NOTE: This article is taken from Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hysterical Woman, pp. 73-82.
Robert Wilken describes Lucian (115-200 CE) as, ‘a satirist who wrote humorous essays and dialogues about life in the Roman world’ – a satirist who ‘pokes fun at the gullibility of the Christians’. Lucian tells the tale of the philosopher Peregrinus (d. 165), also known as Proteus, who converts to Christianity during the course of his travels to Palestine. His new-found faith leads to his arrest, and while in prison he receives some intriguing visitors:
Then at length Proteus was apprehended for this and thrown into prison, which itself gave him no little reputation as an asset for his future career and the charlatanism and notoriety-seeking that he was enamoured of. Well, when he had been imprisoned, the Christians, regarding the incident as a calamity, left nothing undone in the effort to rescue him. Then, as this was impossible, every other form of attention was shown him, not in any casual way but with assiduity; and from the very break of day aged widows and orphan children could be seen waiting near the prison, while their officials even slept inside with him after bribing the guards. Then elaborate meals were brought in, and sacred books of theirs were read aloud, and excellent Peregrinus – for he still went by that name – was called by them, ‘the new Socrates’… Indeed, people came even from the cities of Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense to succour and encourage the hero. They show incredible speed whenever any such public action is taken; for in no time they lavish their all. So it was then in the case of Peregrinus; much money came to him from them by reason of his imprisonment, and he procured not a little revenue from it.
The text goes on to describe the major characteristics of Christianity in terms already familiar to us from the previously discussed pagan comments: the ‘poor wretches’ are convinced that they are going to be immortal. They deny the Greek gods. They have common property and consider one another to be ‘brothers’. Yet, despite the fact that this text probably reflects conventional assessments about the Christians in many parts of the Empire, if we place it in relation to what we know from early Christian sources, there is significant evidence to suggest that we have here a fairly accurate picture of historical events. In particular, the mention of widows visiting Peregrinus is striking. An alternate translation of γραδια χηρας as ‘old hags called widows’ better captures Lucian’s satirical tone which is in keeping with well-documented derogatory characterizations of older women and their activities. But the presence of conventional representations does not mean that we should assume there is no reality reflected in this account. The visibility of the widows in the story of Peregrinus will come as no surprise to anyone who has even the most basic knowledge of the involvement of women in early Christianity. While it is impossible to be certain about the precise shape of the ministry of widows in the period we are discussing, New Testament evidence such as that in Acts and in the Pastoral Epistles, coupled with material from the Apostolic Fathers and the Apocryphal New Testament, leaves no doubt that from very early on widows played a prominent role in the life of the church, and by the beginning of the second century CE some even participated in some sort of order of widows.
Being far more than objects of the church’s benevolence, by the second century CE widows provided service for church groups. The fact that widows were seen waiting near Peregrinus’ place of imprisonment at the break of day suggests that they had congregated there to pray. As the text makes clear by its reference to meals and to sacred books, the imprisonment of early Christians meant that both prisoners and onlookers would be involved in various rites. But if we are to appreciate the full impact of reference to widows in The Passing of Peregrinus we must also examine the related reference to children. The mention of orphans, in conjunction with widows, also is in keeping with evidence from early Christian literature where the care of widows is paired with the care of orphans as a duty of the church (Jas. 1.27; Herm. Man. 8.10; Barn. 20.2; Ign. Smyrn. 6.2). Moreover, Lucian’s text confirms the impression that widows were responsible for the care of orphan children in the church. Having brought up children and cared for the afflicted are listed as prerequisites for enrolment in the office of widows by the author of the Pastoral Epistles, and there is no reason to doubt that women would have continued in these roles after their acceptance into the order (1 Tim. 5.10). In the Shepherd of Hermas a certain woman named Grapte is instructed to exhort widows and orphans, implying that they comprised a group, perhaps living together in the same Christian house (Herm. Vis. 2.4.3).
