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How Women Came to Be Silenced in Early Christianity: A Blast From the Past

Time for a blast from the blog’s past.  Here is a question I get asked about a lot by my students: Why did women come to silenced, their voices muted, in the early Christian tradition — especially if, as the evidence suggests, women were even more attracted to this new faith than men in the early years? When I dealt with that issue exactly four years ago on the blog, this is what I said (it came at the end of a thread on women in the early Christian church):


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.


This is perhaps one reason why so many women were drawn to the religion in the first place.  Why then did women’s roles come to be curtailed?  It may be that …

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Did Luke’s Gospel Originally Have The Birth Story? Readers Mailbag and a Blast from the Past
Did Paul Think Jesus’ Body Remained in the Grave? Mailbag July 14, 2017



  1. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  August 4, 2017

    Dr Bart just to be clear are you saying Paul in his doctrine never restricted women’s role in the church?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2017

      He did restrict how women were to dress (with head coverings), but I don’t believe he restricted what roles they could play (he names one a deacon, another an apostle, etc.0

      • Avatar
        godspell  August 6, 2017

        Paul was always concerned with lust, wasn’t he? Women must not inflame the desires of men, and threaten their souls. Better to marry than to burn, but best to abstain altogether, and wait for the Kingdom to come.

        His worst legacy, and a lasting one.

      • Avatar
        JamesSnappJr  August 8, 2017

        I don’t grant that it is a given that Paul called Phoebe a deacon in the sense of saying that she held the office of a deacon; being a servant of the church /can/ mean that, but it doesn’t /have to/ mean that. And regarding Junias, it looks to me like even if one were to grant that Junias must be a female, there is still a question about whether the text of Romans 16:7 means that she was known to the apostles, or was considered to be among the apostles, and there is yet another issue about whether Paul there means that Andronicus and Junias are being referenced in regard to the group of individuals typically known as apostles (i.e., the Twelve), or if Paul is using the term in a more generalized sense, so as to refer to people who were sent out to spread the gospel.

        *If* you considered First Timothy to be genuinely Pauline, you would grant that Paul restricted the office of elder to males, yes?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 9, 2017

          Yes, that’s right, the author of 1 Timothy is unambiguous about it.

        • Avatar
          godspell  August 9, 2017

          That’s a pretty big if, considering that hardly any serious scholar today accepts Paul as the author of First Timothy.

        • Avatar
          HawksJ  August 24, 2017

          So, Bart, what is your interpretation of who Phoebe and Junius were, with respect to their roles in the ‘church’ – not just the Greek words he used to describe them, but what he meant?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 25, 2017

            I think Phoebe was a deacon of a church. And I think you mean Junia (Junius is a mistranslation; it’s a masculine name, and in fact it did not exist in antiquity). She was an apostle — that is, a missionary who spread the gospel among the unconverted.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 4, 2017

    Do you have any other things to add about the First Timothy scripture recommending that women remain “silent” in the churches which is so often quoted in conservative churches? I know from reading your book “Forged” that there is scholarly evidence that Paul did not write this, but do you have any other thoughts about why it was written?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2017

      I”m pretty sure it was written to silence women who were active in teaching in their churches, by someone who thought this was a very bad idea.

  3. Avatar
    Carl  August 4, 2017

    Were the makeup of Paul’s (and similar) house churches more pragmatic than tribal? i.e- did Paul expect each grouping to stay together, or was it much more nomadic?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2017

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by tribal and nomadic. These were not rural, nomadic communities but urban. They were the people in a given urban setting who had come to abandon their traditional religions and begun to worship the God of Jesus.

      • Avatar
        Carl  August 6, 2017

        Not a good choice of words there haha. By tribal I was referencing their behaviour, ditto with nomadic.The question I should have asked is “Did most early Christians visit different house churches or intermingle a lot?”
        I’m assuming that geographical location is not an issue..

        • Bart
          Bart  August 7, 2017

          My sense is that they stuck with the one they were in, but I don’t think we have much evidence either way.

