Starting a Class on Women in Early Christianity in the Era of ChatGPT

Starting a Class on Women in Early Christianity in the Era of ChatGPT January 1, 2023

We have been encouraged to think about how we teach in an era of AI-generated text, and I would be surprised if any educator didn’t naturally ask themselves hard questions immediately upon discovering what this technology can do. If you’ve followed these discussions you can safely skip to the next paragraph. For those who have yet to hear about Chat-GPT3 and may mistakenly think I’m talking about a droid with an English accent from Star Wars (that’s C-3PO), there is a new automated text generator developed by OpenAI that does an impressive job of producing text in response to a prompt or question.

It doesn’t do this by reasoning and reflecting as you or I might, but by taking the text available to it on the internet and applying an algorithmic model to determine what is relevant and generate appropriate text in response. It does an impressive job even of being a conversation partner if you chat with it. The question for educators is what jobs students will do in the future if AI can produce social media posts and perhaps even reports, and in the nearer term, what assignments we should give when students can potentially take an essay prompt we give them and ask an AI to generate an answer. That’s a very brief explanation, but really what you need to do is try the technology and then you’ll understand what we’re concerned about (and may or may not still be reminded of C-3PO).

As I will be starting my semester as the Newell Visiting Scholar at Georgia College and State University in about a week’s time, I have been giving a lot of thought to how to begin the one class I will teach while there. The focus and title of the course is “Women in Early Christianity.” I had been thinking that I should present two brief popular articles on the subject that represent opposite viewpoints, one arguing or assuming that Jesus and his followers valued and elevated women, the other arguing that the early church was as entrenched in patriarchal values as the rest of society. As these thoughts intersected with the many articles I was reading about AI in general and Chat-GPT3 in particular, I wondered what that chatbot would say if asked to argue each of these two stances. Below are the two prompts I gave it, each one separately, together with the response the AI provided to each.

 

Present the most persuasive argument that early Christianity elevated women and was beneficial to them in their ancient context.
Early Christianity was revolutionary in its treatment of women compared to the societal norms of the time. In the ancient world, women were often seen as inferior to men and were denied many rights and opportunities. However, Christianity placed a strong emphasis on the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals, regardless of gender. This is reflected in the teachings of Jesus and the practices of the early Christian community.

One of the most significant ways in which early Christianity elevated women was by offering them a place of leadership and influence within the church. Women were able to serve as deacons, prophets, and even bishops in the early Christian church, and were given equal opportunities to share their faith and minister to others. This was a radical departure from the societal norms of the time, which typically relegated women to subservient roles and denied them positions of leadership.

In addition to offering women leadership roles, early Christianity also emphasized the importance of mutual love and respect within marriage. This was a marked improvement over the societal norms of the time, which often treated women as property and allowed men to have multiple wives and concubines. Christianity taught that marriage should be a partnership based on mutual love and respect, with both partners having equal standing and value.

Overall, early Christianity elevated women and was beneficial to them in their ancient context by offering them leadership roles, emphasizing mutual love and respect in marriage, and affirming their inherent worth and dignity as individuals. These teachings and practices represented a significant departure from the societal norms of the time and helped to bring about significant improvements in the status and treatment of women.

 

Present the most persuasive argument that early Christianity oppressed women and was detrimental to them in their ancient patriarchal context.
There is no denying that early Christianity emerged in a patriarchal society, and that the role of women in the early Christian community was often limited by the societal norms and expectations of the time. However, it is also important to recognize that early Christianity offered many opportunities and teachings that were beneficial to women and that challenged the patriarchal norms of the time.

With that said, there are several arguments that can be made to support the idea that early Christianity oppressed women and was detrimental to them in their ancient patriarchal context.

One argument is that early Christianity perpetuated and reinforced patriarchal gender roles and expectations. While the teachings of Jesus and the practices of the early Christian community often challenged and subverted these norms, they also tended to reinforce traditional gender roles and expectations. For example, the Bible often refers to men as the head of the household and assigns them the role of spiritual leader and provider for their families. This can be seen as oppressive to women, as it reinforces the idea that they are inferior and subservient to men.

Another argument is that early Christianity marginalized and silenced the voices of women. While there were some notable exceptions, such as Mary Magdalene and Phoebe, women were often relegated to secondary or subservient roles within the early Christian community. They were not given the same opportunities for leadership and were often excluded from decision-making processes. This marginalization and silencing of women’s voices can be seen as oppressive and detrimental to their well-being.

Finally, it could be argued that early Christianity contributed to the suppression and oppression of women by promoting and enforcing strict codes of modesty and sexual purity. While these codes were intended to protect women and promote their dignity, they also tended to place a disproportionate burden on women and often resulted in their being ostracized or punished for perceived violations.

Overall, while early Christianity offered many teachings and practices that were beneficial to women and challenged the patriarchal norms of the time, it also perpetuated and reinforced patriarchal gender roles and expectations, marginalized and silenced the voices of women, and contributed to the suppression and oppression of women through its promotion of strict codes of modesty and sexual purity. As such, it can be argued that early Christianity was detrimental to women in their ancient patriarchal context.

Both are decent answers. What is most striking to me is the way the second one sounds as though the AI is hesitant to make the argument. Does it come across the same way to you? What do you think accounts for that? Something in the content it has access to, the proportion of content arguing each viewpoint, the way I worded my question, Chat-GPT3’s awakening sentience and its religious leanings, or something else?

My thought is to give students these two perspectives, then tell them what produced them. From there we can explore how this technology works with text that is found online and thus produces derivative content, even if it can produce what we might call “highly original derivative content” if we get the prompt right. An AI of this sort is not going to discover that all conclusions drawn thus far on a topic require revision based on new evidence or arguments. That is important because it both emphasizes the limits of this technology (which is not a criticism—all technology just like all people have their limitations) and what human beings can and indeed must offer in this era of artificial intelligence.

This seems like it might be the appropriate way to start off the class. What do you think? At the very least, this seemed an appropriate topic for a first blog post of the year. Happy new year to all those who still read words crafted by a human being whose identity and relevant expertise is known to them!

Before ending, let me mention that I am considering including a creative project as an assignment, at least as an option. Can an AI make an engaging infographic or write a song celebrating women leaders of early Christianity? You be the judge. I gave Chat-GPT3 one more prompt…

Write a song celebrating female leaders in the early church.
Verse 1:

There were women in the early church
Who stood tall and were not deterred
Their faith and courage did not wane
As they followed Jesus’ holy name

Chorus:

Female leaders, shining bright
Guided by the Lord’s pure light
Their strength and wisdom did inspire
All those who came to know their fire

Verse 2:

Phoebe, Priscilla, and Mary too
Each one played a vital role
They preached and taught and led with grace
Leaving a legacy in their place

Chorus:

Female leaders, shining bright
Guided by the Lord’s pure light
Their strength and wisdom did inspire
All those who came to know their fire

Bridge:

They faced adversity with strength and grace
Never backing down from the challenges they faced
Their faith in God gave them the power to rise
Leaving a mark that will never die

Chorus:

Female leaders, shining bright
Guided by the Lord’s pure light
Their strength and wisdom did inspire
All those who came to know their fire

What do you think? I’ve heard (and sung) worse lyrics written by humans. The question is whether this is the best an AI can do. A human can, I trust you’ll agree, do better. I may ask students to do so this semester, and so what I’m most interested in hearing from you about is what you think of my ideas for integrating Chat-GPT3 into my course. Please share your thoughts!

Finally, it seemed appropriate to get an image to accompany this post using an AI art generator. Here is what I got when I asked NightCafe to provide an image of “women in the early church”:

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