Women and Christianity. Vol. I: The First Thousand Years

Lucille Marr

The Conrad Grebel Review 19, no. 3 (Fall 2001)

Ottawa: Novalis, 2000

As Mennonites, we focus on the Gospels, then jump over the next fourteen hundred years to our Anabaptist roots in the early sixteenth century. Readers of Mary Malone’s study will be introduced to the fascinating period in the history of Christianity that falls outside of the scope of Mennonite history. A feminist historian from an Irish Catholic background, Malone probes the New Testament scriptures and the writings of the early Church fathers, showing how Christian theology has shaped women’s place in the church. Focusing on the realities of women’s experiences rather than on prescriptions about who women should be, she revises our understanding of the “‘good news’ for women” as it evolved during Christianity’s first millennium (19).

Malone stresses that she is not writing church history but rather a history of Christianity. She is not creating a metanarrative outlining a particular history and creed, but she is deliberate about writing to a wide audience. Nor is she attempting to write a comprehensive history of women; instead she wishes “to redirect our historical attention . . . to offer as much as possible of the truth about women in the first millennium of Christianity”(37). The analysis of gender, or “the arrangements of systems of equality and inequality within Christianity,” is thus a particular focus (41). A second feminist concern is “the recovery of voice,” as Malone attempts to put women back into history to validate the experiences of contemporary women (31).

In nine chapters, Malone deftly weaves story and analysis together. Women’s voices emerge from the shadows of history – disciples, martyrs, deaconesses, widows, abbesses, missionaries. As we might expect, Mary, the mother of Jesus, plays an important role. But so do other disciples – Mary Magdalen, Salome, Joanna, Susanna, and the nameless woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. Early church leaders like Prisca, Juna, Chloe, Lydia, Nympha, and Phoebe are recognized in their roles as prophets, church leaders, and apostles. Why have these leaders been overlooked, Malone asks. What “unfinished agenda” still needs to be addressed?

Later chapters lift from the silences women with whom readers may be even less familiar. The martyrdom of Perpetua, from the north African city of Carthage in the third century, along with her slave-girl Felicitas, illustrates the strength of young women who fearlessly exercised their personal power; they claimed a direct relationship with God in a patriarchal culture that gave that authority only to clergy. Later, readers are introduced to fourth-century ascetics such as Marcella and Paula, and abbesses, for instance Clothilda, Radegund, and Hilda, who developed monasteries. Finally, Pope Joan, whose two-year papacy in the mid-ninth century has long ago been relegated to myth, is highlighted in the long line of Christian women worthy to be remembered.

With the stories of these women and many others, Malone re-imagines Christian history. She deconstructs “the volumes of advice” church leaders have written to instruct women “on how to fulfill their allotted roles as repentant daughters of Eve” (28). Taking a new look at the texts, she examines issues feminist historians are raising. How has patriarchal marriage silenced women? How has the fear of women’s bodies shaped Christian thought? Who claims authority? How does language suppress women? “Who acts and speaks for God?” (101)

If one can find any fault with this book, it is that it attempts to do too much. With the many threads of history and theology Malone has woven together, a reader would expect to find areas that could use further development and analysis. For instance, recent scholarship re-interpreting the original Greek suggests that Malone’s views of Paul may be too traditional.1 But this is only a minor criticism.

For Mennonite readers, this volume provides a wonderful companion to Arnold Snyder and Linda Huebert Hecht’s Profiles of Anabaptist Women.2 To use historian Gerda Lerner’s words, Malone’s study offers a further “corrective” to the “selective forgetting” that has characterized history.3 As humans we need our history to validate our experiences. Works like this one not only broaden our understandings of the history of Christianity, they provide a script for contemporary women to follow as they live their lives in as fully a human way as possible. This book helps to fill in the gaps and provides an important step towards “the new history of Christianity” Malone envisions.

Notes

1 See for instance Loren Cunningham and David J. Hamilton with Janice Rogers, Why Not Ordain Women? A biblical study of women in missions, ministry and leadership (Seattle, 2000).

2 Arnold Snyder and Linda Huebert Hecht, Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Book Reviews 99 Reforming Pioneers (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996).

3 Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).


Lucille Marr, Co-pastor, Montreal Mennonite Fellowship, Montreal, PQ