The Bible and Beyond Podcast Episode

Macrina: A Remarkable 4th-Century Christian Woman

A photo of Erin Galgay Walsh speaking with her hands in front of a bookshelf.

Dr. Erin Galgay Walsh

An Interview with Dr. Erin Galgay Walsh

Macrina was born into a wealthy and historically important Christian family. Her virtuous life, devoted to Christ, was based on her ascetic ideals. That is, she rejected human pleasures and comforts in order to free herself to be fully present to Christ.  The 4th century text, The Life of Macrina, which was written by her brother Gregory, describes her as a woman living the angelic life, the” life of the resurrected body.”

Professor Erin Galgay Walsh teaches at the University of Chicago Divinity School and is a scholar of ancient and late antique Christianity. Her research includes a focus on biblical interpretation, asceticism, and gender. Her courses cover biblical and apocryphal literature, the history of biblical interpretation, embodied practices, and Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity.

She is an affiliated faculty member with the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and the Joyce Z. And Jacob Greenberg Center for Jewish studies at the University of Chicago. She also serves as Editor in Chief at Ancient Jew Review, a non-profit web journal devoted to the interdisciplinary study of ancient Judaism.

Some Bible and Beyond podcast episodes are made available as video podcasts on our YouTube channel. This month’s episode can be found here.

Hello, and welcome to the podcast’s Early Christian Texts: The Bible and Beyond. We explore historical and spiritual questions about Jesus, gender, women, salvation, healing, and demeaning of life. Shirley Paulson is hosting a series of conversations with scholars who are able to unlock mysteries from extra canonical books, forgotten scriptures. So-called “gnostic” gospels and the Bible. And for those of you who love our Bible and Beyond podcasts, would you please consider becoming a supporting member of our Patreon page? Go to patreon.com/BibleAndBeyond to join at any level, just right for you. And now here’s Shirley Paulson.

Shirley Paulson

I am so pleased to introduce our guest scholar today because when I heard her video discussion on the ancient work called The Life of Macina, I was eager to see if she’d talk about it on our Bible and Beyond Podcast too. I’m so pleased you could pause just a bit to speak with us a bit today. So let me say that Professor Erin Galgay Walsh is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christian literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School and one of the Editors in Chief of Ancient Jew Review, an online journal. Her research and teaching encompass authors writing in Latin, Greek and Syriac with a focus on biblical interpretation and questions surrounding issues of gender. Well anyway, welcome Professor Walsh. I’m so glad you’re with us.

Erin Galgay Walsh

Yes, thank you so much for having me. This is a text and a topic that I love talking about, so thank you.

Paulson

That’s terrific for both of us. Then I’m really eager to get into the subject because I think we’re going to get into questions like how the adoption of Christianity changed the lives of women, and also even things like what you might be able to tell us about the lives of the early Christian women. That’s very, very interesting to me. So anyway, I heard this video lecture that you gave from the University of Chicago Divinity School on the subject of the Life of St. Macrina. And I knew of Macina, but I didn’t know that much. So I was quite interested in your presentation. The farther we moved into the lecture, the more fascinating the subject. I don’t think that many of our listeners probably even know who Maca was, let alone why she would still be so important to us today. I thought maybe you could introduce us to Macrina. Just briefly where she was born and what you think we should know about her family and who she is.

Walsh

Macrina was born in probably around 327 CE. And to give people a bit of context of what’s going on at this time, so if you’ve heard of the Council of Nicea, that’s 325. So we’re right in the pivotal fourth century. There are just a lot of changes happening and she’s born into a remarkable family. We know that it’s Gregory her brother, who we’ll talk about, who records her life, reminds us that she’s named after her grandmother, what suffered, he said in the persecution. So again, we have even at this stage as the persecutions are coming to the close in the Roman Empire, this memory of the persecutions. And of course, that’s talked a lot with early Christian scholars about the extent and the realities of the persecution, but it’s clearly in this text, the memory of them is very much alive and she’s known to us through her—she’s actually part of this family—that her brothers are quite famous. So three of her brothers are bishops, Basil of Cesarea. He’s born around 329. Gregory Nyssa and Peter of Sebaste. They’re all going to be bishops. We don’t know about her sisters. We know she’s the oldest of 10 and she’s born into this very wealthy family in modern day, Turkey— Cappadocia, and this is a land-owning family and that her parents were very devout as well. So I’ll leave it at that, but that’s why we know about her through her relationship to her brothers.

