The Passion of Independent Women in Early Christianity

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.

—  Bertrand Russell, 1872-1970

Passionate women were among Jesus’ earliest followers and have been important members of Christian church from the very beginning. Apart from learning from and speaking to women both in public and private, Jesus himself also taught and had meals with men as well as women. Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28 tell us that it was an unnamed woman who taught Jesus that the ministry of God is belongs to all who have faith and not limited to any particular groups or persons.

Seeing that women have had to fight for recognition and seats at the table of power for centuries, it would be naïve of us to think that the major roles and recognition of women in Jesus’ circle came solely from his open arms and the kindness of his heart (although no doubt it greatly helped). It would be a mistake to think of these women as merely meek and fragile, waiting for the men around them to tell them what to do or “give” them a voice. It was the women who remained firm when Jesus was arrested, even when his male disciples are said to have fled, and it was the women who accompanied him to the foot of the cross.

File:Bernardino Luini - Madonna and Child with Sts Catherine and Barbara - WGA13764.jpg
“Madonna and Child with Sts Catherine and Barbara” by Bernardino Luini  (c. 1525)

Although the Ancient Greek tragedian Euripides writes in his play Medea that “Excess of passion brings no glory or honor to men,” passion certainly brough honor to women. There is no doubt that men were idealistic, civically engaged and committed to building a better society. But so were the women. In a letter to James (James 1:27), Mary, mother of Jesus, shows her concern for economic justice by writing “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” More importantly, the women recognized that dreams and ideals are not enough for the movement to survive without finances and support from people with a certain degree of power in society.

It is money we need; for without money nothing can be done.

—  Demosthenes, 384 – 322 BC

Somewhat reminiscent of an ancient plotline where the hero’s (or heroes’) journeys are greatly influenced by the help of independent women, Mary Magdalene was one of the women who financially supported the work and ministry of Jesus as well as travelling with them. Despite later efforts to diminish her role, Mary Magdalene was wealthy woman in her own right. She is repeatedly portrayed as a visionary and leader of the early movement. In the Gospel of John, the newly risen Jesus commissioned her to bring the good news of his ressurection to the rest of the apostles. She obeyed and thus became the first person to announce the resurrection. Later tradition heralded her as “the apostle to the apostles.

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“Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena” by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov (1835)

Mary Magdalene was also one of the seven women and twelve men gathered to hear Jesus’ words after the resurrection and before his ascension. Of these nineteen people, only five of the most prominent among them are named, including Mary Magdalene.

Priscilla and Aquila were a married couple. They were also missionaries who lived and worked with Paul on his journeys and were instrumental in building the early church. In four of six instances where their names were mentioned together, Priscilla’s name preceeds her husband’s. This suggests Priscilla’s prominence, or at least her equal status as her husband as, in ancient pairings even to this day in many cultures, the husband’s name is usually mentioned first. Saint Catherine of Alexandria (c. 287 – c. 305) was the daughter of King Costus and Queen Sabinella of Alexandria. Coming from an affluent family, Catherine received the finest education in arts, sciences and philosophy. Catherine would have used her prominent position to visit the Emperor Maxentius to convince him to convert to Christianity – something that would not have been possible without her position in society.

File:Sint-Paulus bij de heiligen Aquila en Priscilla, onbekend, schilderij, Museum Plantin-Moretus (Antwerpen) - MPM V IV 118.jpg
“Paul staying in the house of Saints Aquila and Priscilla”, anonymous 17th century painting 

Wisdom is the best of all things, ignorance is the worst.

—  Plato, 427-347 BC

The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity is one of the oldest and most notable early Christian texts as well as one of the earliest surviving documents to have been written by a woman in early Christianity. The text was written by Vibia Perpetua, a 22-year-old noblewoman as well as a mother of an infant she was nursing herself, and Felicity, a pregnant slave imprisoned with her. They were put to death along with others at Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. Life of Macrina introduces us to a strong and devout woman and her family in Cappadocia. Macrina herself was also an entrepreneur who cultivated a devoted community in her Cappadocian locale. Hundreds of years later, Elisabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) used her wealth to establish hospitals and care for the poor.

File:Marianne Stokes St Elizabeth of Hungary Spinning for the Poor.jpg
 “St Elizabeth of Hungary Spinning for the Poor” by Marianne Stokes (1895)

Nature has given woman so much power that the law cannot afford to give her more.

—  Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784

Due in part of such gatherings being illegal at the time, and because of the enormous expense to such fledgling societies, early Christian groups met in homes. Therefore, it is not surprising to see women taking leadership roles in house churches. This was also a service that must have implied that the women had some level of wealth and status. This practice is confirmed by other texts that also mention women who headed churches in their homes, such as businesswoman Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16:15), a well-to-do agent of a purple-dye firm in Thyatira. Lydia insisted on giving hospitality to Apostle Paul and his companions in Philippi.

Nympha of Laodicea (Colossians 4:15) had a large enough home for family and probably resident staff and other workers. Phoebe, a patron of the movement, seemed to be Paul’s representative to the church in Rome (Romans 16:1-2). Paul used the Greek word diakonos to designate Phoebe as a deacon and the word prostatis which translated as “benefactor”, suggesting that Phoebe was also a woman of means, who, among other things, contributed financial support to Paul’s apostolate, and likely hosted the house church of Cenchreae in her home.

These examples may give the impression of a certain degree of independence of the women. However, this independence did not come easy. Laws passed by Emperor Augustus just before the start of the Common Era required all men to marry and all women to procreate. Women could only become independent if they’d been divorced, widowed or had given birth to a minimum of three children. To escape this system, some upper-class women went so far as to register as prostitutes to have free rein of their own lives and money. Subsequent retelling of some of the lives of these women which mention them as “prostitutes” may have taken this law into consideration.

File:Piety and Generosity of Roman Women by Nicolas Guy Brenet French 1785 Oil MH 02.jpg
“Piety and Generosity of Roman Women”by Nicolas Guy Brenet French (1785 )

Passionate women often seem to inspire discomfort in people – so much so that passion is often being dismissed as “angry” or “hysterical”. But what’s wrong with being passionate? George Bernard Shaw insists that passion takes many interesting forms, ‘intellectual passion, mathematical passion, passion for discovery and exploration: the mightiest of all passions’. Sigmund Freud, argued for a continuity (not a contrast) between physical and intellectual passions, and commended the way Leonardo da Vinci had energetically sublimated his sexual passions into the passion for independent scientific research.

Passion is one of those words that we use often without really thinking of its meaning. When most people refer to “passion”, they use it to mean strong emotions reflecting an intense desire or enthusiasm. But, really, passion simply means a willingness to suffer for what you love. These women did not have to leave their homes or take in strange group of people into their homes to pray. They did not have to register themselves as prostitutes and take on the anger and derision of their friends and family. Many of them were even tortured and died for this society. But they were willing, because of their passion.

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