Birth of the Messiah: Early Christian Tradition

The final article of this Christmas-season series will examine traditions related to the Birth of Jesus in the late-first and second centuries, insofar as they may reflect earlier or established Jewish tradition regarding the Messiah. This short study will be divided into three sections:

    • Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology
    • The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives
    • Justin Martyr & Origen: Second Century Debates with Judaism

Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology

There are only three passages in the New Testament that refer to Jesus’ birth, outside of the Infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. Two of these have already been discussed (Rom 1:3-4 and Gal 4:4-5); the third is the vision of the Woman giving birth in Revelation 12:1-6. I have dealt with this passage in my (ongoing) notes on the book of Revelation (cf. the earlier note). There can be no doubt that, within the context of the visionary narrative, verse 5 refers to the birth, life, and ultimate exaltation to heaven. However, the story-pattern of the vision is wider than this narrow (historical) application. It has legendary, fabulous details common to a number of myths of the time, most notably the tale involving the the Python-serpent, opponent of the god Apollo, which sought to kill his mother Leto (Hyginus, Fabulae 140; Koester, p. 545). Moreover, the brief notice of the child being taken up to heaven does not entirely fit the historical situation of Jesus’ life, which here is compressed to include only the birth and ascension (cp. Justin Martyr First Apology 54.8). This raises the likelihood that an earlier story-pattern has been applied to Jesus, relating to it only those elements of his life which fit the pattern. It is worth considering whether this story-pattern, as adopted in the vision, originally related to the Messiah.

Certainly, Rev 12:1-6 is not simply a story about the birth of Jesus, but of his identity as the Messiah—that is, the Anointed Davidic ruler figure-type. This is especially clear from the wording in verse 5:

“And she produced [e&teken] a male son, who is about to shepherd the nations in [i.e. with] an iron staff. And her offspring [te/knon] was seized/taken (up) toward God and toward His ruling-seat [i.e. throne].”

The words in italics, of course, derive from Psalm 2:9, blended with the Messianic shepherd-imagery taken from passages such as Ezek 34:23. It is possible that Micah 5:2-4 is specifically in mind here, with its combination of elements:

    • The coming forth of God’s chosen ruler (v. 2)
    • The motif of a woman in labor (v. 3)
    • The ruler as a Shepherd who will be great over all the earth (v. 4)

The use of Mic 5:2ff in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2), with its description of Herod’s attempts to kill off a new-born Messiah, certainly seems relevant as well. However, it is by no means clear that a reference to this specific Gospel tradition is intended. The narrative motif of the wicked ruler seeking to kill a chosen (male) child as soon as he is born, is found in many traditional tales and legends worldwide. It is perhaps enough to view the motif here as indicating that the ‘dragon’ wishes to destroy the child before he can exercise his chosen position of rule; the implication being that the ‘dragon’ is already (currently) exercising rule over the nations, or may have the opportunity to do so.

Is it possible that there was a tradition in existence that the Messiah, following his birth, was taken up into heaven, to be kept hidden away until the moment when he should appear at the end-time? There are, in fact, Jewish traditions suggestive of this idea, however their existence as early as the first century A.D. is quite uncertain. The work known as 2 Enoch (or Slavonic Enoch) has been dated to the late-1st century A.D. by some scholars, based on internal considerations; if correct, it would be roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation. Chapters 71-72 describe the birth of Melchizedek—a miraculous (virgin) birth from the wife of Noah’s brother. To save him from the Flood, he is taken up into God’s heavenly paradise by the angel Gabriel; eventually Melchizedek will return to become the head of all priests that are to come, and will return again (in a second form?) at the end-time. While not referred to by the title “Anointed One” (Messiah), Melchizedek certainly has Messianic characteristics and features, as he does in several of the Qumran texts (cf. the article on 11QMelchizedek), blending elements of the Priest-Messiah and Heavenly Deliverer figure-types (cp. his application to Jesus in Hebrews 5-7).

In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a tradition regarding the birth of the Messiah (in Berakot 5a, cf. also Midrash Rabbah on Lamentations 1.51 [on Lam 1:16]), which I have previously noted. In this story, a Jewish farmer, at the time the Temple is destroyed, learns that the Messiah (Menahem ben Hezekiah) has been born in the “royal city” Bethlehem. He finds the child’s mother, who expresses her wish to kill the infant, blaming him for the suffering that has come on her people. Eventually, the child is rescued from this threat, by “strong winds” (implying a divine/heavenly source , cp. 2 Kings 2:11) that snatched him from his mother’s arms. The implication is that he will be kept (in heaven) until the time he is to be revealed. There is no way of knowing how old this tradition is. To be sure, the setting of the story is the first century (70 A.D.), but whether it is an authentic tradition from this time is doubtful.

The setting of the Talmudic story (the destruction of the Temple) for the birth of the Messiah likely has some bearing on the traditional expression “birth-pains of the Messiah” (j^yv!M*h^ yl@b=j#), referring to the period of suffering and distress which immediately precedes the Messiah’s appearance. The background for this expression is ancient, as the pain of women in childbirth often was used to symbolize suffering, typically in relation to God’s Judgment—Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43; Rom 8:22; 1 Thess 5:3. It is used notably in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, in the context of the destruction of the Temple, for the period of distress that precedes Jesus’ end-time appearance and the coming Judgment (Mark 13:8 par; cf. also Luke 23:28-29). The same image of childbirth can also emphasize deliverance from pain/suffering—Mic 4:10; 5:3; Isa 65:23ff; 66:7-9; cf. also John 16:21. Cf. also the childbirth motifs in Isa 7:14 and 66:7, both passages which have been given a Messianic interpretation.

Even more uncertain is the theory that chapters 11-13 of the book of Revelation were influenced by an apocalyptic writing called the Oracle of Hystaspes. This work, in existence by at least the early 2nd century A.D., is Persian—or, at least, it has a Persian setting and provenance—but also appears to contain elements of Jewish apocalyptic. Unfortunately, its contents are only known from the Institutes of Lactantius (book 7) in the early 4th century, and even then only sketchily presented. The similarities between chapters 11 & 13 of Revelation and what Lactantius provides of the Oracle are clear and striking. Like the book of Revelation, it was a fiercely anti-Roman work, directed against the Roman Empire, and expressing the people’s hopes that God would deliver them from its evil control. It is conceivable that the birth of the “great King” who is to come was part of this Oracle, corresponding to Rev 12:1-6, though no mention is made of it by Lactantius, and the connection remains highly speculative.

The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives

Following the composition of the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives (c. 70-80 A.D.), similar works narrating the birth (and childhood) of Jesus came to be produced. For the most part, these are imaginative expansions of the earlier (canonical) Gospel narratives, but they also can include separate traditions which have come down from an early period. It is worth considering whether some of these may reflect Jewish traditions regarding the Messiah.

By far, the oldest and most important extra-canonical Infancy Narrative is that of the so-called “Proto-Gospel” (Protevangelium) of James. Composed sometime during the early 2nd century, it contains at least one significant early tradition—that the birth of Jesus took place in a cave on the desolate outskirts of Bethlehem (17:3-18:1). This detail is attested independently by Justin Martyr in the mid-2nd century (Dialogue with Trypho 78.5, cf. also Origen Against Celsus 1.51). The main additions to the Matthean/Lukan narratives in the Protevangelium involve the role of Mary as the virgin who gives birth to Jesus. Indeed, much of what relates to Jesus as the chosen one (and Messiah) of God extends to include the person of Mary as well. Her birth and childhood (chaps. 1-16), in many ways, parallels that of Jesus himself. This tendency within early Christianity is best described as a strengthening or enhancing of the Messianic and Christological traditions. The following points of emphasis may be noted:

    • The sanctification of Mary and her identity as one specially consecrated to God. This is established two ways:
      • Her association with the Temple (7:1-12:1)—this is an important emphasis in the Lukan narrative as well (1:8-11ff; 2:22-24, 25ff, 41-51)
      • Application to Mary of the traditions regarding the birth and childhood of Samuel (1 Sam 1-3), even as they are used to shape the Lukan narrative of Jesus’ birth and childhood; in the Protevangelium, Mary is raised in the Temple under the guardianship of priests, just as Samuel was.
    • Mary’s Davidic lineage—that she is a descendant of David is specified (chap. 10), leaving no question whatever as to Jesus’ Messianic pedigree as being truly from the line of David. There is no trace of this in the Matthean and Lukan narratives, where Jesus’ descent from David is legal, not biological; the genealogies (Matt 1:2-16; Lk 3:23-38) clearly belong to Joseph, not Mary (cf. also Matt 1:20; Lk 2:4). Indeed, the information in Luke 1:5, 36 indicates that Mary was from the tribe of Levi, not Judah. However, Paul’s wording in Romans 1:3 (compared with Gal 4:4), suggests a biological birth from David, and later Christian tradition followed the Protevangelium in making Mary unequivocally a descendant of David. If nothing else, Protevang. 10 shows how important the association with David remained, among early Christians, for confirming that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah.
    • The virginal conception (and birth) of Jesus. The Protevangelium goes considerably further than the Matthean and Lukan narratives in emphasizing that Mary was a virgin (6:1; 7:2; 8:2ff; 9:1ff; 10; 11:2; 13:1-3; 15:2-3; 16; 19:3-20:4). By the time the Protevangelium was written, this had become more of a matter of Christian apologetic (cf. below), than of the (Messianic) interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 so vital to Matthew’s narrative (1:22-23). However, there are still strong echoes of Isa 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy (see esp. the wording in Protevang. 19:3)

Perhaps the most striking scene in the Protevangelium, for modern readers at least, is in 18:2, where Joseph, while walking outside in search of a midwife, sees all of nature momentarily come completely still. This supernatural intervention in the natural order corresponds with the moment of Jesus’ birth, when a theophanous cloud of glory enters the cave and fills it with light (19:2). Such phenomena are fitting to the traditional identification of Jesus as the Messiah, at his birth, following similar signs and wonders marking his Baptism and Resurrection/Exaltation as the moments when he was ‘born’ as the Messiah and Son of God (for more on this, cf. my recent notes).

Second Century Debates with Judaism

A number of the Christian authors from the second and early-third centuries, whose works have survived, are called “Apologists”, as they sought to provide a proper account or defense (a)pologi/a, “apology”) of the faith, in the face of increasing challenges from Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism alike. At least two of these works contain significant discussions regarding the birth of Jesus as the Messiah.

Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho

Justin’s Dialogue, written sometime after 155 A.D., is presented, as the title indicates, as a dialogue (that is, the literary format, used by Plato, etc) between Justin and a Jew named “Trypho”. To whatever extent this “Trypho” represents a real person, we may safely regard the words placed in his mouth as reflecting the view of Jews at the time—their objections to the Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and the way that the Scriptures are interpreted in support of this belief. His Dialogue is a long and rambling work, awkward and unconvincing in detail, but valuable for the light it sheds on Christian thought (and apologetics) in this early period. The question of Jesus’ birth—and, in particular, the application of Isa 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy—is introduced in chapter/section §43, then after leaving it for a while, Justin picks up the subject again at §66. It remains the point of discussion, off and on, through to §78. The question of Isa 7:14 (and Jesus’ birth) is really part of a wider—and more important—debate regarding how the Old Testament Scriptures are to be interpreted, and whether the Christian approach, advocated by Justin, is reasonable and consistent.

Discussions of this sort, between Christians and Jews, had been going on since the original apostolic mission, as we can see from the numerous references in Luke-Acts regarding the importance of demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah (Lk 24:27, 45; Acts 5:42; 9:22; 17:2-3, 11; 18:5, 28; 26:22-23). For the earliest (Jewish) Christians, the main sticking point was the suffering and death of Jesus, since that did not at all fit the general portrait(s) regarding the Messiah, and was an obvious impediment for Jews in accepting Jesus. By Justin’s time, this had evolved into a more general apologetic, covering a wide range of Scriptures, adopted by Christians as referring to Jesus, in a way that many (if not most) Jews would find hard to accept. Isaiah 7:14, as a reference to the miraculous (virginal) birth of Jesus, was one such passage, and, here, the extended discussion about it demonstrates that it remained of considerable significance as a Messianic prophecy (about Jesus). In objecting to the Christian use of the passage, “Trypho” raises certain critical points, including how the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ is to be translated (cf. my earlier study), which Justin is not particularly well-equipped to address. Even so, the dialogue between the two remains interesting and enlightening to read, even today.

