Apologeet.nlRespect Is Attractive: Women and Early Christianity Article reposted with permission from ‘The Jesus Fandom’
Original can be found here and posted on 10 April 2023.
Translated by Jurgen Hofmann.
Globally, women are more religious than men. They see their faith as more important, tend to pray daily and attend church more than men. This is well reflected in church practice: in churches, you see more women than men and in other religious affairs, too, it is noticeable that the female gender is overrepresented. While this is ostensibly true of all religions, Christianity is pre-eminently a religion to which women are more attracted. Islam, on the other hand, is the opposite and has a greater attraction to men(1).
My personal experience got me thinking: living as a child of missionaries abroad, I noticed that more women leave their countries to do missionary work than men. In the Netherlands too, it is increasingly the case that women are leading in the church; men seem much less engaged in their faith. Why might this be? When I started learning about early Christianity, I made a striking discovery: Christianity has been particularly attractive to women from the very beginning. Especially among the upper classes, the percentage of Christian women was higher than the percentage of Christian men. According to a inquiry of Romans from the senatorial class between 283 and 423 AD, 50% of men and 85% of women were Christians(2).
In my research, the main question is: Why was early Christianity so attractive to women in the Roman Empire? Early Christianity lasted from around 27 AD to 324 AD, i.e. from the beginning of Jesus’ preaching until the first Council of Nicea. To arrive at an answer, it is good to first consider how non-Christian women lived. This covers the lives of Roman, Greek and Hebrew women, since Christianity originated in the Roman Empire. I then turn to the Christian position of women, based on what the Bible has to say about this and what we see from other historical sources about, in particular, how the church treated women. Finally, I examine how pagans and Christians dealt with specific issues that mattered to women, such as infanticide, abortion, and marriage. By pagans, I am referring to the current meaning, i.e. non-Christians. My hypothesis is that because Christianity gave women many more rights, women were attracted to it.
How Christianity Changed the World is from 2004. It was written by Alvin J. Schmidt, who has a PhD in sociology. Rodney Stark is a sociologist of religion, co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at the University of Washington and founder and editor of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. His book The Triumph of Christianity came out in 2011. The First Urban Christians was written in 1983. The author, Wayne A. Meeks, is a professor emeritus of religious studies. W.H.C. Frend is a church historian and archaeologist. He wrote The Rise of Christianity in 1985. Mary R. Lefkowitz is a professor emerita of classical studies. Maureen B. Fant has studied classics and archaeology. Together, they compiled Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, which came out in 2016. Pew Research also came out in 2016. Pew Research is a trusted and impartial research institution.
I had already found information on this topic in two books: How Christianity Changed the World by Schmidt and The Triumph of Christianity by Stark. Both of them devoted a chapter in their book to the relationship between women and the early church. From their source list, I consulted three other books: The First Urban Christians by Meeks; The Rise of Christianity by Frend and Women’s Life in Greece and Rome by Lefkowitz and Fant. The reason the first two books appear less in the footnotes is that they mainly helped me verify information from Schmidt and Stark. Furthermore, they had already collected many biblical texts from which Christian attitudes towards women could be drawn, which took a lot of work off my hands. The last book is a collection of original texts from the Roman empire and thus offers an insight into the world of the time.
I read Schmidt and Stark’s chapter on women and the church in its entirety each; I searched the other books for relevant information. Since some were quoted by Schmidt and Stark, I already had an idea where I could find more information. In other cases, I could use the search function to find more information or the titles of the different volumes were an indication.
How did non-Christian women live?
We can divide the pagan women in the Roman Empire into three groups: Romans, Greeks and Hebrews. There were obviously other population groups present, but most belonged to these groups. Although there were fewer Hebrews than Romans and Greeks, Christianity arose in a Jewish society, and so they are also important.
The low esteem in which Roman women were held becomes immediately clear when we realise that the vast majority of infanticide victims were female. Women were expected to stay inside; if they went outside, it was seen as suspicious behaviour. They were also not allowed to speak publicly, but were expected to submit their wishes to their husbands(3). Speaking of men, women often married a much older man at a young age(4). The marriageable age was 12 years(5); concubines had to be above 12(6). Women had no say in which partner was chosen for them(7).
