Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Ascetic Autonomy? New Perspectives on Single Women in the Early Church

Ascetic Autonomy?
New Perspectives on Single Women
in the Early Church

Turid Karlsen Seim
First published in Studia Theologica 43 (1989) pp125-140
And reproduced on our website with the necessary permissions.

For a long time it has been commonly accepted knowledge that asceticism(1) exerted a strong attraction on women in the early church. In recent years, feminist scholars have attempted to explain this attraction by demonstrating that renunciation of the world and the body provided women with a rare possibility of moving outside the limiting constraints of conventional roles.(2) It offered them an opportunity to exercise a power and an authority from which they were otherwise excluded, and to experience a sense of worth which was often unavailable to them within the traditional confinement of patriarchal marriage. The presumption is that ascetic renunciation offered women in the early church an alternative to the convention of marriage and motherhood and thus a sort of control over their sexuality and wealth. The 'order of widows' may moreover have been a provision that physically made an ascetic life possible even for women with no means of their own, and ideologically and socially rendered the requisite respectability. There can be no doubt that early Christianity conveyed unmistakeable ascetic tendencies from the very beginning, and it is equally obvious that this was not an exclusively male phenomenon. The early sources to Christian asceticism are, however, scarce and rather fragile, and it is therefore tempting to interpret them in the light of how asceticism developed as evidenced by later and less fragmentary sources from the third century on. Such a 'backward-moving' methodology must be exercised with the utmost care and with constant awareness of the gaps and differences both diachronically and synchronically, but if employed carefully, it may show itself rewarding. It is mainly a matter of applying a similar approach to various sources from different times.

The remarkable growth of Christian asceticism in the third and fourth centuries and the rise of monasticism has been interpreted as a compensation for the no longer available 'purification' of martyrdom.(3) Once the persecutions ceased, martyrdom likewise ended and was assumingly replaced by virginity as a means of showing extraordinary devotion to God. Accordingly the ascetic is regarded as the successor of the martyr. The life of the ascetic was in fact often regarded in terms of martyrdom, but at the same time asceticism was regarded by several early writers as a training for martyrdom, and in any case this comparison does not help to explain the very early existence of Christian asceticism and the attraction it exerted.

Extensive scholarly energy has been spent on examining possible roots of early Christian asceticism both within Judaism at the time and in various Greco-Roman religious cults, philosophical schools and medical theories and prescriptions.(4) It is impossible in a brief presentation to do justice to the constantly more complicated picture which is emerging. Ascetic tendencies of various kinds were widely known in antiquity and temporary continence was frequently a prerequisite for ritual purity. But it was never commonly accepted and approved as a permanent alternative for life.

For men especially the case against celibacy in Judaism was not as uni-vocal as has been commonly assumed. There is some scattered evidence of ascetic anchorites,(5) and most of the male inhabitants of Qumran - at least those over a certain age and/or belonging to the core group - were celibate to safeguard their cultic purity and to be constantly prepared for the imminent holy war.(6) Philo is rather ambiguous in this matter.(7) His description of the ascetic and sexually segregated community of the Therapeutes clearly demonstrates his admiration for their simple and modest life.(8) But elsewhere he vehemently advocates the traditional ideals of the patriarchal household. So although even female asceticism was a recognized phenomenon in some Jewish circles, it apparently remained outside the mainstream of Judaism.(9)In ancient Israelite and early Jewish thinking virginity had no positive value except for the very young unmarried girls. Virgins were protected because of their prospective value as wives and mothers; maternity, not virginity was the highest vocation for women.(10) Widows like Judith, who remained faithful to her deceased husband, are not ascetics in the true and radical sense. More like the Roman univiras(11) they confirm the extreme monogamy through a life-long commitment to one man, considering a second marriage adulterous.

It has been claimed that at the time of the rise of Christianity there was in philosophical circles in the Greco-Roman world a growing concern for sexual asceticism, and that celibacy became common enough for Augustus to attempt to correct it through a series of laws from 18 B.C. to A.D. 9 (the so-called Augustan marriage-legislation).(12) This is probably a misleading overinterpretation. Not only did the imperial program of family restoration serve many purposes independent of the general decline in marriage, but this interpretation also identifies too easily a critical attitude to marriage with sexual asceticism.(13) Even the Cynic philosophers were not ascetics.(14) A lack of interest in marriage does not necessarily imply an ascetic inclination. It may as well be an expression of a sexual libertinism that wishes to avoid the obligations and complications of marriage. The literary 'modus' of the burdens of married life, which later is adopted by the Church Fathers as part of their advocacy for asceticism and which reoccurs frequently in their treatises and sermons on virginity, can also be made to serve quite opposite purposes.(15) In other words, it is not enough to register that in some circles it became fashionable not to marry and to mobilize negative reasons for that; there has to be some positive evidence for ascetic ideals more generally. However, in the first century permanent sexual abstinence remained exceptional. Even the cult of Isis which was considered strict in its demands for periods of abstinence, still did not request permanent chastity.(16) Perhaps a certain prejudice within Roman medical theory and advice in favour of virginity(17) is the closest one gets to a contemporary advocacy of a continent life.