Origen’s Against Celsus

Origen’s extensive writing Against Celsus remains one of his most popular and widely-read works. Written in the early-mid 3rd century, toward the end of his life, it addresses the arguments of Celsus, who was perhaps the most formidable Greco-Roman intellectual opponent of Christianity in the second century. Origen’s lengthy apologetic response to Celsus’ book The True Account (a)lhqh\$ lo/go$) continues to be of considerable historical interest today, for several reasons. Most significant, for the purposes of this article, is the fact that The True Account, based on Origen’s references to it, was framed as a dialogue between a Christian and a Jew, and thus Celsus cleverly makes use of Jewish objections to Christianity as a starting-point for his own arguments. Some of these objections centered around Jesus’ birth, and the Christian identification of him as the Messiah (an identification which otherwise would have been of little interest to a pagan like Celsus).

Celsus’ work argued against the deity of Jesus, and made use of the (supposed) facts surrounding his birth and life as a bar against the Christian belief in Jesus’ identity as the incarnate (Son of) God. Celsus was relatively well-informed regarding Christian beliefs, and seems to have had some familiarity with Jewish traditions as well. He attacks the virgin birth as something invented by Christians (comparing it with similar details in Greek myths and legends), and the Jew in Celsus’ Dialogue brings up Jesus’ illegitimate birth (from the adulterous union between Mary and a soldier named Pantera), and his years as a lowly day-laborer in Egypt (where he also learned the magic arts), as all quite contrary to the Gospel record, and unworthy of a belief in Jesus’ deity (I. 28-29ff, 32-33, 69); the Gospel genealogies (including Jesus’ Davidic ancestry) are similarly disregarded as Christian inventions (II. 32).

As it happens, the tradition regarding Jesus’ adulterous birth (as the illegitimate son of the soldier Pantera, ben-Pantera) is known from later Jewish sources (Babylonian Talmud Sabbath 104b, Sanhedrin 67a; Tosephta Hullin 2.22-23; Jerusalem Talmud Aboda Zara 40d, Sabbath 14d, etc). Its inclusion in Celsus’ work (written sometime before 180 A.D.) demonstrates that the tradition was in circulation by the mid-2nd century A.D. Tertullian was similarly aware of the charge that Jesus was the son of a prostitute (De Spectaculis 30.6). Cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 535-6.

It is quite possible that this all traces back to the basic historical traditions, recorded in the Gospel Infancy narratives (Matt 1:18-20), of the unusual (and potentially scandalous) circumstances of Jesus’ conception and birth. Almost certainly, these rumors of illegitimacy, which coalesced in the Pantera-tradition, would have been used by Jews at the time as a strong argument against identifying Jesus as the Messiah. While Jewish sources in this period do not say much regarding how the Messiah’s birth might take place (cf. the earlier articles in this series), the details of Jesus’ birth, according to the Pantera tradition, certainly would not be considered worthy of the Messiah. Celsus develops this further to argue that it is also not worthy of one considered to be the Son of God.

In other references to Jesus’ birth, Celsus draws primarily from the Gospel narratives (i.e. the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke). Interestingly, though he attacks the virgin birth, Celsus apparently made no mention of the prophecy in Isa 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23), nor the Jewish critique of the Christian use of it (cf. above). Even so, Origen feels compelled to introduce the subject (I. 34), touching upon the critical question of translating the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ as parqe/no$ (“virgin”), as well as providing a rudimentary (for the time) historical-critical assessment of the passage (I. 35). While the main issue for Origen is a defense of the Christian belief in the virgin birth, his continued emphasis on Isa 7:14, following that of Justin Martyr decades earlier, illustrates the abiding force of that key Scripture as a Messianic prophecy. It also makes vividly clear the uniquely Christian development of the Messianic idea, whereby the birth of Jesus was regarded as, not only the birth of the Messiah, but also the birth of the Son of God.

“Brown, Birth” refers to Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977, 1993).
“Koester” above refers to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

Supplementary Notes on Baptism

As a supplement to the recently concluded series of daily notes on Baptism (and the bapt- word-group), I thought it worth discussing the mode and form of early Christian baptism. The New Testament writings give no precise directions as to how the ritual was (to be) performed; however, they do contain certain clues which may allow us to reconstruct, at least partially, the ritual as practiced by Christians in the second half of the 1st century A.D.

The Gospels and Acts

To begin with, the dunkings performed by John the Baptist were performed in the Jordan river (and similar water sources, Mark 1:5, 9 par; Jn 3:23). Presumably these would have taken place with the person standing (or kneeling) in the river, along with John, who would have literally “dunked” (vb. bapti/zw) the person down into the water, or, perhaps, taken up water to pour over the person’s head. In the Synoptic account of Jesus’ baptism, it is stated that he “stepped up” (vb a)nabai/nw) out of the water (Mk 1:10 par), clearly indicating that he had previously “stepped down” into the water (i.e. into the river). According to the notice in Mk 1:5 par, those who were dunked gave an account of (i.e. confessed) their sins; presumably, there would have been a corresponding announcement (by John) of the “release” (a&fesi$, i.e. cleansing, forgiveness) of the person’s sin. Assuming the historical accuracy and reliability of all this, these details, taken together, would form the kernal of a ritual (and rudimentary liturgy).

According to the (historical) tradition in John 3:22; 4:1-2, Jesus and his disciples performed similar dunkings, and, almost certainly, the earliest Christian baptisms, as referenced and narrated in the book of Acts, followed the Johannine (i.e. the Baptist’s) pattern. This means that those who were baptized would have been taken to the Jordan (or a similar water-source) and immersed (fully or partially) in the water, with a confession of sin, etc. The main difference was that these early Christian baptisms were performed “in the name of Jesus”, meaning that they involved a confession of trust/faith in Jesus (cf. 22:16), with the corresponding affirmation that this signified that the person now belonged to Jesus (as his follower). This early baptism is perhaps best illustrated in the episode of Philip and the Ethiopian official (8:26-40), which culminates in the official being baptized:

“And as they traveled down the way, they came upon some water, and the eu)nou=xo$ [i.e. the official] said, ‘See, water! What (would) cut me off (from) being dunked [baptisqh=nai]?’ And he urged the vehicle to stand (still), and they both stepped down into the water, Philip and the eu)nou=xo$, and he dunked [e)ba/ptisen] him. And when they stepped up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord…” (vv. 36, 38-39a)

Verse 37 is almost certainly not part of the original text, but reveals the early Christian concern that baptism be tied to a clear profession of faith by the one being dunked:

“And Philip said, ‘If you trust out of your whole heart you are able (to be dunked)’. And giving forth an answer, he said, ‘I trust (that) Yeshua (the) Anointed is the Son of God’.”

It is possible that this addition reflects early baptismal practice (i.e. in the late-first or early-second century). Two other elements were closely connected with baptism in the book of Acts: (1) the laying on of hands (by an apostle or other designated minister), and (2) that the Holy Spirit would come upon the person. In all likelihood each of these were incorporated into the early ritual.

The Pauline Letters

In discussing the passages relating to baptism in Paul’s letters (Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; 2 Cor 1:22, etc), we explored the possibility that he was drawing upon baptismal traditions of the time—that is, how baptism was practiced c. 50-60 A.D. Given the highly formulaic language, and the basic character of the symbolism, this indeed seems likely. It would mean, then, that Paul’s references give us some idea of the mode and form of the ritual itself. I would note the following points:

    • The symbolism of the believer participating in the death (and burial) of Jesus suggests that a literal dunking (i.e. full or partial immersion) was still being employed
    • The language of putting off an ‘old’ garment, and putting on the ‘new’ (i.e. Christ and/or the Spirit as a garment) suggests that ceremonial clothing was involved in the ritual. This would be in accord with similar initiation rites performed in contemporary ‘mystery cults’, etc. The symbolism is so basic, and natural to the ritual action itself, that it is hard to imagine that Christians would not have applied it to baptism at a very early stage.
    • References to anointing in a baptismal context. This could simply be an extension of references to Jesus as the Anointed One (vb xri/w, noun xristo/$), and to the coming of the Spirit as an anointing (Luke 3:22 par; 4:1ff, 14, 18ff). However, it would be natural enough, and quite expected, if this aspect were symbolized in the ritual through an actual anointing (xri=sma) with oil. We know that Christians in the first century did made ceremonial use of oil for anointing (James 5:14).
    • In all likelihood, ceremonial anointing (if indeed it took place) following baptism was meant to symbolize the presence of the Spirit, which Paul elsewhere refers to with the (parallel) image of sealing (2 Cor 1:22; also Eph 1:13; 4:30). Such language may have been part of the baptismal ritual as early as Paul’s time (cf. below).
    • The wording in 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; Col 2:12, etc, may well reflect early baptismal formulae, such as would have occurred in performance the ritual, part of a basic liturgy. In addition to a confession of trust in Jesus by the person being baptized, there likely would have been a declaration (by the officiating minister[s]) prior to entering the water, and subsequently after the person emerged from the water. However, we can only speculate as to the details.
The Remainder of the New Testament

The only other direct reference to baptism is 1 Peter 3:21 (cf. the previous note). Most of what can be ascertained from the Pauline references (above) likely applies here as well. The use of the noun e)perw/thma could reflect a formal question/answer process as part of the baptism ritual, though this is far from certain. Baptism is presumably referred to in Hebrews 10:22, and also 6:2 (plural baptismoi/, dunkings/washings), but with little indication regarding the ritual itself; however, 6:1 could possibly reflect the sort of (formal) instruction which would precede baptism.

The noun xri=sma (“anointing”) in 1 John 2:20, 27 probably alludes to the baptismal symbolism of the believer’s union with Jesus through the presence of the Spirit—following the core early Christian tradition of the coming of the Spirit as an “anointing”. Similarly, there may be baptismal allusions in the motif of washing (i.e. washing of one’s robe) in the book of Revelation (7:14; 22:14), as also of the white robes that believers wear (3:4-5, 18; 6:11; 7:9ff; 19:14).

It may be possible to reconstruct the first-century baptism ritual, loosely, as follows:

    • The believer descends into the water (i.e. full/partial immersion)
    • This would involve a ceremonial removal of the ‘old’ garment
    • An officiating minister would make declaration regarding the putting away of sin (the old nature), etc
    • The believer makes public profession of faith, probably as part of a simple question/answer liturgy
    • Upon stepping out of the water, there is the ceremonial donning of a ‘new’ garment
    • An officiating minister makes declaration regarding the new life in Christ, etc
    • A ceremonial laying on of hands, and(/or) anointing with oil
    • Symbolic act/announcement to the effect that the believer has been “sealed” with the Spirit, along with an exhortation to live/act in a holy manner (until Jesus’ return)
Other Early Christian Evidence

References to baptism outside of the New Testament, in writings from the late-first and early-second centuries, are not as common or as extensive as one might hope. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) makes two contributions to our knowledge of baptism in this period:

    • It is not proper to baptize without a presiding overseer (e)pi/skopo$) for the congregation (or region) being present (Smyrneans 8:2)
    • Ephesians 18:2 provides the earliest evidence for the mystical/symbolic belief that Jesus, in his own baptism, effectively sanctified the waters that are used (everywhere) when believers are baptized; this would become an important part of the baptism ritual in the Eastern (Syrian) churches.

The manual known as the Teaching (Didach¢¡) of the Twelve Apostles gives us the only real description of baptism prior to about 150 A.D. Generally dated to the first half of the 2nd century, but perhaps containing material and traditions from the late-1st century, the section dealing with baptism is in the short chapter 7; the instruction may be summarized as follows:

    • Baptism should be performed with the trinitarian formula “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (cf. Matt 28:19); in spite of that same directive being uttered by Jesus in the Matthean passage, it does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament, nor is there any indication that Christians prior to 70-80 A.D. (i.e. when the Gospel of Matthew was likely written) ever used such a trinitarian formula; Didache 7:1 is the oldest direct evidence for its use.
    • Baptism should be done in “living water”, that is, in the natural running water of a river or stream; this suggests a continuation of at least a partial immersion of the believer (and officiating minister) in the water.
    • The baptism involves the pouring of water over the head of the person, presumably while he/she stood (or kneeled) in the water
    • This pouring should be done three times (i.e. “trine baptism”), corresponding to the trinitarian formula
    • The believer should fast (one or two days) prior to baptism, presumably as a sign of repentance
    • In 9:5 it is further directed that no one should partake in the ritual meal (Lord’ Supper / Eucharist) unless they have first been baptized “in the Lord’s name”.

