WOMEN IN THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH
Women in early Christian communities often owned the 'house churches' where congregations gathered to worship. Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “The status of women in early Christianity has been quite debated in recent decades, no doubt prompted by interest in the women's movement in Western countries today. I think the evidence is somewhat mixed. Certainly there's evidence in the New Testament itself of women doing many things within early Christianity. In Paul's letters he greets women. Calls them co-workers. Refers to one of them [with] a word in Greek that we would translate as "deaconess." Even calls one of the women an Apostle. What exactly these terms meant is a little hard to say given the distance in time, but there's plenty of evidence of women's activity. [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
“I think part of the activity in the early period, that is the New Testament period itself, perhaps is related to women's role in the house churches. The earliest Christian communities met in people's houses; they didn't have churches yet for quite some time, and throughout the New Testament, particularly Paul's letters in the Book of Acts, we find out that women owned the houses in which the early Christians met. This I think is significant because I don't think the women who owned the houses were simply providing coffee and cookies, in effect, for the Christian community. I think that this probably gave them some avenue to power... in the church.
“What seems to happen within the first few centuries is that whatever limited activities women might have had in the beginning begin to get curtailed as you have the development of a hierarchy of clergy members with bishops, presbyters and deacons, and it's pretty firmly established that women should not be either bishops or priests. Many church fathers write about this. So that women tend to get excluded from those functions, [though] they do have some roles, [such] as joining a group called the widows or deaconesses in the fourth century. We have good evidence of a order of deaconesses, but they are excluded from the priesthood.”
Jesus is often portrayed as in the company of women. “Women appear frequently, although they're not always named, in the gospels in the company of Jesus. I think it's part of a more general tendency of the gospels to represent Jesus as having to do with the outcasts, the down and outs of society. The people who aren't necessarily the high and mighty and powerful. Just as Jesus is represented as consorting with sinners, so likewise women are part of his entourage. Some of the gospels are more eager to portray Jesus in this way than others. The Gospel of Luke for example does have Jesus in the company of women quite frequently. You have a number of the stories about Mary and Martha in the Gospel of Luke.
Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ;
Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ;
Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ;
Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum virtualreligion.net ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org
Female Presence in Christianity
Where is the feminine in the outwardly male-dominated Christianity? According to the BBC: “Any outsider walking into a Christian church could be forgiven for thinking that Christianity is a very male affair - you hear a lot about God the Father and God the Son, and of course in some of the largest churches, the person who represents Christ at the altar - the priest - is also a man. Judaism and Islam are similarly male-dominated. “Where can we find those aspects of God which are really feminine - such as the nurturing, motherly side? And what does it mean for women to be worshipping a God who they think of as male, when there's no equally divine female by his side? The trouble with the Father and the Son for many women is that it sounds too much like two buddies. It's like two buddies going on a trip, or a father-son relationship from which women are excluded. |[Source: August 3, 2011, BBC |::|]
Andrew Walker, Professor of Theology and Culture at King's College in London says the Holy Trinity of Christianity, consisting of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, isn't quite as male as it may at first appear. He rold the BBC: “Christianity is particularly interesting because officially, and I'm being orthodox here, out of the Holy Trinity, the three Gods in one, only one is male. That is the incarnate son, the second version of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, because he was born a man. God the father has a male name, but we know that procreation doesn't occur in spiritual world, so the only reason that Christianity ever came to call God father is because Jesus did. [Source: Andrew Walker, Professor of Theology and Culture, King's College, London, August 3, 2011, BBC |::|]
“A number of Christian feminists in the 1980s and 90s reclassified the Holy Spirit as feminine. I'll tell you what went wrong. What went wrong was that they turned the Holy Spirit into a typical Cinderella kind of character, so you had God the Father who was the big boss, then you had the second big boss who was Jesus his son, and then you had his sister who still had to defer to the son and the father. So making the Holy Spirit feminine actually turned her into a caricature of precisely the sort of woman that feminists were trying to get away from.” |::|
Women and the Spread of Christianity
Stark suggests that women played a major role in the spread of Christianity because Christian doctrine "promoted liberating social relations between the sexes and within the family" given them higher status than in Roman and Jewish society.
