Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Bettany Hughes Divine Women - Part 2

I've been watching Bettany Hughes - Divine Women. I do despair of this series. It plays fast and loose with context.

She cites the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and tells part of the story to show Christian women's attitude to sex, no longer needing for procreation, they were free to be virgins! And she mentions it as part of the movement in the Church against women - giving the misleading impression that was the reason that it was left out of the New Testament.

Crucially, what she doesn't mention is that this was known to be a fiction. These Acts were written in honour of St Paul, by a presbyter of Asia, whose fraud was found out, and he was degraded from his office, at a date about AD 160. That's all documented, and no one has ever disputed it.

Moreover, so far from reflecting the role of women, these Acts represented what a man thought women should be - holy virgins. Not to mention that part of the document's background is sloppy; to present these Acts as something deliberately excluded from the New Testament when it was known to be a fake is criminally misleading the average viewer.

When it comes to the Council of Nicaea, it is presented as "a tidying up exercise". Hardly that! Constantine was hoping to use the Church as a unifying force, only to find it tearing itself apart over what become known as the Arian controversy, about whether Christ was God (the Athanasius position) or one in purpose only (roughly the Arian position). Naturally, he called a council to try to resolve matters. That was the main reason. The Big Finish Audio drama "The Council of Nicaea" brings this home very forcibly.

While the Council met it did conduct "tidying up", such as deciding how the date of Easter was to be calculated, and other sundry matters, but these weren't why it met in the first place.

Another bit of tidying up concerned the Paulianists (a sect considered heretics). How were they to re-enter the Christian community if they wished to do so. The Council decided that any ordinations made by them were invalid, and that's where we get the section on women ordained (who are Paulianists):

"Likewise in the case of their deaconesses, and generally in the case of those who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity."

What the position is with non-Paulianists may be assumed to be negative with regard to deaconesses but that is an assumption. Nicaea doesn't say anything one way or the other.

Her take on Augustine as a misogynist fermenting ideas of original sin cause by procreation also were very glib. She didn't mention that his asceticism came about because after his libertine youth, he took up with a non-Christian ascetic sect called the Manicheans, and it may be that never left him.

Augustine wrote: "What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman. I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children."

What Hughes missed out was that between being a libertine and a Christian, Augustine converted to the sect called the Manicheans. This was a Gnostic version of Christianity, which rejected and scorned the Old Testament as being primitive and immoral, and selected from the New, especially the letters of Paul. The Old Testament bore the hallmarks of a sub-creator, an evil being (as was fairly typical in Gnosticism). On sexual matters, it taught Augustine the doctrine that sex was synonymous with darkness and bore the marks of the evil creator.

Once we know that background, which she misses out, a lot of his attitude about sexuality and women can be seen as a left over from his dalliance with Manichaeism before he became a Christian, and which was not sufficiently purged from his theology.

On the present day, she remarks that many of today's Christians do not think that women should have a place in the church, and speaks to a Catholic woman who takes the Vatican hard line very strongly. But a recent survey in Ireland suggests matters are not as uniform as she might think. 77% of Catholic lay people believe that women should be ordained to the priesthood. In a less robust survey carried out on radio, 70% of priests who called in favoured the ordination of women. But both figures show that the supposedly rock-solid Vatican position may be built on sand.

The series suffers from coming out a day after Mary Beard's Meet the Romans. The almost forensic skill in which Mary Beard brings together the portraits of ordinary Romans, going from inscription to inscription, contrasts strongly with Hughes very broad brush (and loud music).

There were one or two nice touches in  - the Bishop ordaining a women in the mosaic. It is a shame it was spoilt when she mentions the alb as a Eucharistic garb worn only by priests. I'm not convinced that it was - certainly the alb (the white robe) can be worn today by both clergy and lay ministers who serve at the altar, and it is difficult to discern its history.

Moreover, the mosaic comes from the 3rd  or 4th century, so it could reflect less the early church, and more the Montanists - a charismatic breakaway movement in which prophecy and women were valued very highly. By not giving the date, she's again pulling the wool over the eyes of casual viewer.

That, incidentally, is an assessment that the movement for women's ordination in the Catholic church agrees with - at , they note it is:

"A fourth century fresco, also in the catacomb of St. Priscilla, shows a bishop ordaining a woman."

So the question is whether it is reflecting something early , or something later but popular like Montanism. The trouble with Hughes presentation is that she doesn't give much picture of all the ferment that was happening - Gnosticism, Montanism, Arianism - those are obviously shorthand labels - but they do represent movements that sprang up, and not always early.

I'd like to note, of course, that I think there are very good grounds for women being ordained within the church.

A subtle point, often overlooked, is that in 1 Corinthians 11.2-11, Paul says "And any woman who prays or proclaims God's message in public worship with nothing on her head disgraces her husband" - instructions which indicate that they did pray and proclaim God's message in public worship - and he doesn't forbid them to do that, just tells them how to dress.

Also what amazed me was that she didn't cite Paul who calls a woman named Junia an apostle in Romans 16.7 - that's really early. Junia becomes "Junias" and turned male by later interpreters. Yet even up to the time of John Chrysostom (c.347-407), we have his statement: "Oh! how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!". There is a strong case for a female apostle.

The last section tonight is on "the return of the goddess", by which I suspect she means female figures of adoration in Christianity and Eastern religions. It's a pity she can't look at Neopaganism, where not only is the goddess revived as a figure for adoration, but it also sees the return of the priestess to forms of worship.

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