Women in the New Testament and beyond, with Carolyn Osiek [MIPodcast #93]
When you think about the earliest Christians you might imagine the twelve disciples, like Peter and John. Maybe Paul comes to mind. But what about women in early Christianity? What drew them to a life of discipleship and what did they bring to the community and the church as it began to spread?
Few people have spent as much time thinking about these questions as Dr. Carolyn Osiek, co-author of A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity. Osiek visited BYU’s Maxwell Institute earlier this year to deliver the keynote address at the conference “Material Culture and Women’s Religious Experience in Antiquity.” You can watch her address now on the Institute’s YouTube channel. In this interview we dig a little deeper into her research and thoughts about how the lives of ancient Christian women wove culture and faith into a tapestry of devotion.
CAROLYN OSIEK, RSCJ is Charles Fischer Professor of New Testament emerita with the Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. She is co-author of A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity. Sister Osiek spent decades teaching scripture at the graduate level to students at Catholic Theological Union at Chicago. She holds a doctorate in New Testament and Christian Origins from Harvard University and is a past president of the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature. In March 2019 Osiek delivered the keynote address at the BYU symposium “Material Culture and Women’s Religious Experience in Antiquity.” You can watch the address here: “Between the Holy and the Ordinary: Women’s Lives in Early Christianity.”
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
When you think about the earliest Christians, you might imagine some of the twelve disciples like Peter and John. Maybe Paul the Apostle comes to mind. What about women in early Christianity? What drew them to a life of discipleship and what did they bring to the community and to the church as it began to spread?
Few people have spent as much time thinking about these questions as Dr. Carolyn Osiek has. She is the Charles Fischer Professor of New Testament emerita with the Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and a member of the Catholic Society of the Sacred Heart. Several years ago, she co-authored a watershed book on this subject called A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity, helping to spark a number of incredible studies about the lives of early Christian women. Osiek visited the Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University earlier this year to deliver the keynote address at our conference called “Material Culture and Women’s Religious Experience in Antiquity.” You can watch her address now on the Institute’s YouTube channel.
In this interview we dig a little deeper into her research and thoughts about how the lives of ancient Christian women wove culture and faith into a tapestry of devotion.
Questions or comments about this and other episodes can be sent to me at email@example.com.
HODGES: We’re joined today by Carolyn Osiek. Thanks for coming to the Maxwell Institute Carolyn.
CAROLYN OSIEK: You’re welcome.
HODGES: You’re here because we just held a wonderful symposium on material culture and women in the ancient world. People will be able to see your keynote address that you delivered last night. We’ll have video available and people can look forward to that, but today I thought we would talk generally about women in ancient Christianity.
Let’s start off with an idea that some people have suggested, namely, that scripture can be generally accessible to everybody. It doesn’t matter if the text is talking to men or to women or about men or about women, because scripture is universally applicable. There’s no need to think about gender. What are your thoughts about that kind of a response, when people find out you do work on women in the scriptures?
OSIEK: Well, scripture may be universally applicable, but our interpretations tend to be very particular and the cultural experience of being men and being women is different. Just like the experience of being part of a majority or being part of a minority is different, and the people who particularly are in the minority or the group that is not as well represented are quite aware of that, much more than the majority group. And that’s generally the case for women. Now, women are not a minority but in biblical interpretation, in academics, in many things that are considered important in the world, women have been a minority.
HODGES: That’s an interesting way to frame it because as you said, women aren’t a minority.
HODGES: It should go without saying women are a significant part of the global population. They have been in the past, they are now, they will be in the future. And yet they do seem to be almost minority in the text itself, though. Some people would say there isn’t a lot of representation of women in the New Testament, for example. What do you say about that?
OSIEK: Well, yes, in a certain sense it’s a man’s world and it was very much a man’s world that produced the Bible. Women were probably storytellers. Some of the stories we have may reflect, originally, women’s stories—particularly stories in which women are prominent. But overall, it really is a male perspective on things that you get in the Bible.
HODGES: Can you think of a passage that sticks out in your mind? As you think about the work you’ve done over the years on women in scripture are there any passages that keep coming back to you or that call your attention time and again as something important for you to focus on, to learn more about women in the ancient world?
OSIEK: Well, the one that is most interesting to me is Romans 16:1–2. That is where Paul, who is winding down his long letter to the Romans, tells them—he introduces to them Phoebe, this women who is both a deacon and a benefactor. She is a deacon of the Church of Cenchreae which is one of the seaports of Corinth—Paul is writing from Corinth— and he says that she has been his benefactor. The word that’s used, prostatis, is patron really. We use the word benefactor. You’re a benefactor of the opera or the concert or something; it means you give a lot of money.
But what the word means, it opens up that whole context of patronage in ancient Mediterranean society. And it means someone who has taken you under his or her wing, as it were, to introduce you to the right people, to give you hospitality, to show you around, basically. And that’s what Paul is saying that Phoebe did for him in Corinth. And now for some unknown reason she is traveling to Rome. Could be on business, she could be very well have been a woman with her own business. She wouldn’t have been traveling by herself, she’d be traveling with other people. But she’s going to Rome and he’s entrusting the letter to her. So when she gets to Rome, she’s to deliver it to the people there.
It’s a fantastic two verses that just has so much story behind it.
HODGES: And when she’s called a deacon there, what did that role look like?