Paulson

Isn’t that interesting? Women would be known because of some male somewhere, right?

Walsh

This a lot. I mean women, and we can talk more about this, but where do we find women within this early Jesus, early Christian, movement? Especially in this era, we know about women, especially wealthy women, and she would be one of those who are coming from this sort of elite background. Some of them would be patrons and she is an ascetic woman. So we’re seeing where we’re finding women within this history.

Paulson

Okay, so that’s helpful to get a context idea, but maybe you can also tell us, do you think that Macina is somebody, do you say Macreena or MacrIna?

Walsh

Macrina, yeah,

Paulson

Macrina, yeah. Okay. I’m just curious. She’s in a context that we’re not living in today, so I’m kind of wondering if you could tell us why she might be important to us today. I mean, I get that that’s historically really helpful to see that she was, during that time of Christianity becoming something brand new in a very maybe turbulent time perhaps. Does she have meaning for today or is it something we’re just studying for history?

Walsh

Oh, I think that’s a great question. I mean, one of the questions or the larger question that animates my work is, “Where are exemplars for how to live a good life, or how to live in accordance with one’s ideals?” And I think this is an age where you have the martyrs are being shaped by their stories and their memories and to the ideals of the Christian life, but also we see this rise of the ascetic woman, and we’ll talk about asceticism maybe a little bit later, and what we see, especially in the history of how we talk about questions of genders, what our ideals held out for what a woman’s life would look like? And one of the dynamics that I think is in this life and this story is that the role of her mother and Macrina, her daughter, and you see some role reversal happening. And there’s a wonderful book.

It was actually quite influential in my development by Kate Cooper on the Virgin and the Bride, and she traces this, that one of the shifts or one of the important things to note about this time period—these formative centuries of Christianity—is that within the Roman world, the matron, the married woman who has many children, that is the ideal, who’s married once, who has specific her modesty and her virtue is very idealized and scripted, but with the rise of Christianity, you see, it’s not that mothers are no longer seen as being an ideal, but you also have this ascending model of the virgin and the ascetic virgin. So I think you see this within this text very much not, I mean you could say in competition, but you have these different modes. So the martyr, the ascetic, how motherhood is being framed, and we can talk more about that, but I always find that idea of who are our examples of how we should live. That’s always been fascinating to me.

Paulson

I think that’s really cool that you’re talking about this sort of tension between two models where I think in our world today we’re struggling with the same kind of tension that we don’t know where our models really are. That’s a very interesting point to bring out.

Walsh

Before moving on, I think when you talk about the relevance of this for today, one of the things that always bring into the classroom, and I always am mindful of when I speak about my work with larger audiences, is that we have the manifestations of Christianity in the United States today aren’t necessarily the ideals about family and women are not the same as what we necessarily see in the formative centuries. And this kind of tension about different roles, different paths to holiness. I think that we have, especially when I teach students who have certain associations that Christianity is about family values and kind of the nuclear family and motherhood as the main role for women. This is a time period when there’s this emerging other path that Macrina is moving down and making this very countercultural decision at the time. So I think that’s one of the reasons that I think this is an important period of history to be mindful of and to really extend our historical memory.

Paulson

So that’s interesting that she’s a model that is counter whatever, but she’s also religious. I mean, she’s still staying within the Christian world. She’s not just rebelling against though. Very interesting. Okay, so you’re talking about a book, right? The Life of Macrina. So who wrote it? Did she write it herself?

