Christianity to 843
#16 Women in early Christianity

Published by Professor Alan L. Hayes, Wycliffe College

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Some references

Older lecture notes

Here are older lecture notes on the topicused for the class in earlier years.

The Bible and women's leadership

New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright has researched the Biblical basis for women's leadership in the Church.

Women in the early Church

The Public Broadcasting System in the U.S.A. has a summary of the roles of women in the early Church.

Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, a distinguished scholar of early Christianity, discusses the apostleship of women in early Christianity.

Here's the syllabus for a course on women in early Christianity taught by Betsy Bauman-Martin at the University of California, Riverside.

Karen King, a professor at Harvard, has researched Mary Magdalene and other women in ancient Christianity, as reported on PBS' "Frontline," linked here. But King's credibility took a tumble when she published research based on a fake papyrus, as reported by CNN here.

The magazine Christian History has this article on women in the early Church, by Catherine Kroeger of Hamilton College.

Wikipedia has this entry on women in Church history.

The historiographical problem

The New Testament suggests that women generally gave considerable leadership in the early Christian movement, but by the fourth century their role seems to have become much more restricted. Or were women more influential in early Christianity than we've realized? What roles did women really play in the early Church? Have we been misled by the spotty surviving evidence generally written by men, many of them celibate? Can we find other evidence, or can we read the evidence that we do have in a creative and discerning and perhaps suspicious way?

From the New Testament to Constantine

In the New Testament, women are seen to be exercising ministries of prophecy, diaconia, apostolate, hospitality (as hosts of housechurches), evangelism, teaching, and so on. Here (linked) is what appears to be an exhaustive list of women in the New Testament. There are few hints of restrictions on women in practice even in the second century, as we see from the cases of Blandina and Perpetua. And from the third century, here's a fresco from the Greek chapel of the Catacomb of Priscilla under Rome: some interpret it as showing a woman in orans (praying) position, like the presider at a Eucharist.

Nevertheless, there are texts in the New Testament itself and later that appear to discourage the ministry of women. For a historian, such texts function as evidence in favour of the reality of the ministry of women, since people wouldn't object to it if it weren't happening.

Restrictions on the ministry of women appear in [Hippolytus'?] Apostolic Tradition. As we saw on webpage #10, this text used to be dated to around CE 215, but now it's seen as a work compiled much later.

After Constantine

We know the names of a number of influential Christian women from the fourth and later centuries, and a little about them. They include:

Macrina the Younger is perhaps especially significant as a theologian and saint who influenced her better known brothers, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory's Life of Macrina pictures her as extraordinarily wise, profound, and devout.

Here is a picture of part of a ninth-century mosaic in the Zeno chapel of the Roman basilica of Saints Pudentiana and Praxedis. Some believe that it shows a female bishop, Theodora.

Why is the role of women so restricted in the centuries after the legalization of Christianity? Various explanations have been offered for this development. Here are some of them.