Book Review by Sr. Diana Culbertson, OP
Do Christian women exercise any authority in the Church? The question raises multiple difficulties, not least of which is the strength of women’s voices in the Church today—and throughout Christian history. Sister Christine Schenk raises this problematic question in her extensive research into the role of women in the first five centuries of Christianity. And what does that history tell us about the role of women in the Church today? The answer is both complex and revelatory. The thesis of the author’s analysis is that funerary art is more indicative of the role of women in the early Church than are the written records. Arguing that history based exclusively on written records will testify to the ideas of men, Schenk points out that data about the lives of women is difficult to access. But visual imagery_--funerary art, especially—reveals much about the role of women in the early Church. Pointing out that for Romans a sarcophagus was a monument “filled with meaning,” Schenk demonstrates how revelatory early Christian monuments can be .
Schenk argues convincingly in this historical analysis that many women in the early centuries of Church history were viewed by their contemporaries as “persons of authority with significant religious influence. ” Some held titles suggestive of a kind of ecclesiastical authority: diakonos,episcopa-- at least as those titles were understood in the early Church. The aim of Schenk’s impressive historical analysis is “to retrieve the memory of influential women whose witness has for too long been invisible. . . .”
Arguing that history relies heavily on written records—most, if not all of which were written by men--Schenk argues that art and archaeology disclose more about the lives of women in early Christianity than do the texts of male historians. But art must be interpreted. Crispina and Her Sisters is a powerful example of how enlightening such an interpretation can be. The catacombs of Priscilla, for example, reveal the roles and influence of women in the early Church. Women were memorialized as learned in Scripture and as leaders in the Christian community. The funerary art of the fourth century indicates that mythological allegories had disappeared. Early in the century, only 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire was Christian, but by the middle of the century, over half the population was Christian.
Funerary art tells us how Christians interpreted death—and life beyond death even as it reveals something of the life of the entombed believer.
The question posed in this extensive analysis of early Christian funerary art focuses especially on one concern: did fourth century Christian women exercise spiritual and religious authority? Numerous illustrations in the text exemplify Schenk’s analysis of the role of women in early Christianity. Detailed analysis of sarcophagi ( hand and speech gestures, clothing, facial expressions ) supports the author’s claim that women exercised significant -- often authoritative --ministries in the first centuries of Christianity.
Especially pertinent to this analysis of the liturgical and scholarly roles of women in the early centuries of Church history are the vignettes of specific Christian women, such as Macrina, Marcella and Paula, Melania, and Julia. We are reminded of their exemplary influence in the first centuries of the Church and the power of their witness to a world struggling then—as now—with the rival claims of secularism and disbelief.
Crispina and Her Sisters is powerful testimony to the role of women in the Church, their heroic fidelity and their witness to the message of the Gospel. Schenk’s study of the authority of women in early Christianity reminds us of the call of all Christians to preach the Gospel, to testify—even in danger or inconvenience—to the Word, and to see ourselves as part of the long journey of Christians—men and women-- to the Kingdom.