Pants, Prayers, and Women, ‘Oh My!’ The Role of Women in Early Christianity

 

Quite a bit of attention has been given as of late to the role of women in LDS society, and rightfully so.  I’ll simply share that as an LDS Father raising three daughters, I can’t help but feel a sense of concern regarding this important matter.

As soon as President Monson made the announcement last October regarding a change in missionary age requirements for young women, I knew immediately how my 18-year-old daughter would respond.  Now, as a Mormon Male Feminist, I am very grateful for the fact that she and other LDS women like her have been given the opportunity to make the decision, if they feel so inclined, to serve a full-time mission at almost the same age as young men.  As her Dad, however, I feel a strange sense of pride and concern at the prospect of watching my little girl go out into the world to share a message about love, families, and Jesus Christ.

I can’t help it.  She’s my little girl, and it makes me nervous.  I really hadn’t prepared myself emotionally for this decision (though I’m coming to grips with it).  Yet from my perspective, it’s only right that young women have this opportunity, especially when we consider the role of women in early Christianity.  According to the Gospels, the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were all women.

Luke specifically identifies the first witnesses of Christ as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women” (Luke 24:10).  And interestingly, we actually read that the male Apostles initially rejected their testimony:  “And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not” (v. 11).  Like all of us, the Apostles were clearly products of their time, and women were treated in 1st century Judaism the same way women have been treated throughout most of human history, as second-class citizens at best.

Much has been made over the fact that in early Jewish society, a woman’s witness or testimony was often held suspect.  The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus seems to capture the spirit of the age through the statement: “From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex” (Ant. 4.219).  So the fact that women were the first witnesses of Jesus in a culture so dominated by male “superiority” and wisdom seems significant.

But then again, when Jesus is placed in the historical context of his time period, Jesus comes across as quite the male feminist himself.  Every time we see Christ in the Gospels, Jesus is talking with women, and actually taking them seriously, even when they are possessed with devils, committing acts of adultery, suffering with “issues of blood,” or living with men who are not their husbands.  And Jesus does this at what would seem to be, at least to some extent, considerable personal risk.

Although dated, the following assessment by Joachim Jeremias in the classic book Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus still captures the general sentiment:

“A woman was expected to remain unobserved in public. There is a recorded saying of one of the oldest scribes we know, Jose b. Johanan of Jerusalem (c. 150 BC): ‘Talk not much with womankind’, to which was added, ‘They said this of a man’s own wife; how much more of his fellow’s wife!’ (M. Ab. i.5). Rules of propriety forbade a man to be alone with a woman (M. Kidd. iv. 12; b. Kidd 8Ia; John 4.27), to look at a married woman, or even to give her a greeting (b. Kidd. 70a-b). It was disgraceful for a scholar to speak with a woman in the street (b. Ber. 43b Bar.). A woman who conversed with everyone in the street, could, like the woman who worked at her spinning in the street, be divorced without the payment prescribed in the marriage settlement. It was considered preferable for a woman, and especially an unmarried girl, in general not to go out at all.” (p. 360).

Taking this perspective into consideration during Family Home Evening, my wife Carolyn best summed it up with these words, “So I love how Jesus was such a rebel!”  Rebel or not, he certainly comes across as a male feminist.

In fact, every time Jesus uses the title “woman” in the Gospel of John, he directly links the title with a revelation concerning his role as Savior.  In John 2, Jesus uses the title “woman” and then immediately begins to speak about the “hour” of his atonement.  Jesus does the same thing the next time he uses the title in John 4:21.  In John 8:10-11, Jesus uses the title “woman” and then immediately teaches the woman caught in adultery of his power to forgive sin because of his hour.

In John 19:26, Jesus uses the title “woman” in reference to Mary and then immediately invites her to stand as a witness of his suffering on the cross.  Then finally, in John 20, Jesus uses the title “woman” prior to revealing himself as the resurrected Christ. This can’t be a mere coincidence!  When it comes to Jesus’ power to heal and to save the human soul, there is a direct link between “woman” and “witness” in the Gospel of John, and it reminds us as readers of the fact that women serve as the first witnesses of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

Yet perhaps no story in the New Testament places as great an emphasis upon women as John’s account of the Samaritan woman at the well.   Speaking personally, what I find interesting in John’s account is the grammar in Jesus’ invitation for the Samaritan woman to come and partake of the living water he has to offer.  In his invitation, Jesus presents two opposite imperatives (command forms), “go” and “come”: “Go, call thy husband, and come hither” (“call” is also an imperative).

As we would expect, the first command is a singular imperative.  Jesus asked the woman to “go,” to depart, and get her husband.  He then gives her the third imperative “come,” and as readers, we expect that Jesus would use a plural imperative since the subject of the command is in fact the woman and her husband.

However, in the original Greek, Jesus’ invitation to “come hither” is in fact a singular imperative elthe.  Technically, to be grammatically correct, the plural subject should have received a plural imperative, elthete.  By specifically using a singular imperative when he invited the woman and her husband to “come hither,” Jesus placed special emphasis on the value of the Samaritan woman as an individual; as a woman.  Hence, even she, a woman of lesser spiritual and social status, was invited to come unto him and partake of living water.

So where does all of this leave us today as Latter-day Saints in terms of recent movements in our culture such as “Pants to Church” or “Let Women Pray in General Conference”?  I don’t know.  All I can say is that as an LDS Father of three girls, I’m very grateful that we as a people are having these discussions.  They’re important. They really are.  No matter where you or I stand on the specifics, as Christians we must be deeply concerned about the way women are treated and made to feel in our respective culture(s).

