by Susan Ashbrook Harvey
The Acts of Thomas is one of our earliest documents for the history of Syrian Christianity. In it, the first person to recognize God’s messenger is a woman; the first person to heed the Gospel message and to leave the familiar world of marriage, family, and political loyalties for the sake of the Gospel is a woman. Women are the first to receive and the first to pursue the Gospel. Just as the Virgin Mary was the first to learn of God’s salvific plan by her conception of Jesus the Christ; just as Mary Magdalene, a disciple of Jesus who had left her home and family to travel with her Lord on His ministry, was the first to receive the news of the resurrection and to see the risen Lord; so, too, are the women of The Acts of Thomas the first to hear and to act. Two unnamed women of the Syrian legend, a servant flute girl and a royal bride, encapsule in their brief stories the issues and imagery of women in the Syrian Christian tradition. Let us use their memory as a guide for exploring what that tradition has held for the women who have been present within it.
The two women from The Acts of Thomas are characters in a story, and they are more. The Hebrew servant flute girl and the royal bride of India: these two images portray the radical equality of the Christian message: in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one (Galatians 3:26-7). The Syriac Christianity of the patristic period was notable not only for the variety and breadth of roles it allowed its female adherents, but also for the powerful feminine imagery that stood at the heart of its spiritual tradition. One example deserves particular notice: the Syriac tradition of the Holy Spirit as feminine. I have deliberately left this issue for the end and will sketch it only briefly, because the place of this imagery in women’s experience is ambiguous - that is, the relationship between symbols and social reality is a difficult one to determine. Cultures with powerful female symbols, or with female divinities as the central focus of their religious systems, have not necessarily provided positive political and social positions for real women. Moreover, we have no access to knowledge of how women themselves responded to this imagery in the course of Syriac Christian history. Nonetheless, the images are compelling for the theological implications of their feminine elements.
A basic feature of early Syriac Christianity is the complex gender imagery of the Holy Spirit.2 In Syriac literature prior to the year 400, the Holy Spirit was most often understood to be feminine, referred to as “She,” because the Syriac noun for spirit, ruha - related to the Hebrew ruah - is grammatically feminine. However, early Syriac writers did not present the Holy Spirit as a feminine being, distinct from though not necessarily in opposition to a male God. This was not a concrete identification such as characterized the traditional pagan religions of the Syrian Orient, where a triad of mother, father, and son was a common configuration of divinity, and where the Syrian Goddess held a notable place.
In Syriac literature, the grammatical gender of the noun ruha led to a feminine identification of the Holy Spirit, enhanced by various images used to describe Her activity that were clearly feminine: images of the Spirit comforting as a mother, or giving birth to, or nurturing the believer. Other actions ascribed to the Spirit did not carry gender connotations in their meanings, even when conjugated in the feminine with the noun ruha: to come upon, dwell in, search out, lead. Thus the understanding of the Spirit as feminine had to do with the experience of some of the Spirit’s actions and not with an attempt to define an identity. Feminine imaging for the Holy Spirit was not exclusive among early Syriac writers, but it was quite common, and was assumed to be an appropriate way of speaking about the Divine. Occasionally, Syriac writers used feminine imagery for Christ or for God as well.
Christians of every language have occasionally used feminine imagery for the Divine, but no other language of the early Christian world allowed the specific feminine identification that Syriac afforded the Holy Spirit. In Syriac the concept of the Holy Spirit could be developed theologically because of the language itself, and it was. At some point, this became problematic for the larger Church institution.
Around the year 400, a change appears in Syriac literature: the Holy Spirit begins to be referred to almost exclusively in masculine terms. After 400, the Spirit as “She” is found only on rare occasions, in poetry where it might be required for metrical pattern, or in ancient prayers preserved in liturgical texts. When the word ruha is used to mean wind or spirit generally, it is construed in its feminine form; when used for the Holy Spirit, it is construed as masculine despite the grammatical strain this puts on the language. Other images take the place of the early feminine ones, in general keeping the sense of earlier images without involving gender: the Spirit overshadows, or indwells, or enfolds. These are not used as gendered images; a “masculine” Spirit does not emerge in Syriac theology or religious poetry as a “feminine” one had in the earlier period.
We do not know how or why this change took place. Apparently, in the larger ecclesiastical structure of the Church, some people perceived the idea of a feminine Holy Spirit to be dangerous. For whatever reason, an image of great beauty and theological power was lost.
Other aspects of Syrian spirituality relied upon feminine imagery. Devotion to the Virgin Mary was especially rich in the Syrian Orient, where a profound Mariological tradition flourished from the second century - an unusually early flowering of such devotion. The cults of female saints continued in their popularity, although the numbers of women recognized in hagiography shrank during the Middle Ages. The Syrian preference for portraying baptism as new birth, following John 3:3-7, led to a vivid imaginal tradition of the baptismal font as the womb, and of baptism as mother. Christ’s life was imaged as a series of births: first from the womb of Mary, then from the womb of the Jordan at his baptism, and finally from the womb of Sheol at the resurrection. In mystical writings, the ascetic’s body became a womb in which to receive the Word. Yet no parallel to the Holy Spirit as feminine has ever reappeared in Syriac theology or spirituality. Indeed, all these other instances place the feminine imagery clearly outside the Godhead proper.
The correlation of social reality and theological imagery is not easily established. But the Syrian Church, in its first six centuries, demonstrated great openness to the works of women in the Church, and to the possibilities of extensive imagery, both male and female, for the Divine. Centuries of domination by other political and religious authorities followed, and women’s roles were seriously curtailed. Yet the Syriac tradition has continued to live, and its women have continued to honor their early legacy even while seeking its renewal.3 Like the flute girl, like the royal bride, women of the Syriac Christian tradition continue to hear the Word and to respond.
(This article was published in the St. Nina Quarterly, Volume 1, No. 4. It is the second part of a paper by the author and was reprinted with permission from Woman in Prism and Focus: Her Profile in Major world Religions and in Christian Traditions, ed. Prasanna Vazheeparampil, CMC (Rome: mar Thoma Yogam [The St. Thomas Christian Fellowship], 1996)
1. The Acts of Thomas were originally composed in Syriac, but circulated widely in both Syriac and Greek. See “The Acts of Thomas” in Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, English translation edited by R. McL. Wilson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), vol. I, pp. 425-531; and The Acts of Thomas, trans. with commentary by A. F. J. Klijn, Supplements to Novum Testamentum 5 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1962).
2. What follows is a summary of my articles, “Feminine Imagery for the Divine: The Holy Spirit, the Odes of Solomon, and Early Syriac Tradition,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37 (1993), pp. 111-139; and “The Odes of Solomon,” in Searching the Scriptures, Vol. 2: A Feminist Commentary, edited by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (New York: Crossroad, 1994), pp. 86-98.
3. Avril M. Makhlouf, “Hindiye Anne Ajeymi in her ecclesiastical and political situation,” Actes du 3e Congrès International d’études Arabes Chrétiennes, edited by Samir Khalil Samir, Parole de L’Orient 16 (1990 - 1991), pp. 279-287; Francis M. Zayek, Rafka: The Blind Mystic of Lebanon (Still River, Mass.: St. Bede’s Publications, 1980); Elishba Gülcan, “The Renewal of Monastic Life for Women in a Monastery in Tur Abdin,” Sobornost 7 (1977), pp. 288-298.