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Why Women Came to be Silenced

Given what I’ve said before about women in the ancient world, in early Christianity, and in the churches of Paul, I can now explain why women who had originally played a significant role in the early Christian movement came to be silenced, especially in the churches of Paul (as seen, for example, in the Pastoral epistles).  Here is how I discuss the matter in my college-level textbook on the New Testament.

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Our theoretical discussion of the ideology of gender in the Roman world, that is, of the way that people mentally and socially constructed sexual difference, gives us a backdrop for reconsidering the progressive oppression of women in the Pauline churches. 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, the defenders of the faith never denied it. The large number of women followers is not surprising given the circumstance 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, and in the Roman world, matters of the household were principally handled by women. Of course, 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 world where women held some degree of jurisdiction, it is small wonder that women often exercised authority in his churches. It is also small wonder that men often allowed them to do so, for the home was the woman’s domain. The heightened possibility for their own involvement 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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Ehrman & Licona: Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? Part 1
The Surprising Understanding of Gender in the Ancient World

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  March 6, 2018

    One of my quibbles with your excellent new book is the title. Not because it’s been used before, or because it’s no “Misquoting Jesus” (titles like that don’t come along very often).

    Because it has to be asked–did Christianity really triumph? Institutionally, sure. In terms of societal values, it seems to me that paganism triumphed at least as much, under the surface.

    I’m not any kind of Hegelian, but he did have that one important insight: Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.

    People say “Christianity stole this or that from paganism” are missing the point. Christianity replaced paganism, but in so doing, took on many of its values and assumptions–the church ultimately became the empire. In a certain limited symbolic sense, it still is.

    Perhaps there was no way around that. And it could be argued that value changes did occur, over time–seeds were planted that took a long time to bloom. And of course I recognize that paganism was not just one thing, but many (to me, the word refers to imperial paganism, the overarching authority structure, not all the many local variations–my Irish ancestors were ‘pagans,’ and they never worshipped any Roman emperors as gods, nor Jupiter or Hera either–they had their own pantheon, and Rome never did get around to conquering them).

    Jesus had powerful enduring insights, and none more than his perception of women. He would have been raised with the same values as everybody else. But he somehow looked beyond them. He looked past bodies, and saw souls. All equal in the sight of God. But once the Kingdom didn’t come, it was business as usual.

    None of which changes the fact that the early church was built, to a great extent, by women. An important thing for modern Christians to remember. And their critics as well.

    I think I’ve mentioned in the past–how many prominent female atheists are there? I’m talking about people out there advocating for atheism. The names that come to mind–Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, a few stage magicians (?), the guy who worships Cthulhu, and Ron Reagan just cut a TV ad. How many women show up to tell you Jesus didn’t exist? Is there anything more patriarchal than the Church of No God?

    Madelyn Murray O’Hare’s the only name I can think of. Not a very pleasant person, but you had to credit her guts. And her own son turned on her.

    The basic tendency of male primates to reject female authority.

    Seems to me we’re paying a very high price for that now.

    Patterns in human behavior can run very deep.

    And systems that attempt to change them, improve them, can only achieve so much.

    I’d like to think we’re better than we might have been without Jesus and those who came after him.

    I don’t know whether that’s true either.

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    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  March 9, 2018

      The thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis Schtick is incorrectly attributed to Hegel, as (its) originator. Its begetter was Fichte.

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 9, 2018

        And to think I studied philosophy at the graduate level, and this never came up. Of course, we only did Hegel for one week. (Our professor quoted the well-worn aphorism “Hegel reads like a dead horse.”)

        The one thing about Hegel that made any sense, and he not only didn’t come up with it, he may not have actually said it. Most of what we think we know is wrong.

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    RonaldTaska  March 6, 2018

    This is the best explanation that I have read explaining why women seemed prominent in very early Christianity and then were relegated to more “silent” roles. For decades, I was involved with a church where women are submissive and cannot preach. Interestingly, the women in this church oppose changing this as much as the men. The reason involves the literal interpretation of the Bible, in this case the Pastoral Epistles. Giving up the literal interpretation of the Bible is just not something they can do because it would mean giving up their whole religion with the literal interpretation of the Bible being the first domino in a row of falling dominoes. It’s like Franklin Graham described at his father’s recent funeral, the belief that the Bible is inerrant is the starting point for many.

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    ddorner  March 6, 2018

    Am I understanding it correctly that 1 Timothy 2:15 is literally saying that a woman needs to have children in order to go to Heaven?

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    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2018

      Yeah, it kind of seems like it, roughly speaking.

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        jrw  March 11, 2018

        I read somewhere that there were strange teachings going around which claimed that women lost their divine spark after giving birth and as a result lost their salvation. The Timothy passage could alternatively be a reply to that.

  4. Avatar
    stokerslodge  March 6, 2018

    Bart, While not related to the above, the following may still be of interest to you. Maybe you’ve seen the video clip on YouTube. Maybe you’re one of the scholars Craig Evans interviewed? What do you think the “groundbreaking new evidence that is changing the debate” might be? Maybe all this is being done with you in mind….!

