History Women’s Liberation and the Rise of Christianity
posted by February 28 at 11:00 AMon
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.
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.