Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Patriarchal Prejudice and Pride in Greek Christianity

This Orthodox dogma of a special inferior "feminine nature" has not yet been relegated to the relics of the past. In the twentieth century a Russian Orthodox priest and theologian added his voice to those of the venerable Fathers when he declared that woman is a "vessel of infirmity" characterized by "inadequate self-control, irresponsibility, passion, blind judgments…"24 The point of this description is identical to that which a popular preacher made in the fifth century. Using more picturesque language, Hesychius of Jerusalem proclaimed that every female who is born is "an unsound instrument, a weak vessel, a shattered pot."25 Firmly anchored in selected sacred texts and in the authoritative pronouncements of the Greek Fathers, this pejorative and degrading icon of woman seems to have survived in spite of science, socioeconomic changes and the passage of more than a thousand years.

The same primitive creation story which is recorded in Genesis 2:13-20 and which provided the proof-text and origin of Christendom's doctrine of woman's inferiority also furnished Biblical justification for her subjection to man. For her part in the first disobedience, God sentenced Eve to pain in childbirth and to subservience to her husband: "he will rule over you."26 What was originally descriptive of the human condition in general and of woman's situation in particular became prescriptive for the Church early in its history, as is evident from the Epistles of the New Testament. On the basis of Genesis 3:16 the writers of these Epistles proclaimed woman's subjection to man as God's immortal design for the relationship between male and female. Because Eve was the first to eat the forbidden fruit, women were doomed to "complete subjection." For, it is explained, "Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.27 Concluding from this evidence that Eve was to blame for the appearance of evil in the world, the Fathers designated her the "mother" or the "author" of sin.28 Thus is woman's enslavement to man justified, a consequence of Eve's disastrous misbehavior in Eden. Chrysostom imagines a scene in which God sternly tells Eve she must accept responsibility for her fate.29

Already strictly enforced by ancient customs and law codes the suppression and debasement of half of the human race gained religious sanction at the hands of the Church. The Apostle commands all Christian women to be subservient to men "in all things."30 Υπσταγη (submission) and υποτασσεσθαι (to be obedient) are the key words in the relevant passages.31

With one accord the Fathers accepted and taught this oligarchic relationship as normative. Being the "head" of woman, the male commands, and the female submits.32 Chrysostom describes woman's status as essentially subordinate υποτακτικος.33 St. Gregory of Nyssa declares that by "divine commandment" a wife is "not mistress (κυρια) of herself. So complete is woman's subservience and dependence on her husband that Gregory concludes "if she is separated from him even briefly it is as if she has been deprived of her head."34

Woman's subordination to man further entailed unconditional silence in public. The Fathers quoted with approval35 and rigorously enforced the mandate of I Corinthians 14:34-35: "Women are to be quiet in church, for they have no permission to speak. They are to be submissive… for it is a shame (αισχρον) for women to speak in church."36 As a result, for almost two millennia women remained not only silent but illiterate as well. The few women who were educated and brave enough to defy this apostolic prohibition encountered harsh patriarchal disapproval. One such spirited woman was a nun named Theodosia who lived in the fifth century. To this bold nun St. Nilus, the prominent abbot of a monastery near Ancyra, wrote the following letter, "It happens," he reminds her, "that your body makes you a woman, whether you like it or not. So stop teaching men in the church. For the Apostle made it clear that this is shameful, even though you may say ten thousand times that you have transcended the female condition, and that you are more steadfast than men…37 Because by her διδασκαλια (instruction) Eve had caused Adam to go astray, women were forever barred from teaching in the Church.38

Some Fathers nevertheless worried that women who had been deprived of their voices might circumvent the Apostle by resorting to the pen and the written word. Didymus the Blind, a learned Christian teacher in cosmopolitan Alexandria, voiced this fear when he wrote that women must not write books "without restraint and on their own authority."39

By the fifth century the Greek Fathers had established what has proved to be a durable Orthodox theology of women. There is no comparable theology of men. Equipped with appropriate sacred texts, exegesis, typology and vocabulary, all tilted against woman upon whom it enjoins silence, segregation and subjection, this theology served not only subsequent generations of preachers, prelates, and teachers, but the liturgical poets of Greek Christendom as well. From choir stalls and pulpits alike male voices formed a chorale, reiterating the traditional anti-woman icon of Eve and the whole female species. Because Eve is seen to be reincarnated in each of her daughters, all women are included in a single pejorative image.