Pagan Reaction to Early Christian Women in the 2nd Century Part 5: Galen of Pergamum (Margaret Y. MacDonald, 1996)

NOTE: This article is taken from Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hysterical Woman, pp. 82-94.


Like Lucian of Samosata, Galen of Pergamum (129-199 CE) was aware of the involvement of unmarried women in early Christianity. However, unlike Lucian, he accorded these women a certain amount of respect. While Galen was critical of the lack of a rational basis for the beliefs of Christians, their rigorous devotion to abstention led him to describe their way of life as characteristic of those who are philosophers. The fact that Galen called Christianity a philosophical school and not a superstition, as other critics had done, reminds us of the acceptance that early Christians might receive within the Greco-Roman world, even within elite circles. Galen’s comments are quite different in tone from those of the pagan critics we have considered so far, and he will help us to raise new questions about public opinion of early Christian women:

Most people are unable to follow any demonstrative argument consecutively; hence they need parables, and benefit from them, just as we now see the people called Christians drawing their faith from parables and miracles, and yet sometimes acting in the same way as those who philosophize. For their contempt of death and of its sequel is patent to us every day, and likewise their restraint in cohabitation. For they include not only men but also women who refrain from cohabitating all through their lives; and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers. (Emphasis mine)


Trained in medicine in his native city of Pergamum in Asia Minor (a city which included a Christian population, cf. Rev. 1.11), Galen moved to Rome in 161 CE and became the personal physician of Marcus Aurelius. Except for a brief period during which he returned to Pergamum, he remained in Rome until his death. Galen states that both the restraint of Christians in cohabitation and their contempt of death could be seen on a daily basis. We do not know how Galen formed his opinion of the early Christians. He apparently was appointed around 158 CE as physician to the gladiators of Pergamum. Perhaps his work allowed him not only to learn about human anatomy from the mangled bodies of gladiators, but also to encounter early Christian involvement in the games and to witness their attitudes to death. Perhaps he had heard tales about the stoic martyrdom around 156 CE of the famous bishop of Smyrna, the ‘blessed Polycarp’ (Mart. Pol. 1.1), ‘the teacher of Asia’ who had been teaching ‘many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods’ (Mart. Pol. 12.2). His time in Rome may also have offered Galen many opportunities to increase his knowledge of Christianity, for the second century saw the growing importance of Rome as an intellectual centre for Christianity where such important thinkers as Justin, Valentinus, and Marcion spent some time.

Scholars have seen in Galen’s positive evaluation of early Christianity a great spirit of openness to the diverse phenomena of antique culture. In relationship to his predecessors, his references to early Christianity have been judged as factual and rooted in reliable information about early Christianity. Although the references to Christians in Galen’s works are few, they are considered important because of their supposed objectivity.


Behind statements professing the accuracy, objectivity, and seriousness of Galen’s remarks, lies the assumption that the harsher pagan criticisms we have examined previously are laden with conventional marks of satire and polemic, and hence, with inaccuracy and historical unreliability. In contrast, Galen’s work is judged to be largely reliable. Now there is no doubt that the prolific Galen was a very important intellectual in Greco-Roman society, and his more appreciative tone challenges us to rethink the shape of public opinion of early Christianity. Whether Galen’s ‘sober, reasoned prose’, however, displays less of the marks of convention than the satirical writing of Lucian of Samosata is at least a debatable point. Moreover, Galen’s positive evaluation of Christian asceticism needs to be examined with respect to its implications for public opinion about Christian women. Evidence of traditional concepts of gender distinction operating in Galen’s thought in particular, and in the intellectual climate of the ancient world generally, should make us cautious about assuming that Galen’s reference to Christian men and women can be adequately understood in terms of modern notions of equality. We should be wary of assuming that his focus upon celibate Christian men and women who have attained the level of genuine philosophers should be read as a statement of the equal capacity of men and women to reach their full potential.

It is evident that what leads Galen to admire the early Christians and to compare them to ‘those who practise philosophy’ is their virtuous way of life. From Stoics to Platonists, the philosophical schools of Galen’s day were not only devoted to an intellectual tradition, but were intent on propagating a manner of living. Moreover, it is important to remember that Galen was keenly interested in philosophy and he was a learned critic of philosophical schools. He may have cast his presentation of Christianity in terms familiar to him from his study of the great traditions of the Greco- Roman world. I am not suggesting that Galen had never encountered actual Christian men and women who practised strict continence, but his philosophical bent may have led him to conclude quickly what they were doing without having access to very many facts about their motivation. The materials that have come down to us from Greco-Roman moral tradition are replete with ideals of self-discipline, self-control and restraint in bodily matters, so much so that even intercourse between married couples could be said to be in need of proper decorum.


