“The Two Breasts of the Father”: Does Your God Look Like You?

Dr. Susan Ashbrook Harvey explains how gender shaped ancient thinking about God and how women participated in late ancient Syriac religious life in Season 1 Episode 4.

We explore women’s choirs, poetry that celebrated women as bold teachers, feminine language for the Holy Spirit, and multi-layered metaphors for God. Learn about the hymn-writers Ephrem the Syrian and Jacob of Serugh. Meet Febronia and her community of nuns. And ponder, why do the words humans use to describe the divine matter?


Dr. Susan Ashbrook Harvey is the Willard Prescott and Annie McClelland Smith Professor of History and Religion at Brown University. She specializes in late antique and Byzantine Christianity, with an emphasis on Syriac Christianity. Susan has published extensively on a wide number of topics, including asceticism, liturgical prayer, and women in late antique Christianity. Some of her books include: Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory ImaginationSong and Memory: Biblical Women in the Syriac Tradition, and Holy Women of the Syrian Orient (with Sebastian P. Brock). She earned her PhD from the University of Birmingham as a Marshall Scholar. A Guggenheim Fellow and multi-awardee, she has also been given honorary doctorates by Lund University, the University of Bern, and Grinnell College.

He was lofty but he sucked Mary’s milk, and from His blessings all creation sucks.

He is the Living Breast of living breath; by His life the dead were suckled, and they revived. […]

As indeed He sucked Mary’s milk, He has given suck—life to the universe.

As again he dwelt in His mother’s womb, in His womb dwells all creation.”

— Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on the Nativity 4.149-150, 153-154, trans. McVey, 1989

[podcast theme music plays, an upbeat Mediterranean-sounding detective vibe]

Emily Chesley: Welcome to Women Who Went Before, a gynocentric quest into the ancient world! I’m Emily Chesley…

Rebekah Haigh: …and I’m Rebekah Haigh…

Emily: …scholars, friends, and fellow text-raiders!

[music continues, then stops]

Rebekah: In this episode, “‘The Two Breasts of the Father’: Does Your God Look Like You?” we talk to Dr. Susan Ashbrook Harvey about how gender shaped ancient thinking about God and how women participated in late antique Syriac religious life.

[musical theme interlude]

Emily: In the 2nd century CE somewhere in the Levant, a collection of Syriac hymns was written by anonymous writers. Many of them sound like psalms you may have heard before–praising God and celebrating God through a variety of metaphors. One of these hymns, though, develops some particularly unique metaphors:

“A cup of milk was offered to me, and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.

The Son is the cup, and the Father is He who was milked; and the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him; 

Because His breasts were full, and it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released. 

The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom, and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.

Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing, and those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand.” (Odes of Solomon 19.1–5, trans. Charlesworth, 1977)[1]

We’ll unpack this unusual imagery in a minute, but first, let’s lay some groundwork.

Rebekah: Ancient Judaism and Christianity tended to view the nature of God through deeply masculine metaphors. God is depicted in the scriptures as a husband who punishes yet forgives his adulterous wife (Is 63), a mighty warrior who destroys the enemies of his people (Ex 15), and a father who loves and chastises his children (Heb 12:6). As the prophet Malachi puts it, “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” (2:10, NRSV). The metaphors of Warrior, Lord, King, and Father permeate early Christian and Jewish discourse. 

Emily: Theologians from these religions will be quick to explain that these are all metaphors, not reality. God is neither male nor female. God is spirit and utterly transcendent, beyond the confines of humanity’s categories. 

Yet the metaphors and descriptions used for God nevertheless reveal humans’ subconscious ideas about God and the ideological dominance of societal, male-topped hierarchies. Since men lay at the pinnacle of the social and legal pyramid –above women, children, and enslaved folks–it’s not surprising then, that the imagery used to describe the deity viewed at the top of the universe’s pyramid often also took male shape in the imagination. Metaphors matter.

In our last episode, Elaine Pagels unpacked the ideological boxes early Christian theologians tried to put women into. Women were the gateway to the devil, evil temptresses descended from Eve. As one might imagine, these deeply-rooted beliefs about women’s sinfulness and frailty prompted church leaders to restrict women from liturgical roles. In most Greek- and Latin-speaking Christian communities, women were forbidden from preaching, from performing the sacraments, and from being ordained as priests. Such was the dominant landscape in ancient Christianity (and Judaism too): male-centered language for God and male-centered ritual spaces.

Rebekah: But, this was not the only landscape. As we refrain every week, women were there! 

We mentioned how masculine metaphors for God dominate the religious imaginative landscape. 

But there were, very occasionally, metaphors that understood God in female terms. The prophet Isaiah depicts God as a woman struggling in labor, as a nursing mother, and as a midwife (42:14; 46:3–4; 49:15; 66:9). These feminine metaphors did not ultimately shape how most of Judaism and Christianity (and even later Isaiah) imagined themselves in relation to God, yet they are present in the biblical text if you choose to look for them. 

Emily: Wealthy women funded the building of synagogues, monasteries, and churches–what historians call patronage. In some cases, women even served as deacons and presbyters: ordained clerics who could teach and administer the sacraments.[2] Women often assisted priests in baptizing other women, since baptisms were performed in full immersion in the nude in late antiquity, and the church was concerned for propriety. 

