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Role of Women in Early Christianity

We may consider Jewish law when determining the role and status of women in ancient Israel, which is indeed the historical context from which Christianity arose during the time of Jesus. Many believe that women in the early years of Christianity were allowed more freedom and played important roles that had previously not been permitted.

However, beginning in the second century, the establishment of a hierarchical Church order is said to have officially excluded women's leadership roles from Christian practice, relegating any Christian groups advocating female leadership as heretical. It is this sort of context that has led individuals interested in the Jesus tomb to turn to some alternative theories that have been presented by scholars of Christianity.

Pre-Christian Status of Women

Women faced several limitations in accordance to Jewish law, largely concerning restrictions on any authoritative roles. Beginning in the Second Temple period, women were not permitted to testify in court trials. There were also limitations concerning going out in public and talking to strangers, including the wearing of veils. Women were placed under the authority of men and were largely confined to the homes of their husbands or fathers. Some have even described their status as "second class Jews."

Women and Jesus

Given this context of limitation regarding the roles of women, some believe that Jesus' regular affiliation with women in the Bible is consistent with his acceptance and association with the outcasts of society.

Women played an important role as the disciples of Jesus. Indeed, from the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus recruited disciples including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna; women also accompanied Jesus to the cross, were the first to witness his resurrection, and stayed firm when questioned by Roman authorities.

Jesus ignored many of the rules promoting gender inequality in the Old Testament, and for this reason his treatment of women is often considered radical. Jesus broke impurity laws when he treated a woman suffering from menstrual bleeding in the Gospel of Mark. He also spoke to foreign women, breaking the Jewish law prohibiting men from talking to any woman outside of their families.

Jewish tradition also forbade women from being taught or gaining education, a tradition that was broken by Jesus when he taught Mary, sister of Martha, in Luke and in his inclusion of women in his circle. In the Bible, Jesus tells parallel stories including both men and women such as Simeon and Hannah (Luke 2:25-38) and Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11).

The First Century and Beyond

After the death of Jesus, it is believed that women continued to play a prominent role within Christianity. The Letters of Paul in the first century reveal an equal treatment of men and women, with casual references to women who appear to be of the same status as Paul. He praises the female Apostle Junia (who is believed to have later given the male identity "Junias" by early Church officials), and describes women's roles as leaders, teachers, and prophets.

Eventually, all Christian sects that advocated women's leadership roles would be deemed heretical, and some believe that evidence of women's prominent roles were suppressed or otherwise edited and reinterpreted. Women were officially excluded from the roles of bishop, deacon, and priest that were established by church fathers during the first few centuries. Women were permitted official roles in groups such as "the widows" or "deaconesses" in the fourth century.


Jesus of Nazareth Mary Magdalene: Mariamne Early Christianity
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