One very persuasive theory of the decline of women's ministry in the early church has therefore suggested that while churches were small and based on households or local communities, women could easily undertake leadership roles. The leadership of a house church seen in this light was an extension of the many roles that mi middle to high status women played in governing the day-to-day running of their households.
However, once churches grew and both worship and institutional governance were more public, it was less easy to accept women's leadership because it would entail speaking in ways and in places which were deemed inappropriate. This theory has been articulated in some fine recent scholarship. It might explain why someone like secular was able to assume a leadership role because the text implies that churches were still meeting in domestic contexts. That was presumably the setting of Paul's preaching in the extract that I started with. It explains why Macrina, however impressive, was very likely to unlikely to have been a priest even though she was an abbe, because by that time churches were public places. But the theory leaves us I think, with two problems. Firstly, as we'll see, the account, Theo's life does describe her teaching in public. Her teaching ministry is rather definitely not confined to a church meeting in her home household. Secondly, Macrina does speak a surprising amount and with a surprisingly authoritative voice, even though she's not preaching in public, her words are persuasive, effective, and have a broad impact. So does this mean that we should abandon our attempts to use these texts as reliable historical sources? Are these women simply examples of extraordinary and exceptional women?
Are these ideal rather than real women? Have our ladies vanished after all? Well, I don't think we need to be quite so pessimistic, but we do need to carry out a very careful analysis of where and how Thecla and Macrina speak. Where does their speech lie with regard to the boundary of public and private realms? But before I go on to do that, I need briefly to discuss Roman assumptions about public and private speech. In the ancient Mediterranean world, space and place were highly significant. Households were on the whole larger than European households today. They included extended family servants and slaves, but household space was seen as enclosed and indoor space. It was a station relocation. It was associated with that which is natural female and inferior public space. On the other hand, that is the space of the city of law making and political negotiations were seen as open and outdoor space. It was associated with mobility and that which is civilized male and superior. The parter, famili or the head of the household could mediate between both realms. Even though women controlled the day-to-day running of the household, it was usually a male head who held ultimate authority over major decisions such as the marriage of a daughter and who could connect the household with the city of which it was a part.
The ancient world also worked with another pairing, however, and that's the pairing of philosophy and rhetoric. Rhetoric represented by a man On the right there was public speech. It was clearly associated with the life of the palace, the city. It's typical locations where law courts, assembly rooms, or the theater rhetoric was also clearly associated with those who were male and highly trained in traditional Greco Roman literary culture. The good orator for Quintilian is emphatically a good man who is expert in speaking philosophy. On the other hand, represented by a man on the left had a more ambivalent place. Historically, philosophy was taught in various locations, some of which were public or semi-public. Nevertheless, there was a tendency in the ancient world to associate philosophy with a more restricted place, the indoor space in which many of Plato's dialogue took place or perhaps the enclosed space of a garden. Rhetoric and philosophy were also associated with particular kinds of speech. Rhetoric was the skill of making formal or semi-formal public speeches to prosecute or defend a case in the law courts or to persuade people of what action was good for the city. It reinforced social ties by creating set peace speeches to mark key events in the life of the city or a particular household celebrating a marriage perhaps or commemorating. Those who had died in war
Philosophy, on the other hand, valued a more conversational kind of speech dialectic, which was aimed at the detailed analysis and testing of a problem. These two kinds of speech are not contradictory, but partly because their teachers competed for pupils. There was a vigorous rivalry between practitioners of these two kinds of speech. In the ancient world, philosophers characterized rhetoric as merely crowd pleasing rather than seeking truth. Rhetors said that philosophy was secretive and esoteric. In fact, of course, many men combined the study of both and a few boasted about their ability to bring the two together. One such man was Themistius the fourth century philosopher and statesman who was based in Constantinople. He stakes his claim to unite philosophy and rhetoric by deliberately playing on their associations with different kinds of space. I take philosophy, he says, cooped up in her house Ill humored and avoiding gathering places, and I persuade her to come out into the open and not to deprive. The multitude grudgingly of her beauty theist is here drawing on the tradition of the ideal statesman, the one who combines philosophy and rhetoric, the one who has moral integrity and who demonstrates this as he mediates between the public and the private spears.
