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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Women’s Liberation and the Rise of Christianity

posted by on February 28 at 11:00 AM

For too long the habit of the imagination has been to code liberation as an opening. But liberation in reality can also be a closing. An example of a closing that liberates can be seen in the rise of Christianity in the 3rd century. If the victory of the Church and the defeat of paganism is not read in the context of a women’s movement, a movement for an improved social standing/status/situation in the Roman Empire, then it is being badly misread.
womanandchristianity.jpg

Scholars to this day wonder why Constantine I, the emperor of Rome (306 337), converted to Christianity—the pivotal moment in Western (if not world) history. But the answer to that question will not be found in the emperor and his dreams but in the women who surrounded him, particularly his mother. The question, then, should not be: Why did Constantine I convert to Christianity? But, instead: Why were Roman women abandoning paganism for Christianity?

The answer to that question can be found in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, a text that was excluded from the final version of the New Testament but in its day, 1500 years ago, held the status of a bestseller. Thecla’s fame was up there with the mother of Jesus, Mary. And what did Thecla do to obtain such popularity? She renounced her marriage, her sexual slavery to a man (Thamyris), and followed Paul—a man who closed up her sexuality and offered her freedom/salvation (and adventure) in the form of chastity. Here, the rejection of sex meant the rejection of male power, which was systematized and reinforced by the pagan order. (Today we read paganism as more natural and against convention and Christianity as unnatural and conventional.)

Sex in the age of Constantine I was not empowering (or positive in any kind of way) but a tool of repression. And a direct attack on this instrument of repression was Christian chastity, a new kind of power for women. In its praise of cleanliness and the closed body, Christianity liberated women from the exploitation of the open body.

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1

It's really hip to hate religion...I myself am agnostic. But what annoys me about most people (paticularly here and in portland) is they hate or love whatever's hip and trendy to hate or love at that moment in time, without really thinking about it.

Take the knee jerk hatred of religion, paticularly islam and christianity...I'll admit there oppressive now and do little more then maintain the status quo. but at the time of there creation they were radical social movements promising to liberate people from the evil old pagan order.
jesus and muhumed were social reformers


Posted by linus | February 28, 2008 10:07 AM
2

I'm reading this as saying that women are liberated by being Christian and not having sex, and that pagan sex-having women are repressed. A statement that might have been fine and dandy before 1000 AD, but today just grates on my nerves.

You're right, today we do read things in reverse of the cultural change that happened with Constantine I, so...what's the point? That we think differently now than we did back then? Do you ever have a point when you do these thirty-second history lessons?

Posted by Emily | February 28, 2008 10:13 AM
3

"covert" ...?

Posted by Andy | February 28, 2008 10:19 AM
4

Any excuse to get a photo of Monica Bellucci up, right?

Posted by levide | February 28, 2008 10:20 AM
5

I would imagine the same reason explains why there exist women who don't think burkhas are oppressive.

Posted by K | February 28, 2008 10:25 AM
6

@2 - perhaps the point is simply that political context can define how we think to a large extent.

Posted by tsm | February 28, 2008 10:36 AM
7

Charles, could you please source your contention that paganism as practiced 1500 years ago reinforced male sexual domination? I wouldn't be surprised, but I'd like to see a reference, please.

I think you're onto something here. I never went into a church until age 35 when I became involved in homeless activism and visited several denominations. I felt instinctively that "these places are for the women" but I couldn't put my finger on why. I had an inkling that it had to do with social control, and now you've provided a plausible (though unproven) rationale for the value of a reduced-sex environment.

Please provide some references, if you can. Thanks!

Posted by David B. | February 28, 2008 10:44 AM
8

How do you figure that the answer to Constantine's mysterious conversion lies in the women around him and not in his own ambitions/ideology shifts? That's a gigantic leap with nothing to back it up and basically serves as a segue for you to relate the topic back to sex. Pretty tenuous.

Anyway, at that time, Roman women were converting to Christianity because their husbands had to. Sexual mores didn't change immediately; there were plenty of "Christian" women who were so in name only for convenience's sake, just like today.

I think a MUCH more compelling argument could be made for the chastity-as-liberation theory if you look over at the concurrent Egyptian monastic traditions, for instance the Desert Mothers: Sara, Syncletica, and Theodora, to name but a few. Then, skipping a hundred years or two, you've got the Celtic nuns. In the middle ages, convents and monasteries were the intellectual and artistic centers of Europe. A woman's only chance to escape drudgery and sexual slavery as a wife, and to get an education and exposure to the arts, even if she was born to aristocrats, was to renounce sex altogether and join the convent. Not a bad choice at all, I think. Square meals, the promise of ecstatic visions, a community of women to work with? In some convents, even access to what passed as a library? Not bad. In fact, I might even call that a kind of sexual freedom, found within the "confines" of early Christianity.

Posted by Katelyn | February 28, 2008 10:47 AM
9

@7 There's another phonomenon much grieved by some factions of modern Christianity that could be called the effeminization of the faith. (Which, it is presumed, used to be much more masculine and therefore better. I guess.) Even though the ordained leadership of most Christian denominations is male, most lay leaders in the church are female; Sunday school teachers, the volunteers who wash the communion glasses, etc. And despite the predominantly masculine language of Christian theology (father, son, king, war, soldier), the perception is that women have essentially taken over the faith leadership in the homes of America's believers. For many families, that's true; the mothers are the ones getting everyone to church on Sunday. *shrug*

Posted by Katelyn | February 28, 2008 10:57 AM
10

i can only offer for now my own reading of historical material and Virginia Burrus' Chasity as Autonomy: Women in the stories of the Apocraphal Acts.

