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Biblical and extra-Biblical accounts about Christian women

Did Paul Favor Gender Equality?

In this thread I have been talking about the role of women in the early church, starting with the ministry of Jesus, then in the churches of Paul (the first churches we have any real record of). In this post I continue by reflecting on Paul’s actual *views* of women; this strikes me as a particularly important topic since Paul is frequently condemned as the first Christian misogynist (or at least one of the first bad ones). Is that justified? The following represents some of my reflections as found in my discussion in my textbook on the NT for university students. The apostle Paul did not know the man Jesus nor, probably, any of his women followers. Moreover, many of the things that Paul proclaimed in light of Jesus' death and resurrection varied from the original message heard by the disciples in Galilee. For one thing, Paul believed that the end had already commenced with the victory over the forces of evil that had been won at Jesus' cross and sealed at [...]

Women in the World of Jesus

In my previous post I talked about the traditions that indicated that Jesus associated with women publicly during his ministry – in an attempt to use established historical criteria to know whether the prominence of women in the earliest Christian communities may have had precedence in the life of Jesus himself. What about the contextual credibility of these traditions? It is true that women were generally viewed as inferior by men in the ancient world (see below). But there *were* exceptions: philosophical schools like the Epicureans and the Cynics, for example, advocated equality for women. Of course, there were not many Epicureans or Cynics in Jesus' immediate environment of Palestine, and our limited sources suggest that women, as a rule, were generally even more restricted in that part of the empire with respect to their abilities to engage in social activities outside the home and away from the authority of their fathers or husbands. Is it credible, then, that a Jewish teacher would have encouraged and promoted such activities? We have no solid [...]

Jesus and Women

In my previous post I tried to show that women – contrary to what one might think – were quite prominent in the ministry and churches established by Paul. One naturally wonders why that might be, given the fact that women came to be silenced in later Christian traditions (continuing on in some rather notable circles today). One answer for why women played important roles in the life of the early church is that they may have played an important role in the life of the historical Jesus. As readers of this blog know, it is not an easy matter establishing what actually happened in Jesus’ life. Historians need to apply historical criteria to all of the traditions that survive about Jesus: independent attestation (if a tradition is independently attested in multiple sources, it is more likely to be authentic); dissimilarity (if a tradition cuts against the grain of what Christians would have wanted to say about Jesus, it is more likely authentic); and contextual coherence (any tradition that cannot make sense in [...]

Was Paul a Misogynist?

I have recently had some discussions with other scholars about the role of women in the early church.  I've dealt with that issue on the blog before, of course, but now that I look I see that my fullest discussion was a thread from over ten years ago.  Time to do it again!  These posts deal with a variety of issues, starting with Paul, notorious in some circles for his views.  But ... justifiably? In my NT course I have every student participate, as part of their grade, in a formal debate on this or that topic. The topics are meant to be controversial, and one of them, years ago, was “Resolved: The Apostle Paul was a Misogynist.” Students had to choose a side to argue (I would often assign them to argue the opposite side of the side they said they preferred arguing!), they spent weeks doing research on the topic, and then they would present their debate before their small group recitation class. It was a great topic, made even more interesting by [...]

Was Jesus Opposed to Women and Childbirth? The Lost Gospel of the Egyptians

Now here are some conversations between Jesus and one of his women followers I bet you’ve never seen before! When Salome asked, “How long will death prevail?” the Lord replied “For as long as you women bear children.”  But he did not say this because life is evil or the creation wicked; instead he was teaching the natural succession of things; for everything degenerates after coming into being.  (Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, 3, 45, 3) Why do those who adhere more to everything other than the true gospel rule not cite the following words spoken to Salome?  For when she said, “Then I have done well not to bear children” (supposing that it was not necessary to give birth), the Lord responded, “Eat every herb, but not the one that is bitter.”  (Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, 3, 66, 1-2) And when the Savior said to Salome, “Death will last as long as women give birth,” he was not denigrating birth -- since it is, after all, necessary for the salvation of those who believe.  (Clement [...]

Jesus and Mary Magdalene Seen Kissing??

