A distinguished ancient historian’s elegant study of the extraordinary women who helped lay the foundations of the early Christian church.
Most official historical writings about the early church have focused on how its male founders institutionalized biblical teachings and established hierarchies. As a result, the more humble, but no less important, contributions of women have largely been overshadowed. Cooper (Ancient History/Univ. of Manchester; The Fall of the Roman Household, 2008, etc.) offers a provocative glimpse into the lives of early Christian women by examining the legends and theological texts that, unlike the histories that were “preserved with institutional politics” in mind, served as tools for spiritual guidance. The earliest of these documents (from the first and second centuries) offer only fragmentary evidence of female contributions. Yet Cooper is able to weave compelling stories about such forgotten mothers of the church as Lydia, the “purple-seller” who helped the apostle Paul deliver his Christian message to people within the gentile community; the Galilean women Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Bethany, both of whom became the Gospel writer Luke’s symbols of enduring “commitment and loyalty” to Jesus; and the martyr Thecla, who defied a family imperative to marry so that she could spread the word of God. Later, third-century histories offer more detailed portraits of other historical women. Cooper suggests that these females, who were usually from the upper classes, used their wealth to found spiritual communities that would become models for the monasteries that would emerge as the church grew more institutionalized. In the fifth century, Byzantine Empress Pulcheria exerted enough influence on the church to help enshrine a Marian cult that would remain in place until the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium in 1453.
Engaging reading for specialists and general readers alike.