The Lost Women of the Middle Ages

(#5 in a series)

*In this chapter, Barr asserts that Mary Magdalen is the same as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. The medieval church believed this as well, thanks to a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Since then, Catholic biblical scholars have found more evidence to support that they were not the same woman and in the Catholic church, we tend to draw a line between the Marys (Mama Mary, Mary Mag, Mary of Bethany) as a way of making the point that Jesus purposefully included women in his ministry*

Mary Mag was a prominent figure in all four Gospels. She does not fear the Romans. She is present at the foot of the Cross. She is the first to see the risen Lord. She is the first one to whom he speaks. Barr calls her “the apostle of the apostles”(82) since it was she who carried the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to them.

There is precedent in the Old Testament for the role she plays in the life of Christ: loyal like Ruth, strong like Esther, patient like Hannah. These are the women God consistently puts in front of us in the Bible. They are Proverbs 31 women—grounded, faithful, taking care of business, helping others.

The Medieval church revered these biblical matriarchs. Barr writes the church “was simply too close in time to forget the significant roles women played in establishing the Christian faith throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire” (88). While patriarchal and classist, the medieval world was still an “all hands on deck” existence and the role of women was clear: CEO of the castle, with the keys to fit every lock hanging down her skirt; midwife; healer; weaver; grower; alewife, abbess. We think of sending widows or spinsters to the “nunnery” as a medieval banishment, but convents were safe havens for widows, the abused and young girls who would otherwise be used as pawns in war and politics. Women in convents learned to read and write, and from this tradition we have four of the Doctors of the Catholic Church, among whom we count St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: St Hildegard de Bingen (b. 1098), St Catherine of Siena (b. 1347), St Teresa of Avila (b. 1515) and later, St Therese of Lisieux (b. 1873). Their works were and are widely read and taught within the Catholic Church.

And then there’s the Golden Legend, a 13th century book about saints by Jacobus De Voraigne.

If you’re familiar with the lives of Catholic saints, then you know they can be a bit…fantastical.  Especially the early church through the medieval period. Take for instance the story about St Martha—in the medieval version, she accompanied her sister Mary Mag/Mary of Bethany to France where, as Mary was preaching to the people, Martha encountered a dragon eating a man on the beach. She “sprinkled  holy water on the beast, confronted the demoniac creature with the cross and calmly tied it up”(83). Then she took it into town where the folks stabbed it to death and declared her their heroine.

This sounds like the Martha of the Bible—practical, capable, focused. Martha was a Proverbs 31 woman who handled her business. Look closely at the words she speaks to Jesus when he arrives too late to save her brother in John: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. A statement of fact. Then she says [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you (21-22). Martha is not suggesting. She is telling. She doesn’t think Jesus can raise her brother. She expects he will.

This is not the Martha that evangelical women know today. Barr references Sara Mae’s 2016 book Having a Martha Home the Mary Way: 31 Days to a Clean Home and a Satisfied Soul: “Mae includes ‘Mary challenges’ to encourage the spiritual development of women and ‘Martha Challenges’ to inspire women to clean different parts of their home” (81-82).

Martha and Mary Magdalen are not the only women honored in the medieval church who have been de-emphasized in the evangelical church today.

St Paula (b.347), who left her children to answer God’s calling and helped translate the Vulgate.

St Lucy (b.283) who dedicated her virginity to God and stood firm, refusing to marry; as punishment, her eyes were removed, and she is often pictured carrying them on a plate.

St Margaret of Antioch (d.304) who dedicated herself to God, and was imprisoned for refusing to marry a Roman governor. She was attacked by a dragon in her cell, who ate her. Margaret stayed calm in the mouth of the dragon, prayed for God to save her, and the dragon exploded, setting her free (79-80).

St Genevieve of Paris (b.422), who through a “prayer marathon” is credited with saving Paris from the Huns and converting the city to Christianity.

St Brigid of Kildare (b. 451) famous for the miracle of the never-ending butter and her great spreading cloak, and a foundress of multiple abbeys in Ireland.

All of these women—and this is just a small sampling of the lives of women saints—stood in defiance of the rule of men for the love of God and triumphed. Every single one. They walked in the world as role models of faith and light, and they often laid down their lives in exchange. These are the women who gave life to Hildegard, Catherine, Theresa and more.

In the Catholic church, we know them still. We honor them as men and women of tremendous faith on feast days and invoke them as intercessors in our prayers. Not in the same way we did in the medieval period, but they are there just the same.

