Early Christianity 2021 Programme

Chairs: Dominika Kurek-Chomycz and Francis Watson

Session 1

Christina Kreinecker, KU Leuven, ‘Ancient Everyday Life and Women’s Well-Being’

 Documentary Papyri from the Graeco-Roman world are a treasure trove for analysing New Testament writings in their socio-historical context. They shed particular light on the lives of ancient women which in turn affects the understanding of passages speaking about women in the New Testament and in Early Christian writings. Next to considering the differing social statuses of women mentioned in documentary papyri, this presentation will look at documents containing information about women’s physical well-being. For example, in P.Oxy. L 3555 the collision of a donkey-carriage with a slave-girl, in which she seriously injured her hand, is reported by her slave-owner, Thermouthion, who describes herself as a “weak” woman in need of help; at the same time though, this document shows that actually she herself is the one taking action to see justice done. In this presentation a variety of such papyrological examples with specific relevance for women mentioned in the New Testament context will be illustrated and discussed. 

Session 2

Sarah Whitear, Leuven, ‘Firm Faith, Infirm Bodies: The Haemorrhoissa as an Example for Menstruating Women in the Early Church’

In some early Christian sources, the Haemorrhoissa is utilised as an exemplar for menstruating women in the Church. For Dionysius her tale shows that pious women would not dare to come to the altar and receive communion whilst bleeding. Yet, in other texts, the Didascalia and later in a letter from Gregory the Great, we find the opposite belief: the pericope shows that women should not be prevented from coming to the church and participating in religious activities on the basis of their period of ‘infirmity’. This paper will examine the utilisation of the story of the Haemorrhoissa in early Christianity in relation to arguments about women’s religious practices during menstruation. It aims to demonstrate that through emphasising different elements of the same narrative, early Christian writers were able to use the pericope for contrasting arguments. It will examine the use of the synoptic story in the writings of Dionysius of Alexandria, the Didascalia, and Gregory the Great. 

Elif Karaman, Dokuz Eylül University, Izmir, ‘O Priestess, Wherefore Art Thou? Women’s Religious Roles in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Context’

In their presentation of women as wives, mothers, widows, and social figures, early Christian writings related to Asia Minor, particularly Ephesus, bear a striking resemblance to literary and archaeological sources from the area. Early Christian authors borrowed substantially from Greco-Roman traditions and social values when constructing nascent communities. However, the correlation stops when it comes to women in religious roles. This paper will explore how and why Christian authors deviated from cultural norms in terms of granting women power within religious roles. Considerable evidence, particularly inscriptional, depicts priestesses of various cults from Ephesus. However, early Christian writings linked to Ephesus esteem women for their help in the community and submissiveness to God, while rarely mentioning their active involvement in religious ceremony or administrative matters. Moreover, in the rare exceptions to this, women’s positions do not seem to be specifically connected to their gender. I will argue that Ephesian women, sought after to fulfil religious roles in Greco-Roman society precisely because of their gender, were shunned from these in early Christian circles for this same reason. 

Session 3

Jeremiah Coogan, University of Oxford, ‘Celsus on Gospel Plurality and Incompetent Readers’

The second-century philosopher Celsus mocked Christians who “alter (μεταχαράττειν) the original text of the Gospel three or four or many times … to reject criticisms” (Cels. 2.27). Modern consensus has understood this passage as attesting Celsus’ knowledge of multiple Gospels. Yet while Origen’s treatise offers abundant evidence for Celsus’ knowledge of Matthew, it does not provide clear evidence for Celsus’ knowledge of other Gospels (even at Cels. 5.52). I argue in this paper that Celsus’ criticism is better explained in light of elite second-century polemic—by Gellius, Galen, Lucian, and others—against inferior readers who lack discernment and arbitrarily alter manuscripts. Celsus’ complaint is not about a contradictory multi-Gospel corpus but about varying ἀντίγραφα of (what he thinks to be) the same work. Christians’ irresponsible textual practices reveal their inadequate παιδεία and cultural inferiority. Textual instability, not contradiction, is the focus of Celsus’ complaint. This re-reading challenges the widespread idea that early Christian engagement with a pluriform Gospel corpus was prompted by cultured despisers’ critiques of contradiction. 

Julia Lindenlaub, University of Edinburgh, ‘Apocryphon of James (NHC I,2) and the Evolution of Scholarly Reading Communities in Roman Egypt’

A striking letter found at Oxyrhynchus and dated to the second century, P.Oxy. 2192 attests senders and recipients engaged as a social group in scholastic activity. These colleagues refer to the libraries of both individual and bookseller, specify texts for sending and copying, and demonstrate awareness of another literary circle seemingly engaged in the same enterprise. In parallel, Apocryphon of James (NHC I,2) features epistolary address from its fictive author to a lacunose recipient and also refers to a previously sent book (1.1–35). James furthermore admonishes his recipient to ensure that only a privileged few are entrusted with such texts. On the basis of these corresponding epistolary features, this paper aims to draw parallels between the ostensible second-century Egyptian provenance of Apocryphon of James and its fourth-century manuscript preservation by educated study circles of Egyptian Christianity. This paper will suggest that in both contexts, continuity can be identified between social circles demarcated by a scholastic reading culture, illustrating the evolution of reading communities in Roman Egypt.