I’ve been catching up with an intriguing three part series called ‘Divine Women‘ in which Bettany Hughes looks back through the mists of history to bring into the light of day the important part women can be shown to have played in the development of religion. The link is now only to a 30 minute group of extracts. I’m posting this quickly so those in the UK who are interested can download it before it disappears on Friday.
In the first episode, When God was a Girl, she goes back for clues to a 12,000 year old site at Gobekli Tepe and what she described as the oldest religious building so far discovered. A nomadic people, with no complex settlement, had shifted 16 ton blocks of stone to erect it. She made the interesting observation that such a site preceding a settlement strongly suggests religion is key to forming human society rather than the other way round. In terms of her main thesis, the prominent position of the picture of a woman carved into the rock suggested that women played an important role in the religion of that time. She looks at the same trend continuing on the artefacts found at other site throughout the immediately succeeding millennia.
The next part Handmaids of the Gods, leapt to the age of the Greeks. Professor Judy Barrington could be seen declaring: ‘If you take women out of Greek religion, it’s basically empty.’ Then things get really interesting with the Romans and the rise of Christianity.
She begins with a text, not included in the Bible, that describes the acts of St Paul and Fekla (the Cyrillic form of the Greek ‘Thecla’ and the Latin ‘Tekla’). Bettany Hughes feels that the ‘end of the world’ emphasis of Paul’s message at the time would have released women from the burden of their traditional roles which suddenly ceased to matter. ‘Motherhood! Why bother?’ captures the feel of it. There’s no need to struggle to keep the population up when it’s all going to be over soon anyway. Even when the end of the world was seen not to be nigh at all the position of women was more firmly established. They were seen very much as equal in the early Christian Church.
50% of Rome’s early churches were apparently founded by women. As is widely recognised, in the catacombs there are images of women presiding over the Eucharist and one is clearly wearing an alb, a long white robe worn by priests and other ministers.
Perhaps the most telling moment in the whole of this programme came when Bettany Hughes spoke to Father Scott Brodeur at the Gregorian University in Rome. He prepares men for the priesthood. He quotes from St Paul to the Romans (16: 1-2) as follows:
1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.
2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
(This is not the wording in every translation: my own copy refers to her as a ‘servant.’ Others have his wording: see link for an example.) And Father Brodeur claims Paul was asking the Christians to be guided by her in understanding his message to them. This was in his view testimony to the real importance of her position in the early church.
She locates one of the key influences in reducing the status of women in the church to St Augustine, of ‘Lord, make me chaste but not yet’ fame. He apparently contended that the state of original sin is perpetuated by the sexual act that produces us. Because Eve had encouraged Adam to sin the role of women was increasingly sidelined and the history of the church rewritten to bring it into line with that version of reality. The Council of Nicea in 393 A.D. defined women as laity, setting its seal of approval on the relegation of women in the Western church.
In the east, covered in the third part, it was rather different. St Theodora, though vilified in the west, was admired in the east and played a huge role in the formation of the foundations, legal and religious, of the Byzantine Empire. To her is attributed the idea of ‘innocent until proved guilty’ for example. In early Islam also women such as Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Mohammad, and Aisha, his second wife, were central to the development of Islam in its early years.
When it comes around again as it probably will, this series is well worth a look.