This is not the case with Protestants. The Saints were an explicit target of the Reformation, rejected as idolatry (this is a corruption of the doctrine of Sainthood in the Catholic Church; we do not worship them. We recognize them as paragons of faith and obedience to God, and as such ask them to intercede on our behalf). They disappeared from Protestantism, and with them, a history that included women as heroes of the Christian faith.

A final point: It is worth noting that during the medieval period, the Catholic church evolved the idea of priesthood to include celibacy, and then used this to effectively exclude women from ordination, thanks to St Augustine who equated sex and child-bearing with Original Sin. The four women recognized as doctors of the church were nuns. My church was not a paragon of equality by any stretch of the imagination, just as guilty as Protestants of pushing women from leadership.

Reading Paul Wrong

Chapter 2: What if Bibilical Womanhood Doesn’t Come From Paul?

(This is #4 in a series. Please see homepage for previous posts)

St. Paul was not my favorite guy. I had this in common with many Christian feminists.

But a closer study in recent years has brought me to a new conclusion: In fairness to everyone, Paul must be read within historical context.

Also, Paul had a HUGE task before him: to somehow answer the questions and unite the diverse seedling Christian populations in cities along the eastern Mediterranean.

The key word here is diverse. Search “St Paul’s letter on a map” to be reminded just how far the Christian faith travelled in the two decades after the death of Jesus—on foot, no less. And not just in miles—Corinth is 1800 miles from the Holy Land—but in culture. These cities were influenced by Greek and Roman rule.

This is important to remember when we look at Paul’s household codes, contained in Ephesians 5:21-6:29, Colossians 3:18-4:1, 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 and Titus 2:1-10. In these verses, Paul describes how a Christian family should look and function. These codes are often held up in evangelical congregations as the standard for male headship and female submission. But Barr suggests this is a mistake within the historical context.

She describes Greek and Roman family structure as influenced by male philosophers such as Aristotle and quotes Aristotle’s Politics to set the stage: “(t)he male is by nature fitter for command than the female…the inequality is permanent…All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women, ‘Silence is a woman’s glory but this is not equally the glory of man’” (48).  From his Generation of Animals: “’the female is as it were a deformed male’ and that ‘because females are colder and weaker in their nature…we should look upon the female state as being as it were a deformity’” (51).

No one who is a follower of Jesus Christ can agree with Aristotle’s assessment. God made us all in His image; Jesus spent his ministry showing us what it means to love one another as we love ourselves; he kept women around him as central to that ministry, which was revolutionary; and then he died on the cross to show us the depth and breadth of love, from this life into the next.

Within that understanding, it’s difficult to think that Paul’s household codes were meant to reinforce the Greek and Roman notion of family structure. But when we consider that Jesus came to “make all things new” (Rev 21:5), it becomes impossible.

Therefore, Barr suggests that “the household codes should be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy” (53). In fact, Paul begins or ends each household code with a reminder that Christians are called to be different.

  • Ephesians, to “live as children of the light” (8).
  • Colossians, to “(p)ut on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another” (12).
  • 1 Peter to “Come to him, a living stone,[c] rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be builtinto a spiritual house” (4-5).
  • Titus, that “(f)or the grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly” (11-12).

As Barr points out, the call in the household codes was not for women, but for men. No longer can they live separate from their wives and children or treat them as property or discard them as a burden. Paul calls them to be fathers, as God is a Father; to not hold themselves up as an authority but to submit their authority to Jesus. This was an incredible social shift for the men of the time, and it actually brought their wives and children forward to be cherished and loved.

In this way, the household codes corrected the behavior of men, instead of setting behavioral expectations for women.

Which begs the question: How did it get so twisted? How did Paul’s words, used out of context and history, become the biblical standard for the subjugation of evangelical women?

I’ll leave you with a quote that Barr uses in the book, from a speech Cato the Elder gave in the Forum during the time of Caesar Augustus, regarding women:

Our ancestors did not want women to conduct any—not even private—business without a guardian; they wanted them to be under the authority of parents, brothers or husbands; we (the gods help us!) even now let them snatch at the government and meddle in the Forum and our assemblies…If they are victorious now, what will they not attempt?

As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors (59).

Uniquely Biblical

(This is number 3 in a series)


In chapter 1, Barr tells a story that blew my mind.

