The data of this period comes from the literary data, present in Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, and the Gospel of John. The historical writings of these members (or deputies) of the apostolic circle will reveal features of their authors' views on women in the church, by HOW female characters are used in the narratives. For example, are they portrayed as enemies, or evil, or examples of anti-virtue? What purposes do women's words and actions play in the text--and what might the level of detail (or lack thereof) reveal about how the early church understood them?
Even though most of the events we will use as 'raw materials' come from the pre-Church period (i.e. the earthly life of Christ), since it is being written down LATER THAN that period, it will be used to illustrate the perspectives of at least early church leadership (i.e. the apostolic circle). In the book of Acts we will have some "purely" historical elements to work with as well.
The gospels are primarily concerned with the life and mission of Jesus, of course, and so we should not expect a ton of data. But Matthew and Luke are especially striking in their use of female characters and 'mentions' in the text. We will largely concentrate on that data.
We can arrange this material under the following categories:
- Historical data from the Book of Acts.
- Literary data from the Gospel of Matthew.
- Literary data from the Writings of Luke (the Gospel of Luke and Acts).
- John's portrayal of Mary and Martha.
Here we can look at how women responded to the message of Christ and their roles/status in the Church once they became believers.
They consistently responded favorably to it, and they were obviously preached to by the early leaders.
Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. (Acts 5.14--Jerusalem)What is also clear in the book of Acts is that the apostolic band felt NO QUALMS about witnessing to women. The restrictions observed by the Rabbi's about not teaching the Torah to women, or not talking to them for too long or in public, were NOT honored by the early church!
But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. (Acts 8.12--Samaritan)
13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. "If you consider me a believer in the Lord," she said, "come and stay at my house." And she persuaded us. (Acts 16.13ff--Gentile)
Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. (Acts 17.12)
The passages above involve Peter and Paul (at least)--with them deliberately evangelizing women.
Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. (Acts 18.24ff)[Note that the man and the woman were BOTH in synagogue, and BOTH taught Apollos.]
Deen speaks of her prominence (WS:AWB:227):
Her prominence is evidenced by many facts. She became the teacher of the eloquent and learned Apollos. The church assembled in her home, both at Ephesus and at Rome, and she was known throughout Christendom in her day. Though she and her husband "labored together," in three out of five places her name appears first--evidence enough that she played the more important part in the early Christian Church.
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 "`In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8.3)
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. (Acts 9.1-2)
We have already encountered both of these roles earlier: the patrons of Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, and the prophetesses Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Anna.
Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. 9 He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.It is instructive to note that ALL mentions of Christian prophetesses in the NT are in Luke (Paul's traveling companion) or by Paul (e.g. I Cor 11.5:And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head).
These roles blur somewhat, but become very important in the NT period, for the women typically end up hosting (and managing in many cases) churches that meet in their homes.
Let's look at some scholarly assessments of the historical data...
"In the Greek East, the honorary inscriptions praised women benefactors for both their munificence and their virtues as wives and mothers. In Roman Italy, inscriptions concentrate more on the former. The importance of these inscriptions is that they demonstrate the presence of women who controlled significant sums of money and who used those funds for public purposes--a role previously restricted to men. In the NT, Luke-Acts repeatedly presents women in the role of benefactors to the Christian community: the women who supported Jesus in his ministry (Luke 8:2-3; 23:55-56), Mary who opened her home to the Jerusalem community (Acts 12:12), Lydia who was the patron for the church at Philippi (Acts 16:14-15, 40), and Priskilla who with her husband was a significant figure in Corinth and Ephesus (Acts 18:2-3, 26). The author made it a point to note women of substance. The same pattern is present in the Pauline corpus. Paul called Phoebe a "benefactor" of the church in Cenchreae (Rom. 16:2). Similarly, Paul or one of his disciples urged the Colossians to greet "Nympha and the church in her house." (WS:EWEC:70-71).This patronage/leadership role was a critical function in the church of the first 2-3 centuries, and is duly noted in the NT.