Christianity outlawed infanticide and abortion, gruesome practices common in the Roman Empire that produced a disproportionally large male population. Women also benefitted from Christianity's sanction of marriage and opposition to divorce.
Roman men held marriage in low regard and when they married produced few children. This kept the population of the Romans relatively low while the population of Christians grew. The Church encouraged women to marry pagan husbands, even Senators. This allowed Christianity to penetrate the aristocracy through conversion of spouses and children. The ban on abortion and female infanticide allowed more Christian women to give birth to Christian children.
By the 2nd century as the “orthodox church” was consolidating itself women were increasingly being looked upon with scorn and shunted aside as beings associated with sin, namely sex.
Role of Women in the Early Church: Egalitarian?
Christian catacomb painting of the Virgin and Child Professor Elaine H. Pagels told PBS: “Some people suggest that the early Christian movement was an egalitarian one. I'm not so sure of that. It does seem to me that when it was a marginal movement, when it was dangerous to belong to it. [In his letters] Paul speaks of women as his fellow evangelists and teachers and patrons and friends, as he does of men. So it seems that the movement took anybody that it could get, and depended on them in ways that much more established groups, like for example, the Jewish community of a wealthy town like Sepphoris, might not have allowed. It's certainly true that there was a sort of fluidity of roles in this movement, the question of if slaves and free could be equally part of the movement could men and women be on a par in the movement? [Source: Elaine H. Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
“Obviously we have sources that suggest that these were enormously live issues. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, for example, shows us a Christian community in which Mary Magdalene is regarded as a disciple, as a leader, as one of the major teachers in the group. And one who claims that women should be able to teach. In that very gospel, she's challenged and silenced by her brother, Peter, suggesting that the representatives of the church that called itself orthodox and based itself in Rome did not like women setting themselves up. We know that Tertullian, one of the leaders of the church in Africa, spoke about a woman he called simply, "that viper," because she was baptizing people. And he said, "These heretical woman, how audacious they are. I mean they, they teach, they baptize, they preach, they do all kinds of things they shouldn't do. It's horrible, in short." And so we know that there was a great deal of ferment in these communities about the role of women.
“I don't see a picture of a Golden Age of egalitarianism back there. I see a new, unformed, diverse, and threatened movement which allowed a lot more fluidity for women in certain roles for a while, in some places and not in others. That [also] stirred an enormous amount of resentment, which you see in some of the New Testament writers, for example, in the author of [First] Timothy, which says, "women should be silent in all the churches" and attributes that point of view to Paul.
“We have information from about the end of the second century that whatever roles women may have had earlier, leaders of the church were beginning to clarify the fact that women should have no official position in the church as they were establishing it. And that was seen as a characteristic of heretical groups. The orthodox church would have none of that, and did not, so far as we can tell, from about the second century on. Where women distinguished themselves in the orthodox community were as martyrs.... And there are famous women who are martyrs. There was a famous holy woman, Thecla, whose story describes enormous opposition. There's not a single woman of renown in the ancient church whose story does not show enormous opposition from some of the men in the group.