While I'm on the "Jesus and Mary Magdalene" question (see my earlier posts), what about the claims that some (lots) of people have heard, that there is a story in a later Gospel that talk about them kissing? The later Gospel in question is the Gospel of Philip, one of the "Gnostic Gospels" discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi Egypt.  Does it actually talk about this moment (or repeated moments) of intimacy? I have a reasonably full discussion of the relevant issues in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press 2006).   In the book I put the discussion in the context of that one-time-source-for-all-things-bibical,  Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  Back 20 years ago, (nearly) everyone had read it and (most of them) thought the fictional account was, as Brown himself claimed at the outset, based on historically factual information.  Sigh....   In any event, here's what I say about it all in my book: ****************************** Some of the historical claims about the non-canonical Gospels in the Da Vinci Code have struck [...]

When Did Mary Magdalene Become a Prostitute?

Mary Magdalene has become one of the most talked about figures from the life of Jesus, even though she hardly ever shows up in the Gospel accounts about him (during his public ministry, just in one verse, total!, Luke 8:2).  (She shows up only at the crucifixion and, most important, the empty tomb). In my last post I began to explore the tradition -- not found in the New Testament -- that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  Here I pick up  the thread where I left it off. I had mentioned a number of passages that people read *AS IF* they were talking about Mary Magdalene, even though her name does not occur in them.  Here I'll show that none of these passages is about her. And then I'll explain why everyone today thinks she is a prostitute and where that idea came from.  Spoiler alert: a sixth-century Pope! Once again, this comes from my book on Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press, 2006) ****************************** None of these New Testament stories, however, deals [...]

Was Mary Magdalene a Prostitute?

It is "common knowledge" that Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a prostitute in the New Testament, but like so much "common knowledge" this view, while common, is not "knowledge."  In fact it's not true.  I get asked about this on occasion, and so I thought I should devote a couple of posts on it. I discuss most of what I think we can know in the final section of my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press, 2006) (A book I remember fondly, in part because I wrote it in a coffee shop in Wimbledon!).  In that book I devote six chapters to each of these important Christian figures, in each case explaining what we can know about them historically and then what we can know about the later legends that sprang up about them. In my introductory comments to my discussion of Mary Magdalene, I explain why she is widely thought of as a prostitute (in the popular imagination, not by scholars), even though she is not called that in [...]

How to Sugarcoat Scripture but Seem Sophisticated. Final Guest Post by Jill Hicks-Keeton

It's amazing how committed New Testament scholars often try to tame the Bible, making it upbeat and relevant for today when, on the surface, it affirms views that most of us, when we're honest about it, simply can't abide.  And not just the Old Testament celebration of slaughter (those damn Canaanites) and execution (for, say, disobeying parents) but also the New Testament (and not just the grotesque torture and annihilations of Revelation).  Jill Hicks-Keeton, professor of Religious Studies at Oklahoma, deals with how evangelical Christians (one could pick other groups!) try to whitewash the Bible in her book Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves.   This now is Jill's third and final guest post for us on the topic. Once again, she names names. Any comments?  Bring 'em on! ****************************** The ancient people who wrote the texts that would become “the Bible” lived in patriarchal societies. Modern Bible readers who see these texts as scriptural and who also deem patriarchy an undesirable way to order society have a problem to solve: [...]

How To Make the New Testament Non-Patriarchal. Good Luck with *That* One. Guest post by Jill Hicks-Keeton

I'm very pleased to post this second contribution by Jill Hicks-Keeton, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, and an author who does not appreciate "experts" who try to explain away the problems of the Bible (e.g., with respect to women) and sees no need to pull her punches!  This is an unusually effective and interesting instance; here she reveals the the flaws of a recent attempt by a  New Testament scholar to make Paul patriarchally palatable.  She names names. The post is an adaptation from her recently published Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves.  ****************************** In my last post, I introduced the concept of Bible benevolence, which is the rhetorical and intellectual work that people do to make ancient texts in the Bible square with modern moral sensibilities. The Bible is not good by itself. People have to make it so. My recent book, Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves, uses white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. as a case study to illustrate [...]

Dreaming of Purgatory

Yesterday I began to talk about the Martyrdom of Perpetua, one of the most interesting and moving texts to come down to us from early Christianity.  It is an account of a 23-year old Roman matron who is willing to die a gruesome death for her Christian faith.  Among other things, the text shows that her faith is far more important to her than her family.  In particular, she is shown in conflict especially with her father (no husband is mentioned, which has led to considerable speculation: Divorced? Widowed? Unwed mother? Something else?).  And even though it is with regret, she is willing to leave behind her own infant child by being martyred. Family figures prominently in the two excerpts here.  In the first her father begs her to avoid martyrdom, to no avail.  In the second (chs. 7-8) we have an account of her dream and intervention on behalf of her dead brother Dinocrates.  This is the part that I will be most interested in for the next post.  Is it an early adumbration [...]