The Augustan legislation on marriage (lex lulia 18 BC and les Papia AD 9, called 'De maritandis ordinibus')(18) aimed particularly at the legitimate reproduction of the Roman aristocracy and the preservation of the hierarchical power structure of the state. The essence of the laws was in accordance with ancient norms, but the responsibility and the supervision of this moral domain was transferred from the pater familias to the pater patriae. By the legislation Augustus sought to have as many as possible constantly married, at least until they had reached the age when procreation was no longer likely. Widowed and divorced persons were to be rushed into new marriages, and the childless, both women and men, were subjected to legal disadvantages, while a freeborn woman who had given birth to at least three children obtained the right of sui iuris. For a freed woman four children were needed. Even if the precise impact of the Augustan legislation is difficult to tell, it bears witness to a more common ethos linking the order of the family with the well-being of the state, and making the rights and the status of a woman dependent on her capacity of childbearing.

Wherever seeds may be traced and whatever may have added to an already existent ascetic emphasis, Christian asceticism is firmly rooted in the very core of the early Christian teaching. It is expressed in its eschatological impetus and in the radical requirements of discipleship in the Jesus traditions as well as in Paul's advice that the Corinthians should follow his example and remain unmarried, so as not to be distracted from the affairs of the Lord In this matter as in many others, Paul is not without ambiguity; he is the celibate preacher still building his communities on the household. No wonder that the Pauline tradition later splits, - as we know it from the Pastoral Epistles reinforcing the traditional conventions of the patriarchal household on the one hand, and on the other hand from the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla identifying conversion to Christianity with conversion to an ascetic life as opposed to family obligations.(19) This ambiguity in the tradition has been aptly expressed as follows: 'They subjected women to their hubands, but urged them not to have husbands.' (20)

In 1 Cor 7 Paul unmistakably prefers that unmarried persons, whether single or widowed, remain as they are and thereby take example from Paul himself. At the same time he carefully emphasizes that it is his own opinion, and he even states that the ability to live free from marriage is to be regarded as a special 'charisma'. He is therefore unwilling to make his clearly stated preference an absolute rule. He also urges the married to remain married, and he even argues in favour of marriage allowing for the impact of passion and sexual desire. A life outside marriage does not allow of sexual activity. The whole thrust of Paul's argument is to avoid sexual libertinism and promiscuity by the regulation and obligation of marriage. In accordance with this his admonishments to husband and wife are focused on their mutual sexual rights and obligations, and in marriage abstinence is not advisable except for short periods to prepare for prayer. Thus it is remarkable that he never once mentions the traditional Jewish reason for marriage: procreation, the divine order to be fruitful.(21) By urging the single to remain as they are and the widowed to avoid remarriage, Paul is not only departing from his Jewish Pharisaic tradition, but defying the ruling ethos of Roman society as well.

Paul's outlook in 1 Cor 7 is eschatological, and he makes a strong case for the urgency of the short time left for this world in which to act adequately. This eschatological fervour is combined with a certain pragmatism, and he moves from eschatological perspectives to the daily cares and worries of married life. According to him the unmarried has a singlemindedness that the married cannot possibly have. Those living in marriage are 'divided' and excluded from the total dedication to the Lord, while those who live outside marriage are relieved from the daily burden of providing and caring and can concentrate completely on the affairs of the Lord. In his more pragmatic approach Paul thus comes close to the contemporary common 'modus' of virginity and a life of continence as liberation from the heavy constraints of married life, and he applies it to both woman and man. And even if his solution to the impossible dilemma of the married should be for them to live 'as if they were not',(22) it still remains a fact that theologically and in principle married Christians are left in a disadvantageous position.

In the case of a woman who remains unmarried, her gain is even further qualified: 'the unmarried woman and the (young?) virgin is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that she may be holy both in body and in spirit,' (7:34). Thus it seems that to women especially the need of purification physically as well as spiritually still clings, so that chastity explicitly and exclusively (?) entails holiness. Only the virgin is pure and sacred. The distinction made in this verse between the unmarried woman and the virgin should not be exaggerated by presuming a special 'order of virgins.' The virgin is probably either the very young girl who is not yet married and/or the rare case of a woman who for some reason has remained unmarried. Because girls were given in marriage at a very early age and normally had not much of a choice in the matter,(23) (cf. that Paul in 7:36-38 addresses the male part only) most women in the Christian communities would at this early stage have been married at least once. When divorced or widowed the woman was often free to be married to whom she might wish, cf. 7:39, and as difference in age in marriage was quite common, many women were widowed when they were still young. Neither was divorce uncommon. According to Roman law, to custom and in most cases due to need, a divorced or widowed woman was under pressure to remarry as soon as possible. Paul goes against this by strongly recommending her not to remarry; she will be more blessed if she remains as she is, 7:40. These women are, nevertheless, not virgins in the strict sense of the word and are accordingly called 'unmarried women.' The context makes it, however, abundantly clear that the term unmarried, agatnos, is to be interpreted in terms of asceticism. The call to be anxious solely about the affairs of the Lord for the sake of holiness in body and spirit applies equally to the virgin and the formerly married woman, - while the married women should willingly submit to the obligations of marriage.