Lucian has presented us with a colourful and intriguing portrait of women and children waiting near the prison. However, as anyone who has been involved with the care of young children knows, it would be difficult to maintain organized intercessory prayer for very long! Perhaps we should look for the meaning of their presence by considering possibilities of more active service. Lucian’s text itself leads to a few suggestions. While the widows and orphans wait outside, it is said that church officials penetrated the prison after bribing the guards. Might the women and children have been acting as sentries, warning of the arrival of less friendly guards? Was their visibility in a public area sanctioned by early Christians precisely because their presence would likely be ignored? Did their very invisibility in terms of the society at large contribute to their capacity to minister to those who were in prison? Was it they who were largely responsible for bringing in the elaborate meals and the sacred books? Early Christian literature provides evidence that concern for those who were in prison included practical means to provide for their needs. Tertullian, in fact, uses striking female symbolism to speak of the nature of this sustenance: ‘Blessed Martyrs Designate, along with the provision which our lady mother the Church from her bountiful breasts, and each brother out of his private means, makes for your bodily wants in the prison, accept also from me some contribution to your spiritual sustenance; for it is not good that the flesh be feasted and the spirit starve . . .
Given the broad range of evidence we have been considering, it is reasonable to conclude that these widows who were accompanied by children in all likelihood acted as providers. We have noted that early church teaching calls for widows and orphans to be provided for, but this in no way would preclude these women and children using their energies to be providers in return. In fact, there is nothing in Lucian’s text to imply that they are poor. Peregrinus is described as having profited considerably from the gifts that Christians brought for his benefit. Of course this suggestion serves to embellish the portrait Lucian is painting of Peregrinus as a charlatan, but there seems to be no reason to doubt that Christians were able to collect significant revenue for an important cause. The group is depicted as organizing public campaigns to secure resources. In addition, as I will discuss in more detail later in this book, if we examine the evidence for the lives of widows in early Christian groups and in the Empire generally with respect to both livelihood and independent action, we encounter varying capacity for both. For example, a literal translation of the Greek phrase in 1 Timothy 5.16 ‘if any believing woman has widows’, implies that some women were in a strong enough position financially to support needy widows. The believing women of means are instructed to care for widows (perhaps relatives) so that the church will not be unnecessarily burdened financially and will be able to assist those who have no other source of support. It has been suggested that the believing women who are relatively well-to-do are themselves widows. This combination of needy widows with widow-patrons also is reflected in Acts 9.36-42 which identifies Tabitha at the centre of a group of widows whom she supplies with clothes. The second-century apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla tells of Tryphaena, a very wealthy widow who adopts the virgin Thecla as her own daughter and provides her with all that she requires. The account of Tryphaena’s actions probably reflects the benevolence of wealthy Christian women who sheltered celibate church women of limited means.
In thinking about the relation between the role of provider and the description of women we find in Lucian’s account, a final element of his text which has drawn little attention from past commentators is worth considering. Christians are depicted as travelling ‘even from the cities of Asia and ‘at their common expense’ to attend to the needs of Peregrinus. Since the Christians who are singled out for mention by Lucian include church officials, widows, and orphans we must consider women as part of the travelling group. Studies of the earliest church groups known to us, the Pauline churches, have highlighted the importance of travel in the expansion of Christianity and have sought to understand the connection between ability to travel and social stratification in the early church. These studies make it clear that women were travelling. While contemporary practices in traditional Mediterranean cultures might lead us to question how women in ancient society could travel alone, there is no reason to conclude that male chaperons were always in positions of superiority. Presumably, travelling women who were well-to-do could call on the protection of their slaves. A celibate Christian woman might journey accompanied by a male co-worker, perhaps presenting their partnerhood as a marriage to the outside world when, in fact, their union was purely spiritual. The most striking example of a woman traveller in the Pauline circle is Phoebe, recommended in the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans as a minister of the church at Cenchrae who is on her way to Rome, apparently bearing Paul’s letter. Because of Phoebe’s contribution as a patroness or protector of many Christians, the Roman church members are instructed to offer her hospitality, whatever she may require. The reference to Phoebe offers significant evidence for the relationship between church leadership, wealth, and travel for the dual purpose of business ventures and church mission.