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and the Rise of Purgatory

I was recently asked about "purgatory, a concept misunderstood by most people I've ever met, including nearly every Protestant (!) but also some lifelong Catholics.  I had done a series of posts on the issue years ago, while I was doing research for my book on Heaven and Hell.  I had just read an interesting book that dealt with the “Rise and Function” of the idea of “Purgatory” by Adreas Merkt, Das Fegefeuer: Entstehung und Funktion einer Idee.  Purgatory itself did not become as solid idea until the 12th and 13th centuries, but there were antecedents to it in much earlier times, including in one of the most intriguing accounts of a Christian martyrdom from the early 3rd century. That is how I started my thread: ****************************** Purgatory never made it big in Protestant Christian circles.  But it is an age-old doctrine, the idea that a person needs to suffer for their sins before allowing into heaven for a blessed eternity.  It is kind of a temporary hell.  No one can get off scot-free.  But [...]

2023-03-22T14:07:09-04:00April 1st, 2023|Afterlife, Women in Early Christianity|

Women and their Demons in the Life of Jesus: Guest Post by James McGrath

This now is the final guest post by blogger and New Testament scholar, James McGrath, based on his book What Jesus Learned from Women.  Are you interested in more?  Buy the book!  As you’ll see here, it gets onto important ground, with intriguing hypotheses that you probably have never heard before!  Many thanks to James for making these posts for us. - James McGrath is also the author of Theology and Science Fiction and The Burial of Jesus, among other books. ************************* It is almost impossible for modern readers of the New Testament to come across the word "demon" and to not think of The Exorcist and other depictions of the phenomenon of "demon possession." Ancient people certainly attributed what we today would categorize as psychiatric conditions or mental illnesses to demons. However, these are but a small subset of the ailments that they thought of in these terms. We see this in the stories about women in the Gospels. In no instance are we presented with a woman whose symptoms are specified to have [...]

2021-04-24T09:22:19-04:00May 8th, 2021|Historical Jesus, Women in Early Christianity|

Jesus Under the Influence (of Women): Guest Post by James McGrath

 New Testament scholar, blog member, and blogger with his own blog on topics you may be interested in, James McGrath, has given us one post already about a woman whom the apostle knows, Junia – who he calls his own “relative” -- who may well have been involved with Jesus in his ministry.  This comes from his most recent book. James has agree to provide us with a couple more guest posts, based on the book.  This is interesting stuff!  It should make you think.  Here’s the next one. - James McGrath is the author of What Jesus Learned from Women, and Theology and Science Fiction among other books. ****************************** There are two individuals that are the go-to examples for those who entertain the possibility that Jesus was a real human person influenced by other people. They are included in my book What Jesus Learned from Women, and in many ways served as the stepping stone and gateway to discovering that the same may be said of other people and stories in the Gospels.   [...]

2021-04-10T00:38:52-04:00April 29th, 2021|Historical Jesus, Women in Early Christianity|

Peter and Mary Magdalene in Competition

I began this short thread with a discussion of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, where she seems to be Jesus’ preferred follower; I then talked about the idea that there were women apostles in the earliest period of the church – according to Paul himself – and pointed out an old tradition that in fact Mary was the very first apostle. I want to pick up there, and show how not just in the Gospel of Mary but in other parts of the early Christian tradition Mary and Peter were sometimes portrayed in controversy over who was Number One! Here is how I discuss it in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. ******************************** As I’ve intimated, this view that Mary was the original apostle – the one commissioned to tell the good news of Christ’s resurrection –  is found already in the books of the New Testament.  In the Gospel of Mark, it is Mary Magdalene along with Mary the mother of James and Salome who come to the tomb on the third day, [...]

2022-06-02T21:54:45-04:00November 18th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha, Women in Early Christianity|

Is Mary Magdalene the Founder of Christianity?

