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Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie


Greschat, Katharina


Gelehrte Frauen des frühen Christentums. Zwölf Porträts.


Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann Verlag 2015. X, 215 S. m. 9 Abb. = Standorte in Antike und Christentum, 6. Kart. EUR 44,00. ISBN 978-3-7772-1514-3.


Maria E. Doerfler

Few topics have attracted more attention from scholars of late an-tiquity and early Christianity in recent decades than those of women and gender more broadly. The reader is thus startled to learn in the introduction to Katharina Greschat’s recent volume Gelehrte Frauen des frühen Christentums, that »strangely, German scholarship lacks almost entirely a study of educated women in ancient Christianity« (»[…] doch merkwürdigerweise gibt es im deutschsprachigen Bereich so gut wie keine Untersuchung zu gelehrten Frauen des antiken Christentums« [VII]). This is the scholarly lacuna the book seeks to remedy by providing twelve concise portraits of learned women (gelehrte Frauen) from the first six centuries of Christian history, their impact on their communities, and their continued impact on later authors.
G. pointedly (and wisely) brackets out those learned women to whom the New Testament attests, choosing instead as her starting point Thecla, the celebrated apostle from Iconium, and selecting eleven other early Christian women who, to a greater or lesser de­gree, fit the epithet. Chapters typically include a brief biographical sketch, and an analysis of ancient literary works written by or about the woman in question. In each instance, information gleaned from primary sources is considered against the backdrop of late ancient history and, where applicable, a text’s reception history.
The book’s protagonists include most of the leading lights of late ancient asceticism, including, Marcrina, Marcella, Paula, the younger Melania, and Olympias. That these names are so familiar to students of early Christianity is due partly to the fact that they have received considerable attention in particularly English-speak­ing scholarship over the past few decades. G. is well aware of the scholarly footprint most of her subjects have generated; the vol-ume’s endnotes attest both to her extensive reading and her efforts to incorporate the apposite secondary literature into her work. Gelehrte Frauen, however, is not primarily concerned with adding to an already impressive body of academic writing on women in late antiquity. The book’s contribution rather lies, on the one hand, in G.’s interest in speaking beyond the realm of specialists to reach interested lay readers, and, on the other, her focus on profiling women with a view towards their role as authors and teachers, as educated and educators.
Both aspirations are commendable and promise to make sig-nificant contributions to the field of late ancient studies. On the one hand, interest in women as avatars of wisdom in late antiquity continues unabated in contemporary scholarship and provides openings for engagement across different disciplines. By the same token, accessible, well-crafted sources for introducing students to the world of early Christian women are, from the pedagogue’s perspective, simply invaluable. The volume’s aims, however, also present considerable challenges, of which G., much to her credit, is well aware. Chief among these is the primary source record, and the overwhelming absence of women’s literary efforts from it. Women in late antiquity learned to write at lower rates than men, a topic G. addresses in her introductory chapter; still more troublingly, their writings were rarely preserved. Nor are the few works that survive by women always particularly revelatory about what it might have meant to be a learned woman in late antiquity; Faltonia Betitia Proba’s Cento, composed entirely of lines from Virgil, for example, gives readers a pleasing glimpse into the extent of elite women’s education, while nevertheless problematizing notions of authorship.
Gelehrte Frauen addresses these challenges chiefly in two ways. On the one hand, as already noted, the volume looks beyond writ-ings produced by women to writings about women. The characters that emerge from these portrayals, as G. candidly acknowledges, are accordingly »gebildet« in more than one sense of the word: they appear as educated exemplars of Christian womanhood, but they are also literarily formed by their hagiographers and interlocutors. By the same token, the volume also employs a measure of fluidity with regard to the definition of learnedness. Despite the ample representation of »the usual suspects,« the book aspires to consider­able catholicity, including women from across the late ancient world and from different socioeconomic backgrounds. As a result, not all of its subjects are the formally educated, philosophically trained authors the term might suggest to contemporary readers. Rather, learnedness, for G., appears in a number of guises that take into account women’s work as writers and teachers, as well as their identification with these practices in later – at times: very late – reception history, and their presentation as exemplars to others.
As already noted, the volume is well-resourced and extensively footnoted, especially considering its aim to reach a broad audience. G.’s work is eminently accessible, balancing the fruits of literary analysis and historical contextualization with narratively engag­ing sketches of some of early Christianity’s most intriguing indi-viduals. The absence of a bibliography is regrettable, as is the pro-liferation of typographical errors, particularly when it comes to identifying foreign scholars by name (see, for example, the refer-ences to Stephan [Stephen] J. Davis [155 and passim], Janel [Janet] E. Spittler [157], Roger S. Bagnell [Bagnall; 172]). To call attention to these risks detracting from the book’s many fine qualities; they nevertheless mar what is otherwise an attractive presentation. Such quibbles notwithstanding, Gelehrte Frauen des frühen Christentums will serve as a valuable resource for readers interested in immersing themselves or their students in the world of early Christian women.