Cooper's book ends with an imagined meeting between the Virgin Mary and the bishops arguing over he status in 451AD. Photograph: Getty Images.
Band of Angels: the Forgotten World
of Early Christian Women
Atlantic Books, 368pp, £25
Today, the phrase “Christian women” does not usually excite or inspire. Figures such as Dot Cotton and Ann Widdecombe spring to mind; one thinks of a conservative and bossy (or conversely submissive) character, not someone who will set the world on fire.
Kate Cooper brings a freshness to the subject in Band of Angels, her survey of women during the first 500 years of Christianity. Her book is characterised by a scholarly seriousness and the disarmingly unapologetic way she links the personal, the political and the institutional. Avoiding clichés, she excavates the experiences of a wide range of women, letting them speak for themselves. Strikingly, she also refers to her own experiences.
At times, the book interweaves close readings of ancient texts, such as the diary of the martyr Perpetua from the 3rd century, with anecdotal reflection – for instance, a chance meeting with a citizen of Tebourba, Tunisia, in the present day – to illustrate the tension between religion and civic leadership. Cooper begins her history with a moving reflection on the death of her mother and the stories of the women in her family. She ends it with an imagined meeting between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the bishops arguing over her status at the Council of Chalcedon in 451AD.
In between the personal stories, detailed discussions about the meaning of less-wellknown texts, such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, probe the lazy assumptions of many contemporary Christians with regard to the place and role of women.
Cooper’s central argument is that it is possible, by tracing the development of the faith of Jesus’s followers over the first five centuries, to discover how women’s perspectives and voices in the growing institution were increasingly edited out. As structures were formalised and leadership roles became entrenched, women’s milieu – the informal, fluid, family-based network of relationships – became more confined to the domestic sphere and vanished from the public realm.
In the beginning of Christianity, the recruitment of followers was personal: one disciple at a time. Independent women such as Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, and Martha, the head of her household, were clearly influential among the contemporaries of Jesus. The chief source for these conversations and descriptions of women is the writer of the third Gospel and the book of Acts: Luke, whom Cooper (along with other scholars) suggests may have been female.
Cooper argues that the crowning achievement of the female perspective as far as the Church is concerned came at Chalcedon, at which the central doctrine of Christianity – that Christ was both fully human and fully divine –was declared after centuries of argument. Reading that Mary was described as Theotokos (“God-bearer”) and that she was championed by the powerful Empress Pulcheria, we learn that a commanding alliance was formed between Pulcheria and the theologian Cyril of Alexandria, who won the argument with Nestorius that set the Church on the course it is still steering today. The influence of the empress on the founding doctrine of Christianity is not something I have seen so clearly argued before. If one of Cooper’s aims, as she says in the introduction, was to write the kind of book that her mother and aunts might enjoy as intelligent but not professional readers of history, this chapter alone makes it worth reading the book.
Band of Angels is the best kind of popular history, which makes strange what might have been familiar to those steeped in feminist biblical critiques, while introducing us to generations of women – slave and free, rich and poor – whose influence can be discerned in the emotional intensity of Paul’s writing, in the quirky, wise reflections of the ascetic desert communities of the 4th century and in the corridors of power at Ephesus and Chalcedon.
That women figured so prominently as Christianity was being formed makes their institutional silence in later centuries more poignant and casts new light on today’s debates about women and religious authority. It seems that they were truly midwives of a fresh and revolutionary faith that championed justice and freedom, rooted in the knowledge that love was the basis for all life.
Reading about these first 500 years with the following a thousand in mind makes the words of these early women all the more powerful, because we know that their successors were shut out of public office, banned from teaching and martyred for suggesting that their voices should be heard. Cooper’s rediscovery of these women rescues them from a fate as silent pastelled saints and virgins in the frescoes of many churches. The members of the “band of angels” in this book are not perfect, but they are witty, flawed, compassionate, loving and brave – as those of us who are women know we can be.
Lucy Winkett is the rector of St James’s Piccadilly in central London