Other evidence from the mid-second century may be summarized:

    • 2 Clement 6:9 emphasizes the need for the believer to maintain the purity of his/her baptism; presumably this sort of exhortation would have been part of the early ritual itself
    • In this regard, baptism is specifically referred to as a seal (sfragi/$) in 2 Clement 7:6; 8:6 (cf. also Hermas Similitude 8.6.3; 9:16:3ff, etc), i.e. something which must not be broken. This language goes back at least to the time of Paul (cf. above), and would have related to the (ritual) symbolism of anointing.
    • Justin Martyr, in his First Apology (c. 150-155), discusses Christian baptism in chapter 61; his instruction generally matches that of Didache 7 (above), though with greater exposition of the theological and ethical signficance, giving special emphasis to the older aspects of repentance and cleansing (from sin) which were first associated with the dunking/washing ritual (cf. above). He also provides a brief notice in chap. 65 of baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) as it is to take place in the congregational setting.

By the late-2nd and early-3rd centuries, more extensive treatments on baptism were being produced, and which have come down to us—most notably Tertullian’s On Baptism, and the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. These works demonstrate clearly how the older/earlier traditions were developed and given a more precise and authoritative form.

In terms of the visual representation of baptism, the earliest evidence comes from the 3rd and 4th century Roman “catacombs”. The representations generally support the description in Didache 7, of a partial immersion (i.e. standing in water), while an officiating minister pours water over the person’s head. Below are three examples (including a modern reconstruction):

Early depictions of the Baptism of Jesus followed a similar pattern, establishing an artistic template for the scene—both in Western and Eastern tradition—that would last for centuries:

Note on the Baptism of Children

Several of the images above suggest that children are being baptized. We know that by at least the late-2nd century, children were baptized regularly, though there appear to have been some misgivings about baptizing small children (cf. Tertullian On Baptism §18). The question regarding whether young children (and infants) should be baptized, or whether the ritual is best reserved for consenting adults (possibly including older children), has been the subject of longstanding debate and discussion. Many Protestants, in particular, argue strongly in favor of adult “believer’s baptism”, and against infant (or child) baptism. In spite of this, baptism of infants has been the common practice, throughout much of the Christian world, since the 5th century.

As far as the New Testament evidence is concerned, there is no indication that children (especially infants) were ever baptized. Since the original Johannine dunkings, and the corresponding early Christian baptisms that followed, were centered on a conscious profession of faith and repentance from sin, it is unlikely that they were ever performed on children (i.e., those younger than 12 years of age). The only possible evidence for the baptism of children are the notices of entire households being baptized (cf. Acts 16:31; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16), but it is far from certain that this would have included young children. Supporters of infant baptism today cite parallels with circumcision; to be sure, a parallel is made between circumcision and baptism in Col 2:11-12 (possibly also Rom 4:11), but only insofar as the image of removing the outer skin resembles that of “putting away” the ‘garment’ of the old nature. There is no suggestion of its application to children; moreover, Col 2:11-12 is the only such example of this parallel being drawn.

Jerusalem and the Unity of Believers (part 3)

In the previous day’s note, I examined the theme of the unity of the believers in Jerusalem in the early chapters of Acts (chs. 1-7); in so doing, I specifically discussed the first of two words or phrases used repeatedly by the author to express this sense of unity—e)pi\ to\ au)to/. Today I will be looking at the second expression—o(moqumado/n.

2. o(moqumado/n (homothymadón)

With one exception (Romans 15:6), all New Testament occurrences of this adverb are in the book of Acts. It is a compound derived from o(mo/$ (homós, “one”) and qu/mo$ (thýmos). This noun (qu/mo$, from qu/w) fundamentally refers to a violent movement (i.e. of wind, breath, etc), and so, for human beings, often the sense of “spirit, passion, anger”, and so forth. It would come to carry the more general anthropological semantic range of “soul, mind, will, disposition, temperment”, etc. as well. The adverb o(moqumado/n is typically translated as “of one mind/will/consent”, and so forth; a more literal rendering might be “of one impulse”, which I have chosen to use below. Here are the passages where this word is used in the book of Acts (note the proximity/pairing with the expression e)pi\ to\ au)to/):

  • Acts 1:14: “These [i.e. the apostles mentioned in v. 13] all were being strong/steadfast toward (each other) with one impulse (in) speaking toward (God) [i.e. prayer], (together) with (the) women and Maryam the mother of Jesus and his brothers.”
    • V. 15—e)pi\ to\ au)to/, in context of the ~120 (12 x 10) disciples mentioned parenthetically
  • Acts 2:46: “According to (the) day [i.e. daily], being strong/steadfast toward (each other) with one impulse in the sacred place [i.e. Temple], breaking bread according to (the) house, they took/received meat with (each other) in joyfulness and smoothness/simplicity [lit. without a stone/pebble] of heart.”
    • V. 44, 47—two instances of e)pi\ to/ au)to/: the first, a reference to the believers being/living together and holding all things in common; the second, a climactic reference to the community of believers, which was being added to (with new members/converts) each day.
  • Acts 4:24: “And the (believer)s having heard, with one impulse (they) took up voice toward God and said…”—in response to the arrest, and subsequent release, of Peter and John narrated in 4:1-22.
    • V. 26—e)pi\ to/ au)to/ cited from Psalm 2:2, referring to the opposite of Christian unity: earthly rulers come/join together against God and His Anointed (Christ).
  • Acts 5:12: “…and they were all (together) of one impulse in the pillared (porch) of Shelomoh [Solomon]”—a notice following the response to “signs and wonders” which occurred “through the hands of the apostles”.
  • Acts 7:57: “and crying (out) with a great voice, they pressed together [i.e. shut] their ears and rushed (together) with one impulse upon him…”—referring the the angry mob that attacks Stephen following his speech (7:2-53) and visionary claim (v. 55-56).
  • Acts 8:6: “and the crowds had (care) toward the (things) related under [i.e. by] Philip, with one impulse, in their hearing and seeing the signs which he did”—here, no doubt, the gentler “of/with one mind” would be a bit more appropriate.
  • Acts 12:20: Here o(moqumado/n is used in a political/diplomatic sense, of the representatives of Tyre and Sidon who came to Herod “of/with one mind/impulse” to seek peace.
  • Acts 15:25: “It seemed (good) to us, (having) come to be of one mind/impulse, to send toward you men gathered out [i.e. chosen] (along) with our beloved Paulus and Bar-Nabas”—part of the letter from the Jerusalem church in 15:22-29.
  • Acts 18:12: “…the Yehudeans [i.e. Jews] with one impulse stood against Paulus and led him upon the step (of judgment)”—o(moqumado/n in a hostile, anti-Christian sense, as in 7:57.
  • Acts 19:29: “and the city was filled with (people) poured-together [i.e. confusion], and they rushed (angrily) with one impulse into the show-place [i.e. theatre]…”—another instance of hostile usage.

The only other New Testament use of the word is in Romans 15:6:

5And (may) the God of remaining-under [i.e. patience/endurance] and calling-alongside [i.e. help/comfort] give to you the self(-same) thinking [i.e. to be of the same mind] in/among one another, according to (the) Anointed Yeshua, 6(so) that of one impulse in/with (a) single mouth you might give honor/esteem to [i.e. glorify] the God and Father of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed.

Here unity is clearly connected to our relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ, and manifest in terms of confession and worship. Yet, the dynamic quality of this relationship—such as in the basic, elemental sense which underlies qumo$/o(moqumadon—remains. The New Testament usage, summarized above, can be clarified further into two different primary aspects:

    1. Acts of fervent, communal worship—positive, applied to the early believers
    2. Description of a agitated crowd pressed together and rushing to action—mainly negative, applied to opponents/enemies of Christ

This very much demonstrates the two sides of unity experienced by the early Church, and, indeed, by faithful believers throughout history.

(This article is part of the periodic series Jews & Gentiles and the People of God.)

Jerusalem and the Unity of Believers (part 2)

An important theme of the early chapters of Acts (chs. 1-7) is the unity of believers. This is described in a sequence of introductory/summary passages which punctuate the narratives in these chapters. The main references are:

    • Acts 1:14, part of a transitional passage (vv. 12-14) that follows the Ascension narrative (vv. 6-11).
    • Acts 1:15-26, an introductory, pattern-setting narrative which details the ‘reconstitution’ of the Twelve apostles, and containing a speech by Peter.
    • Acts 2:1, introduction to the Pentecost narrative (2:1-13).
    • Acts 2:42-47, a summary/transitional passage following Pentecost speech by Peter (vv. 14-40).
    • Acts 4:23-31, a narrative which runs, in many ways, parallel to that of 1:15-26, confirming the mission of the apostles and other believers.
    • Acts 4:32-37, a summary/transitional passage, which also serves to introduce the Ananias/Sapphira narrative (5:1-11).
    • Acts 5:42, summary verse to the narrative in 5:17-41 (for similar summary verses, see 2:41, 47b; 4:31[b]; 6:7).
    • Acts 6:1-6, a short narrative describing the first challenge to unity among the Jerusalem believers (note also the summary in v. 7).

It is only after the death of Stephen, and the onset of persecution (8:1-4, cf. also 11:19), that the (local/geographical) unity of the believers is broken—ironically, the dispersion/scattering (8:4) served to inaugurate the early Christian mission to the wider world outside of Jerusalem and Judea. Here are some key points in the descriptions of unity surveyed above:

    • They were devoted to prayer (1:14; 2:42; 4:31) and the teaching of the apostles (2:42; 6:4)
    • They were gathered together as a group/community in one location, which might vary “house to house” (2:1, 46; 4:31)—2:44 may also indicate some form of communal living (such as associated with the community of the Qumran texts)
    • They came together for the “breaking of bread”—common meals and/or eucharistic celebration (2:42)
    • They frequently gathered and attended in the Temple (Lk 24:53; 2:46, cf. also 3:1)
    • They held all things in common, selling possessions and providing for believers who were in need (2:44-45; 4:32, 34-37; 6:1)

There are, in particular, two expressions employed by the author of Acts to emphasize the unity of these early believers—e)pi\ to\ au)to/ and o(moqumado/n.

1. e)pi\ to\ au)to/ (epì tò autó)

This is a relatively common Greek idiom which the author of Acts (trad. Luke) uses in a distinctive manner. It is actually rather difficult to translate literally in English; the closest perhaps would be “upon the same (thing/place)”. In conventional English, it is typically rendered as “together”, in either: (a) a spatial-geographic sense [“in the same place”], (b) in terms of common identity [“for the same cause/purpose etc”], or (c) in the more generic sense of being gathered/grouped together. Where the expression occurs in the LXX, the generic or spatial sense is most likely meant (cf. Exod 26:9; Deut 12:15; 2 Sam 2:13; Ps 4:8[9]; Isa 66:17; Hos 1:11 [LXX 2:2]); a possible exception is the usage in Psalm 2:2, which would probably have been the reference most familiar to many early Christians (cf. Acts 4:25f). The expression also is used elsewhere in the New Testament in a similar manner, in Matt 22:34; Lk 17:35; 1 Cor 7:5; 11:20; 14:23; the last two references in Corinthians provide the closest context to the usage in Acts.

