I was privileged to have been gifted a copy of “Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries” by my husband for my birthday this year. It is a book that has been on my Amazon wish list for a very long time (does anyone else have an extraordinarily long Amazon wish list?!) and I was delighted to finally sit down to read it.
Sometimes books have a way of exhausting me. I start them with the greatest of intentions only for my interest to wane and the book to either lay lonely in its woeful unfinished state or for its undoubtedly rich (at least to its author) pages to be skipped to the final conclusions so I can solace myself that I did in fact finish that book. That being said, this was not the case with this book. From the moment I started, the authors brilliantly captured my imagination and my attention with their intellect and honesty. The book is thoughtful, well-written, and a fascinating read. As someone who had not previously really been exposed to much of the history of the church and particularly some of the women who impacted its early development, this book was a literal feast.
In the introduction, the authors are careful to note their own intents behind the project as well as the methods they employ in scanning, compiling, and interpreting the data. Throughout the book it is obvious to the reader the amount of time and effort that has been made to thoroughly research each figure, her contributions, her interactions, and her legacy. The authors skilfully introduce us to Thecla and the account of her faithfulness to Jesus in the midst of great persecution. The authors also present another tale of suffering and martyrdom in the retelling of the story of Perpetua and Felicitas. They recount the long pious travels of Egeria and the contributions of ascetics such as Macrina to the discourses of theology. They show the power struggle as the empire of Rome combines with the Christian teachings and tradition in figures such as Helena Augusta. They tell the stories of empress and poor, slave and free, virgin and mystic. Careful to avoid any strong conclusions on what implications the involvement of these women might have on polarizing discussions surrounding women’s involvement in the church today, the work they have done culminates as a beautiful tapestry showing the organic growth of the church in all of its ebb and flow and the recorded ways in which women interacted in this space. The authors’ exhortation in closing that we “responsibly remember” these women who had significant influence in some of the formative centuries of the Christian movement is moving and poignant.
From tales of heroic courage in the face of martyrdom to intellectual discussion surrounding important Christian doctrine, the stories of these women remind us that participation in the kingdom of God is not gender exclusive nor has it ever been. I feel like in a sense this book took me on a journey, a journey on the way I met a gathering of women whom I could now in some sense call friends. Women radically committed to following Jesus albeit within their own culture and understandings. It is a beautiful thought to me that I too can stand in this line of women, seeking to live in a way that also faithfully follows the teachings of Jesus in my own time and context.
I heartily recommend this book for its historical fairness, ease of reading, and the important information it highlights that has too often been neglected in the telling of our Christian history. This one will definitely be sitting on my shelf and being referred to for a long time to come!