16 Dec Celebrating Women Preachers Since the Early Church
“The Passion and Enlightening of
Asian Mothers in Early Christianity”
by, Jade Lee
December 10, 2020
Since the beginning of time, theological and philosophical questions have been raised concerning the role of women and how they should function in society. Eve, the Mother of All Living, has received the stigma of causing mankind to fall from grace due to her decision to eat of the fruit in the Garden of Eden.
Because of this fall and the prevailing role of patriarchy, many have permanently subjugated Eve to a status lesser than Adam. In other words, she is bound to the following curse: “He told the Woman: “I’ll multiply your pains in childbirth; you’ll give birth to your babies in pain. You’ll want to please your husband, but he’ll lord it over you.”” Rather than submit to one another and acknowledge there is no male nor female in the kingdom of God, many have lorded over the female gender forgetting the power of mutual submission. Since the early church there has been division and questioning over female leadership; however, females have been influential in apostolically spreading Christianity to entire nations. These females were not only found in classical Rome or Europe, as depicted in much of the art and theological discussions; they were present in the African and Asian diaspora even prior to the Christianization of the Roman Empire through Constantinople. Were females in leadership in the early church? If so, who were they, what did they accomplish, what offices did they hold, how was their leadership received, challenged and changed as Christian women? These questions will be answered throughout this text in effort to decenter patriarchy in Christian history, expanding upon the historical foundation for early Christian womanist history and theology.
From the onset of early Christianity, women were a vital part of the evangelizing the world. In fact, women were the first missionaries of the bisrat (gospel) of Jesus Christ. The women of the resurrection shared the good news that Jesus was no longer in the tomb where his remains were laid to rest.
The tomb was empty, “and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Perhaps Jesus allowed these women to be the first proclaimers to share this news because he knew they would believe and steward the message well. The male apostles initially rationalized away his resurrection. Regardless of why women were chosen, it is clear that the precedent for fearless, bold bisrat witness regardless of cultural acceptance or exaltation was to be a key aspect of the apostolic mothers’ lives.
As a whole, women in antiquity were not highly regarded, even by well respected male theologians such as Tertullian, who celebrated the virgin Mary while condemning the apostolic work of Thecla, because she “symbolized both apostolic freedom and apostolic authority.”
In their work, Women and Christian Origins, Ross Shepard Kraemer and Mary Rose D’Angelo emphasize the hypocrisy of patriarchal mindsets during this time, “The same Tertullian who disparaged Thecla as an example for women seeking authority within the church makes the grandoise claim that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’” Women were expected to play a domestic role and were “subordinated to the men in her family, so that before marriage she was answerable to the authority of her father and brothers and after marriage she was subject to the hegemony of her husband…women were generally excluded from or marginalized in their cultures’ economic, political and religious life.” Martyrdom was not enough to honor these women’s call to proclaim the bisrat. Yet, like the first proclaimers of the resurrection, women across the world continued to take great risks in sharing their faith, even at the cost of martyrdom.
History reveals that there were female leaders in the early church, not only in Western regions, but in both Africa and Asia. The women we will explore in this short discourse are apostolic mothers and martyrs from the Eastern church of antiquity (8th century BC to 4th century AD). The following holy mothers will be surveyed in this text based on time periods and locality, rather than level of importance or influence: Nino (Georgia, c. 290-340 CE), Rhipsime (Armenia, c. 290), and Princess Shushanik (Armenia, c.440-340 CE).
In the early fourth century Armenia became the first nation to become Christian from the monarchy down. According to Dr. Vince Bantu, professor of African/Asian Christian History and author of A Multitude of Peoples, Armenia is “still the oldest Christian nation around today.” This nation was not found in Europe; rather it was a smaller sovereignty surrounded by Persia on one side and Rome on the other. At times Armenia was ruled by Rome, Persia and other nations. On sparse occasion, she was independently ruled. The influence of these surrounding empires could be seen in Armenia’s language, religion, arts and other forms of cultural identity. In Gillman and Klimkeit’s, Christians in Asia Before 1500, It is noted that Armenians were “always more closely related in terms of culture, language, dress etc. to Persia than to the Graeco-Roman world.” Zoroastrianism, for example, was a major religious influence infiltrating Armenian life. However, the bisrat had been planted in Armenia since the “mid 1st century CE, when Thaddeus and Batholomew…brought the bisrat to Armenia.” This created the fruitful ground for both Gregory the Illuminator and the female missionary, Rhipsime, to share the bisrat with the royal family of Armenia.
