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.
Enoch Anti says
Enlightening. Some feminists today, if not all, constantly charge Christianity of been patriarchal going lengths to trace that charge to the Bible. This article is helpful
It’s an important point that Christianity was more welcoming to women than pagan religions and Roman culture in general, and that the gospel’s power to reach the least, the oppressed, and the less powerful shines in the early church. The misogyny of the critics makes this even more clear. But the fact that Christianity’s critics were more misogynist than church fathers doesn’t turn the tables. It just makes Christian society in that context less misogynist than the alternatives. Augustine does us no favors when he says “woman was given to man, woman who was of small intelligence and who perhaps still lives more in accordance with the promptings of the inferior flesh than by superior reason. Is this why the apostle Paul does not attribute the image of God to her?” It can all be true at the same time that the Bible is not misogynist, Christianity attracted women because both the religion gave them worth when society didn’t much, some of the patriarchs were misogynist in their stance on women (it would be hard not to be considering the culture), and that the critics were most misogynist of all.
If you could travel back in time to visit Augustine, what would you do to convince him of his errors?
I think he would welcome constructive criticism with open arms.
Good question. I’d probably start with scripture, as David does below quoting Genesis. I might ask him about each of the beliefs expressed in the quote I put in the previous comment.
Nemo, what would you say to him to convince him?
I asked the question because I don’t know the answer. 🙂
Augustine knows Scripture and human nature far better than I. He knows many saintly Christian women, his mother St. Monica being one of them, and he has comforted and encouraged many Christian women in his capacity as a shepherd of the flock.
Having read many of Augustine’s works, I don’t see any evidence that he has hatred toward woman. One could argue based on some of his comments that he is prejudiced, but then it is also possible that his comments are based on his experience and observation of women of his time, and to form an opinion based on experience and observation is not prejudice, even if that opinion is negative and critical.
It sounds like you know him and his writings much better than I do. As you say that he’s comforted & encouraged many women, it’s true. And I see what you mean about him maybe just commenting on what he saw around him. Or perhaps he was just repeating the views of his culture without questioning them. My point is that multiple church fathers said misogynist things, Augustine as an example, and we can still call those comments harmful, mostly because they influenced views of women for subsequent church leaders. We can receive the patriarchs’ wisdom, uphold their importance, and learn from their brilliant thought, but since they were sinners it’s no surprise that they might hold sinful views similar to those outside Christianity. The article gives one side of the coin: the misogyny outside the early church. But to understand the place of women in the early church, we have to include the times the church preached problematic things, even if it was much better for women to be inside the church than outside of it. For me, it’s not about attacking the church fathers. It’s about seeing them and the early church as redeemed sinners.
I agree that the Church Fathers are sinners saved by grace like other Christians, and may hold erroneous or harmful views that should be corrected in the spirit of truth and charity.
My point is that being critical of people is not the same as hating them, because a critical opinion can be expressed in the spirit of truth and charity. If we believe someone has an erroneous opinion, it would be more constructive if we can show where he or she has erred, and persuade them with reason and evidence, instead of putting a negative label on their person.
That’s why I asked what you would do to convince Augustine of his errors in person.
I think the things changed as it be advantageous to be a Christian. Then the Roman mindset became stronger in church.
Gen 1:27. Male AND Female made in his divine image.
Augustine carries a lot of baggage.
Gen 1:27. Male AND Female made in his divine image.
Augustine carries a lot of baggage.
Paul’s record is far superior.
For instance the letter to the Romans was entrusted to a woman. The carrier of his letters was expected to answer questions to clarify things in the letter not understood
Dr. Kruger’s article is clearly about EARLIEST Christianity. He references Dr. Stark’s estimate of women during the 2nd century. The latest critic Dr. Kruger lists is from the early 3rd century. So, Augustine in the late 4th and early 5th centuries has nothing to do with the period the article discusses even if he was misogynistic which is far from clear. By the way, taking one quote, without reference I might add, and trying to pass it off as representative of a large number of church fathers is sloppy and unfair. As far as seeing the church fathers as sinners in need of the gospel too, of course that’s true. But, they don’t have to be ugly for the gospel to be beautiful.
As Dr. Kruger points out, women did not have to join any new religious movement and even had the option to take part in all female cults. However, a number of them did choose the early Christian movement and we have to ask why. Your theory that it was misogynistic but just not as much as the wider culture is not compelling. Some of the earliest Christians had to endure terrible persecution and most of them were at least thought to be weird and suspicious in a society unaccustomed to exclusive religions. It seems unlikely that women would freely choose to make themselves vulnerable to that kind of grief just to join a group that still didn’t respect them. A better explanation seems to be that Christianity was welcoming to everyone including women. Being welcoming to women and misogynistic seems to be a contradiction.
