Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Why Were Women Attracted to Early Christianity?

Why Were Women Attracted to Early Christianity?

Christianity spread rapidly from the first century C.E. onwards, and many converts were women. We have numerous accounts of women hearing Christian teaching from missionaries, such as Paul, and being baptised. Examples include Lydia in Acts 16:12-16 and St. Thecla in Acts of Paul and Thecla 7-35.[1] The pagan critic Celsus in the second century C.E. describes Christianity as “a religion of women, children and slaves,”[2] which opens up the question of whether women were “disproportionately represented”[3] in Early Christianity. It is clear that Celsus was seeking to disparage Christianity by asserting that it was the choice of the intellectually inferior, and his bias must be considered when assessing the truth of his statement. In the book of Acts, the women who convert to Christianity are, Kraemer writes, “frequently free, aristocratic, affluent and respectable, if not also demonstrably educated and intelligent women.”[4] St. Luke, who is generally accepted to be the author of Acts, had the opposite intention of Celsus: to create a positive impression of Christianity by portraying it as the choice of the intellectually superior: he was biased also. Perhaps we would expect him, then, to omit female converts, since women were believed to be intellectually inferior to men in most cultures at that time. The fact that both Christians and pagans describe women converting to Christianity means that we can assume that Christianity was reasonably popular with women in the early centuries C.E.

Initially, it seems strange that Greco-Roman women would choose to abandon their pagan religion in favour of Christianity. As Pomeroy writes, in Greco-Roman society, “religion was the major sphere of public life in which women participated.”[5] Religion was also remarkably slow to change,[6] so we can deduce that women’s customs described centuries before the birth of Christ were still active in something similar to their original form. Likewise, the establishment of the Roman Empire did not necessarily stop them, as the Romans incorporated Greek religion into their own. For these reasons, it is of use to consider earlier Greek sources as well as those which date from the time of Christ and afterwards. Greco-Roman religious customs provided ample opportunity for women to be involved. Women carried out the Thesmophoria fertility ritual in honour of Demeter[7], and there were several other festival roles for women, largely based on age, such as making cakes, carrying procession items, dances and choral performances. For example, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata 641-47 reads:

“When I was seven, I was an arrephoros [a carrier of mystical objects]. At ten I made cake for Athena’s offering, and wore the saffron to be a bear for Artemis at Brauron. And once as a fair young girl, I was a kanephoros [basket-carrier]….”[8]

It is worth noting, however, that such roles were often reserved for the nobility and always for women and girls of unblemished reputation. Christianity, however, is largely focused around the forgiveness of sins, or the erasing of past transgressions, as if they never were. Women who were excluded from participating in Greco-Roman pagan religious events may have been inspired by early Christian figures such as Mary Magdalene, the ex-prostitute who found acceptance in Jesus (Luke 7:3-50) and went on to be significant in his ministry.

It may also be seen as surprising that Greco-Roman women, particularly those of high status, chose to convert to Christianity because their pagan religion seems to have offered more to which they could aspire, in terms of becoming priestesses. Evidence clearly shows that Greco-Roman society respected its priestesses enormously. The Leucippides (unmarried girl priestesses at sanctuary of Phoebe and Hilaeira at Amyclae, near Sparta) are described by Pausinas in his Guide to Greece 3.16.1-2 as “like the goddesses themselves.”[9] Likewise, a number of tombstones of priestesses have survived, praising them lavishly.[10] We also know that priestesses were called by their own name as a mark of respect, instead of being referred to by the significant man in their life (ie. “mother of…” or “wife of…” or “daughter of…”) as was customary.[11] The nearest Early Christian equivalent was the role of deaconess. Deaconesses are mentioned in Pliny’s Letters 10.96.8[12] and also in Romans 16:1, but we know little about them because, as Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy and Shapiro state, “many of the church fathers who wrote in those years had little interest in women except as martyrs or objects of theological debate.”[13] We do know, though, that a deaconess’ role was “to serve the orthodox church by assisting the priest in ministering to the sick and needy, counseling women, and even occasionally giving sermons.”[14] While deaconesses “must have held positions of significant authority,”[15] they were “by no means priestesses.”[16] It must be remembered, however, that priestesses were a very small minority.

