Book Review: When Women Were Priests

When Women Were Priests:  Women’s Leadership In The Early Church & The Scandal Of Their Subordination In The Rise Of Christianity, by Karen Jo Torjesen

This book has a terrible title, but it is not a terrible book.  That does not make it a good book, though.  This is the sort of book that one must handle carefully, in that it does provide some insights into the place of women in the early church as well as its implications for the contemporary church.  The author does not prove her point that women were indeed priests, and actively sabotages her point by admitting at the beginning that the term diakonos is translated as minister or priest based on whether one is a Catholic or a Protestant.  Truth be told, men were not priests during the time of the early church either, at least not as it would have been understood by the religious world at the time.  That said, there is a genuine conversation that one can have about the role of women within local congregations during the apostolic era, although the author herself muddles her point in order to make what could be an essay into a book by getting into all kinds of areas that do not really help her make her case.

This book is between 250 and 300 pages and is divided into 9 chapters bookended between a preface and introduction that show the author’s feminism as well as a closing index.  In between are a variety of chapters that do not always make the sort of points that the author wishes to make, at least in a way that would be authoritative to readers who view the Bible and not some feminist scholar’s opinion as being important.  The author begins with a sound discussion of the role of women as preachers, prophets, and patrons in the early church (1).  After that the author then talks about the importance of household management and women’s authority in this realm as it related to both the church as well as ordinary life (2).  The author then discusses the power of patronage that women, especially wealthier widows, had (3) to shape and influence the behavior of civil and religious leaders in Roman society.  The author then looks at the problem of Hellenistic views of private virtues and the dangers this had for public women, which is where the book starts to go off the rails (4).  A discussion of women’s honor being women’s shame follows (5) as well as a discussion of the changes that occurred starting in the third century when the Hellenistic church went public (6) and started rolling back its view of women.  After that the author discusses the Greco-Roman view of penetration and penetrators and entirely misses the biblical point of condemning immorality apart from those grounds (7).  The book then ends with some whining about the supposed problems of sin pollution (8) relating to female immorality as well as some speculations on the sacred feminine (9).

Ultimately, this book is not a success, but while there are many aspects of that failure they boil down ultimately to one key problem that plagues a lot of books of this kind, and that is the problem that the author views herself (and like-minded feminists) as judges of the Bible rather than as being judged by the Bible.  Had the author made a strong statement that she was accepting the Word of God as the standard and then sought to correct misinterpretations of the Bible or to bring passages that are neglected to light, then this book would have been great, but it would have been a far more mild and even ambivalent sort of work, where one had to struggle with the same sort of dilemmas that the apostles did and that believers still do.  The author is entirely valid in saying that it was the rise in monarchical authority in Hellenistic Christianity that made it impossible for women to continue being leaders, but it appears as if the author wants to be an authority over men in that corrupt and unbiblical sense rather than to return Christianity to a private sort of religion that deals with logistical concerns for brethren and preaches the truth and does not strive for massive institutional or societal power, in which it is no particular threat if women provide insight on the meaning and significance of what the Bible says because they are not seeking to dominate anyone in the first place.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Book Reviews, Christianity, Church of God, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: When Women Were Priests

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference:

  2. Laura says:

    Good review. Sadly looks like one of those books that backfires. Wanting to help women in the church it ends up doing the opposite. Books/ideas like this can frustratingly be used to proclaim any and all egalitarian views as suspect. But one can be egalitarian with a high view of Scripture and not think women should dominate men, as you hint at.

    • Yes, I’m glad you picked up on that hint. I thought the author oversold what could have been a very good, if somewhat restrained, point. Sometimes writers forget that there are potential allies to helping women that are turned off by an extreme kind of message but that would be amenable to a just appeal. I find it frustrating how little writers know of their potential reading audiences, though.

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