One interesting example illustrates the relationship between philosophy and life-style. It concerns the circumstances under which marriage itself was desirable. While Epictetus (an early second-century writer) links marriage with the obligation of citizenship in general, his comments about the ideal Cynic philosopher call to mind Paul’s observations in 1 Corinthians 7 about the anxiety that accompanies married life: ‘But in such an order of things as the present, which is like that of a battle field, it is a question, perhaps, if the Cynic ought not be free from distraction, wholly devoted to the service of God …’ The connection between philosophy, moral rectitude, and sexual restraint was put to use in explaining the essence of Christianity by the apologist Justin in his petition to the Emperor Antoninus Pius in 156 CE. Having toured several philosophical schools, Justin presented Christianity as the true philosophy. As in the case of Galen, Justin depicted early Christianity as encouraging life-long continence and his language, like Galen’s, reveals the sexual ideals of elite society. Marriages in Christianity are characterized by strict moral codes, but the community also includes ‘virtuosos’ of continence: some disciples of Christ, both men and women, remain pure from childhood to old age and Christians are proud to display their example before the whole of humanity.

It is interesting to note that Justin stresses the involvement of both sexes in early Christianity, since we have seen that the pagan writers Pliny, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, and Galen have asserted the same thing. In an effort to illustrate the broad range of people involved in Christianity, Pliny insists that, ‘both sexes are, and will be, brought to trial’. A similar remark is found in the text attributed to Marcus Cornelius Fronto, but the description is more elaborate; the involvement of sisters and mothers is mentioned specifically, and the credulity of women who are drawn into shameful rites is highlighted. In ancient texts the nature of the involvement of women often emerges as a telling sign of the nature of the group: women become a symbol of corporate identity. In the case of Pliny and Fronto the mention of women obviously functions to label the group negatively. But with Galen, the statement that early Christians include ‘not only men, but also women’ appears to strengthen his assertion that Christians are a group whose self-control and self-discipline ‘is of a pitch not inferior to genuine philosophers’. In other words, the mention of women appears to define the group positively. However, as stated previously, it is nevertheless important to evaluate Galen’s positive assessment critically. His assessment probably reflects cultural values which become more readily apparent when his comments are compared to a second positive assessment of ascetic women in the Greco-Roman world.

Galen's most famous medicinal formula was Theriac, an herbal jam or electuary with some 64 differnt ingredients that was a virtual panacea
Galen’s most famous medicinal formula was Theriac, an herbal jam or electuary with some 64 differnt ingredients that was a virtual panacea

Galen’s reference to ‘women also’ calls to mind another reference to a religious group in the ancient world that was known for its devotion to continence. Among the writings of the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE) is found a description of an ascetic community living on the shores of Lake Mareotis near Alexandria, the Therapeutic society, made up of both men (Therapeutae) and women (Therapeutrides).

According to Philo, the devotion of this group has as its goal the vision of the Divine. Philo describes a sacred vigil (taking place during the society’s major festival) which involves the mingling of a male choir with a female choir, ritually re-enacting Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. But such ritual unity is carefully limited. Apart from this festive chorus, assemblies call for segregation of the sexes. On a daily basis members live a solitary existence and follow a strict ascetic way of life which is in keeping with their dualistic vision of the world. However, in Philo’s description of the celibacy of the members of this group we sense none of the Pauline sensitivity, revealed by 1 Corinthians 7, about the possibility that some may lack the self-control required to remain continent. Moreover, as is to be expected given our discussion to date, when Philo speaks of sexual asceticism, he is especially concerned with the admirable behaviour of women:

The feast is shared by women also, most of them aged virgins, who have their chastity not under compulsion, like some of the Greek priestesses, but of their own free will in their ardent yearning for wisdom. Eager to have her [wisdom] for their life mate they have spurned the pleasures of the body and desire no mortal offspring but those immortal children which only the soul that is dear to God can bring to the birth unaided because the Father has sown in her spiritual rays enabling her to behold the verities of wisdom.


Philo’s (perhaps idealized) description of the Therapeutrides who preserve their chastity as part of their yearning for wisdom calls to mind Galen’s description of early Christians whose devotion to continence, pursuit of justice, and general self-control is said to be of the kind associated with a philosophical school. Like the early Christians whom Galen describes, the self-discipline of the Therapeutics extends to their intake of food, presumably another potent sign of the management of desire. Philo’s insistence that the aged virgins are free to choose to preserve their chastity alerts us to what is also implicit in Galen’s description of early church members. Those early Christian women who refrain from cohabiting all of their lives are depicted as being motivated by the loftiest of ideals and thus, are very much free to pursue a life in search of virtue. Because it is clear to Galen that a life-commitment is involved, one wonders whether he too has in mind older women. With respect to Therapeutrides, Ross Kraemer interprets the choice of pursuing a contemplative life as being within a context of privilege. Becoming a Therapeutride was an option for only a very few women in first-century Jewish society — a minority of women who were both highly educated and probably had control of significant financial resources before they had become members.