Speaking personally, I’m grateful that my 18-year-old daughter has been given an opportunity to turn in her papers and accept a full-time call to serve.  It’s what she wants to do, and as her Dad, I am proud of her. Deeply. Based upon what we witness regarding women in the New Testament, she’s part of an extraordinary movement that has been taking place for quite some time.


Comments

Pants, Prayers, and Women, ‘Oh My!’ The Role of Women in Early Christianity — 10 Comments

  1. William Lane Craig notes that the discovery of the empty tomb by women is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for accepting it as a historical event. If it were a fabrication, writers in a patriarchal society would have certainly chosen men as the first witnesses instead of having them reject it initially.

    See Craig, “The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus,” New Testament Studies 31 (1985): http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-historicity-of-the-empty-tomb-of-jesus

  2. Thank you, Walker, for drawing attention to the interesting way that Jesus’ appearance to women has been used by those seeking to defend the historicity of the Gospels. It is an interesting argument, but I’ll just simply share that I personally don’t find it to be very compelling. Ultimately, the Gospels do not rely upon the testimony of women but emphasize that men saw Jesus too. We see this same trend in texts such as 1 Corinthians 15. One could just as easily contend that in their efforts to attract female converts, that the authors simply made up this point in order to help women feel more included.

    I’m certainly not trying to point this out in an effort to destroy anyone’s faith, but to simply illustrate why I’m personally much more interested in the literary and theological implications of these sorts of issues than I am in their apologetic worth. Ultimately, if someone wishes to believe in Christ and resurrection, it’s going to come down to actively choosing faith.

    Best,

    –David

  3. Thank you, David, for this important and heartfelt reminder of early Christianity’s feminist (albeit inconsistently so) legacy. I’m loving your posts. Congratulations on the missionary daughter. :)

  4. Thank you, Chris, for the kind words. Grateful for your friendship and the invitation to participate with this blog.

  5. “Ultimately, the Gospels do not rely upon the testimony of women but emphasize that men saw Jesus too. We see this same trend in texts such as 1 Corinthians 15.”

    No doubt. Nonetheless, I think this apologetic/historical aspect has a theological implication that has often been overlooked (even in the early Church).

  6. Wonderful post, David. The whole idea of the role of women in early Christianity is as complex as the roles of women in modern Mormonism. What lessons can be learn? That Jesus was a marginal Jew in his treatment of women is true. So, I think you give us about what there is to take. Instead of a strict model, what we find is diversity in early Christianity. The authentic Pauline episles are for equality of women and men (Paul even mentions women as among the early Christian Church leadership), and advocating against slavery. The later “Pauline” epistles are proslavery and patriarchal. Trying to get back to the historical Jesus is even trickier. Mutiple attestation tells us that women were among the financial supporters and inner circle of Jesus’followers. They were witnesses of the cruxifiction and his appearance afterward. But beyond that the historicity of the passages from John that you quote are contested among mainstream scholars. But what we have is enough to make your point.

  7. Check out April D. DeConick, ‘Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter’ (London: Continuum, 2011).

  8. David, congratulations on your daughter turning in her papers. I’m grateful my wife served a mission as we would not have met otherwise. More importantly, she would have missed out on some very important spiritual experiences, so sisters being able to serve sooner is wonderful. I also really enjoy it when you point out the social implications of the New Testmanet. Keep up the posts.

    I do however have a few thoughts on the post and comments.

    “One could just as easily contend that in their efforts to attract female converts, that the authors simply made up this point in order to help women feel more included.”

    The authors could have made it up to attract female converts, but I find the idea a bit weak when other, albeit later, phenomena are considered. Although women had an important theurgical role (and I’m simplifying a bit) in Lurianic Kabbalah, a prominent and fundamental teaching was that the demonic, evil aspect of things was feminine. Hasidic society was very patriarchal, women played an entirely minor role in the teachings, homilies and legends. In both these movements women, especially wealthy women, were among the most important patrons and supporters. In Hasidism (for which we have more historical sources) this is almost in inverse proportion to their place in the public discourse. Many Hasidic masters even encouraged women to abandon then-modern fashions and dress drably. Something attracted them despite the marginal place accorded women. It is this “something else” that I feel is the case for the early church, too. Of course, none of this rules out what you are saying, but personally I don’t find it likely. If one is fabricating, why include embarassing details? You are right, one must actively choose faith. No apologetic reading can prove the truth, but what it can do is show that, at least, the authors of the gospels sincerely believed in this tradition that they recieved.

    ““A woman was expected to remain unobserved in public. There is a recorded saying of one of the oldest scribes we know, Jose b. Johanan of Jerusalem (c. 150 BC): ‘Talk not much with womankind’, to which was added, ‘They said this of a man’s own wife; how much more of his fellow’s wife!’ (M. Ab. i.5).”

    I must confess to what borders on an obssession with Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers). I’ve collected dozens of editions, commentaries, and studies, there is simply no end in sight. With that in mind, I warmly recommend Judah Goldin’s “The First Pair (Yose Ben Yoezer and Yose Ben Yoḥanan), or the Home of a Pharisee,” in which he shows that the later addition (not “womankind,” but “the woman,” which was one of the terms for a wife) addresses a different concern than Yose b. Yohanan’s. Comparing the entire saying to the biblical account of Abraham reveals that what mattered here was not dawdling when an opportunity to serve guests presented itself. “This, it seems to me, is what Yose ben Yohanan has in mind: as in the case of that model host, Abraham, let all who come thy way be welcome; as for the poor, entertain them properly, well; and with the lady of the house, let thy speech be brief and to the point: Quick, prepare the food. That is what beitkha, thy home, should be like.”
    The concern that spending too much time with one’s wife would distract a person from Torah study is far more characteristic of the generations succeeding Christ than Yose’s generation.

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