It's an idea that goes back at least to Plato's Republic. The mis was a follower of traditional Greek religion, but exactly the same time as this Christian bishops, like Macrina's brothers, basil and her biographer Gregory, were seeking to construct a role of themselves in very similar ways. Many of these bishops had a training in classical rhetoric and philosophy. They too stake to claim to that crucial middle ground by combining their rhetorical skills with their philosophical training and their knowledge of what they saw as the true philosophy. That is the Christian gospel. So despite the rivalry between rhetoric and philosophy, the right kind of man could use a combination of the two to stake a claim to that crucial middle ground of civic life that had to be a man because you needed rhetoric to inhabit that middle space. And rhetoric was firmly associated with male only spheres of activity. He, there is a sense, I think, in the ancient world that philosophy is a somewhat unstable, even dangerous practice threatening to burst out of its dining room or garden into the forum. Philosophers who ostentatious wanted the streets like the cynics were deemed highly improper. And of course that is exactly the reaction they courted.
There was definitely a sense that if philosophy wanted to become public, it needed to be tamed, civilized by rhetoric. However, the association of philosophy with indoor space and semi-private conversation did open opportunities up. You could be a woman who studied and even taught philosophy without committing social impropriety. And so it's perhaps significant that the misty in the quote we've just heard describes philosophy as a woman cooped up in her house. In any case, while there were vanishingly few women who practiced rhetoric in the ancient Mediterranean world, there were significant women philosophers in some then both space and speech in the ancient world were thought of in gendered terms. My suggestion is that if one maps out the speech of women in ancient texts, we should see a pattern emerging, which reflects the concept of speech, which I have just articulated here. So I will begin with Thecla and then move on to examine Macrina. As I mentioned earlier, the story of Thecla has come down to us in an anonymous second century work called the Acts of Paul and Thecla
its form and its focus on Paul. The Apostle clearly emulates the biblical act of the apostles, but it also draws heavily on ancient Greek novels, a genre which combined romance and adventure
In our very chased romance. Thecla meets Paul in Iconium, loses him when he's arrested and finds him again in prison. They are tried together on the grounds that their Christian ideology of rejecting marriage will destabilize. I Iconium society. Paul is exiled, but Thecla is sentenced to death by burning. She is miraculously saved in the arena by a divine shower of rain. Thecla goes off then to find Paul and Paul reluctantly agrees that she can travel to Iconium together with him. So then we move to Antioch and the narrative of their time in Antioch functions a ki as a kind of second act of the drama, which repeats some aspects of the first act in Iconium. In Antioch as in Iconium Thecla repels a suitor. Another one is arrested, tried and sentenced to death in Antioch two, she escapes death miraculously. This time God protects her from bulls, lions, and seals. I promise I'm not making this up. Other parts of the story though are reversed. In the second act back home in Iconium, Thecla's
rejection of her fiance provoked her own mother into rejecting her and calling even for death. In Antioch, however, she is adopted by a wealthy woman called Tryphaena
Who offers her refuge in the period between her conviction and her execution. Similarly, after her second miraculous escape again goes to find Paul. But this time she has to travel all the way to a neighboring city to find him. And she's accompanied by a band of young men and maidens. This tiny detail implicitly presents her as an independent teacher with her own disciples. Pulls now the way in which the second act echoes but reverses. The first is also reflected in the ways which and the places in which Thecla speaks in I Iconium. She hardly speaks at all. She is silent as she listens to Paul speak. She is silent when she and Paul are tried by the local governor. She is silent as she goes to meet her death merely making the sign of the cross as she approaches her funeral pie when she first speaks. It's to a child, a child whom she meets on the way to find Paul. And when she does find Paul, who is sheltering in makeshift accommodation with a local man in his family, her first words are a prayer of Thanksgiving addressed to God. A striking feature of this encounter is that although Thecla and Paul are overjoyed to find each other, their conversation is extremely awkward.
