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Excellent women

20 December 2013

Loveday Alexander reads about Christ's early female followers


Band of Angels: The forgotten world of early Christian women
Kate Cooper
Atlantic Books £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT853 )

THIS book is a fascinating read. It celebrates "the small-scale acts of seemingly unimportant people that allowed Christianity to snowball into an empire-wide spiritual revolution". In a moving dedication, Kate Cooper evokes the treasure-house of family stories told by her own mother and grandmother at moments of family crisis; the tales that celebrated the leadership of the family's matriarchs, or the pluck and common sense of their dependants - tales that paid scant attention to the men whose stories dominated the public history of the period: "If men had more power than women, that did not mean they were more important."

So Cooper takes us into the "forgotten world" of early Christian storytelling, seeking to uncover the submerged stories of the matriarchs and heroines of early Christianity as they learned to "put the invisible rhythms of family life and hospitality to new use, as the framework to spread the faith".

The first two chapters explore the women of Paul's letters and the Gospels: Chloe and Phoebe, Mary and Martha, and the nameless women of Galilee who followed Jesus and attracted his loyalty in return. Read from this perspective, Luke's Gospel takes us into a world where women's authority is not seen as "something unusual, or a problem to be solved - it is simply a part of the landscape"; where the ministry of Jesus is framed "as a reflection of the heroic reality behind the everyday life of families".

Then we move into less familiar territory, exploring the world of Thecla and the Apocryphal Acts (Chapter 4), and of Perpetua and the martyrs (Chapter 5). We read the stories of the powerful women of the imperial family (Chapters 6 and 10), and of the patrician women who took control of their own lives to follow the path of asceticism or pilgrimage (Chapters 7, 8, and 9).

Even for readers who know this material, there will be less familiar treasures here, such as the affectionate description of Gregory's sister Macrina, and the ascetic community she set up on the family estate - a kind of fourth-century Little Gidding.

Lionel Trilling once remarked that it is important to impart to our notion of history "an appropriate complication". As a practising Roman historian, Cooper is well aware of the complexities of her field, and of the difficulties of making them comprehensible to the non-specialist.

She succeeds brilliantly: by laying out the competing possibilities; by showing how fiction can be as illuminating to the historian as fact; by filling us in on the (sometimes surprising) social and legal factors that governed women's lives in late antiquity; by generous quotation from the ancient sources; above all, by weaving them together into a narrative that brings her characters to life, and shows how their faith gave meaning to their lives.

Engagingly written, beautifully produced (good print-size), informative, and thought-provoking, this would make an excellent Christmas gift.

Canon Loveday Alexander is Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield.

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