In the ancient Middle East, it was shocking and dangerous if a woman left her family and went off traveling with outsider men. That sort of thing could get people killed. But in the gospel accounts, it says that Jesus “went journeying from town to town and village to village … [and] with him were … a number of women … [including] Joanna, the wife of Chuza, a steward of Herod’s, Susanna, and many others.” (Luke 8:1–2) So, Chuza’s wife left her husband to travel with Jesus’ camp.
How did the men of these women’s families’ respond to that? If the record of Middle Eastern and church history is any guide, their fathers or husbands probably didn’t appreciate their women’s travels. In that time and place, most people assumed that any woman traveling without an escort of male relatives would almost inevitably be raped. What else could possibly happen? What else could she possibly be seeking? As Bat Ye’or explains their reality,
The sources make abundant mention of this fear which prevented women from going out and men from venturing into the fields unarmed, and which necessitated collective traveling accompanied by armed guards — a situation which remained the norm till the twentieth-century in countries overrun by nomads, particularly in Palestine, Syria and Iraq.
If a woman ran away from home, most people assumed she must be inviting other men to take her. She had to be a whore. And in the gospels we hear this accusation: Jesus “eats with whores” (Mark 2:13–20). Later, the church clergy accepted such slander against Mary Magdala. And over the religion’s first three centuries there were numerous written accounts of female preachers being pursued, threatened or killed by their male relatives (for shaming the family), or by other men (who assumed they must be available). Among these accounts we have the heroes Thecla in The Acts of Thecla, Drusiana in The Acts of John, or Maximilla in The Acts of Andrew. We also hear of male preachers being killed for leading women “astray.”
If we try to look at the women in the gospel stories, we basically get to see them only in relation to Jesus. And then the force field of dogma concerning Jesus’ superhuman status seems to overshadow everything else in the picture. The women’s subordination to their male lords seems to be replaced with submission to a higher male lord. But what if these women were making independent choices, regardless of what their fathers, husbands, or brothers thought?
We have no direct record of Jesus inviting women to join his traveling road show — only record of them coming and staying. But in that sexually segregated world, how did he find female followers? The accounts suggest that he spoke to stranger women like it was no big deal. But in that culture this was shocking: “his disciples returned, and were astonished to find him talking with a woman; but none of them said … ‘Why are you talking to her?’” (John 4:27).
Like most religious teachers of the ancient world, Jesus was an independent operator. Such preachers, teachers, or gurus tried to offer their wisdom and attract a following, and no doubt many failed to win a single student. In this kind of business, it was the student who chose the teacher, and not the other way around. So when the gospel-story women made their own choices of who to learn from, it was akin to making their own choices about who to love. And over most of Middle Eastern or church history, both those freedoms were commonly denied to women on pain of beating, banishment, or death.
We commonly assume that early Christianity stood for traditional family values. But some lines in the gospel stories seem strangely hostile to such values. Of course that culture’s pervasive language of God seems to presume acceptance of theocratic male supremacy. But what could women at the time make of this: “Do not call any man on earth ‘father’; for you have one Father, and he is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9); “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? … Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother” (Mark 3:33–35). Where many listeners felt that their main duty was to family heads, lines like these treated blind submission to family heads as a kind of idolatry. To women, this suggested that there were more important things in life than serving fathers and husbands. And some of the women who heard it left their families’ men behind.
We also commonly accept that early Christianity upheld the ancient Middle Eastern division of sexual roles, with men as providers and women as nurturers. But after Luke lists the many women traveling in Jesus’ group, he adds “These women provided for them out of their own resources” (Luke 8:3). Matthew adds, “Many women were also there … they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him” (Matthew 27:55). So women here were providers. And if even “providing” seems a subservient role when women do it, we might ask what all these women did besides “provide.” In the Mary-Martha passage (Luke 10) we see Jesus encouraging female students to leave off serving the others, and give their whole attention to his teaching. Was he expecting them to learn what the male students learned, and do what the male students did? Most male leaders of the later church basically said “of course not.” But that answer would dismiss a lot of lines in the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letters.
If traveling around Palestine with Jesus while paying for his mission made one a disciple, then the gospels describe a flock of female disciples. They also show Jesus gratefully accepting help from these women, who were commonly dismissed as “whores.” But by around 95 CE, a letter attributed to Clement, the bishop of Rome, contradicted Jesus’ behavior almost point by point:
With God’s help this is what we do: We do not live with virgins and have nothing to do with them. We do not eat and drink with virgins, and where a virgin sleeps there we do not sleep. Women do not wash our feet, nor do they anoint us. [Where we spend the night, t]here may not be any female, neither unmarried girl nor married woman, neither old woman nor one consecrated to God, neither Christian nor pagan maidservant, but only men may be with men.
King, Karen L., The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, p. 149.
Ranke-Heinemann, Uta, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, pp. 120–121.
Ye’or, Bat, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, p. 67.
Based on sections of Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story by Brian Griffith, published by the Exterminating Angel Press.
Article Written by Brian Griffith
Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto.