Origins of Namelessness in Women
Women of the Early Christian Era

As in the history of Greece and Rome, early Christian writing concerning women comes to us from the hands of men, among them being Pliny the Younger, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, Lucian of Samosata, Galen of Permanmum and Celsus. Among many historians the general opinion was that early Christian women were attracted to the religion because “it offered more freedom and higher status than their Greco-Roman contemporaries. This theory is discounted by Celsus, who gives a very misogynistic view of the whole philosophy of the Christian movement; he argued that Christianity was not worthy of attention because it was based on claims of “dubious origins in illegitimate birth (Mary the mother of Jesus) and the testimony of a hysterical woman (Mary Magdalene) while subsisting on the gullibility of the foolish, the dishonourable and stupid, and only slaves, women and little children who are drawn in by magic and sorcery.” The argument obviously reflected the prevailing patriarchal opinion of a writer of late Imperial Rome.

Celsus also raised the objections common with writers of his era concerning the increasing status of women in Rome by claiming that Christians routinely challenge the authority of the household, thus presenting a fundamental threat to social order and well being. Castelli quotes Margaret MacDonald, a scholar of early Christian theory, as painting a picture where the prevailing attitude of non-Christian writers towards Christian women fell into the more dominant pattern of the broader culture in general, where women’s religiosity was revered and distrusted at the same time. Christian women in the Roman Empire were governed by Roman law and by varying combinations of Roman and local custom depending on class status.

Castelli also argues that the evidence of the spread of Christianity cannot be based on the customs of Romans in general regarding marriage, but showed evidence of attraction to a broader, lower-class pattern of marriage that typified most of Roman society, even in the earlier non-Christian centuries. The Christians were reflecting a lower-class pattern of family formation that was typical of most men and women in the cities of the Western Roman Empire.

Castelli again turned to MacDonald for an explanation of the blurring of the lines between the public and private spheres in early Christianity. MacDonald examined the language of “honor” “shame” in ancient Mediterranean societies. She showed the gendered character of the pair by describing how “male honor is sustained in public by the careful guarding of the female shame in private.” Religion, which was traditionally a “public” matter, had entered the domestic space in an unprecedented way in early Christian observances. Considerable social anxiety was created when women who were expected to be guarding their reputations and “shame” at home were instead frequently visible in the world. This is again an attitude that had been reflected in the generally increased exposure of women during the era of the Roman Empire, a time when Christianity was beginning to spread.

Similar anxiety was expressed regarding the evidence of prophecy and ecstatic experiences by Christian women because these modes of religiosity did not depend on male authority, thus creating a threat to early Christian men who instituted very clear attempts to contain and domesticate it, or cast it out as heretical.

One clear advantage of early Christianity was the opportunity it offered to women to experience the aesthetic or monastic life. This form of life would offer women an escape from the confines of marriage and would offer access to education and a social and economic power that normally would have eluded them. Giving women access to such a life would encourage the adoption of so-called superior masculine attributes of reason, mind and spiritual courage, whereas characteristics defined as feminine such as emotion, bodily desire and sexuality were condemned as weaker. To have a higher spirituality a woman must “become male.” The description of Salome in the Gospel of Thomas describes such a situation where a woman is required to adopt male attributes in order to become a disciple of Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew is based on the Book of Mark, which tradition says was written in Rome by John Mark and which contains the memories of Peter. The story of the woman who knelt at the feet of Jesus and anointed him with oil is almost identical in both gospels – neither mention her name. Given the time that this description was written, and the cultural influences of Greece and Rome that were present in early Christian writing, not mentioning the woman by name reflected the normal patriarchic practices of the time. The act itself was significant and had to be mentioned but, because it was blurring the separation of public and domestic spheres, the woman who performed the act was not considered worthy of being named.

Home
The Journey
Women of Ancient Greece
Women of Rome
Women of the Early Christian Era
The Story of the Goddess
Journey's End
Works Consulted