As I have argued elsewhere,(24) 1 Cor 7 provides no convincing evidence of so-called 'spiritual marriages," virgines subintroductae, which later apparently became a common arrangement before it was condemned as too inviting to temptation.(25) In 7:36 ff Paul is concerned with the worries of a betrothed man as to whether he is right to marry his young (virginal) fiance, parthenos, or not, and true to a paternalistic pattern he is primarily addressing the man as the executive partner. Even if this particular usage of the term parthenos is unusual and otherwise unknown, it conforms to the terminological distinctions with which Paul operates in 1 Cor 7. Because she is a young virgin he may marry her without committing a sin, and the decision lies with him, depending on his initiative, will or desire. She is not a formerly married woman, agamos, which might create difficulties, as a widow is free to be married to whom she herself wishes, and a divorcee is according to the word of the Lord denied remarriage as long as her (former) husband lives.

It may well be that E. Schlüssler Fiorenza is right in suggesting that the distinction between the holy ascetic woman and the married woman is fundamental to understand the tension and apparent inconsistency in Paul's dealings with the role of women in the Christian communities.(26) While married women are asked to keep silent and be submissive to their husbands, Paul is willing to accept the pneumatic participation of 'holy' women in the worship service of the community. When turned the other way around, this pneumatic privilege of virginity meant that asceticism became a prerequisite for female teachers and prophets. I harbour some hesitation in subscribing fully to an interpretation of Paul that makes this rift between married women and holy women too absolute. It does not sufficiently explain the terminology and argumentative thrust in 1 Cor 11:2-16, and neither does Paul limit the quality of holiness to the unmarried, cf. i.a. 1 Cor 7:14-16.

There is, however, no doubt that Paul in 1 Cor 7 theologically and by his example warrants an ascetic preference for both men and women. Less can be learned from Paul about how an alternative ascetic lifestyle was feasible, especially for women. But the way in which 1 Tim 5:3-16 deals with 'the order of widows' may indicate something about the practical solutions offered to accommodate female ascetics in the communities to which the author relates. It seems clear that the provisions made for the widows included young women as well as old, v. 11. They were supported by the community, w. 3, 8,16, and they had probably pledged themselves to chastity, v. 12. In the community they fulfilled certain tasks like acts of charity and visitations in the homes, and their main obligation was intercessory prayer, vv. 5, 13.

Contrary to the common conjecture among most commentators, the author of 1 Tim did not initiate a new order to facilitate the problems of the widows. He was rather attempting to diminish the importance of an already existing order, and he wanted to limit the number of widows with a right to be enrolled.(27) His interference reflects that early Christian communities had established a social system providing for the widows - probably after Jewish model, cf. Acts 6:1. This may have served as a mean of support for other women as well, who for various reasons had been deprived of the social security in the family or who had deliberately chosen a life free from marital bounds. They were all sheltered by the provisions made for the widows and may as they entered the order have gained the name of widow. Not very much later Ignatius refers to virgins enrolled among the widows in Smyrna (Smyrn.13.i).It is still likely that most of the women involved, even the young ones, were real widows or eventually divorced women. What is remarkable is that a considerable number of these women had chosen not to remarry and so followed Paul's advice, defying the intentions of existing laws and the general ethos of the time. An alternative ascetic life was attractive to them - and feasible.

To the author of 1 Tim 5 the many widows represented too heavy a burden financially as well as a theological threat. He opposes their ascetic fervour, accuses them of lacking faithfulness and maintains that their weakness represents an easy access for heresy. He wants to decimate the order by denying enrolment to any widow under sixty years of age, to any whose character is questionable and to any who could find support elsewhere - from relatives or relations. The young widows are told to (re)marry. If the group could be reduced to poor widows over sixty years of age the demand for support would be minimalized. Moreover, ideologically the order would no longer represent a threat as the criteria employed to limit the number also reinforced an hierarchical structure and a code of behaviour that was in agreement with the official policy of family restoration. The ascetic ideal is presented as valid only for women no longer fit for childbearing and who are old enough to be exempted from the pressure to remarriage. For most other women the traditional expectations of marriage and maternity is theologically confirmed, cf. 1 Tim 2:9-15. The old widows are in fact presented as outstanding examples of women who have previously fulfilled their conjugal duties. Thus the author comes to terms with two potentially conflicting ideals. 'An objectionable office has been tamed, for even though the be haviour of the widows may continue to deviate from society's expectations, the office now extols and rewards the expected virtues.' (28)

In challenging the existent more liberal practice the author of 1 Tim represents an attempt towards the end of the first century to define proper widowhood, to establish for it a code of behaviour which would offend no one, and to offer social legitimacy to those widows who fulfilled the requirements. They were provided with a substitute male authority and thus preserved a social status which they otherwise could have only in marriage. Material support and spiritual tutelage by the male leadership of the community would replace the legal and social responsibilities normally exercised by fathers or husbands.(29)

The question about the immediate outcome of the struggle still remains open. There is little to tell whether the author proved succesfull in his attempt to harden the demands or not, and it is difficult to measure the range of his power to convince, even if the regulations from 1 Tim 5:3-16 are frequently referred to in later church manuals.(30) Other sources such as the Apocryphal Acts take a different stand and indicate that an astonishing variety not only survived but even blossomed two or three generations later. In the early church there is also an increasing uneasiness about second marriages, and in a sense the Pauline ambiguity is revitalized in a wide-spread repudiation of marrying more than once. Even if they were strongly attracted to asceticism, many Christians stopped short of condemning the flesh and the process of procreation as evil. They could not completely deny what God had created. A first marriage was therefore approved, and second marriages might be permitted but were certainly not recommended. The wish to remarry was commonly regarded as a suspicious sign of carnal weakness and indecent desire.(31)