"Wherever Christianity spread, women were leaders of house churches. Mary, the mother of John Mark, presided over a house church of Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem. It was on her door that the astonished Peter knocked to announce to the Christians assembled there that he had been liberated from prison by an angel (Acts 12:12-17). Apphia presided with two others as leaders of a house church in Colossae (Philem. 2). Nympha in Laodicea, Lydia in Thyatira, and Phoebe at Cenchreae supervised the congregations that met in their homes (Col. 4:15; Acts 16:15; Rom. 16:1)" (WS:WWWP:33)
Matthew's use of women characters is instructive, for it contrasts with many female images of the ancient world:
The portrayal of women as positive models of religious virtue was rare in the ancient world. While the Gospels assume the patriarchal structure of Jewish culture, they do portray women in a remarkably positive and exemplary role....In fact, with only a few exceptions, women are used consistently in Matthew's story to educate the reader in fundamental values and insights that are to govern a life of discipleship. (WS:EWEC:432)This value on the role and contribution of women can be seen in several aspects of Matthew's work:
The main thing to look for in a genealogy are the 'break-points'--those phrases that indicate some kind of discontinuity or change in the flow. These breakpoints are clues to the author's intentions.
In Matthew's genealogy, there are several such breakpoints. The most obvious ones are the famous leaders that form the pivots for the 15-generation segments of the passage. [Matthew used a rounded-off version of the genealogies to facilitate memorization and learning. The 15-15-15 structure would have been easier to remember for early catechumens.)
But other breaks occur in the mention of four women's names: Tamar (1.3), Rahab (1.5), Ruth (1.5), the wife of Uriah (1.6). Although there are perhaps more exemplary characters that could have been used, and even though Jewish sources spoke favorably about these women, it should be noted that "each of these women take initiative to overcome their powerless state and questionable circumstances to participate in the plan of God." (WS:EWEC:435). In other words, they each demonstrate that character of discipleship that is so important--"be faithful with little, and I will give you more". These women were singled out for their independent action (sage-like?) in difficult situations; requirements for a young church in a difficult period.
For example, in chapter 13, Jesus' use of a man sowing a mustard seed (31-32) is paired with that of a woman making dough (33).
And, in the Olivet Discourse, the warning that Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. (24.40) is immediately followed with Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.(v.41)
"It is generally recognized that there are five principal character groups in Matthew's story: Jesus, the disciples, the religious leaders, the crowds, and the minor characters...Minor characters are those who appear sparingly throughout the story and are depicted with varying degrees of insight into their person. Although in some scenes they seem merely to function as "props" to establish a setting, on certain other occasions, they serve as positive 'foils' against which to view the deficiencies of major characters. Thus minor characters often exemplify values endorsed and commended by Jesus and the narrator. Although they usually remain nameless and appear in only one scene, their importance for the overall story is not to be slighted because of the brevity of their appearances." (WS:EWEC:430,431)So, in the case of Matthew, we will see him using women to (1) portray attitudes of true discipleship; and (2) do this AS A CONSTRAST to those of the disciples(!).
Let's look at a few passages in which these elements can be seen.
Such an insight in the context of Matthew 15 is clearly intended as a foil against which are heightened the "blindness of Israel's leaders" (15:14, 24; see 2:1-4), and the lack of perception among the disciples (15:16ff). (WS:EWEC:440)
Certainly, the prior actions of the women ("follow" and "serve him") and their presence at such critical junctures in the story (i.e., crucifixion, burial, and resurrection) establishes that these women should be viewed as authentic disciples, though they were not counted among the twelve. (WS:EWEC:442).
In the first case, both the women and the soldiers are hit with 'fear', but whereas the soldiers are incapacitated (28.4), the women are prompted to action by the words of the angel. And, both the women and the soldiers are witnesses at first, but the soldiers are reduced to silence by bribes (28.15).