Rhipsime (c. 290) is now “seen as an apostle to Armenia,” and she is known to be a “beautiful woman.” She and other nuns escaped from the Roman emperor, Diocletian (who was known for Christian persecution), fleeing to Armenia. Upon her arrival, she was captured by the king and Rhipsime literally had to fight him when he tried to abusively take her purity,
“Now when the king entered, he forcefully seized her to fulfill his lustful desire. But she, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, fought like a wild beast and battled like a man. They fought beginning from the third hour up until the tenth, until she defeated the king, he who was known for his incredible strength…he who was so famous in every way, was now overcome and defeated by a single girl through the will and power of Christ….But she persisted all the more and said, ‘Be courageous, stand firm, and presently you will see Christ for whom you have longed.”
Her determination and strength more than the king could handle; after defeating his advances, she escaped for a time, but King Tiridat had her “recaptured, tortured, and killed along with thirty-six other virgins who had accompanied her in flight to Armenia.” This all occurred while Gregory the Illuminator was held for 13 years in a pit of persecution. Gregory would receive reward of both his and Rhipsime’s suffering whereas, upon her death the king lamented her loss and became a mad man. Some accounts even claim King Tiridates became a wild boar. This was considered a “punishment from the Lord.” Upon his recovery, Gregory was freed and shared the bisrat to the king witnessing his salvation. This is the account of how the martyred blood of the holy woman, Rhipsime, and 36 other nuns became the foundation for the Christianization of the entire nation of Armenia.
God ensured their honor as Gregory gave credit by the “enshrining” of their remains in Armenia’s commencing churches. Although they were “of Roman origin” eventually Rhipsime and these nuns were “adopted by the populace and incorporated into the Armenian pantheon of saints.” Due to Rhipsime’s passion, Armenia entered a golden age of prosperity including an explosive Biblical teaching and evangelistic movement through iconography, whereas, only the elite were literate. According to “Sacred Arts of Armenia”, “these icons can be considered as the world’s first printed material to promote a cause and popularize ideology. Yes, you can look upon them as the world’s first flyers and brochures.”
The neighboring country, Georgia, would soon take Armenia’s lead.
A slave woman named Nino (c.290-340 CE), entered into a very polytheistic and pagan land, yet she would successfully convert the entire royal family and thus nation with her bold witness. “According to “Life of St. Nino”, after rising up a Christian cross in Kartli by St.Nino, pagan idols were destroyed by wind and thunder. It is remarkable, that the defeat of paganism in Georgia occurred according to the Christian thinking of the Middle Ages.” Although the apostles had already entered Georgia and shared the bisrat, paganism was strongly practiced in this region. The apostle’s seeds would not go in vain; Georgia was being ripened for mass conversion to Christianity. Nino reached Georgia in 303 and because of Nino’s message, King Mirian III converted to Christianity in 337. According to Bantu’s account, her appearance in Georgian records is “the earliest historically reliable record of the beginning of Christianity in Georgia.” Nino became famous in Georgia due to a series of unfortunate events.
First a boy became gravely sick and his mother was in need of help. Because Nino had been faithfully sharing the bisrat with her neighbors she was positioned to become a sought after spiritual leader in her area. But no one received her message on the onset. In response to a mother’s grieving heart, Nino who “had been living a pious and chaste life among the Georgians,” took the sickly child, placed him on a shirt and healed him. Soon, news of this miracle spread across the country, the Queen of Georgia became sick, called for Nino and was healed in the same manner. Consequently, the queen became a Christian and the king followed suit over time, resulting in the Christianization of Georgia.
This study will conclude with the Passion of Saint Shushanik (c. 440-475), a mother and martyr of the faith. Shushanik was a descendant of Gregory the Illuminator, whom we recall evangelized the royal family of Armenia. Shushanik is believed to have married Vazgen, who’s family had deceived the king of Iran when expected to convert to Zoroastrianism. Three kings pretended to convert in the rebellion of 451 after refusing to change faiths, but the Persians regained control and Shushanik, amongst other women and children came under Persian rule. Her husband’s marriage to her would have created suspicions in the Persian court and eventually he completely rejected the Christian faith.
According to the Passion of Saint Shushanik, they had “3 sons and a daughter” and “the children were probably of age and baptized as Christians, since the father promised the king to convert them to Zoroastrianism.” Because of her husband’s determination to marry and have relations with “his own daughter,” Shushanik rebuked and reproved him. His response was intensely disturbing whereas he became angry at her refusal to have relations with him. He “harassed the blessed Shushanik for six years with many tortures, insults and beatings, starvation and thirst, all manner of torments and afflictions. Thus the blessed [woman] suffered at the hands of the impious man who had alienated himself from God and from all expectation of the hope for life which is reserved for those who trust in Christ.”. Eventually, she was martyred by her husband and honored throughout the land of Georgia for her great devotion and sacrifice for Christ.