The highest ranked leaders of the early Jesus movement were apostles. Yet the apostle Paul lists Junia, a woman, among them. He also mentions a female deacon, Phoebe, in Rome’s fledging church (Rom 16:7, 17). Recent excavations at a church in Ashdod, Israel, have unearthed inscriptions that list Sophronia, Gregoria, Theodosia, and Severa as deaconesses, continuing testimony to the existence of ordained women in the fifth or sixth centuries.[3]

Later Christian stories tell of a fourth-century CE woman named Nino, one of the most theologically-trained women in Jerusalem who was specially appointed as a preacher and missionary to Georgia. According to the Life of Nino, the patriarch of Jerusalem laid hands on her shoulders and proclaimed, “Lord God of the fathers and the centuries, I commend this orphan, my sister’s child, into your hands, and I send her to preach your divinity and that she may proclaim your resurrection wherever it is your pleasure that she may go.” (trans. Paetsch and Kartlisa, 1975)[4] 

Rebekah: The ancient world was diverse and varied, and we don’t want to risk imprecision through overgeneralization–though of course any conversation will have to have some. So on today’s episode we zoom into the world of Syriac Christianity, where intertwined with the masculine metaphors for God, very occasionally you can find some feminine metaphors too. Here also, women could be consecrated to a special order called the Daughters of the Covenant, and women had central roles in church liturgies, singing in antiphonal choirs.

Emily: Syriac was a dialect of Aramaic spoken in Edessa (modern-day Urfa, Turkey) in the third century CE. It’s a Semitic language in the same linguistic family as Hebrew and Arabic, and it’s known for its beautiful theological poetry, its metrical hymns. 

The Syriac poetic tradition, in writers like the fourth-century Ephrem and a sixth-century preacher named Jacob of Serugh, celebrated bold women. Women who spoke up, who exegeted scripture, who proclaimed God publicly. 

I particularly love a line in Ephrem’s hymn narrating the story of Ruth and Boaz. He sings it addressing God as “you”: “Ruth lay down with [Boaz] on the threshing floor for your sake. Her love was bold for your sake. She teaches boldness to all penitents. Her ears held in contempt all [other] voices for the sake of your voice” (Hymns on Nativity 9.14, trans. McVey, 1989).[5] Even though she basically requested sex from this distantly-related man, Ephrem did not view this as a scandalous act of Ruth, but as a choice of bold love that “teaches…all penitents.”

Rebekah: These marvelous women-celebrating songs were often sung by female choirs. The same Ephrem who wrote that hymn on Ruth introduced female antiphonal choirs into the Syriac church liturgy. 

A large part of the Syriac service was sung, even the sermons. Women’s choirs typically sang poems called madroshe.[6] A sub-type of madroshe were typically hymns called sogyotho that were recited during the first part of the service, usually interspersed with psalms and scripture readings.[7] While the rules of Syriac poetry can be complex, the point here is that women choirs sang songs. Jacob of Serugh famously proclaimed these choirs, “teachers among the congregations.”[8] Very different from the Greek-speaking church where women were sometimes told to not even sing the congregational hymns because the New Testament commanded silence from women.[9]

Emily: Perhaps most surprising to western audiences was the gender flexibility Syriac Christianity could have for the divine. Before 400 CE, Syriac poetry spoke of the Holy Spirit as grammatically feminine. In Christian theology the Holy Spirit is the third person of the godhead. There’s the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and they are coequal and interconnected and all divine.

Rebekah: That’s right! We can summarize hundreds of years of theological debate in five seconds or less! Go us! [both laugh]

Emily: In Greek the word for spirit or breath is pneuma, and it’s grammatically neuter. In Syriac, the word for spirit is ruho, and it’s grammatically feminine. Hebrew is the same: the word for spirit or breath is ruach and feminine. Because the grammar of the language demanded it, Syriac used feminine pronouns for the Holy Spirit, basically “she” rather than “he.” This trend was not permanent, as we will see shortly. But it contributed to an environment in early Syriac Christianity with diverse language in use for the divine.

Rebekah: Even when language doesn’t grab our conscious attention, it still works under the surface to shape the way we see the world and ourselves in it. The smallest shifts in language shape not only the literary narrative being told but also lived realities.  “She” rather than “he.” Celebrating women as “bold” rather than “meek.” Or imagining God not as a warrior but as a breastfeeding mother. The impact builds up. 

With Syriac Christian communities, we have a rare opportunity. We can connect literary texts with people: with women who were really there. 

Emily: Today we are joined by Dr. Susan Ashbrook Harvey, the Willard Prescott and Annie McClelland Smith Professor of History and Religion at Brown University. She specializes in late antique and Byzantine Christianity, with a special emphasis on Syriac Christianity. Susan has published extensively on a wide number of topics including asceticism, liturgical prayer, and women in late antique Christianity. 

Books you may want to check out are Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory ImaginationSong and Memory: Biblical Women in the Syriac Tradition, and Women who met Jesus: Select Homilies by Jacob of Sarug. She earned her PhD from the University of Birmingham as a Marshall Scholar. Among other awards, she was named a Guggenheim Fellow, and she’s been awarded honorary doctorates from Lund University, the University of Bern, and Grinnell College. We’re honored to welcome her to the podcast!

[podcast theme music plays]

Emily: So we talk a lot on our podcast about the literary construction of women. How women were written about, conceived of, and presented in ancient texts. So today maybe let’s start at the other end, with real women. 

We’ve introduced our listeners to the existence of female choirs and about the late antique Syriac language with that tradition. So how did women participate or not participate in liturgies in the Syriac churches?

