by Tim Pearce
from Signs of theTimes No. 54 - Jul 2014

The names of the men of the early church in the first centuries after the Crucifixion are comparatively well-known. How would you do in a quiz on these names?

Chloe, Prisca, Phoebe, Junia, Lydia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Thecla, Matthidia, Perpetua, Helena, Proba, Olympias, Eudoxia, Macrina, Marcella, Paula, Eustochium, Egeria, Poemenia, Eugenia, Melantia, Syncletica, Theodora, Sarah, Melania, Pulcheria, Eudokia.

(The only one I could have shown any real knowledge of before reading this book is the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine.)

Some are actually little more than one-mention names, some are partly fictional but many are well-recorded in actual history. Kate Cooper weaves all of them into an account of the importance of women in the emergence of the early church in the first to the fifth centuries.

The book is predicated on two general points. The author’s background is the southern states of the USA and she describes the huge importance of women in the earlier days as family-builders and memory-holders but without leaving any written accounts of what they did. She also reminds us that all of Paul’s teaching was based on the assumption that Jesus Christ would return in his lifetime, so that preparation for the Second Coming was hugely more important that preparation for any future on earth. This largely accounts for the emphasis on virginity which has not always been understood in that context.

The early part of the book deals with women who are named in the New Testament and in related early texts. She stresses that the spread of Christianity took place among village people and traders from remote provinces of the Roman Empire, with the emphasis on the spread of the faith through hospitality and family gatherings. The women, such as Lydia, the seller of purple, were often prosperous householders in their own right and could therefore provide the setting for travelling apostles such as Paul to meet their families and friends. In the first century ‘services’ were simply communal meals (often followed by readings, prayers, hymns and a homily - especially from a visiting Apostle) in the main room or courtyard of a family, much as our Agape Supper is today. Christianity had then no church buildings and no institutional organisation.

Cooper admits that an interpretation of women’s role in the first century after the crucifixion requires an exercise of the imagination. Sometimes, as in the case of St Thecla, accounts which have a sense of fiction about them have to be sifted for the underlying spiritual significance. In other cases, such as Perpetua of Carthage, personal records can supply a much clearer impression of the extraordinary ways in which women suffered for their faith and were arguably braver than men around them.

The account changes when we reach the Empress Helena and her son Constantine. Once the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion, the creation of Christian institutions began and the simple primitive faith became tangled up with issues of rank and status and wealth. The older and simpler faith then led to the development of separated communities of women pursuing the ideals of virginity, such as Macrina, the sister of Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa. The Dialogue of the Soul and Resurrection, written by Gregory, casts Macrina in the role of philosopher-teacher in the manner of Sophocles in the Phaedo.

The final part of the book deals with the eminent Christian women in Roman society in the fourth and fifth centuries. Many of them were pilgrims to the Holy Land and founders of spiritual centres After the fall of the Western Empire, the faith found its greatest areas of strength in the Eastern Empire in Constantinople and what we now know as Turkey. A period of great stability in the first half of the fifth century under the emperor Theodosius II was largely the responsibility of his extraordinarily gifted sister Pulcheria.

This is not perhaps a book to read quickly. It is full of extraordinary insights which need to be thought about and absorbed and there is some difficulty at times in keeping the names in mind, especially when the same name is carried by several different people. Cooper provides a useful family tree for the Eastern emperors at the time of Theodosius I & II. Something similar would have been helpful earlier in the book. There is an extensive bibliography and full notes for further reading.