BMCR 2016.12.28

Christian Women in the Greek Papyri of Egypt to 400 CE. Studia Antiqua Australiensia, 6

, Christian Women in the Greek Papyri of Egypt to 400 CE. Studia Antiqua Australiensia, 6. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2014. xii, 311. ISBN 9782503552415. €60.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This publication, which represents a portion of the author’s doctoral thesis, focuses on Christian women in antiquity through the lens of papyri from 100 CE to 400 CE. Mathieson gathers several dozen papyri ascribed to Christian women in order to portray their thoughts on a variety of theological and sociological matters. These findings provide insight into an often overlooked and voiceless group, and probe a terrain where there is scant primary evidence. Mathieson contends, “[t]he perspectives offered by the papyri provide a unique dimension to the study of women in the ancient world” (p. 281).

The author restricts her analysis to papyri that possess two traits: they must be authored by women and the women must be Christian. Mathieson states the “study is indebted to the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri ( DDBDP), searches of which enabled papyri with religious references written by, to, or referring to women to be identified,” but she further reduces the number of results based on additional criteria (p. 5). To categorize an author as a woman, the document will have evidence of the author self-identifying herself as such, either by using a female name, a feminine noun (wife, sister, etc.), or feminine grammatical forms. For a text to be identified as Christian, it will have either nomina sacra, references to the Bible, Christian literature, Christian community, Christian officials, liturgical practices, or use of distinctive Christian language or biblical names (though Mathieson admits some of these characteristics are more telling than others). Twenty-six letters are chosen for the bulk of the study, which are discussed in the first six chapters, and the remaining three chapters tackle another literary corpus (discussed below).

Chapter one, the lengthiest chapter in the work, contains transcriptions and English translations of each of the twenty-six Greek papyri authored by Christian women, followed by a description of the contents. Discussion of these letters generally highlights key themes relating to womanhood in antiquity and identifies Christian elements found therein. The next five chapters address content and themes present in the papyri brought to the fore in chapter one.

Chapter two examines the biblical vocabulary and imagery such as the trichotomy of body/ soul/ spirit, multiple facets involving “prayer”, and the perception of death and life. In several papyri, Christian virtues such as “piety”, “good will”, “love”, “service”, “affection” and “blessed” are employed, all of which seem to reflect the integration of Christian terms into common parlance. Though these are not uniquely Christian words, Mathieson argues that the way they are used in context reflects Christian usage elsewhere (e.g. liturgy). Mathieson states that θεός and κύριος as language for God are not strictly Christian and, overall, the women of these papyri prefer such terms that are “compatible with pagan nomenclature” (p. 91). Mathieson’s analysis in this chapter concludes first, that although not all of the letters contain a biblical allusion, if one is made, typically there are more. Another conclusion is that when biblical allusions are made, they are “mostly inexact and general in nature,” and reflect “recall of key words” (p. 99). Mathieson believes this stems from the authors not having a physical copy of a biblical text in front of them. The common Christian greetings ἐν θεῷ, ἐν κυρίῴ, and ἐν Χριστῷ, suggest a “connectedness within the Christian community” (p. 99). When the authors identify with biblical characters, this “shows a process of active Christianisation” (pp. 99-100). The “vocabulary for God, fellow-Christians and the virtuous life”, however, generally “displays a significant overlap of terms with Greek and Jewish society,” (p. 100) which, according to Mathieson is because of “the developing enculturation of Christianity into mainstream society during the fourth century” (p. 101).

Chapter three compiles the theological themes present in the twenty-six papyri. Perceptions of God and concepts relating to divine providence give the impression that God is active in their lives. In some papyri, physical healing and miracles are generally accepted phenomena, giving the impression that the female authors believe God will intervene, but in the historical context, men and pagans also expect divine intervention for healing (which Mathieson admits). Views of slavery are rarely present, but seem to elicit kindness towards slaves (though this may not be theologically based) or favor manumission. There is a sense of Christian community in the documents, with some allusions to scripture for guiding communal practices.

Chapter four discusses the practice of prayer, which is alluded to in thirteen of the papyri. Praying for health “is the most frequent subject of opening prayers in the papyri” and is also commonly found in letter closings, but “there is debate concerning the significance of opening and closing prayer formulae in the papyri, whether they are social conventions or have religious significance” (p. 128). Mathieson offers several broad conclusions, noting that the prayers (1) strengthen relational ties between author and recipient, (2) emphasize well-being, rather than vengeance found in magical texts, (3) do “not tend to use specifically Christian terms” (p. 142), (4) indicate an active prayer life (but this is common in society in both pagan and Christian traditions), and (5) contain a mixture of confidence and “reticence, uncertainty and powerlessness” (p. 145).

Chapter five examines interactions with clergy, ascetics, and the church, present in fifteen of the papyri. Mathieson suggests that the women’s respect of clergy, even when the clergy fail to protect their interests, is typical of the historical context. The women’s view of ascetics is similar to that of the clergy in that they are respected, viewed as authority figures, and perform tasks outside of a religious role. Concerning church life, the women appear to be frequent attendees, but “the texts are silent” about roles outside of attendance (p. 170). The church had also undergone a theological and organizational shift in the third and fourth centuries towards a public and institutional body. Mathieson concludes that this shift resulted in women being more marginalized than before, but this claim seems more influenced by K.J. Torjesen’s work, When Women were Priests, than by evidence in the papyri.

