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Women in Apostolic Thought from 'Woman as Priest, Bishop and Laity in the Early Church to 440 A.D.' by Arthur Frederick Ide

Women in Apostolic Thought

Woman as Priest, Bishop and Laity in the Early Church to 440 A.D.
by Arthur Frederick Ide, Ide House 1984, pp. 19-26.
Published on our website with the kind permission of the author

Women were loved by Jesus. In the Gospels Jesus often used women in his stories—something quite unusual for that time and his culture which was primarily anti-woman, for Jewish society saw women as disposable, as defined in the Decalogue: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male, nor female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him” (Ex. 20:17). Woman was property: “if a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not regain her liberty like male slaves” (Ex. 21:7), who he could also send out as whores (Gen. 19:4-8; Judg. 19:22-29). She was not to quarrel or refuse man’s wishes, but adore him and call him ba’al (“master”, here used as a noun: Ex. 21:4, 22; Deut. 22:22, and 24:4; II Sam. 11:26; Esther 1:17, 20,Prov. 12:4, and 31:11, 23, 28, and Joel 1:8), or ‘adon (“Lord”, as in Judg. 19:26). A daughter could inherit only if there was no son to inherit (Num. 27:1-11), and was forbidden to move or marry outside of the clan for fear that the dowry would be lost (Num. 36:1-9). A woman could be punished for having sex outside of marriage, whereas a man was immune from punishment provided he did not have sex with a married or betrothed woman—an adulteress was punished for having “exposed her flesh” and for having injured her husband’s property rights, while the adulterer was executed only because he had injured the husband’s property rights. While men were not required to watch the stoning of an adulterer, and/or adulteress, women were required “to see it” so that they would be forewarned of their fate should they be found “guilty” of such a “crime” (Ezek. 16:37-41).(1) Jesus had none of these antediluvian and post-Exilic concerns. Instead he associated women with “the reign of heaven”, and argued that women bring balance to men (Luke 8:4-8, and 16-17; cf. Mark 4:1-9, 21-22; Matt. 13:4-9, and 5:15; Luke 11:33-36; there is no gender used in the story of the lamp, instead the Greek reads oudeis). In Jesus’ story of the widow and the unjust judge, the man is given no qualities superior to the woman (Luke 11:5-9), in fact Jesus pictures the woman as “masculine”: having the masculine characteristics of aggressiveness and determination to succeed—so similar to the eklekta kyria of 2 John.

Whereas Jewish tradition had little to say about women inheriting life eternal, Matthew relates Jesus’ story of the end of the world when “Of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one is left” (Matt. 24:41)— quite identical to Luke’s story of two women grinding at the end of time (Luke 17:36).

Jesus likened God to a woman—the woman who lost her coin and searched until it was found (Luke 15:8f.). This is picked up and embellished in the Gospel of Thomas (a third-century Gnostic Christian “extracanonical” work still debated by scholars as if its sayings can be attributable to Jesus) which states quite clearly that “the kingdom of the [Father] is like a woman” (Logion 96-97).(2)

Jesus gave woman more rights than did the rabbis. Whereas divorce was traditionally a right of men, Jesus said “and if a woman divorces her husband. . .” (Mark 10: 12), but qualified it by applying to her the same restrictions that were to be imposed on a man seeking a divorce: to separate only in cases of inchastity (me epi porneiai; Matt. 19:9; Mark 5:28). Remarriage by any divorced man or woman was equally considered to be adultery; at the same time if either remarried (or even if one married for the first time), both had mutual obligations and privileges.

Jesus saw woman as being first and foremost an individual: a unique person (Matt. 22:23-30; cf. Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-28). Woman is accorded a soul, and she had an inalienable right to be with him in heaven (Matt. 12:46-50; cf. Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21, and 11:27-28).

Unlike the Jews, and later the early Christian men, Jesus was not afraid of women or their physiology. He not only approached women, but talked with women, and healed women (Mark 1:29-31; cf. Matt. 8:14-15; Luke 4: 38-39,, where Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law). He rejected the Jewish concept that an “issue of blood” made a woman unclean (Mark 5:24-34; cf. Matt. 9:18-26; Luke 8:40-56). Jesus even healed a woman on the Sabbath, and called her a “daughter of Abraham” (Luke 19:9)-totally outside of the standard of Hebrew and Jewish terminology which only recognized men to be “sons of the covenant” (bnei brith) (Luke 13:10-17).

