Women in Early Christianity

The patriarchal nature of the Christian church is not something commonly in question today. As far as most of today’s Christians know, the church fell immediately into place and has been the way it is now for the past 2000 years. For them, there is little reason to doubt that a male-dominated church would develop out of a male-dominated time. But the church could have evolved far differently than it did, especially regarding the role and place of women within it.

Christianity is based upon the New Testament, the books that first began to be compiled into a canon by the leaders of the Christian church sometime in the second century. The individual books themselves are dated 60-110 AD and are likely based on even earlier oral traditions. To most of Christendom, the words contained in the Bible are the only ones. The movement that became the Christian Church fell into the only possible structure that could have arisen from the teachings of the Nazarene, the man called Jesus Christ.

However, Christianity did not begin with one sect, but many. Groups who were not part of the orthodox movement were called the Gnostics. There were many of these who taught many different things, including some who viewed the place of women in non-traditional ways. Their teachings were lost, their texts hunted and burned over the course of nearly two millennia by the church fathers, who called the books heresy and their writers heretics. Most were completely forgotten, save for mentions in the texts condemning them, until the finds at Nag Hammadi in Egypt at the end of 1945 brought forth a treasury of manuscripts datable to the late fourth century. Many of the books are partially dateable through the surviving words of their critics (Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, attacked them c. 180), but the traditions behind them may date back to the same 60-110 AD time frame of the canonical gospels.

There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.

The women of the New Testament that we are familiar with, such as Martha and Mary Magdalene, tend to be background characters, while the men dominate. But this is in the “approved” texts of the original orthodox teachings. The Gnostic Gospels offer a very different picture of where women might have belonged in the Christian church. If an image of God as divine Mother had remained and not been purged, if women’s initial involvement with the church had been continued and not stopped by its leaders, and if the work of women with Jesus himself had not been eliminated from the officials texts, the roles of women in Christianity might have turned out very different. The opening quotation shows that it was three women who were always with Jesus…and that one of those women, Mary Magdalene, was called his companion.

“…she spoke as a woman who knew the All.”-Dialogue of the Savior With these words, readers are suddenly exposed to a very different picture of Mary Magdalene than they may have imagined, given her limited portrayal in the New Testament. Yet she appears often in the Gnostic texts, generally as the companion of Jesus and as his most trusted apostle.

Mary as his companion is, of itself, problematic. Companion can denote many things, but several passages seem to imply a romantic link between the two. At least three times a tremendous love for her is mentioned in the Gnostic gospels. Perhaps most scandalous of these is the following text, taken from The Gospel of Philip:

“And the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended]. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her?”

The other two are contained within the fragmentary The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), in a scene that finds her preaching to the other apostles after Jesus’ death. In addition, within this passage her role as a confidante of Christ is first established, then questioned by Peter, then reaffirmed by Levi. First, Peter prompts her to speak, saying, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember - which you know (but) we do not, nor have we heard them.” She spoke then, and when she was finished Andrew & Peter expressed doubt in her truthfulness. Levi came to her defense, saying, “But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us.”

These passages display a unique relationship between Jesus and Mary, one that also may have placed her as his chosen disciple, a role usually reserved for Peter. Also at issue in this text was the role of women within this earliest incarnation of the Church, for when Peter doubted her, he said, “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge (and) not openly?”

Mary is seen directly in the middle of this conflict in a few Gnostic texts whose view of women is not accepting, but more traditional. The male disciples are seen as more worthy than the female disciples, i.e. Mary. In the first passage, Mary’s place as a disciple is initially at risk:

“Simon Peter said to them [the disciples]: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

According to Elaine Pagels, this passage is simply characteristic of the time, equating the male with the divine and the female with the earthly. To attain divinity, Mary must shed her femininity. Other passages do not even give her this much opportunity: her femaleness is enough justification for not only her exclusion, but the exclusion of all women. In the Apostolic Tradition, a tale involving Mary Magdalene is used as justification for the exclusion of females from the priestly orders.

“When the master blessed the bread and the cup and signed them with the words, “This is my body and blood,” he did not offer it to the women who are with us. Martha said, “He did not offer it to Mary, because he saw her laugh.” Mary said, “I no longer laugh; he said to us before, as he taught, ‘Your weakness is redeemed through strength.”

Despite her defense, the disciples all agree that no woman should be a priest because Mary was not part of the Last Supper.

Along with James, the brother of Jesus, Mary was apparently the founder of one branch of Christian Gnostics, part of an even larger movement, that worshiped God as male and female, divine Father and Mother. This was a strong movement, which covered three different views of a female deity. First was a mother goddess as part of a divine couple, another as Holy Spirit, and finally as Wisdom. This divine Mother is often called Pistis Sophia-Faith Wisdom.