      • Avatar
        Carl  August 6, 2017

        *behaviour* towards other house churches

  4. Avatar
    Seeker1952  August 4, 2017

    Are there reasons to think that wealthy widows may have been prominent in leadership roles in the early church? It’s my impression that such widows were allowed more freedom than married women and that their wealth gave them a certain amount of independence

  5. Avatar
    stevenpounders  August 4, 2017

    This is fascinating. I had never heard the loss of gender equality in the early church connected to the loss of the apocalyptic expectation of the return of Christ in their lifetimes.

    Am I right that the eventual subordination of women in the church resulted in interpolations into Paul’s letters (as well as the forged pastorals) of passages calling for this subordination?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2017

      I would say that it reflects the attempt to subordinate women in the name of Paul, and that they attempt succeeded!

  6. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 4, 2017

    I think there may have been an electoral college involved in the early church.

  7. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  August 5, 2017

    There are several words such as may, if, and probably in this piece. And, as you acknowledge elsewhere, it is difficult, if not impossible to be certain about these matters. There were also at least some husband and wife ministry teams at the time of Paul. Who knows how many Christian men accepted that all are equal in the sight of God. Additionally, it can’t be overlooked that women have sex drives, albeit more controlled than some men’s. In private, those women might not have been as celibate as you presume. ;0) And by the time Paul wrote, the apocalypse was long overdue.

  8. Avatar
    TheologyMaven  August 5, 2017

    Bart, could you tell us more about the link between apocalyticism and being “one in Christ”
    “And with the passing of time, and the dwindling of the apocalyptic hope that had produced a sense of equality in the first place.” Are you tracing that through Acts 2:17-18 back to Joel 2:28-29?

    From a modern perspective, it’s easy to see equality in the Spirit without apocalypticism and people dreaming dreams and having visions without waiting for the Day of the Lord to happen first. You also said “and the social implications of Paul’s apocalyptic vision became lost.” Please say more..

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2017

      Paul did see the mystical experience of being united with Christ as part of the apocalyptic reality he was experiencing “between the times” of the beginning of the end and the end of the end, but the connection was not a necessary one — others (most?) didn’t share it. What I meant about social implications is that the equality manifest in this interim period in anticipation of the end came to be erased as teh interim dragged on and Christians realized the church was here for the long haul.

  9. Avatar
    TheologyMaven  August 5, 2017

    From the Didascalia Apostolorum (chapter 5)(thought to be 3rd century):

    Deaconnesses were fine:
    “And when she who is being baptized has come up from the water, let the deaconess receive her, and teach and instruct her how the seal of baptism ought to be (kept) unbroken in purity and holiness. For this cause we say that the ministry of a woman deacon is especially needful and important. For our Lord and Saviour also was ministered unto by women [[148]] ministers, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the daughter of James and mother of Jose, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee [Mt 27.56], with other women beside. And thou also hast need of the ministry of a deaconess for many things; for a deaconess is required to go into the houses of the heathen where there are believing women, and to visit those who are sick, and to minister to them in that of which they have need, and to bathe those who have begun to recover from sickness.”

    But widows could be way problematic, and should “fear the bishop as God!”
    “Widows ought then to be modest, and obedient to the bishops and the deacons, and to reverence and respect and fear the bishop as God. And let them not act after their own will, nor desire to do any thing apart from that which is commanded them, or without counsel to speak with any one by way of making answer, or to go to anyone to eat or drink, or to fast with anyone, or to receive aught of anyone, or to lay hand on and pray over anyone without the command of the bishop or the deacon. But if she do aught that is not commanded her, let her be rebuked for having acted without discipline. “

  10. Avatar
    godspell  August 6, 2017

    A lasting pattern in human affairs, hopefully in the process of being overcome now, but it’s going to be a long haul.

    How many prominent female atheists can you think of? Madeline Murray Ohare, portrayed as a strident crank and a bad mother, whose son rejected her to become an evangelical preacher. Look at all the prominent ‘public’ atheists since then–pretty much entirely male, though I don’t believe women are any less likely to choose atheism than men, or to write about it. Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris–all men. (Bart Ehrman too.)