In like manner to other female martyrs and preachers, Shushanik boldly spoke up for the faith. In Dr. Bantu’s lecture, “The Khacker and the Caucasus”, he provides specific examples of how she bravely faced her unbelieving husband. She told him, “You have renounced the True God and bowed down before the fire. Just as you have despised your Creator, so I pour contempt upon you. Even if you inflict many tortures on me, I will have no part in your doings.” Furthermore, he provides examples of how she was brutally treated, “Then Varsken began to utter foul-mouthed insults and kicked her with his foot. Picking up a poker, he crashed it on her head and split it open and injured one of her eyes. And he struck her face unmercifully with his fist dragged her to and fro by hair, bellowing like a wild beast and roaring like a madman.” Even upon death she continued to turnher heart toward Christ, ““Then she gave thanks to God, saying, ‘Blessed is our Lord God, for on Him I will lay myself down and sleep in peace.’ And she entrusted her soul to the Lord, who receives all mankind in His mercy.”
The remarkable endurance, fortitude and bravery these women faced on a personal, national, physical, spiritual and emotional level is astounding in an era of hardened patriarchy. These women refused to bow to the practices and interpretations of roles they were expected to embrace, choosing rather to place God at the center of their lives. God’s mission was more important to them than societal norms, their husband’s expectations or the popularity of varying religions. They would stand, at times alone and against all odds becoming the voices, faces and embodiment of the bisrat, the passion of Christ in female form.
This is a reminder that women today are just as valuable in light of the need for co-labourers for Christ. As these women preached the unadulterated truth of God’s word, in the face of great loss, their stories can and should be used to encourage post-modern women to preach the bisrat in the face of patriarchy, over-sexualization and disbelief. Women preachers continue to be disallowed to take office in many congregations and denominations,regardless of their competency, sacrifice, heart or accomplishments. However, this never excuses women from preaching the bisrat at home like Shushanik, to neighbors and leaders like Nino and to royalty like Rhipsime. All contexts are important and needed, knowing God will expand the efforts of women, awarding their obedience.
In my own context, I have been gossiped about, people have left our congregation and men have fought against my pastoral leadership because I am a woman. At times, it has been tempting to leave my preaching and teaching role because of this pushback, but like these mothers of the faith, the Lord continues to press upon my heart the importance of my obedience. Recently, my husband interviewed at a church historically in a denomination known for condemning female preachers, yet this congregation desired their next pastor to “share his pulpit” with women. This was another encouragement and kiss from heaven that I am to continue preaching the bisrat. I now realize that my ministerial assignment is continuing the rich legacy of early church mothers that were validated by Jesus Chirst. Their stories reveal through testimony and witness of the Spirit’s movement, the confirmation of bold, apostolic female voices in the ecclesia.
Bantu, Vince L. A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020.
Bantu, Vince. “Agat‘angeghos, History of Armenia.” Lecture 7. MDiv Class, Fuller Seminary, 2020.
Bantu, Vince. “The Khacker of the Caucasus.” Week 7 Lecture. MDiv Class, Fuller Seminary,
Bantu, Vince. “The Khacker of Caucasus.” Week 7 PPT. MDiv Class, Fuller Seminary, 2020.
Captivating History. Armenian History: A Captivating Guide to the History of Armenia and the
Armenian Genocide. Captivating History, 2019.
Gabrei, Father. The Life of Saint Nino the Enlightener of the Georgians and Equal to the Apostles. Location 1.
Corrington, Gail, S. “Women as Sources of Redemption and Knowledge in Early Church
Traditions.” In Women and Christian Origins. edited by Mary, R. D’Angelo and Ross, S. Kraemer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Gillman, Ian & Hans-Joachim Klimkeit. Christians in Asia Before 1500. New York, Rutledge, 1999.
Goderdzishvili, Keti. “Pagan Pantheon of Old Kartli And its Defeat by Christianity According to Life of Saint Nino.” Journal of Education 1, no. 1 (2012).
Gureghian, Aida. “Eternalizing a Nation: Armenian Hishatakarans in the Seventeenth Century.” Church history 79, no. 4 (2010).
Horn, Cornelia B. “The Lives and Literary Roles of Children in Advancing Conversion to
Christianity: Hagiography from the Caucasus in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.” Church History 76, no. 2 (2007): 262-97. Accessed December 9, 2020.
Iakob Tsurtaveli. The Passion of Saint Shushanik, ed. Father Krikor Vardapet Maksoudia. New York, NY: St. Vartan Press, 1999.
Lafayette, Maximillien. Sacred Art of Armenia: Katchkars, Iconography and Illuminated
Manuscripts. New York: Time Square Press, 2012. https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B00A4NPGWK
Michael J. McClymond and Lamin Sanneh, trans. The Wiley Blackwell Companion to World
Christianity. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley and Sons, LTD, 2016.
Suzzane Richard, trans. Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader. Winona Lake, Indiana: , 2003.
Sterk, Andrea. “Mission from Below: Captive Women and Conversion on the East Roman Frontiers.” Church History 79, no. 1 (2010).