There is much in Romans 16.1-2 to suggest that Phoebe is travelling at her own expense, but there is also evidence in Pauline Christianity of people travelling at someone else’s expense. The members of Chloe’s household who told Paul in Ephesus about Corinthian troubles were probably slaves and freed persons who travelled as agents of their mistress (1 Cor. 1.11). Thus some women were involved in financing the journeys of others. It is possible that widows who were dependent on other women were sent travelling on church missions. It has often been noted that celibacy allowed early Christian women to escape many of the responsibilities of the traditional household, but it may have also enabled women to undertake a variety of important new duties. At any rate, travelling women could count on the extension of hospitality, which by the second century became a criterion for the selection of bishops (1 Tim. 3.2; Tit. 1.8). The ancient historian, E. A. Judge, has spoken interestingly about the connection between the extension of hospitality in Christian circles and the ability of the church to mobilize individuals from poorer sectors of society: ‘Security and hospitality when travelling had traditionally been the privilege of the powerful, who had relied upon a network of patronage and friendship, created by wealth. The letters of recommendation disclose the fact that these domestic advantages were now extended to the whole household of faith, who are accepted on trust, though complete strangers.’ Therefore, when we think of women travelling, even needy widows accompanied by orphans, we must remember that not only would church groups facilitate their efforts by financial means, but a network of hospitality was in place to offer security to even the most socially disadvantaged. The following excerpt from the Shepherd of Hermas, a work probably dating from the first half of the second century and of Roman provenance, speaks of the importance of hospitality and the protection of widows as duties of the bishop:
Bishops and hospitable men who at all times received the servants of God into their houses gladly and without hypocrisy; and the bishops ever ceaselessly sheltered the destitute and the widows by their ministration, and ever behaved with holiness. These then shall always be sheltered by the Lord. They who have done these things are glorious with God, and their place is already with the angels, if they continue serving the Lord unto the end.
The group of women and children waiting near the prison where Peregrinus was held offers us a colourful snapshot of the lives of early Christian women. As is frequently the case with references to early Christian women, however, if we move from the point of simply observing the historical moment to interpreting its meaning, we must frame our assertions as imaginative reconstructions. In my discussion of Lucian’s account and of other texts, I have aimed to contain my reconstructions within the historical limits imposed on me by the larger body of relevant evidence. In my reflections about the women as protectors and providers and in my suggestions about the possibility of travel, I have been rather bold, but I have not gone beyond what is reasonable. Nevertheless, we may ask: does Lucian’s description add to our knowledge of the actual lives of early Christian women, in addition to the information it obviously provides about the way early Christian women were depicted? In other words, in what way can image be said to touch reality in this text? I am convinced that given Lucian’s basic knowledge of Christianity (informed by what appears to have been a common understanding of the movement), his reference to widows offers us striking confirmation of the prominence of women in early Christianity. An outsider’s view offers us a window to reality that is alternate to that provided by the group’s own literature. Moreover, I contend that in order to understand early Christianity we must consider how the view of outsiders shaped the lives of believers. As we move in this book to consider how early Christian prescriptions define the lives of celibate women – widows and virgins – it will be important to bear in mind the remarks of Lucian.
Lucian’s account of the imprisonment of Peregrinus also offers fruitful material to consider with respect to the questions about the relation between authority and power raised at the beginning of this book. The picture we have of church officials inside the prison with Peregrinus, while women and children wait attentively outside, implies that lines of authority can dictate women’s removal from the centre of activity. But the role these women may have had as guardians and providers reminds us that avenues of power and influence are not necessarily closed by structures of authority. Unlike the descriptions of Christianity by Marcus Cornelius Fronto and Lucius Apuleius, the comments of Lucian of Samosata do not focus upon women’s involvement in the violation of the private sphere of the house by their illicit adventures in the public domain nor by their opening of the doors to dangerous outside influences. But the lines separating inside from outside nevertheless shape the existence of these women in important ways. Perhaps because they are insignificant old widows accompanied by children, women in The Passing of Peregrinus seem empowered to act as mediators between the interior of the prison and the world outside, a world of social networks and access to resources. Lucian’s text has enabled us to raise an issue which will surface again in the course of this work. The fact that women might be ignored under certain circumstances on account of societal views about their unimportance in public affairs may have been an advantage to the early Christian movement, both in terms of its expansion and the protection of its members. However, despite what early Christian officials might have hoped, in the case of the imprisonment of Peregrinus, women and children were not ignored. Once in view, the fact that the women did not have husbands would only serve to heighten suspicion in a society which embraced the values of honour and shame. Without husbands to defend their honour, widows experienced greater risks of being viewed as shameless and, in the extreme, of being seen as sexually aggressive and dangerous. As early Christians came under increasing scrutiny, critics apparently looked to see if those who should have been invisible truly were invisible. The old woman who could barely be seen became a graphic image of credulity, shamelessness, and transgression.