Women were not seen as a blessing, but as an unpleasant necessity. In 131 BC, the censor Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonius made a speech about a law requiring men to take a wife. He said: ‘If we could survive without a woman, citizens of Rome, we would all go through life without that nuisance; but since nature has so determined that we cannot live pleasantly with women, and cannot in any way live without them, we must plan for our permanent preservation rather than for our temporary pleasure.’(8)
Under the law, the woman and all her possessions belonged to the man. She could not divorce him; however, he could divorce her(9). Reasons for divorce included drinking wine, going to the games without the husband’s knowledge, going outside without a veil and infertility. There are even cases where the wife had not done anything wrong yet, but the husband thought she was likely to do it. Divorce was then a preventive measure(10).
According to the law of patria potestas (paternal power), the man alone had absolute power over his children and grandchildren, even when they were adults. This went so far as to allow him to execute them. He could punish his wife however he wanted, but if he wanted to kill her, this had to be discussed in a tribunal of relatives first. There was another exception to this: in the case of adultery, he was allowed to kill her without consultation(11). Women in the upper classes were taught how to read and write(12), but they could not inherit property(13). Nor did they have a major role in religious life beyond work in temples for goddesses—often this work was temple prostitution(14).
Compared to Roman women, Greek women had an even harder time. They received no education and even in Sparta, where women were often better off than in the rest of Greece, women were ‘kept under lock and key’, according to Plutarchus. Women were only allowed out under male escort(15). In privileged families, women were not allowed to enter the front rooms of their houses(16) and if her husband’s friends came by, the woman had to stay in her rooms. The man’s hetaera, or mistress, had slightly more freedom: she was his companion and went with him to events(17).
In Athens, the average woman had the social status of a slave(18). They were expressly forbidden to make contracts on matters worth more than a bushel of barley(19). They were not allowed to speak in public, and silence was seen as a virtue in women. The negative view of women also appears in the writings of Greek poets. For example, Aeschylus (525? – 456 BC) had a refrain declared: ‘Evil in spirit they [women] are, and cunning in purpose, with impure hearts’ (20).
As with the Romans, Greek women had no choice regarding their marriage partner and married young, often to a much older man. They were not allowed to choose divorce; the husband was. Among the Greeks, a woman’s brother or father was allowed to arrange a divorce against her will(21).
Although the fact that Jews did not use women as sexual objects during religious activities, their rules for women were also strict. Women were not allowed to testify in court or speak in public. They were also forbidden to speak in public, especially if men were present(22). However, women did not live in seclusion, although this was prescribed by some high-ups. Women could inherit only if there were no male descendants. Unlike Roman and Greek women, some Jewish women did enjoy a good education(23).
In religious life, things were not much better. One doctrine was that it was better to burn the Torah than teach it to a woman. Of course, women were not participants in meetings in the synagogues. If they were there, they sat behind a michetza (partition)(24). Only in the late 18th century were women allowed to sing along in synagogues—and only in the liberal movements(25). Jewish women also married young and to someone chosen by their father, but often could ask for a postponement until they were past puberty. As with the Greeks and Romans, they could not divorce their husbands, their husbands could divorce them(26).
Here it is important to recognise that these teachings and laws do not come from the Torah and the writings from which the Christian Bible later developed. These rules come from the Talmud and Midrash, which contain the additions of Jewish rabbis. So, although even among the Jews, women had few rights, they were better off than among the Romans or Greeks. The Jews had the proposition that women were entitled to sexual pleasure(27) and, according to the Torah (Exodus 20:12 and Leviticus 19:3), children had to honour both their father and mother. The strictness with which people followed the rules varied widely, often based on location. In Palestine lived the patriarchs—who were very strict—but further afield there were women who held leadership roles in the synagogue; among their titles were ‘elder,’ ‘leader of the synagogue,’ ‘mother of the synagogue,’ and ‘presiding officer.’
