The women of Byzantine Christianity

July 30th, 2019

I recently returned from a pilgrimage to Rome and the Holy Land, and during my time there I was struck by the important roles of particular women in the early church, names I had only heard in passing, subordinated to their more famous sons or brothers. Of course, there are the women of the Bible  Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the first to preach the resurrection, and those early disciples in Acts and in Paul’s letters  Prisca, Phoebe, Lydia, Junia and others. Several centuries later, women still played a crucial role in the faith that we have inherited.

Most people have heard of the Emperor Constantine’s famous conversion to Christianity on the eve of an important battle. Under Constantine’s edict, Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, and he called the Council of Nicaea in 325. After a family tragedy, it was Constantine’s mother, Helena, who traveled to the Holy Land and identified important sites for preservation, including where Jesus was crucified and others. She is credited with finding the true cross, and many churches remember her as a saint. Millennia later, churches still stand on the sites that she identified  the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Ascension in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, to name a few. While Constantine’s conversion may have been political in nature, Helena was a true believer, and thanks to her zeal, today’s pilgrims can visit these holy sites.

Around the same time, perhaps the two most important theologians in the development of Western and Eastern Christianity were influenced by women in their lives. Without the prayers and encouragement of his mother Monica, Augustine of Hippo’s life might have continued on a wayward track. Instead, after a lazy and misspent youth and dabbling with some heresies, Augustine became a priest and a bishop, writing many of the foundational documents of Western Christianity. Augustine’s impact on Christian thought and theology can hardly be overestimated, and yet his mother’s name is not nearly as recognized as his own. Still, she is acclaimed as a saint, and those who have read Augustine’s Confessions are familiar with her steadfast faith and her role in Augustine’s conversion to orthodoxy.

For Gregory of Nyssa, it was the influence of his sister, Macrina the Younger, that made him into one of the most renowned theologians of the Eastern Orthodox Church. She helped educate Gregory and the others in her family, a family that ended up including two of the three Cappadocian fathers. Gregory most directly credits Macrina with his work Life of Macrina, in which he praises her asceticism and devotion to prayer and spiritual education. Another saint, Eastern Christianity would be noticeably different without Macrina’s impact on her family.

Many Christians know the names of Constantine, Augustine, Gregory, and Basil, but fewer know the women behind those names, saints in their own right, whose contributions to Christianity as we know it should not go unremarked upon. It is difficult to imagine Christianity and its history without those big names, and once we delve into their stories, they did not exist in a vacuum but were nurtured and encouraged in the faith by the women in their lives. While these men might have had the positions of authority and the audiences to be heard, the lived testimony of the women is equally insightful.

The adage that “behind every great man is a great woman” proves to be true in the Byzantine Christian era, but perhaps it’s time that we give these great women their due. Where some conservative evangelical Christians claim that men should be the spiritual leader of the household, these women challenge that doctrine, and they are acknowledged by their sons and brothers if not by us today. The faithful lives of these women and their behind-the-scenes impact on Christianity as we know it should be a model and an inspiration for both men and women today.

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