Writing Women into Early Christianity through Material Evidence

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 9:10 AM
Arlington Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Aneilya K. Barnes , Coastal Carolina University, Conway, SC
Because historians of the early Church typically teach the development of early Christianity through the narrow lens of textual sources, which were written by men, the crucial roles women had in the establishment of the Church are often overlooked.  If, however, material culture is incorporated into the classroom, it can create a much broader understanding of the formation of early Christianity, while also accommodating visual learners.  For example, in my introduction to historical research and writing course, I demonstrate the nuances of historical arguments via debates on Constantine’s religion through texts.  Then, I present students with material evidence that conflicts with the texts, such as the Constantinian basilicas in Rome to which his mother and sister had mausolea attached.  As a result, students are able to understand better the importance of female patronage in the early Church and learn how historians can incorporate material evidence into their research.
Non-textual sources are equally important to the instruction of upper-level courses that focus on the history of early Christianity, especially when combined with spatial and gender theory. Thus, I present students with an array of physical evidence that demonstrates women’s influence in the development of the early Church, including catacombs, house churches, and Christian basilicas.  Therefore, the built environment becomes an instructional tool that transcends the standard presentation of early Christian women as simply ascetics and martyrs and reconstructs a more meaningful past that includes women in official ecclesiastical positions, such as deaconesses, while providing students with a useful visual learning element.
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