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Biblical and extra-Biblical accounts about Christian women

Paul and His Female Disciple Thecla

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 later added to his letter by an editor/scribe.  To make sense of what I have to say next about the issue I need to provide just a bit more background, specifically about a legendary figure well known in the early church, but not widely known about today outside the realm of early Christianity scholarship.  This is a one-time-household-name: Thecla, supposedly a female disciple of Paul. Here is what I say about her and her significance in my Introduction to  the New Testament: ******************************************************** Paul’s words (in his authentic letter) may have taken on a life of their own as they were used in new contexts, gaining a meaning that was independent of what they originally meant when he proclaimed them to his converts. Interestingly, the distortion of Paul’s message is explicitly recognized as a problem even within the pages of the New Testament (2 Pet 3:16). This may be what happened in a [...]

Paul’s Views of Women

In this week’s mailbag I take up a very interesting question about whether there are other passages in the New Testament that are found in all of our manuscripts but that appear not to have been originally written by the author.  That is, they were (possibly) passages inserted by a later editor, before any of our surviving manuscripts were made, so that they are universally attested, but probably not original.  That is what I argued for 2 Corinthians 6:14 (it’s a standard scholarly view).  And that prompted the following question:   QUESTION: I hadn’t noticed the oddness of the 2 Corinthians 6:14 passage before, but it does seem out of place. Kind of like the woman-caught-in-adultery story in John 8, where the narrative flows smoother without that insert. Are there any other major examples of significant insertions into the NT books?   RESPONSE: It is important to note the difference between 2 Cor. 6:14 and the passage in John 8.  The latter is missing in our oldest and best manuscripts; the former is found in [...]

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 [...]

The Woman Taken in Adultery in the King James Version

Among the most popular stories about Jesus that you will find in the King James Version is one that, alas, was not originally in the Bible, but was added by scribes.  This is the famous account of Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery.  The story is so well known that even most modern translations will include it – but place it in brackets with a footnote indicating there are doubts about its originality or, in some translations, making an even stronger note that it probably does not belong in the New Testament. In fact, even though it is technically true that the passage “probably” does not belong in the New Testament, the reality is that it is not a debated point among textual scholars and translators.  The passage was not part of the Gospel of John originally.  Or any other Gospel.  People know it so well principally because it appeared in the KJV Here is what I say about the passage in my book Misquoting Jesus. ****************************** The Woman Taken in Adultery The story [...]

Lost Gospels: The Greater Questions of Mary. A Blast From the Past

Here is a blast from the past -- almost exactly four years ago now --  about one of my all time favorite "lost" Gospels.  If it ever existed.  One very imaginative church father certainly thought it did.  It was a Gospel featuring Mary Magdalene and a rather wild encounter she had with Jesus.  Here is what I said in the post of November 2012. ************************************************************************* I have been discussing some of the Gospels that we know about because they are mentioned, or even quoted, by church fathers, but that no longer survive. Another, particularly intriguing, Gospel like this – one that I desperately wish we had, for reasons that will soon become clear -- is known as “The Greater Questions of Mary” (i.e., of Mary Magdalene). My following comments on it are more or less lifted from my Introduction in the recent Apocryphal Gospels volume. One of the “great questions” for scholars is whether such a book ever really did exist. It is mentioned only once in ancient literature, in a highly charged polemical context [...]

Were Paul’s Views of Women Oppressive?

In my post yesterday I discussed the first debate topic assigned to my undergraduate class on the New Testament, on the relationship of Paul and Jesus, and the question of whether they represented fundamentally the same religion or not.   Of all the debate topics that I assign, I think that one is the most central to the understanding of the New Testament and the history of Christianity, as it deals with the root of the very problem of Christianity itself as it developed into a new religion, separate from Judaism. But the other debate topics are really important too – extremely important – and a bit more, well, controversial.  The students enjoy that first one well enough – but not perhaps as much as they could, since they don’t really yet see what an enormous issue it is. (And because since it is the first debate, students tend not to prepare for it as much; once the rest of the class sees what a big deal these debates are, they tend to prepare a lot [...]

