THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Greg Carey Headshot

Kate Cooper Introduces Early Christian Women

Posted: Updated:

women christianity

I don't quite know another book like this one. Kate Cooper's Band of Angels introduces us to dozens of early Christian women from the church's first five centuries. Historians will recognize many of them, seminary graduates and religious studies majors may know several, and ordinary readers who are curious about the lives of early Christian women will meet almost all of them for the first time. Cooper's study includes celebrated saints like Thecla, and women who managed imperial households, such as Pulcheria. It acknowledges largely forgotten leaders like Chloe, who require us to build inferences from scanty information (1 Corinthians 1:11), and revered figures like Eugenia, who probably never existed yet inspired generations. Monks, martyrs and patrons join virgins, mothers and sisters in this expansive and loving casting call.

We've heard several versions of the Christian story. One narrative celebrates the movement's expansion from a tiny ethnic sect into a grand ecumenical church. Another version begins with an egalitarian Jesus movement that grows more patriarchal, more authoritarian and more dogmatic as it seeks to survive a hostile Roman context. That story might uncover the hidden roles of early Christian women, tracing both their growing suppression and their persistent agency. Still another narrative identifies Constantine as its fulcrum, a transformation from a movement relatively vulnerable and untamed to Christendom, the establishment religion of empire.

Cooper, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Manchester, is familiar with all these story lines. But she chooses to wrap her story around the lives of individual women, weaving their lives into the flow of political and doctrinal developments. We observe struggles over women's leadership in the churches associated with Paul, including those that invoked the apostle's name after his death. We meet Helena, Constantine's mother. We watch monasticism establish itself in Byzantium, the empire's eastern capitol, which survives even Rome's fall.

One great gift of this book involves women's agency. Contrary to the worn-out canard that Roman women "were just property," Cooper explains how Roman law allowed widows and even daughters control over property and wide room for influence. As the book moves into the fourth and fifth centuries, we lose track of individual "ordinary" women whose stories are largely lost to us (we do, however, visit twenty thousand women in an Egyptian monastic community -- men as well as women turned to them for spiritual direction). Instead, we encounter women of means. These women are born or marry into imperial and senatorial households. They manage palace intrigue, venture great pilgrimages, favor some bishops over others, and support monastic and charitable institutions. We learn how some of these prominent women forever shaped doctrine and devotion: Pulcheria promoted the cult of the Virgin Mary, eventually defeating Nestorius by establishing Mary as Theotokos, which means God-bearer, Mother of God.

The most important woman in Cooper's account is a virgin named Thecla. Devotion to Saint Thecla spread wildly throughout the Mediterrean world. The second century Acts of Paul and Thecla introduces Thecla as the daughter of a prominent household, who is betrothed to an equally prominent young man named Thamyris. Thecla, however, overhears the preaching of Paul, whose message emphasizes the call to celibacy. Thecla abandons Thamyris, shaming his family and hers and provoking them to call for her martyrdom. Miraculously delivered in this instance, and again when she provokes the wrath of another would-be lover, Thecla pursues Paul and eventually converts even her mother.

Thecla's story is well known, and Cooper chooses not to dwell on it. We have no idea how much history it contains, if any, but Thecla's example influences most of the women we meet in the second half of the book. Why is it that so many women, especially elite women, chose to pursue monastic lives?

The monastic movements bring forth a second gift from Cooper: her reflection on the material realities that confronted ancient women. In the Roman world women typically married as soon as they could bear children, and they almost always married men who were quite older. No one would have blinked at the marriage of a thirteen year-old girl to a twenty-five year-old man. Moreover, women were expected to have babies. Many children died in infancy, so women had to complete several pregnancies simply to sustain the population level. No wonder many, many women died before the age of thirty. Celibacy offered a radical possibility by which women might guard their freedom -- and their health. These realities explain why the Egyptian monastic community we meet has 20,000 women compared to 10,000 men.

Cooper is working from uneven evidence, materials that are by turns fragmentary or fictional. In her effort to compose a single coherent narrative, Cooper sometimes narrates too much. She frequently speculates as to the motives of her subjects. For example, Cooper introduces the influential family of Macrina and her brothers Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great. Gregory credits his sister with influencing Basil to choose the monastic life. Cooper guesses that Gregory was motivated by Macrina's relative anonymity and Basil's great fame to emphasize her role -- but how would we know (on page 182)? Trying to imagine how a nine year-old Pulcheria could protect her very vulnerable little brother, heir to the throne, Cooper speculates that somehow this girl "was able to mobilize a coalition of grown-ups." After all, parents know how charming and fierce a nine year-old girl can be (page 258). When she describes Paul as a "spellbinding" orator (page 14), readers may recall that some, perhaps Paul himself, claimed the apostle wasn't so spiffy in person (2 Corinthians 10:10). This sort of thing occurs throughout the book. If I find it distracting, I also remember how hard it would be to write such a book without filling in the gaps in the story.

Cooper has presented us with a wide-ranging, informative study. I admire her learning and her guidance, and she knows how to lead an audience. I am especially grateful that she chose to follow the lives of individual women rather than to build an abstract argument.