Alfred Brittain.

Women of early Christianity online

. (page 1 of 28)
Online LibraryAlfred BrittainWomen of early Christianity → online text (page 1 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

4. '^'' ;






Digitized by the Internet Archive

in 2010 with funding from

Lyrasis IVIembers and Sloan Foundation




























































.'■■}- ',:



Wifth am Imtrodectiom Iby




Of Harvard University





C"^^ Stationers- Hail, Lo^^^,^'"^-^^

1907 m 1Q08

"""^J^rinud by arrangement ^"''^
George Bar r it's Sons.




When the historian has described the rise and fall of
empires and dynasties, and has recounted with care and
exactness the details of the great political movements that
have changed the map of continents, there remains the ques-
tion: What was the cause of these revolutions in human
society — what were the real motives that were operative
in the hearts and minds of the persons in the great drama
of history that has been displayed? The mere chain of
events as they have passed before the eye as it surveys
the centuries does not give an explanation of itself. There
must be a cause that lies behind these events, and of
which they are but the effects. This cause, the true
cause of history, lies in the minds and hearts of the men
and nations. The student of the past is coming more and
more to see that the only hope of making history a science,
and not a mere chronicle, is to be found in the clear ascer-
tainment and study of those psychological conditions which
have made actions what they were. Foremost among
those conditions have been the hopes, aspirations and
ideals of men and women. These have been the greatest
motive forces in the history of the world. These, quite
as much as merely selfish considerations, have guided the
conduct of the men who have made history, not merely
those who have been leaders in the great movements of
society, but the multitude of followers who have not


viii WOMAN

attracted the attention of historians, but have, neverthe-
less, given the strength and force to the revolutions of
the world.

The deepest interest in the history of Christian women
lies in the way in which woman's status in society has
been modified by the new religion. The chronicle of
saintly life and deeds is a part of that history. But there
are, also, women who have signally failed to attain those
virtues for which their religion called. These, too, have
their place, for both have either forwarded or retarded
the realization of woman's place in society. Often the
heathen spirit is but half concealed under the mask of
Christianity. But the whole tone of society has been
changed, nevertheless, by the ideas and ideals which that
religion brought before men's minds in a new and vivid

The position of woman has been more influenced by
Christianity than by any other religion. This is not be-
cause there have not been noble sentiments expressed by
non-Christian writers; for among the rabbinical writers,
for instance, are many fine sentiments that could have
come only from men who clearly perceived the place of
woman in an ideal human society. Nor because in Chris-
tianity there have not been men whose conception of
woman was more suitable to the adherents of those faiths
that have regarded her as a thing unclean. But from the
very nature of the appeal which Christianity has made
to the world, the place of woman in society has been
changed. The new faith appealed to all mankind in the
name of the humanity which the Son of God had assumed,
and consequently it was forced to treat men and women
as on a spiritual equality. It was forced by the natural de-
sire for consistency to break down any barriers that might
keep one-half of the human race from the full realization


of the possibilities of their natures, which were made in
the image of God. It is in this relation of Christianity
to the world, quite as much as in the sayings and precepts
of its Founder and his Apostles, that has been found
the ground for the great work of Christianity in raising the
position of women in the world.

Christianity should in this respect be compared with the
other religions that have attained prominence. Among
those that were national religions, there has been no ap-
peal to the world m general. They were bound up with
the race, and they adherents were those of the race or
nation in which they were to be found. Such religions
have made no appeal to the individual. They had no
propaganda. They did not extend to other nations. They
were essentially national. In them there was no place
for women. The father of the household represented
his family, and although women had certain duties in con-
nection with the household worship, it was only because
they were under the power of some men. This is true of
the religions of India, China, and the ancient religions of the
Semitic race. In two of the great world-religions, those
centring on Mahomet and Buddha, there has been no place
for women as such. These religions are primarily the
religion of men. But in the case of Christianity, the ap-
peal has been to every human being, merely because of
the human element. If there were to be no distinction on
account of race or social condition, still less was there
on account of sex. Male and female were alike in Christ.
The Christian must be a believer for himself — the faith of
no one else could serve for him. Marriage made no dif-
ference in the religious position of anyone. Such senti-
ments applied day after day in the course of the world's
life could not remain without their effect, and the change
wrought by them has been profound and lasting.


That there has not yet been the full realization of the
ideal of Christianity in the matter of the position of woman
in society is no stranger than the non-realization of the
ideals of that or any other faith. The eternal ideas of
right are sometimes extremely slow in their operation.
The forces they have to overcome are strongly intrenched.
But slow as may seem the progress, the power of right
steadily gains and the temporary success of evil is soon
past. The ways in which the triumph of the Christian
ideal has been brought nearer have been at times very
varied. At one time it may seem that the leaders in the
cause of social regeneration have been wholly blind to the
full significance of the faith they professed. Fantastic
forms of asceticism have banished women from the society
of those who were trying to lead the perfect life. But the
more sympathetic study of the extravagances of religious
enthusiasm has been able to discover that even in ages in
which ideals seemed to be wholly opposed to those of
latter ages, there has been the same fundamental concep-
tion which has been constantly striving for realization in
the world.

