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Published Date: February 24, 2023

Book Info

Book Review: Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership

In Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, Ally Kateusz examines the portrayal of women in the early centuries of the church through art and literature. As the subtitle suggests, she finds in these opaque years evidence of women functioning as leaders in the church, performing the same functions as those who today “are called pastors, priests, presbyters, presidents, ministers, deacons, bishops, or archbishops” (189). However, few Christians today have heard of women fulfilling these roles. Rather, they often hear what one of the author’s friends heard from her priest: “Be submissive, like the Virgin” (1). To the author, this shows a “false imagination of the past,” and given the role of the past in shaping current practices, it is vitally important that our imagination be corrected. Kateusz’s friend suffered domestic abuse, leading her to wonder, “would my friend’s submission to a violent man have happened if her priest had taught the girls about the early Christian Mary?” The motive for the book, then, reaches far beyond scholarly interest: “It was for little girls that I did this research” (190). Kateusz believes that when we uncover the hidden leadership of women in the church, we will see that “no church can exclude women from its leadership and remain true to its origins” (190).

The goal of correcting our imaginations immediately runs into the roadblocks of historical research. There is simply not that much to go on when researching early Christian women for a number of reasons including losses inflicted by time, censorship, and the intentional destruction of information. Utilizing the tools of redaction analysis, Kateusz focuses on how the texts and artworks we do have were edited or changed. Prior to the printing press, essentially every time a text was copied it morphed in some way, whether this was an intentional effort of the scribe or an accident. Similarly, many ancient artworks were at times covered up, moved to different locations, or otherwise altered. For either piece of work, these changes may be insubstantial, or might change the entire meaning.

Part of the task Kateusz sets for herself in this book is making determinations about what was changed (and therefore, what was original), why it was changed, and why it matters. But she does not go about this in the usual way, arguing that “scholars have misapplied an old rule-of-thumb that was applied to New Testament texts — lectio brevior potior — that is, the shortest reading is the preferred reading—and applied it to all early Christian texts, including narratives about women… I will demonstrate that, au contraire, the longest, fullest, most detailed narratives about early Christian women leaders are usually the oldest” (20). Her motive for taking this approach is her understanding of what editors were doing when they changed texts about women: rather than trying to explain a problematic passage by adding information—a not-infrequent occurrence when scribes copied the Bible1—Kateusz believes that scribes were more likely to remove references to women leaders in texts. The main reason for this excision would have been to conform the texts to a “later Christian gender model” (23). In other words, once women’s subordination became orthodoxy, anything suggesting otherwise had to go.

Kateusz goes to great lengths to show, successfully, that many of the documents and artworks we have today suffered intentional changes to remove or revise references to women as leaders. Examining everything from catacombs and carvings to artifacts both liturgical and literary, she finds solid evidence that women were leaders in many “Jesus communities” (Kateusz uses this and other phrases which she does not explain, but which I take to be her way of including expressions of Christianity which are now considered both orthodox and heretical. It is important to remember that some of the sources she consults were likely written prior to canonization of the Bible, and much of the Christian theology we have today was still being debated at church councils). However, how widespread women’s leadership was remains a problematic point throughout the book. Many times, Kateusz can only suggest probabilities and chances, a commendable approach, given the nature of historical studies and the ease with which a researcher can stretch the facts (Kateusz points to examples of this from those looking to discredit women’s leadership). However, there are times when Kateusz goes beyond the evidence, though this can be difficult to parse for the non-specialist in history and art. For instance, when a work promoting a woman’s leadership is censored, it was not necessarily censored for reasons concerning gender. Similarly, many pieces of art are ambiguous, and some require more precise dating than we currently have to understand their message.

Overall, the book is well researched, though the writing is a little choppy and can be difficult to follow. Its major weakness is the weakness of the sources and some liberties taken by the author in asking and answering “why?” questions; however, the book succeeds in showing that women were leaders in the early church. What about the claim, then, that “no church can exclude women from its leadership and remain true to its origins?” The origins of any institution are always disputed, involving not only descriptive history but also value judgments. Determining whether or not the origins of the church include women in leadership requires one to determine what and who the church is, and that involves drawing some lines theologically, something beyond the scope of Kateusz’s book. But for those who deny any significant leadership roles for women in church history, the book provides a refutation and a challenge to acknowledge the full breadth of the history of the church and its leaders.

Notes

  1. Kateusz cites a number of prominent scholars who have recently argued that omissions are in fact more common than additions in the transmission of the biblical text, supporting her approach (see pp. 22-23).