notre dame montreal

Advent Bible Study Course preached by The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley Advent 2003

Women and the New Testament

This evening I shall be looking at the main female characters in the New Testament and examining how their images have been modified over the course of history. I shall be relating those changes in attitude to wider religious and social attitudes to women. During the course of the talk I shall discuss the theological implications of these changes. The talk will be illustrated with paintings of the female saints from art history.

I think it is difficult for us in the Partnership churches, where we have women Leaders as well as a female minister to imagine the centuries of hatred of women which coloured the relationship of women to the church. Starting with the early Church Fathers, misogyny, hatred of women reared its ugly head. The Church Fathers taught that starting with Eve, women were instruments of the devil’s work. That females were natural liars, that their charms for men were merely snares for evil, which would degrade men and distract them from Heaven. The venom which was poured out was partly designed to help men who had taken vows of chastity to resist temptation. St Paul’s emphasis on chastity and the spiritual dangers of sexual relationships reversed Jewish teaching about the centrality of the family and the joys of married life. In Judaic tradition the family has always been the place in which religion and piety are first taught and maintained. At the council of Nicea in 325 a proposal for all clergy to be celibate and put away their wives was rejected, but gradually celibacy became the dominant lifestyle for clergy in the West. The efforts of the higher echelons of the Roman church to enforce celibacy led to rantings of unspeakable horror and bitterness about women as the source of corruption. Here is a typical outburst from Abbot Conrad of Marchthal in Germany, written in 1273, defending his decision to throw nuns out of his religious community.

“…the wickedness of women is greater than all the other wickedness if the world and that there is no anger like that of women and that the poison of asps and dragons is more curable and less dangerous to men than the familiarity of women have unanimously decreed that for the safety of our souls no less than for that our bodies and goods that we will on no account receive any more sisters to the increase of our perdition but will avoid them like poisonous animals. ”

Imagine being a woman forced to listen to that kind of preaching! What kind of anxiety did it produce in a spiritual man who longed for marriage and children? From this brief setting of the background it can be seen that the Church’s attitudes towards heterosexual relationships, marriage and women’s bodies was fatally flawed and psychologically perverted. Despite the fact that the Bible shows us that marriage was ordained by God, the Church persistently taught that it was a poor second choice for those who couldn’t maintain celibacy: the natural joys of sex, love, companionship and raising the children were denigrated, and considered in opposition to the spiritual life.


We are told only a very little about Mary, the mother of Jesus in the Bible. But over time many legends and fantasies about Mary accumulated to fit in the with Church’s beliefs and aspirations. The early Church Fathers (in the third century) were not much interested in Mary except to contrast her obedience with the disobedience of Eve. The notion of her perpetual virginity first appeared in the Book of James, an apocryphal Gospel which dwelt on the birth and boyhood of Jesus. This book related miraculous and picturesque legends about how Joseph was chosen to be the husband of Mary, about Mary’s upbringing by her parents and Jesus’ childhood. Supposedly written by James the brother of Jesus, the book was a very popular text, and was the source for popular drama and painters. As Neil told us last week, the book did not make it into the canon of the New Testament. Many of the tales were reused in a best-seller called the Golden Legends.

The figure of Mary continued to grow in importance over the next thousand years, with all these non-Biblical beliefs and fantasies gathering around her. By the sixteenth century there was a popular doctrine that Mary, herself sinless, was also conceived without sin. She was placed on a pedestal as the perfect woman, motherly yet unsullied by sexual intercourse. The Church leaders decided that since she was without sin, she could never have had another child and decided too that where the Gospels referred to Jesus’ sisters and brothers, the writers of the Gospels must have meant cousins or half-siblings.

Mary was considered to have been too perfect to have died in a mortal, normal way, and stories were told that she herself was taken up into Heaven on her death bed to be enthroned next to Jesus in Heaven. Her role was believed to be that of a kindly intercessor. It was almost as though Jesus was too important to be bothered with the prayers of mere mortals but that Mary his mother would have time and sympathy for human problems and intercede for humans with her Son.
The love and reverence felt for Mary was in dramatic contrast to the wide-spread contempt with which ordinary women were regarded by theologians and churchmen. Against background of hatred and fear of normal human sexuality, the elevation of the eternally virgin Mary intensified. She was the one woman a celibate man was allowed to love passionately and her purity and her freedom from female traits was emphasised as the loathing of real women was proclaimed from pulpits.