Susan Ashbrook Harvey: So there are lots of ways that women could participate in the liturgies or the worship services, the practice, devotional life of the ancient Syriac churches.

There were special choirs of women as you mentioned, and of course laypeople—just ordinary women, wives, mothers, daughters—attended services and they also needed to sing responses to the hymns or the responses to the prayers. And they needed to join in the hymns that were sung by the congregation.

And there were also other women who had special roles or status in the ancient churches. There were female deacons. There were nuns. There were widows and virgins who were consecrated to special service in the churches and had special obligations, special places to sit. Sometimes they were received offerings or support from the church. 

So there are a lot of different roles and places for women in the in the worship services and the practices.

But also, liturgies were important occasions for remembering and honoring and commemorating important men and women from the past, whether holy figures or saints. This included women from the Bible and women saints and martyrs. And their stories were read out or retold in hymns and in sermons on their feast days. Or their names were included in lists of saints that were often read out in part of prayers or litanies. So you had stories about women or the remembrance of those women that were also always part of worship services. 

You had women’s choirs and female deacons performing liturgical roles and you had laypeople of every age, including women and girls, participating also. So I like to think of that as women’s voices coming from all sides of the church.

Emily: I imagine our listeners, maybe they’re assuming something along the lines of nuns or people in the monastery. Is that what we’re talking about in the Syriac context? I know there’s much we don’t know, but what do we know?

Susan: So this is a really important question and of course also in our own society even the word “virgin” means something very different. 

One of the important things here is “virgins” could be a term that just referred to young unmarried women who were ready to be married. But consecrated cirgins were women who chose not to be married, but instead to remain single and to serve the church. So that might sound like being a nun, except that consecrated virgins did not live in convents with nuns as a separate community. They lived in the town or in the village or in the city. Maybe they lived with their families or other women who chose the same role. And they did work for the parishes. They visited sick women or took gifts or offerings to people who were in need. In the city of Edessa in the 5th century, there was a women’s hospital, and the consecrated virgins worked in that hospital as nurses to take care of the sick women.

So there were jobs for the bishops, jobs that they needed doing just out in the neighborhoods. And nuns pretty much stayed in their convents or were concerned with their own kinds of religious activities.

These consecrated virgins, you could think of them almost more like social workers in our society. But the status was understood to be a religiously-meaningful one and so it’s not just that they chose to be single, they chose to be single in the service of the church.

Rebekah: We mentioned briefly in our introduction to the Syriac hymns that celebrate women, that there are seemingly salacious moments in the biblical stories, right? Like with Tamar. But these are spun in what seem to be positive ways in the Syriac tradition. Can you tell our audience a little bit more about the qualities or the kinds of women that were celebrated within the Syriac liturgical tradition and why?

Susan: So I think this is really cool because it sort of flips around our expectations of the ancient world. So Syriac poets and preachers praised women for their boldness of faith, or praised them for being models of good devotion, especially when faith required women to defy social norms.

Sometimes you needed to choose to be devoted to God over whatever it meant your place as a daughter or a wife or a mother might be. 

For example, the way the Christians read Old Testament stories was that the coming of Jesus was something the prophets foretold, but also that there was a lineage. There was a sacred series of family generations that would culminate in the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary. But it began way back in the families many centuries before that. Some of the holy women from the Old Testament, like Tamar or Ruth, were women who believed in that prophecy that there would be a holy line from which Jesus would be born. And they wanted to be part of that because that was God’s promise for salvation. And so intense was their longing to be part of God’s plan for salvation that they chose scandalous methods to participate in that lineage. 

So Ruth, for example, who was a young widow, went and lay down in the bed of her kinsman Boaz. And the book of Ruthdoes not tell us what happened in his bed. But it does tell us that from their relationship would come Obed the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David, who was an important ancestor of Jesus. 

When Syriac writers talked about Ruth’s boldness getting into bed with Boaz, it was her desire for God, desire for serving God’s purpose, not her desire to have sex with this guy. But her desire for serving God required her to have sex with this guy, even though it broke, as it were, protocols.

And then in the New Testament, Syriac Christians praised women who were bold in public declarations of faith that Jesus was the Messiah and that he was God. And sometimes they declared that publicly when men were too timid or too afraid to do that. 

So boldness and even impudence—they use that term, “holy impudence”—was praised in these biblical women when they acted as a result of being devoted to God, devoted to Christ.

It’s interesting, though, that the same biblical figures are praised in Greek and Latin literature at the same time, but not for those qualities. That is, they don’t talk about holy boldness or a kind of sacred impudence in the way that Syriac authors really make the women the heroes of this story, very often, in a way that the Bible doesn’t.

Emily: I would love to pick up on that piece you just mentioned about the Greek and Roman churches have maybe a different take on women. We’ve mentioned both this sort of different maybe framing of women in the biblical tradition in texts, but also potentially different roles for women within the liturgies themselves. Women choirs, the consecrated virgins in the Syriac traditions. Do you have a sense of how this different openness came about? What led to these diverging paths between the Christian traditions?

Susan: You know, it’s really hard. I’ve worked on this exact question for many years now. Probably longer than some of your audience has been alive. [laughs] And increasingly I feel that it may not have been so different in real life, but the way that these different churches remember their past is different. And also the kind of evidence that survives is different.

