Influential Women in Early Church History: Part 4 – Marcella of Rome

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Art used by Permission,
Art used by Permission,

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

This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.

Marcella of Rome: A Patron of Faith and Scholarship in Early Christianity

The Marcella Project is a ministry committed to ennobling (lifting to dignity/nobility) women through Scripture-based teaching, training, and dialogue. I chose this name for my organization because I hoped to follow in Marcella’s footsteps and help other women do so, too. So, who is she, and what exactly did I want to be emulated? Let’s find out.

Marcella of Rome was a woman of wealth, education, and unwavering commitment to studying the Scriptures and serving people experiencing poverty. She was born into affluence in the 4th century and was part of the Roman aristocracy. Widowed after seven months of marriage, she chose a path less traveled by women of her status. Much to her mother’s disapproval, she forewent remarriage and children to live a celibate life studying Scripture and training women in the faith. However, to compromise and honor her mother, she remained in her mother’s home until her mother’s passing. However, she resisted the luxurious lifestyle afforded her and chose to live a more ascetic life while in her mother’s house.

Marcella was highly educated and fluent in Greek and Hebrew; her linguistic prowess set her apart. Her intellectual curiosity led her to the teachings of St. Jerome, a prominent figure in early Christianity credited with translating the Scriptures into Latin and creating the Vulgate. At a time when women were rarely tutelaged by men, Marcella persisted till Jerome took her on as his student. Marcella delved into the complexities of biblical texts, laying the foundation for her future contributions to Christian scholarship. It is said that Jerome changed his interpretation of the word “amen” based on Marcella’s theological argument. When Jerome left Rome, he recommended Marcella as the point person to resolve disputes over Scripture. Her intellectual insight and deep understanding of biblical texts made her a respected authority in matters of faith.

Like Melania the Elder, Marcella’s wealth and status made her a powerful patron. Her financial support of Jerome gave him the luxury of time and space to focus on his theological works, making her a critical facilitator of his contributions to Christianity. Jerome’s Vulgate is a monumental achievement in Christian history. Marcella’s role in supporting Jerome’s scholarly endeavors ensured the preservation and dissemination of this crucial translation. Without her patronage, the path to the Vulgate’s creation might have been fraught with obstacles and thus altering the course of Christian scholarship.

Marcella’s commitment to the intellectual growth of the Christian community extended beyond her support for St. Jerome; she used her wealth and education to educate other women in the scriptures, empowering them with knowledge and spiritual insight. In a society where women’s roles were often confined to domestic spheres, Marcella’s dedication to teaching women the Bible was a revolutionary act. Marcella’s passion for the Word and training women in the Scriptures are things The Marcella Project emulates.

Marcella’s influence extended beyond the intellectual realm. She used her wealth not only to support scholars but also to aid people experiencing poverty. Marcella’s commitment to philanthropy showcased a holistic approach to Christian living, where faith and social responsibility were intertwined. But as previously mentioned, she also embodied a life of poverty herself. Years later, the Barbarians came to Rome with a vengeance, and they ravaged the people. When they came upon Marcella, they dragged her into the streets and demanded she give them her money. She told them she had given all her wealth away. They didn’t believe her, so they severely beat her. She died the next day.

Marcella’s life has been honored in the church ever since. She is an example for all of Christ’s followers. Her unwavering commitment to education, her role in the creation of the Vulgate, her emphasis on the importance of compassion and charity, and her advocacy for women in theological pursuits collectively shaped the trajectory of Christianity in its formative years. She is a woman worth emulating.

This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track.  Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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