In the second case, the women respond later to the Risen Christ with worship, but the disciples, when confronted by the same Risen Lord, respond ALSO with 'confusion' (28.17: When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.).
Luke has an altogether different purpose in mind as he places women characters and their scenes into his combined Luke-Acts history. Whereas Matthew used women primarily as foils against the various other characters--with a special emphasis on their exemplification of the traits of true discipleship, Luke will use the mentions of women as demonstration of their integral part of the Kingdom of God. In other words, his use of women characters and situations will be 'natural'--an obvious main component in the plan of God.
This will show up in a number of ways: in the frequency of 'mentions', in the use of men-women pairings, on the legitimacy of focusing on their 'inner life', his recounting of their contributions to the early church, and his linking them up with the Apostle Paul.
Once we have looked at this data, we will ask the oft-asked question--"why?" Why such a significant attention on women--WITHOUT 'drawing attention' to that fact?
First, let's look at the data from the Gospel of Luke:
To these mentions in Luke, should be added these verses in Acts:
This a very surprising frequency, and one noted by almost all commentators.
As can be seen from the first list above, 23 of the 33 mentions include a woman-man pairing in the literature. Luke is careful to make it clear that the gospel and discipleship call equally to women as it does to men--and that obedience is just as demanding.
Pairings also occur in the book of Acts, although differently. He mentions 4 married couples: Ananias/Sapphira (Acts 5), Timothy's parents (Acts 16.1), Priscilla/Aquilla (Acts 18.2-3), Drusilla/Felix (Acts 24.24), and a pair of siblings (25.13). And the majority of the mentions (above) are in the form of 'men and women.'
Luke DOES use a few pairings in which women demonstrate the good, over against men who demonstrate the bad, but this is NOT a major motif of his (as it was in Matthew):
[The main differences between the pairings in Luke's Gospel and the pairings in Acts can be easily seen. In the gospel, the pairings are literary--the story-pairs function almost as Hebrew parallelisms. In Acts, the pairings are in the characters themselves. We shall consider one possible explanation for this 'change' at the end of this section.]
We have already noted above how Luke lets us get inside the thoughts of the Woman with the Hemorrhage. But Luke has given us, at the very beginning of his works, an extended view of women's thoughts and responses. The Infancy Narratives are replete with the thinking/worship of Women. From Elizabeth's words, to her dialog with Mary; from Mary's Song to the references to her 'pondering these things in her heart' (1.29; 2.19; 2.51), Luke is deliberate in sharing with his readers the 'inside view' of these events--as understood by the women characters.
Luke consistently points out the leadership contributions of women in his writings.
Note as well that Luke is the writer that has reminded us of women's patronage roles in the early church.
Luke is a traveling companion of Paul, on some of his missionary journeys (cf. The "we" sections in Acts--e.g. 16.10-18, and Col 4.14; 2 Tim 4.11; Philem 24). His portrait of Paul in the book of Acts is carefully structured to 'equal' the ministry of Peter. With this in mind, there are several passages which link prominent women disciples with Paul's ministry.
But..... "WHY?"...Why did Luke make such a point of including women so extensively in his writings?
There are three elements to understanding this--one is very widely accepted, one has only recently been articulated in the scholarly community, and one is my OWN 'pet heresy' (smile)...
There is a simple solution to the problem of why Luke's gospel contains more stories about women than the others: Luke was writing for an audience wherein women were numerous...The evangelist seeks to capture the attention of the female portion of the audience. (Davies, in WS:WLT:190)What is interesting to me about this position is that Luke's works are addressed to a man named "Theophilus". In the Graeco-Roman culture of the day, Theophilus would probably be expected to 'publish' Luke's writings (see BREC:102). When this fact is combined with the historical and sociological insights into the makeup of the early church--largely female (ROC, chapter 5)--we can understand this clearly.
