The ascetic choices of Rome’s aristocratic women and ecclesiastical authority in late fourth-century Rome as a proposed background for Codex Bezae’s “anti-feminist” readings in Acts

The “Western” text of Acts is often cited for a tendency to diminish the visibility and prominence of women, sometimes thought to reflect a second-century context (Schüssler Fiorenza, 1983; Witherington, 1984). But Holmes (2003) observes that at least half of the cited readings are attested only by Codex Bezae, which suggests that they may belong to a narrower layer of variants deriving from a time closer to Bezae’s production in ca. 400 C.E. In this paper, I will argue that specific concerns apparent in these readings are anticipated by critics of the privileged status of sexual asceticism in the Latin West in the final decades of the fourth century, including Helvidius, Jovinian, Filastrius, Vigilantius, and especially Ambrosiaster, whose ostensibly spiritual objections (e.g. charges of Manichaeism) were in part animated by a contest for authority over female lay ascetics of the Roman aristocracy, whose perceived independence was seen as a challenge not merely to the integrity of the household but also to the prerogatives of the male ecclesiastical hierarchy (Clark, 1981; Hunter, 1989). On the one hand, Bezae enhances precedents favorable to arguments against the special prestige of sexual renunciation, such as the apostolic example of marriage and procreation (a point argued by Ambrosiaster and Jovinian), evident in Bezae’s mention of wives and children in the upper room (Acts 1:14) and reinforced by the enlargement of the married Peter’s role over that of the celibate Paul in Bezae’s tradition (Brock, 2003). On the other hand, Bezae’s obfuscation of the conversion accounts of women who are depicted in Acts as making spiritual choices outside the authority structure of the household, such as the public profession of Damaris, apparently unaccompanied by a husband, who chooses to follow Paul, a man who is not her husband (Acts 17:34), accords well with Ambrosiaster’s contention that women possessed the imago Dei only through a male head. These and other parallels suggest that the decades prior to Bezae’s production warrant closer attention as a potential context for its “anti-feminist” readings.