Women & Christianity
Volume I: The First Thousand Years (Orbis Books 2001)
By: Mary T. Malone
Review By: Ann Marie Nocella
Many of us who were educated in the Catholic schools of the 50s, 60s and 70s might be amazed at the rich history of women of major significance who were left out of our religious studies and catechism instruction. Those looking for the missing truth about women saints, Mary the Virgin Mother of God, and for clarification of Mary Magdalene’s story, will find Women & Christianity, Volume I: The First Thousand Years (Orbis 2001) a rewarding read.
Feminist educator and author Mary T. Malone has gifted us with a historical synopsis and inspiring reinterpretation of the lives of both known and hidden Christian women. We learn about their lives, actions and accomplishments, in the historical context in which they lived. She opens with a 1988 quote from John Paul II: “…in all of Jesus’ teaching, as well as in his behavior, one can find nothing which reflects the discrimination against women prevalent in his day.” To Malone, this quote establishes the importance of rereading and reinterpreting the marginalized stories of early Christian women.
Malone takes us through New Testament times, the Golden Age, and into the Dark Ages, exploring the historical forces that played a significant part in creating as well as diminishing leadership roles for women. She examines the familiar biblical stories of women—the women who anointed Jesus, women with debilitating illnesses cured by Jesus, the sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and the ever popular “repentant prostitute” Mary Magdalene - and reinterprets and rehabilitates their roles, responsibilities and historical reputations.
Tucked between a comprehensive dateline/introduction and an all-inclusive bibliography, index and notes sections, are the stories of women disciples, martyrs, canonesses, deaconesses, house-church leaders, abbesses and missionaries, all women who had leadership roles in founding communities and were spiritual guides in early Christian times. Malone offers a new perspective and helps us overcome long-held perceptions by providing meaningful explanations of their lives within the context of the historical realities of the times. She shows the relevance of a wide range of influences, such as the monarchies, the spreading of the Word of God geographically, the meaning of the virtue of virginity on roles for women, the respect for and responsibilities of widows, abbesses and benefactresses, the trend toward monasticism and cloisters, and the more recent discoveries of the Apocryphal and Gnostic writings.
After reading the first volume, I wondered how so many of these women could have been excluded from my own education, and I worry about the implications and wisdom of continuing their exclusion in church history courses. Thanks to Malone’s fine research, educators now have a ready resource to balance the historical record for Catholic women and men of the future. I look forward to reading Volumes II and III of Malone’s monumental and much needed work: Women & Christianity: From 1000 to the Reformation and Women & Christianity: From the Reformation to the 21st Century (Orbis 2002 and 2003 respectively).