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Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts

Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts

by Patricia Cox Miller (Editor)

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Catholic University of America Press
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Translations from Greek Texts


Copyright © 2005 The Catholic University of America Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8132-1417-7

Chapter One




Apart from the kinds of teaching roles exercised in monastery and family, like those of Melania the Younger and Macrina included here, public teaching was forbidden to women in the early church. Those who attempted to teach publicly, like Marcellina (below), were eventually stigmatized as heretics. What follows are selections from the biography of Melania the Younger and a dialogue of Macrina with her brother Gregory, as well as passages from heresiologists describing Marcellina. The section concludes with examples of strictures against women as teachers.

1. Marcellina

Marcellina was the leader of a group of Christians in Rome in the mid-2nd century C.E. The group to which she belonged, called "Carpocratians" after the founding teacher Carpocrates (active during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, 117–38 C.E.), was considered by later heresiological writers to be gnostic and so heretical. Marcellina and those with whom she was associated apparently taught a form of Christianity that emphasized equality among men and women and rejected the idea of private property and other conventional arrangements that they thought were restrictive, such as marriage. The presence of strong female leaders and teachers seems apparent from the notices of Irenaeus and Origen, below.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.25.6

Among these [the Carpocratians] was Marcellina, who came to Rome during the bishopric of Anicetus [ca. 155–66 C.E.], and since she held these teachings, she caused the downfall of many.

Origen, Against Celsus 5.62

Celsus knows also of Marcellians who follow Marcellina and Harpocratians who follow Salome and others who follow Mariamme and others who follow Martha.

Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 3.6–8

This passage is a summary of the beliefs and practices of the Carpocratians written by an Alexandrian theologian who held the orthodox view of them as heretics.

6. This is what he [Epiphanes, son of Carpocrates] says, then, in the book Concerning Righteousness: "The righteousness of God is a kind of universal fairness and equality. There is equality in the heaven which is stretched out in all directions and contains the entire earth in its circle. The night reveals equally all the stars. The light of the sun, which is the cause of the daytime and the father of light, God pours out from above upon the earth in equal measure on all who have power to see. For all see alike. There is no distinction between rich and poor, people and governor, stupid and clever, female and male, free men and slaves. Even the irrational animals are not accorded any different treatment; but in just the same way God pours out from above sunlight equally upon all the animals. He establishes his righteousness to both good and bad by seeing that none is able to get more than his share and to deprive his neighbor, so that he has twice the light his neighbor has. The sun causes food to grow for all living beings alike; the universal righteousness is given to all equally....

7. "And for birth there is no written law (for otherwise it would have been transcribed). All beings beget and give birth alike, having received by God's righteousness an innate equality. The Creator and Father of all with his own righteousness appointed this.... As the laws (he says) could not punish men who were ignorant of them, they taught men that they were transgressors. But the laws, by presupposing the existence of private property, cut up and destroyed the universal equality decreed by the divine law." ... As he does not understand the words of the apostle where he says "Through the law I knew sin" [Rom 7:7], he says that the idea of Mine and Thine came into existence through the laws so that the earth and money were no longer put to common use. And so also with marriage....

8. "God made all things for man to be common property. He brought female to be with male and in the same way united all animals. He thus showed righteousness to be a universal fairness and equality. But those who have been born in this way have denied the universality which is the corollary of their birth and say, 'Let him who has taken one woman keep her,' whereas all alike can have her, just as the other animals do."

2. Melania the Younger

Melania the Younger (ca. 383–439 C.E.), granddaughter of the Roman aristocrat and ascetic Melania the Elder, was a noted ascetic in her own right. She lived in continence with her husband Pinian and built women's and men's monasteries on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. She was also renowned as a teacher. The following excerpt from her biography describes her role as teacher in the first monastery for virgins that she founded. For fuller biographical information, see Section III, "Biographies of Ascetic Leaders," 3: "Melania the Younger," below.

Gerontius, Life of Melania the Younger 42–48

The identity of this author is disputed among contemporary scholars. At the very least, he was a priest in Jerusalem during the period when Melania lived there and knew her in that context.

42. I am not able to relate the continual and inspired teachings she used to put to them, but I shall attempt to report a little about some of them. Her whole concern was to teach the sisters in every way about spiritual works and virtues, so that they could present the virginity of their souls and the spotlessness of their bodies to their heavenly Bridegroom and Master, Christ.

First she taught that it was necessary to stay vigilant during the night office, to oppose evil thoughts with sobriety, and not to let their attention wander, but to focus their minds on singing the Psalms. She would say, "Sisters, recall how the subjected stand before their mortal and worldly rulers with all fear and vigilance; so we, who stand before the fearsome and heavenly King, should perform our liturgy with much fear and trembling. Just keep in mind that neither the angels nor any intelligible and heavenly creature can worthily praise the Lord who needs nothing and is beyond praise. If then the incorporeal powers, who so much surpass our nature, fall short in worthily celebrating the God of all things, as we have already said, how much more ought we, useless servants, to sing Psalms in all fear and trembling, lest we bring judgment upon ourselves for our lack of care in glorifying our Master instead of reward and benefit.

