- Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women by Kate Cooper, and: Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries by Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes
Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women
London: Atlantic Books, 2013
Pp. xxi + 342. $29.95.
Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017
Pp. xxxviii + 292. $35.00.
In the late 1990s, I became interested in the lives and roles of early Christian women and my undergraduate professors sent me to Peter Brown, Susanna Elm, and Kate Cooper. I delved in with relish and didn't mind that much was well over my head. Mostly, my elders had started me off with the primary texts. The intervening years have provided many more academic treatments of women, gender, and sexuality in the early Christian era and an array of excellent new translations and sourcebooks for teaching primary material. Most textbooks treat the subject with care and respect. The current decade has given us two very fine books on women in the first five centuries of Christianity intended for students and general readers.
Band of Angels by Kate Cooper and Christian Women in the Patristic World, co-authored by Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes, cover roughly the same material and with similar approaches. Cooper starts earlier with examinations of women in Pauline and Gospel writings, Cohick and Brown commence in the second century, but both travel through the upheavals and metamorphoses of Christianity from its marginal beginnings to the imperial courts of the mid-fifth century. In both books we meet Thecla, Perpetua, Felicitas, Egeria, Paula, the Melanias Elder and Younger, Macrina, Helena, and Pulcheria. Each introduces a few figures that the other does not. Cohick and Brown notably include a chapter on the interpretation of female figures in catacomb art; Cooper devotes a chapter to the desert mothers.
The institutional homes of these two books are distinct. Cooper is faculty at a secular British university and Atlantic Books is the "literary" fiction and nonfiction imprint of the larger Atlantic independent publishing house out of the UK. [End Page 491] Cohick and Hughes both work at major Evangelical colleges in the United States and published with Baker Academic, the academic imprint of Baker Publishing group, an American press that explicitly serves an Evangelical readership. Yet there is very little that distinguishes approach or style of scholarship. Both books state a desire to retrieve feminine pasts for Christian women of the present, both are informed by feminist scholarship of the past half century, both wrestle with the dilemmas of how much male-authored sources really tell us about their female subjects. Cohick and Hughes do include a lengthy footnote devoted to Protestant evaluations of early Christian Marian devotion, perhaps in anticipation of a readership with deep reservations about such devotion. Cooper on the other hand takes a strong, and fairly positive, stand on the extent to which Empress Helena identified herself with Mary. In one of the few references to Cooper's earlier book, Cohick and Hughes disagree (117n31).
There are some slight differences in emphasis. Band of Angels contains no footnotes; there are endnotes, but they are not marked in the main text. Cooper includes more first person commentary and connects the experiences of early Christian women with presumably universal experiences of motherhood, loss, and hope. Her imagined reader might more likely be a pastor, an active and well-educated member of a Christian community, or an educated person with a general interest in history. My mother, a retired physician, read the book before I did (I bought it for her as a Christmas gift) and is probably just the sort of reader Cooper has in mind. Christian Women in the Patristic World, however, is footnoted and the layout is more textbook than general nonfiction. The authors include a number of black and white open source images, about which more later. The text reads as easily as Cooper's...