We ought to be grateful that a top scholar like Dr. Kruger even bothers writing a blog for laypeople like us and have some humility before we try to critique him on a topic in his field of expertise.
You’re right that I pulled one quote and didn’t give context. That’s because the point that I’m making is that just because early Christianity’s critics were misogynist does not turn the tables on critiques of Christian fathers, some of whom have quotes attributed to them that are just as problematic as those from the critics in the article. I find Dr. Kruger’s main point very convincing, that early Christianity was mocked for its inclusion of women, but to say that it nullifies problems in early Christianity doesn’t stand to reason. What *does* stand to reason is that the gospel of Jesus was incredibly compelling and that Christian society treated women better than pagan society did.
I re-read the quotes in the article just now, and though I’m not a scholar, Dr. Kruger’s interpretation of them makes sense to me, though in several spots the quotes themselves don’t seem all that problematic without the context he provides. For more quotes from church fathers (2nd century on forward) that demonstrate what I’m saying, here’s a site: https://margmowczko.com/misogynist-quotes-from-church-fathers/.
In a society where women were from the start inferior, it’s not surprising that some level of inferiority would exist throughout the minds of everyone in that culture. For people redeemed by Jesus, this would be one area of sin that could be redeemed, but converts probably did not suddenly shed their views of women as inferior. And besides, the idea of women’s rights or women’s equality the way we think of it today would likely not have been in the minds of anyone, including women, so they might not have flagged Christianity for having hostile elements, especially if everyone else was worse and if in Christianity they found the love of Jesus.
You wrote, ” the idea of women’s rights or women’s equality the way we think of it today would likely not have been in the minds of anyone, including women, “
If the earliest Christians were “products of their culture”, as some would put it, then so are we. I don’t think it is helpful to judge them using the criteria of our culture, which may well be biased and harmful in its own way.
If the Gospel is the eternal Truth that transcends space and time, as Christinas believe, then it is more than capable of delivering ancient and modern Christians from the sins that entangle them, and restoring to them the right of the children of God, which I think is the only true “unalienable right”.
I agree that we in the 21st century are influenced by our culture, too, and that our culture (including Christian subcultures) has blind spots we naturally can’t see. But that doesn’t mean we can’t evaluate. If our current values prohibited us from doing so, we wouldn’t have the blog post by Dr. Kruger because he wouldn’t be able to critique the quotes he writes about. Scripture is clear about the image of God in all humans, male or female, and using that measuring stick, there’s problems with the quotes in the article and in quotes from Christians.
You wrote, “Scripture is clear about the image of God in all humans, male or female, and using that measuring stick, there’s problems with the quotes in the article and in quotes from Christians.”
Just so I understand your position better, could you explain why Augustine’s quote, understood in context, doesn’t measure up against Scripture?
Van Rhodes says
Great article. The fascinating thing is that this is going on in Iran today. Christianity is exploding there and the explosion is being led by women! Courageous women who go out each day to evangelize and glorify God, knowing full well the vile things that could be done to them.
Would like a follow up on when things changed for women in the Church. It clearly did
Donald Johnson says
You do not discuss this, but I see the Paul being egalitarian with the church evolving away from that over time. Yes, the group of believers was better than the surrounding cultures for women, but becoming less so over time. Thoughts?
Nancy Calvert-Koyzis, PhD (Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield) says
Great article. I’m surprised you don’t mention Julia cited as an apostle or that by hosting house church gatherings they were presiding over the meal, communion (e.g.Lydia, Phoebe).
Lol. University of Sheffield. Good grief.
Jenny Brien says
Women only a third of the larger Roman population? That would be very odd. Do you have any sources to check that, or theories as to why it might be so?
I thought that was odd too. Am I missing something? Does this mean in a literal (gross numbers) sense that the female demographic made up only a third of the Roman population? That is an interesting phenomenon. I wouldn’t mind learning a little more about that. Dr. Kruger do you recommend any sources that may be helpful regarding this?
This article might be a good place to start.
Rodney Stark, Reconstructing the Rise of Christianity: The Role of Women, Sociology of Religion, Volume 56, Issue 3, Fall 1995, Pages 229–244 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a125/0bab65fe10d55e4aecf5a71588caabf59cbb.pdf