Important Christian Women
“ One of the most famous woman apostles was Thecla, a virgin-martyr converted by Paul. She cut her hair, donned men's clothing, and took up the duties of a missionary apostle. Threatened with rape, prostitution, and twice put in the ring as a martyr, she persevered in her faith and her chastity. Her lively and somewhat fabulous story is recorded in the second century Acts of Thecla. From very early, an order of women who were widows served formal roles of ministry in some churches (I Timothy 5:9-10). The most numerous clear cases of women's leadership, however, are offered by prophets: Mary Magdalene, the Corinthian women, Philip's daughters, Ammia of Philadelphia, Philumene, the visionary martyr Perpetua, Maximilla, Priscilla (Prisca), and Quintilla. There were many others whose names are lost to us. [Source: Karen L. King, Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard University Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]
“The African church father Tertullian, for example, describes an unnamed woman prophet in his congregation who not only had ecstatic visions during church services, but who also served as a counselor and healer (On the Soul 9.4). A remarkable collection of oracles from another unnamed woman prophet was discovered in Egypt in 1945. She speaks in the first person as the feminine voice of God: Thunder, Perfect Mind. The prophets Prisca and Quintilla inspired a Christian movement in second century Asia Minor (called the New Prophecy or Montanism) that spread around the Mediterranean and lasted for at least four centuries. Their oracles were collected and published, including the account of a vision in which Christ appeared to the prophet in the form of a woman and "put wisdom" in her (Epiphanius, Panarion 49.1). Montanist Christians ordained women as presbyters and bishops, and women held the title of prophet. The third century African bishop Cyprian also tells of an ecstatic woman prophet from Asia Minor who celebrated the eucharist and performed baptisms (Epistle 74.10). In the early second century, the Roman governor Pliny tells of two slave women he tortured who were deacons (Letter to Trajan 10.96). Other women were ordained as priests in fifth century Italy and Sicily (Gelasius, Epistle 14.26).
“Women were also prominent as martyrs and suffered violently from torture and painful execution by wild animals and paid gladiators. In fact, the earliest writing definitely by a woman is the prison diary of Perpetua, a relatively wealthy matron and nursing mother who was put to death in Carthage at the beginning of the third century on the charge of being a Christian. In it, she records her testimony before the local Roman ruler and her defiance of her father's pleas that she recant. She tells of the support and fellowship among the confessors in prison, including other women. But above all, she records her prophetic visions. Through them, she was not merely reconciled passively to her fate, but claimed the power to define the meaning of her own death. In a situation where Romans sought to use their violence against her body as a witness to their power and justice, and where the Christian editor of her story sought to turn her death into a witness to the truth of Christianity, her own writing lets us see the human being caught up in these political struggles. She actively relinquishes her female roles as mother, daughter, and sister in favor of defining her identity solely in spiritual terms. However horrifying or heroic her behavior may seem, her brief diary offers an intimate look at one early Christian woman's spiritual journey.
Mary Magdalene stands out as the one individual who loved Jesus deeply while he was alive, stood with him to the end and was embarrassed to express her love for him. She became one of Jesus's most devout followers after hearing him speak. Some think Mary Magdalene may have been a close adviser of Jesus with perhaps the same status as an apostle. The word maudlin is derived from her reputation as teary-eyed penitent. He name comes from the village of Magdala on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.
James Carroll wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The whole history of Western civilization is epitomized in the cult of Mary Magdalene. For many centuries the most obsessively revered of saints, this woman became the embodiment of Christian devotion, which was defined as repentance. Yet she was only elusively identified in Scripture,and has thus served as a scrim on to which a succession of fantasies has been projected. In one age after another her image was reinvented, from prostitute to sibyl to mystic to celibate nun to passive helpmeet to feminine icon to matriarch of divinity's secret dynasty...Christians may worship the Blessed Virgin, but it is Magdalene with whom they identify."
Mary Magdalene is often described as a prostitute although there is mention that was her trade in the Bible. All it says is that she was a person of means, and a follower of Jesus who was once possessed by seven demons that Jesus cast out. The prostitute label grew out of description of her in the Gospels as having "certain ways about her a little freer than modesty allows."
Books: "Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor" by Susan Haskins; "Mary Magdalene : A Biography" (2006) by Bruce Chilton, a professor of religion at Bard College; "Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: the Struggle for Authority" by Ann Graham Brock (2003); "The Mary Magdalene Tradition: Witness and Counter-Witness in Early Christian Communities" by Holly E. Hearon (2003); "The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene" by Jane Schaberg, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.
