The second programme in the series Banishing Eve, focuses on women in early Christian tradition. It begins with a focus on Mary at the center of its faith to argue that "Women who had once guided the church's first steps were now stumbling." Inside one of the catacombs in Rome is a painted small figure, probably the earliest representation of Mary underneath a tree with a baby on her knees dated 220-228 CE . She will shortly be elevated to Theotokos when in 325 Constantine called together the Council of Nicaea. Professor Diarmaid MacCullough of Oxford University clarifies that now she is the Mother of God, that is, mother of divinity, co-equal in divinity. But Collyridians worshiped Mary as a goddess to Epiphanius' horror. At the Councils of Nicaea and Ephesus Mary's image is shaped. Mary reverses Eve.
Professor Kate Cooper notes that as the Christian institution emerges, misogynistic language emerges particularly From mid-fourth to mid-fifth century. When John Chrysostom calls the Empress Jezebel, Salome or Eve he is using negative biblical images of women. The church relies now on institutions rather than households. Women did practice ascetic monastic lifestyles as nuns but an ordinary married Christian woman was left out.
Texts that have been left out of historical reconstructions include the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Dr Dirk Obbink describes their early excavation from 1896-1906 by Grenfell and Hunt: see The Oxyrhynchus papyri, edited with translations and notes by Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt (Part 10). A Christian gem from this collection (P. Oxy. 3525) shows a post resurrection dialogue between Jesus and the disciples in which Mary "greets them all. 'Don't weep, His grace will be with you.' Peter says, 'Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than all the other women...' Mary (Mariamme) the authoritative woman shown with a special relationship to Jesus may be why this text ends up in a biscuit box from Oxyrhynchus rather than in the canon of the New Testament. These scraps of Greek tell us that a Christian household of fourth century Egypt was trying to keep the prominent role of women alive.
Dr Kathryn Beebe of St Hilda's College Oxford is interviewed for her work on Hilda, head of a double monastery of men and women in the 7th C in the UK. But in 664, Hilda presided over the synod of Whitby. She supports the Celtic dating of Easter but at the end the followers of Rome won the argument for the Roman dating of Easter. Whitby was a center of religious learning and the 7th C to the 12th C which is a golden age for women. Then the new power base became the university to which women had little access until the 19th Century.
Bede speaks of Hilda because she was the greatest of the royal-aristocratic abbesses of her day, and her influence on the 7th-century English church was profound; she was a national religious figure of immense spiritual power. It is a telling reminder that history is not a matter of linear progress and improvement that this was a great age for well-born religious women, in a position to operate with a vigour and an impact which was theirs by right. These were no second-class citizens. Men listened to them, often, clearly, in awe; kings and bishops consulted them, male saints and leading churchmen kept up correspondence with them.
Bede’s Hilda is not only the holy woman of great and enduring faith, marked out by miracles and ultimate suffering, though that is impressive enough. Bede’s Hilda is also one of the great educational forces, for women and for men, in early-medieval England. And it is that combination of her particular style of the holy woman and her particular style of the woman of and for education that marks her out as one of the great figures in English history.
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