First, some background:  complementarianism is a theological view from the Abrahamic religions that places men and women in different but complementary roles in marriage, family and religious life.  Specifically, in the evangelical and fundamentalist Christian faiths: Men lead; women follow. These roles are boundaried by the belief that Adam was created first and therefore possessed the New Testament headship to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 11: 3; in the “Wives be subordinate to your husbands” admonition from Ephesians 5; and also by the curse that God places upon Eve in Genesis 3:16.

Historians call this patriarchy, a system of social control that evolved in part from our hunter/gatherer roots. Historically, women were/are viewed as inferior beings in terms of intellect and strength; good for birthing babies and keeping hearth and home, but not much else. The social challenge to this construct is feminism, or the belief that men and women should be treated and valued equally.

I am greatly simplifying this part for the sake of space, but first wave feminism is dated to the 19th century, and closely linked to other social justice movements of the time (abolition, temperance, child labor). It’s been less than 200 years since the “ground-breaking” idea that no human should be the property of another—and the century long push towards welcoming oppressed minorities, women among them, into the educational and work worlds, and legislating agency over their own bodies, money and children.

Back to the story: In 2006 and 2007, Russel Moore (who was at one time the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention), encouraged evangelicals to take back the word patriarchy, explaining that the term “complementarianism” had basically been a nod to political correctness. Patriarchy, said Moore, is a Biblical word.

This confused me. Patriarchy is in the Bible, but it’s not biblical. It’s historical. The Adam and Eve story doesn’t set social precedent; it explains reality for a primitive society. How else does early man process that women bleed, and have pain in childbirth? I used to tell my students “Wouldn’t you think she had made your God mad?” More critically: Eve is not the only female chaos agent enshrined in mythology. The ways of women were a mystery in the ancient world. 

Granted, my perspective is Catholic and we now recognize the first 16 chapters of Genesis as origin myth for the Hebrew people, a stance beautifully explained in our Catechism, 279-289. Barr had a more difficult mountain to climb as a literalist. Her faith requires her to accept Genesis as historical fact.  This created a dissonance between what she knew as a doctor of history, and what her church was asking her to believe: patriarchy is uniquely Biblical.

Uniquely biblical—and therefore ordained by God. This is the part that blew my mind. The Catholic church is no paragon of equality, and certainly complicit in tolerating and even extending oppressive patriarchy, but there has always been logic and sense in our theology. Women are welcome in ministry, if not on the altar. Women are doctors of the church. There is no pressure from the pulpit for women to be submissive, to stay home, to remain uneducated. I had no idea this was the doctrine in evangelical churches.

It’s an incorrect doctrine, of course. But is it wrong, or a lie? The first speaks to misinterpretation; the second to purposeful manipulation.

Barr spends the rest of the chapter explaining her path to understanding: from the Epic of Gilgamesh; to the male grad student who refused to acknowledge her authority over him in a classroom in an extension of his “headship”;  to Russel Moore’s laughable distinction between “pagan” and “Christian” patriarchy: “(W)omen should not submit to men in general (pagan patriarchy), but wives should submit to their husbands (Christian patriarchy)”; to wondering if–since patriarchy is clearly not biblically ordained but existed everywhere—patriarchal structures are actually a manifestation of human sin.

Oddly, Barr turns to the letters of St Paul for the answers.

Holy. Mother. Mary.

(#2 in a series. Please refer back to home page of blog for earlier posts)

The Introduction lays out Barr’s experience growing up Southern Baptist in Texas. She has a PhD in history with a focus on European women and medieval England. Her husband is a Baptist minister who was fired from his position for petitioning the elders to allow women in ministry.  In the Baptist church, and based loosely on the letters of Paul, women are not allowed to preach at church (I Cor 14:34) or teach men (1 Tim: 2:12). His firing was the initiating event for this book. She states upfront that this book is aimed at evangelicals, and that she still considers herself to be one. I almost put it down.

Then this blew the top off my head:

Cultural assumptions and practices regarding womanhood are read into the biblical text, rather than the biblical text being read within its own historical and cultural context (6).

I’ll do it again, with my own punctuation:

Cultural assumptions and practices regarding womanhood are READ INTO the biblical text, rather than the biblical text BEING READ WITHIN ITS OWN HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CONTEXT.

She put into words something that I have been feeling for a couple of years now—that many leadership structures in Christian faiths are busy making God into their image instead of themselves into an image of God. Who among us has not at some point sat in a pew listening to the guy in collar explain something and thought “is that really what it means?”