In light of Philo’s assertion, cited in the Introduction, about men being suited to the public, open-air life whereas the Jewish women of Alexandria ‘are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house’, his favourable impression of a mixed (albeit carefully controlled) celibate community may come as somewhat of a surprise. Kraemer, however, sees no contradiction between Philo’s attitude, concerning relations between husbands and wives, which endorses traditional gender distinctions, and his admiration of the Therapeutrides. In their devotion to the pursuit of knowledge, in their spiritual quest to transcend bodily pleasures and maternal desires, in their chastity and solitude, the female Therapeutics essentially had removed themselves from normal social relations. They were as unusual and intriguing as the occasional individual female philosopher who emerges from the sources of antiquity. But we should be careful about reading Philo’s comments as an unqualified endorsement of the contribution of female philosophers and of the freeing of even a privileged, heroic minority of women to achieve equality with men. Having pondered the influence of Platonism on Philo and his allegorical interpretation of female figures in Jewish scripture where the feminine represents the lower, sensate part of the soul and the masculine symbolizes the higher state of the soul (mind and reason), Kraemer concludes: ‘For Philo, the Therapeutrides were female in form only. In other respects, like good philosophers who aspire to mystical union with the divinity, they had purged their souls of their female elements and become male and/or virgin. All this was evident in the fact that they were childless, unmarried, and probably postmenopausal.’

It is interesting to consider Kraemer’s conclusions in light of the discussion in the previous section about the precarious position of widows in early Christianity. When women were without male guardians, they were at a greater risk of being viewed as shameless and of being accused of acting more like men than women. In Philo’s thought, however, we see the possibility of this state being turned into an opportunity for spiritual perfection when it is contained within a group of ascetic philosophers. The fact that the Virgins’ were aged and no longer fertile no doubt heightened the possibility of leaving their feminine confinement behind. At any rate, if we consider carefully the implications of Philo’s description of the Therapeutrides, we are prevented from concluding too quickly that Galen’s straightforward presentation of the early Christians is simply objective and accepting. We should ask of Galen’s account the same kind of question Kraemer asks of Philo’s admiring description of the Therapeutrides. Could it be that a philosopher like Galen considered the women who refrained from cohabiting during their entire lives to be female in form only?

Philo of Alexandria
Philo of Alexandria

Like Philo, Galen admired a philosophical-religious group where men and women were united by a superior morality, but he also subscribed to traditional notions of gender distinction related to space. It is impossible to do justice to Galen’s detailed medical treatises here, and scholars interested in the issue of gender in early Christianity should continue to mine these precious texts for the purpose of comparison. However, a brief discussion at this point of Galen’s views on female inferiority will help us to qualify our understanding of his attitude to early Christian women in important ways. In his On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, Galen describes everything in the male in contrast to the female. Indeed, he bases his assertion that the female is less perfect than the male on various physiological opposites: the male is warm but the female is cold, men have body parts on the outside but women have them on the inside. In the following citation it is possible to observe how quickly ancient discussions of gender move between the physical and the social realms. The natural seclusion of females indoors is used to explain physical differences between the sexes:

For I have already shown many times, indeed throughout the work, that nature makes for the body a form appropriate to the character of the soul. And the female sex does not need any special covering as protection against the cold, since Tor the most part women stay within doors, yet they do need long hair for both protection and ornament, and this need they share with men. Really, however, there is another reason [usefulness] that makes it necessary for us to have hair on both our chins and heads. For since the exhalation from the humors rises to the head, Nature makes use of its thicker residues in particular to nourish the hair, and since men have much more of these residues as they are warmer than women, she has devised for men two ways of evacuating them, from the hair of the head and from the hair of the chin. (Emphasis mine)


This text offers a very good illustration of the anthropological principle that the physical body is often used to replicate the social body. Despite the fact that the warmer, outside-oriented male was considered to be superior, the boundaries separating male from female were somewhat fluid in Galen’s thought. In fact, one gains the impression that attributes of masculinity could be lost as quickly as a woman might be viewed as representing the antithesis of feminine virtue for violating the boundaries separating the private domain from the public sphere. For example, in his work On the Seed Galen identifies loss of heat during childhood as making men revert into a state of ‘primary undifferentiation’. Given the unmistakable presence of traditional gender distinctions in both physical and social manifestations in Galen’s work, his seemingly positive reference to Christian men and women who are united by a common goal and are apparently untouched by the lines of the public, male / private, female dichotomy is remarkable. The best explanation seems to be that the philosophical and moral pursuits of early Christian women essentially have freed them to become ‘male’.