It is perhaps possible to trace a progression, of sorts, in the occurrences of the expression in the book of Acts:

  • Acts 1:15—here, in a parenthetical statement on the number of early believers gathered in Jerusalem, the expression is certainly used in a simple generic sense. However, the notice of the specific number—120—almost certainly is significant in relation to the symbolism of the disciples (the 12 apostles and 12 x 10) as a fulfillment/restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel.
  • Acts 2:1—here either the generic or spatial sense is primarily meant; the combined usage with the adverb o(mou= perhaps indicates the latter.
  • Acts 2:44—probably the spatial/geographic sense is meant here, i.e. the believers were living together (in the same place). To some degree, the communal life is implied, to which (by, for example, holding all possessions in common) is also attached or included a unity of purpose.
  • Acts 2:47b—this is the most difficult reference: “and the Lord set toward [i.e. added to] the (one)s being saved according to (the) day [i.e. daily] e)pi\ to\ au)to/“. The culminating expression is extremely difficult to translate accurately in context. Possibly it has the sense of “all together”, but clearly something more than simple grouping/gathering together is meant. The climactic and emphatic position of the expression suggests a deeper unity of identity and/or purpose is implied. New believers become part of the overall community, which, for the moment is spatially united (in Jerusalem and living/worshiping communally), but soon will be scattered (Acts 8:1-4; 11:19) into the wider mission field.
  • Acts 4:26—this use of the expression comes from a citation of Psalm 2:2 (mentioned above); the context is of earthly rulers taking counsel together (LXX “are led/brought together”) for a definite purpose and with hostile intent (“against the Lord [YHWH] and against his Anointed”). The expression e)pi\ to\ au)to/ translates Hebrew adverb dj^y~ yaµad, “as one, in union, together”. This is the opposite of the unity of early Christians; it is anti-Christian (i.e. unity against Christ), the joining together of enemies/opponents of Christ. The transitional narrative of Acts 4:23-31 reflects the prior arrest/interrogation of the leading apostles (in chapters 3-4) and foreshadows the challenges to unity recorded in chapters 5-6. As previously mentioned, with the execution of Stephen, and the onset of more intense persecution, hostility of enemies will break the spatial unity of believers; however, as 4:23-31 makes clear, the unity of purpose and identity remains unbroken. Perhaps it would be better to speak of unity of spirit (or Spirit), though this transcends ultimately the simple expression e)pi\ to\ au)to/.

It remains to look at the second expression for unity (o(moqumado/n), which I will do in the next day’s note.

(This article is part of the periodic series Jews & Gentiles and the People of God.)

Women in the Church: Summary and Conclusion

The conclusion to the study series Women in the Church, which has been posted here over the past week to commemorate Mother’s Day (May 10, 2020). The articles in this series are cited in the summary below.

Having examined the most relevant passages in the Scriptures—Old and New Testaments—as well as the evidence from early Christianity taken overall, through the notes and articles of this series, it remains to offer a summary of this evidence, so as to frame a useful concluding assessment of the issues at hand. During this series, I began with the specific passages in the Pauline Letters (Parts 16), moving back to examine the New Testament and (earlier) Old Testament as a whole (Parts 78). Here, in summary, I will reverse the process.

The Old Testament

When considering the Old Testament passages, it is most important to recognize the ancient Near Eastern cultural context. From the later Bronze and Iron Ages (c. 2000-500 B.C.), down through the Greek and Roman periods, society was predominantly patriarchal and patrilineal—that is, male-oriented, with emphasis given to the position of father, husband, and (eldest) son. The laws, government, and social conventions of Israel naturally reflect this, and we must be careful not to assume that such historical-cultural circumstances, as they are reflected in the Old Testament Law (Torah), are binding on later Jews and Christians. As a similar example, the acceptance of the institution of slavery in Israelite society certainly does not mean that it ought to be accepted by Christians today.

When we turn specifically to the religious side of things, there are three key points which, I believe, can be established with reasonably certainty (cf. the discussion in Part 8):

    1. With but few exceptions, in the Law and the practice of Israelite religion, men and women had more or less equal status. Apart from the priesthood, women were able to participate in the rituals and feasts alongside men, with little or no restriction. Similarly, access to the Tabernacle does not seem to have been limited; only in later Jewish tradition were portions of the Temple reserved for men. Perhaps more importantly, the sacrificial ritual—in terms of sin, cleansing, and redemption, etc—applied to men and women with little apparent distinction.
    2. The Priesthood was reserved for men—that is, for Aaron and his descendents, as well as the males from the tribe of Levi (the Levites).
    3. Men and women could serve equally as inspired/authoritative Prophets.

The New Testament

When we turn to the New Testament (Part 7), the evidence is similarly mixed. On the one hand, Jesus’ circle of close disciples, those specifically chosen by him to serve as his representatives (apostles), were all men. At the same time, there were women who followed him, and traveled/stayed together with him (alongside the men). The evidence for this is relatively slight (cf. Lk 8:1-3; Mk 15:40-41 par), but established well enough to be completely reliable (on objective grounds). Moreover, Jesus’ dealing with women (also well-established in Gospel tradition) were frequent and distinctive enough to cause comment and objection among observers (Lk 7:36-39; Jn 4:7-30, etc), indicating that he may have challenged the accepted social conventions, in certain respects, regarding the interaction of men and women. Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, should be counted among Jesus’ close friends and followers (Lk 10:38-42; Jn 11:5, 19-27 ff; 12:1-3ff). Perhaps the most important Gospel tradition regarding women is the appearance of Mary Magdalene (along with other women) at the tomb; they were the first to see the empty tomb, encounter the resurrected Jesus, and to proclaim the good news of the Gospel (i.e., the resurrection). Mention should also be made of the role of Mary, mother of Jesus, especially within the Lukan narrative (Lk 1:26-56; 2:5-7, 16-38ff; 8:19-21; Acts 1:14).

In the book of Acts, there is a strong egalitarian character to the early Christian community, in which men and women are mentioned together as believers without any apparent distinction (1:14ff, etc). The Spirit comes upon them all as they are gathered together in one place (2:1-4ff), the gift and manifestation of the Spirit coming to men and women both, in fulfillment of the key prophecy in Joel 2:28-32 (Acts 2:17-21). Admittedly, those mentioned as apostles (a)po/stoloi) in Acts are all men, as well as the seven chosen as “servants/ministers” (“to serve”, diakone/w) in Acts 6. Indeed, throughout the entire New Testament, there is only one (possible) instance where a woman is referred to as an apostle (Junia in Rom 16:7, discussed in Part 4), but the interpretation of this reference is by no means certain. However, women do feature prominently throughout the book of Acts, and are mentioned among the notable early converts to the faith. Perhaps most significant is Priscilla who, with her husband Aquila, served as Christian leaders (ministers) in three different cities—Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. Priscilla (or Prisca) was a close companion and fellow-minister of Paul (Acts 18:3, 18; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19), who appears in Acts 18. The role she plays (with her husband) in instructing Apollos (v. 26) is a key New Testament reference for our subject, though its import should not be exaggerated.

The Pauline Letters

Five primary passages in the letters—1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33-36; Gal 3:28; Rom 16:1-2ff, and 1 Tim 2:11-15—were discussed in detail in Parts 15 (cf. also the overview study in Part 6). Here I will summarize the overall evidence, distilling it into a number of central points. I begin with the letters where Pauline authorship is more or less undisputed (esp. Corinthians, Romans, and Philippians):

  • When Paul refers to women who are his companions and fellow-workers, he does so without any special distinction to suggest that they serve a lesser or subordinate role. As I discussed in Part 4 (on Rom 16:1-2ff), he uses the terms dia/konoi (“servant/minister”) and sunergoi/ (“co-workers”), etc, equally of men and women, without any apparent qualification; and may even use a)po/stolo$ (apostle) of a women (Junia) in Rom 16:7.
  • Based on the references in 1 Corinthians and Romans, it would seem also that men and women receive the various spiritual “gifts” (charismata) equally, with little or no restriction (with the possible exception of the ‘highest’ gift, apostleship). As such, women would have been expected to exercise their gift (i.e. ministry) within the life of the Community.
  • Women could serve as “prophets” (the second ‘highest’) gift within the Community. This included speaking—delivering prophetic messages—within the congregational meeting (1 Cor 11:2-16). The only restriction Paul lays upon them is that they prophesy with their head covered (wearing a covering over their head/hair). Cf. the extensive discussion in Part 1, along with the notes on 1 Cor 11:10.
  • Paul does seem to accept some (hierarchical) distinction between men and women in the congregation which does effect their ministerial role and position in certain ways (cf. the discussion in Parts 1 and 2). The extent to which he restricts the role of women in this regard is based on two main factors: (1) observing accepted social custom, and (2) an interpretation of the Creation account in Genesis 1-3. The latter factor is most problematic from our standpoint today, and yet it cannot be ignored.
  • At the same time, we have the fundamental statement in Galatians 3:28c—”in (Christ) there is no male and female”—which would seem to abolish gender distinctions among believers, just as it does for religious-cultural (Jew/Gentile) and socio-economic (slave/free) distinctions (v. 28ab). While this is certainly true in terms of basic Christian identity (note the baptism context), Paul does not seem (or was not willing) to apply the principle absolutely in practice. I discuss the subject in Part 3, and in a set of supplemental notes on Gal 3:28. Interestingly, this statement (with the specific expression “male and female”) almost certainly ties back to the Creation narrative as well.

Mention should also be made of the Pauline tradition recorded in Acts 14:23 and again in 20:17ff, whereby Paul (and, presumably, other Apostles) appointed elders (presbu/teroi) to lead and guide the congregations established in the various cities. There may be an echo of this in Phil 1:1, but it becomes far more prominent in the Pastoral letters, which present a stronger and more distinctive picture of church organization and government than we see in the undisputed Pauline letters. I discuss this at length in Parts 5 (on 1 Tim 2:11-15) and 6. If the Pastoral letters are genuinely by Paul, and relatively early (c. 60-63 A.D.), then it is necessary to study them closely in comparison with the relevant passages in 1 Corinthians, etc. However, if they (esp. 1 Timothy) are pseudonymous, and a later product (c. 80-100?), then we must consider the traditions and instruction contained in them in a somewhat different light—as part of the subsequent ecclesiastical development in the early Church (cf. below). Folding the Pastorals into the overall evidence from the Pauline letters, we should distinguish several key terms which play an important part in understanding the roles of men and women in ministry in the New Testament period:

  • Apostle (a)po/stolo$)—as mentioned above, with one possible exception, this title is only applied to men. Traditionally, it goes back to the idea of those disciples (the Twelve, etc) whom Jesus appointed and “sent forth” as his representatives, to proclaim the Gospel, work miracles, and, ultimately, to establish congregations (churches) of believers around the world. Paul uses the term frequently (25 times in the undisputed letters), often in reference to himself and the ministry to which God has called him.
  • Servant/Minister (dia/kono$)—With one possible exception (Phil 1:1), Paul always uses the term in a general sense—applying it to himself and his co-workers (men and women alike)—as a minister (lit. “servant”) of Christ and the Gospel. In the Pastoral letters (1 Tim 3:8-13), the word seems to refer to a more distinct role or “office” in the Church, as it certainly came to be in later tradition (but note the general sense of the word still in 4:6). The context of 3:8ff seems to assume that these ministers are men, though, because of the ambiguity surrounding verse 11, we cannot be certain of this.
  • Elder (presbu/tero$)—According to the tradition(s) in Acts 14:23; 20:17ff, Paul established “elders” (presumably gender-specific, i.e. men) to “oversee” and guide/lead the congregations. However, Paul never once uses this term in any of the undisputed letters, which is indeed surprising. By contrast, it is used a number of times in the Pastoral letters (Titus 1:5; 1 Tim 5:17, 19, cf. also 4:14), where almost certainly it refers to men. In this context (5:9-16), widows functioned as a type of “female elder”.
  • Overseer (e)pi/skopo$)—This term is used in Phil 1:1, as parallel to, but distinct from, that of “minister” (dia/kono$). According to Acts 20:28, it would have referred to the elders appointed to guide and oversee the congregation(s) in a particular city or region. In early Christian parlance, it was essentially synonymous with the term “shepherd” (poimh/n), which was probably the older traditional term (cf. 1 Pet 2:25). As such, it corresponds generally with the English word “pastor”. The Pastoral letters (1 Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:7-9) provide instruction regarding overseers, who, according to the context, should be understood as elders who function in a leading role, though the distinction between overseer and elder was not as pronounced as it would subsequently become in the early Church, and the translation “bishop” should be avoided. Based on the example of the narrative setting of the Pastorals, Titus and Timothy functioned as overseers of all the churches in a particular region (Crete and the area around Ephesus, respectively).
  • Prophet (profh/th$)—This is the distinctive role in the earliest Christian congregations for which there is the best support for women serving. Going all the way back to the ancient (Old Testament) tradition of female prophets, the foundational use and interpretation of Joel 2:28-32 among early Christians established the acceptance of women functioning as prophets in the Churches, though the direct evidence for this is relatively slight (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor 11:2-16). Presumably, the majority of Christian prophets were men, but there would seem to be no restriction on women in this role, except for the cultural observance required by Paul in 1 Cor 11.
  • Teacher (dida/skalo$)—This may understood in terms of one who exercises the distinct (spiritual) gift of teaching, or as the specific role of the elder/overseer. The latter sense is emphasized in the Pastoral letters, in the context of transmitting and preserving the correct (Apostolic) tradition, passed down from men like Paul. Originally, it would have related more directly to the proclamation of the Gospel. In the charismatic context of the Pauline churches (e.g. in Corinth), it likely refers to special inspired instruction, under the guidance of the Spirit, closely related to the gifts of prophecy and the imparting of spiritual knowledge (revelation). Of considerable importance are the passages (1 Cor 14:33-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15) which seem to restrict women in functioning as teachers in the congregation; on this, cf. Parts 2 and 5, and the separate note on “teach/teaching” in the Pauline letters.