    Hitchens in particular was given to extremely misogynist public statements, arguing that women don’t have a true sense of humor, and that men are funny as an evolutionary tactic to win mates, since a less attractive male can get a more attractive female by making her laugh (is it just me, or does that make no sense at all, on any level?)

    I have never heard such outright contempt for women expressed by any far-right loony Christian as I have from professed atheists on the internet. Though to be sure, some come close. Brothers under the skin.

    Christianity, in its early stages, was not a source of power. You were deliberately embracing a belief that made you something of a social pariah, that would at certain times lead to active persecution, though it was more often of the passive variety. Its adherents tended to be those who were social outsiders to start with, the poor, slaves, and of course women, of all classes.

    But as it took hold, Christianity became a source of power, of authority, of social status, even of material wealth. That’s when those who would formally have rejected it became interested, its ranks began to swell with different types of personalities, and it became integrated into the larger social system–which was patriarchal, pretty much everywhere in the Roman world.

    And what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his immortal soul?

    It works pretty much exactly the same way with any system of belief, and it’s working just that way with atheism. The male voices drown out the female voices. And react with anger, derision, and resentment towards any woman who speaks up too loudly.

    Christianity has, if anything, resisted this better than most social movements. Women found ways to make their voices heard, in spite of the new restrictions placed upon them. They built lasting monastic movements, like Clare and Teresa. They fought for peace and social justice, like Dorothy Day. They founded whole new Christian sects, like Mary Baker Eddy.

    Sometimes they became saints, but I like what Dorothy Day said. “Don’t make me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

    “The Struggle is long,
    It’s hard to be strong,
    She’s determined deep down inside
    To be a part of the Unfinished Revolution
    She holds the key to the Unfinished Revolution”

    Christy Moore.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2017

      Good point. Of course there aren’t too many leading Roman Catholic or Southern Baptist or Anglican or (name your major denomination) women that I can think of. The problem is our patriarchal society broadly. I notice, btw, that your biblical quotation does not use inclusive language!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  August 6, 2017

        I recently received a large, impressive postcard inviting people interested in a more progressive Catholicism to visit their group’s website, and/or attend a Mass (presumably not recognized as such by the official Church) at a given time and place. The invitation was just addressed to “Resident” at my address, in a very ordinary apartment building – I couldn’t guess, based on the neighborhood, what demographic they hoped to reach. A friend who is Catholic didn’t receive it in her mail, and the neighborhoods aren’t that different.

        Here’s the relevance to this topic: I checked out their website, and it struck me as being mostly about a greater role for women in the Church. I’m guessing that Mass they “advertised” was celebrated by a female priest.

      • Avatar
        godspell  August 6, 2017

        And that was intentional. Because it was mainly men who gained the whole world, or at least tried to. Most of our sisters do not deserve inclusion in this context. It wasn’t a compliment, nor did Mark intend it as such.

        There are female Anglican bishops, albeit not recognized by all parts of the larger Anglican church. Women tend to gain leading roles in religion through force of personality and intellect, or sometimes through visions (I think you’d have to say St. Joan played a leading role, though to be sure she paid a stiff penalty for doing so).

        My dog, who passed away this weekend, was blessed some years ago, on the Feast of St. Francis, by a female Anglican priest, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Very hard to find that sacrament at Catholic churches in New York these days. He lived to be fifteen, and enjoyed good health until the very end, so I’d say she did a fine job. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Tony  August 6, 2017

      Here is a list of prominent female atheists:
      Particularly striking on that list is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a published author, ex-Muslim, who has been subjected to death threats.

      You appear to confuse atheists with anti-theists. Atheists by nature tend not to organize – unless reacting to theist’s efforts to subject them to theist’s religious dogma. Atheists do not go to the equivalent of atheists churches. They have no atheists rituals that are forced on their children. Atheism is not a religion.

