Last night I sat down with some Sicilian biscotti to watch some catch up TV. And boy oh boy did I do some catching up. About sixteen centuries worth of cultural catch up.
Here’s the thing. Professors Joan Taylor and Helen Bond, seen here exploring an underground chapel to ‘Holy Salome’ deeply off road somewhere in the Israeli desert, have sold into Channel 4, a ‘road journey’ to the high places of New Testament and Christian political epicentres, to reveal the role of women in the early formation of the communities which followed Jesus. Joan and Helen have journeyed where few, four by four driving female academics with accompanying film crew have ventured, and have brought in this new series Jesus’ Female Disciples: The New Evidence, some surprising ‘post resurrection’ realities of the early churches. Realities emerging from the buried stonework, graffiti and artwork which their Channel 4 expenses paid quest uncovers, across the Near Eastern and North African world in the first centuries following the ‘good Friday’ debacle and the ‘Easter resurrection/ Pentecostal’ commissioning of the church. What they uncover by way of tantalizing pub quiz factoids to be stowed away for future deployment by classics buffs, is matched by the potential impact of the powerful revelations of former glimpses of gender equality in the practices of the ancient church, which upends the comfortable male supremacist/ headship dispensation of many traditionalists.
The significant presence of women in the life of the early community of faith has long been understood though still inadequately populating the art work, preaching, teaching, and organisational practice of churches world wide. This presence painstakingly and against the grain of mainstream theological positions and attention has been articulated by theologians inspired by Suffragette and feminist movements of the turn of the nineteenth and mid twentieth centuries. Outstanding western pioneers of feminist theology working in Germany, the United States and Britain include Rosemary Radford Reuther, Mary Daly, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Ann Loades. Their writings, classes and discourse, drew the attention of Southern theologians including members of the Circle of Concerned Women Theologians in Africa, and a growing phalanx of South American, Indian and first Nation voices, adding their own post- colonial concerns around the patriarchal domination of western theologies in their work.
One hundred years before their efforts, the pioneering impaler of malesplained religion Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her ‘outing’ rageous Woman’s Bible which suggested prayers to the ‘Heavenly Mother, Son and Holy Spirit’ had argued that the ‘degrading ideas of woman’ which Biblical Scholars and Church authorities articulated the subordinate place of women, thus undermining efforts towards full emancipation of women politically and within Christian churches – ‘emanated from the brain of man, while the church says that they came from God’.
Female disciples were present and named, however fleetingly in the gospels. The second wave of feminist inspired theologians started to build their back-stories. So here, though unadorned, they come in number.
‘Mary the Magdala’, Salome, Joanna, Susanna, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary and Martha (whose brother Lazarus was ‘raised from the dead’ by Jesus, the mother in law of Peter, the unnamed woman at the well who became the first apostle ‘announcing the arrival of the Messiah’ to the churches formed in Samaria, and the un-named but extraordinarily influential woman from Syro- Phoenicia who challenged Jesus theologically, redefining his mission remit, beyond ‘the house of Israel’ out into the gentile world, which pre-empted the work of Saul of Tarsus and his revelation as he fell off his horse, just outside of modern day Damascus in Syria. The woman who suffered from haemorrhaging – who would undoubtedly be remembered in hope, by any peri-menopausal women suffering from this debilitating impact of hormonal changes in their menstrual cycle. The woman who was ‘bent double’ – manifesting the signs of early menopausal impact, osteoporosis for 18 years – healed by Jesus on the sabbath, and in whose defence to that healing is uniquely called ‘a daughter of Abraham’ , equal in stature to all the ‘sons of Abraham’ holding sway and criticising his mission of healing in synagogue and temple. The young teenager who had ‘passed out’ and whose body was being prepared for burial – who was touched by Jesus and raised with the Aramaic words ‘Talyetha’ qumi – literally young girl, little maid, damsel arise.
Twelve women. Twelve women of varied backgrounds, and varied ages. Teenagers, fecund women, menstruating women, women with children, women post-menopause, women with no children, women working to maintain their households, women with one husband, women with many former husbands, women with no husbands. All with strong narratives associated with their encounters with Jesus. Twelve women, amongst the many ‘women followers’ recorded who ‘ministered’ to Jesus, who were authenticated and commissioned by Jesus, and who ‘bank rolled’ according to Bond and Taylor building on texts buried in the gospel of St Luke, where Joanna, who is the ‘elite’ wife of Chuza King Herod’s steward, and Susanna (whose background remains obscure, except that she seems to have been by association with Joanna a woman of some means), and a host of other unidentified women, support the work of Jesus and his male and female followers ‘out of their substance’ (Luke 8:3)
And this evidence survives in the gold standard Bible, ‘authenticated’ ‘sealed’ and finally delivered for all in 367 AD courtesy of Church Father Athanasius – (Bishop of North African church Alexandria in the fourth Century CE).
Meantime the wheels of history grind through their own socio-political power requirements, and within the larger geo-political mandate of Roman Imperial exigencies, the religious freedom and explosive incursion of gender equality in the praxis of the early church, is subsumed. Order, uniformity, control and ultimately the reassertion of patriarchal power structures come into play.
The Emperor Constantine, had converted to Christianity in 312 CE after a spectacular victory in his campaign to enforce his power as Caesar across Italy, critically defeats the general Maxentius at the battle of Milvian Bridge.
Here at a strategic cross roads, a heavenly portent inspires Constantine to have his army of 40,000 men mark the sign of the cross on their shields. The famous victory which occurs, opens up the Via Flaminia for his army to march over the River Tiber and proceed in fabulous victory to the Imperial city of Rome. It was a seismic turning point in the alignment of Imperial power with what before had been an irritant minority religion marked for classical thinkers and polemecists with the underlying ‘death wish’ of martyrdom rather than reneging on their faith. It was the inception point for the emergence of an orthodoxy which would pervade wherever the Imperial control of Rome reached until it in turn collapsed, but by then the damage to the alternative model of community making had been done.
Text and praxis for the mother of all ‘Imperial religious projects’ where Divine underpinning of Imperial rule mediated through religious supremacy of the classically educated male, the lexicon of patriarchy, would run out across Constantine’s and his successor’s expanding Empire – embracing Eurasia, North Africa, and Western Europe at its hey day in its Imperial dispensation. And if Professors Taylor and Bond’s revelation in Naples is to be taken at its ‘wall painted’ value, would have a devastating effect on the gender equity being operated by some of the early churches in the Southern region of contemporary Italy.
And for that Neapolitan moment, and the fifteen hundred year truly outrageous, dis-empowering, and air brushing obfuscation it entails, I will leave you dear reader in momentary blogging suspense. For that second part of the revelation, the one which left me biscotti spluttering, with minor palpitations on the sheer Chutzpah of an ongoing ‘forgotten’ ‘Imperial cover up’ awaits for part 2, of this blog on ‘erasing the female’, coming tomorrow.