Early Christianity

The principles and points of Church organization contained in the Pastoral letters are continued and developed in the early Church, as can be seen by a survey of the evidence from the so-called Apostolic Fathers (writings c. 90-160 A.D., cf. Part 9). Over time, a distinct hierarchical structure with official positions (“offices”) developed, centered on the principle of episcopal (from e)pi/skopo$, cf. above) authority. Women came to be increasingly excluded from leading ministerial roles; at the same time, certain positions—Widows and Virgins—tied to the (ascetic) ideal of ministerial celibacy and virginity, gained in prominence. However, by the 5th century, women had been officially barred from any kind of priestly activity (i.e. approaching the altar, administering baptism, etc), from teaching doctrine, serving as deacons, and so forth. It is hard to say whether the Gnostic Christian groups were more accepting of the participation of women in leading roles, as might be assumed from the language and female characters/images featured in many of their texts. For more on this, cf. the article “Women in Gnosticism”.

It was in the Monastic movements, begun in the mid/late-3rd century, that women would find their place (and empowerment) as ministers within the Church. Female solitaries and communities (i.e. monasteries) spread alongside the male monks and houses, all throughout the ancient Near East (beginning in Egypt), then the entire Greco-Roman world, and, eventually, into Europe. The monastic community (monastery) functioned as a sub-culture, a separate society within the larger Christian community. As such, while women were still under the authority of (male) bishops and priests, they had the ability to govern themselves. At first, the majority of monks and nuns (the traditional title for female monks) came primarily from the upper classes, but, as the tradition expanded, women from lower segments of society had opportunity to join and participate in the communities.

The Medieval and Reformation Periods

For centuries, while there was relatively little change in the official position(s) of women, either in the Church or society at large, the opportunities for participation and expression within Monasticism were considerable indeed. A rich Monastic culture developed, for both men an women, maintaining centers of learning and art throughout the so-called “Dark Ages”. By the time of the high Middle Ages (12-14th centuries), a good number of women in the monasteries were highly educated and skilled in many areas (including art, music, medicine, and other sciences). Many beautiful and erudite examples of writings from female authors have survived, such as those of the “Rhineland Mystics” in Germany. Of the many notable names from the period, one could mention Elisabeth of Schönau, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Gertrude of Helfta, Hadewijch, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich. The great abbess Hildegard of Bingen, at the peak of her career (c. 1150), was, along with Bernard of Clairvaux, perhaps the most influential Christian leader in all of Europe. Hildegard’s legacy, her writings, and the evidence of her vast learning and creativity, have made her an inspirational figure for many women today.

In the era of the Renaissance in western Europe (14th-15th centuries), humanist trends prompted a marked increase in the status (and education) of women, at least among the upper classes and members of the aristocracy. In England, Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, was an important patron of learning and played a role in the growth of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Women such as Christine de Pizan, Cecilia Gonzaga, Isabella d’Este, Cassandra Fedele, Margaret of Navarre, and Margaret Roper (daughter of Sir Thomas More) could be counted among the most gifted and educated persons in Europe.

Sadly, the legacy of the Protestant Reformation with regard to the role and status of women is rather mixed. On the one hand, the closure of monasteries in the Protestant territories cut off those opportunities for women, effectively forcing them into the more traditional family roles of wife and mother. With very rare exceptions, women did not serve in any sort of leading ministerial position in the Protestant churches. This was true even among the Anabaptists, who were somewhat more tolerant and liberal-minded in certain respects. Only in the Spiritualist traditions, such as the Quakers of the 17th century, were women allowed more freedom to function as ministers in the congregation. At the same time, there can be little doubt that the Reformation, in the long run, was influential in helping to shape democratic and egalitarian ideals, emphasizing personal freedom and basic human rights, in Western society over the centuries to come.

The Situation Today

In more recent times, of course, ideals of liberty, equality and human rights have gained more prominence in society, aided both by religious and secular (humanistic) philosophical principles. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there have been strong and widespread movements championing civil rights for (ethnic) minorities and for women. There has been much success in terms of women’s rights—i.e. to vote, pursue higher education, function in professional occupations previously reserved for men, and so on. To be sure, even today many of the ancient biases, prejudice and mistreatment of women remain, but the fundamental principle of the equality of men and women (including the ideal of equal opportunity) is emphasized today, in the United States and other nations, as never before. The Church can, and ought, to be at the forefront of the struggle for equality and empowerment. Yet it is just at this point that many Christians find themselves at a crossroads between two different viewpoints—the modern mindset stressing gender equality, and the ancient (male-dominated) worldview reflected in the Scriptures. In early Christianity this ancient outlook has been re-interpreted and modified by leaders such as Paul, but it is not quite the same the modern view. There remains considerable tension as to how, and to what extent, we may combine the perspectives and hold them in balance—respecting and remaining faithful to the teachings in the Scriptures without ignoring important areas of social progress.

Concluding Note

For those who wish to better understand the Scriptural evidence (and teaching) regarding the role of Women in the Church, I hope that this series as been helpful and inspiring. I have tried to be as faithful and objective as possible, without reading modern concerns into the various passages. However, if one wishes to apply the New Testament evidence overall to the situation of churches today, this perhaps could be done best by focusing on the two leading roles in early Christianity—that of apostle and prophet.

1. Apostle—According to the New Testament witness, the apostles (a)po/stoloi), the ones “sent out”, i.e. by Jesus, were, it would seem, all men. While this may simply reflect the patriarchal, male-oriented character of the society, it has to be admitted that it was fundamental to early church organization. The apostles and their own representatives (also “apostles”, in a sense), as missionaries throughout the Near Eastern and Greco-Roman world, in the establishment of churches, appointed elders to govern and oversee (i.e. the role of “overseer”) the congregation(s). As far as we can tell, these elders—persons mature and responsible in the faith—were all men, though there may have been corresponding female “elders” to oversee the younger women in the congregation. The role of elder/overseer more or less corresponds with the traditional figure of pastor in Protestant churches. This emphasis on male authority, according to the early Christian way of thinking, represents the vertical dimension of Church structure—i.e., a hierarchy of authority.

2. Prophet—As is clear from the foundational use of Joel 2:28-32 in Peter’s Pentecost speech in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit comes upon men and women equally, and they all are to prophesy. The existence and acceptance of female prophets is reasonably well-established in early Christianity (cf. above). It is only in the second century, following the New Testament (Apostolic) period, that the role disappears, kept alive at the fringes by heterodox/charismatic movements such as Montanism (cf. the discussion in Part 9). This raises the question as to whether the role and function of prophet in the New Testament reflects a temporary gifting, limited to the New Testament period, or whether it relates to believers today. I discuss this question in the note on 1 Cor 13:8. On the whole, I find no evidence in the New Testament to suggest that this role of prophet/prophecy was not expected to last until the return of Christ. In traditional terms, the prophet was a spokesperson or representative (of God), who communicated the word and will of God to the people at large (i.e. the believers of the Community). As such, it corresponds generally to the role of preacher (and/or teacher) today. Using the same model as above, it also could be said to represent the horizontal dimension of the Church—believers sharing their (spiritual) gifts and instructing one another. According to this view, women could (and should) function as preachers and ministers as they have been gifted by God.

Whether, or to what extent, these two dimensions—hierarchical and egalitarian, vertical and horizontal—can be combined effectively in Church life and the organized Community today is a question that each believer, or group of believers, must address. There are no simple solutions. However, as a closing exhortation, and word of advice, I would return to the sentiment expressed by F. F. Bruce (commenting on Gal 3:28), which I have previously mentioned and with which I entirely agree, that the passages which seem to restrict the role of women (e.g., in the Pauline letters) “are to be read in relation to Gal 3:28, and not vice versa(Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC], Paternoster Press / Eerdmans: 1982, p. 190).

Women in the Church, Part 9: Early Christianity

It now remains to examine, however briefly, the extra-biblical evidence for the role and position of women in the Church during the early Christian period—the period spanning roughly from 90 to the mid-3rd century A.D. Before proceeding, it will be good to point out several New Testament passages which have not yet been mentioned in this series:

    • 1 Peter 3:1-7—Instructions for husbands and wives, generally similar to that found in Col 3:18-19; Eph 5:21-33; Tit 2:4-5.
    • Hebrews 11—The famous chapter on faith, in which examples from Israelite history and tradition are cited; women play a small but significant part in the list, cf. verses 11-12, 31, 35.
    • 2 John—If the “chosen Lady” (v. 1) is a particular person rather than a symbol for the Church/congregation as a whole, then she would presumably be a woman of some prominence, such as Chloe, Phoebe, Prisca, etc., in Paul’s letters (cf. Part 4).
    • Revelation 2:20-25—There was apparently an influential female prophet(ess) among the believers in Thyatira who is here regarded (by the author/oracle) as a false prophet and teacher (“Jezebel”). On the tradition of female prophets, both in the Old and New Testaments, cf. Parts 7 and 8.
    • Revelation 12 and 17—In these two chapters we find contrasting female figures—one women is virtuous (representing righteous Israel and believers) and attacked by the evil beast (chap. 12), the other a sinful prostitute seated on the evil beast and representing Babylon/Rome and the wicked (nations) of the world (chap. 17). On the Old Testament basis for these two contrasting types, cf. the discussion in Part 8.

The Apostolic Fathers

The so-called “Apostolic Fathers” represent many of the earliest surviving Christian writings (outside of the New Testament), from the period c. 90-150 A.D. The view and role of women is similar to that expressed in the New Testament letters, and especially the Pauline Pastorals (1 Timothy & Titus). 1 Clement 1:3; 21:6ff, and the Letter of Polycarp 4-5 draw upon traditional language and ethics, emphasizing the role in the family and marriage bond (cf. also 1 Clement 6:3; Ignatius to Polycarp 5). Scriptural examples of women are cited, such as Rahab (1 Clement 12 [cf. James 2:25]), Esther and Judith (1 Clement 55:3-6)—these last two present women in leading/heroic roles (“like men”, cf. below). As in the Pauline letters, Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) mentions women who may have had some measure of prominence in the churches—Tavia and Alce (Smyrneans 13:1; Polycarp 8:3, cf. also the Martyrdom of Polycarp 17). The Pseudo-Ignatian writings include letters to and from Mary “of Cassobele” (cf. Ps-Ignatius to Hero 9), and one addressed to the Virgin Mary. Hermas also mentions a female leader named Grapte (Vision 2.4.3), who apparently oversaw instruction of women (widows) and children.

