Crispina and Her Sisters

Women and Authority in Early Christianity

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Christine Schenk
Fortress Atlases
  • Minneapolis, MN: 
    Fortress Press
    , December
     480 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When Feminist theologians began to explore the reality of women’s roles in the biblical texts, research expanded to consider the origins of gender as a social construction in ancient societies. There are now many volumes that have combined the field of gender studies (theories and methods) with the study of ancient literature. For scholars who study the history of Christian women, the focus often compares the inclusion of women in the earliest assemblies (Paul’s communities) with the changes that took place under the Church Fathers and bishops (in the 2nd century and beyond). 

Christine Schenk is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph and cofounder of FutureChurch, an international coalition of Catholics who advocate full participation in Catholic Church leadership. She participated in a pilgrimage in 2007 to visit sites of women leaders in the early Church. This was under the sponsorship of Dr. Janet Tulloch who works on the art and archaeology of Christian tombs. 

Scholars of early Christianity are fully aware of the polemical nature of the literature of the Church Fathers when women were demonized through the newly defined concept of heresy. Without women’s voices, however, the only recourse was to rely upon theories of how polemics work. In a general sense, one could speculate on the reality behind a text, assuming that the Fathers railed against actual individuals and situations.

Going beyond the literature, Schenk considered whether it was possible to determine if, in fact, women held leadership positions, taught from positions of authority, and participated in Christian rituals and sacraments. Schenk determined this could be done through an exploration of the art and inscriptions of their sarcophagi and tombs, the only evidence of material and visual culture that highlighted women. 

The opening chapters survey gender roles in the ancient world. Schenk emphasizes that, despite not having public voices (in the political arena), many women were heads of households and had financial responsibilities independent of men. In charge of their resources, many women shared their wealth in benefices to the lower classes. She specifically cites the women mentioned in Paul’s letters as conforming to pagan models, whereas Christian women held positions of authority and provided charity in the assemblies. 

Equally important, Schenk demonstrates that aristocratic, as well as financially independent, plebian women in Greco-Roman culture had important religious roles as patronesses of temples and shrines. The material evidence is replete with statues of women in the temples they funded, inscriptions in what we now describe as civic buildings, and inscriptions in their tombs. Taking the evidence of the patroness role as her starting point, Schenk sought similar evidence in the tombs of Christian women. 

Following their pagan sisters, we have evidence of Christian women who dedicated land for the burial of poorer Christians (similar to the columbarium dedicated by Livia for Imperial slaves and ex-slaves). These sites include the catacombs of Priscilla, Commodilla, and the crypts of Lucina and Balbina in the catacombs of Callixtus.

The three volumes of the Repertorium der Christlich-Antiken Sarkophage (Friedrich W. Deichmann, et al.), contain 2119 sarcophagus artifacts which Schenk brilliantly cataloged into statistical sets with lists of criteria for analysis. The criteria first and foremost determine if the artifact is Christian. She then compiled the various items and the percentages of each of the following elements: biblical scenes (both Jewish scripture and New Testament); orans figures (male or female?); the holding of a scroll or codex and/or baskets of scrolls at the feet; “in-ward turning” apostles on either side; individual solo portraits and couples’ portraits; and inscriptions of their status and identity. 

The gist of the book is a detailed statistical analysis of this material and visual evidence, with discussions of how and why each category was determined and evaluated. While highlighted in the chapters, there is also an Appendix summarizing the categories and the percentages of each. The surprise is in the percentages. Women far outnumber men in their portrayal as authority figures and teachers in the Christian artifacts. The image of the inward-turning apostles on each side (usually Peter and Paul) is perhaps the strongest proof that the authority of these women was validated through the apostolic tradition. 

There is less material on specific female martyrs in the early church, due to the state of our evidence. For instance, Bishop Damascus (366-84 CE, not “pope” as she retrospectively titles him), began refabricating earlier tombs and catacombs to honor male martyrs. A basilica in the catacomb of Domitilla became a shrine to two soldier saints, Nereus and Achilleus.

The final chapter (“Women and Authority in the Fourth Century: Integrating the Literary Evidence”), examines Marcella, Paula, Eustochium, Macrina, Helena, Melania (elder and younger), Olympias, and Egeria (who wrote of her pilgrimages to the East). We know so much more about these women through the writings of the later Fathers (Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Eusebius). Despite their rhetoric against female leaders and teachers, it is evident that these women held positions of authority and importance in their communities.

Throughout the statistical discussion, we learn so much more about these women than just their names that are simply listed in the guide books. This is because Schenk has combined the skills of art history, archaeology, and gender studies with literary analysis. All four disciplines are so well-integrated that the reader will never be able to look at the images in the catacombs again in the same light. 

The only drawback of the book is the poor quality of most of the images in the volume. They are grainy, and it is difficult to connect the highlighted elements with the text. Nevertheless, Schenk has succeeded in not only providing physical evidence of women teachers and leaders in the early Christian centuries, but also in illuminating the esteem in which these women were held through the construction of their enduring monuments.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Denova is Senior Lecturer in the Early History of Christianity at the University of Pittsburgh.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christine Schenk, CSJ is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, a Roman Catholic religious order, and the retired cofounder of FutureChurch, an international coalition of parish-centered Catholics working for full participation of all Catholics in church life and leadership. Currently, her award-winning column Simply Spirit appears regularly in the National Catholic Reporter. 


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