Jesus was not a xenophobic, any more than he was anti-woman, as seen in his relationship with the Syro-phoenician woman who he publicly testified had a “great faith” and cured her daughter (Matt. 15:21-28). His concern for her was as great as his was for other women: be they widows (Luke 2:36; 4:25-27; 18:1-8; and 21:1-4; Mark 12:38-44; Matt. 8:14-15; John 19:25-27), and adultresses (John 8:2-11). and public sinners (en hamartolos: “had a bad name” or “was a sinner”, as in Luke 7:36-50). Jesus even accepted prostitutes, and promised that they would enter into his heaven (Matt. 21:23, 31-32) for the prostitute was an exploited woman, who nevertheless is a person who had the right to salvation and paradise. It is for these reasons that so many women were the first to accept the call of Jesus and follow him: Mary, the sister of Martha, was among the first to accept him while he still lived (Luke 10:3842). Others also accepted his call and became his disciples, and went out as ministers (diekonoun) to others “out of their own resources” (Luke 8:1-3; cf. Mark 15:40-41; Matt. 27:55-56).

In light of the Synoptic Gospels it is impossible to ignore that women served as ministers during the life time of Jesus. All three of the Synoptic Gospels use a form of the verb diakoneo (“to serve” or “to minister”) in describing what these women did. Never once did Jesus call them back, admonish them, or rebuke them. Never once did the Gospel writers hesitate in describing their ministry as accepted by Christ,

They even ministered to Christ-and he listened:

There were some women watching from a distance. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary who was the mother of James the younger and Joset, and Salome. These used to follow him and minister (diekonoun) to him when he was in Galilee, And there were many other women there who had come up to Jerusalem with him, (Mark 15:40-41)

And many women were there, watching from a distance, the same women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and ministered (diakonousai) to him. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. (Matt. 27:55-56).

The importance of these female disciples is made even more clear in the extracanonical documents, such as the Sophia Jesu Christi, probably written during the second century anno Domini, it puts seven holy women on par with the twelve male followers which today’s theologians term to be Christ’s disciples.(3) The same is the substance of the account of Salome and Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas.(4) Even the canonical Gospels suggest this, especially in the case of Mary of Magdala (Magdalene; she appears twelve times alone in the list of those who witnessed and/or testified to the resurrection of Christ in the four Gospels; there is no valid reason to identify her with the sinful woman of Luke 7:37-50, or Mary of Bethany, and is always at the head of the list of those who ministered to Jesus during his life time). She was a woman sent by Jesus as his emissary (apostellein) to the male apostles (John 20: 17), and then to the rest of the world she would reach(4) for which she would be called “the apostle to the apostles” by the acerbic Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelth century.(5)

Even the reputed woman-hating Paul was open to admit that women were most active and ambitious for the faith in the ministry needs of the new Church.(6)

This was a mainstay for the early Church which could not be sacrificed, for not only did women help spread the news of Christ’s life, passion, death, and resurrection, but women were among the first to receive and use the gift of prophecy to convert others to Christ:

(“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And, Paul, as was his custom, went into them, and [for] three sabbath days discussed scripture with them, arguing that Christ must have suffered and risen from the dead, claiming ”this Jesus which I tell you about is the annointed one". Some of those [who heard] believed and followed Paul and Silas; they were a great number, these holy Greeks, and many were important women. Acts 17:4) Even the Syriac is the same in content and import:

Some of the Apostle’s daughters even accepted the ministerial call, as was the case with Phillip’s daughters who became numbered among the first prophetesses in the early Church.(7) Paul saluted these women,(8) and later Church historians wrote about them.(9) These were special women: women who opened their homes to travelling missionaries, took in the homeless and sick, held meetings to teach non-Christians the Christian message, and brought discipline to the early Christian community. For this reason the male Apostles listed their names before their husbands—a marked sign of their importance since it was not only uncustomary to list a woman before a man, but a considered insult to the dignity of the male and his gens.(10)


1. See Phyllis Bird, “Images of Woman in the Old Testament,” in Religion and Sexism, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York, 1974), pp. 41-88; cf. my Woman in ancient Israel under the Torah and Talmud, for additional commentary.