In the light of subsequent history, it appears fortunate
that the position of woman in the new society was not
more fully and carefully defined by the teachers of the
new religion. If the early Christian teachers had given
their followers minute rules regulating their life and con-
duct, there might easily have been a return to a legalism
that would have been disastious for the new faith. Even
the few regulations that are to be found in connection with
matters of order and discipline in the Apostolic Church, so
far as they have concerned women, have been frequently
misunderstood and misapplied. They have been made
of lasting obligation by many, rather than considered as
the expression for the times and circumstances in which


the early Church was placed, of principles of propriety
which might be very different from, if not indeed contrary
to, the sentiments of another age. But by leaving the
whole question open, with but a very few exceptions,
the great working out of the freedom of the new faith was
possible. Woman has been recognized by the world as
man's helpmate. She is not his toy or his slave, but a
sharer with him in the highest privileges of human nature.
An appreciation of the tremendous responsibilities that
have been put upon her by the fact of her womanhood
has not separated her from man, but both are seen standing
side by side in the New Kingdom.


Episcopal Tlieological School, Cambridge.



Christianity introduced a new moral epoch in the course
of human history. Its effect was necessarily transforming
upon those who came under its sway. Being cosmopolitan
in its nature, we have now to study woman as being some-
what dissociated from racial type and national manner,
and we shall seek to ascertain how she met and was
modified by Christian conditions. These had a larger
effect upon her life than upon that of man; for, by its
nature, Christianity gave an opening for the higher possi-
bilities of her being of which the old religions took little
account. In the realm of the spiritual, it, for the first
time, assented to her equality with man. That the women
of the first Christian centuries submitted themselves to
the influence of that religion in a varying degree, the fol-
lowing pages will abundantly show. And it will be seen
that in the many instances where the Christian doctrine
was not permitted to dominate the life, the dissimilarity of
those women from their prototypes in former heathendom
is correspondingly lessened. While it is not possible to
treat this subject without illustrating the above-mentioned
fact, the authors beg to remind the reader that this is dis-
tinctively a historical and not a religious work. Though,
under other circumstances, they would be very willing to
state positive views in regard to many questions herein
suggested, it is not within the province of this book to



defend or refute any religious institution. The aim is
solely and impartially to represent the life of the Christian
women of the first ages.

Though this is a work of collaboration, Mr, Brittain is
solely responsible for the part of the book treating of the
women of the Western Roman Empire, and Mr. Carroll is
solely responsible for that discussing the women of the
Eastern Roman and Byzantine Empires. Differences of
personal characteristics, based upon dissimilarity of national
temperament, reveal themselves in these women of Rome
and Constantinople, but the Christian principle, through
its transforming and elevating influence on the lives of
pagan women, gives unity to the volume, and presents a
type of womanhood far superior to any that had up to
this time been produced by the Orient or early Greece or
ancient Rome.

Alfred Brittain,
Mitchell Carroll.

Wiomm of tfte WLt^ttxn iBmpire

STfte fflsaomen of ti)t fflrospel Narratibe


The study of the early Christian women takes up a
phase of the history of woman which is peculiar to itself.
It is, in a sense and to a degree, out of historical sequence.
It deals with a subject in which ideas and spiritual forces,
rather than the effect of racial development, are brought
into view. It presents difficulties all its own, for the
reason that not only historical facts about which there can
be no contention must be mentioned, but also theories of
a more or less controversial nature. We shall endeavor,
however, as far as is possible, to confine ourselves to the
recapitulation of well-authenticated historical developments
and to a dispassionate portrayal of those feminine char-
acters who participated in and were influenced by the new
doctrines of early Christianity.

In writing of the women who were the contemporaries
and the acquaintances of the Founder of Christianity the
difficulty is very greatly enhanced by the fact that every-
thing related to the subject is not only regarded as sacred,
but is also enshrined in preconceptions which are held by
the majority of people with jealous partiality. Our source
of information is almost exclusively the Bible; and to deal
with Scriptural facts with the same impartiality with
which one deals with the narrative of common history is



well-nigh impossible. There are few persons who are
exempt from a prejudicial leaning, either in favor of the
supernatural irriportance of every Scriptural detail or in
opposition to those claims which are commonly based upon
the Gospel history. We hear of the Bible being studied
merely as literature, a method most highly advantageous
to a fair understanding of its meaning and purport, but
possible only to some imaginary, educated person, unac-
quainted with the Christian religion and totally unequipped
with theological conceptions. That which is true of the
Bible as literature is also applicable to the Scripture con-
sidered as history.

