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How Women Came to Be Silenced

I come now to the climax of this thread: how is it that women came to be silenced in the early Christian tradition? Of all my posts in this thread on women in early Christianity, I think this is the most important. Again, I give my reflections on it from my Introduction to the NT:

The first thing to observe is that women may have been disproportionately represented in the earliest Christian communities. This at least was a constant claim made by the opponents of Christianity in the second century, who saw the inordinate number of women believers as a fault; remarkably enough, the defenders of the faith never denied it. Second, we should recall that the earliest Christian communities, including those established by Paul, were not set up as public institutions like the Jewish synagogues or the local trade associations, which met in public buildings and had high social visibility. Paul established *house* churches, gatherings of converts who met in private homes. The significance of this difference should not be overlooked. For in the Roman world, matters of the household were principally handled *by women*. Of course, even in the home the husband was “lord of the house,” with ultimate authority over everything from finances to household religion. But since the home was “private” space instead of “public,” most men gave their wives relatively free reign within its confines. If Paul’s churches met in private homes — that is, in the worlds in which women held some degree of jurisdiction — it is small wonder that women often exercised authority in his churches. And small wonder that men often allowed them to do so. This was the woman’s domain.

 

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Early Doubts about the Pastorals
The Non-Pauline Oppression of Women

21

Comments

  1. Avatar
    dennis  August 2, 2013

    Bart , are you sure that you aren’t applying a 20th and 21st Century yardstick of political correctness here ? After all the Christian institution of marriage as a lifelong sacramental binding commitment very likely did enhance the status of women , especially those of the non-elite classes . When I was growing up ( OK , quite a while ago ) divorce was very much frowned upon and a failure to provide for the children he had fathered rendered a man utterly unworthy of respect . When I was overseas in the Army in East Asia , the indigenous people were amazed ( and some appalled ) at the regard with which we treated our nurses and Red Cross workers . The only time a ” mama-san ” was permitted to walk in front of ” papa-san ” was through areas not fully cleared of landmines . Do you really believe that 2,000 years of Christian heritage had nothing to do with this ? I sense a tacit comparison between 4th Century Christianity and 21st Century USA . Might not a comparison between 4th Century Christianity and 4th Century Pagan society ( not just the elite ! ) be more relevant ? Final note ; that ” they could no longer teach or evangelize ” would have amazed the good Sisters of Mercy who civilized the little savages entrusted to their care through all 8 years of my primary schooling .

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 4, 2013

      Yes, good points. But I wouldn’t call gender equality simply “political correctness,” or point out that it is culturally relative. I would insist instead that it really is the way things ought to be. That’s a hill I’m willing to die on!

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 2, 2013

    This is very interesting history, namely that a group of early Christian women may have had significant authority in the early home churches and this authority was then subsequently suppressed. Are there some ancient historical sources that document this history of authority as well as its later suppression? You have written a very interesting series drawing a lot of interesting conclusions, but how do we know that it is as you have described it? What you describe sounds very reasonable, but I ask this because reliable historical sources, outside Josephus, for this period seem to be exceedingly rare. So, how do we know much of anything about all of this?

    I would have wrongly assumed that the suppression of women, being part of that ancient culture, was there from the start.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 4, 2013

      Ah, there is a substantial literature on women in the ancient world and in the early church, very substantial indeed! I was simply summarizing what I take to be the best and most persuasive of it. But if you want to read further, among the myriad of relevant books, you might try these as starters; Ross Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings; Karen Torjesen, When Women Were Priests; Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her; Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity

      • Avatar
        Adam0685  August 5, 2013

        The recently published book, “Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters: A Historical and Biographical Guide,” edited by Marion Ann Taylor talks about a few early Christian women writers that may shed more light..

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 3, 2013

    Hmm. I wonder what would have happened, in the wake of those changes, to women who sought to convert to Christianity despite the opposition of their husbands or (if they weren’t married) their fathers?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 4, 2013

      Yes, there are interesting stories about such women, for example in Justin Martyr’s Second Apology or in The Martyrdom of Perpetual and Felicitas, or in The Acts of Thecla.

  4. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  August 3, 2013

    The role and influence of women in the earliest Christian movement have probably indeed been severely underestimated. A very intriguing topic that would deserve more historical research I guess.

  5. Avatar
    SJB  August 3, 2013

    Makes perfect sense and certainly functions as a necessary corrective to the traditional image of bad ole Paul corrupting the purer form of Christianity practiced by Jesus.

