Women in the early church.

Women in the early church.

When arguments are made against women preachers, people often cite lack of precedence – women have never been teachers within the church and therefore should not be now. Jesus called only called men to be his followers and to spread his message.

Evidence from the gospels

So what if it is actually quite easy to find evidence of women as teachers and having prominent positions within the early church? What does that do to our current perceptions of women in authoritative positions.

Even Paul who wrote the very earliest Christian texts that we have – the epistles, actually mentioned women who are teachers such as Priscilla. He even mentions a woman called Junia as being amongst the apostles although the interpretation of this passage has often been disputed. But there again he is also quoted as saying women should be quiet and obey their husbands, which is something that scholars think was inserted later. The two attitudes seem at odds.

Evidence from Apocrypha

Things become more confusing when you look outside the gospels to popular apocryphal tales such as Paul and Thecla which forms part of the Acts of Paul.

Paul and thecla, women preachers, women in early church

Image: Paul and Thecla fresco grotto, Epheshus. David Lull Creative Commons Flickr. Note how in this image Thecla’s face and teaching pose has been wiped out in an attempt to hide the fact she is a teacher.

This tells the tale of a young woman called Thecla who despite being engaged to be married, decides to renounce family life to go out and preach the new religion of Christianity having heard Paul preaching in her town. This causes great consternation because in the pagan world, women were meant to be daughters or wives and create families. There was no other lifestyle available to them.

This tale actually describes why Christianity took root with women; with its messages to turn away from family life and sexual procreation, it provided a radical path to freedom for women who would be otherwise tied to domesticity and baby rearing. For people of the pagan world who were centred around family, this was shocking.

The popularity with women was such that it caused the Roman commentator, Celsus to scoff at the fledging religion as one populated with ‘slaves and women’. In such comments we can get a glimpse of the ethos of equality that may have existed in early Christianity. This was a religion which didn’t care about your role in the physical world now, but in your spiritual role in the next world.

Christians today might find this shocking as they see the Church as family centred. But in the early days it was about keeping yourself free from the distractions and attachments of family life so you could devote yourself to the spiritual one in preparation for the End of the Age, which early Christians believed was happening very soon and within their own lifetimes.

The Cover up

Things changed of course and over time the early prominence that women played in the church has not only been forgotten, there are signs that it has been covered up.

Magdalene Women, Magdalene Mystery School

Image: Pixabay

One simple example is in Mary Magdalene. In three of the gospels she sees the risen Christ. If this is the definition of an apostle, she is an apostle. But she is hardly mentioned after this.

In fact, as Ann Graham Brock points out in her book, Mary Magdalene, ‘The first Apostle’, in the Gospel of Luke, Mary Magdalene’s role has been diminished and Peter rises to prominence. He is no longer the blunderer that Jesus even calls ‘Satan’ in Matthew’s Gospel when he admonishes Peter for valuing the world of men over God.

Peter is often portrayed as someone who just doesn’t get Jesus’ teachings. But in Luke’s Gospel Peter’s blunderbuss antics are played down and he is put in a more prominent position at the expense of Mary Magdalene.

Looking to extra canonical gospels again this replacement can be even more stark. The Acts of Phillip features a teacher and miracle worker, Mariamne who is thought to be Mary Magdalene in the Greek versions, but in later Coptic versions she is replaced by Peter! In some texts even in Mary Magdalene’s pivotal encounter at the tomb, she is replaced by Mary the Mother of Jesus.

So we have signs that any evidence of women holding high status in the early church has been diminished or even edited out.

Present day cover up

Catacombs of Priscilla, women preachers,

Image: Flickr Creative commons attribution Steven Zucker https://www.flickr.com/photos/profzucker/

This even continues to the present day as in the case of the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. These recently rediscovered underground tombs are complete with paintings and frescoes dating from the 3rd Century CE that seem to depict women teachers and even women running a Eucharist meal. However, the idea that these frescoes depict women as teachers or holding any leadership roles were dismissed by the Vatican as pure fantasy.

Although the Vatican may indeed like to dismiss this concept as pure fantasy it is hardly an academic approach. The true approach to scholarship would be to examine the possibility that these early tomb painting indeed depicted women as teachers in the early church because there were actually women as teachers in the early church. I can’t help but look at the image of the women in the red outfit and think it might be referring to Mary Magdalene as she is traditionally clothed in red in art.