OSIEK: Yeah, good question. She’s a diakonos. It’s the masculine word, there is no word yet for deaconess, diakonissa, until the third century. You’ve got two more centuries to go. So she is whatever the same people in Philippians 1:1 are doing. Philippians opens with a greeting to the episcapoi and the diakonoi and we sometimes mistranslate that “bishops.” They are not bishops in the usual sense now—except maybe for Latter-day Saints because you have a different understanding of bishop.
HODGES: Right, bishops are over a local congregation.
OSIEK: Yes. So it could be very well like that. And the diakonoi. So whatever those diakonoi, those deacons, are doing is what she’s doing in Cenchreae, and there’s been a lot of study on that. The word itself means some kind of a servant or a helper. However when you look at it in context, in the Greek speaking Roman period, often it has the context of agency. Of being the official representative of somebody. A wealthy person, a person with power and doing business et cetera will have somebody designated as a diakonos, a representative. And so, if she’s a diakonos of the Church of Cenchreae, it could be that she speaks for that community. She’s a spokesperson, she’s a leader in some way.
HODGES: Was there a sense in which—How did that connect with ideas of priesthood or ecclesiastical authority of that time?
OSIEK: Well priesthood, lets exclude that because that’s really an idea that comes in later. But of ecclesiastical authority, local communities—as far as we can figure out—had their own leaders, whether they’re called episcapi or whether they’re called presbyters, they seem to have different names in different places.
Remember, in 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul says that God has established in the church first apostles, second prophets, and third teachers. Now, it’s an ordering, it’s a ranking. He says first, second, and third, and first are the apostles. Well I think those are the itinerant missionaries and they’re the founders of churches.
So my thinking is that anytime Paul is in one of the churches he founded he’s the head honcho, you know. Everybody will give way to him. But he’s not there most of the time. So then you have the prophets and the teachers, and it seems to me that these are designations for local people. The prophets are the ones who have the gift of the Spirit, who can interpret the word of God, and the teachers are the ones who then put it into practice, the ones who create stability in the community by carrying on the word of the gospel and the word of the prophets and the word of the apostles.
So the leadership takes different forms and has different titles but there is certainly local leadership, yes.
HODGES: And when you talk about the prophets, for example, interpreting the scriptures by the Spirit, you’re talking particularly about the Hebrew scriptures, right? We don’t have a New Testament canon at this point.
OSIEK: That’s right. There is no New Testament canon. It’s still being written. At Paul’s time most of it wasn’t written yet.
HODGES: Would they look at letters of Paul as being canonical as well or would they be in a different register?
OSIEK: No, no. Different register. We do know that by, well, the early second century certainly, different churches founded by Paul are circulating his letters to each other. So, they’re forming collections of Paul’s letters but they’re not yet calling it graphe, the word that we would understand as “scripture.” It’s the Hebrew scriptures they’re talking about when they talk about that.
HODGES: And so while we have someone like Phoebe who is a deacon—someone who may be a patron, someone who may be helping to financially support someone like Paul or other people, someone who might be providing a space for church community to meet in—what we don’t have, as far as I know, are similar writings. Something like how Paul would write something and it would hold that kind of authority, and we lack that for women. Was that just not happening at all?
OSIEK: Do you mean that women would be writing?
HODGES: Yes. To churches.
OSIEK: To churches? Well almost nobody else is besides Paul. We don’t even have indications that anybody else is writing letters like that to churches that they founded. There is a whole network of missionaries. We know that, we can get inklings of that from Acts, which is written later of course. But even when Paul talks about some of his assistants and collaborators, we know that there are other missionaries who are going out—particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean—and founding other churches because we know that other churches come to be.
For instance, the seven churches of Revelation, you know, Paul didn’t found those. Somebody else did. So, we know there are other people but we don’t have any evidence that those people were writing letters back to their churches. Maybe they did, but nobody talks about it. Paul is the only one who is doing that who’s letters survive.
HODGES: Right. I’m glad that you mentioned survival. This is one of the issues that biblical scholars bump into, is when we are talking about the evidence that a lot of our ideas are based on, that evidence is limited. We have the written records, and not all of those survived, but we also have material evidence, other ways for us to access things about the past that we might not see in the written record.
Can you think of some examples of material evidence that Biblical scholars have used to learn more about women in the ancient world?
OSIEK: If we are talking about the earliest years, if we’re talking about first century, we have to look at wider context. And what’s important there is to realize that Christians weren’t living their own little isolated lives. They were very much part of their own communities.
HODGES: You mean they didn’t have a fork that said like, “Christian fork” on it? [laughter]
OSIEK: No, they didn’t. No, they are very much part of the world in which they live. And there are some writers that even make that point, like the letter of Diognetus in the second century says, “We’re just like you! We don’t speak a different language, we don’t have different culture, we’re just like you, like everybody else.”
So in order to get a sense of how Christians lived in the material culture, as we say, we have to look at the surrounding world and the beautiful, beautiful things we have there. The opportunities we have are from Pompeii and Herculaneum, these famous cities that were destroyed by Vesuvius, and then excavated, you know. So from places like that we have jewelry, we have inscriptions, we have indications of women’s activities, of women engaged in business, of women who were patrons and some of the worship of other deities that they did. So we do have the material evidence for their daily life.
HODGES: When scholars are looking at different material evidence, how frequently are things discovered that might challenge entire ideas about things? I mean are people as they’re excavating find a fresco or find a statue or something that just flies in the face of previous views? Or does it seem to be a collective building on?