So in Syriac tradition we have a story already in the 5th and the 6th century that St. Ephrem—who was their greatest saint ever—St. Ephrem in the 4th century was very concerned that heretics and people who didn’t believe in Jesus were teaching people false ideas with really good songs that people liked to sing. And so Ephrem began to compose, as a fight fire with fire. He composed new kinds of hymns, and he decided to fight these bad songs. And for some reason, we don’t know why, decided that women’s choirs would be a really good way of doing this. 

And so we have this story told by different people that Ephrem would collect together they were called Daughters of the Covenant, these consecrated virgins. He’d rehearse them, and they would sing: morning and evening services, Sunday liturgies, all the feast days. They would… In particular, that the hymns that they sang which were called madroshe are hymns that teach the doctrines of the church. They taught about the Holy Trinity, and they taught the stories of Jesus, and they taught stories from the Bible. They taught about the crucifixion and the Resurrection. And that these hymns would be sung by women’s choirs. 

And then we have sermons, we have hymns, we have chronicles, sometimes letters, commentaries over several centuries that refer to or describe the singing of these choirs. 

And at— There’s a living tradition now in many of the Syriac churches that continues the practice of women’s choirs. Where they stand at the front of the church. They’re usually, now they’re not consecrated virgins, but usually young women. And they wear white robes, and they’re at the front of the church but they’re not up next to where the deacons in the priests are there. But they’re at the front, and they lead the congregation in the hymns.

So it’s a teaching kind of ministry.

But most importantly, somehow by the early 5th century we begin to see canon law—that is, the rules about churches in Syriac—include occasionally, not very often, but occasionally and over centuries, these rules that every village, town and city church had to have a women’s choir to sing the doctrinal hymns. So if it’s in canon law it’s part of your institution. You’re not doing it for any other reason. 

These weren’t— We don’t know the names of these women. It’s not like these were— This wasn’t Aretha Franklin singing gospel music. [all laugh] I mean, maybe, but we don’t know! [all laugh] So we don’t know the names of any of the singers. We don’t know, did they write their own—Who composed the music? We don’t know any of that.

And in a sense that anonymity is really important because it’s not like these were unusually talented people. These were just women in every church who came together and practiced and sang the teachings of the church.

Now we don’t have anything like this that is described in our sources for Greek or Latin churches for any period of history. Except we know that they had choirs of nuns, which Syriac also had, and that sometimes for special liturgies like Easter or if a special bishop came to town or something important choirs of nuns and choirs of female deacons would come and sing in the liturgy for that purpose.

Well Syriac had that too. And sometime—this is what I’ve been finding in my research—once in a while in the sermon, a preacher will say something like, “we just heard the women sing about this.” Well, what’s that about? But there’s nothing else that says we have a women’s choir here, there’s nothing else in Greek or Latin that says that, and certainly nothing in canon law.

And a result of that is things change over time, habits change overtime. And people remember that the apostle Paul in the New Testament in 1st Corinthians, letter to the Corinthians said “Women should keep silent in church.” And so we hear that quoted all the time. And even in the 20th century and sometimes in the 21st century we hear bishops who say, “We’ve never had women sing in the church because the apostle Paul said women should keep silent.”

Now I find sometimes when I present talks in churches about the Syriac women’s choirs— in Greek say, I’ve done it not only for Syriac churches but Greek churches for example—Women will come up to me afterwards and say, “Well, you know when I was growing up in my village we didn’t have a chanter in the church and the priest was my father and he needed me to sing, so I went and sang.” I’ve heard, I can’t even tell you, dozens, hundreds of stories like that. But because nobody put it in an official book, nobody recognized it as an official practice for the church to follow. But because somebody put it in the Syriac canon law books from very very early, it’s right there as an official practice of the church.

So it may not be that in real life it was actually all that different. But the way that the surviving evidence presents or doesn’t, you know, is silent. And then the way people remember their own past can change. People can tell you they remember women singing in their village churches. Or they can say they never heard it, but maybe their grandparents did.

Emily: Yeah, I think one of the things that stands out to me in what you’ve just told us is the importance of people making changes. Whether somebody in power like Ephraim, a bishop who just happens to decide to institute women choirs and then that starts kind of a waterfall, trickle effect. Or some scribe happening to write this down in canon law, this can have a really outsized effect down the line.

Susan: Because people like to refer to the past to authorize something for the present. 

Emily: Yeah.

Susan: Its, the other thing I think that’s really important is our early Syriac preachers and hymn-writers love to celebrate the fact that the whole community comes together to worship and everybody sings. They love to tell you this. And they love to name all the people that: “the old people are here, the young people are here, the children are here, the newlyweds are here, the babies are here!” And that every voice is singing. They love to celebrate that. And so they’re telling you that all these voices are singing.

Well, maybe that was going on also in Coptic churches or in Greek or Latin churches. But if you don’t, if you don’t have somebody who says it, you don’t know if it was still! Maybe it was!

Emily: Yeah, all these voices and moments that get lost to us just because it didn’t happen to get written down, or at least written down in something that was preserved for us today.

Susan: Exactly. 

Rebekah: Yeah. It makes me think within the field of Rabbinics, right, we have what the rabbis say about Jewish life in antiquity and we have some synagogue mosaics and a few maybe non-rabbinic texts. But it’s really hard to reconstruct what daily life would have looked like for the average Jewish person. Synagogue life, what did it look like? We have like the Piyyutim, which are often used as sort of a comparison point for Syriac liturgical texts, but we actually don’t know much about the mechanics of how these texts were used. You know, all of that.

Susan: Yeah, that’s an important analogy. It’s a fair comparison.

