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Ancient History? Cultural-Historical Context Helps Us See That Women and Men Are Equal

by Zenia Duell | August 03, 2022

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Honorable Mention. Enjoy!

As a student of ancient history, I often find that my intimate knowledge of the culture in which the New Testament was written is very useful when reading the Bible, particularly Paul’s letters. While the people who lived in the first and second centuries AD were people like us with similar fears and concerns, they also had very different worldviews and social expectations. When it comes to understanding the role of women in the early church, historical insights are particularly helpful.

For example, in Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, Catholic theologian Ally Kateusz reviews the evidence for female leadership in the early church. She gathers a wealth of textual, physical, and archaeological evidence which demonstrates beyond doubt that women held leadership roles in the early church. Those leadership roles included evangelizing, preaching the gospel, leading prayer, and baptizing. Kateusz also seeks to answer the question of why women’s leadership in the church has since become such a controversial issue by demonstrating how this evidence has been deleted, or in some cases, literally covered up.

There were two pieces of evidence that I found particularly compelling.

First, she critiques the principle of lectio brevior potior (the idea that the shorter the text, the more powerful it is), which has been the standard measure for evaluating the age of some religious texts. Using new dating methods, Kateusz shows that in fact, this is rarely the case. Longer texts tend to be the older ones, with later scribes omitting or rephrasing parts of the original. This is how many details about early Christian women have come to be erased from early Christian texts.

Second, Kateusz found carved images of women raising their hands in prayer in three of the oldest and most important churches in Christendom: Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The image in St. Peter’s is the clearest, and it has been deliberately hidden behind another altar piece.

Unsurprisingly, Kateusz’s findings have ruffled many feathers and caused deep controversy, not only within the Catholic church. But they shouldn’t. Paul’s early letters make it abundantly clear that women held leadership positions in the early Christian community. Euodia and Syntyche are described in Philippians 4:2 as evangelizing by Paul’s side as his equals. In Romans 16 Paul names multiple women, all of whom seem to have played invaluable roles in early Christianity: Phoebe (described as a deacon at Cenchreae, near Corinth), Priscilla (described as Paul’s co-worker), Junia (described as no less than an apostle), and Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, and Mary (all credited with working very hard for the early Christian community).

So why is the idea of female priests so controversial now? This is where a strong understanding of historical context can help. Ultimately, we can thank the Romans for the early church’s restrictions of women. Roman society was much more patriarchal than Egyptian or Jewish society. In ancient Egypt, women could own property and run businesses, be educated, become doctors—and even become pharaoh, like Hatshepsut and Cleopatra. In Jewish society, women led certain religious ceremonies (albeit mostly based inside the home). It is telling that there are two books in the Old Testament devoted to the stories of women (Ruth and Esther), and women feature prominently in several other books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Judges, 1 and 2 Kings). But there is not a single book about a woman in the New Testament. This is no coincidence.

We have a chance to correct this now. The Roman Empire has been dead for 1500 years. The Anglican church in Great Britain has allowed women to become priests since 1994, but not all Anglican churches adhere to that ruling. In defence of their position, these churches often advocate the complementarian argument (which evangelical theologian Andrew Wilson has rebranded as “complementarity”). The fact that very similar Bible passages are used to support both the egalitarian argument and the complementarian argument leads me to believe that there is no argument at all—particularly if the complementarian argument now holds so little water that it must be rebranded as complementarity.

Churches are gradually moving in the right direction: toward gender equality. It is deeply frustrating, however, that some theologians insist on maintaining an unequal status quo—perhaps through fear of change or because their patriarchal authority feels threatened. But women should not be punished for men’s insecurities, and church leadership must take confidence in advocating for equality within the body of Christ. Understanding the historical and cultural context of the Bible is crucial for understanding the full meaning of God’s message: if complementarians fail to recognize or acknowledge this importance, they risk failing to understand the Bible.

Photo by iam_os on Unsplash.


Related Reading

A New Kind of Household 
How Did We Get Here?: Misogyny in the Church and World 
Behold! A Great Cloud of Women Witnesses in the Early Church