Similarly to Judaism and Islam, Christianity is often depicted as a patriarchal and misogynistic religion that requires women to submit themselves to both God and men. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-6, Paul instructs female worshippers to cover their heads as a sign of submission and in 1 Timothy 2:8-15, he defines women as sinners who should strive to dress modestly and avoid any useless embellishments. In view of these considerations, one cannot help but wonder why women in the Greco-Roman world were particularly fascinated by Christianity, to the extent that some of them chose to give up their lives in the name of Jesus Christ. Vibia Perpetua, for example, was a noblewoman and a young mother who was martyred in 203 A.D. because of her faith (Shewring). Her diary reveals that she converted to Christianity in her early twenties and received several prophetic visions before dying in Carthage (Shewring). Felicity, a pregnant female slave, was executed on the same day. Similarly to Perpetua, she chose Christ over her role as mother, thus showing the whole world that only way for the Roman Empire to eradicate Christianity once and for all was to kill all Christians.
The truth is that women played a very important role in the spread of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world. Unlike their “pagan” counterparts, Christian women were allowed to preach alongside men as missionaries and were not required to re-marry if their husbands died – in fact, Christianity regarded widowhood as a highly respectable condition. Both Christian men and women were expected to remain virgins until marriage, and both abortion and infanticide were strongly condemned. Female chastity was widely appreciated by pagans as well, even though men were free to sleep with as many women as they pleased, both before and after marriage. Furthermore, female infanticide was a very common practice that resulted in a significant gender imbalance among pagans. The fact that female babies were considered to be far less desirable than male ones says a lot about the way in which pagan women were treated and perceived in the Greco-Roman world.
By portraying men and women as equally important despite their different duties and roles, Christianity succeeded in engaging a large number of women who saw Jesus Christ as an opportunity to gain the power, freedom and status that they had always wanted. As Christians, they could play an active role in spreading the Gospel, enjoyed substantial marital security, married at an older age and were even allowed to choose their spouses. Despite the New Testament repeatedly referring to women as sinners, in Philippians 4:1-3, Paul urges two female members of the Philippian Church called Euodia and Syntyche to resolve their disagreement and asks a mysterious “companion” to help them make peace. The fact that Paul took interest in a quarrel between two women suggests that Euodia and Syntyche must have held a leadership position within the local church. After all, Paul himself specifies that the two women have worked with him in spreading the Word of God.
In conclusion, Paul’s Epistles and Perpetua’s diary give valuable insight into the role of women in early Christianity. Contrary to what one may think, the main reason why Christianity was particularly popular among women in the Greco-Roman world is not because they were forced to convert. Despite Abrahamic religions being commonly depicted as inherently sexist, the truth is that Jesus Christ did not encourage men to treat women as mere objects, nor did he forbid women to preach, pray and lead his Church alongside his male followers. Christian women were granted powers and freedoms that most pagan women could only dream of, which partly explains their loyalty to God as well as their willingness to die in the name of their faith.
- Shewring, Walter H. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, 1931,
- The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984.