Posted by charles mudede | February 28, 2008 10:57 AM
11

Not that the Apocrypha isn't fascinating, but if you're hoping to enter into dialogue about sexuality with Christians in the US these days, you're going to hit a brick wall if you use the Apocrypha as support.

Posted by Katelyn | February 28, 2008 10:59 AM
12

i bet Mudede and C. Barnett are at this very moment having a no-holds-barred, eye-scratchy catfight in the Stranger newsroom over Mudede's latest "help-me-decide-if-i'm-a-male-feminist-or-simply-a-misogynist-in-denial" SLOG post.

meow! hiss! scratch!

Posted by Grover Cleveland | February 28, 2008 11:19 AM
13

Thank you for this thoughtful article. It's becoming a well-thought-of theroy among medieval historians; because not only did Christianity give women power over their bodies, but over their minds. No where else were women as educated and empowered as they were in convents. They could read, they could write, and they could own land through the church. They were not forced to marry to survive, and they gained respect as having a place in society.

Furthermore, it's a well known but little discussed fact that many of Jesus' disciples were women. Never in the Judasm tradition could women travel with any but their husbands, but they followed Jesus. Jesus actually first appeared, after his resurrection, to women! If you look at the Bible as nothing other than ancient literature, that's a powerful plot point.

The point is, as always, people need to know the past before they could accurately discuss the present. Christianity was once the oppressed religion that taught equality of humans (we are all sinners) regardless of class or sex (Jesus talking to the adultress at the well, Jesus taking in the tax collector, Jesus denouncing the rich man who gave little for the poor woman who gave much) and tolerance ("Turn the other cheek," "Love thy enemy") and maybe, just maybe, with hard work, we can go back.

Posted by Marty | February 28, 2008 12:23 PM
14

Whoa, you're totally an Anglican now.

Posted by pbaitch | February 28, 2008 12:32 PM
15

I think the notion that Christianity conveyed autonomy-cum-chastity conveniently ignores not only the valuation of chastity in the Jewish tradition, but also various 'sacred virgins' in pagan religions.
As for corporeal power, Rome's vestal virgins, e.g., were the only women in Rome who were allowed to hold and own property and could testify without taking an oath and pardon the condemned. That's 4-5 centuries at least before Christ; the nunneries that you speak of didn't come until 5 centuries after.
Christ and his followers didn't invent the wheel; they just appropriated it.

Posted by Ursula | February 28, 2008 2:26 PM
16

Your theory on the role of women in the culture of the time and paganism - doesn't take into account the life of Hypatia of Alexandria.

If the paganism of the time could empower a woman like Hypatia I'm sure there were others that we know nothing about - that were equally made strong in the arms of neoplatonism/paganism. I think there was more involved in the conversion of Constantine than the encounter with Christianity that the women surrounding him experienced.

If he was part of a system that denigrated women - did he just have change of heart because his mom started worshipping the new god on the block? It doesn't float.

Posted by Pussy Dunkin Hines | February 28, 2008 3:14 PM
17

Hey Charles --
Amazing what happens when you use the words sex and religion in the same sentence, isn't it?
If I remember right, Constantine's ma gets the credit more for creating Israeli tourism than for anything else. By her time, most of those uppity early Christian females had been put into their institutionalized Church place, in large part precisely by the whole chastity thing.
As I see it, the attraction of early Christianity for women was that even in the red-letter stuff in the four canonized gospels, that man was preaching a revolutionary social movement of equality and justice. That is, he was preaching liberation theology. For women and for men.
And by Constantine's time, that's exactly what was being stuffed into the closet as thoroughly as possible. The powers-that-be absorb the threat of a revolutionary new religion by co-opting it -- happens all the time. Same story with early Islam.
Anyone in search of more detail on women preachers, sect leaders, bishops etc in early Christianity might start in three places:
1. pages 200-204 of my book 'Mary: a flesh-and-blood biography'
2. the section on God the Father/God the Mother in Elaine Pagel's 'The Gnostic Gospels'
3. the section on heresy as women's religion and women's religion as heresy in Ross Shepard Kraemer's 'Her Share of the Blessings.'

Posted by Lesley Hazleton | February 28, 2008 6:06 PM
18

Bravo, Charles! That was superbly interesting and insightful. I think it's interesting, too, how Christianity can't seem to thrive without persecution--that is, historically, the periods in which Christianity was persecuted the most, while it took a few decades for the effects to show up, it thrived the most. What do you think, Charles?

Posted by hermes | February 28, 2008 6:35 PM
19

Cosign on Elaine Pagels' work. Check it out, Charles. (And read Athanasius' Life of Antony' while you're at it!)

Posted by Katelyn | February 28, 2008 10:25 PM
20

You know, we don't have to stick with the religions that already exist. We could always be ridiculously naive and optimistic and start a new one -- a kind of anti-Religion religion. A gnostic agnostic (g)non-religion.
Anyone ever read Luke Rinehart's 'The Dice Man'? Or Gore Vidal's 'Kalki'? Is there something in the very idea of religion that leads inevitably to its calcification?

Posted by Lesley Hazleton | February 29, 2008 9:53 AM

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