Although the author of 1 Tim 5 strongly recommends that the younger widows should (re)marry and be kept busy with domestic duties, he still did not effectively close every loophole for those who wanted to escape. In his view they could not be enrolled in the order of widows. But a possibility to remain unmarried still existed, provided that the women did not depend on ecclesiastical maintenance and found someone else to support them either in their family or elsewhere. Before the formation of monastic communities at a much later stage, most ascetic women lived together with their family or in a small group with other women in the same situation, often in the house of a well-to-do ascetic sister, cf. 1 Tim 5:16 and Acts 9:36-41. Such 'home monasticism' or 'family asceticism' was also common among aristocratic women of Rome in the fourth century.(32) When the family approved and had the means to support them, there was no problem. It was also relatively simple for women with means of their own. It may even be so that for rich women an ascetic life outside marriage was a means to maintain control of their own wealth as a life of sexual asceticism did not necessarily imply poverty.(33) But, of course, the prosperity of some ascetic women was a source of conflict between their families who objected to the loss of potential inheritance, and the church which wanted to profit from their generosity. The majority, however, of ascetic women were not wealthy and had to rely on external support.(34) For the most part little is known about the financial details of much early ascetic life except for the sponsorship by more wealthy Christians. Ascetic life was by definition characterized by frugality, and some of the groups may even have been able to support themselves by manual labour and a small scale business activity.(35)

1 Tim 5:11 f refers to a vow which is violated if the widow marries. By doing so she 'grows wanton against Christ', v. 11. This is the first hint of a vow of virginity in terms of a betrothal to Christ or an irrevocable marriage contract with the heavenly bridgegroom, a theme which in the later tradition is much elaborated.(36) It has been pointed out that asceticism in this sense does not necessarily stem from ascetic fervour, but is 'mourning the absent bridegroom' as prescribed in the gospel tradition. S. Brock and S. Ashbrook Harvey interpret this as part of a common tendency to literalize symbols.(37) The heavenly bridgegroom is more than an image, and if the believer is his bride then earthly marriage simply has no place. The metaphor of marriage also leads to a spiritualized sexuality expressed in the recurrent motifs of eroticism and erotic substitution. Thus the religious system adopted the reigning idea of women's sexuality as a token of exchange and reinforced it by investing it with theological significance.(38)

My own interest in early Christian asceticism was evoked by the need to explain certain aspects of the Lukan writings:(39) 1) In comparison with the other gospels Luke takes a particular critical stance on marriage; 2) Widows occur more frequently in Luke than anywhere else in the New Testament; 3) There is a lack of consistent interpretation in dealing with this.

There seems to exist a general agreement that Luke's love for widows is just another expression of his concern for the poor and the outcast. Widowhood presumably signifies extreme grief, poverty, vulnerability - and piety. Widows on the whole are characterized by devastation and need, but also appear to form a special and respected group always portrayed in a positive light. As one commentator sentimentally says: 'Their needy and sometimes pitiable circumstances, but also their sense of prayer, determination and generosity stirred his heart'!(40) But at the same time the women mentioned in Luke 8:3 as well as Tabitha, Lydia and Persis are by some of the same commentators declared to be widows because they appear in the story as independent women with means of their own.

The Lukan image of the widows corresponds in certain parts seemingly with the criteria of the 'true widow' in 1 Tim 5:3-16, - as can most clearly be seen from the idealized presentation of Anna in Luke 2:36-38. But more noteworthy is the difference in the framework within which this image operates. The Pastoral Epistles are strongly in favour of marriage and emphasize the subordinate and domestic role of women to the extent that childbirth and the successfull fostering of children is made a prerequisite for women's salvation (1 Tim 2:3-16). Luke voices as strongly ascetic preferences - also where women are concerned. The very term 'widow' may be reserved for the poor and pious, but the ascetic ideal is applied more generally and has vital theological significance.

Demands determined by the biological family are radically challenged by stories and words of Jesus converting the categories of kinship to a new group, the family of Jesus, Luke 8:19-21 par. The family of Jesus are those who live in the same obedience to God as he himself. Compared to Mark and Matthew, Luke renders the word of Jesus, 8:21, in an abbreviated version which is more inclusive of his biological family. His mother and brothers are replaced by familia Dei but are supposed to find their place in the new family. The main point is not to exclude his mother, who is cast in the role of an ideal disciple,(41) but rather to transform and transfer kinship categories to the community of disciples. The categories chosen are primarily family terms expressing non-sexual relationship, sister-brother, mother-child rather than husband-wife, and the figurative use of such family terms is ubiquitous in ascetic language.(42) But the use of fictive non-sexual family terms is, of course, not automatically evidence of an ascetic ethos in the group; while relating to each other as sisters and brothers, they may still keep their own wives and husbands. The case needs to be strengthened by a broader approach connecting the terminological usage to other evidence rejecting marriage and the implications of conjugal life. A parallel passage in Luke provides a link. In Luke 11:27-28, which is special to Luke, Jesus revokes and replaces even the maternal honor and rights which were essential to a woman's identity and status by discipleship as the new form of motherhood.

