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Biblical and extra-Biblical accounts about Christian women

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|

Paul and the Status of Women

In this thread I've been talking about how scholars decide if a passage that is found in *some* New Testament manuscripts but missing from *others* was actually written by the author or not (such as the account of Jesus' "sweating blood" in Luke 22:43-44:  was it really an original part of the Gospel or was it something a scribe added?)   It is a complicated process of decision, involving examining the surviving manuscripts (i.e. "external" evidence), figuring out if the passage fits well with the author's writing style and perspective otherwise, and seeing if there is anything in the passage that would make a scribe want either to insert it or take it out ("internal" evidence).  Each of these arguments can get very tricky, once you get down into the weeds. But the thread began with the question of how do we know if a passage that is in *all* of the manuscripts is possibly something that was not originally there.  The question started with the "Christ poem" of Phil 2:8-9, where Paul talks about Christ [...]

Jesus Kissing Mary Magdalene: A Bizarre Scene in the Gospel of Philip

A number of readers responded to my post about whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene were intimate by pointing out that the non-canonical Gospel of Philip sure does seem to *say* they were!   So, what do I have to say about that? I've dealt with the issue on the blog before, but a lot of you were just a twinkle in our eye at the time, so here I'll deal with it again.   I have a reasonably full discussion of the relevant issues in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.   In the book I put the discussion in the context of – yes, you guessed it --  Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, the one source many people turn to for the Gospel of Philip (!).  Few people who talk about the relevant passage have actually read the book.  It strikes many readers today as unusually strange.  But in any event, this is what I say about the book and the Kissing Passage there. ************************************************************** Some of the historical claims about the non-canonical Gospels in the [...]

Was Jesus Intimate with Mary Magdalene?

  I pointed out in my last post that most people simply assume that Jesus was not married because there is no mention of his wife in any of our sources, or any mention that he ever had a wife. And so it is assumed that he did not have one. As scholars often, and rightly, argue, that is an argument from silence, and on it's own it is not a very strong one – since, among other things, none of these sources indicates, either, that he was not married. And so it  is not evidence in one direction or another. It’s a good point, but my own view is that the silence in this case is telling – though not for the reason people sometimes say. It is sometimes wrongly asserted – by no less an inimitable authority than Dan Brown, in the Da Vinci Code – that if there was no claim that Jesus was not married that must mean that he was married, since Jewish men were “always” married. In my last [...]

Women Are To Be Silent and Submissive!

Yesterday I started this thread on the understanding of sex and gender in the ancient world by pointing out how the entire Bible starts, with the creation of the world and both men and women, the woman being created “out of” the man – so that she was secondary to him, dependent on him for her existence, and brought into the world both to keep him from being lonely and to help him out.  For most feminists, this would not seem like a very good start. The story of women in the Bible is long and complex, and I’m not going to go into every relevant passage.  That would take years.  But I do want to point out how the creation story from Genesis ended up affecting the later Christian tradition. It is no mystery that Christianity has a very long history of insisting that women should not exercise authority over men, both in the church and in the marriage relationship.  That, of course, was, in broad terms, consistent with most social views and policies [...]

Why Women Are To Be Subservient to Men

Why should women be subservient to men? This past Friday I gave a talk at a Pride Event in Chapel Hill, in connection with our Homecoming for alumni interested in LGBTQ issues (we beat Duke the next day in one of the weirdest final five minutes of a football game I’ve ever seen).   The title of the talk was “Sex and Gender in the Bible” and the overarching questions were “what does the Bible actually say?” and “how much of it is relevant to a modern situation?” The questions matter because the Bible, in many ways and in many passages, does not actually say what people think it says, and the reason for raising the question of relevance is not exactly what most people imagine (though it’s related). What Does the Bible Say About Women Being Subservient to Men? I had planned for the talk to focus on “homosexuality” and “same-sex relations” (which are the same thing) in the Bible, but I started out by explaining the biblical view(s) of the relationship of the genders, [...]

Who Would Invent the Story of Women at the Tomb??

Who in the ancient world would ever try to *prove* the resurrection by making up a story that women, in particular, discovered Jesus' empty tomb?   Weren't women seen as complete unreliable witnesses?  Their testimony never even accepted in a court of law?  If someone want to prove that Jesus had been raised -- and that therefore the tomb was empty -- they would have invented *men* at the tomb (reliable witnesses) rather than *women* (untrustworthy).  Right? I've been asked this question several times since my recent post on Jesus' women followers not doubting the resurrection.  The reason anyone ever has this question is because it is a favorite claim of Christian apologists wanting to prove that Jesus really was raised from the dead.  Proof?  The tomb really was empty.  How do we know?  We have witnesses.  How do we know we can trust the reports of these witnesses?  No one would have made them up: the witnesses in the stories are always * and no one would invent "unreliable" witnesses to back up "proof-claims." When [...]

But the Women Who Did *NOT* Doubt the Resurrection

In my previous post I noted something unusual about the doubting tradition in the resurrection narratives (i.e., the tradition that some of the disciples simply didn’t believe that Jesus was raised) – in addition, of course, to the fact that there is such a dominant doubting tradition! (itself a fascinating phenomenon) – which is that there is no word anywhere of the women who discover the tomb doubting, but clear indications (either by implication or by explicit statement) that some or all of the male disciples doubted. This is true of three of our four Gospels. Mark 16:8. (This one is by implication only) We are told that the women never tell anyone that they have found the tomb to be empty. So, the disciples are not said to believe and, in fact, so far as we know from this Gospel, no one does come to believe. (Obviously someone did, otherwise we wouldn’t have the Gospel!) Luke 24:10-11. The disciples think the tale of women told that Jesus has been raised as he predicted is [...]

The Martyr Perpetua and Her Estranged Family

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 [...]

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. ***************************************************** 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 [...]

The Surprising Understanding of Gender in the Ancient World

Back in January I made three posts on the role of women in the churches of Paul (see the posts of January 16, 17, and 18).  These raised various questions from readers about how and why women went from having a fairly *prominent* role in Paul’s own churches to having thoroughly *diminished* roles in the churches that arose after his day, as embodied for example in the Pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (books that claim to be written by Paul but that he did not himself write; they were produced by a later author who, among other things, opposed the role of women in the church). I’d like to answer these questions by discussing a matter that most modern readers of the Bible (or of other ancient texts) simply are unaware of: how ancient people understood the relationship of the genders.   We ourselves have a “common sense” of what the differences between male and female are, and we naturally assume that our common sense has been the common sense of everyone [...]

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