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Biblical and extra-Biblical accounts about Christian women

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 [...]

Jesus Kissing Mary Magdalene: A Blast From the Past

Now for something *completely* different.  Here is a question that was asked and answered almost exactly four years ago, of ongoing intrigue! ****************************************************************** 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 [...]

Was Paul a Misogynist?

Now I can consider whether Paul himself actually wrote 1 Cor 14:34-35 -- a passage that tells women they are not allowed to speak in church -- or if it was, instead, inserted into his letter by someone else later.  It's an important issue: if Paul did write the passage, and if he also wrote 1 Timothy (widely thought to be written by someone else *claiming* to be Paul) then by modern standards, at least, he would not be considered to have a, well, liberated view of women. I begin with a paragraph that ended my post two days ago, to set the context for the rest of what I have to say: *********************************************************************** Paul’s attitude toward women in the church may strike you as inconsistent, or at least as 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 [...]

2020-05-01T12:12:13-04:00January 18th, 2018|Paul and His Letters, Women in Early Christianity|

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 [...]

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