43. "As for pure love to him and to each other, we are taught by the Holy Scriptures that we ought to guard it with all zeal, recognizing that without spiritual love all discipline and virtue is in vain. For the devil can copy all our good deeds that we seem to do, yet, in truth, he is conquered by love and by humility. I mean something of this sort: we fast, but he eats nothing at all; we keep vigil, but he never sleeps. Let us thus hate arrogance since it was through this fault that he fell from the heavens and by it he wishes to carry us down with him. Let us also flee the vainglory of this age that fades like a plant's flower. And before all else, let us guard the holy and orthodox faith without deviation, for this is the groundwork and the foundation of our whole life in the Lord. Let us love the holiness of our souls and bodies because apart from this, no one will see the Lord."

And since she feared that one of them might fall out of pride in excessive mortification, she said, "Of all the virtues, fasting is the least. Just as a bride, radiant in every kind of finery, cannot wear black shoes, but adorns even her feet along with the rest of her body, so does the soul also need fasting along with all the other virtues. If someone is eager to perform the good deed of fasting apart from the other virtues, she is like a bride who leaves her body unclothed and adorns only her feet."

44.... She used to tell them the story of an old holy man that concerned the necessity of submitting oneself to everyone, a situation that is likely to be the lot of a person who lives in the midst of humans: "Someone went to an aged holy man wanting to be instructed by him, and the holy man said to him, 'Can you obey me in everything for the sake of the Lord?' And he answered the father, 'I will do everything that you order me to do with great zeal.' The holy man said, 'Then take a scourge, go over to that place, and hit and kick that statue.' The man returned having willingly done what he was commanded. The old man said to him, 'Did the statue protest or answer back while it was being struck or kicked?' And he replied, 'Not at all.' The father said, 'Then go again; hit it a second time and add insults as well.' When he had done this still a third time at the command of the father and the statue did not answer—for how could it, since it was stone?—then at last the old saint said to him, 'If you can become like that statue, insulted but not returning the insult, struck but not protesting, then you can also be saved and remain with me.' Thus let us, too, O children, imitate this statue and nobly submit to everything—to insult, reproach, contempt—in order that we may inherit the Kingdom of Heaven."

45. In regard to exerting oneself in fasting, Melania repeated the apostolic words, "Not from grief or from necessity, for God loves a joyful giver" [2 Cor 9:7], and left this matter of fasting to everybody's own personal decision. Concerning love, humility, gentleness, and the other virtues, in contrast, she said, "A person does not blame either his stomach or any other part of his body, but it is inexcusable for any human not to keep the Lord's commandments. Thus I exhort you to wage your contests in patience and longsuffering, for the saints enter into eternal life through the narrow gate. The labor is very small but the refreshment is grand and eternal. Just endure a little, that you may be crowned with the wreath of righteousness."

46. During the night hours she awakened the sisters for a service of praise, in accordance with the prophetic saying, "I have come so late and have cried," and again, "In the middle of the night I arose in order to confess to you" [Ps 119:62, 147–48]. She said, "It is not helpful to arise for the nightly liturgy after we have sated ourselves with sleep. Rather, we should force ourselves to rise, so that we may receive the reward for the force we have exerted in the age to come." After they had completed their customary office, Melania provided them with a little time to get some sleep, by which they might rest from the toil of the vigil and renew their bodies for the day's psalmody.

47. Their nightly office had three responses and three readings and near the hour of daybreak, fifteen antiphons. They chanted at the third hour, she said, "because at this hour the Paraclete descended on the apostles [Acts 2:4, 14], and at the sixth, because at that hour the patriarch Abraham was deemed worthy to receive the Lord [Gen 18:1], and at the ninth, because according to the tradition of the holy apostles, at the ninth hour, Peter and John, while going up at the hour of prayer, healed the lame man [Acts 3:1]." She also listed other testimonies from Holy Scripture in accordance with the practice, for example, the most holy prophet Daniel who knelt to pray three times a day [Dan 6:10], and the parable in the holy Gospel that tells about the householder who went out at the third, the sixth, and the ninth hours to engage workers for his vineyard [Matt 20:3, 5].

"As for evening prayers," she said, "we ought to undertake them in all zeal, not only because we have passed the course of the day in peace, but also because in that hour Clophas and the one with him were deemed worthy to travel in the company of the Lord after his resurrection" [Luke 24:12–32]. She exhorted them to be especially zealous on Sundays and the other important feast days to give themselves to uninterrupted psalmody. She said, "If in the daily liturgy it is good not to be negligent, how much more ought we on Sundays and the remaining feasts to chant something beyond the customary office."

