16-5-6 The Role Of Women In The First
Men greatly outnumbered women in the Greco-Roman world. Dio Cassius
blamed the declining population of the Roman empire on the shortage
of females(1) . J.C. Russell(2)
claims that there were 131 males / 100 females in Rome itself, and
140 / 100 in most of the rest of the empire. A study of inscriptions
at Delphi enabled the reconstruction of 600 families; and of these
only six had raised more than one daughter(3)
. This was partly due to female infanticide, and also partly due
to the awful methods of contraception and abortion employed, which
often resulted in the death of the woman.
And yet there is every reason to think that Christianity attracted women
to it disproportionately. It held a liberating message for women,
allowing and encouraging them to study Scripture and be independent from
their male society when it came to personal faith and relationship with
Jesus, even enabling them to formally teach each other and those in the
world. Christian women enjoyed far greater marital security than pagans;
abortion was outlawed for the early Christian; and they were to be respected
for their own personhood by their brethren. Through being able to work
with the likes of Paul in his preaching work, they broke through the surrounding
low expectations of female roles. The competing religions offered no such
respect of women. Some like Mithraism were limited solely to males. The
Christian stress on the need to marry only within the faith must have
lead to many sisters being single for the Lord’s sake; and there were
doubtless many others who were divorced by unbelieving husbands. Such
women were usually condemned to a life as prostitutes (hence the Lord
said that if a man divorced his wife, he made her commit adultery). Yet
the sisters’ problem with finding partners doubtless led them to go out
into the world and convert men; as well as providing the basis for a unique
society of females which would have drawn to it other hurting and neglected
women within Roman society. Another outcome of the unusual situation would
have been that women married brethren of different social rank to their
own- there are records of higher rank women marrying brethren of far inferior
status socially. The social world of the first century was turned upside
down by those sisters and their preaching, in the same way as Northern
Kazakhstan and other parts of the world have likewise been by the witness
of large groups of sisters. Childless, single women would have been looked
down on even more in those days than they are in ours. Time and again,
the sisters would have asked themselves: ‘What am I doing this for?’.
And every time, ultimately, the answer was that they were committed to
this invisible man, the Lord Jesus, who had loved them to the end and
was surely coming to claim them as His own.
An inventory of property removed from a Christian house church
in North Africa listed 16 men’s tunics and 82 women’s tunics, along
with 47 pairs of specifically female shoes and no men’s(4)
. Adolf Harnack notes that the early source documents “simply swarm
with tales of how women of all ranks were converted in Rome and
in the provinces…the general truth that Christianity was laid hold
of by women in particular" (5).
Henry Chadwick likewise: “Christianity seems to have been especially
successful among women. It was often through the wives that it penetrated
the upper classes of society in the first instance”(6)
The use of women as witnesses was a significant factor in the rapid spread of Christianity. Confining them to purely 'support roles' not only halves the workforce in our enterprise; we are ignoring the simple fact that it was specifically female networking which produced such huge results in the first century. The Torah required "two or three witnesses" (Dt. 19:15); yet Roman law disallowed women as witnesses. Significantly, the Torah didn't. The fact it doesn't, and therefore accepted women as witnesses, was actually quite a radical thing. The records of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus are carefully framed to show that there were always two or three witnesses present- and they are all women:
Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Joseph, Mother of the sons of Zebedee
Mary Magdalene, "the other Mary"
Mary Magdalene, "the other Mary"
Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Joses, Salome
Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of Joses
Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, Salome
Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary mother of James
The emphasis is surely deliberate- women, the ones who were not witnesses according to the world, were the very witnesses chosen by God to testify the key truths concerning His Son. And His same approach is seen today in His choices of and amongst us.
(1) Dio Cassius, The Roman
History (London: Penguin Classics, 1987 ed.).
J.C. Russell, Late Anicent And Medieval Population, published
as vol. 48 pt. 3 of the Transactions Of The American Philosophical
Society, Philadelphia, 1958.
Jack Lindsay, The Ancient World: Manners and Morals (New
York: Putnams, 1968).
See R.L. Fox, Pagans And Christians (New York: Knopf, 1987).
(5) Adolf Harnack, The Mission
And Expansion Of Christianity In The First Three Centuries (New
York: Putnam’s, 1908) Vol. 2 p. 73.
Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1967) p. 56.