April 19th, 2012

A Bone To Pick With Bettany

I was back in Rome last night- this time with Bettany Hughes. She was trying to persuade me that the early church had women priests. I was very ready to believe her (because it would be one in the eye for the Pope, wouldn't it!) but afterwards I took a closer look at some of her evidence...

1. There's a painting in the Roman catacombs of a person praying- technically known as an orans or orante. Bettany says this person is a woman. I took a long look and wasn't so sure. I asked Ailz for a second opinion and she (not knowing what I was looking for) used the masculine pronoun of the person praying. I reckon the figure is androgynous- as people without beards in early Christian art often are. Then again it's a big leap from "person praying" to "priest". According to a theory reported in the Catholic Encyclopaedia the orans is a symbol of the blessed soul in heaven and is shown as female even when the deceased was male

2. Bettany puts a lot of weight on The Acts of Paul and Thecla without telling us what a fantastical and pervy book it is. Whoever wrote it had a fetish about virginity. Thecla is a follower of Paul who gets herself thrown into an amphitheatre where the beasts eat one another instead of eating her. Then she leaps into a pool full of sea-lions to baptize herself and God smites the sea-lions so that they die and their corpses bob about on the surface of the water.  Bettany says nothing about the sea-lions- or the maddened bulls to which Thecla is later bound, or the rapists who assault her when she is ninety (she escapes into a solid rock which seals itself behind her) and I think she might have done. If I'd have been her I'd have hesitated before I used The Acts of Paul and Thecla as evidence of anything.

3. Finally there's an 8th c. mosaic in a quiet corner of a Roman church which features the portrait of a person called Theodora Episcopa. A female bishop? Well, one swallow doesn't make a summer. Besides, the alternative reading- that episcopa is a courtesy title applied to the mother or spouse of a bishop- seems a lot more plausible- especially since we know Theodora was the mother of a pope.

Given time and space Bettany would almost certainly have included more in the way of checks and balances. As it is, there are now a lot of people wandering round Britain believing it's an established fact that the early church had female priests and bishops because Bettany Hughes- who is a Research Fellow at Kings College, London and an Honorary Fellow of Cardiff University- has just told them so. I think this is unfortunate.