As in 1 Timothy 5:2-16, these writings give evidence of a distinct role (and position) for widows in the Church, beyond simply the need to care for them—e.g., Ignatius Smyrneans 13:1; Polycarp 4:1; 8:2; Letter of Polycarp 4:3 (cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67). In Smyrneans 13:1, Ignatius mentions virgins together with widows as two special groups—i.e. the unmarried women, young and old(er) respectively; cf. also the Letter of Polycarp 5:3. Virgins are referenced more frequently in the (later) Pseudo-Ignatian letters (Philadelphians [long text] 4; Antiochians 8, 12; Philippians 15; Tarsians 9; Hero 5), as, indeed, virginity becomes more prominent as a Christian ideal in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (cf. below). In the Letter to Diognetus 12:8, the Virgin Mary especially reflects this ideal for women, a theme which will be repeated frequently (along with a developing veneration of Mary) in writings of the period (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 100; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.22.4; V.19.1; Tertullian On the Flesh of Christ 17, etc).

Interestingly, the Didache (“Teaching [of the Twelve Apostles]”), which provides the most detail on organized Church life and worship, says virtually nothing about the role of women. The instruction regarding traveling teachers and prophets in chapters 11-13 uses language that may (or may not) be gender-specific—i.e., “the one coming”, “the one teaching” (the grammatical gender is masculine throughout). The references to the roles/offices of “overseer” (e)pi/skopo$) and “servant/minister” (dia/kono$, ‘deacon’) in chap. 15 almost certainly assume they will be men, as in the (earlier?) Pastoral Letters.

Apostolic traditions (from the 2nd century)

Women feature in a number of apostolic traditions (i.e. stories and teachings of the Apostles) from the second century, occasionally preserved in later writings and Christian tales (“romances”). The most notable tradition is that of Thecla, best known from the developed legendary account in the early medieval (5th-6th century?) “Acts of Thecla”, derived from an earlier collection of Pauline traditions (so-called “Acts of Paul”). According to the later tale, Thecla was the wife (fiancée) of a prominent citizen of Iconium (in Asia Minor), who was converted by the preaching of Paul (cf. Acts 16:13-14; 17:4, 12; 18:34). Central to the narrative is the renunciation of her marriage obligation (for the sake of following Christ), which leads to her arrest and (miraculous) deliverance from death. Sexual temptation and persecution continue as a main theme in the story, during the time in which she accompanies Paul on his missionary journeys. She is separated from him, but then eventually reunited (ch. 40); Thecla ultimately decides to return to Iconium to preach the word of God there, and Paul commissions her to do so (“Go and teach the word of God”, ch. 41). Thecla may indeed have been an actual disciple and ministry companion of Paul, as were a number of other women mentioned in his letters (Prisca, Phoebe, etc., cf. Part 4 of this series). The core tradition dates back at least to the mid-late 2nd century, since Tertullian refers to it (c. 200) in his work On Baptism §17. This reference is significant, as Tertullian argues forcefully (against the Montanists [cf. below]) that women are not permitted to teach and baptize; he regards the Thecla tradition as spurious or falsely attributed to Paul.

Women in “Gnostic” writings and tradition

Women and female imagery played an important part in the so-called Gnostic sects and writings known (or presumed to exist) in the second century (cf. my article on Gnosticism). Our evidence for Gnostic beliefs is two-fold: (1) the (Proto-)Orthodox authors in the 2nd-4th centuries (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus, Eusebius, Epiphanius) who wrote in opposition to their teachings, and (2) surviving texts written (presumably) by the “Gnostics” themselves, especially those recovered from Nag Hammadi in Egypt (4th century copies). Based on the “heterodox” views of the Gnostic groups, as well as the prominent feminine/female elements in some of the texts and teachings, it is often thought that they may have been more open to women participating in leadership/ministry roles; however, this is extremely speculative, and the actual evidence on the matter (either way) is extremely slight. I will summarize here several of the more important aspects of Gnostic thought in relation to women:

  • An emphasis on female disciples of Jesus—especially Mary Magdalene and Salome—in a number of texts
  • Frequent use of sexual imagery, with two key points of emphasis:
    (1) The fallen (material) world described in terms of sexual intercourse, marriage and propagation (childbirth)
    (2) All of this is spiritualized for believers (gnostics)—i.e. all such language and terminology relates to the union of the divine Soul/Spirit with the Spirit (i.e. of the Pre-existent Father)
  • Nuptial imagery is specifically made use of (i.e. the Bridal Chamber), and may involve certain rituals (Baptism, Chrism [Anointing], the “holy kiss”) which have been given a new interpretation.
  • Ancient Jewish (and/or Greek) Wisdom traditions have been blended together with Christian ideas and various mythological traditions. Wisdom is typically personified as a woman, and so prominently in Gnostic thought.
  • A core principle in Gnostic thought is the (re-)union of that which has been separated/divided within the current material world. Primarily, this refers a union of the divine light in the human Soul (i.e. of the gnostic believer) with the Eternal Light (of the true God). But this is often described in terms of transcending the dualism/duality (and multiplicity) of the created world, and is expressed, with regard to sexual or gender-based language, two ways:
    (a) Elimination of the distinction between “male” and “female”, or
    (b) The “female” becoming like the “male”

Due to the complexity of this subject, and for those who are interested, it is discussed further in a supplemental article.

Montanism

Montanism was a prophetic (charismatic) movement that developed in the late 2nd century A.D. in the territory of Phrygia (Asia Minor). It was named after Montanus, the putative founder, who claimed to speak under the direct influence of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit). Women prophets, such as Prisc(ill)a, Maximilla, and Quintilla, were prominent, leading figures in the movement—in some ways, it would seem, better known than Montanus himself. It is perhaps best described as a reforming movement, which sought to realize (and recapture) the charismatic vitality of the early (apostolic) churches, as described in the book of Acts and 1 Corinthians 11-14. The daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) seem to have served as a Scriptural pattern for Montanist female prophets; Tertullian also mentions an unnamed woman who received prophetic revelations from the Spirit (On the Soul §9). The movement was characterized by a strong ascetic orientation, emphasizing strict fasting and celibacy.

A number of (proto-)orthodox Christians in the 2nd-4th centuries wrote against the Montanists. Clement of Alexandria mentions them (“Phrygians”, in Stromateis [Miscellanies] 4:13, cf. also 1:17), and may have written more about their “false prophecy”, as Melito also may have done. Eusebius of Caesarea in his Church History, cites several anti-Montanist works, including writings by Caius (against Proclus, 2:25; 3:28, 31), Asterius Urbanus, Miltiades, Apollonius, and another anonymous writer (cf. 5:16-18). Tertullian opposed the Montanists at first (cf. On Baptism), but later (c. 200) aligned himself with the movement (as did several Popes and leaders in the Roman church of the period). Several of his ethical, ascetic writings clearly show this affiliation (On Fasting, On Monogamy, Exhortation to Chastity), as well as numerous references in other works (e.g., Against Praxeas §§1, 13; Against Marcion 1:29; 4:22; On the Resurrection of the Flesh §§11, 63; De Corona §§1, 11; On the Soul §§9, 58). Montanism was treated as a regular “heresy” among most orthodox writers and Church leaders, continuing to be condemned in various synods and councils; however, by the mid-4th century the movement had more or less died out.

Proto-Orthodoxy and early Catholic Tradition

Tertullian represents the developing (orthodox) Church Tradition of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, in his view of the role and position of women. His work On the Dress of Women draws heavily upon the contrast (well-established in the Old Testament and Wisdom traditions) between the modest, virtuous woman and the sinful (pagan) one. The introduction of sin into the world, through Eve (Gen 3; 1 Tim 2:13ff), is closely connected with sexuality. Virginity and celibacy (cf. below) take on much greater emphasis (On the Veiling of Virgins, Exhortation to Chastity, On Modesty, On Monogamy, etc), with virgins and widows holding prominent positions in the Church. At least three official (canonical) positions would seem to be established—deaconess (i.e. female deacon), widow (female elder [“eldress”]) and virgin. Tertullian forcefully argues that women should not teach doctrine or baptize (On Baptism 17), though in siding with Montanism (cf. above), he fully accepted the idea of inspired female prophets. Within certain limitations, women could engage in a relatively active ministry and service within the congregation. In the writing To His Wife, largely an exhortation to celibacy (and women as celibate widows), Tertullian mentions some of these ministerial duties (cf. 2:4). Though not allowed to administer baptism, it would seem that a key role of widows and other female ministers (deaconesses) was to assist women who were preparing for baptism (e.g., canon 12 related to the 3rd/4th Council of Carthage).

This basic outlook gradually gained official expression in the Canons (Rules) and Church Orders composed during the 3rd and 4th centuries, such the Teaching of the Apostles (Didascalia Apostolorum, cf. chap. 3, 14-16), the Apostolic Church-Order (§§20-22, 25-28), the “Apostolic Tradition” and Canons of Hippolytus (16-18, 32, 35), the Apostolic Constitutions (I.8-9; bk III; VI.17; VIII.16-28, etc) and Canons, and the so-called Testament of the Lord (Testamentum Domini, cf. I.23, 29ff, 35, 40-43, 46; II.19). However, in the imperial period (mid-4th century and following), more precise restrictions on the roles for women were established in the various Church Councils, which eventually became fixed as part of Catholic “Canon Law”. Women were barred from being appointed as presiding “elders” [presbytides] (Council of Laodicea, canon 11), and were not to approach the altar (Laodicea, canon 44); in the canons associated with the 3rd/4th Council of Carthage (397/398 A.D.), it is officially stated that women are not to baptize nor teach among men (canons 99-100). With regard to the position of deaconess, the 19th canon from the Council of Nicea indicates they were not (to be) ordained in the same manner as bishops, deacons and other male clergy (cf. also Chalcedon, canon 15). Eventually, female deacons were barred altogether—in the first and second Councils of Orange (441 A.D., canon 26; 529 A.D., canons 17-18), confirmed by subsequent synods.

Female Saints and Martyrs

Women feature prominently among the stories and traditions of saints and martyrs from the early centuries, including the extra-canonical “Acts” of the Apostles, and other tales of the period, which often stressed the ideal of virginity and celibacy (cf. below, and above on Thecla). Believers who suffered during the periods of persecution, as witnesses (i.e. martyrs, Grk ma/rtu$) for the Faith held a special place—either as “confessors” (those tortured) or “martyrs” (those put to death). For women, persecution in the martyrdom narratives often involves some form of sexual temptation or molestation. Prior to the imperial adoption of Christianity, there were various periods of anti-Christian persecution in the Roman empire, usually being of limited extent and tied to specific regions; the most notable (outside of that by Nero, c. 64 A.D.) occurred during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius (esp. in Gaul, 177-180), briefly under Septimus Severus (c. 202), the major outbreaks under Decius (249-251) and Valerian (257-260), and finally the great persecution in the reign of Diocletian (303-305). Of the known female saints and martyrs, most are presumably historical figures, though the narratives which came to surround them in the Medieval period have certainly been filled out with various legendary (and often fabulous) details. I list here some of the notable names:

    • Flavia Domitilla—niece of the emperor Domitian, and married to the emperor’s cousin (Flavius Clemens); according to Roman writers such as Cassius Dio, Domitian eventually put Clemens to death and exiled Domitilla. There is no certain evidence that either Clemens or Domitilla were believers, but this came to be accepted in Christian tradition; to add to the confusion, some sources refer to Flavia Domitilla as the niece of Flavius Clemens, and it is possible that two different women are involved.
    • Petronilla—the daughter of Peter, according to tradition, and so indicated by a tomb inscription in the Christian cemetery (catacombs) associated with Domitilla; she is the subject of a number of (later) legends which do not seem particularly reliable.
    • Blandina—a woman named prominently among the martyrs of Lyons (177), cf. Eusebius’ Church History V.1.
    • Perpetua and Felicitas—women named among the martyrs of Carthage (c. 202); a vivid (and popular) account of their martyrdom survives from the early period, and they are mentioned by both Tertullian (On the Soul §55) and Augustine (Sermons 280-82).
    • Agatha, of Sicily—suffered martyrdom either during the Decian (251) or Diocletian persecution.
    • Cecilia of Rome, whose martyrdom is dated variously during the second and third centuries (c. 230?).
    • Agnes of Rome—martyred at Rome under Diocletian (cf. Ambrose On the Duties of the Clergy 1:41 [213]; Jerome Letter 130.5, etc).
    • Catherine of Alexandria—one of the best-known and revered of the female martyrs, though there is little reliable information regarding her life or death (cf. Eusebius’ Church History VIII.14); her martyrdom is dated in the early 4th century under Maximin.

