Band of Angels: The forgotten world of early
Atlantic Books £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code
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
Engagingly written, beautifully produced (good print-size),
informative, and thought-provoking, this would make an excellent
Canon Loveday Alexander is Emeritus Professor of Biblical
Studies at the University of Sheffield.