The thinkers and reformers that shaped the Reformation decided that the cult of the Virgin Mary was getting out of hand, that the extravagant devotion to her deflected people away from a close relationship with Jesus. There things have stayed for us Protestants, with only High Church Anglicans allowing reverence for Our Lady to emerge in their worship. Recently feminist scholars have begun to look again at the importance of Mary, and argue that we should reassess Mary, without all the woman-hating propaganda about her perpetual virginity. Might Mary’s story have valuable things to teach us? Certainly she is the most extraordinarily heroic individual. A role model for the way to act when caught up in the whirlwind that is sometimes God’s call. Mary though only a young woman responded to God’s challenge with simplicity and self-giving. Her role in protecting and nurturing Jesus was exemplary, and she demonstrated her faithfulness to God’s call right to the end of Jesus’ earthly life. Mary’s discipleship was of the most steady kind, of being present even though times were dark and desperate. At Easter we will think again about she stood by the Cross and watched her innocent Son die, an emblem of all who suffer innocently. Curiously she is not mentioned again after the Crucifixion so we must assume that she went home to be with those relations I mentioned earlier.

Mary Magdalene.

While it is true that the Twelve disciples named by Jesus were all men, the immediate circle around Jesus seems to have included a number of important women. They turn up in many of the narratives in the Gospels and seem to have had constant access to Jesus’ teaching and preaching. The presence of Mary of Magdala , who and what she was has never been properly explained. What was her relationship to Jesus? What was her marital status? It is unthinkable that an unmarried woman would have been allowed to travel in a mixed group without her father or brother. Was she a widow and if so why wasn’t this mentioned (most women are described as mother-in-law of, or sister of)? Mary is always first in any list of the women around Jesus so she was evidently first in importance, but why? Why was she the first to find that His body had gone from the tomb? Why was she the first person to whom He appeared in His resurrected form? The Bible does not tell us. Some scholars have argued that all this points to the fact that she was in fact Jesus’ wife. They ask why else would a woman who was not His relative be sent to take away His dead body? It would surely be the province of a relative not a friend, and since we know that Jesus did have named relatives, why her not them? Scholars of first century Judaism find it impossible to believe that a rabbi of thirty was unmarried. If He had been, it would have been extraordinary enough to be mentioned and explained away by the Gospel writers. Remember it doesn’t say He wasn’t married, it just doesn’t mention that He was and to whom. Observant Jews were expected to marry as part of their duty to God and the continuation of the line of Abraham. Why might there be no mention of a wife? Well perhaps she was dead or left behind in Galilee before He began His ministry in the last three years of His life? The writing up of the Jesus stories, began a minimum of fifty to seventy years after the Crucifixion and by that time the Church was influenced by St Paul who felt very strongly that in order to prepare for the imminent end of the world, the faithful ought not to be marrying and having children but preparing for their place in Heaven. He felt that celibacy was the preferred option and might have discouraged any references to Jesus’ wife if there was such a person. It seems likely that if Jesus had chosen not to conform to Jewish tradition by remaining celibate, Paul would have trumpeted the fact in order to promote his ideal of celibacy.

As with Mary the mother of Jesus, fantastical legends completely unrelated to anything in scripture grew up around the mysterious figure of Mary of Magdala. For example there was the legend that she was a reformed prostitute, a repentant fallen woman. The idea may have evolved from St Luke’s mention that Jesus cast “seven devils” out of her” and Gregory the Great in the sixth century, assumed she was the woman who anointed Christ’s feet in Simon’s house. In that passage the woman was called “a woman of the city”, which he assumed to mean a prostitute. The idea that the only kind of sin a woman might commit was sexual appealed to the medieval church, which as I have said was obsessed with sex and in particular with the threat posed by women’s disgusting bodies and their sinful natures. Mary Magdalene could be discussed as a role model for women who had sinned and had put their sinfulness away from them. Prisons and places of refuge for reformed prostitutes were called Magdalenes. In art Mary’s supposed sinfulness was the excuse to show titillating images of her, often bare breasted and with glorious hair let down. The subject was allowed because the artist and buyer of the picture could claim that the picture showed a sinner grieving over their sins and repenting.