In discussing the most famous women from early Christian tradition, one may also mention the Veronica-legend, which blends together at least two different strands of tradition—(1) a woman (Berenice) who offered her veil (or cloth) to Jesus on the way to the cross, and (2) a miraculous (and miracle-working) image of Jesus on a cloth (“true icon”, vera icon), best known from the Abgar legend in the Syrian Church (Edessa).

Asceticism and the rise of Monastic Tradition

The word monasticism ultimately derives from the Greek mo/no$ (mónos, “single, alone”). A “monk” is a monachós (monaxo/$)—that is, a person who keeps himself (or herself) alone, single, solitary, etc. The general religious phenomenon is more properly called monachism, whereby persons withdraw from ordinary society (including family, professional occupation, etc) and live apart, following a special religious lifestyle. Such a way of life is almost always associated with a strict, and rather rigorous, asceticism (from Greek a&skhsi$)—an intense practice or training (such as for an athlete), which, from an ethical and religious standpoint, involves renunciation of worldly things, self-denial, and, most notably here, sexual abstinence (celibacy). From the beginning, early Christianity had an ascetic emphasis, found in the teaching and practice of Jesus (Mark 1:12-13, 35, 45; 6:8-9; 8:34ff; 9:42-50; 10:21-31 & pars [but note the contrast with John the Baptist, Mk 1:4-6; 2:18]; and cf. Lk 6:20-26; 9:57-62; 16:19-31; 20:34-36 pars; Matt 19:10-12, etc), but also shared by certain Jewish and Greek philosophical traditions of the period. By all accounts, Jesus never married, and Paul also, at least at the time of his missionary journeys and letters, was single (and thus celibate). In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul clearly expresses his wish that all believers would follow his example, as long as they were equipped by God (i.e. with the maturity and mindset for it) to do so faithfully. There is certainly an ascetic streak in Paul, though he is quick to rebuke or condemn any sort of exaggerated asceticism which distorts the Gospel or disrupts Christian unity—cf. 1 Cor 7:1-5ff; Rom 14:1-4ff; Col 2:21-23; and note, in the Pastoral letters, especially 1 Tim 4:3 (also the earlier article and notes on 1 Tim 2:11-15).

As discussed above, by the middle of the second century, asceticism—especially in the form of sexual abstinence (celibacy)—came to have far greater emphasis in the Church as a whole. The ideal of virginity was widespread and highly praised. In the Syrian Churches, a distinct tradition of celibate marriage (cf. 1 Cor 7:5) developed, known by the term encratism, from a Greek word (e)gkrate/w) meaning “to have power/control” over, e.g. one’s fleshly (sexual) impulses.

Monasticism (monachism) as a specific religious (and ascetic) movement began to develop by the end of the third century, primarily in Egypt, where it took root in a number of locations, spreading rapidly. Of the pioneering figures, Anthony was by far the most famous, due in no small measure to the early biography written by Athanasius of Alexandria. It is hard for Christians today to appreciate the tremendous influence and appeal of the monastic and anchorite (hermit/solitary) way of life on believers of the period. It offered a way for Christians, disillusioned with the world and the traditional (institutional) Church structure, to live out a more intense, creative, and dedicated form of Christianity—a life of prayer and devotion, engaged in spiritual warfare, apart from, and on behalf of, the world at large. While some monks chose to remain solitary, others banded together to form communities (i.e. monasteries) which often developed into religious organizations (orders), a kind of separate Church structure within the wider Church. Throughout Church history, the monastic and religious orders were at the forefront of reform and renewal movements; Luther, along with many other leaders of the Reformation, came out of the monastic traditions.

From a very early period, women participated in the monastic movement, living a solitaries or in separate communities, similar to that of male believers. Female monks are typically referred by the word “nun” (Latin nonna), an honorific title indicating age and respect. Prominent theologians and leaders such as Augustine and Jerome (in the West) and Basil (in the East) were enthusiastic champions of monasticism—for men and women both. Jerome counted among his close friends a number of noteworthy Roman women—such as Melania the elder, Melania the younger, and Paula—who were important figures and founders of monastic houses. Since, by the fourth and fifth centuries, women had been increasingly excluded and restricted from any sort of official (ministerial) position in the Church, the monastic movement functioned as a kind of early “liberation”, providing women with opportunities for participation and expression of their faith which was otherwise unavailable (outside the traditional setting of the family), giving them a distinct and empowering religious identity of their own. By the time of the high Middle Ages, a complex and rich religious culture had developed, in which women contributed variously as authors and poets, prophets and doctors, even political leaders and consultants, leaving their mark unmistakably on both the Church and society at large for generations to come. I will touch on this a bit further in the concluding article of this series.

Gnosticism

As I will be referring to “Gnosticism” in a number of upcoming notes and articles, I thought it worthwhile to introduce the topic here, by way of definition. The word is derived from the Greek gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis) and the root verb ginw/skw (ginœ¡skœ), meaning “knowledge, to know”, often with the specific sense of possessing or gaining knowledge. “Gnostics” (gnwstikoi/, gnœstikoí) are literally the “ones who know, knowing ones”, i.e. those possessing knowledge, or who have come to be so. Much of the confusion surrounding the terms “Gnostic, Gnosticism,” etc, stems from the fact that there are, properly, two fundamental ways they can be used or understood: (1) as a phenomenon of religion, or (2) as a specific historical religious development in the first centuries A.D. Some modern scholars, aware of this problem, have suggested using the term “Gnosis” for the former, and “Gnosticism” for the latter. It might be better (and simpler) to make a distinction using upper and lower case, as far as possible—gnosticism for the general religious phenomenon, Gnosticism as an umbrella term for specific religious groups in the early Christian period.

The religious phenomenon of gnosticism

In terms of the phenomenology of religion, I would define gnosticism as:

A set of beliefs or tendencies which emphasize salvation, as well as other fundamental aspects of religious identity or status, in terms of knowledge.

Often this will take the place of, or take priority over, ceremonial, ritual or cultic means. As such, it is similar in certain respects to the phenomena of mysticism and spiritualism. There are two main components, or aspects, to this knowledge:

    1. A person comes to know or realize his/her true nature (religious/spiritual identity), of which, in ignorance, he/she had previously been unaware or only glimpsed in part.
    2. This knowledge (salvation) comes only through special revelation not normally accessible to people at large.

With regard to this last point, special (divine) revelation is typically considered necessary due to the evil/fallen condition of the world around us, with the result that humanity has been ‘lost’ in ignorance. The presence of a “savior figure”—a divine being or representative—is required to bring knowledge.

Gnostic thought is often expressed in dualistic language and vocabulary, emphasizing conflict or contrast—light vs. darkness, true vs. false, knowledge vs. ignorance, mind/spirit vs. body/flesh, etc. Such pairings are, of course, basic to much religious thought, but in gnosticism they tend to be more pointed, prominent, and used with greater consistency, often reflecting a particular worldview or cosmology (cf. below). From the standpoint of organized religion, such dualism, coupled with the gnostic idea of salvation through special revelation, may easily serve to enhance a specific group identity (i.e., as the ones who know the truth, who truly know), resulting in sectarian religious groups with a strong gnostic character.

Gnostic tendencies in Christianity

As a religious phenomenon, gnostic tendencies may be seen in many different religions, ancient and modern. They are attested, or can be claimed, in certain Greco-Roman religious contexts (such as Orphism and the “mystery” cults), as well as in Greek philosophy. There are major gnostic aspects within Hindu thought, and certainly are central to Buddhism. It should be no cause for surprise that one can find them in early Christianity as well. The basic thumbnail provided above accords generally with the Christian construct—of the Gospel message (in the person of Christ) bringing the knowledge of salvation to humankind lost in the darkness and evil of the world. However, certain other Christian ideas or beliefs temper any tendency toward gnosticism:

    • The theological emphasis on the person of Jesus Christ as the way to God—with God understood primarily according to the outlook of the Old Testament and ancient Israelite religion.
    • The eschatological focus, i.e. on the resurrection and end-time Judgment by God—what believers understand or experience here and now will only be realized completely at the end.
    • In the New Testament, salvation and religious identity are described in terms of trust/faith (pi/sti$) in Christ rather more frequently than of knowledge (gnw=si$).
    • Religious identity ultimately is understood in terms of spiritual union with Christ—this is best known in the New Testament from Paul’s letters, and is expressed more in mystic terms, rather than gnostic.

Admittedly, Paul does occasionally strike a gnostic tone, as for example in 1 Corinthians 1:182:16; and cf. also the discussion running through Romans 5-8. Perhaps the strongest gnostic portions of the New Testament are the discourses of Jesus in John, along with similar passages in the Gospel (1:1-18; 20:31) and First Epistle. One may note the strong dualistic language, as well as the many references to knowledge, knowing, etc (more than 100 in the Gospel and another 30+ in the First Epistle). An even more distinctly gnostic early Christian writing, expressing similar thought and imagery to that of John, is the so-called Odes of Solomon—a collection of 42 truly beautiful and evocative poems, probably dating from the late 1st- or early 2nd-century A.D.

A special kind of (orthodox) Christian gnosticism developed in the 2nd century, influenced by Greek (and Jewish) philosophical thought and interpretive trends. It is best known from the major early center of Christianity in Alexandria, with theologians and scholars such as Clement and Origen. There were two primary aspects to this kind of gnosticism:

    • The tendency to downplay or disregard the literal-historical sense of Scripture (especially the Old Testament), in favor of an allegorical and/or spiritual interpretation that located a deeper (and specifically Christian) meaning to the text. It was, in part, the result of a long history of interpretive scholarship at Alexandria, as represented famously by the Jewish commentator Philo (c. 20 B.C.-50 A.D.).
    • This corresponded with the localization of levels of understanding (knowledge) among human beings (and believers)—some could only grasp the literal/conventional sense of things, while others (the spiritual/gnostics) were able to understand and realize the deeper meaning.

On close examination, one detects a very particular dynamic at work—an attempt to combine Christian belief and the truth of Scripture with the philosophical ideals and worldview of the time. This also applies to the heterodox (or aberrant, “heretical”) Gnostic groups of the period; Origen fiercely opposed and wrote against a number of these Gnostics, but, in certain respects, they had religious tendencies in common with him.

Heterodox/heretical Gnostics

When most scholars use the term “Gnosticism” they are usually referring to a variety of quasi-Christian groups or sects which are known (or thought to have existed) in the 2nd-4th centuries A.D. Most of the available (surviving) information comes from authors writing from the “orthodox” (or Proto-orthodox) point of view, against the beliefs and teachings of these groups. The principal authors are Irenaeus (his work Against Heresies, c. 180), Tertullian (c. 150-230), Hippolytus (c. 170-235), Origen (185-254), Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340), and Epiphanius (c. 315-403). Though clearly a hostile witness, Irenaeus’ information on the Gnostics of the 2nd century seems to be reasonably reliable, certainly more so than that of Hippolytus or Epiphanius. As for the actual writings of the Gnostics themselves, very little survived prior to the discoveries (in Egypt, etc) of the late 19th and 20th centuries, especially the collection of works found at Nag Hammadi. While it is not always certain or clear that these texts are specifically Gnostic, many do show features and characteristic beliefs associated with the groups (the Valentinians, etc) mentioned by Irenaeus and others.

Even in this narrow sense, the term “Gnosticism” still covers a wide and disparate range of thought and belief; however, a set of more or less common characteristics may be identified. I would begin by offering a definition of this quasi-Christian Gnosticism in the early centuries A.D.:

Groups and individuals who formed or adopted a system of syncretic religious and philosophical beliefs, blending Christian with Jewish and/or Greco-Roman (or other non-Christian) thought, and which evinces, or is characterized by, strong gnostic tendencies (cf. above).

