Monday, March 22, 2010

Women in Christian Tradition: Bettany Hughes, Radio 4

Radio 4 has a programme called "Banishing Eve" about the history of women in the early church. It's available for six days. It is narrated by Bettany Hughes, described as a historian of the ancient world. In Rome, she finds archaeological evidence of the connections between women and religion. At a recently discovered site in the suburbs of Rome used from the 1st C BCE to 4th C CE archaeologists find evidence of Anna Perena, goddess of the year in the Roman pantheon, at a sacred spring where women once played an active role in Roman religion. What of Christianity?

Professor Joan Breton Connelly at NYU is interviewed (probably on the basis of her book Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece). She states that given the prominence of women in classical tradition, that they would have had the presumption that they would play leading roles in this new religion. Prof Gary Macy's 2007 book The Hidden History of Women's Ordination is a focus. He observes that Christianity developed from Judaism. Women played a role around Jesus as we can see in the gospels.

Dr Kate Cooper (author of The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity) talks of the power women exerted in early Christian communities known to Paul. She identifies women like Lydia who host Paul in Thyatira and introduce him to networks of textile industry and commerce. Prisca mentioned in Romans has a network of connections in Rome. This is the way the new religion took hold through social networks facilitated by women. In the catacombs of Priscilla in Rome we find a trace of a community of equals--maybe even in a fresco depicting women priests breaking bread at a Eucharist.

Phoebe is identified as a deacon in Romans 16. Sabina, a wealthy pagan, was converted by her slave Seraphia in the early second century. A basilica was built in her name in Rome. Women are identified as "presbytera" in Christian tradition and in once case "sacerdotae" in an inscription from Croatia. There is a discussion of the inscription Theodora "episcopa" interpreted by Gary Macy as considered ordained in a local community.

There is unfortunately an improper use of Acts 18:26 read aloud in the context of discussing Paul's introduction to local communities in Asia through women. The verse is quoted, "He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately." The wider context of Acts shows this verse to be about Apollos not Paul but by using this verse in the context of a discussion of Paul, it is made to seem as if it describes Paul's faulty exposition, corrected by Priscilla. The verse thus seems to corroborate the way women facilitate the introduction of Paul to the community and even the gospel. Oh dear. Such a cavalier use of scripture isn't encouraging. The programme continues next week.

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