      • Avatar
        godspell  August 7, 2017

        I made it very clear that I know women are as likely to be atheists as men, and that they express their viewpoints just as frequently and forcefully, but I think you’d find that very few people have heard of these women, whereas Richard Dawkins (who I don’t think is a very good writer, or a very perceptive person, outside of his specific area of expertise that he seems to have abandoned in favor of anti-theist proselytization) is such a household name, he got sent up on South Park–hardly a bastion of orthodox theism.

        I respect your definition of atheism, but my definition of a Christian is somebody who sincerely tries to live as Jesus said we should, and guess what? We don’t get to decide what words mean to everybody else. 🙂

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  August 9, 2017

        I know who Ayaan H. Ali is although I haven’t read any of her books. She’s well-known, and yet, she isn’t.

        • Avatar
          godspell  August 10, 2017

          When she gets caricatured on South Park, then we’ll be making progress!


      • Avatar
        llamensdor  August 11, 2017

        There are some atheist organizations; I can think of one that calls itself “Freedom From Religion.” They apparently teach it to their children, although I don’t know that they have an unbaptism ceremony.

        • Avatar
          godspell  August 14, 2017

          Atheism as religion has no central authority structure, but neither did Christianity for some time after its founding, and there were always scattered sects that didn’t recognize Rome.

          I think the term will eventually come to mean those who are organized around the abolition of theism.

          I think a better term for those who simply choose not to believe in God, but are open-minded on all subjects would be Freethinker.

          My own feeling is that many so-called atheists simply worship a different kind of god. And are no more rational, on average than anyone else.

          It is human nature to create orthodoxies, clubs to belong to, that make you better than everyone else.

          I don’t know that we can get rid of this tendency, but it’d be nice if we could.

  11. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 6, 2017

    This post reminds me of the controversy surrounding Equip’s 2017 Women’s Conference. Carmelina Read displayed an image of Kristen Stewart with an extremely short hairstyle and asked if it was appropriate for a woman or if it was an act of rebellion and independence. Then, another speaker (supposedly) said that if a woman became a CEO, she should “perform her role as a helper to men.” A video was also shown where a lady said “what makes her happy is when she is able to make her male colleagues shine.” (I can’t say what I’d really like to say. It wouldn’t be allowed on the blog.)

    What’s really disappointing is that it was women advocating these things, not men! I had a conversation with a
    lady who said Read’s words were taken out of context and that not everyone is into the feminist movement. First of all, I don’t believe Read’s words could have been taken entirely out of context because I read one of her posts on her own page and it basically said the same thing. Besides that, some of the women attending walked out, and I don’t blame them. I’m not an uber feminist, but the speakers at that conference are brainwashed. Did they ever consider how it would come across to others if women focused their energy solely on helping men at the workplace? And if she’s a CEO, how about she focus on her job and doing that effectively instead of worrying about what all the men are doing.

    That conference took stupidity to a whole new level.

    A link to one of the articles:

  12. Avatar
    John1003  August 7, 2017

    Your comment of weaker and less perfect. Where do you find women being described as “less perfect” in The Bible. I suppose It could be argued that it is implied but I can’t think of a place where this idea is stated outright. Weaker can mean many things but not necessarily less perfect. When you say less perfect, you mean inferior. Is that correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2017

      1 Peter 3:7;. and cf. Tim 2:11-15.

      • Avatar
        godspell  August 7, 2017

        But not in Mark. Not in Matthew. Not in Luke. Not even in John.

        Jesus must have been like St. John of the Cross, of whom it was said that he treated women as equals, because he didn’t look at bodies, only the souls within.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 9, 2017

          I think the question was where the idea is stated in the New Testament.

          • Avatar
            godspell  August 9, 2017

            The New Testament is a wildly diverse and cross-section of early Christian viewpoints, that differ radically from each other, as you know.

            The gospels, and particularly the three synoptics, are the core of it, and the rest, even Paul’s epistles, are commentary. That’s why they come after the gospels, even when they were written before.

            For the times these books were written in, in a monotheistic patriarchal culture ruled a polytheistic patriarchal culture, two quotes isn’t a lot.

