from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Roles for Women

Although later pushed to the side, women in early Christian communities often owned the 'house churches' where congregations gathered to worship.

Elizabeth Clark:

John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University

What was the status of women in the early church? Were they particularly attracted to it?

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. 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.


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....

What in essence is the moral of the Thecla story?

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.

Read excerpts from The Acts of Paul and Thecla.

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....

Jesus is often portrayed as in the company of women. What's the significance of that?

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.


Tell us how the character Mary Magdalene evolved. I mean was there really such a person to begin with or was it just a story about someone like that?

Mary Magdalene is certainly one of the characters who crops up a lot in the gospels and then is very much discussed in Christian literature the fourth and fifth century particularly. It's interesting to see what happens with her character. We know practically nothing about her, but quite early on she gets conflated with the sinful woman who is said to come in to a dinner party where Jesus is being entertained at the home of a Jewish leader and who washes Jesus' feet and dries the feet with her hair and she is called a sinner. Now it doesn't say what kind of sinner she is, but this story gets conflated with the Mary Magdalene story. Mary Magdalene comes to be thought of as a repentant prostitute. Now why this would have great appeal for the early Christians I'm not entirely sure except that she is an example of somebody who is a very notable sinner and yet repentant and found great praise in the eyes of God. She's also represented as being a witness to the resurrection in the gospels, and this is an important point that here you can see the difference in Paul's letters. Paul does not have the women as witnesses to the resurrection whereas all the gospels have women as witnesses to the resurrection and Mary Magdalene very prominent among them....

Mary Magdalene's probably a good example of a character who appears a number of times in the biblical text itself who then gets raised up and developed and elaborated upon. This is probably fairly typical of what happens to a lot of characters. Their lives get embroidered upon in ways that we wouldn't really know from the biblical text itself. So Mary Magdalene is thought of as this sinner who repents. This gets elaborated into repentent prostitute particularly when Christianity takes a very ascetic turn in the fourth and fifth centuries; to repent from being a prostitute would certainly be a very wonderful thing for a woman to do if she were a Christian....


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....

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.


What's Paul saying here, what does it mean?

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?

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.

Elaine H. Pagels:

The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University


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?

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.

Did women become, over time, sort of moved to the edges so to speak?

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.


Was Mary Magdalene another apostle?

The gospels of the New Testament tell stories about Mary Magdalene, and there she appears along with the women.... [In Luke], Mary was one whom Jesus had healed. But in other gospels, she appears quite differently. She appears in fact as one of the disciples, not only one of the disciples, but one of those chosen for special teaching, for deeper teaching and wisdom. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, she appears as the one disciple who has courage and comforts the others in despair. She appears as the one who speaks to the others to encourage them. So she seems to be one of the great disciples according to some of these other sources. Later tradition suggested she was a prostitute and that she was the one who wiped Jesus' feet with her hair. This is not said in the gospels. It has no foundation in history at all. I suspect that there were Christians who were trying to challenge her status among certain groups who saw her as a great one of the disciples. For example, even today on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, there's a Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene as a great saint. And others countered, I suggest, by saying, "Oh no, she was a prostitute." So there, in the person of Mary Magdalene, [we see how] groups fought about the status and role of women.

For more on women in the early Church, see this essay by Karen King.

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published april 1998

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