In the second century followers of Valentinus, a Gnostic who claimed to have received secret teachings of St. Paul’s from Theodas (one of Paul’s pupils), worshiped the divine couple: “the Ineffable, the Depth, the Primal Father, and…Grace, Silence, the Womb and ‘Mother of the All.’” Marcus, one of those followers who would found a Gnostic sect of his own, prays to her, saying, “Silence receives, as in a womb, the seed of the Ineffable Source; from this she brings forth all the emanations of divine being, ranged in harmonious pairs of masculine and feminine energies.” At his mass, the wine was Her blood, most likely because his visions of the divine were female in form.

The divine Mother was also seen as the part of the Trinity that modern Christians characterize as asexual: the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew word of spirit, ruah, is feminine gendered, not neuter as pneuma is in Greek. In The Apocryphon of John, he sees a vision of the Holy Trinity, who speak to him. They say, “I am the one who [is with you] always. I [am the Father]; I am the Mother; I am the Son.” It further goes on to describe her with the words: “…(She is)…the image of the invisible, virginal, perfect spirit…She became the Mother of everything, for she existed before them all, the mother-father [matropater]…”

The divine Mother, the Spirit, is also called “Mother of man” in the Gospel of the Philip. In it, and the Gospel of Thomas, there is reference to this divine mother as the true source of the virgin birth; that it was the Holy Spirit who united with the Father. In Thomas, it is more of an allusion than a statement. Jesus says, “My (earthly) mother [gave me death], but [my] true [Mother] gave me life.” This appears to correspond with “My [father who is in] heaven.” The two together hint at what is spelled out in two places in Philip, that Jesus had two sets of parents: Mary and Joseph on Earth, and the Father and the Holy Spirit in heaven, his earthly and true parents, respectively. First Philip declares the falsity of Mary as the source of the virgin birth, asserting,

“Some said, “Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit.” They are in error. They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever conceive by a woman? Mary is the virgin whom no power defiled…the powers defile themselves.

A bit further on it expands on that, declaring, “The father of everything united with the virgin who came down, and a fire shone for him on that day.” Taken together, a reader can little doubt the Gnostic writer’s belief that Jesus was the son of the divine Father and Mother, and that Mary and Joseph were mere surrogates.

The third incarnation of the goddess is Wisdom-Sophia. She is the mother of “the demiurge, the creator-God of Israel.” She is mentioned in briefly in Philip: “As for the wisdom who is called “the barren,” she is the mother [of the] angels.” Texts like The Hypostasis of the Archons and On the Origin of the World seem to confirm that the God of the Christians and Hebrews was born of Sophia alone. In The Dialogue of the Savior, Jesus says, “When the Father established the cosmos for himself, he left much over from the Mother of the All. Therefore, he speaks and he acts.” In other texts, Sophia is often seen chastising her offspring, who has become arrogant and forgotten his ancestors.

“He boasted continually, saying to (the angels)… “I am God, and no other one exists except me.” But when he said these things, he sinned against all the immortal ones…when Faith saw the impiety of the chief ruler, she was angry….she said, “You err, Samael, that is, “blind god”. An enlightened, immortal humanity [anthropos] exists before you!”

This passage is nearly identical to one in which Sophia reveals herself to her son to prove to him that he is not alone. Despite this, he persists in his boasting, saying ‘It is I who am the god of the entirety.’

And Zoe (Life), the daughter of Pistis Sophia, cried out and said to him, ‘You are mistaken, Saklas!’ - for which the alternate name is Yaltabaoth. She breathed into his face, and her breath became a fiery angel for her; and that angel bound Yaldabaoth and cast him down into Tartaros below the abyss.”

With Yaltabaoth gone, his son Sabaoth went to Sophia begging for forgiveness, and she gave him charge of the seventh heaven.

Sophia took her daughter Zoe and had her sit upon his right to teach him about the things that exist in the eighth (heaven); and the angel [of] wrath she placed upon his left. [Since] that day, [his right] has been called life; and the left has come to represent the unrighteousness of the realm of absolute power above.”

Sophia was, therefore, not only the divine mother, but perhaps the ruler of heaven herself, her daughter Zoe Life itself. Where a male deity managed affairs, she had put him in that place. As Wisdom, she presided above him.

For those who followed Valentinus and, later, his disciple Marcus, she was “mystical, eternal Silence,” “Grace, She who is before all things,” and “incorruptible Wisdom.” They prayed to her to gain insight, or gnosis. She was the one who taught Adam and Eve while they were in Eden and saved Noah and his family from the flood. For Gnostics who believed this, having a female deity in this role of “first universal creator” often meant that the women within their group were given higher standing. When you look at a divine Mother who is part of a divine couple, a member of the Holy Trinity, or as Wisdom itself, trying to cling to social ideas that women are somehow lesser beings is much harder to do, for they too are then made in God’s image.