Walsh

No. So we don’t have, I mean this is one of the challenges of teaching a course on these centuries, is that we have very few writings by women. Women appear everywhere, representations of women. We have epistles to important women like Melania, who’s another patron that I could talk about too. But we have very few, we have Egeria, we have her travel log, but this is a text written by her brother Gregory Gregory of Nyssa, who he’s one along with Basil of Cesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus. They’re often referred to as the Cappadocian Fathers. And their writings were essential in these debates after the Council of Nicea, around how orthodoxy is being defined, around how scripture is to be read. There are some of the sort of very important theologians at this time, but he writes this Life, and this is a literary form of how, I don’t really use the word biography because the standards are very different. The word is about this portrait of holiness. I mean, this is a form that predates Christianity, but you’re supposed to be showing the moral goodness of the person that you’re writing about.

Paulson

Okay, so that leads us back to what you were talking about a minute ago, about asceticism, which I think we should make sure it’s not aesthetic, but it’s more like a severe self-discipline or abstaining from indulgence. That’s the meaning that we’re using. Is that right?

Walsh

Yeah, this is a hard, I mean, this transcends different philosophical and religious traditions. I think one of the most capacious definitions I’ve ever heard for it, I actually heard from a nun and she defined it as a intentional relationship with the material world. There are many forms. I mean I’ve often used bodybuilding is kind of having that extreme, the idea that how one lives, one’s embodied practices are essential to who one becomes. So it is this idea that what you do with the body is not incidental. So this connected way of seeing the world, and it’s usually, I think we have a very negative that it’s all about renunciation, often known bi-sexual renunciation, renouncing family ties, but it has to do with sleep and eating and different practices, prayer at certain types of times of the day. But I always sort of try to have my students think about, it’s not just giving up, but it’s really a freedom for, it’s freeing up your life to focus on particular things. And that’s what Merina is modeling how Gregory is painting this picture of her life and her daily practices.

Paulson

Yes, you’re right. That’s about the opposite of what I think we think of when we think of the term aesthetic. We think of people would not want to be drawn to that today because it would be depriving of everything. But you’re saying it’s a freedom to be more fully who you are. Am I hearing that right?

Walsh

And I think this goes back to some of what I was saying earlier, for women in the ancient world, the path was probably when you were in your teenage years, especially maybe even younger, if you were a wealthy, the wealthy families, you would be married quite young and you would start having babies and that was your path. So this rise of choosing a life that looks very different from that.

Paulson

So let’s go there a little bit then. You had told us that she’s different from her grandmother and her grandmother would’ve been the example of this model of the, and so how is Macrina then differing from this in her ascetic practices?

Walsh

And this is sort of shared within the Roman world, that you want to have children and be able to pass on your inheritance, that this is your ties to society. So part of this ascetic movement is about breaking those ties to society and re-scripting what that looked like. But this isn’t, especially when marriage is about inheritance and these very large estate, not having children is very disruptive, not having heirs. And United States today when the birth rate goes down, it’s front page news. So we’re always interested in procreation and reproducing our society. So this element within the early Christian movement is noticed and very important, and I think often gets, is not what people necessarily think of when they think of this time period. But for her to kind of, and we see this within the story, this is the beginning of the Life, where she is actually betrothed to a young man who dies.

And part of the extraordinary sort of presented as part of her piety is that she doesn’t allow her parents to arrange a different marriage for her. She says that this tie is not to be broken, that she looks ahead to the resurrection. So it’s all even there, she’s sort of saying that this tie was genuine and not to be replaced. And that’s part of the reason why she argues for herself not to be handed to someone else in marriage, and that allows her to pursue this ascetic life. And Gregory makes the point of putting that into her, into this Life about how she’s making this decision.

Paulson

So that’s interesting then. So she felt that the tie to her dead husband was more important than having children to pass along,

Walsh

Even without, I mean, they didn’t actually get married, it was just a betrothal,

Paulson

Right? Yeah.

Walsh

So she doesn’t allow that. And you could say that’s sort of a . . .Yeah, my students always are, they always hone in that passage. They want to talk about it because, well, isn’t she just using this as an excuse? I’m like, yes, it is. I mean, she is using it as an excuse. Because normally how this would go for someone in her station is that she would just be, another marriage arrangement would be made. But she uses this and because her parents are also known for their piety and they can recognize even though she’s this beautiful young woman, that her virtue is so great that they accept this reasoning that she has.