OSIEK: It’s more of a collective building, though just recently—and I can’t tell you the details on this—they found something at Pompeii that seems to be dated two months after the time that we think that Vesuvius destroyed the city, so there are things that happen that cause re-dating and reevaluation, yes.
HODGES: When historians are dealing with ancient culture like that, what’s the simplest explanation you can give about how they piece together visions of the past based on text and based on material culture? How can people who aren’t specialists understand the process of doing that? Because sometimes you just think, “Oh they’re a scholar. However they did it, they must have done it right, that’s all.” But I think it helps to get a picture of the type of imagination that’s involved in this kind of scholarship.
OSIEK: Yeah, that’s a very complex question because it involves interpretation and interpretation is always something that’s somewhat subjective. So when scholars look at this material—particularly at the interface between texts and material objects—art historians approach it differently from biblical scholars and it gets a bit complex. A text may say, “Do this,” and we have material evidence that they’re not doing it! [laughs]
A good example of that is the supposed prohibition of art in ancient Judaism, and then you have this enormous synagogue in Dura-Europos that is just, the walls are full of images of biblical stories, you know.
So what it does, actually, is to free you from reading the texts in a fundamentalist way. Just because somebody wrote, “This is the way we do it,” doesn’t mean that’s the way they did it! [laughs] It’s that person’s opinion.
HODGES: In fact, sometimes they may have written that precisely because it wasn’t happening that way.
OSIEK: Well, exactly! Exactly. A good example of that is Tertullian—
HODGES: —This is an early church father.
OSIEK: Early church father, late second century, who writes a whole treatise against Christians attending the theatre and the games. Why does he have to write a whole treatise if they don’t do that, you know? He’s trying to convince them not to do it but they’re doing it. [laughter]
So, the interplay between text and image, or artifact, is a complex one.
HODGES: But it makes for a lot of interesting possibilities for researchers, and we saw that at the conference this weekend, where people could bring together a lot of different types of evidence to learn more about the ancient world. You’ve obviously, you’ve been kind of a pioneer in a lot of these studies so it’s a real treat to have you visiting Brigham Young University.
We’re talking with Carolyn Osiek. She’s Charles Fisher professor of New Testament emerita at the Bright Divinity School at Texas Christian University. She’s also co-author of the book, A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity.
HODGES: Alright Lyn, we talked about Phoebe a minute ago. I want to talk about some of the other women who are named in the New Testament in particular. There aren’t a whole lot of them, but the stories we might glean from just their names being mentioned really can tell us a lot about women in early Christianity. Let’s talk about some of these. Priscilla, Perpetua, and Thecla are three that I wrote down as I read the book. You can say a word about all of them or pick one of them. Just introduce us to these people.
OSIEK: Well Priscilla is a New Testament figure and a very interesting one. We know not a whole lot about her, but she’s married to a man named Aquila. They’re both Jewish, they both seem to be living in Rome at one point and then they’re in Corinth and then they’re in Ephesus. So they move around.
HODGES: Was that common for people to do or was that unusual?
OSIEK: Well, to some extent, yeah. Particularly if they had a business that did that, and Acts says that they were tent makers, leather workers, you know?
HODGES: Maybe similar to Paul?
OSIEK: And Paul was too and that’s how he kind of struck off with them, you know?
So you have one figure there of a married woman who is part of a ministry-couple team. Perpetua—it has to be Perpetua and Felicitas together. Wow! That is a very moving, very powerful account of two young women—Perpetua a young mother, 22 years old. Felicitas, a slave woman who is pregnant at the time of her arrest and gives birth in prison—and both of them were martyred, probably in March of 203 AD. And there’s been a lot of questioning recently about the authenticity of parts of the account, but in the account the narrator says, “Now I’m turning this over to Perpetua, she’s going to speak for herself.” And then there’s an account of her visions. And then the narrator comes back to tell the end of it.
I do tend to think that that is authentic diary, as it were, of Perpetua’s visions. She has dreams that, for her, interpret what is going to happen. And you’ll have to read the text. It’s just very, very powerful, really.
HODGES: And we don’t have something like that in the New Testament. Is that because it was written too late? What are some of the reasons why a text like that wouldn’t have even been considered for canonization at some point?
OSIEK: Oh, it’s way too late for canonization. The canon of the New Testament goes into the early second century and some would even debate that some of those last books are that late. It’s mostly first century. Though the canon of the New Testament wasn’t fixed until sometime in the middle of the fourth century. But different churches had their own collections of canon and the Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas would be way too late for that.
HODGES: Do you think there was any deliberate reasoning behind keeping texts out that centrally featured women as much as that text did, or was it just the case that people didn’t record those stories, they didn’t carry the same import so they weren’t maybe even written down originally? In other words, why don’t we have a book like that in the New Testament?
OSIEK: Well, it didn’t happen! [laughs] I mean, until later. But there are very few martyrdom accounts in the New Testament. There’s Stephen, the death of Stephen in Acts. There’s an illusion to Antipus in the beginning of Revelation: “Antipus, my witness, my martyr.” But the cult of martyrdom is something that really does not develop until a little bit later. And that’s another whole topic.
HODGES: So it’s more about genre then it is about gender is what you’re saying.
OSIEK: Yeah, I think it is. There are some stories about women in the New Testament. Mary Magdalene is a very interesting character.
HODGES: What about some of the so-called gnostic texts that came up? These are other texts that were written which had other views than the New Testament, or other stories, about someone like Mary and these just weren’t canonized.
