I recently received a question on Twitter about where in our patristic sources we see early Christianity mocked for being a religion filled with women. The short answer: lots of places.
But before we get there, we should begin by noting that early Christianity received this criticism precisely because it was so popular with women during this time period. Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates that perhaps 2/3 of the Christianity community during the second-century was made up of women. This is the exact opposite of the ratio in the broader Greco-Roman world where women only made up about 1/3 of the population.
This means that women intentionally left the religious systems of the Greco-Roman world with which they were familiar and consciously decided to join the burgeoning Christian movement. No one forced them to do so. No one made them become Christians.
On the contrary, Christianity was a cultural pariah during this time period. It was an outsider movement in all sorts of ways–legal, social, religious, and political. Christians were widely despised, viewed with suspicion and scorn, and regarded as a threat to a stable society.
And yet, women, in great numbers, decided to join the early Christian movement anyway.
Women pop up all over the place in our earliest Christian sources. They are persecuted by the Roman government, they are hosting churches in their homes, they are caring for the poor and those in prison, they are traveling missionaries, they are wealthy patrons who support the church financially, and much much more.
And it is this reality that sets the stage for the critics of early Christianity. If they were looking for a way to undermine this new religious movement (and they were!) then the involvement of women is an easy target. Why? Because it was standard fare in the Greco-Roman world to attack religions with women (see the way Livy denigrates the cult of Dinoysus). There was an ideal of masculinity for the Romans that such religions just did not meet. Thus, they were targets of their ridicule.
Here are a few examples of the way the critics attacked early Christianity for having so many women:
1. Celsus, Christianity’s most persistent critic, actually presents the involvement of women as a cause for derision: “[Christians] show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, only slaves, women and little children” (Cels. 3.44). Here Celsus engages in a standard polemic against Christianity, presenting it as something that lacks the Greco-Roman ideals of masculinity and is primarily a religion for women and children.
2. Celsus continues his ridicule by accusing Christians of hiding out in their “private houses” and unwilling to engage in the public sphere—yet another way to associate Christianity with women who were often the managers of those households. He does the same thing again elsewhere when he says that Christian women took children “to the wooldresser’s shop, or the cobbler’s or the washerwoman’s shop that they might learn perfection” (Cels. 3.55). Celsus is probably referring to the way that women catechized/instructed children in homes or private business. But the criticism is not hard to see: the early Christian movement is domestic (not public) and run by women.
3. When Pliny the Younger writes his famous letter to the Emperor Trajan, the fact that the only specific Christians he mentions to Trajan are “two female slaves” is a less-than-veiled statement that Christianity is an emasculated religion (even if some men also happen to participate). Earlier in the letter, Pliny had already complained that this new religious movement has affected “both sexes,” men and women (Ep. 10.96.9).
4. Lucian, and virulent critic of early Christianity, comments about the “widows and orphan children” who were gullible enough to bring meals to the charlatan Peregrinus while he was in prison (Peregr. 12). The context of the reference shows that it was not intended positively, but as yet another reason to regard the Christian movement as unworthy of serious consideration by the Greco-Roman elite.
5. The final example is particularly egregious. In the early third century, Minucius Felix penned an apologetic work called Octavius which contains a dialogue between a pagan named Caecilius and a Christian named Octavius. Caecilius offers a lengthy diatribe against Christianity, including the criticism that early Christianity was recruiting from “the dregs of the populace and credulous women with the inability natural to their sex” (Oct. 8.4). Ouch.
So, what do we make of the fact that early Christianity was mocked for being pro-women? Well, it certainly turns the tables on the over-used criticism in the modern world that early Christianity was a patriarchal, misogynistic religion that was hostile to women. While that claim is repeated over and over, it is hard to sustain in the context of the ancient world. Indeed, it seems more true of the non-Christian, Greco-Roman elites.
In short, if early Christianity was a bad place for women, then apparently all the women who joined the movement never got the memo.