Paulson

So do you think she was virtuous?

Walsh

Well, I think for Gregory, she’s certainly the model of virtue. I think one of the reasons that I love this text and I find it so fruitful to teach, is that even if it is a very idealized portrait, and I can talk about there, so every line of it seems to have literary qualities to it, and it’s evoking so much. I think you get the sense of his admiration for her and hear it in some of the dialogues as well. Clearly she had a very big effect on Gregory.

Paulson

Then going from virtue then to Christian virtue, I don’t know if the same or different, but anyway, how would you say then that she embodies the Christian ideals of the time and what would they be?

Walsh

Right. So one of the things that if you read this text you’ll notice is that there are different ways that the language that Gregory uses to describe her is very important. So he’ll often talk about that she transcends her nature by this life of philosophia. And this is important. They’re presenting at this time period that the Christian Christianity is the Christian philosophy. It’s this way of life, this love of wisdom. And the other image that’s often used within this text to describe her is that she’s living the angelic life. She’s straining ahead. And you can hear the biblical precedence to this is that she’s really living into this angelic life, the life of the resurrected body, and all of these concept tied in here for how one should live one’s life. Because a lot of, I think at the core of this ascetic impulse is this idea that with, as a consequence of the gospel, one cannot live in the same way.

One cannot just go about having families and building up societies and empires that were called for these writers to live in a radically different way and one that is oriented towards the future. And that’s the model that Gregory is painting. And he’ll use that language of painting the virtues for many of these authors. That’s what he’s doing with this portrait is presenting us. And he says that part of his impulse or what compels him to write this Life is that her example won’t fade away. So the text, the narrative makes her present for us, and that’s why we’re still talking about her because if he didn’t write about her, we wouldn’t necessarily know about her. And those virtues, I think are very much tied into how she relates to the body, how she thinks about death and the community that she builds around herself. So what she spends her days doing.

Paulson

Well, you said something interesting just a moment ago that when you were talking about her living into her or the resurrection, she’s not dead yet. What do you mean by that?

Walsh

Yeah, so it sort of participating in the resurrected life ahead of time. So that living into, and you can hear kind of the Pauline, the New Testament language here, this pushing, this idea that one is straining towards God, and that’s another, so if he’s using the language of as well, the bridegroom, and she’s the bride, so even when she’s on her deathbed, she’s about to be joined with the bridegroom. So again, that biblical language is very much animating this text so that this is about straining ahead towards this union and realizing that sort of a holy impatience to get ahead, to sort of jump ahead, and that the community together is realizing that heavenly community, that that’s on earth as it is in heaven is sort of, that’s the idea behind some of this image.

Paulson

So you brought out in the video that I saw with you that there was a lot to do with this death scene that Gregory’s talking about her grieving and he was grieving already, and there’s a lot about death theme. So it’s fascinating that this concerns her brother who loved and respected her so much. But what came of this conversation then about his participation in this death scene?

Walsh

Right. So yeah, I mentioned at the beginning that Gregory and his brothers, and we can talk a little bit about her education as well, they enjoy probably the most elite education of the ancient world. They’re for it, which is sort of a very skilled public speaker, Augustine, John Chrisostom, all these figures that really became leaders within the Christianity had these very honed, very persuasive skills at Oratory. And this is an oral world being able to persuade him. We don’t have to think about in our modern world what this looks like. So I think this education, this formation as or and sort of knowing classical literature, he’s very clearly within this text evoking the deathbed seen with Socrates.

Paulson

I see. Oh, okay.