Thecla is all eagerness. She wants to follow him and be baptized. I will cut my hair off, she says, and follow you wherever you will go. Paul, however, tries to dampen her enthusiasm. If she travels, he asserts she will be prone to the temptation of lust. Baptism won't protect her from that, so she should also wait to be baptized. So in Iconium, Thecla is either silent or talks in private or somewhat awkward situations In Antioch, however, Thecla finds her voice both in the sense that she's much more talkative and in the sense that she finds her confidence in speaking. At her second trial, she offers a defense to the governor and she negotiates her safe accommodation. Before her execution, she prays fervently and in public for her new mother Tryphaena in Iconium, she had begged Paul to baptize her in Antioch. She baptizes herself, throwing herself into the pool of seals in the arena, turning danger into salvation with the bolds declaration in the name of Jesus Christ. I baptize myself when she escapes and is questioned by the governor of Antioch as to how that was possible. Her explanation is eloquent and her theology compares rather positively with Paul's similar defense to the governor of Iconium.
While Paul had called on the God of vengeance, the jealous God and declared his mission to rescue people from corruption and uncleanness and from all pleasure, Thecla on the other hand, invokes a merciful son of God who is a refuge to the storm, tossed a solace to the afflicted, a shelter to the despairing. Interestingly, perhaps wisely fler avoids any reference to the philosophy of lifelong celibacy, which Paul in this text cannot help returning to. And I think sr's final conversation with Paul sums this up perfectly. When she finally finds him after her second escape, she approaches him with calm confidence surrounded by her disciples announcing I have received baptism. O Paul Bon sense is a bit of turning off here. Her words amaze and encourage those who are listening to her. This part of the conversation appears to be in public because the text tells us that Paul then led her into the house of a Christian follower. And finally, the text makes it clear that Thecla no longer seeks Paul's permission to go on the road. When she had an has had enough of conversation, she gets up and simply says, I am going to Iconium.
When she goes on the road with her disciples, she is vocal using her voice to witness to God's salvation miraculously evidenced in her own escapes. So fler is first silent and then vocal. Her speech starts with prayers then becomes sacramental. I baptize myself. She preaches both to the governor of Antioch and to Paul's followers at the end of the text. And this increasing confidence parallels her movements in physical space. The story first tends to locate her in typically indoor spaces. Her maternal home, Paul's prison. Paul's makeshift accommodation with his friend, even in Antioch. She takes up safe quarters in another woman's home. The only point at which she is in a fully public space in Iconium. At her trial, she is silent and when she does speak with someone in public on the street in that episode, it is significantly with a child, a much more appropriate and decorous conversation partner than a male stranger. But from the moment Tryphaena is taken from her safe lodging with tra in Antioch to be executed, the narrative depicts Thecla in public spaces. So I think the fulcrum of the action is not so much Thecla's
move from I Iconium to Antioch, but rather the moment she emerges from Tryphaena’s house,
There is we are told a magnificent parade in which she's accompanied by the animals who are her anticipated executioners. She's taken to a crowded arena where her public exposure is emphasized by her clothes being stripped off. As many scholars have noted, the narrative heightens these elements to peak the audience's interest and their visual imagination. Thecla is made a spectacle and images of Thecla from the early centuries often focus on those moments in the arena. And on my slide I've got some pictures of terracotta pilgrim's flasks, which show, um, Thecla in the arena with beasts on one side and the other threatening her. But my research on voice and space highlights that this is also precisely the point at which Thecla becomes most focal. She's not just exposed to public gaze, but she becomes eloquent. Indeed, her speech is not just public but effective. It is authoritative, reliable, and persuasive. And from this moment, Thecla performs her role with increasing poise and independence. I'm arguing then that the acts of Paul and Thecla narrate a change from Thecla's
silent domesticity to her vocal public presence. It wouldn't be right of course to import modern ideas of character development onto this text. It's not a 19th century novel.