The Markan passage dealing positively with creation and marriage over against divorce and the law, Mark 10:1-12, is not taken up by Luke. Only the well-known logion about divorce and remarriage is included in Luke 16:18 as a passing example of the validity of the law, and the Lukan adaption of the Q-version of the logion is more concerned about prohibiting remarriage than divorce. In the Lukan parable of the Great Feast, in the Matthean parallel portrayed as a wedding-feast, marriage serves as an excuse for not corning, Luke 14:20. Luke thus names marriage as one of the obstacles to join the feast of the Kingdom. He also most explicitly underscores that Jesus, even if accepted as legitimate by Joseph, was born from a virgin. Women's gift of prophecy is most often presented as a charismatic privilege of virginity, cf. Luke 1:45-55; 2:36 ff; Acts 21:8. The many independent and sponsoring women in Luke-Acts also reflect a situation where women might prefer a life outside marriage in close cooperation with the community. While the communities have to support some of the poor widows, women of means are able to manage a life of their own and in some cases the richer ones may take care of the less wealthy, cf. the charity of Tabitha towards the 'widows.'

Luke 20:34 ff provides a key to understand the theological position of Luke.(43) The levirate-puzzle by which the Sadducees attempt to trap Jesus and expose the absurdity of resurrection faith, dwells on the question of marriage, death, posterity and resurrection. There is reason to believe that the conservative Sadducees, over against the 'new' conception of resurrection, held their own view of resurrection as the raising of posterity. The institution of the levirate was a provision to ensure posterity even to a man who faced death without leaving any children. It is significant that the Sadducees in their question refer to the levirate also in terms of Gen 38:8, where the expression anistanai sperma is used. The ambiguity of the word anistanai may serve to defend an alternative conception of resurrection to which they then allude: immortality by posterity.

All three Synoptic versions of Jesus' response reject the claim that the objection raised by the levirate-story has any relevance. In Mark, followed by Matthew, Jesus states that when they rise from the dead they are like the angels in heaven so that in the age to come marriage is abolished and procreation ended. The categories as well as the dichotomy are all temporal. According to S. Davies a similar temporal dichotomy is essential to understand the ascetic ideology of the early desert fathers and mothers(44) They were neither advocating simplicity and moderation as the better life nor were they specially concerned about religious purity. The categories of pure and impure were no longer factors coexisting in the present world, but had become temporal categories. The fundamental opposition was between this world and the heavenly world, this world and the world to come, leaving no possibility of separating things in this world into categories of clean and unclean. All Paul could tell his followers was to live in this world as though they did not. Later on the desert fathers sought to separate themselves from the entire present world, and this they could not do by qualitative sorting, but only in a quantitative way.

In the Lukan version of Jesus' answer to the Sadducees, however, there is a significant twist which made it a favourite passage among the early monastics.(45) Temporal categories and a simple temporal dichotomy is overcome. According to Luke the opposition between the present age of death and marriage and the age to come through resurrection is anticipated and already visible in the split between the sons of this age and those who are accounted worthy to attain to the age to come and the resurrection. The criterion of distinguishing the group to which people belong, is their practice concerning marriage. The double form of the verb marry indicates that both men and women are included so that 'sons' should be interpreted inclusively. The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage while the sons of God neither marry nor are given in marriage. Their abstinence from marriage is explained by their part in the resurrection which means that they cannot die any more and are like the angels.

The Lukan text suggests a certain interrelation between marriage and death. Because marriage ceases to exist when resurrection is ensured, it is death which necessitates marriage. It is therefore characteristic only of the present time and those still belonging to it. Resurrection or (personal) immortality means that procreation is no longer necessary to overcome death, and marriage becomes superfluous for those already worthy to attain to it. Although it is nourished by eschatological expectation asceticism may compensate for a delay by proleptic realization. A more sinister perspective is dominant in Luke 23:27-31, which foresees the days of apocalyptic tribulation when those who never gave birth are praised blessed. When it will come, whether it is sooner or later, makes of course in this perspective no difference.

Asceticism has often been associated with apocalypticism, and not only because of a lack of need to store up goods or progeny for the future. It may as well be due to a sectarian emphasis on purity and holiness preparing for the new coming, or as S. Davies insisted, a total withdrawal from the world. To understand the Lukan position I have found E. Clark's application of Victor Turner's concepts of liminality and community very instructive even if she relates it to a later time.(46) It helps to combine the temporal categories with the marking of group characteristics, that is the mechanism of eschatological anticipation. Primitive society utilizes a variety of rituals to ensure safe passage from one condition of life to another. In the interim period the person is stripped of the characteristics of her former existence and placed in a 'no-man's land', awaiting the adoption or bestowal of a new identity. The characteristics of that interim period stand in sharp contrast to those esteemed in the daily life of the group. In Clark's view, the early Christian ascetics express a chronic liminality, women even more so than men by divesting themselves of their very gender identity. Their life in this world is a long passage, a pilgrimage from one world to another and their common experience of liminality constitute a 'communitas' as different from the surrounding 'structure'.

Viewed from the dominant androcentric perspective, to abolish the pro-creational purpose of male-female relationship meant that man's fundamental need for woman's assistance in procreating and perpetuating himself no longer existed. Hence the ultimate reason and justification of woman's existence was removed. She did not have to remain female; she could escape her femaleness in terms of sexuality and motherhood and be reckoned among the sons of God and the resurrection, cf. Luke 20:36 and also Gal 3:26.