I had this struggle with the traditional telling of Mary as Mother Dearest, Mother Fairest. We should all be obedient like Mary was a refrain of my Catholic school upbringing, a definition of womanhood as submissive, quiet, docile. When I looked at the statues and pictures of Mary, I saw an impossible ideal.  The women in my life were not like this Mary. I was not like this Mary. She didn’t even feel real. If that’s what God wanted from me–silent, submissive sacrifice–then he should have made me differently.

Then came my feminism, which taught me that the definition of womanhood has always been contested and controlled by people trying to cram every woman into a box. I learned to question the box makers, and what they gain from making the boxes. Most importantly, I noticed that no woman who changed the world ever behaved like docile Mary. Not outside the church, but not inside the church either. They tended to be confident, strong risk-takers who upset the status quo.   

It was not until I became a wife and mother that I set out to read and understand the Mary story for myself. What I found was a bare bones telling of the conception and birth of Jesus into which had been read a certain obedient ideal of womanhood. This ideal does not exist on the page. There is certainly room for this interpretation, if we don’t know our history and context. But we do know our history and context.

God asked Mary to appear in Jewish society as an unwed mother, which was a killing offense. He asked her to tell her parents and her future husband that she was pregnant. He asked her to endure the stares, gossip and shame others would try to heap upon her. And that was just before the baby was born. If Mary’s fiat is only a blind act of obedience to an authority figure, then it lacks free will, and as such becomes meaningless.

For her fiat to be extraordinary, her faith has to be greater than her fear, meaning she knew what was being asked of her and chose it anyway.

Boom. All of a sudden, Mary was visible to me.

“Being obedient like Mary” has nothing to do with being quiet or loud, big or small, educated or uneducated, working or staying home. Mary is not an example of how women should behave. She is an example of how women should believe.

Interpreting Mary’s obedience as subservience is reading social assumptions into the Scripture where they do not exist.

Mary is a much more central figure in Catholicism than she is in Protestantism, so Barr’s disillusionments stemmed from the concept of complementarianism, and how that doctrine is used to restrict evangelical women from a full participation in the fruits of the faith.

She stands on the shoulders of Rachel Held Evans in challenging this tenet of evangelicalism. Evans did it with her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood in which she basically exposed the silliness of reading Scripture with no cultural or historical context (including standing at the entrance to her hometown holding a sign that read “Dan is Awesome”, in accordance with the Proverbs 31 directive that she keep her husband’s name good at the city gates).

Barr’s book is more researched and academic. She doesn’t question whether Scripture is sacred and holy. She’s not here to crush Paul’s letters. For her, the Bible is the Word of God. But she does have her sights set on the men who manipulate scripture to their own ends and the women who support them.

Biblical Womanhood: A Book Study

I want to tell you about this book:

There are a lot of reasons I’m reading it, firstly because my dad sent it to me marked “for discussion when we see you next”.

Also, because I am a feminist Catholic—in that exact order. I internalized my feminism before I internalized my Catholic faith, so I tend to view faith through a feminist lens. This is very different from viewing feminism through a Catholic lens, or through an evangelical one, as Barr does.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s easier to be me than her—I showed up cynical and fought the catechism every step of the way. I never expected my Christian faith to be a beautiful, life-giving shelter and was gratefully surprised to find that it is. Barr had to “wake up” to the patriarchy inherent in her evangelical Christian upbringing through her historical studies, and the resulting disillusionment shook her out of her church.

To clarify—her church is the Southern Baptists; she calls them “evangelicals” but that term feels wider and deeper than the ways she uses it to refer to a very conservative set of patriarchal, sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God beliefs. I know evangelicals who do not ascribe to these beliefs on any level, but her labels are reflective of her experience.

I strongly feel though that all women of the Christian faith have things to learn from this book and the ways in which womanhood is reflected in the Bible. Most of us know what we’ve told, sitting in the pews, or in Sunday School classes, and we accepted it. How many of us have taken a deeper dive into the history and context of the Bible, or the 2000 years of clarification and scholarship that exists to help us know and understand the word of God? How many of us really process that every Bible we hold in our hands has been translated, or questioned who does the translating? Clicked the “About” tab on websites for seminaries where our priests and pastors are educated? Or asked ourselves “Who is telling this story, and what do they have to gain from telling it this way?”

I’m not an expert but I can teach anything. And I’d like to walk this you. Eight Chapters. One a week. I hope you’ll join me.