Thecla does not so much change, but discover who she really is. So perhaps the acts of Paul and Thecla is a bit like a road movie in which Thecla encounters and journeying enable a process of self-discovery or self realization. But however we view it, there has been a change. If we turn though next to the life of Macrina, there seems to be hardly any change with regard to the central character at all. The historian Peter Brown remarked that for her brothers Macrina would always be the still eye of the storm. The text about her was written by her younger brother, the bishop and theologian Gregory of Nyssa, who creates a three act drama out of her story. First, her early choice of her sexism, then her death, and finally her funeral. Gregory's careful narrative creates a bold contrast on the one hand, Macrina lifelong dedication to the stability of aesthetic withdrawal in her family home at Annesi. On the other men's busy involvement with the public life of cities, councils, and the Imperial Court. Indeed Gregory, the author, gives the impression that to be a bishop like himself is to be permanently on the road at various points in the narrative. He describes himself as traveling from Antioch to Jerusalem, from Antioch to Annesi, and from Annesi to Sebastopolis.
The whole text is structured around his journey to see Macrina. His brief stayed with her as she died, and then his return home after the funeral. There are a lot of comings and goings in this text, but Macrina hardly moves at all. If you look a little more closely, we can see the way in which this pattern plays out in each of the three acts of the Macrina drama. In the first, her brother Basel returns from university puffed up with the success at learning. And although he stays under Macrina's wing for a while, he soon soon flies away to found his own monastery. Macrina's sisters were sent away to be married. Even the brothers Naucratious and Peter, who did stay longer on the family estate to practice the monastic life retreated to its further reaches. In the meantime, Macrina remained in enclosed space at home. Gregory vividly remarking that it was as if she were still in her mother's womb. The other act build on this by showing that it is Macrina who still says still while people come to her. Gregory conveys the stories of women like Vetiana and Lampadion who came to join her ascetic community,
Or again, a soldier who traveled with his wife and small child to experience the place for himself because it had become so famous.
I'd say that rather than being the still eye of the storm, Macrina is perhaps better seen as a magnetic force drawing people to her. Indeed, it's not too farfetched to say that she has become a sight of pilgrimage. Even before death, the soldier's child was healed of an eye infection, just as might happen at a holy shrine. Men and women come from the whole area to join in the rituals of her funeral, just as if it was a feast of local martyrs. And most vividly, as Gregory traveled to meet his sister, he dreamt that he was holding in his hands a body glowing with holy light, a sight which he later interprets as important of Macrina's own holiness and imminent death. So even her own brother approaches Macrina as a pilgrim. Macrina is not a passive object on display, but an active force drawing people in. There are only two times we hear of her leaving her monastery. The first is in a time of famine when she went out on the road to rescue children who had been abandoned on the wayside by families who simply couldn't afford to feed them. The second time is her funeral cortege
Apart from that, Macrina is portrayed as being still and stationary in a space which is clearly domestic and female. So that's where the people in the various, um, stages of the text are located. I want to ask next then, how does this map onto the way in which they speak? It's notable, I think that Macrina's men folk are not just always rushing about, they are also described as being practitioners of public speech. Macrina's father was a teacher of rhetoric. Her brother Basil came home, puffed up specifically by his rhetorical abilities. Even her fiance is introduced as a young man showing great promise with a reputation as an orator, displaying his rhetorical skills in lawsuits in defense of those who had been wronged. Gregory has mentioned of the church business, which causes him to travel, implies that he too is using his rhetorical skills, but on behalf of the church. Men's speech, thus in this text is figured as outdoors, mobile, and highly trained. By contrast. Women in the life of Macrina speak indoors and they do speak a lot. There is in this text no movement from silence to speech or from public to pub, private to public speech.