Rebekah: Do we know much in terms of the kinds of metaphors that were used for biblical figures, the way memory was played with in the Syriac tradition?

Susan: There were so many images for the divine that were used in the ancient world. And actually feminist scholars many years ago, like first wave feminism if that means anything [laughs], commented that the vast— Christians of all centuries have used many, many, many images for God, many of which are not human images. And that with the Industrial Revolution you get a narrowing down to Father, Son and male Holy Spirit as if there are no other images, or very few other images. The ancient world and medieval world, many natural images are actually more common than images from human, anthropocentric references.

So Syriac writers of course speak of God as God the Father, God the Creator and the Lord of all. But they also love to use all these different images. And especially for Christ and the Holy Spirit, for which calling Christ “the Son” or the Holy Spirit “Spirit” were just barely the beginnings of how to talk about them.

And Syriac writers talk about this. That human language is inadequate for God. Human language is limited to what our minds and words can understand, but God is enormous, beyond that. So if you use many, many images or titles to talk about Christ or God, you’re helping people break out of the limits of human language. And so imagery was a form of revelation. And they describe the created world as full of symbols that God made so that we could come to know God. 

So for example, I’m just for example going to use images of Christ here. Christ was often called in Syriac the Good Physician who brings the medicine of life; so the Communion was called the medicine of life. He was also called the Fiery Coal, that is, the Burning Ember who carried the seed of that holy lineage that we mentioned before. He was called the Pearl, which shone with light. He was called the Light, the Source of Light, the Heavenly Light—Capital-L Light. In one hymn by Ephrem Christ is called the Good Steward, the High Priest, the Holy Spice, the Sacrificial Lamb, the Treasure, the Rock, the Balance, the Justifying Wall, the Leveling Gate, the Yoke, the Mirror, the Cluster of Mercy, the Staff of Wheat from which came the bread of life, and the Skilled Sailor.

So these weren’t always human images. And often they were from nature. And you stacked up multiple images so that you didn’t make the mistake of reducing God to only one image, or Christ to only one.

So imagery was something that they loved to play with, and they played a lot with. And it could go in many directions, including as, you know, that could go in the direction of using feminine images explicitly for God the Father or Christ the Son or the Holy Spirit.

Rebekah: Yeah, and we talked about one of those metaphors, right? God as a breastfeeding mother. Are there other really interesting images for God that sort of push into the domain of the feminine?

Susan: Well, of course the obvious example in Syriac is the Holy Spirit, because the word for “spirit” was grammatically feminine in the Syriac language. And until around the year 400 they speak, they use the pronouns “she” and “her” for the Holy Spirit without necessarily exploring that. Sometimes, if she lifted me up, the Holy Spirit lifted me up.

But sometimes they explored it a little bit. And for example, in the Odes of Solomon, which have other images but there’s several beautiful passages of the Holy Spirit like a mother bird. So there’s a beautiful, short, “As the wings of doves over their nestlings and the mouths of their nestlings towards their mouths, so are the wings of the spirit over my heart.” That’s very beautiful, one of my favorites.

Emily: You wrote in one of your excellent scholarly pieces, “When used in religious language, metaphor functions as a verbal icon.”[10] And I loved how you expressed that—that the power and meaning of a metaphor comes from the fact that it reveals something else. It reveals truth about in this case, God. So what are these metaphors revealing about God to their listeners?

Susan: So Ephrem talks a lot about this similar thing. Actually they all talk about it. But that revelation is really the point of the image. And that if you ever experience icons in an Orthodox liturgy, you know that for Orthodox Christians icons are very interactive. The icon itself is not God, of course, or the saint, but the divine is present through it and people can experience and pray with an icon in a very personal way. And words are like this in Ephrem’s hymns or in Jacob of Serugh’s sermons. Words can be like a doorway, a channel between us and the divine realm. And they can open that out in many different directions. 

You, in your comments to your listeners, referred to Odes of Solomon 19, where we have God and the Holy Spirit and Christ all sort of, there’s a female birth taking place. And God is midwifing, and God is nursing. And the Holy Spirit is, everybody’s participating in that in a series of feminine metaphors. 

And that particular ode is a real puzzle to us. We don’t actually know in what language it was originally written. It’s part of a group of hymns that survive to us in Syriac, Greek and Coptic, which means that they traveled far and wide, those particular hymns. But we don’t have ever anyone say, “And in our church we use these odes.” We don’t know. 

But that language of God as mother, nurse, and the Holy Spirit as a nursing mother—that language may be referencing traditional religious language of pre-Christian eastern Mediterranean religions which included very important and powerful goddess cults. The goddess Isis from Egypt, the Syrian goddess Atargatis.

So there were male and female deities or divine beings. And sometimes their gendered aspects were fluid or complex. In Greek religion Zeus the father God gave birth to Athena. He gave birth to Dionysus. Athena, a goddess, was the goddess of war. So there’s a lot of gender fluidity in the divine world anyway.

But we do have occasional biblical references to God or Christ mother. That’s really where the female image is pursued. And for Christ we have a very powerful passage in a hymn by St. Ephrem—this is from his Hymns on Nativity 4—that describes Jesus, the paradox. So we’re going to play on paradox here. Jesus as a newborn baby nursing at Mary’s breast, who was also as lord of the universe, “the living breast at which all of the universe took suck. All living beings nursed at this living breast. Receive the breath of life.”