OSIEK: Yeah, the figure of Mary Magdalene is quite a right one, you know. I think she was probably a historical character, a disciple of Jesus, not necessarily a young one. I don’t go for the idea about the idea of them being married, secretly married, you know. I think she’s probably older than Jesus and a woman of means and somebody who just really was caught up in this movement around Jesus with a number of other women. And she seems to have been for the women disciples what Peter was for the male disciples. The spokesperson and leader, the one they looked to for leadership.
So later on, all these other stories develop around her as a recipient of special revelation from the risen Christ and as a particularly strong leader in some churches. And she was picked up, yes, particularly in the gnostic communities, which were in many ways more open to the influence of women and yet at the same time some of the gnostic stories were highly misogynist.
HODGES: Yeah, like “women will become men!”
OSIEK: Yeah, right, right. Thanks a lot, you know? [laughter]
HODGES: Well doesn’t everybody want to be? I don’t understand—
OSIEK: Right. Also, most gnostic systems have a male and a female balance, even in the heavenly realm, you know, something that what developed into Orthodox Christianity lacked.
HODGES: Do you think there was deliberate resistance to that idea? I mean, I guess what I’m getting at is the New Testament that we have today, how well does that match the real gender dynamics of the earliest Jesus movement? Was it a very heavily patriarchal movement that he founded that give men particular roles and women particular roles, or do you see something different in the evidence?
OSIEK: Well that’s the way the society worked. Men had distinct roles and women had distinct roles and there certainly is some melding of that. But you also have to distinguish conceptions, ideas, and how things actually worked. And most of the theory very strongly distinguished the roles of men and women. Men are the leaders, women are the people who take care of the family. Philo, the Jewish philosopher, even says that “the outdoor life is suited for men and indoor life for women.” And so, you have what are elite ideals—poorer people couldn’t live that way, but in elite families—this kind of seclusion of women.
At the same time, women really operated with agency within their own families. And at the level of patronage, when you come to higher status women, they were doing much more than that. When you come to the Roman aristocracy, there were women who were very important in political decision making, even though they couldn’t hold political office. So, it’s quite varied.
HODGES: Hmm. We also, again, we mentioned Phoebe ion the New Testament as a deacon. Do we find other women in positions of “teacher” or being referred to as “apostles” or anything like that in the early texts?
OSIEK: Well Mary Magdalene, of course, is called an “apostle of the apostles.” And, that’s late second or early third century tradition. Thecla, we haven’t talked about Thecla yet, is perhaps a completely legendary character, a disciple of Paul, who is also understood to be an apostle. The Acts of Thecla is a second century document.
HODGES: So beyond the time when it might have slipped in the canon.
OSIEK: Exactly. And Thecla is a loving disciple of Paul and at one point in the narrative he says to her, “Go and teach the word of God.” So he designates her as an apostle and she goes off to a different place.
HODGES: That sounds like the commission that Jesus gave.
OSIEK: Yeah, exactly. And Thecla was the most popular female saint through the fifth century. More popular than Mary, the mother of Jesus.
OSIEK: There were shines of Thecla everywhere. There were three different stories about where she ended her life. She was so popular that in Egypt, they invented their own version of Thecla. She was enormously popular. And here was a woman who defied all of the traditional female roles. So why she was so popular remains a mystery, really.
HODGES: That’s fascinating. So, she didn’t fit—When you say “roles,” you mean gender stereotypes about the proper place of women in society?
OSIEK: Yes, and she didn’t fit them. She didn’t fit them at all.
HODGES: But she was a venerated figure?
HODGES: What was the impulse behind making the Acts of Thecla, then? Was that in reaction to the fact that there weren’t any prominent texts that were becoming canonized that featured strong women? Or what kind of things lead to that?
OSIEK: One theory is that stories like that originated in women’s circles, women’s story telling circles. But then they became generalized, you know, the men took them on too. And Tertullian in the late second century says that—he’s arguing that women shouldn’t baptize—and he says, “Let nobody use the example of Thecla, who baptized herself”—that’s part of the story. Because Paul kept putting off baptism so she says, “I’m doing it myself” and she baptizes herself—“Nobody should use the example of Thecla because the story of Thecla was invented by a presbyter Asian minor and he lost his position because of it.”
So Tertullian is giving us some maybe true information about the origins, but the stories of Thecla really took off. And maybe it’s precisely because she so defied the stereotypes. Did it inspire other women to do the same? We don’t know. But she was just enormously popular.
HODGES: You just don’t see, you don’t see records of that. You don’t see—
HODGES: We just have these fragments. See this is what’s hard about some of this research is you’re really dealing with putting a puzzle together. You don’t have the box where you can see the full picture. And you don’t have all the pieces either! [laughs] and you’re trying to—
OSIEK: That’s right. Now there’s the case of Montanism, which was a kind of a charismatic revival in the middle of the second century. It originated in Phrygia in Asia Minor and there were three names associated with leadership here. Montanus, a man from whom the name of the whole group derived.
HODGES: Sort of like Lutherans, Martin Luther.
OSIEK: Yeah, exactly. And Priscilla and Maximillia, two—it’s a different Priscilla from the New Testament—two prophet women leaders. And the Montanists were known for that, for their openness to women’s leadership. This became a problem for Tertullian because Tertullian was not at all against women’s leadership, “They shouldn’t baptize” dadada, but then Tertullian in his later years had this great sympathy of Montanism and so he had to sort of reverse his ideas there. [laughs]
But there are those two prophets and Eusebius, the church historian in the fourth century, is railing against the Montanists and he says that they have these women leaders, and this is ridiculous. And they should not rely on the example of Amia and Quadratus. Now who are Amia and Quadratus? He doesn’t explain who they are! They’re prophets that were known to his audience.
