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Katherine of Alexandria

March 1, 2014

I was a little taken aback recently when I followed  link to a post about five women of the early Christian church that we ought to be familiar with. One of the women was Katherine of Alexandria. I looked her up, wondering why I had never heard of her before. She was supposed to have lived in the 4th century and the first written record of her life appeared several centuries later. So her history is based on oral tradition. There is no other evidence for her existence.

Why are we suddenly hearing about her now? It turns out that the movie Katherine of Alexandria, to be released later this year, was the last movie that Peter O’Toole acted in before dying on Dec. 14, 2013. This makes it historic, in one sense at least. Here is the official website.  I scanned the website but could not find any admission that this history of Katherine of Alexandria is only a story, a legend.

What are we to do when people get enthusiastically taken up with stories like this which seem to prove that women did great and noble things in the early church? We can certainly recognize those for whom there are records, and often given less recognition that they are due – women like Paula, who worked with Jerome on the Latin translation of the Bible. But what do we do with the ones who are clearly fictitious?

This applies not only to early Christian martyrs but also to Judith, Esther and other biblical women. The books of Judith and Esther are both classified by scholars as “novels.” The book of Esther is part of the Hebrew canon, while the book of Judith is not. The most obvious reason is that Judith was written later than Esther, when the Hebrew canon was more or less formed. Even though there now exists no Hebrew copy of the book of Judith, all scholars agree that it was written in Hebrew. However, the Hebrew copy of the text was not preserved, while the Greek translation was preserved in the Septuagint. Therefore, the Greek and Roman church, but not Jews and Protestants, consider Judith as part of the canon, and her heroic acts are celebrated along with Esther’s. Jews, do, however, consider Judith an important Jewish hero. Evangelical Christian women tend to say “Judith who?”

Those who search out the Bible record and history to validate the participation of women in society as agents do well to recognize that many of these women may not have existed, or may not have lived the lives attributed to them. However, the same is true about many stories of male heroes.

In spite of this caution, one can derive from these stories which qualities were attributed to women with approval or disapproval. There are other intriguing details as well. For example, Esther was an orphan, and Judith was a widow. This put these women into  a special class of persons under the protection of God, but also distanced them somewhat from male authority. These women also used their beauty as an instrument of power, although for Sarah, Bathsheba and Joseph, beauty was a vulnerability. We can at least know what some people at the time thought about women, even if we don’t know if some of these women actually existed.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 1, 2014 9:23 pm

    Thanks for this post, Suzanne! I was just wondering earlier today who Catherine of Alexandria was, because she showed up on my 2014 Lent Madness bracket paired against Catherine of Siena.

    I think I’ll be voting for the politically influential Doctor of the Church instead of the legendary movie heroine!

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