Yet we shall endeavor to bear in mind that we are not
writing a religious book, and that this is not a treatise on
Church history; it is ordinary history and must be written
in ordinary methods. Consequently, in order to do this
subject justice and to treat it rightly, we must endeavor to
remove the women mentioned in the Gospels as far as
possible from the atmosphere of the supernatural and to
see in them ordinary persons of flesh and blood, typifying
the times as well as the circumstances to which they be-
longed. Though they played a part in an event the most
renowned and the most important in the world's history,
yet they were no more than women; in fact, they were
women so commonplace and naturally obscure, that they
never would have been heard of, were it not for the Char-
acter with whom they were adventitiously connected, A
memorial has been preserved, coeval, and coextensive
with the dissemination of the Gospel, of the woman who
anointed Christ; but solely on account of the greatness of
the Object of her devotion.

Our purpose in this chapter is to ascertain what manner
of women they were who took a part in the incompar-
able event of the life of Christ, what their part was in


that event, and how it affected their position and their

The whole history of the Jewish race and all the circum-
stances relating thereto abundantly justify the application
to the Jews of the term "a peculiar people." A branch
of the great Semitic division, in many ways they were yet
most radically distinguished from every other part of the
human family. By many centuries of inspired introspection
they had developed a religion, a racial ideal, and national
customs which entirely differentiated them from all other
Eastern peoples. The Jew is one of the most remarkable
figures in history. First there is his magnificent contribu-
tion to religion and world-modifying influences, so won-
derfully disproportionate to his national importance; then
there is the marvellous persistency of his racial continuity.

That which set apart the Jews from other nations was
mainly their religion. These peculiar people, inhabiting
at the time of Christ a small tract of country scarcely
larger than Massachusetts, deprived of national autonomy,
being but a second-class province of the Roman Empire,
nevertheless presumed to hold all other races in contempt,
as being inferior to themselves. This religious arrogance,
manifesting itself in a vastly exaggerated conception of
the superiority, both of their origin and of their destiny,
surrounded the Jews with an impenetrable barrier of re-
serve. That national pride which in other peoples is
based on the memory of glorious achievements on the
battlefield, on artistic renown, or on commercial impor-
tance, found its support among the Jews in their religious
history, in their divinely given pledges, and in laws of
supernatural origin. And indeed they were a race of reli-
gious geniuses; they were as superior in this respect as
were the Greeks in the realm of art and the Romans in
that of government.


These facts, which are so universally acknowledged as
to need no further reference here, warrant a closer study
of the manner of life of the ancient Jewish women than
that to which we can afford space.

In the Gospel narrative women hold a large place. As
is natural, a very great deal of the grace and beauty of the
record of Christ's life is owing to the spirit and presence
of the feminine characters. This the Evangelists have un-
grudgingly conceded. There does not seem to have been
the least inclination to minimize the part played by women;
indeed, their attitude toward Christ is by inference, and
greatly to their credit, contrasted with that of the men.
The women were immediately and entirely won to Christ's
cause. They sat at His feet and listened with gratitude
to the gracious words which He spake; they brought their
children to be blessed by Him; they followed Him with
lamentations when He was led away to death. There
were among their number no cavillers, no disbelievers,
none to deny or betray. When the enemies of Jesus
were clamoring for His death and His male disciples had
fled, it was to the women He turned and said: " Daughters
of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves,
and for your children." Well might the instincts of the
Daughters of Jerusalem incline them to sympathize with
the work and suifering of the Man of Nazareth, for it is
incontrovertible that no other influence seen in the world's
history has done so much as Christianity to raise the
condition of woman.

The position of woman in Palestine, though much in-
ferior to that of man, wa§ far superior to that which she
occupied in other Oriental nations. Jewish law would
not permit the wife to fall to the condition of a slave, and
Israelitish traditions contained too many memories of noble
and patriotic women for the sex to be held otherwise than


in honor, A nation whose most glorious records centred
around such characters as Sara, Miriam, Deborah, Esther,
and Susanna could but recognize in their sex the possibility
of the sublimest traits of character. Moreover, every
Hebrew woman might be destined to become the mother
of the long hoped for Messiah, and the mere possibility of
that event won for her a high degree of reverence.

