Women contributed substantially to the theological development of early Christian communities. Most of our evidence for this, however, comes from the theological work done by representations of women in texts written by men. When Lynn H. Cohick and I set out to write our book, Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries (Baker Academic, 2017), we started with stories of women like Thecla, Perpetua, Macrina, Monica, and Pulcheria. How did women of various regions, backgrounds, situations, and temperaments assume authority, exercise power, and shape both their legacy and the legacy of Christianity?
Navigating the methodological challenges involved was equal parts exercise in futility and fruitful exploration. On the one hand, the lack of sources and intermittent access to early Christian women in texts we do have limits what can be said. We are constrained by historical distance; what can we say about the “real” Macrina, or about what it “really” meant to be a woman like Monica in the second through fifth centuries? Moreover, these limitations relate to selectivity: who is telling us their stories, and whose stories do they choose to tell? We have little to no access to women who were not wealthy and of aristocratic birth, for instance. These limitations shape our reading of the texts and cause us to leave many questions unanswered. On the other hand, and fortunately, these texts invite fruitful exploration in both their questions and their challenges. Limitations are no excuse, therefore, to pass by women in early Christianity.
For the late fourth and early fifth century, we have two famous examples of men who wrote about women: Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 395) and Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Augustine articulates an internal imperative to remember his mother, Monica: “But I will not pass over anything that my soul brings forth concerning that servant of yours who brought me forth from her flesh to birth in this temporal light, and from her heart to birth in light eternal” (Conf. 9.8.17). Gregory of Nyssa expresses a similar sentiment, that his sister Macrina not be, as he puts it, “passed by ineffectually, veiled in silence” (Vit. Macr. 1.5).
Thus, out of the many named and unnamed women of late antique Christianity we may feel we know Macrina and Monica rather well. A brother and a son, respectively, rendered portions of their lives with great affection (even tinged with awe) and gave them “voice.” In both Life of Macrina and On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory portrays himself (and his brothers) as beholden to his sister’s guidance in matters both personal and philosophical. The Life of Macrina culminates in a lengthy deathbed scene in which Macrina is praised for her wisdom and profound intelligence. The scene, which is expanded upon in On the Soul and the Resurrection, is artfully constructed to be reminiscent of Socrates’s death in the Phaedo and even to present Macrina as surpassing the worldly philosopher in wisdom. Augustine and Gregory’s texts, therefore, offer further opportunities to consider the legacies of women in early Christian texts that feature them.
Macrina (ca. 327–379)
Written after her death, sometime between 380 and 383, Gregory’s Life of Macrina introduces us to a strong and devout woman and her powerful and devout family in Cappadocia. Her large family included brothers who became bishops: Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, and Peter of Sebaste. Gregory, Basil, and Basil’s best friend from his schooling in Athens, Gregory of Nazianzus, were the primary architects of the Council of Constantinople in 381. Macrina also had a fourth brother, Naucratius, who, along with Basil, followed in their father’s footsteps and received formal rhetorical training. Just as his career was beginning, Naucratius left to embrace a remote life of prayer and poverty. After Naucratius’s sudden death in a hunting accident, the youngest son, Peter, forwent any rhetorical training and was educated at home by Macrina. She assumed a great amount of responsibility for her family after her father’s death and became the spiritual mentor of the household, educating and comforting. She was also an ascetic entrepreneur who cultivated a devoted community in her Cappadocian locale. One might wonder: what it was like for her to live with such brothers? As Gregory of Nyssa informs us, however, Macrina was their father, mother, teacher, adviser, and guardian, among many other things. So, perhaps the question should be put another way: what was it like for those brothers to live with such a sister?
Unfortunately, we do not really know. As illuminating as such texts may (or may not) be, all we have is Gregory’s rendering of Macrina. Such absence, however, is not empty silence. The fact that we do not have any material from these women offers the opportunity to ask a complementary set of questions about the consequences of this limitation for understanding the contributions of women in early Christianity. How we do read texts that feature women in ways that allow their particularity to emerge even when we cannot access direct information from those texts? Allowing the questions and challenges of reading these texts to remain in the foreground prevents us from automatically favoring the male author’s version of these women. If we do not acknowledge such distance and difficulties, we run the risk of erasing women like Macrina completely by not granting them the agency to exceed male-authored representations of them. Thankfully, we did not have to start from square one with such challenges. We had the benefit of work by, for example, Elizabeth Clark, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Ross Kraemer and Kim Haines-Eitzen, all of whom asked similar questions and offered theoretical and methodological ways forward.
