This week begins a run of talks and readings I’m giving in the UK and the US to try to get people to see how different early Christianity looks if you think about it from the point of view of women and families. Thinking about the daily life of women in the Roman provinces in the first centuries AD – and why they might have wanted to join the Christian movement – is important, because so much modern discussion of Christianity assumes that only men counted in the ancient world.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. (Which – in a nutshell – is the idea behind Band of Angels.) The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities kindly invited me to kick off my November marathon with a roundtable (to view a podcast of the discussion click here). We took as our theme one of the most important questions that I had to address in the book – how much can we know about the women and children of the ancient world, when all of our sources were preserved by monasteries – not only by men for the most part (though a small number of medieval nunneries also made and preserved books) but – even more disturbingly – by men who vowed to stay away from women?
We were lucky to have a very lively group musing together on this question – Selina Todd, a modern historian who works with oral traditions, Bettany Hughes, an ancient historian who has become a story-teller through her work for the BBC, and Tim Whitmarsh, a classicist who has written fascinating studies on the rise of fiction in the ancient world, and of course Yours Truly.
When I wrote The Virgin and the Bride some years ago, I was worried by the fact that people in those days didn’t take into account the fact that stories about women are often very stylized, and in fact they often tell you more about the person who was telling the story than the person whom the story was about. (The axiom that stories tend to carry a trace of the people who told them is in fact quite important to ancient historians and biblical scholars.)
But over the years I have begun to discover how important it is to help people see how many traces of women’s lives and experiences – and of their contribution – have survived from the ancient world. This is not to say we know everything we would want to about ancient women – but we do know enough to dispel many misconceptions. And it’s almost always worth trying to understand the full range of possibilities the evidence could support, even when we aren’t sure which of them actually happened.
These kinds of issues become really important when one considers modern issues, such as the debate on women bishops, where an idea of ‘the world of the Bible’ is actually central to claims about how life in modern Britain should be organized. Should the Church of England enjoy legal protection of its right to discriminate against women in its leadership structure, for example? Modern discussions often suggest that ‘there are only male bishops in the Bible’ – but this, of course, is wildly inaccurate. In fact, there are NO bishops in the Bible in the sense that the Church of England now recognizes them – the episcopacy as we know it in the modern world is the product of an evolution that took place between the fourth and sixteenth centuries – an entirely un-Biblical institution.
This has always been one of the reasons history is so important – people who want to defend injustice often argue that ‘things have always been this way’, and it’s very useful to be able to catch them red-handed when that simply isn’t true.
But reaching back to the stories of the ancient world is important for other reasons as well. One of the things that has become clearer than ever to scholars in recent years, is how strongly the early Christian movement relied on the small-scale every-day choices of men, women, and children to develop and take root in the ancient Mediterranean – and it seems to have been through stories told among friends and in families, and passed along on friendship and family networks, that Christianity spread.
The idea of a community based on faith, hope, and charity – to use the words of St Paul – seems to have been one of the truly ‘viral’ ideas of the ancient world. That women played a central role in this process has always been visible in the early Christian Gospels and in the letters of the Apostle Paul – but sometimes it is useful to look again at familiar stories, and to see them with new eyes.