Such an eschatologically motivated movement from femaleness to inclusive maleness, as it can be traced in the terminology of Luke and Paul, does not necessarily imply a dualistic anthropology. In Philo(47) and in later patristic sources, however, anthropological dualism tends to replace the eschatological dualism. While the body belongs to the inferior world of senses, passion, eros and death (labeled female), the more essential and masculine parts, mind, reason and soul, belong to the realm of immortality. Virginity is defined as the stage where passion no longer dominates, and spiritual growth for women means that they abandon femaleness and become male. Sometimes it can be expressed in Stoic terms: the ascetic women exhibit andreia or they are 'playing the man', andrizein. (48)In extreme cases this growth into maleness is said to be followed by loss of female bodily characteristics demonstrating the complete negation of sexuality,(49) and some female ascetics (Thecla is the first known example) cut their hair and dress like men, - even if this became a controversial practice and was later condemned by a church in favour of modesty.(50) The synod of Gangra in 340 forbade women to dress like men and to cut their hair. Female ascetics were allowed manliness despite their female condition.(51)

Among others S. Brock and S. Ashbrook Harvey argue that the annihilation of sexual identity is part of the hagiographic motif of sexual violence; women did not simply deny their gender or rendered themselves genderless, but destroyed then- identity as women and took on that of man as the superior being.(52) But perhaps is this assessment too much dependent on a modern understanding of sexuality as the essential core of gender identity. It has to be measured against the social realities and symbolic expressions of the time. For the women in question, their sexuality may first and foremost have constituted the bond which tied them to subordination under a man, to domestic work, to risky and constant pregnancy, to pain and to suffering. As an example the chastity stories in the Apochryphal Acts do not describe chastity in terms of self-denial, and there are no examples that a woman in these stories lament her renunciation of sexual relations, though the husbands frequently do.(53) Asceticism offered women a liberating alternative and an opportunity to gain independence and to exercise control over their own life. This is not to deny that the understanding of asceticism as a way to maleness for women had androcentric implications on an ideological level. Asceticism, however, was an ideal not only for women, and there is a certain convergence between ascetic women and ascetic men as clearly expressed in the concept of the eunuch - cf. Matt 19:12. An ascetic woman may pass for an eunuch,(54) so that for ascetic men and women the sexual differences are transcended into sameness.

An ascetic life was attractive to women for a variety of reasons from a statement of need to the exploration of opportunities to control their life and wealth or to pursue a life of study otherwise not easily open to them. We have briefly outlined how such a life was practically organized and theologically defended as early as in New Testament times, and we have mentioned diverse opinions in current research as to how the phenomenon should be evalutated. Did the ideology of virginity challenge the surrounding culture(s), or did it rather adopt it in a negated form? There is no doubt that asceticism offered a possibility for women to escape a certain patriarchal confinement and lessened a pain of real suffering and oppression. In that sense it meant an opportunity for liberation, independence and positive self-control. On the other hand, a price was paid by the annihiliation of sexuality through the denial of passions and also on the level of cultural naming and meaning;(55) androcentricity remained dominant and women obtaining maleness had to deny their femaleness. The experience of the ascetic women themselves does, however, not seem to have been an experience of conscious alienation. On the contrary, the ascetic alternative represented to them an emergency exit - into the Utopian future.


1. The meaning and usage of the term 'asceticism' may in itself represent a problem, cf. the critical discussion by S.D. Fraade, 'Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism,' Jewish Spirituality I (ed. A. Green, 1986) 253-288, esp. 253-257. For the purpose of this article it simply means sexual continence, chastity, and it is therefore sometimes substituted, in the case of women, by 'virginity'. The chastity in question is absolute and also voluntaristic, a matter of choice. Even if it often may coincide with a practice of fasting and poverty, this is not necessarily implied.

2. The literature has been rapidly increasing. The following may be mentioned as representative, J. Bassler, 'The Widows' Tale: A Fresh Look at 1 Tim 5:3-16.', JBL 103 (1984) 23-41; V.Burrus, Chastity as Autonomy: Women in the Stories of the Apocryphal Acts (Studies in Women and Religion 23, New York, 1987); E. Castelli, 'Virginity and Its Meaning for Women's Sexuality in Early Christianity,' Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2 (1986) 61-88; E.A. Clark, Jerome, Chrysostom and Friends. Essays and Translations (Studies in |Women and Religion 2, New York, 1979); 'Ascetic Renunciation and Feminine Advancement: A Paradox of Late Ancient Christianity,' Anglican Theological Review 63 (1981) 240-257, repr. in Ascetic Piety and Women's Faith (New York, 1986); R. Kraemer, 'The Conversion of Women to Ascetic Forms of Christianity,' Signs 6 (1980) 298-307; J. McNamara, A New Song: Celibate women in the first three Christian centuries (Women and history 6/7, New York, 1983); R.R. Ruether, 'Ascetic Women in the Late Patristic Age,' Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (eds. R.R. Ruether and E. McLaughlin, New York, 1979) 71-98.

3. S. Brock, 'Early Syrian Asceticism', Numen 20 (1973), 1-19 esp. 2; Clark, Jerome, 16. Cf. Castelli's convincing criticism of this view while referring to M. Viller ('Virginity', 67).

