Women in Early Christian Society
Illinois University Sociology professor Polly Radosh explains in her
lecture “Women in Early Christianity” that women have had a relatively
low status in Christian societies; a fact which contradicts Jesus’s
ideals of equity, fairness, and liberation. Christian traditions have had
strong restrictions on women’s participation, she explains, because
women have long been denied access to public arenas because of biblical
recommendations. Not only do the recommendations appear in the Old, but
Radosh sees that the patriarchal Christian tradition is maintained in the
New Testament as well.
Men are depicted as leaders, while women are recommended for
domestic roles, so women, according to many biblical writings, are denied
full social participation.
|Gerard David's The Crucifixion, c. 1515|
points to several teachings from the New Testament which define the ideal
feminine behavior. Women are to be sober and obedient, based on Titus 2:4-5; to
submit to their husbands, as advised in Collossians
3:18; to accept men as their authority figures, in 1 Corinthians 11:3; and to be
silent in church, as described in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
finds this traditional outlook on the function of women surprising and
contradictory, as Jesus wanted all people to be seen as spiritual equals.
Radosh explains that the reason that policies
advocating differences from Jesus’s teachings exist can be found when
one examines the historical context.
explains that New Testament is made up of two sections: the Gospels and the
Gospels are thought to be written by the apostles who knew Jesus
personally--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--or their representatives. Gospels
authors are debated. Using
carbon-dating on the scriptures suggest that many were not written until about
100 years after Jesus’s death; however, these do seem to be at least orally
passed down from people who knew Jesus and saw his miracles first hand. The
Epistles, on the other hand, have been attributed to Paul. He, Radosh explains,
did not know Jesus but became a Christian after being struck by lightning, after
Jesus’s death. As with the
Gospels, many current biblical scholars believe that Paul’s letters are not
all actually written by Paul.
maintains that an analysis of both Gospels and Epistles will show that the
messages they communicate in regard to gender roles are very different. The
Gospels, she maintains, have no negative statements about women attributed to
Jesus or his followers. They reject
the restrictive traditional roles of the time period. This contradicts the opinion of women expressed in other
areas of the Bible.
explains that the story of the resurrection of Jesus is especially significant
to gender studies because he appears to two women: Mary, his mother, and Mary
Magdalene. This is important because it contradicts the Hebrew tradition which
hold that women cannot bear legal witness; they could not enter the synagogue;
they were not credible as witnesses. Following
this, Radosh does not find it surprising that when the women went to the
apostles and disciples to tell them about the resurrection that they were not
sees Jesus as an early feminist because he taught women the scriptures, which
went against Rabbinic law, and accepted them as followers. She notes that he did
not treat women as sex objects, and that during a time when women who
transgressed sexually could be put to death, he preached forgiveness for these
women. Finally, Radosh notes that he rejected the blood taboo. Hebrew law held
that menstruating women were social outcasts, were unclean, and were to be
totally separated from society. Jesus accepts and includes these women in his
analyzes the social context of the time period to explain why this treatment of
women is so different from what is actually put into place as the Christian
religion develops and is eventually institutionalized. She points out that new
Christians were drawn from three different sects: Hebrews, Romans, and Greeks,
all of which had histories of restricting women’s behavior and advocating male
authority and control.
she explains, that as Christianity developed, Rome had been at war for over 300
years. Males/warriors were becoming
more scarce, so women, at about 0 C.E., were taking on leadership roles in
political and economic arenas to fill the gap the shortage of males created, and
because of this necessity, they were being more highly educated.
The paterfamilias of their past was no longer practical.
In fact, Jo Ann McNamara notes in her essay “Matres Patriae/Matres
Ecclesiae: Women of the Roman Empire” that women were in fact the largest
demographic follower of Christ’s teachings.
Whereas his male followers all tended to be humble and slaves, McNamara
shows, his female followers spanned the entire social range, and it is because
many of his followers were wealthy females that his ideas were able to be
promoted and proliferated both before and after his death. Without the
influence, missionary work, political work, and sometimes martyrdom of women,
Christ’s ideas might have died out or been eradicated.
Radosh points out that a similar loosening was occurring in ancient
Greece. Greece had been at war with
Rome for a long time, and so their population and power structure was much
diminished. As they came under
Roman rule, their gender roles shifted, offering women more freedom and
opportunity. Likewise, the Hebrews
also were conquered by Romans, so Israeli women were also getting more
leadership roles and becoming priestesses, teachers, etc., than they previously
continues her discussion of women’s roles in the early Christian period by
revealing that as Christianity came on the scene, Christians were seen as
dangerous. The complete spiritual equality the religion advocated seemed to
suggest an inherent equality which was particularly threatening to the
conquering Roman emperors, and so the Roman rulers tried to eradicate
them--feeding them to lions as entertainment, torturing and executing them,
etc.. For 200 years Christians were
persecuted until a measure of tolerance was reached, and then finally, about 100
years later, it became official religion.
During the period of persecution, however, the Christians needed to set themselves apart from the other religions. To recruit members they needed to convince them that they were different than the other cults. They decided to advocate a greater respect for life; they decided not to adorn themselves, as many of the materialistic Roman culture did; they would be more associated with home and family and being peaceful, unlike the Romans who liked to socialize at parties and sporting events. And, finally, they decided that their men and women would be sexually restricted. Christians would not participate in orgies or homosexuality, etc. They would be different. As part of this strategy, they would return to traditional gender roles; they would not liberate their women. Again, as a strategy of survival, this would allow them to differentiate themselves from the other religions, which were seen as too liberal. The equality ideology advocated by Jesus was not stressed. The Epistles recommend women stay home and be silent. The strategy has survived beyond the recommendations of Paul, beyond the situation where a survival strategy was needed.
Even now, policies are made based on the recommendations in the Epistles. The Catholic church, for instance, does not allow women as priests; Southern Baptist men recently met to reaffirm their place in the public sphere and to remove their women from positions of leadership within their churches and families. These traditional “family values, ” Radosh reminds us, come from the Epistles and not from Jesus or the Gospels. These definitions of men and women’s behavior ideals have lasted 2000 years. Radosh concludes her comments on women in the early Christian church by reminding us that the gender roles that we have adhered to were strategic moves in a certain context and have endured beyond the necessity of that historical context.
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Contact Kimberly M. Radek-Hall, the instructor of Women in Literature, at Kimberly_RadekHall@ivcc.edu .
This page was last updated on 11 January 2017 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek-Hall, 2001.