When Women Were Priests:
Women's Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity
Karen Jo Torjesen
New York, NY
From the Inside Flap:
"Under a high arch in a Roman Basilica dedicated to two women saints, Prudentiana and Praxedis, is a mosaic portraying four female figures.... The faces of Mary and the two saints are easily recognizable. But the identity of the fourth is less apparent. A carefully lettered inscription identifies the face on the far left as Theodora Episcopa, which means Bishop Theodora. The masculine form for bishop in Latin is episcopus; the feminine form is episcopa. The mosaic's visual evidence and the inscription's grammatical evidence point out unmistakable that Bishop Theodora was a woman. But the a on Theodora has been partly effaced by scratches across the glass tiles of the mosaic, leading to the disturbing conclusion that attempts were made to deface the feminine ending, perhaps even in antiquity."
This telling image begins an extraordinary odyssey into the real place of women in early Christianity. A vital contribution to the debate on women in the church, this groundbreaking book by respected scholar Karen Jo Torjesen reveals not only that women were priests, prophets, and even bishops in early Christianity, but also how and why they were systematically effaced by the institutional church.
In ancient Mediterranean society, Torjesen explains, women could play often quite powerful social and political leadership roles at the level of the household but not in public. Hence, as long as the early church gathered in private homes, women who regularly guided their households both economically and culturally often led the congregations. It was an almost subversive act to worship as Christians in the ancient world, yet women bravely organized and maintained the growing groups of followers. But as Christianity emerged from its domestic enclaves and the church became a public institution, women were relegated to private, subservient, and invisible roles dictated by Greek and Roman society's proscription of women's activity in the public sphere.
Cogent and convincing, Torjesen asserts that the sexism and misogyny that remain in the church today do not derive from Jesus and his first followers--who radically challenged conventions about gender and status--but from the social context in which Christianity flowered. Thus, those who deny women full participation in the leadership of the modern church based on the teaching and practice of Jesus and the early church, are quite simply, dead wrong.