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Women’s Choirs in Late Antiquity Offered More Than Just Hymns, Scholar Says


Though the voices of biblical women were rarely heard, they were prominent and significant, and used as a vehicle of teaching by the Church in late antique Syriac homilies and hymns, according to a scholar at the Orthodoxy in America lecture at Fordham University on Feb. 26.

“The hymns assigned to the women’s choirs in the middle of the fourth century were explicitly liturgical,” Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Ph.D., a professor of religious studies at Brown University. “The church spoke through these women’s choirs.”

In a lecture titled, “Women’s Voices Bearing Witness: Biblical Memories in Ancient Orthodox Liturgy,” Ashbrook Harvey said Syriac writers, such as Ephrem Syrus, gave women, such as the Virgin Mary and Sarah, a rhetorical voice in the lyrics ofMadrashes, stanzaic poems of different meters that dealt with doctrinal matters.

“These voices were often lacking in biblical narratives,” Ashbrook Harvey said. “Ephrem’s Mary embraces her social sufferings as a form of power. She was a figure who embodied challenge … and whose voice is a teaching voice.”

Nearly 175 people attended the event, held at the McNally Amphitheatre on the Lincoln Center campus, including Joseph M. McShane, S.J.,  president of Fordham University, and Archbishop Demetrios, the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America.

The lecture was sponsored in part by the Virginia H. Farah Foundation.

The Orthodoxy in America Lecture Series is designed to strengthen the ties that bind the Fordham and Orthodox communities and address the history, theology, spirituality and worship of the Orthodox tradition as it relates to contemporary American culture. Additional information about the lecture series can be viewed at


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