Women in Paul's Churches
Paul's undisputed letters indicate that women played a role in the foundation of the earliest churches. In his letter to Rome, Paul mentions Phoebe (a deacon), Prisca, Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Julia, the mother of Rufus, and the sister of Nereus. He also mentions Junia, and names her as "foremost among the apostles." In addition, several of Paul's other letters suggest the importance of women in the early church.
Some women in Pauline churches took to heart Paul's ascetic message and renounced marriage. Later letters written in Paul's name attempted to stem this interpretation and reassert traditional roles for women.
Women Associated With Jesus
Although Jesus' closest disciples were men, the earliest Gospel traditions make clear that there were many women associated with Jesus. In addition to traveling with Jesus, these women provided financial support for his ministry. Women accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem and were present at his crucifixion. They were also the first witnesses to the empty tomb, and, thus, the first to proclaim Jesus' resurrection.
Jesus' association with women may be historically credible because of his apocalyptic views. Since part of his message was the reversal of fortunes, it is possible that Jesus' association with women-a part of society generally perceived to be inferior-was an enactment of his apocalyptic message.
Paul's Understanding of Women in the Church
Although Paul's message may appear radical in its egalitarianism, he did not urge a social revolution. In fact, Paul urged his followers to stay within their socially defined roles and wait for the parousia. Equality in Christ, therefore, did not necessitate equality in society.
Women in the Aftermath of Paul
Since Paul's views of women were ambivalent-women could serve in the church but must retain their social status as women-it is not surprising that several Christian groups subsequently used Paul to advance their own views. One group took the side that women were equal to men in every way. Other Christians, however, argued that women should marry and occupy a traditional, submissive role.
Ancient Ideologies of Gender
In antiquity, most people thought men and women were different in degree, not in kind. There was one continuum of humanity. On the upper end of the scale were men-those individuals who, for a variety of reasons, had been formed perfectly in the womb-and on the lower end of the scale were women-those, conversely, who were imperfectly formed. Since women were viewed as underdeveloped men, they were, quite literally, the weaker sex and were expected to assume a social role in line with this weakness.
Gender Ideology and the Pauline Churches
Many Christian converts in the first centuries were women. This may not be surprising since Christian communities did not initially gather in large public spaces, but, rather, in private homes where women had influence and authority. As long as Christians met within the confines of the home, women were able to hold positions of authority and prominence.
As the movement grew, however, and Christianity became more public, it became problematic for women to retain their leadership positions. As a result of the tension between public and private, some Christians argued that societal constructions of sex were not valid for those who were in Christ. These Christians urged freedom from marital constraints, claiming that it was Christ who had set them free. According to this view, women should continue leading communities since they were equal to men in Christ.
This is not, however, the view that ultimately won. Movements seeking absolute equality of women in the Christian community were opposed based on assumptions of "natural" and "unnatural" acts and spheres. When the apocalyptic fervor began to subside, Christians no longer waited anxiously for the end but began to establish a church hierarchy to guide them in appropriate Christian behavior. Public activity came to be the job of men, and women were taught to be modest, quiet, and submissive.