Erasing Women From History

The title of biblical scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's 1984 book In Memory of Her gave tribute (as Jesus himself did!) to the woman who interrupted an all-male dinner in Bethany to anoint the feet of Jesus with costly perfume and then let down her long tresses to dry them (Mark 14:3-9). "Let her be," Jesus said to the disciples at table who were bemoaning this lavish, insightful expression of love. "Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed in all the world," he added, "what she has done will be told in memory of her."

The book's title was intended as a joke. The focus of Scvhussler Fiorenza's book was the purging of the role of women from the scriptural record and history of the church. The woman Jesus praised remains unknown to us because her name was never recorded. It is a weary adage that history is written by the winners, but this does explain the deleting, obscuring and distorting of women, minorities, victims, opponents and all other losers from the official record of both secular and ecclesial establishments. Ask the indigenous peoples of the "New World" who discovered America or how the West was won!

So when a contemporary group of pilgrims visited the archeological sites around Rome recently in search of evidence that women once held high office and real liturgical status in the primitive church, they found what all good historians find: the raw material for plausible interpretation. A second-century fresco depicting seven women at table with cups of wine and seven baskets of bread. A Eucharistic Banquet with women priests? A ninth-century church mosaic of a female with the word episcopa over her head. A woman bishop? Truth is in the eye of the beholder. If evidence for "herstory" (female authority in the church) is there looking back at us from the mosaics, frescoes, burial inscriptions and ancient texts, the truth of it has seldom registered with our male-run church. History's winners have chosen to ignore it.

If any evidence is still required in the 21st century to justify gender equality or a more egalitarian spirit in the Catholic church, it will not come from official history. But it may come from two other more authoritative sources: the New Testament itself and the inescapable truth that all history is selectively constructed to underpin current authority.

Even popes and cardinals robed in 15th century Renaissance court costumes, participating in Latin from 17th century baroque style thrones and pulpits, cannot ignore Jesus' explicit inclusion of women in the New Testament : a memory so strong that no Scriptural editor dared tamper with it. Women were the first witnesses to the Resurrection (the Gospel itself) because they were part of Jesus' life and ministry up to and including his death. Mary of Magdala, later maligned as a prostitute, was the first preacher sent to the disbelieving brothers. Early preachers, as Paul described, were teams of men and women. His own churches were dependent on a large group of fellow workers, carefully named and praised, women and men, in whose houses the Eucharist was celebrated. In the next generation, bishops were married. Deaconesses were ordained.

Why did this church, and the Christ it modeled in which there is "neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28), get lost? Why is there so little female authority in our church, starving it of domestic sensitivity, common sense, compassion and simple balance? Ask the winners, if you can find them, for they too are lost in a selective hodgepodge of cultural forms and protocols from which they rule, undisturbed by time.

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