Early Christian Women and the Making of Scripture

Early Christian Women and the Making of Scripture April 29, 2019

I have been writing about different traditions of the Resurrection and what I understand to be the late appearance of stories involving Mary Magdalene as a witness of the Resurrection. Modern scholars devote much attention to the developing story of Mary Magdalene, commonly emphasizing how her early importance was denied and denigrated by a patriarchal church. I wonder if we have this upside down? Instead of being demoted and denigrated, women were rather being advanced and built up as the first century progressed, and attributed roles that they never received in their lifetimes. I will suggest instead that the expanding importance of women in scripture from the later first century might represent a real sociological shift in the structure of the church, and a growing emphasis on women believers. Are we in fact seeing a kind of feminization in the early church? I will particularly focus on the years between roughly 80 and 120 AD, which saw the writing of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the final edition of the Gospel of John, and the Book of Acts.

As I have suggested, Mary Magdalene plays little role in the gospel traditions before the very end of the first century. In Mark 16, written around 70, she hears the Resurrection proclamation, but does not receive an appearance. Only much later – in the famous passage in John – does she acquire the heroic role as Resurrection witness that we recall today. That enormous growth in significance is very much what occurs in the same period in the role of the Virgin Mary. As I have written elsewhere, this other Mary’s role in the Christian narrative is basically zero before the 70s, and what there is is largely negative. But that role then begins a process of rapid exaltation, culminating at the very end of the century with her heroic role in Luke and (parts of) John. However we interpret it, Revelation 12 (from the 90s) includes an astonishing passage that appears to give a heavenly role of the Virgin, and which supplies the foundation for much later Christian art in her honor.

That interest in heroic women reaches a dramatic scale with the Protevangelium, the Infancy Gospel of James, probably written around 140 or so. This represents almost a whole alternative gospel devoted to the Virgin Mary. Obviously we do not take this seriously as history, but those traditions did not appear out of nowhere. Despite its relatively late date and wholly legendary quality, the Protevanglium includes some odd textual reminiscences of the Johannine school, implying some quite early foundations. In art, the earliest visual representations of the Virgin, with or without the Christ-child, date from the first half of the second century, very much the same time as the Protevanglium. In the mid-second century (if not earlier), believers fascinated by the life and doings of St Paul usually heard that story as part of a larger tale of Paul and the martyr Thecla – and the Thecla literature was incredibly popular. It also taught that women should have the right to preach and baptize. The Gnostic texts of the second and third centuries commonly made women characters central figures, with a special fondness for Mary Magdalene. Women characters and female images are prolific in second century Christian writings, such as the Shepherd of Hermas.

I offer a rough principle of interpretation. You can make a fair effort at dating early Christian texts by the amount of attention they devote to heroic women characters, especially those two Marys. The more attention, the more central the role, the later the text is likely to be. This is the opposite of the pattern we might expect if patriarchal editors were censoring and concealing women’s achievements.

As to the reason for this shift, we note the strong evidence for women as a powerful force in supporting, sustaining, and guiding early Christian communities, and not just for the Gnostic or alternative congregations. Revelation was particularly concerned with denouncing a woman prophet whom the orthodox titled “Jezebel.” Around the same time, in the late first century, a woman believed to be the daughter of the apostle Philip was a distinguished figure in the very important church of Hierapolis.

This is speculation, but is it unreasonable to suggest that well-off women had the means to patronize writing, and that they might have had a special interest in women characters? Gospels written after the 80s featured women more prominently, partly in response to the interests of the congregations they were serving. They were written for particular audiences. Of itself, an interest in women characters does not necessarily indicate a female audience or readership. But such a linkage has been noted in many other contexts, for instance with the rise of the English or French novel in the eighteenth century.

We might see a trace of this process in the controversial letter 1 Timothy, which is widely regarded as a non-Pauline writing belonging perhaps to the late first or early second century. The letter today is notorious for its harsh commands concerning women’s spiritual authority in the churches, and the nature of their participation. But such fierce rhetoric only makes sense if women’s authority was being debated, and was a potent reality in at least some important churches. There was no point in denouncing women’s leadership in churches if they were not actually exercising it at least somewhere. That does actually get to an interesting point of methodology, and how we use evidence. Laws or regulations forbidding something should not necessarily be taken to prove that the something really ceased to exist as a result, but rather that the something was believed to be an important problem. You don’t pass a law banning the hunting of wolves unless people really are hunting wolves. And equally, you don’t assume without further proof that the new law actually stopped the hunting.

Particularly interesting in that regard is the verse 1 Timothy 4.7, in which “Paul” warns readers to hold fast to sound doctrine, and avoid what the NIV translates as “godless and silly myths.” The Greek phrase for those myths is graodeis muthous, literally myths derived from old women – old wives’ tales. The gender emphasis of much of the rest of the letter makes it plausible to suggest that the author was here specifically referring to what he regarded as deviant ideas produced by women, by “old wives.” They are not silly myths, they are women’s myths. And how we would love to know exactly the kind of stories he was denouncing. It would be doubly interesting to know what someone like Philip’s daughter – an incontestably old woman at this very point – was telling her congregation.

It is not clear when these patterns might have changed. Right through the second century, women occupied key roles in church structures, both institutional (acknowledged widows, and deacons) and as charismatic figures of prophets. So were they ordained? Well, yes and no. One odd piece of evidence comes from Tertullian, writing about 200, who is the source of some ferocious rhetoric about the evils of women and womanhood, and who loathed the Thecla stories. In his Exhortation to Chastity, he wrote about the number of clerics who voluntarily accepted chastity, but his exact wording deserves note. Tertullian observes, “How many men, therefore, and how many women, in ecclesiastical orders, owe their position to continence.” The mention of both men and women is clear in the Latin: “Quanti igitur et quantae in ecclesiasticis ordinibus de continentia censentur.” This can only be read to say that some women served “in ecclesiastical orders,” which seems surprising.