2. Much of this Gospel is a variation on the four traditionally accepted Gospels; see New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1, pp, 289-290.

3. Ibid.,p. 246.

4. Ibid., p. 298.

5. Jean-Paul Migne, ed.. Patrologia cursus completus , . , serie Latino (Paris) vol. 183, col. 1148, cf. ibid., vol. 112, cols. 1474B-1475A.

6. Phil. 4:3. The first woman to be called a prophet (prophetis) was “Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well on in years. . . . She came by just at that moment [when Jesus entered the Temple] and began to praise God; and she spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:36-38). Jesus’ aunt Elizabeth was also considered a prophet by the Gospel writers, for she foretold of Mary’s conception (Luke 1:41-45), to which Mary, the Mother of Jesus responded with the famed “Magnificat”, which even Pope Paul VI in marialis Cultus, 37, acknowledged as prophetic. Women numbered among those at Pentecost who received the gift of prophecy: “They went to the upper room. . . .All these joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including Mary the mother of Jesus.. . . When Pentecost day came around, they had all met in one room, when suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house in which they were sitting; and something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech.” (Acts 1:13-14, and 2:1-4).

7. “The end of our voyage from Tyre came when we landed at Ptolemais where we greeted the faithful and stayed for a day with them. The next day we left and came to Caesarea. Here we called on Phillip the evangelist, one of the Seven, and stayed with him. He had four virgin daughters who were prophets.” (Acts 21:7-9).

8. Acts 13:50, cf, 1 Cor. 11:4-5. Paul acknowledges the existence and role of women as prophetesses, requiring them only to have their heads covered—as rabbi do when reading the Torah.

9. Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. 260-340), wrote before A.D. 303, in the Ecclesiastical History (111.31): “The date of John’s death has also been roughly figured [or, fixed]; the place where his mortal remains lie can be gathered from a letter of Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus [present day Turkey], to [Pope] Victor [I, pontiff A.D. 189-198] Bishop of Rome. In it he refers not only to John but to Philip the Apostle and Philip’s daughters as well: ”In Asia great luminaries sleep who shall rise again on the last day, the day of the Lord’s advent, when He is coming with glory from heaven, and shall search out all His saints—such as Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who sleeps in Hierapolis with two of his daughters, who remained unmarried to the end of their days, while his other daughter lived in the Holy Spirit and rests in Ephesus." So much Polycrates tells us about their deaths. And in the Dialogue of Gaius of whom I spoke a little while ago, Proclus, with whom he was disputing, speaks thus about the deaths of Philip and his daughters, in agreement with the foregoing account: “After him there were four women prophets at Hierapolis in Asia, daughters of Philip. Their grave is there, as is their father’s.” That is Gaius’ account. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles refers to Philip’s daughters as then living with their father at Caesarea in Judea and endowed with the prophetic gift."

10. Acts 12:12, and 16:14-15, 40; Romans 16:3, 5 (and see Chapter Four, immediately following); 1 Cor. 10:1, and 16:15, 17, 19; Col. 4:15. Some of these women were even numbered as apostles; Paul heralds Junia as an “outstanding apostle” (apostolos): “Greetings. . . to those outstanding apostles Andronicus and Junia, my compatriots and fellow prisoners who became Christians before me.” (Romans 16:6-8; and see my discussion below). Even the virulent misogynist John Chrysostom, fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, saluted Junia as an apostle (see The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, in the Niceneand Post-Nicene Fathers series I, vol. 11, p. 55 (Grand Rapids, MI, 1956). The Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) acknowledged this to be the precedent for women to be clerics, since they came from the source of deaconesses: “Likewise, however, both deaconesses (diakonisson) and in general all those who are numbered among the clergy [kanoni in the Greek, clericos in the Latin] should retain the same form,” (J.D. Mansi, Sacrorum con-ciliorum nova et amplissa collectio (Florence, 1757-1798), vol. 2, pp. 676ff. Even that great woman-hater Tertullian acknowledged it (Patrologia Latina, vol. 2, col. 978).

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