Saint PerpetuaEarly Christianity was both a safe harbor and an adventurous sea for women. The first female disciples traveled with Jesus, learning from him at a time when this was frowned upon, and women’s mobility was limited.[1] Outside of the named women of Luke 8:3 – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna — the feminine plural heterai pollai (“many others”) shows that these many other disciples were women,[2] though adult coeducation rarely occurred outside a few small Greek schools of philosophy and no records exist for female disciples of Jewish rabbis besides Jesus at this time. [3]

The open posture of Jesus toward women created an environment that bore dividends for centuries to come, enabling women to change the course of history. We’ll see this in the witness of untold numbers of nameless, forgotten women who were integral to the survival and growth of the early Church. We’ll see it in the martyrs who still inspire us to hold fast in the face of persecution. And we’ll see it in women who taught by word and example, primarily to men whose positions within the institutional Church enabled them to shape the doctrines we hold dear.

 

Why Early Christianity Appealed to Women

In a hierarchical culture that revolved around the authority of husbands and fathers as paterfamilias, Christianity called husbands to self-sacrificial love and service (Eph 5:25-33) and couples to reciprocity and fidelity (1 Cor 7:1-5). Church leaders condemned the rampant practice of infant exposure, which could be legally ordered by the husband.[4] The care of widows and the legitimacy of singleness as a valuable calling for women continued throughout the early centuries[5], as did leadership opportunities. For example, dozens of inscriptions from the first three centuries attest to female deacons[6] (Greek, diakonos), which was often a general designation for “minister.”[7] For all these reasons, Christianity offered women protection and gave them purpose, distinguishing the Jesus movement from the larger society.

 

It’s Raining (Wo)men: The Pervasiveness of Females in the Early Centuries

One of the chief arguments by pagans against Christianity in the early centuries was the predominance of women among its ranks. The Greek philosopher Celsus, writing a polemic against Christianity called True Doctrine in the latter half of the second century[8], said “… they [Christian missionaries] want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable, and stupid, and only slaves, women and little children.” Assessing True Doctrine, MacDonald, Osiek, and Tulloch write, “… the attempt to denigrate early Christianity by appealing to the gender and status of its main proponents is unmistakable. In fact, women figure prominently in Celsus’s polemical critique of early Christianity ….”[9]

Likewise, the Christian apologist Marcus Minucius preserved second-century criticism from Marcus Fronto that said Christians differ from Romans by collecting “from the lowest possible dregs of society the more ignorant fools together with gullible women (readily persuaded, as is their weak sex ….”)[10] And in 370 A.D. the Emperor Valentinian ordered Pope Damasus I to prohibit missionaries from visiting pagan women.[11]

Rodney Stark has shown that men dramatically outnumbered women throughout the Roman empire, but women outnumbered men by nearly the same percentage within Christianity. The empire created its gender imbalance largely through the legal, morally accepted practice of exposure of unwanted baby girls. Yet, “The ancient sources and modern historians agree that primary conversion to Christianity was far more prevalent among females than among males.”[12]

 

How Nameless Women Contributed to the Growth of Christianity

Isolated incidents of mass conversion cannot explain the phenomenal growth of Christianity in the first four centuries, but an average 40% growth rate per decade from 40 to 300 A.D. can.[13] Much growth likely occurred the way it does in successful movements today: through personal conversations within open networks. Nameless, forgotten women would thus have been integral, as Christine Schenk explains: “… evangelization was conducted person-to-person, house-to-house by women who reached out to other women, children, freed persons, and slaves. Women’s quiet exercise of authority in the context of everyday domestic life is one oft-unheralded key to Christianity’s rapid expansion.”[14]

Stark points to the prevalence of intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men, given the lack of available women among the pagans and the preponderance of women within Christianity. Already in the New Testament, Paul (1 Cor 7:13-14) and Peter (1 Pet 3:1-2) had advised wives how to win their husbands to Christ, and “… neither seemed to have the slightest worry that Christians would revert to, or convert to, paganism. Moreover, pagan sources agree ….

“Christians seldom lost out via exogenous marriages …. This was partly because many married upper-class women became Christians and then managed to convert their spouses – this was especially common in the fourth century. But it also occurred because many upper-class Christian women did marry pagans, some of whom they subsequently were able to convert.”[15]

These upper-class women were particularly important to the growth of the Church because their witness could convert whole households: husbands, children, extended family, and slaves.