Augustine’s mother Monica offers us another opportunity to think about how women were represented in early Christian writings. Two of Augustine’s earliest works (On the Happy Life and On Order) feature Monica as a participant in philosophical discussions, with wisdom due to her stalwart faith. Additionally, in his Confessions (begun in 397), Augustine recognizes Monica’s voice had spoken on behalf of God throughout his troubled youth. Through their relationship, each came to new understandings of God. Thus, Augustine’s remembrance of his mother threads throughout his retrospective account of his journey back to Christianity. His journey is intertwined with his mother’s; Monica’s story is Augustine’s story, and vice versa.
In fact, while Augustine mentions several people who either assisted his journey back to God or traveled along with him, it is clear from the Confessions that his mother was his mainstay. Augustine compares Monica’s long-suffering tenacity and trust for his eventual conversion to Christianity to God’s guardianship of his life. Monica certainly physically labored to bring him into the world, but Augustine declares with grateful awe: “With far more anxious solicitude did she give birth to me in the spirit than ever she had in the flesh.” (Conf. 5.9.16) Augustine’s relationship with his mother was not perfect, of course; at times he chafed under the pressure of her sometimes myopic and rigid vision for his life. In remembering Monica, though, Augustine recognizes her voice as God’s voice in the silence and as the beacon that helped guide him on his return. In the Confessions, we meet a force of nature in Monica. Augustine’s Monica is also surprisingly relatable, not cast as an unassailable saint or seemingly interested in being one. According to Augustine, she drew from the deep well of a cultivated inner life and vigorously clung to her conviction that Augustine would become a man of faith. She was also relentless, following him as he moved to new geographical places as well as new ideological places and always seeking advocates or angles to provoke him to faith.
In the modern world, women in positions of power are often described derogatively as “domineering” or “bossy.” Within late antiquity, women like Monica often exerted less-official, relational power that is equally open to denigration and aspersions. Nevertheless, referring (as some have, especially in popular renderings) to Monica as the “queen of helicopter parents,” a nag (a common epithet leveled specifically against women in familial relationships), or even, jokingly, a “stalker” amounts to a misunderstanding of both Monica and Augustine. Augustine and Monica certainly had their issues—stubbornness and bouts of drama certainly run in that family—but to belittle their relationship in such terms does a disservice both to the texts and to what Augustine is trying to convey. Monica is the key to his journey back to God; without her, the Augustine we know does not come into view. Throughout the Confessions, we get the sense that Monica’s pursuit, even when parochially hued, felt in retrospect like God’s love and mercy following him all his days (Ps. 23:6), conscientiously prodding Augustine’s “unquiet” heart, even while it propelled him to search for a mentor in Manichaeism, for camaraderie among friends, for sexual fulfillment, and for answers in Neoplatonism. For Augustine, Monica’s relentlessness was God’s relentlessness.
Christian Women in the Patristic World aims to introduce readers to how women contributed to the complex development of Christianity in the first five centuries CE. We set out to tell the stories of these early Christian women in an engaging way, while also directing readers to important questions about the texts and their contexts. Our approach does not lament and dismiss the church fathers as hopelessly misogynistic, nor does it assume a naive, pious perspective on the evidence. Both extremes fail to deal analytically with the sources. We understand that the visual and textual representation of a woman may be grounded in the events of her life, and also that such representation could informed the religious identity of the community that embraced the figure. This approach was not without its challenges but ultimately there is a lot we can say both critically and responsibly about early Christian women’s theological influence, authority, and legacy.
See Elizabeth A. Clark, “Holy Women, Holy Words: Early Christian Women, Social History, and the ‘Linguistic Turn.’” JECS 6 (1998): 413–30 and History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Women and Word: Texts by and about Women,” in The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature, Frances Young, Lewis Ayres, and Andrew Louth, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 382–90; Ross Shepard Kraemer, Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender, and History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Kim Haines-Eitzen, The Gendered Palimpsest: Women, Writing, and Representation in Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
For an overview of some perspectives in modern scholarship that tend to distort Monica, see Judith Cherlis Clark, “To Remember Self, to Remember God: Augustine on Sexuality, Relationality, and the Trinity,” 262–63 and Anne-Marie Bowery, “Monica: The Feminine Face of Christ,” 71–73 in Feminist Interpretations of Augustine, Judith Chelius Stark, ed. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).
Amy Brown Hughes is assistant professor of theology at Gordon College. This post is adapted from her new book, co-authored with Lynn H. Cohick, Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries (Baker Academic, 2017).