Walsh

An ancient reader would see and know this reference. And I think there’s a few things I’ve been thinking about this a while, and I’m echoing my teachers in terms of how they would present this text is that speaking from one’s deathbed, there’s a certain authority that lends the speaker’s words. That’s a moment where you really bear witness to the truth of your life and how you lived in accordance with your ideals. And one of the themes throughout this text is about loss and death, and how does the Christian maintain hope and belief in the face death? And there are moments that lead up to it within the narrative. So Macrina’s father dies when they’re quite young. She’s probably, I think some scholars say around 12 and then she loses a brother and there’s this very touching scene of her at her mother’s deathbed with her youngest brother Peter and her mother who pronounces a blessing on them and kind of see these two. And they’re these very ascetic figures within the Life at her deathbed. So it’s not just one deathbed scene, it’s kind of like we’re led up to it and we know that his brother Basil had passed away and one of the parts of the deathbed scene with Gregory and Macrina is remembering their brother and all the grief comes that. So part of this is that Macrina is using this as a teachable moment. Gregory is not afraid to tell us that he’s kind of falling apart.

The grief is very real for him, that he’s watching his sister who is meant so much to him, pass away before his eyes and she uses this, okay, now we’re going to go through why are you feeling that? What does that say about your faith if you’re feeling this grief? So I think that that’s a major theme. That’s one of the reasons that I think this text is it’s very human.

Paulson

Do they come to any kind of conclusion or they just sort of leave it that this is inexplicable death and you can’t cope with it? I mean, what’s the conclusion?

Walsh

So part of how Macrina coaxes Gregory through this critical moment is to have him remember his life and to see God guiding him towards, to this point, being born into this incredible family, sort of how to be reminded of his faith. And I think what we were talking about before this living ahead and end the life of the resurrection, that’s also looking ahead, straight ahead, and her own deportment is very much one of joy that she is about to be united with her bridegroom. So one of the things that I want to, or a reading I want to push back against, is that it would be a reductive reading of this text to say if it’s just saying, well, if you believe in the resurrection, if you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t feel grief. He’s not just giving us punchline. It would be a much shorter text if that was all he said.

And I think of there’s this wonderful work of another scholar of American Christianity, Kate Bowler, and she talks about everything happens for a reason, and that’s not what Gregory’s doing. He’s giving us this narrative because we’re seeing that it’s the many losses in Macrina’s life, and her whole way of life, working on herself every day, that has allowed her to die in this way, to die a good death. And I think one of the things when I was reading this text again for today, I translated this Syriac liturgical poem, it’s called On Women. It was attributed to Jacob of Saru, but is probably an anonymous author imitating him. And it has this beautiful scene of Eve on her deathbed with her children and there’s sign about after she dies about their grief, about how it’s a house that’s empty. And I think we often, with these deathbed scenes, we’re so focused on the speaker who’s on their deathbed, but I think it’s very much about the people around it that moment. I think if I’ve lost my daddy when I was younger and being at his deathbed, I grew up, I had to be an adult after that, you’re never the pain. And I think that’s what Gregory’s giving us. I mean, this is an intense moment that he’s bringing us into with him.

Paulson

That’s really, really interesting. And I know you also brought up the idea that it talks about the relationship between soul and body too, which is a fascinating topic by itself. But where does this go then with soul and body?

Walsh

Yeah, I mean, I think one of the ways, or one of the directions that you could take this question is thinking about how the body is a mirror for the soul. And so you see, they talk about that she has a scar and he remarks on that. There’s a great article by Virginia Burris on Macrina’s tattoo. People are interested in this. It’s kind of the bodily marks of holiness. And the body bears that mark. To think about how the body tells the story of our life and the bodily descriptions that she’s beautiful because her, and I think you’ll see this in a lot of these texts, a lot of these saint stories, they’re remarkably beautiful. And what do they mean by that? And that because one of the assumptions is that the body and the soul, that the body mirrors the soul and they’re redefining what is true beauty –  is often being contested within these texts that we should find her even if she’s scarred.

Paulson

What did that tell us then about their thoughts about death then. If the body is marrying the soul, does the soul disappear with the body or what’s happening then with the death experience?

Walsh

Yeah, I mean I think that’s being developed elsewhere, especially if you’re interested in reading more of Gregory of Nyssa. He has a whole dialogue on the soul and the body and thinking about this idea of scripting what the resurrected body looks like.

Paulson

You also surprised me when you were talking about these thoughts about death in the afterlife in the context of contemporary Greek and Roman text. So I think we’ve pretty much inherited the thought that Christians were just totally different from the Greeks and the Romans and very far superior to them, but you sort of put them in context together. So how did that work?

