Some Brief Thoughts about Women and the Fathers

I don’t think modern scholars give the Early Christians a very fair shake, when it comes to the Christian attitudes about women. Or sex either, but we’ll go with women.

1. The prevailing Greco-Roman culture was professionally misogynistic. As a hobby, it might occasionally like and respect women, but mostly only in its own weird way. Of course, if you were a rich woman, you could do pretty much what you wanted.

2. Jewish culture was pretty darned positive about women. Especially the part where women got something of a vacation from normal activities while menstruating. 13-20 weeks a year of vacation, baby! Also, culturally, mothers pretty much ruled and still do. Mwahaha.

3. Christianity mostly took after Judaism, when it came to Jewish mothers, and after rich, free Imperial Roman ladies on the Gentile side. Widows weren’t treated like crud — they got supported by the local church and sat in the front row! And you didn’t have to get married if you didn’t want to, so there. Oh, and matter was a good thing and God invented sex.

So why does early Christianity get ye badde rappe?

1. Celibate men trying not to be tempted to have sex did write a few commercials for themselves about the evil deceptive powers of women. Alas, we do not have commercials about the evils of men from your early Christian female celibates.

Of course, we don’t need to read them, as all you have to do is hang out around the woman at your office whose boyfriend just dumped her. The evil deceptive powers of men and their constant pusillanimity through the ages will be fully outlined for you. But it is only right and proper that men not be allowed to complain about women in such terms. Just ask the woman who just got dumped. :)

2. A lot of feminist scholars don’t like reading stuff about Mary. They also assume that any time any man says something nice about a virgin or virgin-martyr, they really are expressing hatred for all _real_ women. Many also are not particularly interested in paeans to maternal love. Or wifely devotion. Or famous women in the Bible. This pretty much gets rid of everything nice ever said by the Fathers about women.

3. Most of the folks with nasty tongues on them were misandrists as much as they were misogynists. Sometimes I start to think that Tertullian only ever liked his wife and Jesus. (Tertullian is probably the early Christian theologian most likely to have a second career as a Bond villain, with a secret lair, and a tendency to pet cats while laughing at the kidnapped Emperor being slowly lowered into a tank full of sharks with frickin’ laserbeams on their heads.)

4. Disconcerting tendency of some of the Fathers to praise specific women, and then commit wordplay on the theme that in Christ there is no male or female, so now I can call this chick a guy or a soldier. (I blame rhetoric classes. Or possibly they were trying to avoid rumors that they were hot for local consecrated widows, and that somehow the nice things they said about Judith and Jael were proof.)

5. Because scholars don’t like Mary, they miss the fact that Eve gets blamed every five minutes just so Mary can be praised in the next breath.

6. Victorian male translators. Maybe I’m being unfair, but it does seem sometimes that they translate with some interesting biases.

So here’s an example of what I mean. St. Ambrose (I think) has a bit where he goes on and on about Mary and Elizabeth and John and Jesus during the Visitation. He points out that Mary and Elizabeth both act as forerunners and teachers to John the Baptist, and also talks about the fellowship of the mothers and babies, and of Mary with John. And he points out that all the miraculous stuff and great prophecies are only what you’d expect, because salvation has started. As a woman brought evil into the world, “so in women all good things have their origin.” And then he points out that souls have no sex, and that women are now to cast off womanly ways and follow Christ no less boldly than men do.

Or you could read it that women saying anything intelligent was a miracle, that they’re only good to carry babies and teach unborn babies, and to be puppets of God’s plan of salvation. And something about women’s souls being inferior — let’s not forget that one. :)

I’m not saying there aren’t some problematic things said by the Fathers. But there are problematic things said today, on all sorts of subjects. We don’t give the Fathers enough slack.

And it absolutely made me cry that, as St. Augustine was on his deathbed, he took the time to reiterate, in no uncertain terms, that women did not lose their chastity or commit any sin if they were raped by the Goths and Alans invading North Africa. This was a deeply countercultural pronouncement for someone in Roman culture. (Lucretia.) Both after the Sack of Rome and during the invasion of North Africa, St. Augustine’s pronouncement probably saved many women from killing themselves, or from being killed by their relatives to spare them such “a fate worse than death”.

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4 responses to “Some Brief Thoughts about Women and the Fathers

  1. Speaking of those rhetoric classes: some scholars hold that Tertullian’s “wife” was a fiction, invented for the sake of artful argument. If that’s true, it would whittle the list down to … well, Jesus.

    I don’t buy it, though it would make it easier to understand how the guy lived as long as he did without being murdered in his bed.
    ;-)

  2. Maureen

    To be fair, a lot of people who are masters of flamewars and savage in arguments in their profession will come off as personable, or very nice and a little diffident, in personal life. To be a good lawyer, I think you’d have to know how to act socially and keep your temper. Christian writings, not meant for the whole of the general public or officialdom, not necessarily bound by the demands of rhetoric and good behavior, may have been Tertullian’s safety valve. (Like blogging!)

    But if we knew more about Tertullian’s wife — and whether she was still around and alive when he joined the Montanists — I think we’d know more about Tertullian.

  3. According to all the rules and regulations of modern feminism, Eve is the real hero of the bible.

  4. Interesting thoughts – thanks for introducing me to a new word “misandrist”. I think we do a disservice to the writings of the Early Christians when we divorce them from context and excise statements. Augustine is a case in point – he’s often used as one of the most blatant examples of sexism and misogyny. I was puzzled by a recent edition of the “Confessions” which included an afterword written by a woman full of snide comments. It made me wonder how much she actually knew about Augustine and his contributions, or if the publishers were trying to be trendy.

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