That's not to say however that women's speech is ineffective. We can see the powerful effect of Macrina's speech in at least three ways. First, her speech is persuasive. Her conversations with her parents about her marriage are not reported directly in Gregory's account. But we are left with no doubt that she argued successfully, that she should remain unmarried, no less persuasive were her successive calls to her mother and to her brothers to join her aesthetic project. A final kind of persuasion comes in the form of the consolation she offered to her mother on the death of her son Naucratios. In a sudden accident,
Leads his readers to understand that Macrina's effective and holy persuasion is grounded on her education, which focused on reading scripture and singing the Psalms. This is a life which was neither wordless nor especially silent. Secondly, the effectiveness of Macrina's speech is demonstrated in the way in which she faces death and indeed uses this as an opportunity to teach her brother Gregory. Her words are the verbal proof of her education to holiness in that middle act. But Macrina
first speaks to console Gregory, who's weeping under the double blow of his brother's death and his sister's grave illness. We are told that she next persuades Gregory into conversation. By asking him questions. She then turns to a more substantial mode of argument teaching Gregory about human nature and human destiny. Her physical weakness means that she can hardly raise herself up on her elbow. Yet Gregory writes, her speech flowed with complete ease just as a stream of water goes down a hill without obstruction. She consoles Gregory's grief, but also rebukes his despondency over the challenges in his life as a bishop. As the time comes for her to die, Macrina offers herself up to God in a long prayer, a chain of biblical quotations, which Gregory reports directly
And her last act is to utter under her breath. The words of the traditional evening prayer are the lighting of the lamps. A third interesting aspect of the influence of Macrina's speech is that she seems to empower other women to speak after her death. Vetiana and Lampadion talk about her at some length to Gregory. Not only are they revealing things to him about his own sister that he never knew, but their words of powerfully effective witnesses as if being witnesses to the life of a saint. Similarly, although the story of the healing of the child is told by the soldier himself, he reports the crucial words testifying to the miracle as given by her mother. And in all these cases, the women's words are given in the text directly. Now, of course, we can't take these speeches as historical record in the modern sense. Nevertheless, I think it's significant that in his very carefully crafted account, Gregory decides to convey these women's words of witness at length and in direct speech. Finally, Macrina does not just empower voices, she also sets them in order.
Tells us that the ordered life of Macrina's community was punctuated by prayer and regular Psalm singing. And the ivory pot in the picture you've got there is of women praying in the customary early Christian way with hands raised up At several points in his narrative, people's voices become disordered under the weight of uncontrollable grief. But each time Macrina's influence is credited with ordering these voices back most strikingly when Macrina dies. Gregory reports that the women of Macrina's community began weeping uncontrollably. That grief which had been burning inside them as they watched Macrina's illness progressed, had been restrained both outta consideration for her condition, but also from fear of her rebuke upon her death. However, their weeping bursts out and is only controlled by Gregory's challenge. But it's clear that he thinks he's acting by emulation of his sister. There's a sense in which her effective example of consolation is now working through him as he speaks, look at her, he says, and be mindful of the instructions she gave you for order and graciousness in everything. Her divine soul sanctioned one moment of tears for us, commanding us to weep at the moment of prayer. This command we can obey by changing the whaling of our lamentation into a united singing of Psalms.
Similarly, when men and women flock to join Macrina's funeral cortege and threatened to disrupt the women's Psalm singing with more cries of grief, Gregory divides people into groups ordering their voices so that Psalm singing becomes the dominant mode of expression once again. So there's a lot of speech, but the speech of Macrina and the women associated with her is interior and stationery. It's trained not by the influence of outside education, but by the reading of the Bible and the singing of the Psalms. Nevertheless, it's portrayed as strong and effective, not least through what we might want to call emotional intelligence, the kind of combination of reason and love which appears in Macrina's words of consolation. So where have we got to? What do these two texts teach us about early Christian women leaders and why does it matter? I think these two texts do show us the development in early Christian attitudes to women's leadership. Although, as I shall suggest in a moment, the picture is a little bit messy. In these texts, one can trace the restriction of women's leadership roles as the church became a more public institution. Thecla's ministry of preaching and possibly baptizing resonates with other evidence we have for very early Christian women's ministry.
By contrast, the life of Macrina is emphatic that Macrina is not, not a rhetorician like her brother's father and fiance. Her skills in speech, which are considerable and thus her ministry are restricted to a semi-private and domestic realm. However, the story's not quite that simple. I don't, I noted earlier scholars have argued that women's ministry was acceptable as long as women could exercise it in churches which operated in domestic or a quasi domestic sphere. If this theory applied in a straightforward way, we should expect Thecla to be exercising her ministry in private locations. Now, some scholars have argued that this is the case in the acts of Paul and Thecla, but I disagree. As I've shown today. Theta speech becomes more confident and more authoritative as it becomes more public. Her speech is not only effective, but outdoors and mobile. Now, given that we think Thecla is in fact a fiction, this portrayal of her speech might simply be a fantasy. It might be that Fler is an idealized woman who is being used to say something about good Christian speaking rather than good Christian women. But I do wonder whether the plausibility and the popularity of the acts of Paul and Thecla lay in the fact that it preserved a folk memory of a time when women as well as men, took up a ministry as wandering preachers teaching and baptizing as they went.