It’s a very powerful image. He who gives suck receives; the one who is at the breast is the breast. But in that very same hymn, in the exact same hymn Christ is also called the Fruit who was born from the barren vine. He’s the Shoot from the tree of Jesse. He’s the Sheaf of Wheat from which came the bread of life. He’s the All-Enriching One, from whose treasury came the treasure of life. He’s the True Lamb. He’s the Voice who became a body. He is the Word who became flesh. He is the Son of the ruler of all, and he is the Ruler of All.

So the image of Christ as a nursing mother is one image embedded in a hymn that has several dozen other images at the same time. Just like holding a prism that you’re always moving. But I do think it’s also important to remember that Christ as a nursing mother is an image that occurs once in a while in early Christian writers. Clement of Alexandria has a very beautiful passage on Christ as mother. And again, Christ our mother is very important later for the medieval European mystics: so Anselm of Canterbury or Julian of Norwich have long discussions of Christ as mother.

So it’s never an image that dominates, but it never disappears completely.

But of course in Syriac because of Syriac language, in the beginning anyway, that saw the Holy Spirit as a feminine noun and so could use feminine language for that, there’s maybe a special connection that’s a little more vivid in the early Syriac texts, at least for the Holy Spirit.

Rebekah: Emily and I were having a conversation about this earlier in the week. In rabbinic literature the concept of the shekinah is introduced of God’s more active presence dwelling on earth. But since the word is feminine in Hebrew, later writers especially in Kabbalah, the shekinah becomes sort of a “quasi-independent feminine element” (Gershom Scholem, 1960).[11] Or at least Gershom Scholem says that. 

So I wonder was there any of this transference of that grammatical gender onto conceptual gender in the same way?

Susan: And another important example like shekinah is hokmah. [Rebekah murmurs assent.] The word wisdom in Hebrew is feminine, and sophia in Greek also. And so both of those ideas, wisdom, holy wisdom are personified sometimes as female divine presences in some way. So there’s several other examples.

There was a very great scholar in the 4th century, Jerome, Latin scholar, who commented that the word for spirit for Holy Spirit in Latin is masculine and in Greek is neuter and in Hebrew like Syriac it’s feminine. So Jerome said that this proved that God is beyond any gender, that the divine includes all gender and also exceeds all gender. So there you have one ancient scholar commenting on that. Nobody in Syriac comments on this.

But somewhere around the year 400, Syriac texts—it’s hard to explain this in English because we don’t have this idea. But in Syriac the adjectives, so the word “holy” that is modifying “spirit” should be feminine because “spirit” is a feminine noun. And the verbs show gender as well so you should use feminine verbs. But around the year 400 if “spirit” refers to Holy Spirit, everything is masculine from then on. Except very rarely in certain liturgical poetic texts where meter requires the other spelling.

It’s across the board almost overnight, somewhere around the year 400. It’s almost a universal change. No one ever, ever, ever mentions it. Not in Syriac or any other language. I mean, mentions that Syriac has this change.

But I think there was a huge move. In the later 4th century, early in the 5th century—so around the same time—towards standardizing Christianity generally. All the way across the Roman Empire, beyond the— in Persia as well. Standardizing Christian practices, organization, and technical language of theology. I think this change was part of that general trend towards standardization, which means that it probably didn’t have anything to do with real women.

But from our historical perspective, we can see that there may have been implications for women in removing from religious language the presence of a feminine image within the concept of the Trinity.

Emily: But at the same time, other metaphors still continue. I think you mentioned in one of your writings about how Ephrem talks about his Hymns on the Nativity as “lullabies.”[12] And other metaphors still continue. So even though this one piece for some reason falls out.

Susan: Yes, many, many, many metaphors, including sometimes feminine imagery for the divine. 

And many scholars would say, of course, that for Syriac as for other Christian traditions, it’s around the same time that devotion to the Virgin Mary really becomes much more exalted. And so perhaps in terms of devotional presence with a feminine quality to it, the Virgin Mary could take over some of that role.

I think it’s just important that the divine is not reduced to an idea of gender, whether or not the Holy Spirit was spoken of as feminine. 

Emily: Absolutely. [laughing] If I can tell an anecdote, I once heard a conference paper on the Ode of Solomon 19, this breastfeeding hymn, and the paper never once brought up gender. And so in the Q&A two scholars who happened to be women asked about the gender elements at play cause it’s fairly in your face. And someone asked, “Why do all the women only care about gender?” So now I have a precious relationship to this hymn! [laughs]

It’s just that when the text puts it in front of you, sometimes questions should be asked.

Susan: And it wasn’t a problem for them. 

Emily: No! 

Susan: You know, whoever wrote it… We wish we had some text where someone said in today in church we sang Ode19. [both laugh] But nobody says that.

Rebekah: So we’ve talked on the podcast before in Episode 0 about the Greco-Roman and Jewish hierarchies of gender where masculinity was considered the highest and most divine, over and above femininity.[13] According to Philo of Alexandria, Jewish men could move up this hierarchy by spiritual discipline, self-mastery, and practicing masculine virtues, and eventually transform, perhaps into divinity.[14]

“Progress is indeed nothing else than the giving up of the female gender by changing into the male, since the female gender is material, passive, corporeal, and sense perceptible, while the male is active, rational, incorporeal, and more akin to mind and thought” (Philo, Q. Exod 1.8, trans Marcus, 1953).[15] And that’s Philo.

So did Syriac feminine images for the divine reverse in any way this Greco-Roman idea of the divine as the highest man?