The answer lies in the broad definition of clergy prevailing at the time, which was not synonymous with priesthood. Look for instance at the Apostolic Tradition, which  preserves recollections of the church in the third century. Beyond the traditional hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons, the text counts other ranks among the clergy, all of whom demand special rituals with appropriate formulae, and here we find the widows. Widows as a class held a special and potent status within the church, as mentioned in several letters preserved in the New Testament. Other passages in Tertullian show that widows were not merely a category of recipients of alms or charity, but that they had their own allocated place within the church, comparable to that of the presbyters. Even by that late date, around 200, widows were still influential – and in orders. That is quite apart from the deaconesses, who were very much in evidence in a third century work like the Didascalia Apostolorum. They too were definitely part of the clergy, and in orders. Presumably, those women too were reading, and looking for Christian materials that spoke to them and their interests.

These issues surfaced in my recent exchange with my Baylor colleague Mikeal Parsons, who expressed doubts about any argument I might make about any such “feminization.” Like most scholars, he perceives a precisely contrary direction in church history. As he writes,

The tradition moves from the earliest stratum of the Pauline churches, in which women freely and widely participated in congregational leadership as apostles—Junia; deacons—Phoebe; evangelist/teachers—Prisca; and co-laborers with Paul—Euodia and Syntyche, to more and more restrictive roles (evidenced, for example, even within the NT itself in the post-Pauline Pastoral Epistles).

These points are well taken, and let me say again that Dr. Parsons is here presenting a standard mainstream opinion, from which I am deviating. In this case, I am the heretic.

But everything depends on the nature and quantity of available evidence – not the evidence that once existed, but that which happened to survive, often by the most bizarre of historical accidents. Just how do we know that “women freely and widely participated in congregational leadership “? As Dr. Parsons writes, this is all based on “admittedly slender” evidence, but let us think exactly what that evidence is, and how vanishingly rare it is. Virtually all the evidence for that early role of women depends on the astonishing survival of  just one source, namely the Pauline letters of c.48-62 AD. It is here we find the very lengthy lists of names, including the key women characters, most of whom are mentioned in passing, leaving historians to grasp whatever meaning and significance they can from the vaguest hints. Phoebe and Junia are in Romans 16, Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians. Prisca is also in Romans 16, but is unique among the group in having several citations in various sources, including Acts.

I do not for a second dispute Dr. Parsons’ interpretation of those names – for the importance of Junia, for example. But think of the larger period, from before the 160s (say). What other strictly contemporary evidence do we have that would allow us to reconstruct anything like this activity, if it was occurring? What personal or church letters do we have from this era that allow us to reconstruct a list of key names and activists, and which might conceivably allow us to offer a roster of key early women, if such existed? Ignatius offers a few names in passing, some possibly prominent. In the Letter to Polycarp, he writes, “I greet all by name, and the wife of Epitropus, along with the entire household of her and her children.” But this is nothing like the babbling torrent of names that we find in something like Romans 16. We have a sense of powerful and respected women in the churches of the 50s AD. But what surviving evidence do we have that would allow us to draw any comparisons for (say) the 90s or 110s? We would seek to compare like with like, but in this instance we are comparing like with nothing.

Am I missing anything by way of obvious sources?

Put another way, without Romans 16 above all, and a couple of other comparable lists of “Say hello to” greetings in other letters, would any later scholar dared have portrayed very early Christianity in the gender-equal way that modern scholars suggest? Think how easily something like Romans 16 might have dropped out of the transmission history of that document, if an early scribe had decided it was just personal stuff, and not worth preserving. If that had occurred, just what would we know or think about gender roles in early Christianity then?

That is quite apart from the geographical basis of the available evidence. Women were active in the churches that Paul happened to know. I wonder what the situation would have been in, say, Alexandria, or Galilee, or Pella, or Jerusalem itself? We have no basis on which to judge. Put another way, 1 Timothy offers stern warnings about women’s leadership, but we have not the slightest idea where such a policy might have had an impact, if it actually did. Certainly not across every corner of the disparate Christian world. To press the argument to an extreme, might such harshness have been confined to certain congregations in the western suburbs of Corinth? How would we know?

And as I have suggested, women remained active as church leaders, including as deacons, at least through the second century. When Pliny was investigating Christians in Asia Minor in 112 AD, he did so by “torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses.” [quae ministrae dicebantur]. I honestly don’t see a shift in the church to women being confined to “more restrictive roles” in the period I am considering. They were prophets and charismatic leaders, and as widows and deaconesses they were even “in ecclesiastical orders.”

You have assuredly heard the story that the early Jesus Movement was extremely progressive in terms of gender, but that situation soon changed, and we can see the evidence in the New Testament itself. Next time you do hear that case being made, please remember the extraordinarily slim foundations of evidence and source material on which it depends. Let me state my argument in the most conservative way: the evidence for a process of  feminization from the 80s onward is at least as powerful and consistent as the evidence that can be marshaled for the conventional view, of women being increasingly marginalized by growing patriarchalism. A decent case can also be made that in this particular area, nothing changed.

Should Dr. Parsons care to respond to my remarks here, he would be most welcome to do so at this site.

Debates about the role of women in the early church often have a strong relation to modern-day controversies, for instance about women’s ordination or leadership: “They didn’t do it then! Why should we do it now?” In making the arguments that I present here, I am drawing no such implications whatever, but speaking solely to historical interpretation. As evidence of my own stance on such matters, I cite my diocesan Bishop, Audrey. Who takes no blame at all for anything I happen to have said here.


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