ANT: More on Women in Early Christianity

I’m nearly finished reading the page proofs for the second edition of After the New Testament.  Gods willing, I finish tomorrow – a good thing, because I’m heading out of town (well, I’m already out of town; so I’m heading out of town out of town) to do some hiking.  I’ll be able to keep the blog up (let’s hear it for wi-fi!).  But proof reading is outta the question!   Anyway, yesterday I gave the first half of the Introduction to one of the new sections in the second edition of the book (that I call ANT), on Women in Early Christianity.   You may want to reread that bit from yesterday if it’s not fresh in your mind.  Here’s the final part of the Introduction.  (Please note: I give a very small bibliography at the end.  The reason it is so small: it is for college students in a beginning course.  Many of you will probably want to suggest other readings.  I too would like to suggest more – lots more!  But my idea is [...]

After the New Testament: Women in Early Christianity

Among other things, I am spending a chunk of each day just now reading the page proofs for the second edition of my anthology After the New Testament.   “Page proofs” are the type-set pages as they are ready to appear in the printed book.   This is the last chance an author has to catch mistakes, typos, and so on.  The new edition of this book is fairly long– over 550 pages – and reading proofs is one of the very least interesting parts of the job.  It’s a serious pain in the neck.   The press also (typically – depending on the press) employs a proof-reader; but no one can catch everything, and there are certainly typographical errors that will not be caught.   In the first edition of this particular book, in the opening lines of the Gospel of Peter, where “King Herod,” Jesus arch-enemy, is introduced, my text was printed as “Kind Herod.”   Ai yai yai…. In any event, as I mentioned back in January, and then again in May, there are sixteen chapters in [...]

Women at the Tomb

Here I’ll continue my thread on topics that I changed my mind about or came to see in doing my research for How Jesus Became God.   One of the most important things I changed my mind about was the idea that Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty three days after his death. When I was a Christian, of course I thought that was the case.   But even when I had become an agnostic I thought it was probably a historical tradition: it’s found in all four Gospels, for example, and the fact that the stories indicate precisely it was *women* who found the tomb did not seem like something Christians would want to make up.  (And so, as an agnostic, I had to come up with alternative explanations for why the tomb was empty.  But…) I changed my mind.  Most of my change came from my investigation of Roman practices of crucifixion.   As it turns out, standard policy appears to have been to have left the bodies of corpses on the crosses to decompose, as part [...]

Jesus Kissing Mary Magdalene

QUESTION: I know that the “Gospel of Philip does not have much if any real historical veracity to it about Jesus’ life, but does the references about Jesus and Mary Magdalene being lovers and the holes in the papyrus ‘kissing’ verse (verses 32 and 55 in your “Lost Scriptures” book), help support the view that this most likely Gnostic Christian sect truly believed and taught that Jesus and Mary M were married? RESPONSE: Yes, this is one of those questions I get asked about on occasion.   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. (!)   Here’s what I say there: ************************************************************** Some of the historical claims about the non-canonical Gospels in the Da Vinci Code have struck scholars as outrageous, or at least outrageously funny.  The book claims, for example, that [...]

Mary Magdalene as a Prostitute?

In my previous post I was answering the following question: “where did the origin of Mary Magdalene as an escort/ sex worker come from?” I began my answer by citing a passage from my book on Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, where I explained that a number of passages in the New Testament in which women are said to appear are often said / assumed to be about Mary Magdalene, even though she is not mentioned in them. That is where I will pick up the conversation here, to show that these stories are almost certainly *not* about her; I will then show how they all got mushed together in the popular imagination, largely because of a famous sermon preached by a famous pope in the sixth century. Here is where I resume: *************************************************************************** None of these New Testament stories, however, deals with Mary Magdalene -- except in popular imagination, which has kept blissfully removed from a careful reading of the texts themselves. But the New Testament texts actually tell a different tale. Mary Magdalene [...]

