Let’s just say this:
Too many women go unnamed in the Bible.
You know what I mean? While it’s true that some men are not identified (the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12 comes to mind), it seems like more women suffer the indignity of have their name go unrecorded. I’m thinking of women such as the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:24-34), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) and the Caananite woman (Matthew 15:21-28).
To compound the problem, instead of getting named, often women in the Bible get identified according to the men in their life. This makes sense in an overwhelmingly patriarchal culture, but it’s still tragic. So you have Lot’s daughters (Genesis 19:30-38), Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15), and Philip’s prophetic daughters (Acts 21:9), among others.
You also have Pilate’s wife, from Matthew 27:19.
This past weekend, as I listened to our pastor preach a wonderful Easter sermon, that verse about Pilate’s wife captured my attention. I mean, I’m sure I’ve read, or heard, that verse before, but it had failed to stand out until last Sunday.
For context, Pontius Pilate is about to decide who to release, the innocent Jesus or the criminal Barabbas. It’s clear who the crowd wants, and Pilate, more interested in the keeping the peace than establishing justice, is clearly leaning toward releasing Barabbas.
In the midst of his deliberation, however, a message arrives from Pilate’s wife. Here’s verse 19:
While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
Interesting, right? Have you ever really thought about this verse?
This week I did some research, and, for the most part, the commentators don’t have much to say about Pilate’s wife. For most, the significance of verse 19 is in the ironic contrast between the message of Pilate’s wife and the clear preference of the gathered Jews.
For instance, the New Bible Commentary notes:
Nothing else is known of Pilate’s wife. This Gentile woman’s conviction of Jesus’ innocence is in contrast to the prejudice of the Jewish crowd.
OK. Still, I’m left with some questions. Was that just a random dream, or was that a vision from the Lord? If it was a divine vision, what’s the significance? And, how had she heard about Jesus? Had she met him? Is it even possible that she was a believer?!?
In the end, I’m not sure we can answer many of these questions. There’s just not enough data. She’s unnamed, and largely forgotten to history.*
But, maybe, Pilate’s wife should take her place among her sisters.
Because the story of Easter is a story marked the presence of women. Most famously, there’s Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, the first people to bear witness to the resurrection (I’ve blogged about the Marys before, here). I watched a documentary on CNN during Easter week, and one commentator said something like, “for about an hour, Mary Magdalene, and Mary alone, was the church.”
But maybe not isolated. Perhaps it’s time to add another woman to our list of Easter heroines, an unnamed woman, the governor’s prophetic wife. Because, from that one verse, here’s what we do know about Pilate’s wife:
She was convinced that Jesus’ death was unjust, and she acted on her belief.
Sounds like someone worth remembering to me.
* One interesting theory, articulated by Herbert Lockyer in his book All the Women of the Bible, is that Pilate’s wife was named Claudia Procula, daughter of Emperor Augustus. Citing her appearance in the apocryphal text The Gospel of Nicodemus, Lockyer posits that this is the same Claudia mentioned by Paul (2 Timothy 4:21) and canonized by both the Greeks and Abyssinians, a woman lauded for her faith and devotion to Jesus.
In case you are tempted to buy Tertullian’s message that women can’t lead, preach, do evangelism, plant churches, suffer for Jesus and more, spend 6 minutes and 48 seconds and let Sara’s testimony from Urbana 15 challenge and encourage you:
In my quest to find new missionary heroines for my Urbana seminar, I came across a short biography of Catherine of Siena.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Catherine, a 14th century Dominican mystic and theologian. Catherine crammed a lot of life and ministry into her short 33 years of life. Among other things, Catherine is known for receiving visions from an early age, mercy ministry among the poor, and her vocal political activism (in one case, she lobbied the pope, then in Avignon, to return to Rome).
In the end, I decided not to use Catherine in my seminar. Why?
Well, because the best Catherine of Siena story was simply too gross to tell.
Too gross for my seminar, but maybe not too gross for a blog post. So, buckle up and check out this story about Catherine from the book Daughters of the Church, by Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld:
“There are many stories about Catherine’s selfless sacrifice toward others…one of these stories depicts her with a dying woman–Catherine gently swabbing the pus-filled sores, but nearly overcome by the sickening stench.
But then in an instant, Catherine was guilt-stricken by her revulsion. In a demonstration of love and identity with this wretched creature, she picked up the bowl of pus she had drained from the foul sores and drank it, later claiming that it delighted her taste buds as nothing else ever had.”
You read that right. Pus. The woman drank pus.
To demonstrate her devotion to serving others.
Out of reverence for Jesus.