4. D.L. Batch, 'Backgrounds of I Cor. VII: Sayings of the Lord in Q; Moses as an Ascetic theios aner in II Cor. Ill,' NTS 18 (1971-72) 351-364; Bassler, 'Widows' Tale,' 25-31; E. Ferle,Die kultische Keuschheit im Altertum(Giessen, 1910);K.Heussi, Der Ursprung der Mönchtum (Tubingen, 1936); G Kretschmar, 'Ein Beitrag zur Frage nach.dem Ursprung frühchristlicher Askese,' ZThK 61 (1964) 27-67; B. Lohse, Askese und Mönchtum in der Antike und in der alten Kirche (München, 1969); E. Peterson, 'Einige Beobachtungen zu den Anfängen der christlichen Askese,' Frühkirche, Judentum und Gnosis. Studien und Untersuchungen (Rom; Freiburg; Wien, 1959) 209-220; A. Rouselle, Porneia. On Desire and the Body in Antiquity (Oxford, 1988); H. Strathmann, Geschichte der frühchristlichen Askese bis zur Entstehung des Mönchtums in religionsgeschichlichen Zusammenhang. I. Band: Die Askese in der Umgebung des werdenden Christentums (Leipzig, 1914); the second volume never appeared.

5. Bannus is mentioned by Josephus (Vita 7-12); cf. Lohse, Askese, 111-112, who compares Bannus and John the Baptist.

6. The question whether marriage was practiced in the Qumran community or not, is a disputed one. But most interpreters agree that at least the core group at Qumran was constituted by male celibates. Cf. A.Y. Collins, Crisis and Catharsis. The Power of the Apocalypse(Philadelphia, 1984) 129-130; Fraade, 'Ascetical Aspects', 268-269; J. Kodell, 'The Celibacy Logion in Matthew 19:12,' BThB 8 (1978) 19-23, esp. 19-20

7. Fraade, 'Ascetical Aspects', 266.

8. Philo's idealizing description of the Therapeutes is our only source of information about this ascetic Jewish community in Egypt (De Vit. contempt. 70), and it is difficult to tell its precise historical value. Both E. Schlüssler Fiorenza (In Memory of Her. A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York, 1983)215-216) and L. Swidler (Biblical Affirmations of Women (Philadelphia, 1979) 131-133) employ Philo at face value.

9. Schlüssler Fiorenza, In Memory, 224; G. Theissen, Soziologie der Jesusbewegung. Ein Beitrag zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Urchristentums (München, 1988), 79. Cf. also Strathmann, Geschichte, 73, 81-82.

10. M. Callaway, Sing, O barren one: a study in comparative Midrash. SBL Diss.Ser. 91 (Atlanta, 1986), 102; L. Kuzmack, 'Aggadic Approaches to Biblical Women,' The Jewish Woman (ed. E. Koltun; New York, 1976) 248-255, esp. 250, 253.

11. Concerning the univira-ideal, cf. M. Lightman and W. Zeisel, 'Univira: An Example of Continuity and Change in Roman Society,' Church History 46 (1977) 19-33.

12. Balch, 'Backgrounds', 351; Heussi, Ursprung, 14; J. Leipoldt, Griechische Philosophie und frühchristliche Askese. BVSAW PH 106/4 (Berlin, 1961) 60-61.

13. Cf. Rouselle, Porneia, 20: 'It is clear, however, from the laws of Augustus... that although there may have been a shortage of legitimate heirs... this did not mean that there was an absence of sexual activity outside marriage.'

14. Cf. J.F. Kindstrand, 'Kynikernas moraliska tänkande,' Antikkens Moraltoenkning (Platonselskabet, København 1988) 37-54, esp. 45-46, 50.

15. Rouselle, Porneia, 132-136, shows how most of these works are addressed to women, and how both the rhetorical genre and the description of the hardship of marriage changes when a male audience is intended. She sees the force of the Christian argumentation in that 'it takes a line of argument which is firmly established in male minds and changes the term slightly when applied to women so that the opposition prostitution or homosexuality versus marriage becomes marriage versus virginity', 136.

16. S.K. Heyob, The Cult of Isis among Women in the Graeco-Roman World (Leiden, 1975) V119-126.

17. Rouselle, Porneia, 15-20, 67-73.

18. To this cf. S. des Bouvrie, 'Augustus' Legislation on Morals - which Morals and what Aims?' Symbolae Osloensis LIX (1984) 93-113.

19. Cf. D.R. MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon (Philadelphia, 1983).

20. J. McNamara, 'Wives and Widows in Early Christian Thought,' International Journal of Women's Studies 2 (1979) 575-592, esp. 587.

21. O.L. Yarbrough, Not Like the Gentiles: Marriage Rules in the Letters of Paul. SBL Diss. Ser. 80 (Atlanta, 1985) 107-108. D. Daube, The Duty of Procreation. Theologia Biblica 10 (Edinburgh, 1977), tries to show that only at a later time was procreation considered an obligation within Judaism. This does, however, not disprove that procreation constituted a main reason for marriage at the time.

22. Cf. V.L. Wimbush, Paul The Worldly Ascetic: Response to the World and Self-Understanding according to 1 Corinthians 7 (Macon, GA, 1987) 22-73.

23. Roman and Jewish girls were probably married very early, when they were about twelve years of age. Greek girls may have been some years older. Cf. J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period (London, 1969) 365; J. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (London; Sydney, 1986) 38-40; S.B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves in Classical Antiquity (New York, 1975) 68,164,169; Rouselle, Porneia, 32-36, who also shows the difference in age between husband and wife in many marriages.

