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My friend, colleague, and collaborator in all things good at Wheaton College, Dr. Lynn Cohick, and her former student Amy Hughes have written an important and timely book on the role of many key women in church history in the second to fifth centuries (Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2017]). It has just been published and I’ve had a chance to read through much of it in digital form. I’m looking forward to getting my SIGNED copy when I return to Chicago in a couple of weeks.
When most of us took church history, we were introduced to dozens of men who defended the nascent community and/or led it during tumultuous times. Names like Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Justin Martryr, Athanasius, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine were just a few of the men we studied. But fortunately the record of many women who defended and led the church still exists, and there are scholars eager to tell their stories.
In their own words this “book will educate readers who are exploring the patristic period about the lives of the most important women from this period, so that their influence can be better integrated into the history of the church.” And that is the story they tell, a story of integration. They do not silence the men who contributed to the growth and development of the church, but they do correct them in gracious tones. I would characterize their approach to the evidence available as a “charitable feminism,” an advocacy for the role of women in church history as leaders, martyrs, examples in their own right, understood against a culture that in ways were hostile to women who dared to speak outside the private, domestic fear (though the male-public, female-private distinction is often overblown). Both Cohick and Hughes clearly appreciate the cultural limits placed people living in 1500-1800 years ago. Few of us have eyes to see beyond our own cultural limits.
If you are interested in church history—particularly the formative centuries that brought Christianity from its status as a persecuted sect to one of the most influential forces in the west—you will want to get and read this book. Don’t think you can claim any expertise in the history of Christianity, if you don’t take into account the contributions of Macrina, Felicitas, Thecla, Perpetua, Egeria, Helena and many others.
If you’d like to pick up your own copy, click here.
Here at the beginning of Advent are a few thoughts for you to consider.
Like a lot of people I tried reading the Bible through one year. I was in my teens and was working my way through the King James Bible. When I came to Matthew 1, often called “the Begat” chapter, I remember my eyes glazing over and skipping ahead. You see the first part of Matthew 1 is a carefully-crafted geneaology of Jesus. Here is how the beginning reads in the KJV:
1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;
3 And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram;
4 And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon;
The “begats” continue through three ranks of fourteen generations. I found the list of names terribly uninteresting and irrelevant so I scooted ahead. I knew little to nothing about these people and the whole thing seemed to be TMI–too much information.
Well, now I have a different perspective. I find the Begat chapter one of the most interesting and provocative chapters in Matthew’s Gospel. Let me give you a few reasons why. First, in a day when geneaologies did not include the names of women–despite their obvious importance in “begetting” children–Matthew includes the names of several key women to signal that in the Kingdom of God women will have a new and important role. Second, Matthew also included allusions to people with scandalous pasts. Tamar, for example, played the harlot and was impregnanted by her father-in-law. David fathered Solomon through the wife of another man, Uriah. Remember Bathsheba? Matthew could have ignored those embarrassing moments, instead he highlighted them and brought them front and center in order to show that Jesus would be a friend of sinners: an important theme in several of the Gospels. Third, Matthew underscores how Jesus’ family line includes non-Jews like Ruth the Moabite, grandmother to King David. She had converted to Judaism (see Ruth 1) and ultimately married into what would be a royal line. If the blood of the nations is already flowing in the family of Jesus, then it makes perfect sense that magi from the east would hurry to greet and worship the new born king and Matthew would end his account with the Great Commission. Go and make disciples of the nations.
There is more to the geneaology than this, but these are a few of the highlights. These may be just a list of names to us, but to Matthew and his first hearers they were their spiritual and physical ancestors. For him it was like opening up a family photo album and telling a few stories. And the best story was yet to come.