Now, truth be told, sometimes with saints like Catherine, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. It’s certainly possible that this story was, ah, crafted (or embellished) by some hagiographer along the way.
But let’s say it’s true, and, if possible, let’s put the pus aside for just a minute. Because we can learn a thing or two from Catherine. About serving the hard to serve. About devotion to Jesus. About soft-heartedness toward God with a willingness to repent.
And, most of all, about the importance of identifying with the poor and broken around us.
So here’s to Catherine of Siena, an example for us all…
…right up until the pus-drinking part.
** Picture of Catherine from here.
And I mean that literally.
Today, in class, we were talking about the implications of Tertullian’s commitment to demonstrate that Christianity dovetailed nicely with the highest Roman moral standards. All of a sudden, up on the powerpoint popped this question:
“If you were a missionary meeting Tertullian today, what would you say to him?”
I laughed out loud.
At which point, I had to explain to my classmates that I would indeed have a few things to say to Mr. Tertullian, and that none of them would have anything to do with ancient Roman moral standards. Which ultimately resulted in me quoting Tertullian’s despicable description of women as “the Devil’s gateway.”
Tertullian, consider yourself challenged.
And, also, consider yourself wrong. Because the evidence is that the first church thought and acted differently than Mr. Tertullian. According to Bevans and Schroeder in their book Constants in Context, in the first church women were valued more highly than ever before. They write:
“In the first place, more women than men converted to the Christian faith, including a significant number of high-status women. Recognizing that there were a number of factors, most writers recognize ‘that Christianity was unusually appealing [to women] because within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.’ Important aspects of this improved status and human dignity are reflected in the Christian condemnation of infanticide (which was most often female infanticide), divorce, incest, marital infidelity and polygamy–common practices that victimized women in particular. Christians respected and cared for widows instead of applying great pressure on them to remarry. In contrast to the general situation in which women were frequently forced into pre-pubertal, consummated marriages, Christian women ‘were married at a substantially older age and had more choice about whom they married.’ Underlying this Christian appreciation of the human dignity of women is the basic belief that all people are equally children of God.”
Not only were women more highly regarded by the first church, there is evidence that the pre-Constantinian faith community put them to work in ministry as well. That happened in more “official” church offices such as apostles, prophets, co-workers and laborers. But it also happened in two other critical ministerial contexts of the day, as house church leaders and as martyrs. Bevans and Schroeder write:
“From this perspective we see that women were very much involved in the predominant model of mission, especially within the household, the house churches and the group of martyrs. This is all the more significant given the subordinate role of women in the general society.”
So, let’s review. Women in the first church were given more dignity than ever before and were deployed as leaders both in more formal and informal contexts, up to and including making the ultimate witness to Christ as martyrs.
Seems to me like Tertullian needs to rethink his own moral standards.
As an old history major, and as someone who cares deeply about issues around gender, faith and the church, I was intrigued this week when I stumbled across this post by my friend James Choung. It’s a post about the effect that early Christianity had on women of its day.
Specifically, for women in the first several centuries after Jesus, the church provided a place of safety, personal affirmation and ministry empowerment. As James notes, “It seemed that Christian women enjoyed far more privileges and status than other women in the Greco-Roman world.”
For me, the reality of how the church once functioned with regard to women provokes this question:
In our day, why is the church a too often place of pain for women?
Here’s an excerpt from James’ post, and I recommend the entire piece:
“My main question came from the subtitle of Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity: how does the obscure, marginal Jesus movement become the dominant religious force in the Western world?
In his book, he takes a sociologist’s lens on Christian history, and says that without mass conversions or events, Christianity could achieve 5 to 7.5 million adherents by 300 AD just by having 40% growth each decade through relational evangelism.
Then, with each chapter, he unpacks a counter-intuitive reason why the Christian faith was growing. Christianity reached the middle and upper classes, and not just the poor. Their mission to Jewish people was rather successful, instead of unsuccessful. Christians offered basic care to the sick during plagues when their own pagan relatives left them for dead, increasing the chance of survival nine-fold instead of just relying on miracles. Christians were concentrated in urban areas where they could welcome the steady inflow from surrounding areas, and they could minister to the urban chaos and grind, due to the strength of their community. And during persecution, the way martyrs would face their death greatly impressed the Greco-Roman world.
But there was one more factor: women had an elevated standing within the Christian community.”
I know, you’re stoked. But I’m reading a lot of missiology, and it’s only the beginning of my four year program!
