Influential Women in Early Church History: #3 Melania

Influential Women in Early Church History
Article 3 of 5 – Melania

By Rev. Dr. Jackie Roese
Founder and President of The Marcella Project

Melania the Elder

I was three seminary degrees in before I heard of Melania the Elder. I suspect many of you have no clue who she is, either. So, let’s get to know her. She is one of the women who left us a legacy of powerful, wealthy, educated women who influenced and shaped early Christianity.

She was born in Spain in the 3rd century. She married at around fourteen or sixteen and moved with her husband to the suburbs of Rome. By age twenty-two, her husband and two out of three sons passed away. She converted to Christianity in Rome and shortly left her only living son, Valerius Publicola, with a guardian as she set off to visit the monks of Nitria. She stayed with the monks for six months and continued to use her wealth to support them financially even through a time of persecution. Her reputation among the monks was as a woman who excelled in virtue and was dubbed a “female man of God.” Later, she moved to Jerusalem, founded a monastery, and died in old age in the Holy Land.

How do we help posture ourselves to hear and receive from women’s stories like Melania, the Elder? First, we need to draw a picture (context) of what the early Church was like. The Church was in its infancy, in process, developing, messy, fluid, in liminality. The picture isn’t a formalized religion or mega-church world, but small bands of people scattered throughout Palestine and the Greco-Roman world. It was composed of different people groups (Jew/gentile, slave/free, male/female, literate/illiterate) trying to figure out how to live out a new way of living as individuals (2 Cor. 5:17, 3:18) in community (Gal. 3:28) and in society at large (Mk.1:1-14).

Although these groups might have had some Gospel writings, they also relied on others not included in our canon. Different groups had different collections that carried different weights within different communities. They didn’t have the Bible as we know it today. In 395, Emperor Theodosius legalized Christianity. The church shifted from small bands in homes to buildings in the public square. Structure and systems were established. Saint Jerome was commissioned to produce an acceptable Latin version of the Bible from the various translations. And now, instead of asceticism being defined by martyrdom (think of Perpetua’s story), it was marked by powerful patrons. “Patronage was the backbone of the informal social system of cohesion among men, providing means for political and social advancement as well as economic benefits…elite women were actively, though indirectly, involved in politics.” Patrons were the financial, intellectual, and social power that shaped the early Church doctrines and practices.

Melania the Elder was a powerful patron who had authority and was formative in shaping the early Church’s doctrine and practices. She was from the top aristocratic society and one of the wealthiest citizens in the Empire. She put her wealth to work funding intellectual projects, building monasteries, and civic building projects that benefitted the Christian movement. Today, that might look like a woman who decides what Christian books get published, who is elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention, who is the Provost at a Seminary, or what Churches or para churches receive resources for ministry life. Knowledge is intrinsically tied to power and whoever controls the knowledge controls the power.

Melania significantly invested in the work of scholars such as Rufinus, a contemporary of Jerome. It was said that Jerome envied the resources afforded to Rufinus because of Melania’s deep pockets. Her wealth gave him time and resources to study and become a prolific writer. He and Jerome became the loudest voices in the acrimonious and long-lasting Origenist controversy. Consider what intellectual body of works from our church fathers we might not have if not for women like Melania, the Elder.

But her contribution to the intellectual landscape was not solely through the minds of scholars she was also highly educated. Her biblical and theological knowledge was legendary with early Christians. Dr. Lynn Cohick, in her book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, states the “Palladisu records that she read three million lines of Origen, two and a half million lines of others such as Basil of Caesarea and Gregory, and enough commentaries on Scripture to dwarf Homer’s Iliad by three hundred times.” (pg. 207) It is thought that Melania the Elder used her family connections, finances, and intellectual acumen to tip the scale in the early doctrinal debate between pro-Nicene and the Arian party. In other words, we could argue she is one of the reasons we have the Nicene Creed.

The word power can make us uncomfortable, particularly when applied to women. But Andy Crouch is correct, power is in Creation, and it was used for flourishing. “As image bearers, God has given us the power ‘to fill the earth’ and make and create civilizations such that all of Creation flourishes. Power is the ability to make something of the world.” (Playing God, pg. 4) We could say that Melania the Elder held power by controlling the seminaries (monasteries) as well as the churches (civic building projects) and the intellectual works of theologians (such as Jerome and Rufinus) that were recorded and published. Put in that light; we can see how Christian women who are highly skilled (who have power, wealth, and connections) don’t need to recant their station in life or try to be smaller or live within a less-than framework of biblical womanhood. Melania the Elder permits women (and men) to be “large.” She challenges those with power to use it as God intended in Creation: to be devoted to Christ by using all they have right where they are for the cause of Christ and the flourishing of all of his Creation.