Christianity and women
Jesus was born into a world where women were undervalued. It soon became clear that He was not a product of His time: women—as well as men—were respected by Him. After His death and resurrection, this attitude persisted among His followers: as a woman, you were safer among Christians than in the society around them.
Jesus’ view of women
Around AD 28, the average rabbi in Israel did not associate with women. His disciples were men, and he went to visit high-ranking people, possibly to gain more influence. Jesus, on the other hand, dealt with prostitutes and ‘sinners,’ this was seen as a disgrace (Luke 15:2). Jesus went even further: He not only dealt with prostitutes, He defended them against people who looked down on them. In Luke 7, He speaks sternly to a Pharisee who thinks He should not deal with a woman of light morals. He tells this high-ranking man that this woman has sincerely repented and that her sins have been forgiven her. Indeed, she has shown Jesus more love than the Pharisee did.
Jesus had no problem talking to women. In John 4, He has a conversation with a Samaritan woman. When His disciples return, they are not surprised that He is talking to a Samaritan—a people who were on bad terms with the Israelites—but that He is conversing with a woman (verse 27). In John 4:7, Jesus is talking to a married woman, something that was considered inappropriate. Another major break with tradition at the time was His prohibition of divorce in Matthew 19:9. There he explains that men are not supposed to leave their wives at all.
Jesus’ relationship with sisters Martha and Mary is exemplary. In Luke 10, Jesus is visiting them. Martha fulfils the traditional role and prepares food for Him. Mary, however, sits down with Jesus to learn from Him. When Martha calls Jesus on this, Jesus responds that Martha is too busy: Mary has chosen well. Later, when Martha and Mary’s brother has died, Jesus comforts Martha by saying, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” (John 11: 25-26) These words, which offer an insight not only into who Jesus is, but also into what the good news is, occur in this wording only once in the Bible. And they are spoken to a woman.
There are many other examples, but I will leave it at the following three: in Mark 5, a bleeding woman goes against all social conventions to touch Jesus. He heals her and praises her for her faith; in Mark 15 and Luke 8, many women are described as travelling with Jesus and meeting His needs from their own possessions. So they not only received teaching, they were also allowed to be an important part of the mission. The last example comes from Matthew 28. After Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, He appeared first to women. Of all the people He could have chosen, He chose those whose testimony did not count to be the first messengers of the good news.
The early church and women
After Jesus’ death, the church grew steadily. As when He was alive, this religion took women into account. Unlike other nations around, Christians considered the death of a woman just as bad as the death of a man. Christian women were almost as likely as Christian men to receive a long inscription on their graves. The loss of a daughter was mourned as much as that of a son(28). Women were heads of households, owned businesses and their own property, and travelled alone with their own slaves and helpers(29). Women could be Christians without their husbands being, which was not always welcomed by the outside world. Julius admonished the inhabitants of Antioch: ‘Every one of you allow his wife to carry everything from his house to the Galileans,’ by which he was referring to the charitable acts of Christians(30). Thanks to missionary journeys to Gentiles, there were soon churches in faraway places. Since the apostles and missionaries could not always be there to give guidance, many letters were written. Several of those letters are recorded in the Bible and give us a good idea of the attitude of early church leaders towards women. The first phenomenon we see is that many women are mentioned by name and have leadership roles. This is not only reflected in the Bible; in 112 AD, Pliny the Younger noted in a letter to Emperor Trajan that he had martyred two young Christian women ‘who were called deaconesses.’ In the words of Peter Brown, historian: ‘The Christian clergy… took a step that separated them from the rabbis of Palestine… [They] welcomed women as patrons and even offered women roles in which they could act as collaborators.’(31)
Here is a short list of some women mentioned in the New Testament letters: In Romans 16, Febe appears, who was a deacon (helper). According to some scholars, it was she who carried the letter to the Romans from Corinth to Rome, a distance of 644 km(32). Appia, according to Filemon’s letter, was a female believer who led a church at her home. In 1 Corinthians, Paul names both Priscilla and her husband Aquila as leaders of a house church; in Romans 16, Paul calls her his co-worker. Priscilla’s name is mentioned before her husband’s, probably indicating that she had a higher status than he(33). In Acts 16, Paul encounters Lydia, who is a trader. He does not stay away from her, although in those days people looked down on women who participated in business(34). Lydia was leader of her own household and when she came to repentance she had all the members of her house baptised. In Philippians 4, Euodia and Syntyche appear as co-workers of Paul.