HODGES: Well enough known that he just said their name.
OSIEK: Well enough that he did not have to describe them. So Amia is a woman’s name, so we’re talking about another female prophet there. These women who we know their names and we know next to nothing else besides about them. That’s the truth.
HODGES: In part because it seems like Christianity was becoming more institutionalized, that there was an effort to sort of identify who the correct leaders were. Did Eusebius ever speak positively of women prophets?
OSIEK: No, he didn’t. He wants to tamp down on anything like that, any kind of prophetic enthusiasm. And perhaps largely it was a reaction against Montanism. Montanism was a doctrinally orthodox movement, you know. It was not heretical. But it was very apocalyptic.
HODGES: So, they thought it was the end times for the world?
OSIEK: Yeah, exactly.
HODGES: So a lot of their kind of “prophesy” maybe dealt a lot with “This is what’s about to happen”?
OSIEK: That’s right. And it was going to happen right in Phrygia, right in Asia Minor where it all started. And by the time of Eusebius, he’s middle of fourth century, and the institutional church is well established, and the authority of the bishops, and they want a quieter version of Christianity. And so they often associate the leadership of women with heretical movements, with apocalyptic movements. People like Eusebius do everything to discredit the authority of women. Because by that time it’s a strongly male-run church.
Except for the patrons. The wealthy women who have the money [laughs] to pay for the churches and those women continue to have authority. And then you move into the whole ascetic movement where a number of women are prominent, and that’s whole other story.
HODGES: And that’s a story we’ll get to in just a minute. We’re talking with Carolyn Osiek. She’s talking to us about women in the ancient world and in Christianity. She co-wrote the book A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity.
Okay, so we’re going to rewind the clock again. So far we’ve kind of gone up through the fourth century. We’re gonna go back to the beginning again here and talk about house churches, because that’s one of the main avenues of research in this book that you wrote. What were house churches and what did women have to do with those house churches?
OSIEK: When Christian groups were formed in a city—let’s say Paul goes to Corinth and he gets some people who are interested in this and they want a place to meet. “Where are we gonna meet?” Well, the most likely place is somebody’s house.
HODGES: Why not the synagogue?
OSIEK: A lot of the people come from the synagogue but there are a lot of leaders in the synagogue who aren’t too happy about this movement, so they move out of the synagogue—[laughs]
HODGES: Ok, good good.
OSIEK: —and into private places and houses are one of the best places. Now, we don’t think it’s one hundred percent in houses. They could meet in workshops or other places of business or something, but the house seems to be the best place. And Paul often will say, “Greet so and so, and so and so, and so in the church in their house, greet the ecclesia, the assembly, in their house.
So we’re talking about meetings of small groups of people, maybe up to thirty, something like that. That’s just a wild guess based on the space that we have in houses that have survived that we can see in places like Pompeii and Herculaneum for example. Modest houses. And they would meet there for a simple meal of some kind, which would also have the words of Eucharist, and the sharing of news, what’s happening,
HODGES: Maybe reading a letter?
OSIEK: And the reading of the letter—Ooh, if a letter just arrived from Paul, sure! Reading the scriptures, and we get glimpses of which scriptures they were reading when we have biblical allusions in something like Paul’s letters or Acts.
Now, the role of women. The ordinary thing at a meal in somebody’s house is that of course the owner presides at the meal. And if it’s a case of a house owned by a couple, it would logically be the man. But a number of cases in the New Testament show us that some of these houses were owned by women. And they would therefore be the logical leaders of the meal. In any case, women would be the ones who would sort of carry things on and when you kind of reflect on how the house church functions there, it’s not only a place for the weekly meeting of the congregation, but it would also be the place that would give hospitality to visiting Christians. Just like the Jews and like other ethnic groups, national groups, they would seek each other out. You’d get the word. “I have to go to Ephesus, where can I stay?” And you’d have a name before you got there. And so, for visitors hosting visitors, hosting people for preparation for baptism, instruction after baptism, any kind of ongoing life of the community would take place in these houses. And the women would be some of the key people doing that.
HODGES: And one of the things I enjoyed in the book is how you talked about, since this was happening in these houses, it was a very domestic space—including the presence of children too.
HODGES: And there would also, in most cases, be slaves and other people. So give us a picture of the household church with those other people in mind as well, and how a Christian community or how a Christian meeting might be to experience it when you’ve also got kids and you’ve got slaves and you’ve got a woman perhaps as the leader.
OSIEK: As the leader. Yes. In some cases, a meeting of a house church may have included only, or predominantly, the members of that household. If you’re talking about a rather large household, and everyone there—more or less everyone—is a baptized member of the community. But we know, I mean there’s ample evidence that there were not forced conversions. People made their own decisions about that. Tertullian later on writes about what would happen—he’s writing to his wife and it’s a public treatise to convince women who are widowed not to remarry, and especially don’t remarry an unbeliever, and he ticks off all of the difficulties that there would be in that case. So, women and men made their own decision, even couples in marriage.
Slaves, as well, could make their own decisions about whether they could choose baptism or whether they want to go down to the local temple to somebody else, to some other god, you know?