At the same time, the Jewish women, like those of all
other ancient nations, were held in rigid subordination;
nor was there any pretence made of their equality with
men before the law. A man might divorce his wife for
any cause: a woman could not put away her husband
under any circumstances. A Jewish woman could not
insist on the performance of a religious vow by which she
had bound herself, if her husband or her father made ob-
jection. Yet, from the earliest times, the property rights
of Israelitish women were very liberal. In the Book of
Numbers it is recorded how Moses decreed that " If a man
die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance
to pass unto his daughter. And if he have no daughter,
then ye shall give his inheritance unto his brethren." But
tribal rights had to be considered. Possessions were not
to be alienated from one tribe to another. Hence it was
also decreed that " Every daughter that possesseth an in-
heritance in any tribe of the children of Israel, shall be
wife unto one of the family of the tribe of her father, that
the children of Israel may enjoy every man the inheritance
of his fathers." In the time of Christ, however, this re-
striction on marriage was unnecessary, ten of the tribes
not having returned from the Captivity. The house at
Bethany where Jesus was entertained belonged to Martha;
and we read of wealthy women following Him and provid-
ing for His needs out of their own private fortunes. In the
early days, among the Hebrews, marriage by purchase from


the father or brothers had been the custom; but in the time
of which we are writing a dowry was given with the bride,
and she also received a portion from the bridegroom.

The inferior position of Jewish women is frequently re-
ferred to in the rabbinical writings. A common prayer
was: "O God, let not my offspring be a girl: for very
wretched is the life of women." It was said: "Happy
he whose children are boys, and woe unto him whose
children are girls." Public conversation between the sexes
was interdicted by the rabbis. " No one," says the Tal-
mud, " is to speak with a woman, even if she be his wife,
in the public street." Even the disciples, accustomed as
they were to seeing the Master ignore rabbinical regula-
tions, "marvelled" when they found Him talking with
the woman of Sychar. One of the chief things which
teachers of the Law were to avoid was multiplying speech
with a woman. The women themselves seem to have
acquiesced in this degrading injunction. There is a story
of a learned lady who called the great Rabbi Jose a
*' Galilean Ignoramus," because he had used two unnec-
essary words in inquiring of her the way to Joppa. He
had employed but four.

By the Jews women were regarded as inferior not only
in capacity but also in nature. Their minds were supposed
to be of an inferior order and consequently incapable of
appreciating the spiritual privileges which it was an honor
for a man to strive after. " Let the words of the Law be
burned," says Rabbi Eleazar, "rather than committed to
women." The Talmud says: "He who instructs his
daughter in the Law, instructs her in folly." In the syna-
gogues women were obliged to sit in a gallery which was
separated from the main room by a lattice.

Yet it is scarcely to be supposed that in everyday Jew-
ish life the pharisaical maxims quoted above were adhered


to with any great degree of strictness. Especially in Gali-
lee, where there was much more freedom than in the lower
province, it may well be imagined that there existed a wide
difference between these arrogant " counsels of perfection "
and the common practice. There is no doubt that the rabbis
and the scribes observed the traditions to the minutest
letter; but inasmuch as in these days it would be misleading
to delineate the common life of a people by the enactments
found on their statute books, we are justified in concluding
that ordinary existence in ancient Palestine was not nearly
such a burdensome absurdity as the rabbinical law sought to
make it. Human nature will not endure too great a strain.
At any rate, we can but believe that, subordinate as she
may have been, the Jewish woman found ample oppor-
tunity to assert herself. The rabbi may have scorned to
multiply speech with his wife on the street, but doubtless
there were occasions which compelled the husband to
endure a multiplicity of speech on the part of his wife at
home. It was not without experience that the wise man-
could say: "A continual dropping on a very rainy day and
a contentious woman are alike."

The sayings of the scribes, which are derogatory to the
female sex, are abundantly offset by many injunctions of
an opposite nature which are found in the sacred and in
the expository writings of the Jews. One of the first
things drilled into the mind of a young Hebrew was that
his prosperity in the land depended wholly upon his ob-
servance of the law that he should "honor his father and
his mother." The virtuous woman portrayed by King
Lemuel was still the ideal in the time of Christ: "Her
sons rise up and praise her; her husband also extols her."
The declaration in the book of Proverbs that "the price
of a virtuous woman is set far above that of rubies" is
not to be understood in the sense of irony. " Honor your


wife, that you may be rich in the joy of your home," says
the Talmud; and there was a proverb: " Is thy wife little?
then bow down to her and speak." The Son of Sirach
said: " He that honoreth his mother is as one that layeth
up treasure . . . and he that angereth his mother is
cursed of God."

As among all other Eastern peoples, the education of Jew-
ish girls was greatly neglected; but it can hardly be said
that they were losers on that account. They were simply
saved a great deal of profitless labor which fell upon their
brothers. The learning of the Jews, so far as higher edu-

Online LibraryAlfred BrittainWomen of early Christianity → online text (page 1 of 28)