It seems extremely unlikely that Mary of Magdala was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as was once thought. She was certainly part of the group of wives and mothers who gathered at the foot of the Cross. And she was the first bringer of the Gospel in that it was she who told the other followers of Jesus that He had risen from the grave. The Nag Hammadi texts, which Neil mentioned last week, includes a number of writings which give Mary chief importance among Jesus’ followers and make her the recipient of many of Jesus’ sayings.

Martha and Mary

Jesus included women among his close friends. In particular Our Lord spent time with Lazarus, and his sisters, Mary and Martha. The gospels suggest that they had substantial social status and were prosperous. The Gospels also give interesting insights into the confident ways that these two female friends spoke to Jesus, as though expecting Him to take them seriously and to listen to them with respect. Jesus was even prepared to put up with them reproaching Him over the death of their brother.

READING : Luke 10: 38-42

You will have sat through a score of sermons on the subject so you won’t need reminding that it is traditionally used to argue that Jesus believed that a life of contemplation is superior to that of practical service. It is also used to have a dig at women either for nagging or for fussing about food rather than focussing on religious matters. I promised, in response to a question by Sylvia, to give a flavour of some of the new scholarship that has resulted from recent archaeological and linguistic advances, and the new interpretations of scripture which can result from it. This has been interestingly applied to the story of Martha we have just heard.
Warren Carter, an American scholar, by analysing the Nag Hamadi manuscripts and other early texts, has shown that the word used in Luke to describe what Martha was stressed about was “ministry”. The same word is used elsewhere in the Gospels eight more times always in relation to male ministry and leadership. Translators assumed that Martha’s role must be domestic even though the word when used in regard to men meant Christian leadership. Judging by other uses in Acts and Luke, Martha’s “concerns” may just as easily have been with care of believers, teaching and preaching and leadership of a house church . We had merely assumed that Martha was fussing about overseeing the servants making a meal for Jesus and the guests. What if she were doing more general kinds of ministry – what implications would that have for the role of women in the Early Church? The very beautiful point that this scholar draws from his interpretation of the story is this: not that Martha was wrong to be so busy about the Lord’s service, but that when she (like us) is overstretched and tired she should return to the teaching of Jesus to be restored and fed.

This one brief example reminds us that we can’t rely on using the Bible as a rule book for life without realising that humans have intervened in the process of translating the Bible. In the case of Martha’s ministry, the translators believed that no woman could have done the kind of ministry done by men, so changed the word to fit their beliefs about what Martha was doing. This warns us that other meanings may have been either accidentally or wilfully adjusted by translators. But given that warning, if we go back to the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles we see that Jesus did not share His church’s hatred for women. As I have described above Mary of Magdala was only one of a group of women who were constantly in Jesus’ company. They were given constant access to His teaching, and were witnesses to His miracles and healings. There is no evidence that they were excluded. To Roman observers, who had a very low opinion of the intellectual qualities of women, it seemed bizarre and noteworthy that Jesus wanted to talk to women and include them in his intimate circle. The Gospels place great emphasis on Jesus’ willingness to engage spiritually and intellectually with women at a time when Rabbis would have felt themselves to be contaminated by so much as looking a woman who was not his wife or daughter. Jesus took the Samarian woman by the well seriously, discussed her life and her faith with her, discussed the possibility of Heaven with her. Observers at the time must have been astonished.
Who were these women who faithfully travelled with Jesus? Among them was Joanna, wife of Chuza who managed Herod’s estates, a woman of some means and social position. The women seem to have come from a broad range of social classes and regions, showing that Jesus intended the good news to be open to all. In Luke 8: 3 we are told that such women provided the resources to sustain Jesus and His followers.

Women and the Early Church.