See Mary Magdalene
St. Thecla (Thekla) was born in what's now the Turkish city of Konya at the time of Christ. She was forbidden from listening to St. Paul speak when he came Konya to preach the gospel. Steven V. Roberts wrote in the Washington Post: “Sitting at her open window, she miraculously heard his voice and was instantly converted. After that she broke her engagement and vowed to remain a "bride of Christ." For that she was sentenced to death by fire. But a sudden storm doused the flames. When she spurned the advances of a nobleman in the city of Antioch, she was thrown into a pit with wild beasts, which refused to attack her. Eventually, Paul blessed her decision to live as an ascetic virgin here in the hills of Maaloula, but she faced one more trial: A local peasant vowed to plunder her virtue. She fled his advances, and the mountain opened before her, offering a narrow path of escape.” [Source:Steven V. Roberts, Washington Post, December 20, 2009]
Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “Thecla is a literary character of probably second century Christianity who comes to be thought of as an actual historical character by the fourth century. Thecla appears in a document called The Acts of Paul and Thecla which is one of the many sets of acts that came to be labeled the apocryphal acts.... Thecla's represented as being an aristocratic young woman who hears the teaching of Paul, and upon hearing the message of Paul, which is construed in this text... as a message of sexual renunciation, she gives up her fiancee and wants to go off and follow Paul on his missionary trips. Her family is very much opposed to this. Her mother goes so far as to try to have her daughter burned at the stake to prevent her from carrying out this wish, but after many lively adventures including baptizing herself in a pool of seals, Thecla does manage to become a missionary and lives to a ripe old age preaching and teaching the gospel. So this is one of several stories in the apocryphal acts where women are represented as giving up riches and particularly marriage and sexual activity for the sake of following the teachings of the Apostles.... [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
“I think the moral of the Thecla story is that young women would be better off not marrying in the first place, but if they are already married to try to as soon as possible... to lead lives of abstinence and sexual renunciation, and in that way they will be better fulfilling the will of God. In the Acts of Thecla for example, Paul gives a speech in which he recasts the part of the bible that we call the beatitudes. That's the "blessed are the so and so...." Paul's version of this is all about blessed are the bodies of virgins, ... blessed are the chaste. It's all about sexual chastity. That those are the people who are blessed in this new recasting of the Christian message.
“Did stories like Thecla — the fact that the early church is urging people to abstinence, to effectively be breaking up their families, leaving their fiancees — Does that create tension within the church, or does that create tension with society?
“The fact that some young women and men wanted, on the basis of hearing these injunctions to sexual chastity, to abandon societal life, not to marry, not to have children as their parents probably wanted them to, [is] certainly depicted in early Christian writings as causing a problem. In fact, I think we would analyze this today as a case of adolescent rebellion. That you hear many stories from the fourth and early fifth century, particularly, of aristocratic young women who decide they're not going to be obey their parents' command to marry. At this [time] ... aristocratic girls marry very young, in young teenage years probably, and their refusal to do this, and concordant with that their control of enormous sums of money devolving upon them, was a very great asset to the Christian church, and these women were much celebrated and written about and praised by the male authors of this period....
Powerful, Wealthy Women and Early Christianity
Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “In the New Testament, we find many women mentioned, some by name, some not.... They are named as co-workers, some of them seem to be part of missionary couples that go out and help convert others to Christianity. We find less evidence of this as you move into the 2nd century and the 3rd century; as Christianity becomes more established, and a male hierarchy of the clergy is developed, women tend to get more and more excluded.... [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
“However, with the development of strong ascetic currents in Christianity and particularly the founding of monasteries in the 4th century and early 5th century, you get whole new avenue opened up for women's activity in the church. Some of these women controlled enormous amounts of money and they decided that they would use their money to found monasteries and they sometimes became head of the monasteries themselves. One such woman was named Olympias in Constantinople. She was a very good friend and, in fact, the confidante of John Chrysostom, who became the Bishop of Constantinople the last few years of the 4th century and the first years of the 5th century. She had enormous property; it's been calculated, using rather conservative estimates of how you translate ancient money into modern American dollars, that her contributions to the Church of Constantinople and surrounding areas was something like $900 million. You can see why churchmen liked women like this and why it was very important for the charity operations of the church, which were now feeding hundreds, indeed thousands, of poor people, orphans, widows; hospitals needed to be built that Christians were organizing. The church needed a lot of money poured into its coffers to keep these operations going, and women such as Olympias and others that could be mentioned, Malania the Elder, Malania the Younger, they're very instrumental, both in founding monasteries and directing them, as well as giving money for these charitable operations.