24. T.K. Seim, 'Seksualitet og ekteskap, skilsmisse og gjengifte i 1. Kor. 7,' NTT81 (1980) 1-20, esp. 10-11.

25. For detailed references cf. Castelli, 'Virginity,' 80-81; R.A. Greer, Broken Lights and Mended Lives. Theology and Common Life in the Early Church (London, 1986) 104-105.

26. In Memory, 231-233.

27. Cf. Bassler, 'Widows' Tale', 31-41; D.R. MacDonald, Legend, 73-75; J. Müller-Bardorff, 'Zur Exegese vom 1. Timotheus 5,3-16,' Gott und die Götter: Festgabe für Erich Fascher zum 60. Geburtstag (Berlin, 1958) 113-133.

28. Bassler, 'Widows' Tale,' 38.

29. Lightman and Zeisel, 'Univira,' 29-30.

30. G. Stählin, art. 'Chera' in Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament IX(Stuttgart, Y1973) 428-454, esp. 452-453.

31. J. MacNamara, 'Wives and Widows,' 587; W. Rordorf, 'Marriage in the New Testament and the Early Church,' JEH XX(1969) 193-210, esp. 205.

32. Clark, 'Ascetic Renunciation,' 244-250.

33. Cf. Clark, Jerome, 253-254.

34. Clark ('Ascetic Renunciation,' 244-245) points to a significant difference between Western and Eastern monasticism in this respect. The initiators of Western asceticism had apparently an aristocratic status which was rare among the Easteners. The funds for their own and their community's upkeep came from inherited wealth and not from their own work. They also maintained an aristocratic social pattern, for instance by keeping servants ('Ascetic Renunciation,' 250-251).

35. Some examples are mentioned by Castelli, 'Virginity', 83.

36. K. Niederwimmer (Askese und Mysterium. Über Ehe, Ehescheidung und Eheverzicht in den Anfängen des christlichen Glaubens. FRLANT113 (Göttingen, 1975) 58-63) has shown how the image of Jesus as bridegroom has an ascetic flavour already in the gospel material.

37. Holy women of the Syrian Orient (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London, 1987) 8-9.

38. Cf. Castelli, Virginity, 86-87.

39. For a fuller discussion of asceticism in the writings of Luke and its implications for women cf. my forthcoming work 'The Mixed Message. Dependence and Distance between Women and Men in Luke-Acts'. For that reason footnotes are more scarce in this part.

40. P.O'Toole, The Unity of Luke's Theology. An Analysis of Luke-Acts. Good News Studies 9 (Wilmington, 1984) 126.

41. Mary in the New Testament. A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars (eds. R.E. Brown, K.P. Donfried, J.A. Fitzmyer, J. Reumarm; Philadelphia, 1978) 105-177; H. Räisänen, Die Mutter Jesu im Neuen Testament, AASF B 158 (Helsinki, 1969)154.

42. A.M. Emmet, 'Female Ascetics in the Greek Papyri,' Jahrbuch der österreichischen Byzantinistik 32 (1982) 509; Clark, Jerome, 54-55.

43. Cf. T.H.C. van Eijk, 'Marriage and Virginity, Death and Immortality,' Epektasis. Melanges patristiques offerts au Cardinal Jean Danielou (Paris, 1972)209-235; O. Schwankl, Die Sadduzäerfrage (Mk 12, 18-27parr). Eine exegetisch-theologische Studie zur Auferstehungserwartung. Bonner biblische Beiträge 66 (Frankfurt a.M., 1987). Schwankl's interpretation, however, is dominated by the Markan version, and although he recognizes the Synoptic differences, he is reluctant to accept a more ascetic twist in Luke.

44. S. Davies, 'Ascetic Madness,' Pagan and Christian Anxiety (eds. R. Smith and J.Lounibos; Lanham, London, 1984) 13-25.

45. S. Brock, 'Early Syrian Asceticism,' 5-6; van Eijk, 'Marriage,' 212-235.

46. Jerome, 49-50.

47. For Philo cf. R. Mortley, Womanhood. The Feminine in Ancient Hellinism, Gnosticism, Christianity and Islam (Sydney, 3981) 14 ff.

48. Castelli, 'Virginity,' 77; Clark, Jerome, 19. For the Gnostic material f. J.J. Buckley, Female Fault and Fulfilment in Gnosticism (Chapel Hill; London, 1986).

49. Castelli,'Virginity,'76.

50. Ibid.

51. P. Wilson-Kastner (A Lost Tradition: Women in the Early Church (Lanham; New York; London, 1981) xxvii n. 28) claims that while the Greek Fathers in their theological interpretation of women espoused a non-sexua! monism, the Latins asserted maleness as the norm for the human. This is an interesting assumption, but it remains to be convincingly argued.

52. Holy Women, 24-25.

53. Burrus, Chastity, 95, 117.

54. Cf. Castelli,'Virginity,'76.

55. In emphasizing this aspect, Castelli's conclusion is mainly negative ('Virginity', 88):'.. .the ideology of virginity did not challenge that of the surrounding culture, but rather adopted it and added to it a theological dimension producing perhaps an even more restrictive and coercive system.' The price paid by the ascetic women was 'that of identity and self.' To counter this position Burrus' argument against de Ste Croix (Chastity, 117) is very valid.

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.