Walsh

Yeah, I think it’s important when you’re reading and studying these early centuries is that these labels, Christian, non-Christian, traditional Romans, they’re simultaneously, I mean, we have more than one aspect of our identity. We see Americans and Christians and vegans and I mean, there are just many ways that we identify. And I think what that sort of labeling does is that it oversimplifies. I mean, someone like Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers, they are thoroughly, I mean their education, they have a classical education. They are part of that classical paidea, so they participate in this society. I think we over identify and we lose the fact that for someone like the Cappadocians or Augustine, they know. . . Augustine could recite Virgil, I mean he was a Roman at the same time. They are very much a part of this world. They’re not separate from it. Yes, there is certainly competition in how they and the ascendancy of Christianity is not certain at this point. So we have to see how they’re competing in defining and policing boundaries of the community. I think separating where the rhetoric is and how they’re fashioning these identities, but also that they’re speaking a common language and they’re drawing from a common background. And I think a lot of scholarship today is really helping us see how they’re very much within this world and it’s very interconnected.

Paulson

That’s really a very, very helpful picture to paint for us because you’re right, I think we tend to think they were Christians and then they were Romans. And so the Christians then should be the Christians today, but we’re not Roman, but we’re Christian. And I think that’s a very helpful way for us to understand that there are people of the world who were dealing with ideas that were all around them as well as new ideas. And that’s what we have to do today too. So were there some lessons that you picked up in your study of Macrina? How does it talk to you?

Walsh

Yeah, well, I think one of the avenues, and this is a text that you can read in a text in a course about suffering and death, but you can also read it in a course about gender and sexuality in the ancient world. It’s interesting to me as a historian of this period who’s interested in representations of women, what we do with them, and to what extent. I mean, these are very mediated. Our access to women at this period is very mediated through the writings of men, yet women and the category of women is very important for these authors in thinking through what ideal belief looks like – sort of thinking through the emotions. Gender is very important. It’s not a marginal question, it’s not a side root of history. I think to study and to attend to what gender is doing within these text is central.

I mean, it’s at play, it’s critical. So I think that idea of representation and what do we do when we’re crafting a portrait of someone, and how does that reflect on the author, and where is meaning happening, and how are we interpreting it? Every time I read it, I see sort of new echoes and I think new ways that Gregory is speaking within his contemporary society and literary assumptions and rhetorical assumptions. And I would also say this idea of suffering and family ties and how communities, the family is both being changed, but also what’s the vision for the ideal community within some of these techs.

Paulson

Well, you helped me understand why this matters for today with those two examples, because I feel like the gender studies has been relatively new in the world that we live in, in the sense that I think feminism wasn’t the way it is now a hundred or 200 years ago. So it almost feels like we now can look at gender back then that it wasn’t happening. But you are saying that it was an important issue then. And also the idea of the suffering and grief makes it feel like it’s such a real experience that the people, it’s not just the theological treatise on what bodies and souls ought to be doing, but rather how do you actually come to terms with finding answers in your life that people have to struggle with at any age. Very, very interesting. So what are you looking for next? What goes on next for you with this study?

Walsh

Well, actually it’s odd. I mean, I teach this text so often and I haven’t really written about it very much. Most of my work is focused on Syriac and Greek poetry that was often performed within the liturgy, and they retold biblical stories featuring women and featured female figures. And I speak about a variety of themes, but women are very important. So I think that the carryover is that I’m always thinking about what are women’s voices doing? What does it mean for male authors to inhabit female voices and be thinking about scripting what ideal Christian life looks like? Yeah, but maybe one will write on this text. Certainly it’s always generative or it allows me to see things in other texts through this.

Paulson

That’s just great. Well, I want to thank you for introducing us to Macrina in a way that is way more than I had known before and give me a lot more to think about and appreciating what was going on back then. It sort of opens our eyes to the whole period there. It’s very, very helpful. Thanks for coming to be with us.

Walsh

Thank you. Thank you for having me. This was a lot of fun.

Paulson

Thank you.

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