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Tony Grist

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A Bone To Pick With Bettany [Apr. 19th, 2012|06:02 pm]
Tony Grist
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.

[User Picture]From: veronica_milvus
2012-04-19 05:01 pm (UTC)
I did worry about all that myself. There was Phoebe the Deacon, and there are a few other female house-church leaders in Acts.. Dorcas, I seem to remember? But the central figure in the catacomb painting looked like it was wearing a Jewish shawl, and could have been an apostle of some sort, and the one on the left with the so-called alb? Well, I didn't see the alb and it could have been a young boy.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-04-19 06:35 pm (UTC)
Her approach is far too Dan Brownish. I expect better of someone with her academic credentials.
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[User Picture]From: cluegirl
2012-04-19 05:41 pm (UTC)
The problem with there having been women in the early church is that the early church was bloody well ROMAN, and as such, they really had only the one use for women. While I'll agree that compared to, say, the Greeks, the treatment of a woman in the Empire was a step up, it sure as heck wasn't enough of a step up for a culture that entombed live Vestals for being raped to accept that a mere woman could speak to, or for Divinity.

That sandalprint, by the way, is one of my biggest complaints about all of the Western civilizations modeled off the Empire. Compare and contrast to the fantastic priestesses of Etruria, and it just makes me wonder what the hell could have been so terrifying about women in Southern Italy in those early centuries.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-04-19 07:03 pm (UTC)
It suits Bettany- as a practising Christian- to think of the Church as an organisation that has been corrupted away from its touchy-feely roots. There's an agenda here and I think it's compromising her academic impartiality.
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[User Picture]From: michaleen
2012-04-20 11:41 am (UTC)
What is this "academic impartiality" of which you speak?

I"d sooner blame feminist revisionism than Christianity, for this one. She's projecting onto the early Church what Graves and Gimbutas projected onto ancient history.

There seems to be a human need to see the world as corrupt and descending to its present state from some golden age. All credible evidence supports the contrary.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-04-20 12:29 pm (UTC)
I expect an academic historian to have some respect for evidence. I guess I'm being naive.

Graves was a poet; he's allowed his flights of fancy. The other two disappoint me.
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[User Picture]From: michaleen
2012-04-21 11:45 am (UTC)
And I say all this as someone that loves Graves. His White Goddess had a tremendous impact on me and I return to his Greek Myths again and again.

Academic impartiality is the product of peer review and the academic process. I expect everyone to have one or more hobbyhorses and such professional manias may or may not have merit. As all the little egos compete for attention, it usually gets sorted out, at least to all appearances until another 'real' truth heaves into view.

For instance, I've been studying the Bactrian Margiana Archaeological Complex, the new ancient civilization the Soviets found. The principal sites were excavated and named by Viktor Sarianidi and, to be kind, he's been wandering the deserts of Turkmenistan too long without a hat. He ignored potsherds as meaningless, for instance, claiming that the wind might have blown them onto the site, and believed that every building of any size in the BMAC must have been a proto-Zoroastrian fire temple. Why? Because that was his hobbyhorse: that these peoples of the Central-Asian oases must have been the elusive Indo-Iranians of ancient history.
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[User Picture]From: endlessrarities
2012-04-19 07:36 pm (UTC)
Interesting critique. Thank you!
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[User Picture]From: daisytells
2012-04-19 09:40 pm (UTC)
I agree with you on this. We need more evidence, if evidence exists. Meanwhile I will continue in my opinion that the Roman church is chauvinistic in the extreme to this day. Most recently, the nuns are organizing, and the bishops and the pope are bull**** about it!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-04-20 09:15 am (UTC)
There's very little evidence of any kind. We really don't know much about the early Church.
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