Impact of Galatians on Women in the Early Church
Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “Galatians 3:28 is a statement that has had enormous influence on contemporary Christianity, particularly in the feminist branches of Christianity. This is the passage where Paul says, "In Jesus Christ, there's no slave or free, no Jew or Greek, no male" - here, one has put in a correction. It's "no male and female." That is, instead of saying, either /or, as he does in the case of Jews and Greeks, slave and free. With male and female, it's "and" that's in the middle, and scholars have asked what does it mean and why is that one different? [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
“Of course, contemporary Christians, many of them, would like to take this as a great slogan of equality for women in the early church. I personally tend to think Paul was not terribly interested in women's equality. He was very interested in the equality of Jew and gentile. That is, people coming in to Christianity from non-Jewish religions. That was his major concern, without doubt. He took over this phrase, we know, from an earlier baptismal formula. There's some evidence in the Gospel of Thomas and other gospels that Jesus may have said phrases to this effect of "no male and female" and some people think that it's a quotation from Genesis, Chapter 1, where it says, "God created them male and female, he created them." In this case, I think at least, probably, we can't take it as a wonderful slogan for equality, although women today would like to use it that way, and maybe they can go ahead and use it whatever Paul meant by it.
Women In Ancient Christianity
Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School wrote: “In the last twenty years, the history of women in ancient Christianity has been almost completely revised. As women historians entered the field in record numbers, they brought with them new questions, developed new methods, and sought for evidence of women's presence in neglected texts and exciting new findings. For example, only a few names of women were widely known: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene, his disciple and the first witness to the resurrection; Mary and Martha, the sisters who offered him hospitality in Bethany. Now we are learning more of the many women who contributed to the formation of Christianity in its earliest years. [Source: Karen L. King, Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard University Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998. King has published widely in the areas of Gnosticism, ancient Christianity, and Women's Studies. ]
“Perhaps most surprising, however, is that the stories of women we thought we knew well are changing in dramatic ways. Chief among these is Mary Magdalene, a woman infamous in Western Christianity as an adulteress and repentant whore. Discoveries of new texts from the dry sands of Egypt, along with sharpened critical insight, have now proven that this portrait of Mary is entirely inaccurate. She was indeed an influential figure, but as a prominent disciple and leader of one wing of the early Christian movement that promoted women's leadership.
“Certainly, the New Testament Gospels, written toward the last quarter of the first century CE, acknowledge that women were among Jesus' earliest followers. From the beginning, Jewish women disciples, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, had accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means (Luke 8:1-3). He spoke to women both in public and private, and indeed he learned from them. According to one story, an unnamed Gentile woman taught Jesus that the ministry of God is not limited to particular groups and persons, but belongs to all who have faith (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28). A Jewish woman honored him with the extraordinary hospitality of washing his feet with perfume. Jesus was a frequent visitor at the home of Mary and Martha, and was in the habit of teaching and eating meals with women as well as men. When Jesus was arrested, women remained firm, even when his male disciples are said to have fled, and they accompanied him to the foot of the cross. It was women who were reported as the first witnesses to the resurrection, chief among them again Mary Magdalene. Although the details of these gospel stories may be questioned, in general they reflect the prominent historical roles women played in Jesus' ministry as disciples.