So it’s unlikely that most of the households that met together were only that household and everybody believers. So the alternative is that it’s all kinds of different people coming from any place in the neighborhood, all the people who belonged to this group, and they could be very different. They could be slaves, the children are in the household, and if a parent is coming from another house into a meeting, maybe bringing the children with them. So you have to envision a very mixed kind of a community there. And my co-author, Margaret McDonald, when we were talking about this book, A Women’s Place, used two images—rather startling images—of people coming in, walking into the house and someone tripping over the children’s toys that’d been left in the way [laughs] and the other of the house church meeting being distracted by the cries of a woman giving birth in a back room, you know? Because these were families and family life went on there.
HODGES: One of the places—if I remember correctly from the book, A Women’s Place, one of the places that we get some evidence about how these house churches operated or how women in that context operated, is from some of the writings of anti-Christians, people who saw Christians as socials deviants or as causing these problems. And it seems, if I’m remembering correctly, that one of the cautions they kept giving was about these “meddling women,” sort of like, “beware of these meddling women.” Am I remembering that correctly?
OSIEK: Yeah, there are some writers who do that and it’s one of the ways of trying to discredit the movement, to say that women have too much control. They’re in too many positions of leadership. Because of course, “a society should be well regulated by male control,” yeah.
HODGES: So there’s a sense in which broader cultural pressure could’ve helped shape how the church ecclesiology developed as well in terms of what was acceptable in society?
OSIEK: That is a whole question. [laughter] When Paul, for instance in 1 Corinthians 14, says that “women should keep silent in the churches. I don’t allow women to teach or have authority over men but let them remain in silence.” Where is he getting that?
It’s pretty much stock conservative social philosophy, you know? And he seems to reflect that. So if you’re going to think that early Christianity in the first generation was very egalitarian, then you have to deal with this kind of thing. And you see I just don’t think that it was so egalitarian. I think there certainly were egalitarian tendencies there, but it was still very much part of the world around it.
HODGES: As you said, that’s a really big question. It’s the question about whether Christianity was more freeing for women or whether it was more restrictive for women. But that is a false dichotomy? From what I can tell from the book, you say it’s really neither of those things.
OSIEK: It’s neither of those things, no.
HODGES: What are some other ways you would explain that about what Christianity did for the role of women compared to broader society, in terms of freeing some things, in terms of restricting some things?
OSIEK: Well first of all, freeing and restricting, it’s kind of a Western bias, you know? and a modern bias, because we do tend to see things in those terms about oppression and liberation. With good reason. But it is our mindset and it wasn’t their mindset. Their mindset was, “How do I live within my family and live for the good of my family and live a just and happy life?”
So did Christianity liberate women? There’s a real pitfall on that question because you must ask “liberate from what?” And then you fall into anti-Judaism, really a false idea of Judaism, the idea that Jesus liberated women from the oppression of the Law, and that’s just not right. That’s a very wrong understanding of how Judaism operated then, and of how people who are faithful to the Jewish law see their own fidelity. It’s not oppression. So, there’s that problem.
And then, okay, were women liberated from the oppression of Roman law and Roman customs? Not at all. I mean, we have some good evidence of a great deal of autonomy, of agency on the part of women in the common culture. So the whole idea of liberation kind of falls flat, you know?
So, what did Christianity do for women? I think it continued the same directions that were already there in the culture. It certainly brought women into full membership. I don’t think there was ever a question of women being excluded from full membership. And Paul’s declaration in Galatians 3:28, you know, that “there’s no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.” Well, some people take that as kind of a liberation proclamation, you know. But he doesn’t say “free,” he says “one.” [laughs] He doesn’t say “equal,” he says “one.”
HODGES: In other words, “connected,” or—
OSIEK: Connected! And with the same access to Christ and the same access to salvation. Equal in that sense. Equal in society, in the way we would understand it? No, that just was not part of their thinking.
HODGES: And I’ve seen some theologians take that and say—like for example, Catholic liberation theologians would say that in its context just what you said, that this is kind of the way Paul was saying it, but that it also sort of planted these seeds that could bear different fruit down the road.
OSIEK: Sure, sure. And down the road, as our consciousness changes and as we have a broader understanding of the human person and the dignity of the human person, the whole way in which the understanding of the human person has evolved has changed the way we look at those texts. And the potential is there. But first century people were not thinking like twenty-first century people. And we have to respect that difference.
HODGES: It’s really tempting to just flatten the distance. And not just when we think it sort of aligns with our current beliefs, but also perhaps in some ways when it challenges our current beliefs. I guess reading your book and the books of other biblical scholars has been important reminders to me about not flattening history. I mean, there’s the old saying that “the past is a foreign country they do things differently there.” I mean, that’s true. But there’s also a time to draw comparisons. This can get contentious for people, though! [laughs] I’m sure you’ve seen different biblical interpretations about what Paul might have meant by that verse in Galatians about everyone being one—
HODGES: —and you can pit that verse against his declaration that “I don’t let women speak in the churches.” What is your advice to Christians who are trying to come to terms with what seem to be competing impulses in the text that they believe is revealed from God.
OSIEK: I would look to the competing impulses within ourselves and within our own thinking. Because the texts are dynamic. They contain levels of potential meaning which we engage as we interact with the text and with our own culture and our own understanding. So a biblical text can carry authority, and at the same time we can say, “But we have a new understanding of that now.” And, if someone wants to say, “The Bible says, ‘Women should not speak in church’ and therefore they should not speak in church”, you know, I’d ask, “What is the cultural bias that’s operating there? Is this person really glad with that interpretation because I don’t want women to speak in church? Well, then that’s a thing to look at.