Mary Magdalene in Various Guises

QUESTION: Forgive me if this has already been asked several times, but where did the origin of Mary Magdalene as an escort/ sex worker come from? RESPONSE: Ah, great question. It’s kind of a complicated story, so I’ve decided simply to reprint what I have to say about it in my discussion of Mary Magdalene in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. 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 the New Testament. This discussion is too long for a single post, so I will divide it in two, with the second coming tomorrow or the next day. ***************************************************************************** One feature of our sources makes Mary’s [...]

Jesus and 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 Karen King pointed out in our discussion the other night at the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, that is an argument from silence, and as such is not a very strong one – since, among other things, none of these sources indicates, either, that he was not married. And so this 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 authority than Dan Brown, in the Da Vinci Code – that if there was not claim that Jesus was not married that must mean that [...]

2020-04-30T12:46:02-04:00January 26th, 2014|Historical Jesus, Women in Early Christianity|

How Women Came to Be Silenced

I come now to the climax of this thread: how is it that women came to be silenced in the early Christian tradition? Of all my posts in this thread on women in early Christianity, I think this is the most important. Again, I give my reflections on it from my Introduction to the NT: The first thing to observe is that women may have been disproportionately represented in the earliest Christian communities. This at least was a constant claim made by the opponents of Christianity in the second century, who saw the inordinate number of women believers as a fault; remarkably enough, the defenders of the faith never denied it. Second, we should recall that the earliest Christian communities, including those established by Paul, were not set up as public institutions like the Jewish synagogues or the local trade associations, which met in public buildings and had high social visibility. Paul established *house* churches, gatherings of converts who met in private homes. The significance of this difference should not be overlooked. For in the [...]

Male Domination in Antiquity

In this thread I’ve been laying out the view that in Paul’s own churches, women were granted places of prominence, possibly because they had been prominent at times from the very beginning, going back to the ministry of Jesus. But eventually women were silenced – as evidenced in the Pastoral epistles and the interpolation of 1 Cor. 14:35-36 by a later copyist of Paul’s letter. I continue this line of thought again by referring to the discussion of my Introduction to the NT, based on what is a broad consensus among scholars of antiquity who study such things:   So… why did the Pauline churches move to the position embraced in these later texts (wrongly assigned to Paul), restricting the roles that women could play in the churches, insisting that Christians be married, and making Christian women submit to the dictates of their husbands both at home and in the church? It would be easy enough to attribute this move simply to male chauvinism, as much alive in antiquity as it is today. But the [...]

The Non-Pauline Oppression of Women

In my previous post I argued that the view of women in 1 Timothy 2:12-15 does not coincide with Paul’s own teachings, and that it therefore is probably not something that Paul wrote.  (This is a standard view among scholars, that Paul did not write 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus; there are compelling reasons for this view, which I could go into if anyone really wants to know….)  But doesn't Paul say something similar in his undisputed letters, in the harsh words of 1 Cor 14:34-35? Indeed, this passage is *so* similar to that of 1 Tim 2:11-15, and so unlike what Paul says elsewhere, that many scholars are convinced that these too are words that Paul himself never wrote, words that were later inserted into the letter of 1 Corinthians by a scribe who wanted to conform Paul's views to those of the Pastoral epistles.  The parallels are obvious when the two passages are placed side by side. (AND if I knew *how* to place them side by side in Word Press, they [...]

Paul, the Pastorals, and Women

Based on what I said in the previous post, Paul's 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 apostle who insisted on [...]

Paul’s View of Women in the Church

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 his resurrection. Not [...]

Jesus’ Association with Women

In my previous point 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 evidence to [...]

Women in the Ministry of Jesus

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 a first [...]

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