Women in the First Century of Christianity
Professor King wrote: “After the death of Jesus, women continued to play prominent roles in the early movement. Some scholars have even suggested that the majority of Christians in the first century may have been women.
“The letters of Paul - dated to the middle of the first century CE - and his casual greetings to acquaintances offer fascinating and solid information about many Jewish and Gentile women who were prominent in the movement. His letters provide vivid clues about the kind of activities in which women engaged more generally. He greets Prisca, Junia, Julia, and Nereus' sister, who worked and traveled as missionaries in pairs with their husbands or brothers (Romans 16:3, 7, 15). He tells us that Prisca and her husband risked their lives to save his. He praises Junia as a prominent apostle, who had been imprisoned for her labor. Mary and Persis are commended for their hard work (Romans 16:6, 12). Euodia and Syntyche are called his fellow-workers in the gospel (Philippians 4:2-3). Here is clear evidence of women apostles active in the earliest work of spreading the Christian message. [Source: Karen L. King, Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard University Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
“Paul's letters also offer some important glimpses into the inner workings of ancient Christian churches. These groups did not own church buildings but met in homes, no doubt due in part to the fact that Christianity was not legal in the Roman world of its day and in part because of the enormous expense to such fledgling societies. Such homes were a domain in which women played key roles. It is not surprising then to see women taking leadership roles in house churches. Paul tells of women who were the leaders of such house churches (Apphia in Philemon 2; Prisca in I Corinthians 16:19). This practice is confirmed by other texts that also mention women who headed churches in their homes, such as Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16:15) and Nympha of Laodicea (Colossians 4:15). Women held offices and played significant roles in group worship. Paul, for example, greets a deacon named Phoebe (Romans 16:1) and assumes that women are praying and prophesying during worship (I Corinthians 11). As prophets, women's roles would have included not only ecstatic public speech, but preaching, teaching, leading prayer, and perhaps even performing the eucharist meal. (A later first century work, called the Didache, assumes that this duty fell regularly to Christian prophets.)
Early Christian Women's Theology
Professor King wrote: “Study of works by and about women is making it possible to begin to reconstruct some of the theological views of early Christian women. Although they are a diverse group, certain reoccurring elements appear to be common to women's theology-making. By placing the teaching of the Gospel of Mary side-by-side with the theology of the Corinthian women prophets, the Montanist women's oracles, Thunder Perfect Mind, and Perpetua's prison diary, it is possible to discern shared views about teaching and practice that may exemplify some of the contents of women's theology:
1) Jesus was understood primarily as a teacher and mediator of wisdom rather than as ruler and judge.
2) Theological reflection centered on the experience of the person of the risen Christ more than the crucified savior. Interestingly enough, this is true even in the case of the martyr Perpetua. One might expect her to identify with the suffering Christ, but it is the risen Christ she encounters in her vision.
3) Direct access to God is possible for all through receiving the Spirit.
4) In Christian community, the unity, power, and perfection of the Spirit are present now, not just in some future time.
5) Those who are more spiritually advanced give what they have freely to all without claim to a fixed, hierarchical ordering of power.
6) An ethics of freedom and spiritual development is emphasized over an ethics of order and control.
7) A woman's identity and spirituality could be developed apart from her roles as wife and mother (or slave), whether she actually withdrew from those roles or not. Gender is itself contested as a "natural" category in the face of the power of God's Spirit at work in the community and the world. This meant that potentially women (and men) could exercise leadership on the basis of spiritual achievement apart from gender status and without conformity to established social gender roles.
8) Overcoming social injustice and human suffering are seen to be integral to spiritual life. [Source: Karen L. King, Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard University Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]
“Women were also actively engaged in reinterpreting the texts of their tradition. For example, another new text, the Hypostasis of the Archons, contains a retelling of the Genesis story ascribed to Eve's daughter Norea, in which her mother Eve appears as the instructor of Adam and his healer.