For many observers, the number and importance of women in the new religion of Christianity was one it its outstanding features. Didn’t Nero sneer that it was a cult followed by women and slaves ? There are tantalising references to women leaders in the Acts of the Apostles. We hear of the four prophetesses at Caesarea who were the daughters of Phillip. We hear about Tabitha (aka Dorcas) full of good works and charity who is described as a disciple at Joppa. She, you may remember, was brought back from the dead by Peter.

Mary, the mother of John Mark, hosted a house church in her home, suggesting that she was a woman of means and with leadership qualities. Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods was baptised with all her household. The disciples were given hospitality by Damaris in Athens. Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos how to understand the faith better(18:26) All these examples showed that women were active in the Church in a variety of roles, teaching, preaching, prophesying and leading. In the first centuries of the church’s history there are hints that women served as deaconesses, and even as priests. But women’s ministry, along with women’s spiritual equality was savagely attacked throughout the Middle Ages. You might have expected that in the Reformation, when so many fixed ideas were over turned that the role of women would have been reconsidered but, apart from a few breakaway groups, women remained despised and ignored by the church. The women who were exalted were always celibates, and preferably martyrs who died rather than give up their virginity such as St Catherine and St Barbara. The only women who were able to enjoy service within the church were also celibate, nuns. Although medieval prioresses and abbesses did enjoy a large degree of power, it was always within the enclosed sphere of the convent.

The history of the church has remained skewed by the earlier loathing and suspicion of women. Although churches were always full of women, usually making up half of the congregation, they were always treated as if they were children, excluded from being church wardens and church councils. They were lectured on their essential sinfulness. Told that they as , daughters of Eve were responsible for the downfall of humanity. They told off for their vanity and worldliness, and told that their bodies made them unclean and unwholesome.

The general view of society that women were incapable of logical thinking, that too much brain work made them infertile or hysterical, all contributed to prevent women taking up a more equal role as children of God. Reforming churches such as the Quakers and Methodist movements were ready to recognise the injustice of excluding women from roles of responsibility within the church and also that the church was being robbed of the possible benefits of women’s ministry. Wesley admitted women as preachers from the early stages of the movement but the Wesley deaconess movement was only established in England in 1890. It is only in recent years that true equality has been obtained for Methodist women. Roman Catholic women still suffer from lack of equality, although there is a movement to ordain women to the Catholic priesthood. Charlie’s famous ancestress, Maud Royden ,1876–1956, was the first English woman to preach (1917–20) in an established Anglican church. Despite her excellent mind and education she was unable to exercise her undoubted calling to ministry. She wrote very sadly, “I was born a woman and have never been able to get over it”.

You might think that now women have been made District Superintendents and Archdeacons that the battle has been won and that the role of women in the wider church is no longer an issue. Alas not all churches are as pro-women as the Partnership churches. Within many sections of the Church of England women are still treated as second-class citizens and their ordination denied. A male priest wrote recently, “you might as soon ordain a pork pie as a woman”. The rights of women-hating male priests have been protected by an Act of Synod, which was rushed through at the same time as women were ordained. Among other things it gives anti-women priests and parishes the right to be looked after by a bishop who has not been “tainted” (that is the word they use) by ordaining women. So in fact, Bp Christopher has certain parts of this diocese which he can’t control, because they are under the authority of the so called “flying bishop” of Richborough, even though the C of E supports them financially. The final thing that the Act of Synod did was to prevent women becoming Bishops in the Church of England. This isn’t simply an issue of whether women like me get to be bishops and dress up in purple. It is an issue about whether we consider there is something inherently inferior about all women, which makes the church right to maintain its patriarchal attitudes. It becomes an issue about the equality of all human beings in the love of the Lord, not merely a women’s issue. We need to look again at the Gospels and remind ourselves that Jesus had a revolutionary acceptance of women as valued and trusted disciples. We need to read for ourselves about the role of women in the early Church. We must be aware how these women have been edited out of church history and minimised by historians and theologians. The hatred and fear of female sexuality has dominated two Millennia of thinking about women and what we are to God and what they could be to the church, it is only by returning to the Bible that we can regain a proper perspective on what Jesus requires of women as well as men in His Church.