48. By thus saying these things, she affirmed the sisters' zeal through her teaching, so that when the blessed woman wished to spare them in their vigil, because of the great toil which they had had.... They would not agree and said, "Since you are ceaselessly concerned with our physical needs every day, thus we ought so much the more to be concerned with spiritual things, so that we leave nothing out from the customary office." And the blessed woman rejoiced mightily when she saw their good decision in the Lord.

3. Macrina

Macrina (ca. 327–379 C.E.) was the eldest child of a prominent Christian family in Cappadocia (in modern-day Turkey, north of Syria). This family produced three of the most important figures in the ascetic movement of the fourth century: St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Macrina herself. Macrina established a monastery for women on the family estate and was noted both for her ascetic discipline as well as for the power of her ascetic teaching; indeed, in his biography of his sister, Gregory of Nyssa credits Macrina with persuading Basil to devote himself to the ascetic cause rather than to a career in rhetoric and likens her ability as a philosophical teacher to that of Socrates.

Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection (selections)

Gregory presents this treatise as the conversation that he and his sister had when she was on her deathbed. I have added section titles to indicate major themes. See Section III, "Biographies of Ascetic Leaders," 1: "Macrina," below, for Gregory's mention of this conversation in his hagiographic portrait of Macrina.

Dialogue about grief and death

At the time that Basil, great among the saints, left the life of man [379 C.E.] and went to God, and a common onset of grief descended upon the Churches, my sister and teacher was still alive and I hurried to her to tell her the sad news about our brother. My soul was sorrowful as I suffered the pain of this affliction and I was seeking someone to share my tears, someone whose burden of pain was equal to my own. As we met each other, the sight of my teacher reawakened the grief within me for she was already ill and close to death. She, however, like those who are skilled in the equestrian art, first, allowed me to be swept along for a little while by the violence of my grief and, after this, tried to restrain me, guiding the disorder of my soul with her own ideas as if with a bridle. She quoted the following apostolic saying:

Macrina. "It is not right to grieve for those who are asleep, since we are told that sorrow belongs only to those who have no hope."

Gregory. And I, with my heart still seething with pain, asked: "How is it possible for me to achieve this attitude, since there is a natural aversion to death in each person and no one can endure the sight of others dying and those who are dying themselves flee from it as much as they can? Also, since among the sentences for wrongdoing the most extreme penalty decreed by the laws is death, how can we come to think that the departure from this life is nothing even in the case of strangers, not to mention the case of the death of our close friends?" ...

Macrina. My teacher asked: "What is it about death itself which seems especially fearful to you? Surely, the unanimity of the foolish is not enough to make you condemn it."

[Note: Having established that grief in the face of death stems from uncertainty about the nature of the soul and its fate after death, Gregory and Macrina discuss and reject materialist definitions of the soul. Macrina then discusses the relation between the soul and the body, as well as the soul's relation to love and evil, as follows.]

Relation between the soul and the body

Gregory. "But," said I, "how does the belief in the existence of God prove that there is a human soul? For the soul is not the same thing as God, so that if a person accepts the one he must altogether accept the other."

Macrina. She answered: "It is said by the wise that man is a microcosm, encompassing in himself the elements by which he is made complete. If this is true, it is likely that we do not need any other support to strengthen our assumption about the soul. We assume that it exists by itself in a separate and particular nature within the bodily complex. For, as we know the whole world through sensual perception, we are led by this very activity of our senses to the notion of a thing and to a design beyond the senses and our eye becomes the interpreter of the all-powerful wisdom which is seen in everything and which, by itself, reveals that which encompasses everything in accordance with itself. Thus, looking at the cosmos within us, we have no small starting point for conjecturing as to what is hidden through those things that appear. But that is hidden which, being intelligible and invisible, escapes the observation of our senses."

Gregory. I said: "Yes, it is possible to consider the wisdom which underlies everything through the wise and skillful logic seen in nature in this harmonious universe. But what knowledge of the soul can be derived from what the body reveals to those who are looking for the invisible in the visible phenomena?"

Macrina. The virgin replied: "The soul itself is an especially suitable teacher of opinions about the soul for those who desire to know themselves according to that wise precept, because it is immaterial and incorporeal, acting and moving according to its own nature and indicating its own movements through the bodily organs. There is no less equipment in those who have become corpses through death; but, since the psychic power is not in them, it remains without movement and activity. There is movement when there is perception in the organs and the intelligible power goes through the body by perception as it seems best to it."

Gregory. "What then," said I, "is the soul, if it is possible for its nature to be outlined with some reason so that some observation of what lies underneath may come to us through this delineation?"


Excerpted from WOMEN IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY Copyright © 2005 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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