“The new texts also contain an unexpected wealth of Christian imagination of the divine as feminine. The long version of the Apocryphon of John, for example, concludes with a hymn about the descent of divine Wisdom, a feminine figure here called the Pronoia of God. She enters into the lower world and the body in order to awaken the innermost spiritual being of the soul to the truth of its power and freedom, to awaken the spiritual power it needs to escape the counterfeit powers that enslave the soul in ignorance, poverty, and the drunken sleep of spiritual deadness, and to overcome illegitimate political and sexual domination. The oracle collection Thunder Perfect Mind also adds crucial evidence to women's prophetic theology-making. This prophet speaks powerfully to women, emphasizing the presence of women in her audience and insisting upon their identity with the feminine voice of the Divine. Her speech lets the hearers transverse the distance between political exploitation and empowerment, between the experience of degradation and the knowledge of infinite self-worth, between despair and peace. It overcomes the fragmentation of the self by naming it, cherishing it, insisting upon the multiplicity of self-hood and experience.
“These elements may not be unique to women's religious thought or always result in women's leadership, but as a constellation they point toward one type of theologizing that was meaningful to some early Christian women, that had a place for women's legitimate exercise of leadership, and to whose construction women contributed. If we look to these elements, we are able to discern important contributions of women to early Christian theology and praxis. These elements also provide an important location for discussing some aspects of early Christian women's spiritual lives: their exercise of leadership, their ideals, their attraction to Christianity, and what gave meaning to their self-identity as Christians.
Undermining Women's Prominence
Professor King wrote: “Women's prominence did not, however, go unchallenged. Every variety of ancient Christianity that advocated the legitimacy of women's leadership was eventually declared heretical, and evidence of women's early leadership roles was erased or suppressed.
“This erasure has taken many forms. Collections of prophetic oracles were destroyed. Texts were changed. For example, at least one woman's place in history was obscured by turning her into a man! In Romans 16:7, the apostle Paul sends greetings to a woman named Junia. He says of her and her male partner Andronicus that they are "my kin and my fellow prisoners, prominent among the apostles and they were in Christ before me." Concluding that women could not be apostles, textual editors and translators transformed Junia into Junias, a man. [Source: Karen L. King, Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard University Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
“Or women's stories could be rewritten and alternative traditions could be invented. In the case of Mary Magdalene, starting in the fourth century, Christian theologians in the Latin West associated Mary Magdalene with the unnamed sinner who anointed Jesus' feet in Luke 7:36-50. The confusion began by conflating the account in John 12:1-8, in which Mary (of Bethany) anoints Jesus, with the anointing by the unnamed woman sinner in the accounts of Luke. Once this initial, erroneous identification was secured, Mary Magdalene could be associated with every unnamed sinful woman in the gospels, including the adulteress in John 8:1-11 and the Syro-phoenician woman with her five and more "husbands" in John 4:7-30. Mary the apostle, prophet, and teacher had become Mary the repentant whore. This fiction was invented at least in part to undermine her influence and with it the appeal to her apostolic authority to support women in roles of leadership.
“Until recently the texts that survived have shown only the side that won. The new texts are therefore crucial in constructing a fuller and more accurate portrait. The Gospel of Mary, for example, argued that leadership should be based on spiritual maturity, regardless of whether one is male or female. This Gospel lets us hear an alternative voice to the one dominant in canonized works like I Timothy, which tried to silence women and insist that their salvation lies in bearing children. We can now hear the other side of the controversy over women's leadership and see what arguments were given in favor of it.
“It needs to be emphasized that the formal elimination of women from official roles of institutional leadership did not eliminate women's actual presence and importance to the Christian tradition, although it certainly seriously damaged their capacity to contribute fully. What is remarkable is how much evidence has survived systematic attempts to erase women from history, and with them the warrants and models for women's leadership. The evidence presented here is but the tip of an iceberg.
“Read the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, the prison diary of Perpetua, and the poem "Thunder, Perfect Mind." Plus, more commentary from Biblical Scholars on the role of women in early Christianity.
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018