It could be argued that, while Christian women did not have the celebrated status of a pagan priestess, all Christian women could have that closeness to the divine, as Christians believed that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross enabled everyone to have a personal and intimate relationship with God. The lack of a goddess in Christianity, like the Bona Dea[17] in Roman religion, could make it seem unlikely that women would want to convert, as one would assume that women would find it easier to relate to a goddess than a god or the male Jesus. However, the Christian God is not, in fact, male, but spirit, so effectively neither gender, or both. The Christian concept of God the Father is based on the Jewish one, but there are also passages in the Old Testament describing God as female. In Isaiah 42:14, God is “like a woman in labour” and, in Isaiah 49:15 and Isaiah 66:13, God is compared to a nursing mother. Early Christian converts may well have become acquainted with these texts, and comparing God to a woman is surely the greatest compliment that can be paid to the female sex.

Another reason that it may seem surprising that women were attracted to Early Christianity is the persecution that occurred before Constantine made Christianity fully legal in his Edict of Toleration in 311-12 CE.[18] Lefkowitz and Fant describe Christianity as “for the Romans, another foreign religion… to be regarded with suspicion.”[19] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy and Shapiro write that women who converted “sometimes lost position and even families and lives through their involvement with their church.”[20] They must have been reminded of Luke 9:61-2, in which a man is called to follow Jesus, but asks first to say goodbye to his family. Jesus replies, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.” Perhaps they were comforted and encouraged also by Luke 6:22-23: “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.”

It is possible that women were attracted to the excitement and danger of being a part of an illegal movement. Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy and Shapiro continue: “whether because of overt persecution or simply through the loathing of Christianity that came from stories about cannibalism and incest, only the lowliest or most privileged in Roman society could afford to openly and with impunity admit to being a Christian.”[21] Martyrdom was very much a possibility. There is evidence for a great number of female Christian martyrs, such as St. Perpetua at Carthage in 203 C.E., whose death is described in Acts of the Christian Martyrs 8.2-10, [22] and those whose death is recorded in Acts of the Christian Martyrs 22.[23] If the prospect of martyrdom were itself not unattractive enough, many women, like St. Perpetua, left behind children and saw their families suffer for their beliefs. We know, then, that whatever attracted women to Early Christianity must have been extraordinarily powerful, for them to face the prospect of martyrdom, and for many to endure it without backing down.

I propose that we look in the Christian message itself for Early Christianity’s appeal to women. To do this, I suggest we examine the gospels on which it was founded. As Kraemer writes, “great caution… must be exercised in the attempt to extract any reliable historical data about women from earliest Christian sources, especially literary works such as the canonical gospels.”[24] The Church in its first centuries was still deciding where it stood on the issue of women and Christian literature was still being edited and may not have been as we know it today in the New Testament. This does not, however, make the gospels in their current form valueless.

Stanton describes Jesus’ attitude to women in these gospels as “striking,”[25] and this is particularly the case in the gospel of Luke.[26] Luke’s gospel promotes unheard-of gender equality. It claims that Jesus included women among his disciples (Luke 8:1-3), and Stanton writes that, in fact, “a number of traditions show that Jesus was able to mix freely and naturally with women of all sorts and to accept them into his wider circle of followers.”[27] Luke’s gospel makes women a central part of the resurrection narrative: they the first to discover that Jesus had risen and it was to them that the angels appeared and announced the news (Luke 24:1-8). The story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10: 38-42 also demonstrates Jesus’ encouragement of women’s learning and not devoting themselves entirely to household tasks. Luke also employs a female-male parallelism throughout the gospel: between Zechariah and Mary (1:10-20, 26-38), Simeon and Anna (2:25-38), the centurion and the widow (7:1-7), and man with a hundred sheep and the woman with ten silver coins (15:4-10).[28] A similar pairing between men and women occurs in the book of Acts, also traditionally written by Luke.

Kraemer argues, though, that this pairing, instead of endorsing gender equality, is because of Luke’s “pervasive concern to demonstrate that Christian women are properly associated with and subordinated to men in accordance with Greco-Roman norms.”[29] She argues that Luke’s interest in women “may be deceptive” because D’Angelo has demonstrated that Luke’s stories about women are actually there to suit other agendas.[30] Even if this is the case, the female readers of the time would not have necessarily known that, and would have seen an acceptance of women in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus.