A second complication is the way in which Macrina is portrayed. Her speech is indeed restricted to the domestic sphere. And we might want to say that she uses her voice in a quasi maternal way to comfort and to heal those around her. That may be one thing that's going on. But Gregory also takes great trouble to portray Macrina's speech as philosophical is the one who teaches Gregory about human nature and its destiny, anthropology and eschatology we might say in technical terms. And she encourages him to think about these things by asking him questions, often known in the ancient world as dialectic. She chides Gregory on his failure to count his blessings, ethics, she successfully persuades her brothers to turn away from rhetoric to the kind of philosophical life represented by her community in Annesi. All of these are recognizable modes of philosophical discourse from the ancient world. And even the consolation of grief was widely held in the ancient world to be a mark of philosophical wisdom. It was something philosophers do. And Macrina excels in all of these as we've heard her words running swift and clear as water. So Macrina is a philosopher who uses words well, and we might want to ask, well, is this not liberating? Don't we have here a model of a Christian woman stretching the bounds of what was possible in the fourth century?
Well, I'm pretty certain Macrina was a remarkable woman. But the way in which she perfectly inhabits the role of Christian philosopher fits precisely with that conception of philosophy. We, she, we sketched out earlier the idea that philosophy functions in a private or semi-private realm in contrast to the public realm of rhetoric. While Gregory allows Macrina holiness wisdom, intelligence, and the effective persuasion of those around her, these qualities are never entirely let loose into the public realm. Unlike her brothers, she can never be the person who inhabits that ideal space, which mediates between public and private life. That was the space leaders in inhabited. And in order to inhabit that space, you needed rhetoric. And this means that when ancient authors praise women as philosophers, their praise may be entirely sincere, but the location of their speech as domestic encodes an understanding that precisely as philosophers, their wisdom belonged in a particular place. So why does this matter? As others have argued, we are still influenced by the ancient world influenced in ways which includes social attitudes about proper and speech. But that inheritance has been mixed up with the impact of the Christian Church in ways that add considerable complexity to the story, especially with regard to where and how women can speak.
There was perhaps, as I've shown a brief period when women like Thecla challenged the dominant Greco Roman assumptions about the propriety of women's speech, when women could be adventurous setting out on the road as apostles of Jesus Christ. But all too soon Christianity was won over by the idea that good girls don't talk in public. Some people have stated either with approval or dismay that early Christian women were simply silent. However, as I've shown today, whatever one's perspective on the matter, a supposed contrast of male vocality and female silence, what misses the point? The point is, I've argued is that early Christian women could speak, but only in certain specific places. Their voices were restricted and domesticated, not silenced. And this means we need to be very careful about the way in which we interpret these texts in which they're shown. Speaking the way ancient authors cast women like Macrina as holy philosophers might give us the impression that their speech was unfettered. That these women were exciting exceptions to the rule. But in fact, the speech of these women conformed it conformed to the traditional place of philosophy. That's not to say of course at all, Christian women attained McQueen's heights of philosophy. But it is to say that McQueen's philosophical speech is exceptional, but it's not improper. Unlike Thaler whose speech perhaps recalls the unstable and dangerous philosophy of the wandering cynics, McCrea stayed at home.
So to conclude, I've on have argued that it's crucial when reading texts about early Christian women to pay attention, not just to what they say, but where they are permitted to speak only by mapping out their speech in this way. Can we understand the scope of and the restrictions placed on early Christian women's leadership? But it's not just a question of getting the history right. Mapping out where speech is deemed appropriate still matters because it exposes ideas about good speech, which we have unwittingly inherited from classical antiquity and the Christian Church. There are still many people who are told you speak very well, but you may not speak here like Macrina. Their voices are praised, but they are simultaneously pushed aside. And this is not just a problem that affects women, it affects all sorts of individuals whose voices are deemed marginal in one way or another. So by mapping out our own assumptions about where it is good or appropriate for people to speak, we might perhaps be in a better position to empower more people to step out of the house and to be perhaps a little bit more like Thecla. Thank you very much.
