Friday, August 31, 2012

Women Affirmed

The early Roman Empire - the Pax Romana in which Rome's internal competing political ambitions stopped boiling over into civil war, even if there was constant military skirmishing on the borders of the empire - provided the stability needed for the foundation of a new faith: Christianity.

Paradoxically, Rome's steadiness was the incubator for this emerging worldview even as Rome's government sought to exterminate it: for the first three centuries of its existence, Christianity was illegal in the empire, persecuted, and without political or economic clout. Tens of thousands of Christians were beaten, tortured, jailed, and killed.

Yet this new belief grew, steadily and powerfully. There are many reasons why it expanded so heartily. One of them is its affirmation of woman. In the pagan conception, native to Rome, it was quite debatable whether women were human, and if they were, whether they were fully so. By contrast, Jesus was content to conduct a spiritual dialogue with a woman, on the same terms as he discussed with a man.

Women were not only admitted and tolerated within Christianity, but influential. The Roman governor Pliny the Younger, whose job was to rule Bithynia on behalf of the emperor Trajan, was confused to discover, upon investigating the local Christian group, that they were were led by "two slaves who were said to be deaconesses." To Pliny's Roman sensibility, it defied reason that a free male citizen would voluntarily join an organization in which he would be placed under the authority of a female.

Historian Helga Harriman, recounting how women took such leading positions in the church - which met, in most places, in secret - notes that whatever types of leadership roles women had in the early Church,

they were active participants in it. Jesus himself was surrounded by them. One of his most faithful followers was Mary Magdalene, later revered as a repentant prostitute, although the Bible does not specify details about her life. She was among the women who discovered the empty tomb of Jesus and first witnessed his resurrection from the dead. Paul also had contact with many women in his missionary work.

There are some gaps in our knowledge of the details about women's leadership in the early Church. In one of Paul's letters, "he mentions over 30 persons who" administered "the Church in Rome. About half of them are female."

Paul's letters can be interpreted variously as liberating women from patriarchal society or as repressing them under male authoritarianism. Mary Magdalene remains enigmatic, and the most honest thing we can say about her alleged prostitution is that the evidence is weak to non-existent, and we simply don't know if she was or was not a prostitute. In any case, what actually matters is that she has an important role in the canonical text of the four gospels.

Although speculations about Paul's feminism or misogyny, or about Mary Magdalene's pre-conversion employment, are tantalizing, they are also beside the point. That women were attracted to the new faith, that women had leadership roles inside the early church, and that these two factors encouraged each other, is central to the narrative.

Why would they have been attracted to this new and tiny cult? Of overriding importance was the fact that the Christian message was directed toward women as well as men. The doctrine that immortality was within the reach of all who accepted Christ Jesus had wide appeal for both sexes, but women in particular must have appreciated the teaching that they were equal to men in spirit.

In practice, of course, the theoretical equality between men and women was sullied by the pagan Roman culture which surrounded the early church. The church failed to give women perfect equality. But they were treated better than any other institution had ever treated them before, and they joined by the millions.