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When Women Were Priests: Women's Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity

When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity

© 1993 by Karen Jo Torjesen. Harper San Francisco.

Review by Theresia Saers

Torjesen provides a mass of documented facts to underpin the bold claim embodied in the title of her book that once upon a time women indeed were priests. She does so while stating modestly that she owes a lot of what she says to conversations with others or to historians that have researched the same matter. References to these are given after each chapter and include respected names.

To begin with the author points out that in the early days Christians avoided the use of the pagan term “priest” (hieros) for their clergy. Instead they used a variety of terms taken from secular life: diakonos (minister), apostolos (missionary), presbyteros (elder), episcopos (overseer), prophet and teacher. Only three of them survived: diakonos (deacon), episcopos (bishop) and presbyteros (priest). In the ensuing chapters Torjesen, using epitaphal and literary documents, including the New Testament evidence, letters, sermons and theological treatises, manages to prove that women held all of these offices. Paul e.g. mentions not only twenty-nine men as well enough known in the community to receive special greetings, but nine women, too.

The reader is allowed a look at the Greco/Roman society, in which the early church functions. From ancient mosaics, paintings, statuary, dedicatory inscriptions and funerary epitaphs, scholars have learned that women’s leadership in that world is also well attested. Likewise women in the church are pointed out as preachers, pastors, prophets and patrons. Such a woman was Lydia in the Acts of the Apostles, a householder and a merchant. The bishop Diogenes in the third century set up a memorial for Ammonion the elder (presbytera, feminine!) and a fourth or fifth-century epitaph in Sicily refers to Kale the elder (presbytis, also feminine).Yet at the same time there is a rumble of disenchantment with these women’s role in secular as well as ecclesiastical literary sources. The strict demarcation of gender roles in Greco/Roman society is reflected in the mixed messages about Mary Magdalene’s significance.

What Torjesen manages to do is to little by little unfold the history of the weird ideology that the Hierarchy holds about the natural incapacity of women to be ordained as ministers in the Roman Catholic Church.

The author inserts a chapter, of which she is the co-author with Virginia Burns, explaining household management and women’s authority in the secular world surrounding the early church. The overseer of the church is oftentimes compared to a householder. The household model influenced social roles and attitudes. This gave rise to a dualism, public/private, male/female, mobile/stationary, civilised/natural, and last but not least superior/inferior. It was when the church moved from the private into the public sphere that woman’s role began to be reduced along these dualistic lines. Women were no longer supposed to be in the public world. If they managed to carve out a distinguished role for themselves, networking as a patron of the great, and they could no longer not be disregarded, they were nevertheless praised for their private virtues more than for what they achieved in the public domain.

Such a famous patron was Livia, wife to Caesar Augustus, who was a patron to senators, superiors and foreign kings and even succeeded in teaching her spouse, persuading him to be merciful to his enemies for his own greater glory. The church was not very happy with this kind of womanly behaviour, and Origen, who owed his own education and advancement to an unidentified woman, nevertheless preached against the presence of women in the public domain, arguing that their glory lay in the female virtues of chastity, silence and obedience. And chastity was defined as staying away from the public arena. Nevertheless a woman, Melania the Elder, founded a double monastery on the Mount of Olives, which she would not have been able to do, had she remained the silent obedient woman in the private sphere of the household church.

Philo, a Jewish theologian who had to recognise the political acumen of the aforementioned Livia. because his Jewish community profited from her patronage, was baffled, when he had to reconcile this with his conviction that reason was the image of the divine in men only. Actually, the attention Torjesen pays to this particular point made me realise the significance of the Saviour’s remark in the gospel of Mary Magdalen, that he had made her become ‘male’.

Early Christian communities existed in a kind of ‘middle sphere’; they came together at home, were ‘brothers and sisters’, possessed everything in common. So until about 250 women could still hold leadership roles in their churches. After 250 the church’s organisation changed from private to public and assumed all the standards that pagan society demanded in the relation male versus female. It was a certain Tertullian who opposed most strongly the influence of women in the church, arguing that everything feminine was tainted and dishonourable. For a woman to appear in public meant that she was wanton and had no shame. The Greek philosophical definition of self eventually became a tool for excluding women, children and slaves from political power.

One who may have influenced the future role of woman in the church even more may have been Augustine, with his attitude towards sexuality and his doctrine of original sin. Several centuries went by before there came any change in this attitude. Pope Innocent VIII probably caused over a million women to be burnt at the stake, because these women’s sexuality had made them prone to the accusation of witchcraft. It was only because of Luther that at least in Protestant churches marriage and sex regained their quality as gifts received through creation.

All in all, Torjesen’s book makes very interesting reading. It should be an asset for any library of theological books.

Theresia Saers

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