 

Who Needs Wonder Woman? We Have Martyrs Who Beat Soldiers and Satan

The best way for a tyrant to silence opposition is to imprison and execute prominent opponents. The enemies of Christ have always targeted women. Saul dragged “women and men” off to prison (Acts 8:3), the teacher Priscilla “risked her life” with Paul (Rom 16:4), and Junia the apostolos did jail time (Rom 16:7). In 112 A.D., Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan, asking for advice on how to punish Christians and admitting he didn’t know much about them. He had already done what seemed natural: interrogate two Christian leaders who would understand Christian doctrines, liturgy, and leadership development.[16] In his words, “I thought it the more necessary, therefore, to find out what truth there was in this by applying torture to two maidservants, who were called deaconesses. But I found nothing but a depraved and extravagant superstition ….”[17]

Not only were Christian women arrested and tortured, but a significant proportion of martyrs were female.[18] Girls (and boys) today can watch films with heroes like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, which is a good thing. But Christians have many real female heroes in our past, represented in this paper by Blandina, Perpetua, and Felicity.

 

Blandina

In 177 A.D. in Lyon, France, the Romans executed forty-eight members of the local church in the Croix-Rousse amphitheater. They singled out a teenage slave named Blandina for torture, supposing that she would quickly deny Christ. Surely, she could not stand up to torture because of her sex, low status as a slave, and petite, frail-looking body.

Again and again, the authorities tortured Blandina to say that the Christians were lawbreakers. Eusebius records, “Blandina was filled with such power that her ingenious tormentors who relieved and succeeded each other from morning till night, confessed that they were overcome …. But this blessed saint, as a noble wrestler … renewed her strength, and to repeat, ‘I am a Christian, no wickedness is carried on by us.”[19]

She returned to prison, where she encouraged her fellow sisters and brothers in chains. The next day Blandina endured repeated torture while strengthening the Christians with her faith and resolve. As soldiers bound and suspended her on a stake, her fellow sufferers began to remark that she looked like Christ upon the cross. Eusebius adds, “… they contemplated him that was crucified for them, to persuade those that believe him, that everyone who suffers for Christ, will forever enjoy communion with the living God …. Though small and weak and contemptible, but yet clothed with the mighty and invincible wrestler Christ Jesus … she overcame the enemy ….”[20]

Ultimately, torturers led her back to the arena with a 15-year-old Christian named Ponticus. Blandina mothered and encouraged the boy as soldiers executed him. After additional tortures, the authorities let loose a wild bull to trample Blandina to death. “Even the Gentiles confessed, that no woman among them had ever endured sufferings as many and great as these.”[21] The arena stands in Lyon today, a testament to pilgrims who draw strength from her resolve.

 

Perpetua and Felicity

In 203 A.D. authorities arrested a 22-year-old African noblewoman named Perpetua, a new mother who had recently converted to Christianity against her family’s wishes. Felicity, a pregnant slave girl, shared in her imprisonment. The earliest source of their story comes through the ancient, wildly popular document The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, which includes diary excerpts that Perpetua wrote in prison, making her the earliest recorded Latin female prose writer.[22]

Felicity gave birth in prison while Perpetua nursed her own baby. Both women awaited their execution, refusing all pleas to renounce Christ. God had prepared Perpetua for what lay ahead by giving her four visions, including one in which she fought a ferocious Egyptian wrestler after being “transformed into a man.” Cohick and Hughes argue that the passage’s grammar suggests not a literal transformation but an idiom of the day, which meant that she would become “manly” — courageous, strong, and bold. Perpetua landed a knockout punch and stood on the head of her opponent, whom she understood to symbolize the devil.[23]

The vision prepared her for what lay ahead. On the day of execution, Romans let wild animals loose in the arena. A bull gored Perpetua, but she recovered, staggered to Felicity, and calmed her – the slave and the heiress, united in suffering for Jesus. When the beasts took too long to maul the Christians, soldiers lined them up and killed them by the sword. After Felicity’s death, we “discover that Perpetua is stronger and braver than her executioner …. a gladiator is sent to finish the job with a sword. However, he lacks the courage to do the deed until Perpetua takes over: ‘Then she herself guided the young and inexperienced gladiator’s hand to her throat. Perhaps we might say that such a great woman, who was feared by the demon within the executioner, couldn’t be killed unless she herself allowed it.’ (Pass. Perp. 6).”[24]

Later generations of Christians saw in Felicity a model of Christ as the meek and lowly suffering servant, willingly submitting to the cross. They saw Perpetua as a model of Christ the Victor, triumphing over Death. From these and other female martyrs, they drew strength to endure.

