I went looking for a diverting read last weekend to give my head a bit of space from Hebrew and came across Redeemed Bodies: Women Martyrs in the Early Church. I had expected it to be a compendium of stories about women martyrs but instead discovered that it was a piece of feminist scholarship on the matter and not a read for the faint-hearted! It was a fascinating read but quite technical so this is my (hopefully more accessible) version.
Gail P C Streete takes two stories of women martyrs from the 2nd-4th centuries CE – the stories of Perpetua and Thecla. They’re part of the New Testament apocrypha – books that didn’t make it into the Bible because they weren’t recognised as inspired (e.g. being used by all churches, being written early enough, having apostolic authority, etc.) Streete wants to find out how the early church received, passed on and understood these stories, so it’s a bit like doing investigation work, trying to work out what’s going on behind the scenes. One of her assumptions is that these stories do not accurately portray how women were perceived. Rather, they say things about how men portrayed how women should be perceived (confused yet?) It’s basically the idea that if a bloke writes the story, it obscures the ‘woman’s voice’ because the voice writing / telling the story is male.
My summary of Streete’s reading is as follows:
- There were masculine and feminine characteristics upheld in the culture of the time. Men were courageous, virile and self-controlled; women were chaste and quiet.
- If women wanted to be martyred (i.e. to have their bodies ‘redeemed’) they had to become like men – courageous, self-controlled, etc.
- Martyrdom for women didn’t always mean dying. Thecla is the example here. She offered herself to be martyred but God rescues her on multiple occasions; Before and after her rescues, she dedicated herself to an ascetic life – giving up a female role in marriage and family to be the bride of Christ (or maybe Paul!). For Thecla, this also meant taking on the male role of an apostle, preacher and teacher. She even baptised herself!
- But women taking on male roles was dicey for the social structures of the time so the male re-telling of these stories emphasised that they were still women with a focus on their bodies and family ties. For example, Perpetua gives up her infant child so that she can be martyred (becoming masculine i.e. not a mother) but the story of her martyrdom draws attention to her ‘dripping breasts’ (graphic, I know!) to remind everyone that she’s a woman. The idea is that even in saying these women were amazing, the male writers reinforce the limitations of their female bodies and hence the status quo notion that women were weaker.
- She also has an interesting chapter on modern day tales of women’s martyrdom, including female suicide bombers.
Streete argues that there was an understanding at the time that women could be saved only if they became men – based on the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. This is clearly a Gnostic text which means it’s a little inaccurate to portray it as ‘Christian’. Certainly Gnosticism was in the mix of discussion in early Christianity but to base a Christian understanding on a Gnostic text is like conceiving of a Big Mac only in terms of the pickle: it’s not the full picture and treating it that way obscures the rest. It’s not an appropriate lens for exploring this issue.
There’s something of a conspiracy theory ring to this type of scholarship, trying to mine beneath the sources to discover the true motivations of those who have doctored the stories. Certainly there were different versions of the stories: Perpetua was probably a real person; on the other hand, Thecla and the ‘Paul’ she associates with belong to that fuzzy legendary category you might associate with figures like Robin Hood. It’s interesting to work out what that story meant to different people at different times, but her contention that women’s bodies are the battleground for opposing ideologies is pretty hypothetical. That’s what I thought of this book in general: interesting but speculative.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.