I recently read two books on early Christian women leaders and thought I’d combine the reviews as there was a fair bit of overlap between them.
The first book was Crispina and Her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity by Christine Schenk. Largely based on analysis of tomb and sarcophagi art, the book made a compelling case for women leadership in several church communities until at least the sixth century–far longer than I had thought, I must admit. The book also advocated quite strongly for the role of women in the elite Roman classes had in helping Christianity spread so widely so quickly. Contrary to the common evangelical refrain that the father is the key figure for faith development, it was far more likely in the first few centuries for the mother’s faith to be passed onto the children, slaves, and other members of the household, even with an unbelieving husband.
The second book was Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership by Ally Kateusz. This book came to similar conclusions as the previous one, but used a wider range of sources, working in more textual basis from a variety of letters and even extracanonical gospels across a variety of translations, as well as also including art analysis. One of the nice things about this book is that it was licensed under Open Source, so that was a nice cost-saver.
Overall, I was very pleased with both books. They do require a certain willingness to wade through some technical terminology and analyses, and are redundant in spots due to being a collection of modified previously published essays, but they’re quite informative and persuasive. I was quite heartened to hear of how long women led church congregations–at least until the 6th century, possibly later in some places.
I was skeptical of relying too heavily on the extracanonical gospels–while they are quite right in saying that women leadership in the church was silenced, the gnostic elements of many of those extracanonical gospels are problematic to say the least. I did take their point however, that those gospels did at least provide testimony to the debates and practices at the time in question, and were narratives that were read in early churches during some parts of the year. And as women in leadership is well-supported by a closer reading of the canonical gospels and the Pauline epistles, it does seem valid to look to some of those extracanonical gospels for some idea of what those women leaders were doing and what narratives were told about them at the time.
All in all, while not overly accessible these books are well-worth the read for the well-educated layperson or pastors interested on drawing on historical analyses for their sermons. So I highly recommend checking them out and popularizing the knowledge found therein.