Susan: It would be hard to see it that way. What you’re referring to there with Philo, it was drawing very deeply on Plato and on Aristotle. That philosophical tradition was something the Syriacs also inherited in philosophical writing. But, and I guess in terms of ideological language God the Father was still God the Father for Syriac Christians; there’s a broad shared culture across the Mediterranean world for these ideas.

But we also have a very strong insistence, for example in the sermons—they were sung, sung sermons by Jacob of Serugh and others, Ephrem the Syrian being another one—on the equality of men and women in the presence of God.

And there’s one sermon that St. Jacob of Serugh preached which talks a lot about the women’s choirs. It’s a sermon where he says the reason why women must sing in church is because in the kingdom of heaven, men and women stand equal before the Lord. “You must sing! Everyone must!” And he has, I mean, he does this kind of “Eve silenced the voice of women, but Mary opened the voice of women.” And so the sound of women’s voices in liturgy is the living proof that salvation has come for all people. If we only hear the voices of men that’s leaving out the half the human population, and that goes against universal claims of Christianity.

So I think you would find in Syriac philosophical writings, you certainly could find something similar to that tradition of the female being the earthly and the material and the male being the soul.

But in terms of understanding the universality of the human condition and a fundamental, if I can say ontological, equality between men and women, that is something that is preached about in the sermons and in the hymns that people sing. 

Jacob says, “Yonder in the kingdom of heaven men and women stand equal.” The way he says “yonder in the kingdom” helps you notice that that’s not the case here on Earth. [Rebekah and Emily murmur understanding.] But it doesn’t remove that as a fundamental commitment of the religion. That equality, a sense of equality.

Yes to the philosophical tradition. I just feel it’s overridden in so many ways. That’s an important part of the tradition. It’s certainly part of a profoundly patriarchal and often misogynistic history.

But it is not the whole story. 

Rebekah: I wonder if you might share with our audience what initially led you to the study of Syriac women. Why this field? Why this people group? Why these texts?

Susan: Well, I have to say I have always looked for the women. I was a Classics major in college and looked for the women. Studying Bible and early Christian history as a graduate student, I always looking for the women. And when I began to work specifically in the treasures of Syriac traditions, it was really the beauty of its poetry and saints’ stories that drew me in, I was always looking for the women.

Scholarship often time does not talk about that. You have to go and look for them because it’s often hard to find. But the women are always there. So you just have to do that for them.

Emily: So maybe lastly, do you have a favorite text about Syriac women or a favorite story that you wish everyone knew about?

Susan: So that’s a tough one, because of course there are many [laughs], but probably the Life of St. Febronia from the 6th century. So this is a wonderful text about a community of nuns in what would now be northern Syria, what once was northern Syria, maybe it’s more in Iraq now. It’s this story about a community of nuns. And the woman Febronia was a nun, a leading figure in the middle of this community and who is tragically martyred at the end of the story. But that’s not my favorite part! 

The story about the convent is just wonderful. It’s about women’s friendships. The nuns are friends with each other and also friends with the women of the town who come and visit. Not only the Christian women, but pagan women.

And these friendships are presented in the story as treasured relationships. And they were emotional, and they were intellectual. These women read to each other! They stayed up all night reading to each other! They studied together. They sang in the worship services together. They took care of each other when someone was ill. And the convent as a group was portrayed as competent, strong, independent, and a real community. 

So even though Febronia is the point of the story cause she’s the saint, she’s not the only special person in this story. You know, it’s really a wonderful community. And they didn’t need men to be telling them what to do.

So there are a couple of men in this story, who are— I mean, there’s some bad guys doing the martyring [wryly]. And then there’s some good guys who affirm Febronia’s wonderfulness and the community.

But really, it’s this story of these women and their relationships with each other as the context in which their devotion to God was lived out. And I just, it’s wonderful. So I recommend it.

[podcast theme music]

Emily: The Syriac hymns that we’ve explored today were ultimately not written by women. These written texts, though, offer us a window into Syriac conceptualization of the feminine and a variety of images for God. Yet, unlike other texts that imagine women, some of which we’ll explore later in our season, these hymns are not just texts. We can situate them in time and space. Real women were listening and singing these hymns. Teaching men through them. Identifying with Ruth’s boldness and worshiping a God that sounded a bit more like them. 

Rebekah: It’s all too easy to write-off the insidious potency of a world where everything from you to that rock over there is feminine or masculine. When language is so heavily gendered, your world becomes gendered too by default. In most ancient languages, unless women were explicitly included in a group, the grammar wrote them out. Endings on verbs and nouns become masculine if there’s at least one man in the group. The Bible uses gendered language like “the sons of God,” “brothers,” and “mankind” to refer to communities that may or may not have had women among them. Whether or not women were present depends somewhat on how generous of a reader you are. Practically, this means that ancient women are often made invisible within the world of the text. 

Emily: This issue isn’t as far from the modern world as you might think. Axioms linger like “Man shall not live by bread alone,” “the clothes make the man,” or “No man is an island.” Technically these proverbs are about humanity, but explicitly they only include men. 

Rebekah: Though, if I’m being honest, I would live on bread alone if I could! [both laugh]

Emily: Many modern women still find themselves excluded from religious texts – and even much of shared world literature – because of ancient androcentric language. Growing up, Rebekah and I both heard variations of the idea that such gendered language was fine because modern readers knew that “mankind” included us women too. But language changes. What a seventeenth-century English translator of the King James Bible might have understood by “mankind” is probably not the same thing that a thirteen-year old girl from 1990s Chad or Michigan would understand by that word.