But this may be too early to make that connection and I also don’t know if I am looking at the original pigment. It may be completely wrong, but that is not the point. The point is that we should have at least a discussion. We should open up and revisit the issue of women in the early church in an age when at least some of us can look through a lens that does not contain the prejudices of the past.

And when we do, we may find more that we though possible that was staring at us all along about the status of women in the early church that we just were not able to see.

Lastly, you may enjoy this poem that came through me whilst researching this topic. I feel it came from the collective consciousness of the early women so long ignored by the male dominated church.

Women’s voices

we weep
as we sweep his feet with our hair
you leave us no choices
you take away our will to be
if we lose a man
we lose our right to live, to dignity
so we do what we can to survive
our only choices
yet still you denigrate us
as sinners
yet leave the ones who come to us
who pay to violate our bodies
in the most carnal ways
as sin free
somehow it is our fault
that we tempted them
and yet the the ones who comes to us with deliberation
are left without a blemish
and we are the ones who bear the stigma of sin
for centuries
and yet when there is one of us
who rises to the status of teacher
instead of celebrating her strength and wisdom
you wish to bring her too to the status of the fallen
like there is nothing less you can tolerate
expect your repugnance for our kind
so keep your false piety
that all you want is for women to rise above
it is you who are bringing them down
When will you follow the example of he whom you say that you follow
when he transcended the flesh and understood the true nature of who we really are
who looked beyond the assignments of gender and of physicality
to the spirit within
his is the example that you say that you follow
yet you still deny spirit to a whole half of us
saying that spirit does not dwell within our bodies which you see both as imperfect and to be desired
Maybe one day you will truly follow in his footsteps
And honour the love within

Main Image: Pixabay

A comparison of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ wife and the Unknown life of Jesus Christ/ Issa.

A comparison of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ wife and the Unknown life of Jesus Christ/ Issa.

Image Public Domain Wikicommons

A Controversial Fragment

Since its announcement in 2012, there has been a lot of controversy about what is known as the Jesus Wife Papyrus otherwise known as the Gospel of Jesus’ wife.This is a small fragment of text written in the Coptic language that has been examined by a leading scholar from Harvard University, Professor Karen King and her colleagues.

After Professor King announced the existence of the papyrus accusations of forgery quickly followed seemingly due to the contents of the fragment. It appears to feature Jesus saying the words, ‘my wife’.

Professor King is a respected Harvard scholar with a long standing reputation. Before the announcement she had already done some initial investigation and satisfied herself that this was an authentic manuscript, but still the accusations came.

Jesus had a wife?

For Jesus to mention a wife is so abhorrent to some people that they will perhaps always claim it is a forgery. Noticeably these same people do not denigrate every little fragment of the Gospel of Mark or John, presumably because the contents do not offend them in those cases.

Professor Karen King has always been careful to point out that this text does not mean that Jesus was married: just that some early Christians might have thought he was.

After the media frenzy and some further investigation by the likes of MIT scientists, a scholarly publication concluded that the papyrus and the ink were both ancient. Yet still the debate is raging with many still insisting that the fragment is a modern forgery.

In praise of the feminine

In my opinion, as an outsider to Biblical scholarship, there seems to be more debate about this piece of Coptic script than a lot of other pieces of Coptic script. Maybe because the actual text is saying something that many people just do not believe Jesus could have uttered – he praises women and perhaps even refers to someone who is his wife.

The full translation is as follows from both the front and the back of the fragment.

1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave me li[fe…” 2 ] .” The disciples said to Jesus, “.[
3 ] deny. Mary is [not?]worthy of it [
4 ]…” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[
5 ]… she is able to be my disciple . . [
6 ] . Let wicked people swell up … [
7] . As for me, I am with her
3 in order to . [ 8 ] . an image … [
] my moth[er ] thr[ee
] …[
] forth …[
] (untranslatable) [

This is the translated text in full which is taken from the front and back of this tiny credit card sized fragment. Of course it is just a fragment and there are lots of gaps, but it is mainly the line, ‘Jesus said to them “my wife..”‘ that is causing the controversy.

Comparison of other texts

But if we look more closely, this does fit with other texts that we know of. For example in this fragment, Jesus discusses whether a woman is able to be his disciple. This has parallels with some other non-canonical texts such as the Gospel of Phillip in which there are arguments about whether or not Mary Magdalene was fit to receive teaching from Jesus due to her being a woman.

What drew my attention were the first lines “My mother gave me life” which precedes a passage seeming to praise woman including the phrase “as for me, I am with her”.