Thank you Professor Ludlow for this fascinating lecture. As you can imagine, we have a lot of questions online. I'm not sure we'll be able to, you will be able to address them all. But so we'll start with our online audience. First a person that want to bring back that question perhaps in the more contemporary context, or I mean, the ongoing question. Why do you think ordination of women in the church is still problematic today?
So clearly it's more problematic in some communities than others, and I think that's the space that we are currently inhabiting. Many churches who have decided prayerfully and with reflection to ordain women are still including those for whom this is a struggle.
But I think a more complicated factor is the fact that there are some people who accept women's ministry, but only in a restricted way. This is something I refer to sometimes as the vicar of Dibley problem. So it's okay to have a woman priest as long as she's like the vicar of dibley in her village, caring and tender. It's not okay to have a woman who is a leader. Um, and so I think that's why this So in
A very controlled space,
Yes, still a very controlled
Space. Interesting. Thank you. Um, any question from, uh, perhaps someone Yes. Oh, sorry. We'll just pass on the mic so we can hear you well. Yes sir.
A bit of a tangent, but, um, were there any women in any capacity in the desert with Desert Fathers?
Yes, there were. So there is a collection of sayings, not only from the Desert fathers, but the desert mothers as well. Yeah.
Thank you. Great lecture there. There seems to be something to me about backwater provincial versus big urban cosmopolitan. Macrina never leaves her provincial backwater. Yeah, Thecla does, finds her voice in the big city. Yep.
crowded, edgy, cosmopolitan goes back to the small town and comes a cropper as I, as I understand it, in effect. Would you like to say a bit more about that? Cause that's not just about this domestic space thing, but also about rural provincial versus urban cosmopolitan and where, where women might have a more of a voice.
Thank you. That's very interesting. And I, I agree and I think that's something I'd like to, to think more about. The, the cap oceans occupy an interesting place because they are on the edge of empire in, in many ways, and yet they became very significant. But the question is, I suppose, did
they gain that significant by all this traveling to Jerusalem and Constantinople and Antioch? but this monastic withdrawal is both a spiritually positive move, but it also is a withdrawal from these men's as well as men's voices from the political sphere. So that's a good point.
Hi, thank you very much It's sort of, I'm cheating slightly. Two sort of questions really. First of all, um, just one about readership, contemporary readership and circulation. Yep. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about, about, about, in, in terms of the, the acts. and second, even irrespective of whether we are looking at this as a kind of suppose we look at it as a, you talked about it in the terms of the Greek romantic novel. Even if we're looking at it as a work of fiction, given Paul's prestige. was it a, was it a bold and is it an unusual thing to correlate
fler a woman so closely with the, the whole Paul line thing at that state? Is that unusual or
can you find other examples in circulation of of that kind of thing going on?
Thank you. So the circulation, indeed, the authorship of this text is highly contested. Some people think it was written for women's communities. I think the evidence is very unclear. I'd be hesitant about suggesting that. There is so much we don't know. I'm afraid about this text. I'm sure that Paul is being used as an authority figure here. And I think probably what's going on is that they're seeing figures, his described coworkers in his epistles and someone thinking, well, what would it have been like to be one of those women? And then they're inventing this story of thaler to fill that gap. So it's an exercise in historical imagination if you like, I think. But thank you.
How were the women seen in later Sanchez? Were they effort regard to the saints?
So both Macrina and Thecla were venerated as saints and Macrena still is. and in some churches, Thecla still is. So, like many other early holy women, they continue to be venerated. Yes.
Well, thank you very much. Thank you
professor Ludlow for such a fascinating
lecture. It was a real pleasure. And thank you to our audience for, for your attention. Please join me in thanking again Professor Ludlow.