            The quote from Peter–

            “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”

            That seems to refer to women being smaller and less physically powerful, on average, than men (which is a biological fact), not to any moral or spiritual failing. Honestly, it’s still good advice, even if it fails to mention that women are often mentally and spiritually stronger than their husbands. I mean, basically, the writer is saying “Don’t be abusive to your spouse” which is of course a common behavioral pattern to this very day, in many cultures, among the religious and non-religious alike.

            The quote from Timothy:

            “A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;she must be quiet.For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women[c] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

            I think it would be worth mentioning that most modern scholars don’t believe Paul wrote this. Paul had his failings, most particularly with regards to his views on sex, but I think he genuinely respected the women in the Christian community, who showed such strength and courage at a time when it really was difficult to be a Christian of either sex.

          • Avatar
            godspell  August 10, 2017

            Man, I really need to edit more carefully, but my point is this–there was sexism in early Christianity, and basically everywhere you look in world culture.

            But you wouldn’t need to do very much editing at all to remove all overtly offensive references to women from the New Testament.

            The real problem is the editing done way back then, to minimize the clearly essential female role in founding the new religion.

            To say Timothy was writing in Paul’s tradition is to ignore Paul’s frequent shout-outs to prominent women leaders in various scattered communities. Paul himself, whatever his feelings about female leadership, was too good a politician to ignore the contributions they were making–if he was going to get his points across, unify this diverse new cult around his ideas, he needed their support.

            And of course, Paul still didn’t believe there was going to be a long-lived institution–he believed the Kingdom was coming. And in the Kingdom, it would no longer matter what gender you were born into.

            And we still believe the Kingdom is coming in that sense–don’t we? We wait in joyful hope.

  13. Avatar
    mcmemmo  August 8, 2017

    I’ve seen the name of the apostle Junia mentioned by Paul masculinized as “Junius” in even relatively modern translations of the New Testament. I am wondering whether it is possible to identify other less overt “erasures” of woman disciples or apostles by church tradition or by the writers of the New Testament themselves. Some examples that come to mind include only men being numbered when calculating the size of crowds (were women ever “counted”), and the Catholic tradition that only men were present at the Last Supper, despite the report that it was the women who witnessed the crucifixion only hours later; and Paul does not mention any women in his list of those who witnessed the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15) – not even Mary Magdalene. Would it have been normal for Jesus to celebrate a Passover meal without his mother? Finally, is there any merit to the conjecture that Mary, the wife of Cleopas, was the unnamed disciple who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus. What else, besides the disciple being a women, could account for the name of that disciple disappearing? Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      Passover meal: we simly don’t know; Mary wife of Cleopas: I suppose it’s *possible*. There have been lots of books written about the erasure of women from the early records. The classic study is Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenze, In Memory of Her.

    • Avatar
      godspell  August 9, 2017

      They couldn’t erase the fact that Jesus clearly did not strongly distinguish between men and women in his preaching. Yes, the official twelve disciples were men–in that society, it was hardly practical to send women out to preach. But it clearly wasn’t hard for women of that time to recognize that in this new teaching, they were respected and cherished in a way they had not been before.

      And of course, that was a threat. And of course, it had to be suppressed.

      And of course, that still happens today, and not just with the religious.

      Maybe not even primarily. You’ve been online, right? Well, naturally you have.

  14. Avatar
    Jana  August 11, 2017

    So when were women marginalized by doctrine? Within Judaism and Within Christianity? Fascinating stuff Dr. Ehrman.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2017

      Different times and different places. But *most* CHristian communities were restricting the roles of women by 100 CE or so I should think.

      • Avatar
        godspell  August 14, 2017

        As it became less of an outlaw cult, and more of an established part of society, albeit still controversial.

        And society was patriarchal, everywhere.

        Change is hard.

      • Avatar
        Jana  October 15, 2017

        Sorry so late getting back .. and sexual roles Dr. Ehrman? Was anything written about the sexual roles as well as the “household” roles?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 16, 2017

          Yes, women were to be submissive to men, presumably in all things.

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