Modern society knows a few stories presenting women’s role in early Christianity due to the dominance of patriarchal church hierarchies, established by the Apostle Peter. He believed that it is shameful for a woman to preach in the church. He also thought that women should entirely rely on their husbands’ judgment in faith matters since men are more knowledgeable and receptive to such things (Wilf, 2019). This attitude also regarded the women martyrs like Perpetua, Blandina, and Mary Magdalene. Even the Mother of God received her role as Queen of the Kingdom of God only in the 8th century, and with many restrictions, compared with male sacred figures. When describing a life of Christ’s testimony or martyrdom, theologians often mistake religious punishment and persecution for the very essence of the idea of martyrdom (McCarty, 2020). However, this idea’s meaning was to life-witness Christ, inspiring followers. This paper aims to present women’s role in early Christianity and demonstrate that patriarchs did not perceive female martyrdom on par with a male one.
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First Christian Communities
During the era of early Christianity, many Christians found refuge in the Roman Empire, fleeing persecution. However, they met with the pagan Romans’ lifestyle, which seemed to them full of vices and temptations, prompting some Christians to become hermits. Becoming a hermit was also perceived as a test of the faith’s truth. Some of the hermits lived in solitude, but some organized communities, choosing their leaders – abbots or abbesses. The possibility of community seclusion was crucial for women, as they were at risk of being attacked staying alone. The abbots and abbesses conducted divine services and established the rules of life for the community. In this way, the first monks and nuns appeared who took solemn vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Christian communities provided shelter for orphans, widows, the sick, and the disabled. Besides, they made a living by copying books and teaching children.
Women in Early Christianity
Even though women’s role in early Christianity was subsequently belittled, females were no less influential and made an equal contribution to the spread of Christianity. The most prominent texts illustrating the role of women include apocryphal The Gospel of Mary, The Acts of Saint Paul and Saint Thecla, and The Passion of Saint Perpetua, Saint Felicitas, and their Companions (Wilf, 2019). Despite the widespread circulation of these texts during early Christianity, the last two texts encountered many obstacles to further dissemination, being subjected to strong editing. The editors’ goal was to censor women’s voices, as this could undermine the foundations of the patriarchal hierarchy.
Besides, the Apostles’ Gospels became canonical only in the 3rd century AD, after wandering preachers, men, and women, spread the teachings of Christ. In early Christianity, there were significant theological discussions in scriptures written by women and about women (Wilf, 2019). It is noteworthy that the Apostle Peter, known for his patriarchal views, helped to form a free hierarchy of bishops already in the 1st century. This hierarchy subsequently influenced decisions about which texts can be considered canonical (Wilf, 2019). However, in the first few centuries, when Christianity was a countercultural movement, there were many more women than men in the church.
According to scholars, there is written evidence that one of the early Jerusalem churches was led by a woman (Wilf, 2019). The active role of women in early Christianity was documented in the Apostle Paul’s letters and the records of early Christian martyrs (Wilf, 2019). However, women were not allowed to hold most official and leadership positions in churches, such as the bishop’s office. Moreover, by the end of the 1st millennium, only one-sixth of the recognized saints were women. Consequently, many stories about women leaders and women martyrs have been forgotten or edited with a distortion of the essence towards promoting male dominance.
Many scholars today agree that women played a more significant role in early Christianity than is commonly believed. Parkhouse (2017) supports Wilf’s suggestion that Mary Magdalene, Thecla, and Perpetua are the most important examples of the female martyr voice in the early Christian world. According to the scholar, these women are considered countercultural Christian teachers as their testimonies break the patriarchal gender hierarchy (Parkhouse, 2017). At the same time, Parkhouse emphasizes the ambivalence of the texts presenting women’s stories and draws attention to the fact that women are placed in sexualized or subordinate roles. According to the scientist, female martyrs are not trusted, and even after receiving the protection of the divine, they have no power over their male peers and look subordinate to them.
Further, Kateusz (2017) describes another revolutionary phenomenon that deserves attention – a woman’s right to be a priest. The scholar emphasizes that Mary, the Mother of God, an example of the greatest female martyrdom, was a priest at the Last Supper. According to the scholar, there was an early tradition in the Virgin’s Life, saying that female disciples were present at the Last Supper. Besides, during this supper, Mary and her son offered sacrifices as priests during a meal. This tradition forms a new Eucharistic model and is a testament to the orthodox gender parallel communion in early Christianity.
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Then, Shoemaker (2011) notes that the Virgin Mary, whose torment was to witness the Passions of Christ, is a symbol of emotional devotion that has inspired many generations of Christians. Evidence of this compassionate spirituality is found in the 7th-century Greek composition The Life of the Virgin, attributed to Maximus the Confessor. Further, in a critical assessment of the article by Sally Douglas, Nortjé-Meyer (2017) notes that Douglas gave an adequate evaluation of women’s wisdom and connection with Jesus. The scholar emphasizes that Douglas cited testimonies from New Testaments and early Christian texts, where Jesus is presented as a perfect divine deity with feminine wisdom as well. This shift in emphasis helps redefine women’s roles and feel more strongly about the injustice of their subordinate position in a patriarchal society.