We also see in the teachings that women were allowed to express themselves. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul allows women to pray and prophesy. One of the clearest signs that Christianity saw the sexes as equal is Galatians 3. Paul tells the congregation there that they are all children of God, where it does not matter whether “one is Jew or Greek… slave or free… male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.” According to the apostles, a man, and a woman were not the same in appearance, but in the most important thing—namely value—they were equals.
A difficult piece has always been 1 Corinthians 14:34, where Paul says women are not allowed to speak in the assembly. Earlier in that letter, on the contrary, he says women are allowed to pray and prophesy. There are many ways in which this text is understood. Some Christians to this day adhere to it literally; others see it more as a contextual commandment. Whatever the case, this one text does not take away from the fact that women enjoyed much more freedom and dignity within the early church than outside it.
So far, I have only described general attitudes towards women in early Christianity. Now we turn to specific issues that were at play in those early days.
As described earlier, Roman, Greek, and Jewish girls married at an early age. One reason for this was that men wanted to make sure they married a virgin. An even more important reason was the shortage of women. Men did not want to have responsibility over children, so many consorted with prostitutes, used contraception or forced their pregnant wives to have abortions. Because society considered it perfectly normal to get rid of female babies, there were many more men than women. You had to be there early if you wanted to get a woman. As a result, there were virtually no unmarried women. Most women had 2-3 marriages during their lifetimes because their older husbands soon died(35).
Among Christians, infanticide was not accepted, so there were more women among them. There were also more female converts than men. This allowed Christian women to wait longer before marrying; after all, there was no pressure due to a shortage of marriageable women among Christians. But 7% of Christian women were under 13 when they married, compared to 20% of pagan women who were under 12 when they married. Most Christian women had influence in choosing a partner and only married when they were physically and emotionally mature. Divorce was seen as something undesirable. What was even better: men and women were held to the same rules. A man had to behave just as chastely as his wife(36).
Abortion and infanticide
The first danger a pagan woman was exposed to was abortion: as mentioned earlier, Roman men preferred to have no or few children. If their wife was pregnant, they could force her to have an abortion. This was often fatal; if the woman survived, the chances were high that she was infertile—an accepted fact. The famous Roman writer Aulus Cornelius Celsus told: an abortion “requires extreme caution and cleanliness, and involves very great risks.” Not only were many foreign substances introduced into a woman at a time when knowledge about bacteria was non-existent, there was also a high probability that the sharp instruments would injure the woman(37).
Still, abortions were not uncommon. In his book The State, Plato made abortions compulsory for all women who became pregnant after the age of 40. This was to curb population growth, although—as described earlier—it was unnecessary and would actually worsen the problem of underpopulation. Aristotle too, saw abortion as a good solution to overpopulation (Politica). Christians, however, remained in line with their Jewish background and condemned abortion. The Didache is a book of teachings written by early Christian church fathers, probably in the first century A.D. It commands: “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion, nor kill it at birth.” Not only was it more likely for Christian girls to be born, Christian women were protected from the horrors of abortion.
Infanticide was perfectly normal in the Roman Empire. A law attributed to Romulus, the founder of Rome, reads: “One may not kill a child under three, except if it is lame or a monster from birth.”(38) Later, it even became compulsory to expose children with physical problems. It was also accepted that a child was given away if it was a girl. Even rich families almost never had more than one daughter(39). How a woman felt about the murder of her children was irrelevant. In the year 1 BC, a Greek man wrote to his partner: “If—good luck!—you give birth to an offspring, if it is male, let it live; if it is female, expose it.”(40) This practice was also abhorred by Christians, as written in the Didache cited above. The apologist Justin the Martyr, who lived in the second century AD, wrote in his Apologia (defence of faith): “we have been taught that it is evil to expose even newborn children … [for] then we would be murderers.”