Rebekah: Readers can approach texts in different ways. New Testament scholar Adele Reinhartz talks at great length about the role of the reader. Sometimes a text is your friend because you can see yourself in it. At other times you need to engage a text to find your own voice, or even resist a text that does not make space for you, boldly declaring, this is wrong.[16] But for all that languages like Hebrew and Greek created an androcentric world, this same gendering of language left space for some later readers to play and find space for themselves in their sacred texts in ways earlier generations had not.  

Language changes, and sometimes the words that we use need to change with it. 

[podcast theme music]

Rebekah: If you enjoyed our show, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, or wherever you get your podcasts. Visit us at womenwhowentbefore.com or on Twitter @womenbefore. 

This podcast is written, produced, and edited by us, Rebekah Haigh and Emily Chesley. This episode was fact-checked by Jillian Marcantonio and George Kiraz. Our music was composed and produced by Moses Sun. The podcast is sponsored by the Center for Culture, Society and Religion, the Program in Judaic Studies, and the Stanley J. Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies all at Princeton University

Emily: Thanks for listening to Women Who Went Before! And don’t forget: women were there!

[music plays, then wraps up]

[1] James Hamilton Charlesworth, The Odes of Solomon: The Syriac Texts (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977), 82.

[2] Sarah E. Bond and Shailey Patel, “Recovering the Female Clerics of the Early Church,” Los Angeles Review of Books, Jan 17, 2022.

[3] Bond and Patel, “Recovering the Female Clerics.”

[4] Albrecht, Makrina, following “Die Bekehrung Georgiens. Mokcevay Kartlisay (Verfasser unbekannt),” trans. Gertrud Paetsch, Bedi Kartlisa, Revue de Kartvelologie 23 (1975), pp. 306-308, quoted in Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 53.

[5] Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Nativity 9.14, trans. Kathleen E. McVey, in Hymns (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1989), 127.

[6] Sebastian P. Brock, “Poetry,” Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, ed. George Anton Kiraz (Piscataway, NJ: Beth Mardutho and Gorgias Press, 2011), accessed 13 April 2022.

[7] Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Song and Memory: Biblical Women in Syriac Tradition, The Père Marquette Lecture in Theology (Marquette University Press, 2010), 26–27.

[8] Jacob of Serugh, “On Ephrem,” v. 42,  trans. Amar p. 35, quoted in Harvey, Song and Memory, 36.

[9] Cyril of Jerusalem, Procat. 14 and Isidore of Pelusium, Ep. 1, 90, referenced in Harvey, Song and Memory, 34.

[10] Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Feminine Imagery For the Divine: The Holy Spirit, the Odes of Solomon, and Early Syriac Tradition,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37, no. 2/3 (1993), 114.

[11] Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. R. Manheim (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 105. For further reading, see Silva Bunta on why ideas about the femininity of the divine might have circulated earlier in classical rabbinic thought than Scholem suggests. Silviu N. Bunta, “Driven Away with a Stick: The Femininity of the Godhead in y. Ber. 12d, the Emergence of Rabbinic Modalist Orthodoxy, and the Christian Binitarian Complex,” in Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2020),66–84.

[12] Harvey, Song and Memory, 47.

[13] Aristotle, Gen.an. 732a7-9 and Philo, Flight 51.

[14] See ​​Colleen Conway, “Gender and Divine Relativity in Philo of Alexandria,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 34, no. 4 (2003): 471–91.

[15] Philo of Alexandria, Questions on Exodus I.8, trans. Ralph Marcus, Loeb Classical Library 401 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953), pp. 15–16.

[16] Adele Reinhartz, Befriending the Beloved Disciple : A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John (New York: Continuum, 2001).


Episode Sources
  • Sarah E. Bond and Shailey Patel, “Recovering the Female Clerics of the Early Church,” Los Angeles Review of Books, Jan 17, 2022.
  • Sebastian P. Brock. “Poetry.” Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by George Anton Kiraz. Piscataway, NJ: Beth Mardutho and Gorgias Press, 2011. Accessed 13 April 2022.
  • Silviu N. Bunta. “Driven Away with a Stick: The Femininity of the Godhead in y. Ber. 12d, the Emergence of Rabbinic Modalist Orthodoxy, and the Christian Binitarian Complex.” Pp. 66–84 in Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2020.
  • James Hamilton Charlesworth. The Odes of Solomon: The Syriac Texts. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977.
  • Colleen Conway, “Gender and Divine Relativity in Philo of Alexandria,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 34, no. 4 (2003): 471–91.
  • Ute E. Eisen. Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press: 2000.
  • Ephrem the Syrian. Hymns. Translated by Kathleen E. McVey. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1989.
  • Susan Ashbrook Harvey. “Feminine Imagery For the Divine: The Holy Spirit, the Odes of Solomon, and Early Syriac Tradition.” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37, no. 2/3 (1993): 111–139.
  • ———. Song and Memory: Biblical Women in Syriac Tradition. The Père Marquette Lecture in Theology. Marquette University Press, 2010.
  • Philo. Questions on Exodus. Translated by Ralph Marcus. Loeb Classical Library 401. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.
  • Adele Reinhartz. Befriending the Beloved Disciple : A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John. New York: Continuum, 2001.
  • Gershom Scholem. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. Translated by R. Manheim. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.