 

When Truth is at Stake, Who Teaches the Teachers?

Although education rates for women continued to lag far behind men, and offices like the bishopric were closed to them, many women led by example as defenders of orthodoxy, providers of the poor, and key figures in monasticism. Some also mentored and encouraged men of renown. We could highlight many, but the greatest examples may be Melania the Younger and Macrina the Younger, both of whom bore the name, character, and intelligence of their grandmothers.

 

Melania the Younger

Melania didn’t fall far from the family tree. Her namesake, Melania the Elder, had founded monasteries, done time in prison for defending orthodox Christology against Arianism, and nearly went back to jail for hiding orthodox monks from an Arian emperor. “The church today is orthodox rather than Arian partly due to Melania’s influence.”[25]

Although her granddaughter isn’t mentioned much today, the Greek priest Gerontius preserved her feats in the Life of Melania the Younger, written in 452-53, more than a decade after her passing.[26] During Melania’s life, not only did countless poor and hungry receive her aid, but the likes of Augustine, Jerome, Cyril of Alexandria, and the Desert Fathers esteemed her greatly.[27]

Melania was born wealthy sometime between 383-385 A.D. Noted for her intelligence and beauty, she nevertheless wanted to preserve her singleness and virginity in a life dedicated to Christ. Her parents, however, arranged her marriage to fellow Roman Pinian when she was fourteen and he was seventeen. After their first two children died in early childhood, Melania convinced Pinian to live with her as “spiritual brother and sister” in perpetual abstinence. They set about giving away their enormous fortunes, buying freedom for those in debtors’ prisons, feeding the poor, helping the sick,[28] and most of all, founding and sustaining monasteries[29] for women and men.

Leaving Italy for North Africa with husband and mother in tow (her father having passed away), Melania continued to construct monasteries while devoting herself to reading the entire Bible three to four times a year, copying the Scriptures by hand, and giving her copies to others. Her skill in interpreting Scripture grew,[30] as did her desire to live in the Holy Land.

Melania took her small family to the Mount of Olives, where, after the death of her mother and husband, she founded monasteries for men and women and a martyrium to honor Zachariah, Stephen, and others.[31] Her remaining years involved periods of intense asceticism and fervent defense of orthodoxy, such as her battles against the Nestorian heresy. Her biographer wrote, “Therefore many of the wives of senators and some of the men illustrious in learning came to our holy mother in order to investigate the orthodox faith with her. And she, who had the Holy Spirit indwelling, did not cease talking theology from dawn to dusk. She turned many who had been deceived to the orthodox faith and sustained others who doubted.”[32]

 

Macrina the Younger

Macrina the Younger, described as striking, forceful, and extremely devout,[33] lived in the third century in a part of present-day Turkey. Her famous younger brothers, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, formed two-thirds of the Cappadocian Fathers. They significantly contributed to our understanding of the Trinity, allowing orthodoxy to triumph at the first Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. and giving us the form of the Nicene Creed that we know today. Without Macrina, they would not have been who they were. And Christianity would not have become what it is.

Macrina was born into a wealthy family around 327 A.D. Her father died young, as did another of Macrina’s brothers. Her mother never regained her emotional health. Macrina became the spiritual parent of the household, educating and raising her siblings while also taking care of her mother and emancipating the family slaves.[34] When Macrina’s fiancé also died young, she pledged to remain single and devoted to Jesus throughout life. She became a leader in the community, known for giving away clothing to the poor, caring for orphan girls, and creating monastic space for devotion to Christ.[35] [36] She also steered Basil away from his anticipation of secular accomplishments when he returned from his studies in Athens. She won him over to monastic life,[37] setting up a chain of events that led to him becoming Bishop of Caesarea, founder of the world’s first hospital, and a chief architect in defense of the Trinity and the full divinity of the Holy Spirit.

Gregory of Nyssa made sure history would remember Macrina’s contributions in his biography Life Of Macrina. And in a major theological work called On the Soul and the Resurrection, prompted by Basil’s death, Gregory presented Macrina as a philosopher greater than Socrates,[38] teaching him theology through a Platonic-style dialogue while she was on her own deathbed.[39] Throughout the book, Gregory calls her “My teacher.”[40]

Macrina died around 50 years old, leaving behind a religious order of women and a brother who was equipped and inspired to fight for truth at the all-important Council of Constantinople.

