Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Forgotten Women in Church History, Part 1: Marcella of Rome

This is part of a series which I will add to from time to time, about certain individuals whose names, had they only been male, might have been remembered alongside those of Jerome, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Wesley. What women have done in the history of the church, once their stories are told, raises some interesting questions about traditional views of women's place in God's kingdom.

The first is Marcella of Rome, circa 350 A.D., before Rome's fall.

Marcella was a well-educated daughter of a Roman senatorial family. Widowed after a marriage of only seven months, she embraced the monastic life. She and her mother formed a community of religious women in their home. When Jerome came to Rome in 382, she persuaded him to let her be his student, and even though he usually avoided women, he consented because of her devotion to God and her desire to learn and study.

What is most remarkable about Marcella was how she found a way to become a teacher of the Bible. Jerome was not known for favoring women; in fact, his translation of the Bible into Latin Vulgate deliberately upheld the patriarchy of his times, even at the expense of the original text. For instance, he removed the words “who was with her” from the story of the Temptation in the Garden, making it appear that Eve was alone when she took the forbidden fruit and that Adam in innocence took it from her later-- thus solidifying the view of woman as man’s “temptress” for centuries to come. And yet Jerome was apparently so impressed with the piety of Marcella that she became his near-constant companion, and the recipient of many letters when they were apart.

In Jerome’s Epistle, he makes the following amazing statements about Marcella:

“She never came without asking something about Scripture, nor did she immediately accept my explanation as satisfactory, but she proposed questions from the opposite viewpoint, not for the sake of being contentious, but so that, by asking, she might learn solutions for points she perceived could be raised in objection.”


“And because she was so discreet and knew about what the philosophers call . . . ‘how to behave appropriately,’ when she was thus questioned she used to reply as if what she said was not her own, even if the views were her own, but came either from me or from another man, in order to confess that about the matter she was teaching, she herself had been a pupil. For she knew the saying of the Apostle, “I do not, however, permit a woman to teach” (I Tim. 2:12) lest she seem to inflict an injury on the male sex and on those priests who were inquiring about obscure and doubtful points.” Emphasis mine.

In other words, despite Jerome’s view that God, through the Apostle Paul, had forbidden all women to ever teach men, his disciple Marcella (what else is it appropriate to call her?) became a teacher of men anyway, purely by virtue of not seeking that her teachings be known as her own, but giving the credit to Jerome! Can there be any doubt that the priests whom she taught benefited from her teachings? Jerome himself certainly did not doubt it; in fact, as his words above show, he tacitly accepted her acting as a teacher because of the efficacy of her teachings (and perhaps because of the increase to his own reputation?) even though he knew she was in fact teaching men from her own wisdom.

The interesting thing is that Jerome also wrote a letter to a friend warning against false guides who learn from women what to teach men-- but the letter was not about Marcella’s teachings, but about the teachings of Melania the Elder, leader of a monastic community in Jerusalem, with whom he disagreed. Since Jerome based his restriction on women teaching on his understanding of Scripture, we can only conclude that the power of Marcella’s intellect and her clear ability to learn and convey her learning to others, caused Jerome to admit to a self-contradiction. In this area of God’s supposed absolute prohibition against women teaching men, he made an exception for Marcella, because he knew her personally, and, it appears, could see the hand of God upon her. His doctrine, in short, could not stand up to his practical experience, when he was not talking about women in general, but about one woman he had come to know and trust.

Marcella lived until the Sack of Rome and died at the hands of the Goths. Her last act in this world was to entreat her attackers to spare her companion Principia, which they did. Marcella died of her wounds a few days later, leaving all that she had to the poor.


Liefield and Tucker, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan (1987), pp. 117-118

Flood, Representations of Eve in Antiquity and the English Middle Ages, Routledge (2011), p. 7

Epistolae: Women’s Biography

Dictionary of Christian Biography


Marg said...

Looking forward to part 2!
Any hints as to who it might be about?

Anonymous said...

If I were a man, this would be insulting..."lest she seem to inflict an injury on the male sex and on those priests who were inquiring about obscure and doubtful points."

How can a knowlegable woman be insulting to a man unless he were so insecure to register it as an insult? And this type of insecurity is nothing more than pride. Silly. That statement burns me up...and it would even more if I were a man.

Kristen said...

Thanks, Marg! I was unable to give any hints because I wasn't sure whom I was going to post about next. But now the next one's up!

Kbonikowsky, I agree that it does seem insulting to men that their sex is somehow injured by a woman teaching. If they really were affected in this way, they would be the "delicate sex" indeed.

Gran said...

"as if what she said was not her own, even if the views were her own"

"As if"- not much has changed, has it?

Good articles! I'm enjoying your blog.

Kuudere-Kun said...

This blog post of mine might give you some inspiration for this series.

Kuudere-Kun said...

I also have this post on a very specific forgotten woman.