This book had taken me much longer to finish than it ought to. I don’t think that it has helped that I’ve started and finished about 4 books while reading it. I suppose that is my own fault. This review gets entirely tl;dr. For that I apologize. If you’d like a super short summary here’s this. Very interesting arguments about Early Christianity. There are logical flaws, and a bit too much information about Greco-Roman gender roles but over all very informative and a good read for feminists and religious scholars alike. It also should be noted that while I took forever to read this book, it really shouldn’t have since it was well written and in a pretty conversational tone, considering the subject matter. Now onto the long review!
When Women Were Priests Karen Jo Torjesen is one of the most popular books about Women Priests in Early Christianity. There has been, not an exceeding amount, but a fair amount of recent scholarship since the 70’s that maintains that there were ordained women priests during the 1st-4th centuries. The book is actually structured very interestingly, starting narrow and branching wider. Torjensen begins by bringing up the few scraps of information about women priests in this era. The most famous is the one that graces the cover. It is a mosaic depicting four women, two are saints, one is Mary the mother of Jesus and the fourth is listed as “Theodora Episcopa.” Episcopa is the female version of the latin episcopus or bishop. There are a few other examples, scraps of paper associating a female name with a title like priest or bishop. It’s a tough game proving women were ordained. Much of that information is lost to the ages.
Torjesen also brings up some interesting scripture Acts 16:11-15 tells the story of a woman named Lydia who was converted. The Bible stats that she was “a dealer in purple cloth” a luxury item at the time. What is nice about Torjesen is that she extrapolates from the few lines of biblical text to give more context to the story. She talks about the culture of the time to say that Lydia would have been a wealthy merchant. She has her own house and servants and there is no mention of a husband, which means she was probably a widow. Torjesen talks about how when Lydia converted her entire household of servants, slaves and family would have been converted along with her. She then goes on to talk about how often the Jewish communities in the Roman Empire were viewed like private clubs. The religion was something that select groups participated in and often it was in a private home. If Paul was invited into her home then it can be suggested that the place of worship would have been there as well, giving Lydia quite a bit of power over the early community. Torjesen adds that “the church at Philippi was not only founded by a woman, its leadership continued in the hands of women.” Paul’s later letters were addressed to three women leaders in that community.
Now Torjesen is probably correct in this assumption, based on writings and scholarship about the period, but she has taken 4 lines of text and turned them into a much large picture about this women. If one favors a very strict biblical exegesis that might be assigning too much meaning to the passage, however it is difficult to read the Bible today as we don’t really understand the context it was written in. We no longer live in various conquered colonies of ancient Rome and can’t speak to the customs of the time. I, personally, favor a looser exegesis that incorporates modern translations and scholarship about the time, so I really enjoyed Torjesen’s interpretations. (That and I’m pretty sure there were women priests so I’m biased)
It’s only really the first chapter that gives concrete examples of women in early Christianity. She is able to add some more examples from the Gnostic Gospels, but these books were declared heretical during the 5th century. As such they hold little authority for more conservative religious scholars. The bulk of the book is made up of using comparative examples. I think the “thesis” of the book is really that there women priests in early Christianity, but as it became a larger, more popular and, most importantly, a public religion, Greco-Roman gender standards had to be imposed on the religion. This is the very traditional public/private male/female honor/shame dichotomy that persists to this day. I was struck by how many of these ideas about gender we still cling to today, in part because Christianity adopted them and Christianity is still influencing so much of the morals of Western Society. The idea that women belong in the home, that a woman cannot speak in public. That she can’t be involved in politics of any kind of public life. The idea that a woman’s honor is based on her shame, i.e. that her honor is based on her sexuality and a woman who has sex has shame and no honor. Torjesen contends that as Christianity became more public there could no longer be any room for women in public roles as it was seen as dishonorable.
It’s kind of a shame that to reach these conclusions she has to rely on comparative examples. She talks a great deal about Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus and mother of Tiberius. Livia was a woman with quite a bit of political power and many details about her life recorded by writers of the time. In this way Torjesen can use an example of a woman who was able to function in the male public world and extrapolate that to women of Early Christianity. Of course this just proves that is was possible for some women to exert public power and is not an actual example of women in the Early Church.
The other large portion of her book talks about the various Christian scholars who spoke out against women in Church. She contends that if they didn’t find some problems, of examples of what they perceived as inappropriate behavior, they wouldn’t have had to write against it. You can see how that can be some torturous logic. (Although, I don’t think you can completely discount her logic.) Tertullian is particularly fun to read, as he disliked women so much. His name will be familiar to anyone who was read Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels. Part of his attacks on the Gnostic Christians was their elevation of women and of Mary Magdalene. She also speaks about some of the rationales behind Augustine, in a chapter delightfully titled “Sin is a Sexually Communicable Disease.” Much of our problems with sexuality can be directly traced back to Augustine’s writings. Augustine believed that our original sin was that we could no longer use the rational mind to control our base urges which resulted in sexuality. Since sexuality is used to create children, Original Sin was passed from generation to generation through sex. Women were often seen as an embodiment of sex and sexual urges, Torjesen maintains that this stems from men’s primary interactions with women that were based on sexuality. I’m not sure I buy that in a day to day manner, but I can see how those interactions could color a society and affect gender roles. Either way this lays the foundation for the argument that a woman’s body is inherently sinful. Something the Catholic Church maintains a bit to this day. If anything this has reaffirmed my desire to read Augustine’s writings since so much of the Church’s doctrine can be traced to him.
The book concludes with a chapter based entirely on Gimbutas’ theory about a peaceful, mother-centric proto-society. The theory Gimbutas put forward in the 70’s was that our ancestors were peaceful and matrilineal until the terrible war loving patriarchal societies conquered them and introduced their war-loving sky god. This theory has come under fire in the last ten years, and really isn’t quite as credible as Torjesen would have us believe. I was upset to see the book end here, as I felt that it undid so much of the good work she had done earlier in the book. Although Gimbutas’ theory does have some very interesting points, I couldn’t help but feel that Torjesen was using the Kurgan Hypothesis to validate women’s claims to the priesthood just as the Goddess movement has done in the last 30 years.
Despite the criticisms I still deeply enjoyed the book and found it fascinating. I agree with Torjesen more often than not. Personally I’m in favor of women being ordained (I think this argument will define the Chruch in the 21st century). I believe that there were probably what we would call priests in early Christianity. I think Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus played a much larger leadership role after Jesus’ death. I think that there were alternate branches of Christianity that respected and could have even worshiped the Divine Feminine alongside with Jesus Christ. I believe that evidence of these other groups was sanitized by Church historians. This book definitely gave me a lot to think about regarding women in the Church and their history therein.
I give it 3 out of 5 sexually transmitted sins.