Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy

by

Eva Catafygiotu Topping


Patriarchal Prejudice and Pride in Greek Christianity
Some Notes on Origin

Κατηγορει ο Αδαμ δε τη Ευα
But Adam accuses Eve1

A telling article in The New York Times (September 13, 1981) stated that the women of Greece are "statistically shown to be more socially and economically discriminated against than their counterparts in any other Western country." This conclusion could hardly surprise anyone who is familiar with the contemporary Greek scene. Still it was shocking to read in this report that 78 percent of the illiterates in Greece were women in such recent times.

The article mentions several factors that had contributed to this situation. Among them are "the heavily patriarchal nature of Greek society the traditionalist influence of the church and a social outlook that values a woman according to her subservience and housework abilities." The critical role of the Church, a powerful social institution in Greece, is barely suggested, although the article points out that "By law women are forbidden participation in the councils of the Greek Orthodox Church." The Church has, however, played a key role in defining the female image and bolstering the values incorporated in the social and economic structures which discriminate against women.2 By its centuries-old anitfeminist attitudes and practices the Church has officially in effect sanctioned the patriarchal prejudices and pride which, when institutionalized, are responsible for woman's low estate in Greece. As elsewhere in the Western world, it is true also in Greece that "Christian ideology has contributed no little to the oppression of woman."3 The "traditionalist influence" of the Greek Church on the status of women, moreover, rests on an anti-woman theology whose tenacious roots extend back into Church history for almost two thousand years and reflect the prevailing patriarchal structures of the early Christian centuries.

In this brief essay I wish to discuss the theological origins of the ideology in the Greek tradition. I must emphasize at once that the sexist theology of the Greek Church is neither a unique nor an isolated phenomenon. On the contrary it is shared historically and to varying degrees by all branches of Christianity. Together the Greek and Latin Church Fathers appealed to the same Biblical texts, such as Genesis 2:7-3:24 or I Timothy 2:11-14, for proof of male superiority and female inferiority. From them they drew identical conclusions and produced the same negative derogatory image of woman. Christian theology concerning woman belongs to a single scriptural and patristic tradition.

My observations on this subject are based primarily on my reading in Greek patristic writings and on my studies in Byzantine hymnography. As much as possible in these notes I shall let the creators of this antifeminist tradition In the Greek Church speak for themselves.

By examining the teachings of the Greek Church Fathers of the first five Christian centuries we shall better understand the background of woman's second-class status in modern Greece. That this is woman’s proper and natural place in the scheme of things, has never been more plainly and bluntly stated than by one of Orthodoxy’s most prestigious dogmatic theologians, St. Cyril of Alexandria: ηγεμονικωτατον δε αρσεν αει, και εν δευτερα ταξει το θηλυ πανταχη (for most capable of commanding is the male always, and in second class the female everywhere).4 This sweeping statement of woman’s subordinate status assumes the force of immutable eternal law, a permanent ruler-subject relationship between man and woman. With teachings similar to this the Church ratified and sanctified existing social and economic structures that oppress women.

The Fathers' anti-woman theology was founded on their conviction that woman possesses a special nature, designed for her by the Creator. In the beginning, at creation, her inferiority was made explicit. Sexist selection and interpretation of Biblical texts buttressed this basic doctrine. Generally ignoring the account of creation according to which God created male and female in His likeness and image,5 the Fathers unanimously preferred the more primitive aetiological folk-tale according to which God created Adam first and then Eve.6 Eve's creation from one of Adam's ribs therefore placed her second in the order of creation. This was interpreted to mean that not only was woman different from man but also inferior to him. This belief presented no advance on the accepted Aristotelian theory that woman was a defective male.7

Influential Fathers like Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea occasionally did not hesitate to refer to and even to quote the text which affirmed woman's equality with man.8 But they never utilized it in formulating their theology of woman. Instead they developed a complete ideological system on the basis of the text which could be accommodated to support patriarchal biases against women. This can be illustrated by a passage from St. Clement of Alexandria, the Christian philosopher of the second century. When God removed a rib from Adam to create Eve, Clement writes, He purged man of all softness and weakness. Consequently males are whole rather than emasculated, perfect rather than imperfect. The woman Eve was made to be man's partner in procreation and