HODGES: Interesting. I guess scripture invites us to not only dig into scripture but maybe dig into ourselves.
OSIEK: Mmhmm, exactly. Exactly, it’s a mirror for us, you know? I think it’s Martin Buber who said that the Bible is not a theology for us, it’s an anthropology for God.
HODGES: That sounds like a lot of work!
HODGES: That’s Carolyn Osiek. We’re talking about women in the ancient world and in Christianity. Let’s talk about household codes, Lyn. This is something that biblical scholars talk about, “household codes” in the scriptures. These are passages where they sort of lay out ideal relationships between men and women and about how a household should be run. Give us an introduction to what household codes are.
OSIEK: Yeah, that’s a name that biblical scholars give to this. What we’re referring to is these sets of mutual relations, reciprocal relations, in the well-run patriarchal household. They originate with Hellenistic authors—that is, writers who are writing in Greek in the two or three centuries before the New Testament time—who write on household economy, household maintenance. And actually the origin is in Aristotle. In book one of the Laws. The background is in Aristotle who talks about the head of the household, the male, free Greek male, who is the father of his household and it talks about his relationship to his wife, to his children, and to his slaves.
HODGES: So, this is kind of like “How to be a happy ruler over your little kingdom.”
OSIEK: Yes, exactly. So, he should be an enlightened monarch with his wife and with his children, definitely a monarch, but a despot to the slaves. So, different relationships to the three. So, we have laid out there the three of spouse, children, and slaves. Those are the components of the household. So Hellenistic writers are laying this out and how should everyone relate to the father, husband, master. And it’s really household management, how do you keep this going harmoniously? And so, you will have reflections on, for instance, how the husband should teach his wife what to do to run the household, which is kinda laughable because she probably already knows! She’s learned it from her mother. [laughs] And you have to envision here also a marriage in which the husband is probably quite a bit older than the wife. She’s a young girl.
HODGES: The men have often been married before, a lot women died in childbirth—
OSIEK: Yes, exactly, so it’s the ideal of this young bride being taught everything by her husband, so it raises those kinds of discussions, so.
HODGES: This isn’t Christianity, this is preceding—
OSIEK: This is preceding it. So, particularly in the Pauline literature in the New Testament, but not in—Well, you know, biblical scholars, New Testament scholars make divisions now, distinctions about the letters we think that Paul actually wrote in the so called deutero-Pauline letters. So, it’s really in the Deutero-Pauline’s, it’s in Colossians and Ephesians that you really have this developed, and a little bit in 1 Peter. But, really Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 are the two passages in which you get this full-blown.
And the difference here is that each group is addressed. It’s very interesting. In this Hellenistic household management, the whole thing is addressed to the man, the head of the household. But here, everybody is addressed, so everybody is given personhood. And interestingly, it’s the subordinate that is addressed first. “Wives, be submissive to your husbands. Husbands, love your wives. Children, obey your parents.” And it’s really obey your fathers. “Fathers, be good to your children. Slaves, obey your masters. Masters, don’t abuse your slaves,” you know? So there’s a way in which the household codes in the New Testament actually take a step forward toward personification, toward recognizing the personhood of everybody who’s involved there. And yet, they maintain the traditional order, okay? So, we look at them now, two thousand years later and we say eeaahhhk! [laughs]
HODGES: Most people do. There’s still some that really latch on to that “submissiveness” aspect.
OSIEK: Most people do.
OSIEK: Well, but what do these interpreters today do with the slaves then?
HODGES: Oh well…hmmm, yeah—
OSIEK: Hmm, yeah. See, and I say, if you’re gonna take part of it, you’ve gotta take the whole thing, you know? So.
HODGES: What do you do with students who express concern about that? You’ve taught a lot of students over the years who revere the Bible, they bring this text to you and they say, “If I’m going to be a believer and I think this text is the word of God, here it does say ‘Women be submissive,’” and so on and so forth.
OSIEK: I’ve never had a student who has said that to me! Maybe they don’t dare. [laughter] But in all the years that I taught Catholics, Catholics just don’t think that way anyways, though.
HODGES: So it’s just not a cultural pressure anyway. Hmm.
OSIEK: It’s not a cultural pressure, no. But, when I teach it, I always emphasize that in its day this was a very progressive text. And it isn’t anymore. And that’s indicative of how things change.
HODGES: What kind of principles carry through for you then? Do you see something in those texts—In other words, I guess, is there a way that you as a person who believes in the Bible and as a Catholic yourself, is there a way to redeem those texts for you as a believer? Is there a way to—or is it just simply contextualizing it and recognizing it in its context that does the redeeming?
OSIEK: Mmhmm. That what does the redeeming for me, is that in its time, this was a really good text.
HODGES: So I guess what this shows us is that these household codes was a genre that biblical writers didn’t invent. They were sort of adopting this form that already existed and they were putting a Christian spin on it by directly addressing people, and acknowledging the personhood of women and children and slaves as well, in addition to men, but still kind of upholding the similar power relations as before.
OSIEK: Mmhmm, yeah.
HODGES: So, as scholars approach these household codes and they’re interpreting these texts and they’re interpreting the material evidence and they’re learning more about women in ancient Christianity and about Ancient Christian men, how have the scholarly discussions changed over time? Have you seen waves of scholarship where it becomes fashionable to interpret it in a certain way and then that sort of overturned? I guess I’m asking about the general arc of scholarly development on these questions throughout your career.