    “Was Jesus Misquoted? I take this claim head on in a new Faithlife original film, #FragmentsofTruth, traveling the globe to track down the most ancient New Testament manuscripts and examining groundbreaking new evidence that is changing the debate. Come see the free pre-release screening Wed. Mar 7 at Houston Baptist University’s Dunham Auditorium 7PM.” https://youtu.be/WJ0LocVNvMo

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2018

      I don’t have time to watch the clip, but I’ll be happy to respond to it if ytou want to summarize the relevant part.

      1
  5. Avatar
    Pattylt  March 6, 2018

    Bart, you state: The Jewish Bible was itself a product of antiquity, rooted in an Israelite world that advocated an ideology of submission as much as the Roman world did, although in a different way.
    Could you briefly describe the way Judaism was different as I never heard of Judaism considering women as incomplete men. As far as I know they just considered them weaker mentally and physically and property of men.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2018

      You would need to read texts such as the writings of Philo. The *reason* they were weaker was because they weren’t perfected as men were. And that imperfection was anatomical.

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        SidDhartha1953  May 12, 2018

        I think A-J Levine argues that Jewish women in the 1st century CE, had more rights tha is often supposed. The fact that some of them supported Jesus and the 12 financially suggests they had control of their own property.

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 15, 2018

      I feel reasonably secure in saying this is not an opinion that gets brought up in your average reform temple. Probably not even conservative. (Maybe the Hasidim). I mean, there are woman rabbis now. I met one at a nursing home, while visiting a friend of mine who was Jewish.

      All religions of any long-standing have to work around their ancient texts at times. To find new ways to interpret them. Or just to pretend they don’t really mean what they do in fact mean.

      “How the Christians try to separate themselves in vain
      From the doctrine of Eternal Pain.
      They cannot do it.
      They are wedded to it.
      Their God has said it.
      They must believe it.”

      Stevie Smith.

      Except now I’m wondering if Jesus (who the poet is referring to, take it up with her) really did say that.

      Anxiously awaiting Bart’s next book.

  6. Avatar
    bmartin027  March 6, 2018

    Where can I buy a copy of this textbook? I don’t think I saw it anywhere on amazon.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2018

      Yup, it’s available: The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the EArly Christain Writings.

  7. Avatar
    fishician  March 6, 2018

    Sadly, this is one of the areas in which religion has failed us. Not just Christianity, but Islam has systematically downgraded women, and I recently read an article trying to explain away some of the Buddha’s misogynistic statements. Interestingly, the author claimed some of the statements must have been added by someone else, because Buddha would never say such things, much like what scholars say about Paul and 1 Corinthians 14:34.

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 9, 2018

      And in this area, may I ask, what hasn’t failed us?

      In a patriarchal world, religion has often given women more power than they might have had otherwise. And many of them were smart and strong enough to use it.

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  8. Avatar
    Hon Wai  March 6, 2018

    ” Paul’s apocalyptic vision became lost except among the outcasts relegated to the margins of his churches, women whose tales have survived only by chance discovery,”
    Which documents by chance discoveries are you referring?

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    DanHelton  March 6, 2018

    Wasn’t it common for the Proto-Orthodox to attack “heresies,” particularly the Gnostics, by claiming they engaged in orgies and other sexually licentious behavior? Certainly Iraneus and Eusebius of Caesarea, among others, made such claims. Do you think the nature of these attacks were at least in part motivated by the desire to remove women from positions of authority in the church?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2018

      Yup. No, I think they had other origins than that (since the men were usually accused as much as the women, if not more.)

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    jhague  March 6, 2018

    Isn’t it interesting that we can see that women were silenced in the church 2000 years ago and still now in most churches, men make an attempt to silence women? (But it’s good for women to teach the children, clean the kitchen and prepare the food!)

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    ardeare  March 6, 2018

    I’ve thought about this idea of gender and I find it difficult to reconcile. Within the Roman Empire………OK. But, I would think Jews would be the exception and revolt against any such notion of women being undeveloped men. I say this because of the belief they held that God himself created woman. It would seem to make the creation of woman more of a mistake or an unnatural act of nature than divine prominence from their creator. So, I’m wondering if the more religious and vast majority of Jews would have rejected this theory while primarily only the politicians (if only superficially) accepted it?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2018

      The view seems to be widely held among Jews as well, judging from second-temple texts.

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    Stephen  March 7, 2018

    I assume the Pastorals address the issue because there was an issue to address, women not knowing their “place”. But what about slavery? Do you think the admonitions in chapter 6 in the letter to the Ephesians might reflect a similar situation? Do we have any evidence of converted slaves in the early Church being unwilling to fulfill their obligations In anticipation of the imminent kingdom?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2018

      Slavery was widely accpeted as a practice, even among the earliest Christians. I don’t know of any exceptions.

