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Reviewed by:
  • Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hysterical Woman
  • Constance E. McLeese
Margaret MacDonald. Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hysterical Woman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xiv + 276. $54.95.

The reconstruction of history is a daunting challenge, fraught with theoretical and methodological difficulties. When the history to be reconstructed is hidden as is the history of Christian women during the second century, the project is even more problematic. This is the task to which Margaret MacDonald sets herself in Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion. Her work picks up the story roughly where Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza left off in In Memory of Her and continues through to the end of the second century.

MacDonald carefully sets the methodological parameters of her work. Her approach borrows from the models of modern sociology and anthropology producing several overlapping interpretive lenses through which textual data is read. These include the categories of honor and shame as described of David Gilmore, private and public as found in Ross Shepherd-Kraemer, D. Cohen and J. Campbell and a “social scientific concept of power” as articulated by Michelle Z. Rosaldo. Of particular interest from the latter is the distinction between power and authority. The theory of illegitimate power, which the disenfranchised use in order to navigate through and live harmoniously with socially and culturally sanctioned authority, prompts MacDonald to suggest that second century Christian women may have possessed more power than is generally recognized in traditional feminist scholarship. MacDonald proposes to analyze women’s power as opposed to authority in order to reconstruct her history of this period.

MacDonald divides her data into three categories, which ultimately constitute the three main sections of her work. The first group is made up of pagan writers from the second century. These include Pliny’s letter to Trajan, Marcus Cornelius Fronto as found in Minucius Felix’s Octavius, Lucius Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, Lucian of Samosata’s The Passing of Pereginus, Galen of Pergamum and Celsus as found in Origen’s Contra Celsum. This combination of writers brings a less frequently explored perspective to early Christian women’s history. Celsus and Fronto also serve to highlight the extremely speculative nature of historical reconstruction. Celsus as edited by Origen and Fronto as edited by Minucius Felix provide at best hints and whispers to pagan understanding of Christian woman. The link between pagan polemic as transmitted via Christian polemic to the real lives or lived experience of Christian woman is extremely tenuous. This is a point which MacDonald herself makes during her introduction.

The second section of the book is devoted to Pauline literature. MacDonald includes the Acts of Paul and Thecla in this group. While generally agreeing with current feminist scholarship that the pseudo-Pauline epistles represent an ethical conservatism prompted by concern for the Church’s public image, MacDonald attempts to produce a more variegated picture. She finds that the fluid nature of the boundaries between the private and the public with regard to Church [End Page 150] organization promotes tacit recognition of the power of women to function unobtrusively as proselytizers in their roles as wife, mother and household slaves. When looked at from this perspective some of the Pauline comments upon marriage can be interpreted as being highly subversive. For example, the counsel provided to women married to non-believers in I Cor. 7:12–16 and 1 Pet. 3:1–6, far from enforcing the status quo, advises a radical course of action which is at direct odds with the ideal wife of the Greco-Roman household. MacDonald suggests that in refusing to adopt the gods of the head of the household and by continuing their subtle proselytizing, Christian women operated on a dangerously exposed Christian front line, clearly violating their husbands’ authority.

The third and concluding section of the work includes an extremely thought provoking analysis of the interrelationship between second century Christian comments upon marriage and the development of marriage as an ecclesial metaphor. MacDonald suggests that the link between the roles played by married Christian woman and this choice of symbolic language is far more a reflection of historical ecclessial realities...

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pp. 150-151
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