 

Conclusion

Women stood at the forefront of the Jesus movement in its early centuries. Few were famous, but they spent their lives spreading the gospel to neighbors, winning and equipping husbands in the faith, raising children to know Christ, and serving the least of these. Scores of other women braved tortures that ended in death. And even in cultures that made it difficult for women to learn or teach publicly, many learned and taught by word and example, shaping monasticism, participating in theological debates with enemies of orthodoxy, and mentoring the men who became giants of the Christian faith. And thus, Christian women changed the course of history.

 

[1] Diane G. Chen, Luke: A New Covenant Commentary (Eugene, Ore: Cascade Books, 2017), 108.

[2] Christa L. McKirland, Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural, and Practical Perspectives, ed. Ronald W. Pierce and Cynthia Long Westfall, Third edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 481.

[3] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd edition (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2014), 200.

[4] Bowes, William B., “A Religion of ‘Women and Children’? A Christian Woman’s Place in the Greco-Roman World Before AD 300,” Priscilla Papers 35, no. 4, Autumn 2021 (2021): 14–15.

[5] Bowes, A Religion of Women and Children?, 16.

[6] Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, eds., Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, 1st edition (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 90–93, noted in Bowes, William B., 16.

[7] Paul refers to himself as a diakonos in 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; Eph 3:7; and Col 1:23. He also applies the term to Phoebe (Rom 16:1), Apollos (1 Cor 3:5), Epaphras (Eph 6:21), Tychicus (Col 1:7), and Timothy (1 Tim 4:6).

[8] Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, Illustrated edition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013), 63.

[9] Carolyn Osiek, A Woman’s Place: House Churches In Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 221–22.

[10] Marcus Minucius Felix, Octavius 8.4, quoted in Bowes, William B., 17

[11] Rodney Stark, “Reconstructing the Rise of Christianity: The Role of Women,” Sociology of Religion 56, no. 3 (1995): 231.

[12] Ibid., 231–33.

[13] Ibid., 229–30.

[14] Christine Schenk, Crispina and Her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 61, quoted in Bowes 18.

[15] Stark, “Reconstructing the Rise of Christianity,” 241–42.

[16] Bowes, A Religion of Women and Children?, 19.

[17] Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church, 4th edition (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 4.

[18] Stark, “Reconstructing the Rise of Christianity,” 239.

[19] Eusebius Pamphilus, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History: Complete and Unabridged, Updated edition (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Pub, 1998), 150.

[20] Ibid., 154.

[21] Pamphilus, 156.

[22] David L. Eastman, Early North African Christianity (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2021), 19–21. Eastman points out that it wasn’t so unusual for a highborn woman like Perpetua, who spoke Greek and Latin, to be literate, and that the earliest readers of the text accepted it as Perpetua’s words. Most historians look at this as her own account, and no one has raised solid arguments against it.

[23] Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes, Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 41–42.

[24] Eastman, Early North African Christianity, 33.

[25] Leanne M. Dzubinski and Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2021), 41–42.

[26] Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women in the Patristic World, 210.

[27] Brad Nassif, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, ed. Gary M. Burge (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2012), 96.

[28] Ibid., 98–99.

[29] Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women in the Patristic World, 211.

[30] Nassif, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, 100–101.

[31] Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women in the Patristic World, 215.

[32] Elizabeth Clark, Life of Melania the Younger: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (New York: Mellon, 1984), par 54, quoted in Nassif, 103.

[33] Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought, New edition (Oxford, England: Lion Books, 2003), 67.

[34] Dzubinski and Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church, 66.

[35] Wilken, The First Thousand Years, 105.

[36] Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women in the Patristic World, 166–68.

[37] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection: St Gregory of Nyssa (Crestwood, N.Y: St Vladimirs Seminary Pr, 1993), 8.

[38] Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women in the Patristic World, 164.

[39] Some scholars point out that we cannot know if the “real” Macrina was as intelligent as Gregory made her out to be. Remember that many have made the same arguments about Jesus and Socrates. But it should surprise no one that Macrina was a genius, given that she was the sibling of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa (and in fact, the sibling who mentored them).

[40] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection.

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