Chapter six discusses the theme of marriage, which occurs in twenty of the papyri. The author states “that among Christians marriage was not a primary status category” since there is largely silence concerning marital status, but is cautious of drawing firm conclusions here on the basis of silence (p. 184). It could be, Mathieson posits, that these women are single, or had the impetus to act without a man, or perhaps it was inappropriate to mention men in this context. She states that the letters could reflect a new, open-mindedness towards women making choices for themselves brought on by Christianity. The letters represent a variety of familial situations and evince a Christian community that supports those without family. She gathers that “[t]he women attest the value of family solidarity and express the need for, and comfort of, family. They also speak of the anxiety that family, or lack of it, generates,” but does not offer evidence that this is more burdensome for Christian women than pagan women (p. 201).

The next two chapters concern a different corpus of material than chapters 1-6. Thirty-two letters (by my count) are discussed that are either written to Christian women or refer to Christian women in the third to fifth centuries, rather than written by women. Chapter seven discusses all but eight of these, which are discussed in the following chapter. A number of themes present in this corpus overlap with themes in the twenty-six letters written by women, which is to be expected. “Particularly belief in healing, providence and prayer,” are found, however “[t]he nature of the women’s prayer practice, knowledge of Scripture and sense of power in spiritual matters are not evident” (p. 229). It would have been helpful for Mathieson to provide some evidence of the practices of men here to determine whether these themes are unique to women. In these letters, it seems that some of the women have retained certain pagan practices after their conversion to Christianity, but, again, Mathieson does not juxtapose this with conversion phenomena of men. Mathieson notes that though none of the letters provides evidence that the women hold leadership positions in the Christian community, the women who were written/referred to in this corpus nonetheless evince a strong commitment to Christianity.

In chapter eight, Mathieson describes the Christian view of asceticism, particularly how it would have been perceived in an early Christian context as seen in eight papyri written to, or that refer to, women. In essence, “[a]sceticism is understood to offer women an alternative to the traditional roles of wife and mother, allowing a degree of freedom and spiritual focus unavailable to the married” (p. 234). But “in the fourth century,” which is the earliest dated ascetic letter here, “asceticism is ambivalent in its outcomes for women, bringing benefits largely at the expense of female identity” (p. 235).

Chapter nine discusses four magical texts used by women. Though Christianity condemns magic, Mathieson includes these texts to show the extent of religiosity in the women’s lives, since magic was popular especially in the first two Christian centuries. She states, “[t]he modern distinction between magic and religion as unapproved and approved practice in spiritual matters is anachronistic in examining ancient sources” since clear lines between the two are not always evident (p. 271). Though there is not much extant evidence that fits into Mathieson’s parameters for inclusion, she opines that “there is no reason to think that women used magic less than men,” though the majority of magical texts are initiated by men (p. 274).

The final chapter restates the conclusions gleaned from the study. The Christian women examined through these papyri assumed a wide range of roles: perhaps most notably they are active in their communities, even though they assume no leadership roles; and they have a personal commitment to Christianity, but can interweave pagan rituals with distinctly Christian ones. Mathieson makes particular mention that references to marital status are infrequent, which can mean that among Christians, there is little evidence that married or unmarried were identified as significant markers of status or identity.

All the papyri in her work can be found on the DDBDP and her transcriptions (when provided)1 differ little, so one may presume that the Greek transcriptions and apparatus in her work are based on the DDBDP rather than her own transcription. The author’s translations of the Greek do not agree verbatim with other publications, and, as she never mentions the source of her translations, it is unknown whether they are translated by her or dependent on a particular source.

One apparent weakness of relying on the DDBDP for gender identification is seen in P.Oxy 1592, where the basis for female authorship is not entirely clear. Here, the letter itself says nothing explicit, such as a woman’s name, and unfortunately Mathieson provides no clear statement about the gender of the author in her analysis in chapter one.

Mathieson’s examination and explanation of the papyri and their historical context evince both her familiarity with early Christian literature and theology as well as her ability to highlight important details within these letters that a casual read would surely overlook. At times, however, the author frames her conclusions without considering whether they are truly unique to Christian women. The effect of this occasionally raises the question whether these traits can only be applied to Christian women, or are common elements among her sample papyri, given that documents authored by pagans and/or men might display similar characteristics once placed within a larger context. Regardless of the uniqueness of these items in the papyri, she is still able to paint a vivid picture of women in antiquity. The concluding sections in each chapter are the highlight of her work and provide many stimulating proposals concerning what we can learn about the Christian women who authored these letters. Mathieson should be commended for giving a voice to the voiceless.

Table of Contents

Series Foreword
1. Text Written by Christian Women
2. Use of Biblical Vocabulary and Imagery
3. Theological Positions
4. Practice of Prayer
5. Interactions with Clergy, Ascetics and the Church
6. Marriage and Family
7. Documents Written to Christian Women or Referring to Christian Women
8. Ascetic Christian Women
9. Christian Women and Magic
Primary Sources
Secondary Sources


1. Only twelve of the additional thirty-six letters discussed in chapters 7-9 provide a Greek text and translation for the reader.