Sometimes people in churches speak of early Christians as if they were all alike, as if all early Christians thought the same thing. Today, however, Christians are not all alike in their opinions. That diversity, for example, is visible today with respect to women’s roles. Why would we think all ancient Christians had identical opinions?
In fact, ancient Christ-followers did not all think the same. This is especially clear with respect to their perspectives on women. Just as today we find conservative churches and liberal churches, the very same thing existed among the Christ-followers. There were (at least) two traditions about women.
The first tradition about women was a Jewish tradition that is most popularly known from Jesus’s teachings; Jesus, after all, was a Jew. Yet Jesus did not invent this tradition, he lived in it. His was one of several streams of Judaism, just as today there are several streams within Judaism regarding female gender roles, from ultra orthodox to reform or liberal Judaism.
Various scholars, including Bernadette Brooten, Tal Ilan, Isaac S. D. Sassoon, Amy-Jill Levine, and Ross S. Cramer have written about the diverse and egalitarian impulses of Judaism during the Second Temple era and directly afterwards. For example, Dr. Brooten has demonstrated that some ancient synagogues had women leaders. In this stream of Judaism men and women were sometimes essentially described as partners. This is seen in Philo of Alexandria’s depiction of the Therapeutae, a Jewish sect where the men and the women performed religious ritual in tandem, with the leader of the men taking on the role of Moses and the leader of the women, Miriam.
The second tradition about women came from the culture of the Roman Empire, a culture where the male head of the household, the Paterfamilias, ruled his family with the legal right of life or death. Certain scribes inserted this patriarchal Roman tradition into some of the writings that later became part of the New Testament. Most likely they changed Jesus’s message in these writings because they wanted to make the Christ-followers appear more acceptable to the Roman authorities. They were deeply worried about their safety and “fitting in.”
The Emperor Constantine, as might be expected, embraced a Romanized sect that had thrived in the highly political capitol of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome. This sect was not the only Christian sect in the city of Rome. But it was the one Constantine chose to elevate. Unfortunately this sect became notorious for its opposition to the other Christians and to Jews.
What did these two traditions look like? Art shows us. Several “Art as Text” Power Points on my Homepage illustrate these two traditions in early Christian art. The one I want to demonstrate here is about the mother in the Raising of Jairus’s Daughter. This miracle is told in the gospels at Mark 5:21–43, Matthew 9:18–26, and Luke 8:40–56. According to the gospel, both mother and father were with Jesus when he raised their daughter.
For example, Mathew says:
Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was (NRSV).
The first tradition portrayed the little Jewish girl’s parents standing side-by-side at her bed. This tradition of the mother and father depicted essentially as partners in the family is seen in the sarcophagus carving at right. The sarcophagus at right was found in the Christian catacombs of Rome and is dated 300 to 330 CE.
Here Jesus stands at the foot of the bed holding what appears to be a magic wand (very common in early Christian art). He appears about to raise their little girl. The mother is on the far right. She is wearing a veil and she stands at the head of her daughter’s bed. The father, balding, stands next to her. They are looking at each other in shared concern and worry.
In this tradition, the tradition of Jesus the Jew, women and men, especially husbands and wives, were sometimes portrayed as partners, as seen in the carving above. Perhaps women in this tradition were not always complete partners in every way with men, or at least, perhaps not in some households, or in some churches, or in some synagogues. Yet the first tradition depicted women very differently in art than they were shown in the art of sects that followed Roman family model, as demonstrated below.
The second tradition, the Roman tradition, looks very different when seen in art. The contrast between how the two sculptors depicted the mother is huge. The second sarcophagus carving below on the left illustrates the Roman tradition. This scene of the Raising of Jairus’s Daughter depicts the father standing with other men around Jesus—but the little girl’s mother was carved laying prostrate on the floor!
This sarcophagus was found in a Christian cemetary near Arles, France, which was called Gaul when it was part of the Roman Empire. This sarcophagus is dated to the same period as the first.
This sculptor carved the mother laying under the bed.
In this second tradition, women were sometimes portrayed as subordinate to the pater familias, just as the mother in the second carving above is shown on the floor at the feet of the men. In this carving the mother was carved much smaller than the men, as if she were a child–despite that the gospel itself placed mother and father together. As seen in this carving, Romanized sects sometimes undermined the original Jewish gospel story.
Almost certainly these two sarcophagi were aimed at two different markets. One targeted Christians who adhered to the early Jewish tradition about women as partners in the family, as Jesus taught, as is seen in the story itself. The other sarcophagus was sold to Christians who wanted to fit in to Roman culture.
Perhaps, however, the two markets also reflected who was buying the sarcophagus, whether a man or a woman. I myself imagine that women would be more sensitive to how women were depicted on their own sarcophagus or that of their deceased husband. What is certain, however, is that early Christian art depicts two different traditions about women and men, especially with respect to their roles in relationship to each other.
These two traditions about the relative value of women are seen in various depictions of the gospels in early Christian art. Other examples include the Samaritan woman at the well, the Raising of Lazarus, and the Women with the Risen Christ.