Among the pagan peoples, women did not have much privileges. It was worst among Greek women, and Jewish and Roman women did not have many rights or freedoms either. There was great inequality between men and women. In Christianity, this was different: women and men were seen as equal. Furthermore, practices such as abortion and infanticide were banned. The first reason that there were more Christian women than men may have to do with this: Christian babies had a greater chance of survival. Genetically, you would then expect an equal number of Christian men and women, so the answer must be sought elsewhere.
Another explanation may be that women are in themselves much more religious than men. In the Roman Empire, however, it was unusual for a woman to choose her own religion. Switching to Christianity was not welcomed, especially not by men. Furthermore, we see an exceptionally high number of women within Christianity, even in the early church. So it seems there are more factors at work.
My hypothesis that it was because of better rights and freedoms for women under Christianity seemed to be correct: although Christians were persecuted, the life expectancy of a Christian woman was higher than that of a pagan woman. Because of the respect they received, it is also likely that they lived happier lives. This will not have gone unnoticed. If a woman without rights hears of a group where women are better off, she will want to know more about that group and might join it. So: the reason that early Christianity was so attractive to women in the Roman Empire is that Christians granted women more rights and more security for a healthy and stable future.
Greek women had it worst between 0 and 324 AD. They received no education and were expected to live cloistered. They had the social status of a slave. In Rome too, women did not have a much better life. They were owned by their husbands and married early, often before puberty. Society saw women as unreliable burdens. Hebrew women where better off, but even among them women were not free. Their testimony was not valued, and they were expected to keep away from public life. Among all three nations, the husband was allowed to divorce the wife; she not from him.
Jesus’ view of women was revolutionary: He respected them and treated them as equals. He had no problem teaching a woman or using her as an example of considerate action. Jesus went against all social conventions by helping women, and He was supported by women in His work. When He rose from the dead, He appeared first to women, which—since a woman’s testimony was worth nothing at that time—was a clear sign that He did appreciate them nonetheless.
The early church continued this attitude: women were seen as collaborators and were allowed to occupy high places. Christian girls married later than pagan girls, and divorce was seen as something undesirable rather than normal. Abortion and infanticide were also unacceptable within early Christianity. This not only increased women’s life expectancy—abortion was an incredibly dangerous procedure—it also gave women the security of knowing that they did not have to kill their child, thus endangering themselves.
Because Christian women were better off than their pagan contemporaries, Christianity was eminently attractive to them. Consequently, there were more Christian women than men.
- Frend, W.H.C. (1985, 2nd ed.). The Rise of Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
- Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Fant, Maureen B. (2016, 4th ed.). Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation. Bloomsbury Academic.
- Meeks, Wayne A. (1983). The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. Binghamton, N.Y.: Yale University.
- Pew Research. (2016). The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World. Accessed on: 23/12/2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2016/03/22/the-gender-gap-in-religion-around-the-world/
- Schmidt, Alvin J. (2004). How Christianity Changed the World. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
- Stark, Rodney (2011). The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion. NYC: HarperCollings Publishers.
- All Bible references and texts are taken from the Revised State Translation (© 2010/2016 HSV Foundation).
- (1): Pew Research
- (2,4,7,12,14,15,16,21,23,26,27,28,31,32,34,35,36,37,39): Stark
- (3,9,11,13,17,18,20,22,25): Schmidt
- (5) Lefkowitz and Fant, pp. 132, 146.8
- (6) Lefkowitz and Fant, p. 134
- (8) Lefkowitz and Fant, p. 128
- (10) Lefkowitz and Fant, p. 121
- (19) Lefkowitz and Fant, pg. 82
- (24): Schmidt, Stark
- (29): Meeks, page 71
- (30): Frend, pp. 561-2
- (33): Meeks, page 59
- (38): Lefkowitz and Fant, p. 119
- (40): Lefkowitz and Fant, page 236