  13. Avatar
    Tempo1936  March 7, 2018

    I would like to access an archive of all blogs from the beginning. The only reference to an archive that I can find is The more recent blogs (see below)
    “Archive of Posts in Chronological Order by ‘Recent Date’ per Category”
    Is there another “archive” selection going back to the beginning?
    I believe There are interesting blogs that many of the subscribers would use if they were aware of the subject.

    Thanks so much for your help.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2018

      When you go to any post, on the right hand side is a list of the most recent (other) posts. Below that is a tab labeled Archives, which gives you archives month by month from the very beginning.

      1
      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  March 9, 2018

        I was using my cell phone to access the blog and The archive feature is not available. However the archive function is available, just as you described, on my desktop. Interesting. Thank you for your assistance.

        1
  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 8, 2018

    Your recent interview with Frank Stasio on North Carolina Public Radio is terrific, People can find it by Googling “The Sunday School Teacher Turned Skeptic: Meet Bart Ehrman.”. I particularly like your discussion about Christianity giving you both a “sense of belonging” and a “sense of certainty” and how you felt “emptiness” when you left Christianity. I resonate with all of that.

    1
  15. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  March 8, 2018

    Celebrating International Women’s Day today by learning how men took away our power. 😳 Think I’ll share this post on FB!

    5
  16. Jeff
    Jeff  March 8, 2018

    Bart, I apologize for the bulkiness of this post; if it’s a burden, please promptly discard it. It is an excerpt from an essay I wrote some time ago. It is a slightly different take on the transition from the Pauline church to the post-Pauline church. Let me know if you think I’m completely (or even partially) full of qrap (I can take it.)

    I would argue that many canonical letters were written long after their ostensible authors and audiences had died. The second century church was facing an existential crisis. The central promise of the New Testament, that Jesus would be coming back to wrap things up within a generation or so (i.e., less than 20 years) had fallen flat. A century had passed and those praying fervently for His return were still being answered with a deafening silence. The pseudepedigraphic authors of the above referenced books swung into action. Mostly writing in the name of Paul, they set out to control the likely fallout from this totally unexpected apparent betrayal, viz.:
    1. A hemorrhaging of membership from disillusioned members leaving the fold

    2. Chaos in the churches with no organization, no hierarchy, no formal leadership

    3. Flagging enthusiasm and spiritual atrophy making the churches vulnerable to false teachers and creeping heresy

    4. And finally, remember, women had been highly praised and encouraged by the late apostle Paul to play key roles in the churches. Now, in the second century, absent the promised second coming, the churches were probably showing signs of weakness; the men despondent and listless. If these groups were anything like churches and Christian organizations of today, the women were emerging as prime movers and probably getting very uppity about it.

    Solutions for these problems had to be developed if the churches were going to brace for the long haul. First, to staunch the loss of membership, the apparent betrayal itself had to be rationalized by persuading everyone that they had misread or misunderstood the timetable of the Big Promise. The brethren must be assured that Jesus will be coming back in God’s own time and (just to be on the safe side) that time could run into the thousands of years. A document was forged in the name of Simon-Peter to hammer that point home. Apparently, no one noticed the absurdity of attributing a treatise in scholarly Greek to an illiterate, Aramaic-speaking Galilean peasant

    Back in Paul’s time, with the end of the age expected in a few years, churches had been planted as loose bands of believers—sojourners just standing, praying, praising and waiting. This is why none of Paul’s genuine letters are addressed to—or even mention—church leadership; there wasn’t any! Now, due to the unexpected delay, organization and discipline had to be imposed with strong leadership to keep them from falling apart over time. Providentially, some previously unknown letters from the long-dead Paul to the long-dead Timothy and Titus were suddenly “discovered” that served that very purpose. The first of these, “First Timothy” also dealt with the problem of uppity women by soundly and brutally putting them in their place. Additionally, First Timothy and several other newly minted documents tackled the false teacher/heresy problem.

    It all worked like a charm! The necessary forgeries were worked into the canon and two millennia later here we are!

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  17. Avatar
    Duke12  March 9, 2018

    FYI: The video link posted above on March 6, 2018 by stokerslodge is to a 1 minute teaser trailer for a film about ancient New Testament manuscripts called “Fragments of Truth,” hosted by Dr. Craig Evans. Sample quote: “… We want to get to the truth of it — to separate fact from fiction [and] sober scholarship from sensationalism” (all said to a background of dramatic and exciting music).

    From the text of the video’s summary: “Hear from scholars who have devoted their lives to learning the truth, and discover how the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts is stronger than ever.”

    1
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    harveyone  March 10, 2018

    Very inspirational stuff. Too bad the anti-feminist message won out. I wonder how the world would have evolved differently had women been able to hold their position as church leaders.

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 12, 2018

      Women could hold quite a bit of authority as leaders of religious orders and convents in Catholicism–always subordinate to a male hierarchy, but often surprisingly powerful.

      Today, women can be Episcopal priests and bishops. There’s been recent talk of a female Archbishop of Canterbury. I see no reason to assume there’ll never be a female Pope.

      (Starting to think that’ll all happen before we get a female POTUS.)

      1

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