This increased standing for women among many Gnostic sects is visible in their organization. Within their church services, which were really more informal gatherings than the practiced ritual of the orthodox, all were welcome to participate. Drawings were held at each meeting to determine the role a participant would take on. “All initiates, men and women alike, participated equally in the drawing; anyone might be selected to serve as priest, bishop, or prophet.”

This is in marked contrast to the orthodox church-the well organized community which maintained the canon of texts commonly called the New Testament-where women were looked down on. Upon hearing of participation of women within the Gnostic ritual, Tertullian protested, saying,

"These heretical women-how audacious they are! They have no modesty; they are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures, and, it may be, even to baptize!”

For many of the Gnostic groups, the exclusion of women by those like Tertullian would seem an absurd thing…after all, there were several who claimed women as founders. There was of course the one mentioned above, founded by Mary Magdalene and James the brother of Jesus. The Carpocratian sect, who believed that Jesus was conceived through natural means, was founded by Carpocrates in the second century (and surviving till the fourth) and said their teachings came from Mary, Salome, and Martha. The Montanists, an apocalyptic movement in the late second century, claimed Prisca and Maximilla alongside Montanus as their founders.

This leading role for women makes more sense when viewed with the fact that women were not immediately blocked from the top leadership positions in the orthodox church. It took time for that to come about, time before the greatest role a woman could achieve in the church was deaconess (a position officially eliminated in the sixth century). The opening quote states that, during his lifetime, Jesus was always accompanied by the three Marys in his life: his mother, his aunt, and his “companion,” Mary Magdalene. Given that Jesus himself associated with women, it is not surprising that ten or twenty years after his death there were women in leadership positions in some groups.

In the Acts of the Apostles, a woman named Tabitha (or Dorcas) is called a disciple, and later in the same gospel two women, Priscilla and Aquila are seen accompanying Peter to Syria. At Ephesus, the two women appear to be acting as apostles: upon hearing a man named Apollos speaking the Word, “they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” The apostle Paul even greets a female apostle as superior to him within the organization.

In these early days, men and women sat together for services. It was not until later, around the second century, that they adopted the synagogue seating style, which separated women from men. By this time, all feminine imagery had been removed from the orthodox texts and teachings. God was again no longer anything but male according to the official church, and they were beginning their struggle to eliminate the Gnostic texts they considered heretical.

By this time church officials in the patriarchal hierarchy were eager to put women back in their place as passive rather than active participants. After his shock at the activities of Gnostic women, Tertullian fell back on what he called “the precepts of ecclesiastical discipline concerning women,” writing,

“It is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer [the Eucharist], nor to claim for herself a share in any masculine function-not to mention any priestly office.”

Even Paul in I Corinthians states, “…the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but they should be subordinate…it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Whether or not this was actually Paul’s writing, it was an accurate reflection of what most within the church believed at the time.

This was not all encompassing though. There were some in the orthodox church who respected women. In Alexandria around 180 AD, there was a priest named Father Clement who proposed a more liberal view of women’s participation within the church. According to him,

“Men and women share equally in perfection, and are to receive the same instruction and the same discipline. For the name ‘humanity’ is common to both men and women; and for us ‘in Christ there is neither male nor female.’”

The last clause, “in Christ there is neither male nor female,” had been traditionally spoken at the initiations of new Christians early in the church’s history. It is even quoted by Paul. (His apparent confusion over where women belong in the Church is the subject for another paper entirely.) Where in time this ritual saying dropped out of use is unclear, but it was gone by the year 200 AD, at least among the orthodox.

For the women involved in the orthodox church in early Christianity, their roles were not expanded beyond traditional limits for long. Though initially they were able to be active in the Church, as Mary Magdalene had been active as a follower of Jesus, they were quickly locked back into their places as submissive wives who could never truly understand the Gospels, at least according to their leaders. But if they were involved in some sects of the Gnostic community, if they participated in them, they were able to find themselves in a circle that accepted them, and found them worthy.

They found groups that were influenced by women like Mary Magdalene and did not belittle her contribution to the movement, but even studied it in The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene). They could find sections of the movement that worshiped God not only as Father but also as Mother, where the Holy Trinity was the Father, the Mother, and the Son. In some places they even found teachings where God himself was merely the son of Sophia, Wisdom.

It was in these places they could worship on equal footing, take part in the rituals as priest and prophet and bishop. Their role in the orthodox church was limited…but their involvement with the Gnostics was not.

And it is likely all that any of them wanted.