Whether or not women would have found a similar acceptance in the early Church is debatable. As Stanton writes, “the early church did not always follow the example of Jesus toward women.”[31] Records of the early Church are reasonably scarce because of persecution: much of what we have is Christian literature, such as what is now in the New Testament, and these may well have been subject to alteration. What we do have appears divided. On the one hand, Galatians 3:28 reads: “there is no difference… between men and women… you are all one in union with Jesus Christ,” and 1 Corinthians 7:4 reads: “a woman does not have authority over her own body; it belongs to her husband. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body; it is his wife’s,” thus promoting equality within marriage as well as generally.

On the other hand, this seems to be contradicted with “I wish you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is her husband” (1 Cor. 11:3). Some epistles, or some parts of the epistles, seem to endorse the suppression of women. 1 Timothy 2:8-12 reads: “In every church service I want the men to pray… women should learn in silence and all humility. I do not allow them to teach or to have authority over men: they must keep quiet,” and 1 Corinthians 14:33b reads: “In all the churches of the faithful, let women be silent in the congregation, for it is not appropriate for them to speak. They should be obedient, as the law states. If they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is a disgrace for a woman to speak out in the congregation.” Some of the theology in the epistles seems to directly contradict Jesus’ attitudes in the gospels toward women. How women were treated in the early Church, then, remains something of a mystery, so we cannot know if this was part of the appeal.

In conclusion, in spite of there being several reasons why early Christianity would seem undesirable to women, most of these can be counteracted, at least in part. The treatment of women in the early Church is uncertain, but the gospels are clearly very positive about women and thus would have attractive for them. This essay has explored why early Christianity was attractive to women in particular, but it must be remembered that Christianity was attractive to women for many of the reasons that it was attractive to men. It offered the promise of Heaven, a joyful and unending afterlife: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4).” In contrast, Roman concepts of the afterlife were varied and sometimes vague. Roman gods were also deeply fallible and their attitudes to humans ambiguous, while Christianity promised a perfect, loving god. The word “gospel” does, after all, mean “good news,” and it’s not surprising, then, that women as well as men were attracted to it.


Fantham, E., Foley, H. P., Kampen, N. B., Pomeroy, S. B. and Shapiro, H. A. (1994) Women in the Classical World: Image and Text, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Golden, M. and Toohey, P. (2003) Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Green, J. B. (1995) The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kraemer, R. S. (1992) Her Share of the Blessings: Women’s Religions Among Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Greco-Roman World, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lefkowitz, M. R. and Fant, M. B, eds. (2005) Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A source book in translation, London: Gerald Duckworth and Co, Ltd.
Pomeroy, S. B. (1975) Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, London: Pimlico.
Stanton, G. N. (1989) The Gospels and Jesus, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Holy Bible, New International Version.

Richard Hawley, Playing the Bear: Women in Classical Greek Religions, 30th October 2007.

[1] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 311-12.
[2] Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings, p. 128.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings, p. 129.
[5] Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, p. 75.
[6] Hawley, Playing the Bear, 30th October 2007.
[7] Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, p. 77.
[8] Hawley, Playing the Bear, 30th October 2007.
[9] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 301.
[10] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 302-6.
[11] Hawley, Playing the Bear, 30th October 2007.
[12] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, Shapiro, Women in the Classical World, p. 383.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 291.
[18] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, Shapiro, Women in the Classical World, p. 383.
[19] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 307.
[20] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, Shapiro, Women in the Classical World, p. 383.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 313-18.
[23] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 318-23.
[24] Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings, p. 131.
[25] Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, p. 202.
[26] Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, p. 91.
[27] Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, p. 202.
[28] Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, p. 92-3.
[29] Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings, p. 129.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, p. 202.


Unknown said...

By the way, the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute was invented in the 5th Century. Pope Gregory the Great conflated all the unnamed "sinful women" in the Gospels with (the explicitly named) Mary of Magdala. Indeed, she was seen as the Apostle to the Apostles, since she was the first to witness the Risen Christ and proclaim him to the other (male) apostles.

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