Thursday, February 15, 2007

Women of the Early Church according to Pope Benedict

Yesterday, at the general audience, the Pope announced that the presence of women in the early church was in no way secondary.

On the plus side, he mentions the presence of women amongst the disciples in addition to the 12 male disciples: the prophetess (sic) Anna (cf. Luke 2:36-38), the Samaritan woman (cf. John 4:1-39), the Syrophoenician woman (cf. Mark 7:24-30), the woman with the hemorrhage (cf. Matthew 9:20-22) and the forgiven woman sinner (cf. Luke 7:36-50). Then he mentions the protagonists of some of Jesus' effective parables, for example, the woman who makes the bread (Matthew 13:33), the woman who loses the silver coin (Luke 15:8-10), or the vexing widow before the judge (Luke 18:1-8), in addition to the anonymous woman who anointed Jesus before his passion in Mark 14.

There are women who played an active role in the context of Jesus' mission: the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Susanna "and many others" (cf. Luke 8:2-3) and who did not abandon Jesus (unlike the 12) at the cross. Mary Magdalene is first witness of the risen one and identified as "apostolorum apostola" by Aquinas in his commentary on John.

There are women prophets in Corinth as Paus attests in the Corinthian letter. Therefore, he says, the famous exhortation "the women should keep silence in the churches" must be relativized (1 Corinthians 14:34).

To bad he wants to leave unresolved Pauline contradictions: The much-discussed problem on the relationship between the first phrase -- women can prophesy in church -- and the other -- they cannot speak -- that is, the relationship between these two indications which are seemingly contradictory, we leave for the exegetes.

Paul in Romans 16 mentions Phoebe, a "diakonos" with genuine responsibilities (sic). But he completely ignores the designation "prostatis" Paul gives her. Rendering this term by "patron" or "founder" would be more accurate than the older "helper."

The Pope continues describing Rom 16: with delicate lines (Paul) recalls other names of women: a certain Mary, and then Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis, "beloved," as well as Julia, of whom he writes openly that they "have worked hard for you" or "have worked hard in the Lord" (Romans 16:6,12a,12b,15), thus underlining their intense ecclesial commitment. He completely omits Junia (Rom 16:7) identified until the 14th Century as a woman who along with Andronicus was a co-worker of Paul, of note among the apostles before Paul.

He refracts Gal 3:26-28, "the fundamental principle," according to which, for the baptized "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" though the prism of 1 Corinthians 12:27-30 in which specific functions identify distinct roles within the community. There is no compelling reason to interpret Gal 3 with reference to I Cor 12 nor has he provided one. However, its clear that the Pope can do exegesis when he wishes to avoid for example the implications of transcending social and ethnic and gender distinctions in Gal 3:26-28. He prefers rather to reinscribe distinctions in terms of functions which in regard to women he elsewhere calls "feminine holiness" or charisms.

One might also ask: What about discussing the impact of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark (the Canaanite woman in Matthew) or the Samaritan woman on Jesus' mission in John?

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