Finally, Lake-Jedzinak (2020) describes how far Christian women’s influence has spread over the centuries. The scientist notes that in the seventeenth century in Naples, which was then the second-largest city in Europe, representatives of all walks of life collected female portraits of saints in engravings, lives, drawings and paintings. Artisans, street vendors, and professional artists also sold pictures of female martyrs. According to the scientist, this interest in female saints allowed collectors to undermine the patriarchal control in society.
Perpetua and her Visions
The Passion of Saint Perpetua, Saint Felicitas, and their Companions is an edited text from the martyr Perpetua’s prison diary. The text dates back to 203 AD and tells about the fate of a woman who refused to recognize the Roman governor’s supreme deity in Carthage. For this, she was thrown into prison and subsequently executed by a gladiator. Perpetua also had to fight with wild animals in the arena, which was the traditional punishment for the unwanted. One of Perpetua’s most essential qualities as a martyr was her ability to heal by prayer, as attested in her diary.
After the woman realized that she would face death, her seven-year-old brother, who died of cancer, and was suffering in the afterlife, appeared to her in a dream. Perpetua began to pray for him, and soon the vision was replaced by the happy and calm image of a boy (Murphy, 2016). After this vision, Perpetua cured with a word many people who stayed in her prison cell. The impetus for her imprisonment was an initial vision where she saw herself climbing a high staircase to the sky, surrounded by armed men who fought with each other and fell, distracted by the view of the sky that opened above the stairs (Wilf, 2019). Waking up, the martyr still felt the ‘taste of heavenly grace’ on her lips and realized that she was in for a harsh fate, which she could not avoid.
Martyr’s diary was later edited to belittle her role and explain the places where women were superior to men. The original text, which quickly gained popularity among Christians, was shortened for widespread use and was given a new name, Actus (Wilf, 2019). The editors supplemented the original story with information that, in a vision of the upcoming battle with animals in the arena, Perpetua saw herself in the role of a man.
They also explained that her qualities of courage, fearlessness, and willpower can only be explained by the fact that she had a masculine soul, confined in a shameful female body (Wilf, 2019). A part of the diary was also edited, where Perpetua accuses her father of demanding that she recognize the Roman governor as a deity and thus get rid of suffering. Finally, a passage was introduced in the text where the consul interrogates the prisoners, asking men questions about faith. Women, including Perpetua, were asked about worldly matters such as caring for the family to show their place.
Blandina and her Story
Perpetua was not the only martyr in early Christianity. Martyr Blandina, whose story is recorded in the text of The Martyrs of Lyon, is also famous. Murphy (2016) notes that the martyrs who imitated Christ in his suffering tried to be like him in terms of humility. The story of the slave girl Blandina is a prime example of such selfless martyrdom. Blandina, along with the other martyrs, was tied to the cross and inspired her brothers with humble appearance and fragility, which contrasted with the athletic strength required to endure the test.
Moreover, the sacred text notes the miraculousness of Blandina’s prayer for her fellow martyrs. Particular attention in the text is paid to the last testimony of the martyrs, whom Christ commanded not to worry about what to say since the Holy Spirit will speak through their lips. Therefore, unlike Perpetua, Blandina’s martyrdom is described as par with her brothers, and her role is not devoid of respect and dignity.
Thus, the role of women in early Christianity was presented. Besides, men’s dominance in religious matters was demonstrated in the example of Perpetua’s diary. Although women often had equal roles with men in early Christianity, patriarchs belittled Christian women’s moral dignity. An example of this is the text of The Passion of Saint Perpetua, Saint Felicitas, and their Companions, which was edited to suit the patriarchal traditions. Moreover, Perpetua’s inspiring role was justified by the fact that she had a masculine soul.
Kateusz, A. (2017). “She sacrificed herself as the priest”: Early Christian female and male co-priests. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 33(1), 45-67.
Lake-Jedzinak, J. K. (2020). Reframing femininity: Collecting pictures of early Christian virgin martyrs in Naples.
McCarty, V. K. (2020). St. Perpetua: Why martyrs matter. Web.
Murphy, E. (2016). Martyrdom, gender, and authority: Female martyrs as representatives of Christ. Ecclesia, 5(1), 3-5.
Nortjé-Meyer, L. (2017). Early Church Understandings of Jesus as the Female Divine: The Scandal of Particularity. By Sally Douglas. The Journal of Theological Studies, 68 (2), 764-766.
Parkhouse, S. (2017). The fetishization of female exempla: Mary, Thecla, Perpetua, and Felicitas. New Testament Studies, 63(4), 567-587.
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Shoemaker, S. J. (2011). Mary at the cross, east, and west: Maternal compassion and affective piety in the earliest life of the Virgin and the High Middle Ages. The Journal of Theological Studies, 62(2), 570-606.
Wilf, R. (2019). Matriarchs and martyrs: Women in early Christian apocrypha. Religious Studies Summer Fellows, 2(1), 1-22.