In Galen’s thought, and in the ancient literature of the first and second centuries generally, there is much that associates perfection with masculinity. During the second century, even some early Christians might have explained the nature of their salvation as a return to perfected masculinity. Having come from Alexandria to Rome in 138 CE, Valentinus continued to teach there until 166 and he was present in the city as one of the most important spiritual guides in the Christian community during the time when Galen also was there. The teaching associated with Valentinian circles, as well as many other fascinating gnostic texts, relies heavily on gendered images to communicate mythic systems. It is not easy to understand the implications of such imagery or even to predict how it might be related to concrete sexual practices. According to Dennis R. MacDonald, a typical consequence of the Valentinian teaching that made extensive use of gendered imagery to describe the process of fall and redemption was the performance of a baptism of re-unification, followed by a life of rigorous asceticism. MacDonald states that in Valentinian teaching, ‘Insofar as one has transcended the body and reunited the sexes, one must avoid sexual relations, that is “the male with the female neither male nor female”.’ Such language as ‘making the two one’ and the ‘female becoming male’ is associated with the quest for androgynous perfection, often imagined in the ancient world as essentially being a state of perfected masculinity. The implications of the female being swallowed up into the male are startling for modern persons who value the female body and female individuality. While scholars have frequently linked social liberation with female asceticism in early Christianity, modern women surely would be repulsed by the thought of putting off the body in order to ‘destroy the works of the female’. It is, however, impossible to be sure how ancient women would have understood such symbolism or to predict the reaction of someone outside the group. While Galen saw female asceticism as the pursuit of the highest form of virtue, as we will see, other equally strong voices denounced the early Christians for destroying the family.

Galen Theories of Blood
Galen Theories of Blood

I have placed Galen and Philo side by side because both authors illustrate the point that female ascetics in the Greco-Roman world may not always have encountered hostility. Moreover, both authors reveal to us that admiration of female ascetics, whose self-control clearly sets them apart from the usual patterns of life, does not necessarily imply an acceptance of the abrogation of traditional gender distinctions. Of course Philo cannot be considered an outside critic of the Therapeutic society in the way that Galen was a critic of the early Christians: Philo may himself once have been a member of the Therapeutic community. But even Galen, by virtue of his framing the Christian movement in terms of his own philosophical interests, reminds us that we must be careful about drawing lines too firmly between insiders and outsiders. A critical voice quickly may become a curious one. Our brief discussion of Valentinian circles has enabled us to see that there is much in the world view of second-century Christianity that would suit Galen’s philosophical disposition. We must remember too, that in commenting on early Christianity and at times trying to understand the movement, critics came into contact with a movement that often was extremely eager to open up the boundaries separating insider from outsider. This openness is evidensed in an account in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, which describes a group of Christians in Rome under the leadership of a certain Theodotus who sought to give Christian thought a philosophical underpinning, and incorporated the work of Galen in their teachings. Unfortunately, however, these people were designated heretics and they were excommunicated for tampering with scripture and abandoning the true faith (187-98 CE).

In this section I have argued that Galen’s description of early Christian women, which strikes one initially as exceptionally positive, must be evaluated in relation to a social-philosophical world which understood asceticism in a particular light. Galen’s comments reflect the notion that the philosophical life is one where both men and women may strive for virtue by means of asceticism.


As in Philo’s description of Jewish asceticism, Galen declares that the Christian group includes ‘also women’ and understands the female presence as especially significant. That men and women were able to live in a community without cohabiting throughout their lives indicated that unruly desires had been tamed by self-discipline and self-control. This restraint was a sure sign of the group’s virtuous nature. Perhaps Galen saw the female Christian ascetics as essentially male in form. They had somehow lost their female form ‘which was open, aimless, lacking in shape and direction. It stood for all that needed to be formed by being made subject to the hard, clear outlines of the male.’

It is difficult to say how much the opinion of an intellectual like Galen is related to popular opinions about Christianity. In Parts 2 and 3 we will consider early Christian evidence that church members hoped to gain followers by their self-control and the stringency of their sexual ethics. Nevertheless, Galen’s voice must be heard together with other less appreciative ones. His penchant for philosophical discussions, which included discussion of the desirability of marriage, must be balanced with the hard facts of living in a society where marriage laws included penalties for nonmarriage and childlessness, as well as rewards for fecundity. In such a society, the celibacy of women could seem especially suspect. As we move to consider our final critic of early Christianity, Celsus, we will be given an opportunity to begin to contemplate the magnitude of that suspicion