    What I wonder is, didn’t anybody in the early church point out that the Pastorals didn’t agree with the authentic letters of Paul? Were there any dissenting voices to the view that the Pastorals were authentically Pauline? Did it really have to wait until the rise of historical critical method hundreds of years later for the discrepancies to come out?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 4, 2013

      Yes, there were early christian scholars who maintained Paul hadn’t written them. I may post a bit on Paul and the Pastorals, since several have asked about it….

      • Avatar
        toejam  August 5, 2013

        I would also be interested in hearing about this. I was unaware that some early Christian scholars were already claiming that Paul didn’t write the Pastorals. Who was the earliest? And how did the proto-orthodox respond?

  6. Avatar
    toddfrederick  August 3, 2013

    Thank you for this series of postings.

    I mentioned before that my son is a minister and he recently changed churches because, as he stated it, his denomination is too heavily into ordaining women and he follows the teachings found in Timothy and elsewhere regarding male / female relations. He believes women must be submissive to men in all things. That shocked me and has still caused a rift. I strongly support female rights and equality with men.

    Your postings got me wondering how much one’s cultural traditions and cultural attitudes are confused with religious belief. Even today we see all forms of different religious positions taken by many churches all over the world, and in non-Christian religions, that I would categorize more as cultural preferences than religious dogma.

    This can be seen now days in the positions regarding gay-lesbian-bisexual-transexual issues especially, the raising of children (to physically punish them to break their will-their ego-to become subjected to God), attitudes toward alcohol, personal sexual practices, and on and on.

    I don’t have a question here…just an observation…but I personally think it is important for religious people to do two significant things:

    1) examine the rules they live by and separate what is cultural for them and what is dogma for their religion and

    2) never try to force their personal religious / cultural beliefs on to other people as we see so much of such happening in societies all over the world and especially for us within our own governmental system.

    This could become a serious issue with you in North Carolina with regard to the recent efforts to impose some very bizarre laws in your state with regard to religion and the following of “Christian law” … I’m wondering what will happen to professors in the State Universities in NC (you and James Tabor and others) who do not teach the fundamentalist line in your classes. Will they go after you as well?

    This direction we are seeing with regard to religion getting into the personal lives of our citizens is very serious and goes far beyond just male / female relations.

    Any thoughts on this? I guess that’s a question 🙂

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 4, 2013

      Just one thought, with regard to the religious right coming after James Tabor or me. Thank God for tenure!! (Seriously: that’s why we need it.)

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  August 4, 2013

        I am a retired teacher and I know the value of tenure as well. Good to hear. I was concerned about you guys. Keep the blog going…it has led me in directions I would never have explored without it. A “thank you” is totally inadequate !!

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  August 8, 2013

        I live down the road from you and if they did come after you I’d be at the next Moral Monday protest in Raleigh holding up a sign for you!

  7. Avatar
    Sblake1  August 7, 2013

    Bart, this is not a comment of this excellent series – but rather another question that I am wondering if you might comment upon. Have you read Reza Aslan’s new book “Zealot?” What do you think? There is a very interesting review/critique by Greg Carey. I think Aslan is a very good writer. His narrative is very compelling. But it seems to me there are moments when he glosses over some major things. His definition of “Q” I found confusing. And it seems to me he has James son of Zebedee mixed up with James the brother of Jesus. And his discussion of Paul left me scratching my head. And as Carey notes there are other issues as well. What do you think?
    Thanks for doing this blog – I really learn a lot from you…
    S. Blake Duncan

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 7, 2013

      I haven’t read it. But my friend Dale Martin also wrote a very good review in yesterday’s NY Times.

  8. Avatar
    shakespeare66  August 10, 2013

    It would be interesting to trace, if one could, the overall effect of this subjugation of women in Christianity to their subjugation in Islam. When one thinks about the long history of abuse and denial of equal rights as a result of that subjugation, it makes one shutter.

  9. Avatar
    natashka  September 3, 2013

    Hmm. There’s a screenplay in here somewhere. Hearing about these un-sung women is both gratifying and tragic. They need their stories told after being silenced for so long!
    The wrong must be righted.
    I’m going to read the books you suggest and do something about this. You in? –Natasha

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2013

      Hey, you’re behind on the blog! 🙂 (Yup, lots of books written on this. Happy reading!)

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