OSIEK: I was doing my doctoral work in the seventies and everything was the historical-critical method. So it was, “What is the original form of this text?” Especially when you’re dealing with gospel passages. “What are the sources here?” and “how do you put it all together.” And the trouble with the historical-critical method which had already been going for about two centuries is that you can’t carry it forward. You get to the text, and then what do you do with it, you know? So—
HODGES: Yeah, you have, “Okay, we’ve got the oldest version of the text we think we can get. There it is.”
OSIEK: Yeah, so what? It doesn’t help at all with pastoral interpretation, it doesn’t help with preaching. You’ve probably heard a sermon that’s nothing but an exegesis. It’s boring, it doesn’t give you anything.
So, what has come in since then is particularly an emphasis on literary criticism, on looking at the text as literature. So, how is it constructed and what are the authors characters and how are the characters used and what are the intentions? And you get into all kinds of other possibilities, possible interpretations of texts. And since then, what has broken loose, now, is cultural diversity. And so, we have post-colonial interpretation coming particularly from people whose experience is post-colonial in different parts of the world, and feminist interpretation of course is part of that.
HODGES: “Post-colonial” is basically like the perspectives of peoples who have been under the control or under the administration of other—
OSIEK: Of foreign powers, yeah.
HODGES: Ok, and then feminist interpretation?
OSIEK: Feminist interpretation, gender, all kinds of gender criticism now coming in. So there’s a variety of method now and I think its much richer. Historical criticism is still a good base, but I think we recognize now that it can’t be the whole thing, you know? So, now you’re asking about, uhh—
HODGES: Yeah, so the original question, that actually sets the stage for it, I think. You hint at it a little bit in the introduction to A Woman’s Place, where, when this book came out, it was kind of part of this flourishing of new research on women. There was a lot of optimism about what could be found out. Then there was this wave of pessimism about how accurate or how close such research could really be. And then there was kind of a return.
OSIEK: And return again now, yeah. Yeah, I think there was a slump in that, with the methods we were using and the assumptions we were using, we were—we had sort of done it, you know? So, the new things now are the resurgence of—well, particularly, for instance, the use of art history. All of the kind of interpretation that comes in there with material artifacts and this weekend at BYU has been a good example of that. And the use of the concept of agency. Looking at how agency functions and how women exercise agency.
And before, I think in the earlier years of this kind of study—Well first of all we had the western bias which we’ve already talked about, that everything was about oppression or liberation. And so then we were looking at acts of resistance, acts of difference from the stereotype or from the usual thing. And I think more now we have the understanding that women in this case, women could exercise agency without going against the major movements in which they are a part. That there are ways within traditional roles to live fulfilled lives and that many women choose that. And many women in antiquity did.
HODGES: That’s Carolyn Osiek. We’re talking with her today about the book A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity and we’re also talking a little bit about the symposium that was just held here through the Maxwell Institute called “Material Culture and Women’s Religious Experience in Antiquity.”
Lyn, before we go, I wanted to talk a little more personally with you. As a scholar who’s also religious, as a Catholic, how do you deal with research or scriptures that sometimes runs counter to what your tradition’s typical interpretation is? For example, you’ve done work on women as deacons and other things like this, while Catholics don’t ordain women. Have you experienced any difficulty in reckoning with differences between your ancient research and how the Catholic church operates today?
OSIEK: Sure, and I think anybody who belongs to a mainstream church and who thinks critically is going to run up against situations in which you find some of the official things hard. And, that’s certainly true of me as well. But I think you have to understand faith and you have to understand membership in a church on many different levels.
There is official public teaching. There is tradition of scholarship, and the Catholic church has a very strong tradition of biblical and historical scholarship, which leaves us free to follow, to investigate, to come to conclusions, scholarly academic conclusions about the evidence that may in some way be in tension with official ideas, official teaching. But a church community, particularly a universal community the way the Catholic church is, is always in movement. It’s always evolving and there are always different ways of understanding, and different levels of understanding, and you can always find a place where, you can always find a place to feel at home.
HODGES: So, the question to me becomes, how has scholarship about the Bible impacted your life as a religious believer? How has your research existed along with your relationship with God?
OSIEK: Mmhmm. Well, it’s taught me that nothing is absolute, except God, of course. That nothing else is absolute. That everything is changing and that we are all evolving as we go. And we’ll continue to do that until we come to the point where we don’t evolve anymore. [laughs]
HODGES: And speaking of things always evolving, what would you say about the future of studies on women in the Bible going forward? We just had this conference where we had students presenting papers. What do you see the field doing in the near future that people can be excited about?
OSIEK: Well, I was very excited about the interplay between art and artifact, and material culture and text, and I think that really is a good way to go. And I was heartened by all the younger scholars who were here, and students as well, who are seriously interested in this and doing good work. And I think that’s going to be great.
HODGES: Yeah, and if people are wondering, we didn’t film all of the sessions. We only filmed the keynote address from Dr. Osiek, but I know that Catherine Taylor, who’s here at the Maxwell Institute and who helped organize the symposium, said that students and other scholars will be working toward publishing their work in various venues or perhaps together.
HODGES: So the work we were able to see here at Brigham Young University this weekend hopefully will become more available in the future.
Lyn, thank you so much for coming in and talking with us today.
OSIEK: You’re welcome.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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