The other day, reading this book by Scottish Missiologist Andrew Walls, I came across the idea of an “Ephesian moment.” For Walls, this moment was a pivotal turning point in Christian history where the young church was confronted by the idea that the Gospel is meant to cross racial, ethnic and cultural barriers. Here’s Walls:
“When Ephesians was written, there were only two major cultures represented in the Christian church, the Jewish (reflecting a spectrum of attitudes and accommodation to Greek thought) and the Hellenistic. They could easily have formed separate churches, but that thought does not occur to the author. Two races and two cultures historically separated by the meal table now met at table to share the knowledge of Christ. The Ephesian moment–the social coming together of people of two cultures to experience Christ–was quite brief.”
Pondering the idea of an “Ephesian moment” for race and ethnicity, I formulated this question:
Where’s the “Ephesian moment” for gender in Scripture?
In other words, where was the moment when the first church was confronted by the reality that the Gospel crosses gender barriers, that in the advent of Jesus’ Kingdom equality, mutuality and interdependent partnership are the orders of the day?
My first thought was that it had to Pentecost.
After all, when in Acts 2 the Spirit falls on the community, both men and women receive the gift of the Spirit’s power. In fact, in interpreting the moment, Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32 to emphasize the intra-gender nature of the community of faith. (More about Pentecost and gender here)
It seems to me that Pentecost is a good option for an “Ephesian moment” with regard to gender, but it’s not perfect. After all, in reality Pentecost is more about the Spirit than a statement about gender partnerships in mission. In the end, Pentecost is the “Spirit’s Moment” more than anything else.
And then it dawned on me:
Perhaps the first church didn’t need an “Ephesian Moment” with regard to gender.
As in, maybe, just maybe, part of the culture of the first church was for women and men to share leadership. Perhaps crossing gender barriers in pursuit of Kingdom mission was…normal, a part of the community’s foundational DNA.
Seems like the Apostle Paul would attest to that. At a glance, Romans 16 seems like just another chapter of Paul publicly thanking those he has partnered with in his mission. But a closer look reveals the intra-gender nature of that mission. According to one scholar, out of the 27 names in the chapter, up to 10 are women.
And, further, in the tribe of Romans 16 women, we have some luminaries, every bit the equal of the men of Romans 16 and elsewhere. There’s Phoebe, the deaconess of Cenchrea, someone “worthy of honor.” There’s Priscilla, Paul’s co-worker, named before her husband Aquila, thus signifying a greater influence. And there’s Junia, “highly respected among the apostles.”
There is evidence that Paul’s practice may well have been representative. That despite being born in a culture gripped by extreme patriarchy, the first Christian church lived out a counter-cultural, intra-gender model of ministry.
Writing in her book When Women Were Priests, Claremont Graduate School Professor Karen Jo Torjesen notes:
“The last thirty years of American scholarship have produced an amazing range of evidence for women’s roles as deacons, priests, presbyters, and even bishops in Christian churches from the first through the thirteenth century.”
All of this leads to an interesting question:
What if the church didn’t need an “Ephesian Moment” for gender because every day was such a moment?!?
It was amazing.
A couple of reflections on the experience:
First, it’s indeed a vast topic. Right off the bat, I warned the students that this was the stuff of seminary courses and that I’d be moving fast during the talk. I hit everything from Genesis to Psalms to the Gospels to about 8 texts from Paul. I was flying. Even so, the 40ish minutes that I was given morphed into–wait for it–65 minutes. I think it was the longest talk I’ve ever given!
Next, they were with me the entire time. Good eye contact, nodding heads, laughing at the right times, etc. What this tells me is that there is a thirst for teaching on this topic. Is it possible that our churches are shirking responsibility by not teaching on these things? I think so.
Third, my burden for teaching and training on these topics continues to grow. After the talk, I told one of my staff that I’d teach it again tomorrow night. To be clear, I’ll be glad for a night off tonight; still, I’m growing into a new phase of call to teach, train and lead on these things. Of course the graduate program is a part of that, as is this blog. It is a joy to sense God’s profound work in my soul.
Fourth, my convictions about the Bible’s message of gender equality continue to solidify, clarify and find a greater purchase in my understanding. I always try to preach and teach from a place of conviction, but sometimes conviction is more available than others. Last night conviction was a potent presence in my teaching. I am convinced that the Bible’s message is one of freedom for women, and that God’s desire is for men and women to together carry the good news into mission with a posture marked by equality, mutuality, interdependence and dynamic partnership.
Many have asked for my notes from last night. I think I’m going to clean them up a bit and then send them. And/or I might chop the talk up and feature it as a series of posts here on Challenging Tertullian.
For now, I’ll leave you with Paul’s words to the Galatian church in 3:26-29:
For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you.
Praise God for the cross, which burns through the divisions of race, class and gender.
Happy Easter everyone!