Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hysterical Woman / Women and Religion in the First Christian Centuries

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Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hysterical Woman. By Margaret Y. MacDonald. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. xiv +276 pp. $54.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Women and Religion in the First Christian Centuries. By Deborah F. Sawyer. Religion in the First Christian Centuries. New York: Routledge, 1996. vii + 186 pp. $65.00 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).

Both books considered in this review are contributions to the growing body of literature which aims to reconstruct the history of women-here, the history of women in religion during roughly the first two centuries C.E.. Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion by Margaret MacDonald is a creative interdisciplinary study of the roles of women in the early Christian community. In it, MacDonald re-examines familiar early Christian comments concerning women in light of the earliest pagan critiques of the church. Within this dialogical framework, MacDonald interprets her materials with the aid of conceptual models drawn from both contemporary anthropological studies of rural Mediterranean regions and social-scientific theory. Part I analyzes pagan reaction to early Christian women; Parts II and III examine the themes of celibacy and marriage as aspects of the early church response to pagan opinion. The structure of the dialogue between pagan and Christian data, however, frequently elicits preliminary mention of a Christian text in relation to a pagan counterpart before full analysis is given. This rhetorical tendency, and the interplay of the multiple theoretical models used to interpret the data make the book at times a challenging read, and occasionally lend to the text a somewhat repetitive feel. The patient reader, however, is rewarded with an incredibly nuanced cumulative picture of the roles of women in the early church, as well as with a much deeper understanding of the possible motivations and experiences of women within these structures.

The addition of pagan comment to Christian sources expands the data available for constructing a history of women and suggests, for instance, that we should perhaps allow even greater roles for women ministers than the Christian texts alone would indicate (p.121). Examination of the combined data in light of the anthropological models reveals further that women's behavior was used as a moral gauge in these centuries, not only of the Christian community but of all social groups. The church, by associating itself with the domestic sphere, traditionally the sphere of women, left itself open to public critique based on the behavior of women. Therefore, while on the one hand, this domestic association enabled women to exercise power and public functions without explicitly challenging the traditional division of society into public and domestic realms (p. 31), on the other, many pagans recognized an implicit challenge in the actions of these women. Women whose overt behavior was quite conventional could, by such "clandestine acts" as conducting the business of the church (by definition "public" business) in the privacy of the home, be accused of shaming the household and destroying the honor of the male head. By implication, such women could then be accused of being whores, witches, or enemies of the state, even if they otherwise conducted themselves in complete decorum. MacDonald's analysis reveals that in context, it may have been a more revolutionary act for a Christian woman to remain within a traditional, pagan household than to divorce or vow celibacy (p. 252), a realization which places the New Testament household codes in new light. Recognizing that power is not necessarily restricted to licit structures of authority or office, MacDonald leads us to see the extensive influence and power of women as evangelists in the domestic realms of the early house-church, even as their "public" and "official" functions were seemingly being restricted by the male hierarchy of the church in efforts to make the church seem publicly respectable. …

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