I have devoted a few posts to the relationship of / competition between Peter and Mary in early Christian traditions.  I conclude by posing a rather significant question.  Peter, of course, has traditionally been seen as the “rock” on which Christ built his church, the very foundation of Christianity (Matt. 16:18 – “You are Peter (Greek: petros) and upon this rock (Greek: petra) I will build my church.”).   And indeed, according to 1 Cor. 15: 3-5, Peter was the first to see the resurrected Jesus (and realize he had been raised from the dead), and that is the very beginning of Christianity.  But what if the Gospels are right, that Mary actually was the first.  Wouldn’t it make better sense, then, to say that Mary started Christianity? Here is how I talk about the matter in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene:  ****************************** There is no doubt that Peter became dominant as the leader of the church early in the Christian movement, and Mary receded into the background.  We have scores of passages that [...]

2022-03-03T14:27:59-05:00November 16th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Women in Early Christianity|

Women Apostles in Early Christianity

In my previous post, I discussed the Gospel of Mary and its portrayal as Mary Magdalene as the one to whom Jesus had revealed the secrets of salvation (as part of a gnostic myth) - -much to the consternation of the male disciples, especially Peter and his brother Andrew.  Hey, how could he consider a *woman* more important than us men???  It’s an attitude that appears to have run through the family. It is striking that there was a much wider tradition in early Christianity that said that Mary Magdalene was the *first* apostle, the one who made the other apostles.  Now THAT is a view you don’t hear every day. To explain it I first have to say something about women apostles more broadly in early Christianity, another topic most people don’t think or know much about.  Here is how I explain it in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. ****************************** The term “apostle” comes from a Greek word that means something like “one who has been sent.”  It can refer to anyone [...]

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

In my undergraduate class on ancient Gospels and modern Jesus films this semester we looked at one of the truly intriguing but little known early Gospels, “The Gospel of Mary.”  This second century does not claim to be written by Mary Magdalene, but she is the main figure in it – the one to whom Jesus gave a secret revelation about ultimate reality, much to the chagrin of the male disciples who can’t believe that Jesus would reveal the secrets of the world to a *woman* instead of them. It is a Gnostic Gospel – by which I mean that it is based on “gnostic” myths about how humans are trapped here in their material bodies and need to learn the secrets about themselves, about the world, and about how to escape their physical prisons – all this through the secret “knowledge” (Greek = gnosis) that Jesus can provide. We have no record of a Gospel according to Mary (Magdalene) from the early church, The book was, in fact, unknown until its discovery at the [...]

2020-11-05T23:25:54-05:00November 13th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha, Women in Early Christianity|

Paul the Misogynist? The Alternative Perspective

Based on what I said in previous posts, from Paul's own (authentic) letters, his attitude toward women in the church may seem inconsistent, or at least ambivalent.  Women could participate in his churches as ministers, prophets, and even apostles.  But they were to maintain their social status as women and not appear to be like men.  This apparent ambivalence led to a very interesting historical result.  When the dispute over the role of women in the church later came to a head, both sides could appeal to the apostle's authority in support of their views. On one side were those who urged a complete equality between men and women in the churches.  Some such believers told tales of Paul's own female companions, women like Thecla, who renounced marriage and sexual activities, led ascetic lives, and to taught male believers in church.  On the other side were those who urged women to be in complete submission to men.  Believers like this could combat the tales of Thecla and other women leaders by portraying Paul as an [...]

2020-05-01T13:32:59-04:00March 18th, 2020|Paul and His Letters, Women in Early Christianity|

Paul the Feminist? The Thecla Legends

I’m in the middle of talking about whether Paul wrote the verses now found in 1 Cor. 14:34-35, or if they were a later interpolation into his letters (that is, an insertion that ended up in every single one of our manuscripts)  It's an important issue.  This is the passage where Paul sternly tells women that they are NOT to speak in church.   They can't only not be *leaders*.  They can't *talk*. Wow.  OK, then.  Did Paul really write that?  I'm going to be arguing he did not, that it's an interpolation (I'm doing this in part in order to show how one can show that a passage is not "original" even if the manuscripts all agree.  It doesn't happen much.  But *sometimes*). But to make sense of it, I have to talk about the two views about Paul and women that emerged after he was dead, one that portrayed him as very much on the side of women, a kind of early Christian proto-feminist, and the other that saw him as a complete misogynist, [...]

2020-05-01T13:33:24-04:00March 17th, 2020|Paul and His Letters, Women in Early Christianity|
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