A forgotten gospel

This passage seemingly praising the virtues of women reminded me of something called the Tibetan Gospel of Issa. Nowadays this text is pretty much forgotten but about one hundred years ago ‘The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ’ by Nicolai Notovitch caused a bit of a sensation.

Notovitch was an adventurer and writer. Born in 1858 in the Crimea, he was educated at the University of St Petersburg after serving in the Russian-Turkish war as an Officer.

An epic journey

Apparently in 1887 he travelled to Tibet and Kashmir. During his travels he broke his leg which needed an extended stay in a monastery in Tibet. Whilst he was convalescing, apparently the Buddhist monks allowed him to see and to translate some secret writings that revealed the life of a saint they called Issa. Notovitch took this to mean Jesus Christ.

On this return to the West he published this secret Gospel and it caused a sensation. Nowadays most people think this gospel is a fake and even question if Notovitch was ever in Tibet.

Tibet landscape

Image Pixabay Public Domain

I find this latter point a bit odd as his book, which is readily available as an ebook, provides a vivid account of his travels in India, Nepal and Tibet and is littered with details. Descriptions of roads, people, vehicles and mountain views abound in his account. Indeed his travelog actually takes up a good deal of the book before the ‘gospel’ even starts.

Most people will probably never even attempt to read the book. It is generally believed to be a fake so when those sorts of rumours are in abundance, people don’t even bother investigating something for fear of wasting their time or worse, of looking gullible and foolish. This is irrespective of whether it is truly fake or not. Even if the travelog part is genuine, it is still uncertain as to whether this newly discovered ‘gospel’ is authentic.

Similarities or synchronicities?

However I did find it interesting that the Gospel of Jesus’ wife or Jesus wife papyrus echoes some of the passages of the sayings of Issa. Such as,

Respect woman for in her we see the mother of the universe and all the truth of divine creation is to come through her…She is also the germ of life and death.

Again this is at the start of a long passage of respecting mothers, women and wives as the source of a man’s divinity on earth.

Even as the Lords of Hosts separated the light from the darkness and the dry land from the waters so does woman posses the divine gift…

In my opinion here are parallels between the Lost Gospel of Issa and the Gospel of Jesus wife. Both texts demonstrate respect for women which Jesus was known for in his teaching. This veneration of women was out of keeping for the time of Jesus and also for the Victorian era in which Notovitch was publishing although it was less of a stretch.

Image Pixabay Public Domain

Certain other elements of the texts bring into question whether this is a Victorian fabrication. The Gospel of Issa features an account of the missing years of Issa/Jesus which it says he spent in India. There he was taught the Vedas and other holy scriptures.

Issa the Rebel

The character of Issa doesn’t like the fact that the holy teachings are kept away from the lower castes of India and decided that all people were created equal so started to spread the teachings.

He also ignored the teachings about the many gods of Hinduism preferring to teach that god is the indivisible soul of the universe. These actions of Issa eventually annoy the Hindu priests as they feel that he is disrupting the social order by teaching the lower castes.

The priests decided to send people to kill him, but Issa escaped and headed for the Himalayas for further study. As the text moves on, Issa almost gets into trouble again with teachers in another area before escaping back to Israel at the age of 29 where eventually he is tried by Pilate. These latter details were purportedly provided by merchants traveling between Palestine and India.

During the text there is a repeated doctrine that God is a formless creator and that idols should not be worshipped. It is hard to say if these texts were made up by Notovich. It is reassuring that he himself wrote a critique of the texts and the contradictions they contain.

Jesus in India and Universal Truths

There is a very strong tradition that Jesus spent some of his missing years in India and Tibet. People have also noticed the similarities between the teachings of Jesus and those of Buddhism in places and have suggested that these have arisen due to Jesus’ missing years having been spent in India. Conversely in the canonical Gospels, at times, Jesus seems adamant that people should follow Jewish laws.

Image Pixabay Public Domain

In my opinion Buddhism and Christianity like all religions include some universal truths which mystics have access to no matter the era. So the similarities between Christianity and Buddhism could be less to do with a possible sojourn of Jesus in India and more to do with the fact that these are universal truths.

Now that the materials involved in the fragments of the Jesus Wife Papyrus have been authenticated, I do find it interesting that there are similarities of between the Jesus wife papyrus and the supposed missing gospel of Issa from Tibet. Because the materials of the fragment of papyrus have been authenticated as being ancient, this may be time to revisit the Issa text as there are some similarities with these lost early Christian beliefs.

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