Central to nearly all such Gnostic thought is a pronounced dualism—that is, a dualistic worldview—that goes far beyond anything we find in the New Testament. While Judaism and early Christianity held to the idea that the current world was in a “fallen”, sinful state (Gen 3; Rom 5:12ff), this was understood primarily in terms of the condition of humanity; only occasionally do we find it applied to the created order as a whole (cf. Rom 8:18-25). Most Gnostics of the period seem to have taken a wider cosmic view—i.e. that the created (material) world itself was fallen, corrupted and trapped by powers of sin and evil. So influential was this worldview that it forced people to try to explain just how this condition came to be. The creation account of the Old Testament was deemed insufficient, and various sorts of constructs using the language and imagery of cosmologic (cosmogonic) myth were adopted, involving the generation (birth), coupling, and fall of various divine (or semi-divine) powers. In some of these (pagan) mythic structures, Jewish (and/or Greek) Wisdom traditions were blended in—Wisdom (hm*k=j*, sofi/a) being the only female manifestation or personification of God and his attributes found in Scripture (cf. Prov 3:19-20; 8:22-31).

In addition, the dualistic worldview of most Gnostics resulted in the creation or adoption of an elaborate “salvation history” construct, which sought to explain and expound the nature and work of Christ. For Christians, of course, the savior figure (cf. above) who brings knowledge of salvation to humankind (or to the Elect) is Jesus Christ, though the revelation could also come by way of his followers and other messengers as well. A fundamental difficulty involved the fact that, according to the Gospels, Jesus had been born as a human being, i.e. into the fallen/evil (material) world. It proved hard to reconcile this with the over-arching worldview (how could God become enmeshed in evil this way?), and a variety of interpretations—i.e., heterodox Christologies—developed in response; the most commonly attested would seem to involve some variation on the following two themes:

    • That Christ, in manifesting himself to human beings, only seemed or appeared to be human—this is usually referred to as Docetism or a Docetic view of Christ (from the Greek doke/w, “think, suppose, seem, appear”, etc).
    • That the divine being Christ was joined temporarily to the human Jesus (e.g., at the Baptism), separating again at the time of his death—i.e. a Separationist view of Christ.

Proto-orthodox writers such as Irenaeus found all of this truly baffling—not to say repellent—contrary to what they saw as the clear sense of Scripture and the received Tradition. In his five books Against Heresies (really against Gnosticism), Irenaeus tries to give some semblance of coherence to all of the many different groups and beliefs, which he ultimately traces back to Simon Magus (I.23, cf. Acts 8:9-24). There is little historical basis for such a reconstruction, but it provides a convenient (Biblical) starting-point to trace the various Gnostics, through Simon’s supposed followers (Menander, Saturninus, Basilides, etc) on through to the various sects—Cerinthians, Nicolaitans, Marcionites, Ophites, et al (I.23-31). His main interest is in the Valentinians (i.e. followers of Valentinus), from whom Ptolemy and Marcus (and their own sects) are said to have come. Most of what follows in books II-V relates to the Valentinians, and corresponds, to some extent, with the theology and thought in several of the texts from Nag Hammadi (such as the “Gospel of Truth” [NH I.3/XII.2]).

Perhaps the most famous “Gnostic” writing to come down to us today is the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas [NH II.2], also preserved in Greek fragments. It lacks the elaborate mythological and theological/Christological elements of Gnostic systems, being simply a collection of short sayings by Jesus, some matching those in the canonical Gospels, and others with a more pronounced gnostic (if not Gnostic) flavor. Many of the surviving texts can be characterized as “Gospels”, reflecting teaching by Jesus, often in the context of special revelation vouchsafed only to his closest followers (cf. above). The clear implication is that these teachings have not been generally transmitted to the mass of “ordinary” Christians, but are intended to be communicated to the Elect (the gnostics). This is part of a wider pseudepigraphic tendency in early Christianity—writings attributed to, or presented as, the work of prominent early figures (apostles, etc).

We may conclude this discussion by outlining several other characteristics which may fairly be said to apply for many, if not most, Gnostic groups:

  • Asceticism—Most Gnostics appear to have followed and affirmed a strong ascetic ideal. This accords with general Greco-Roman (ascetic) philosophy of the period—the goal being to transcend the material condition through strict self-control (and self-denial), accompanied by knowledge, wisdom and the cultivation of virtue. A similar ascetic tendency can be found in early Christianity proper (even in the New Testament), though not nearly as prominent, it would seem, as among the Gnostics; it would increase notably within orthodox Christianity in the second and third centuries. Hostile witnesses (such as Irenaeus) have claimed that Gnostics were (sexually) licentious; but this is rather doubtful, and reflects a prejudice (and presumption), repeated often through history: that heretics must be immoral. Most of the available evidence points in the opposite direction—if they erred in their ethics, it was in overemphasizing an ascetic ideal.
  • Sexual/female imagery—Many Gnostic writings and beliefs are noteworthy in their use of female figure-types and sexual imagery, which appears more prominently than in the New Testament and early (proto-)Orthodoxy. Such imagery is intrinsic to the use of cosmological myth—the generation/propagation of the divine powers, with their fall (also described via sexual motifs), which led to the created material world. The personification of Wisdom (female/feminine) also plays a role in the ‘birth’ of Christ and the process of “salvation history”. Birth and bridal imagery also feature in a number of texts. Natural (physical/biological) childbirth was repellent to many Gnostics (or at least appears in a negative/ambivalent light), as was everything associated with sexual intercourse and propagation; there was a strong tendency to spiritualize (or intellectualize) childbirth, sexuality and sexual distinction. A number of sayings/teachings (by Jesus) in Gnostic works emphasize the elimination of childbirth and sexuality (“male and female”). We should also mention the prominence given to female apostles—presented as equal, or superior, to men—such as Mary Magdalene, in several surviving texts (the “Gospel of the Egyptians”, “Gospel of Mary”, etc).
  • Election—Gnostic groups tended to stress the idea of election, i.e. that they were the chosen ones, having received special knowledge and understanding. Such a belief is common among many sectarian religious groups—it reinforces the group identity, and all the more so for those sects which emphasize the transmission of special revelation. It also provides a convenient explanation as to why the majority of people do not accept the group’s teachings—they are incapable of doing so, since the revelation can be accepted only by the chosen few, i.e. the gnostics or “spiritual” ones. Perhaps even more significant in this regard is the basic gnostic idea that saving knowledge involves recognition of one’s true identity (cf. above). Almost by definition, a Gnostic (one who comes to know the truth) has to be such by nature, from the very beginning; awareness of this identity had simply been lost, through ignorance associated with birth and entanglement within the corrupt material world.

Gnostics in the New Testament

Previously, I mentioned certain elements of the Gospel and the New Testament writings which could be considered “gnostic”, in the general religious sense of the term (cf. above), especially in the letters of Paul and the Gospel and First Letter of John. However, a number of scholars have felt that early forms of some of the aberrant/heterodox Gnostic groups being discussed here may also be present in the later writings of the New Testament (cf. 60-90 A.D.). Already in 1 Corinthians (mid-50s), Paul seems concerned to check or moderate certain marked gnostic tendencies (cf. 1 Cor 1:17, 18-31; 2:1ff; 3:18-20ff; 7:1ff; 8:1ff), though there is little, if any, evidence of true Gnostic thought. More notably, there are three “heresies” in the later New Testament (after 60 A.D.) that are often identified with Gnosticism:

    • The so-called “Colossian heresy”
    • False teaching described in the Pastoral letters (esp. 1 Timothy), and
    • The separatist Christians mentioned in 1 John

1. Paul’s discussion in Colossians 2:8-23 has been thought to relate to a specific teaching (or group of teachings) sometimes referred to as the “Colossian heresy”. In verse 8, the author refers to filosofi/a (“fondness for wisdom”, i.e. “philosophy” [used only here in the NT]), but a wisdom so-called, according to deceitful human understanding (“empty deception/delusion according to thing[s] passed along by men”). From the Pauline standpoint, this could refer to virtually any sort of non-Christian religious or philosophical belief, whether Jewish or pagan. The contrast is between teaching/belief which is (a) according to the order/elements of the world, and (b) according to Christ (v. 8b). The similarity with the line of argument running through Galatians (see esp. Gal 4:1-11) strongly indicates a Jewish Christian context (cf. also the various references in 2 Cor 10-13). Apparently certain Jewish believers (or groups of believers) were influencing the Christians of the region (Colossae) in ways that were contrary to the truth of the Gospel, as understood by Paul. Several elements are specifically mentioned: (1) circumcision (vv. 11-13), (2) dietary regulations (v. 16a, 21), (3) observance of the Sabbath and other (Jewish) holy days (v. 16b). Also to be noted are the difficult phrases in verse 18, which seem to refer generally to religious identity/status based on certain visionary experiences (involving Angels, etc). The only detail which can be related, in any meaningful way, to gnostic/Gnostic belief is the ascetic emphasis in vv. 21-23, but this can be explained just as well in a Jewish or Greco-Roman philosophical context.

2. The various kinds of false teaching mentioned in the Pastoral letters (1 Timothy especially), can more plausibly be related to early Gnosticism. 1 Tim 6:20 is specifically combating beliefs or claims which emphasize knowledge (gnw=si$) and presumably make use of the term. In addition, several descriptive phrases are worth noting:

    • “endless tales and accounts of coming-to-be [i.e. ‘genealogies’]” (1 Tim 1:4)—this could refer to the cosmological myths and mythic language adopted by many Gnostics (cf. above); however, the use of genealogi/a in Tit 3:9 rather suggests a more distinctly Jewish context (as does the immediate context of 1 Tim 1:3-11).
    • “hindering [i.e. forbidding] (people) to marry, (requiring them) to hold [i.e. keep] away from (certain) foods” (1 Tim 4:3)—this reflects an ascetic ideal common to most Gnostics, but is found in many other religious groups and traditions as well; the anti-sexual tendency was certainly a significant element in Gnostic thought, and may relate to the author’s emphasis on childbearing in 1 Tim 2:13-15 (and cf. 5:14-15).
    • “counting [i.e. saying] the standing-up [i.e. resurrection] already to have come to be [i.e. come to pass]” (2 Tim 2:18)—Paul (or the author) says this of Hymenaios and Philetos (v. 17), and it has been thought by some (critical) commentators to be related to Gnostic thought (cf. Justin Martyr 1 Apology 26.4 and Irenaeus Against Heresies I.23.5 regarding the early “Gnostic” Menander). Certainly Gnostics, more so than other early Christians, would have been inclined to adopt a “realized” eschatology and reinterpret the resurrection as a spiritual (rather than bodily) event. However, questions and various views regarding the resurrection seem to have been relatively common in the early Christian period (cf. 1 Thess 4:13-18ff; 2 Thess 2:1-2ff; 1 Cor 15:12-57), especially when the first generation of believers began to pass away without the return of Christ and the end having come.
    • 2 Tim 3:1-9ff—on the assumption that the Pastorals address some form of early Gnostic heresy, a number of commentators would read it in here as well. Justin and Irenaeus refer to Gnostics such as Marcus as gaining female followers and exerting influence over women (1 Apology 26.3; Against Heresies I.13.3, 23.2, etc), but this could simply be part of the author’s bias and polemic. For a bit more on the relation of the Gnostic groups to women, cf. Part 9 in the series Women in the Church.

3. The First Letter of John appears to refer to believers who have separated themselves from the wider Community (2:19, etc); it is sometimes claimed that these separatists either represent early Gnostic groups, or helped to form the basis for such groups in the 2nd century. 1 John 4:2 suggests a kind of docetic view of Christ (cf. above)—”every spirit which does not give account as one [i.e. confess] Yeshua (the) Anointed {Jesus Christ} to have come in the flesh [e)n sarki/] is not from God” (cf. also 2 John 7). The false doctrine referenced in 1 John 5:6ff is more complex and difficult to intepret. However, apart from 1 John 4:2, there really is little evidence of Gnostic thought among the separatists or the false teachings opposed by the author. The Johannine writings (especially the Gospel) do seem to have been popular among the Gnostics; cf. for example, Irenaeus Against Heresies III.9, 16. The earliest known commentary on John is by Heracleon [c. 170-180], whose work is referenced/refuted by Origen in his own massive (and unfinished) commentary on the Gospel. Whether or not the Johannine “separatists” joined/formed the later Gnostic groups cited by Irenaeus et al, it is likely that Ignatius of Antioch knew of them (or persons like them) in the early 2nd century (c. 110), as he makes virtually the same declaration in Philadelphians 7:1 as the author of 1 John does in 4:2; moreover, in Smyrneans 1-5ff, he is clearly combating a docetic view of Christ, which could conceivably provide a link between 1 John and the later Gnostics.