In the earliest days of the expansion of the Church, women were more likely to become Christians than men--which is true in modern religious movements as well--(ROC:100), and that the early church attracted an "unusual number of high-status women" (ROC:107). Many of the extra-biblical records indicated that there were many, many mixed marriages, in which generally it was the woman who was a believer and the husband, not. Secondary conversions (in which one spouse influences the other to accept the faith) were common in the young church, and women had a much higher status in the Christian subculture than in the pagan culture of the day (ROC:107-111).
If women were as prevalent and important to the early church as the sociologist Stark argues (ROC), then it makes perfect sense for Luke to make sure that the readers of his work (to be circulated by Theophilus, perhaps himself a secondary convert?) understand that men and women are both integral to the life of the church.
What this would mean for us is that Luke's use of men-women pairings were designed to show his readers that the fulfillment of the ages had come. In other words, the promise of men-women working together in the kingdom of God had been inaugurated in history--in the apostolic church.
My support for this is thin, but not non-existent.
We DO have one reference in history--the strange work entitled Debate between a Montanist and an Orthodox (see discussion in WS:WLT:238-239). In this work the "Orthodox" explicitly says that Mary wrote the Gospel of Luke but had it published under his name! This document is a 4th century document, with links to Asia Minor--very early and very close to sources(!).
The contents of Luke would obviously accord well with this:
Mary, the author of the Magnificat, was thoroughly Hebrew, and shows this in the parallelisms in her Song. If she had constructed a narrative of events, it would likely have had a basic parallel structure (i.e. a 'pairing' in the case of men/women) as well. Luke, on the other hand, as a Gentile, would not have written such a structure when the material was largely HIS contribution (i.e. Acts). He would have kept her piece largely intact (save for redactional needs), and the pairings in HIS piece would have been historical versus literary.
It is important to note that there is NO commonly accepted view of why the pairings are different between the Gospel and Acts--so my proposal is not at least AGAINST some mainstream position (smile).
We have noticed elsewhere that the Jesus of John's gospel had significant interaction with women. Here I want to simply to note the functions of the passages about Mary and Martha in the narrative. To do this, I want to quote a non-Christian JEWISH scholar, who has analyzed these passages.
In discussing the John 11.1-44 passage, Adele Reinhartz says (WS:WLT:179):
The passage depicts Mary and Martha as Jewish women who live independently with their brother in Bethany. Fully integrated into the Jewish community, they nevertheless have a close enough relationship with Jesus to call on him in time of trouble. Furthermore, at least one of them, Martha, has a rather sophisticated understanding of his identity and his significance for those who believe in him. But the evangelist apparently writes not only to record an important event in the life of Jesus but also to speak directly to his audience. In using Martha to represent a true disciple who attains the profound understanding of resurrection that he wishes his community to share, the evangelist also is creating a strong role model for the women members of the church. Such a model authenticates both their membership as women and their right--like Martha's--to "ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you".And, after analyzing the other passages in which Mary and Martha play, she summarizes (WS:WLT:181):
It is consequently not only the particular roles ascribed to Martha and Mary in the fourth gospel but also the crucial juncture at which they appear that compels us to take them seriously both as characters and as vehicles for Johannine theology. In portraying Mary and Martha in acts of serving and anointing, Jn 12:1-7, like the other pericopes we have explored, presents the sisters as disciples. That they hosted a dinner for Jesus, at which others of his inner circle were present, implies that the sisters or women like them were also part of, or close to, this inner circle.
The book of Acts yielded important historical data about women in the early church--they responded favorably and widely to the Gospel message. And, once they became a part of the Christian community, they were considered believers, disciples, followers of Paul. They played important roles as prophets and as church leaders, with a special emphasis on their patronage of the young church.
This young church did nothing to suppress women in the literature--rather, they incorporated women characters into the earliest of the writings. Matthew and John used women characters as examples of the virtues required in true discipleship (often as foils against the male disciples), and Luke consistently highlights their basic membership in, acceptance by, contribution to, and leadership among--the young Church.