Episode 5

Mary, Mother of God: Women in Early Christianity

Published on: 29th December, 2020


Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest.

During our last two episodes, Sherrie Crawford and I discussed Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy, and we talked about structural patriarchy in the ancient world, including in the Bible.

Just a couple of days after we recorded those episodes, some dear friends of mine and my husband had their first baby, a little boy. They’re Jewish, and we were invited to the bris. I couldn’t believe the timing - the very week I had talked about circumcision on the podcast, what we had called “the penis covenant,” I was going to witness a “bris,” which is a ritual circumcision and in Hebrew means “covenant.”

I logged onto Zoom- this podcast was recorded during the Covid pandemic so everything is virtual - and saw my friends there with their new baby and their family and their rabbi and my heart was so full I was immediately emotional. I have a deep affinity for Judaism due to having had Jewish friends my whole life and being a guest at many Jewish ceremonies, which are always moving for me. And Sherrie and I studied in Israel for five months during college and took Hebrew language and History of the Jewish people. And of course because of our shared book of scripture I’ve always felt like we’re spiritual cousins, along with all the other sects of Christianity and with Islam, the other “peoples of the book.” But because we had just read Gerda Lerner’s book - Gerda Lerner was also Jewish by the way, and I think part of her project was confronting the male supremacy in her own religious tradition - I had all of the parts of the Bible that excluded women fresh in my mind. And so parts of the bris were really hard for me. It was hard for me that the ceremony was really truly a continuation of the Abraham covenant - which is a special bond between a male Father God and his male prophet, and that man’s son, and that man’s son, and that man’s son, all the way down through the “sons of Israel.” I know that Jewish heritage is traced through the mother, which is lovely (and Christians don’t have that matrilineality) but the covenant with God is through the men, and the token was in the flesh of the male organ, physically, by definition, excluding people who are biologically female. And there is no counterpart for the girls - there’s no ceremony named after a Matriarch where girls are brought into a covenant with a Mother God.  It was really hard for me when they referred to any of the scriptures because all the stories were all about men, written by men, written for men. I felt the way I often feel in my own religious heritage - so completely left out. So completely marginal, in a spectator role, while God does the important stuff with his favorite children, the boys.

But it was also soooo beautiful. The way this family practices Judaism did include the women - the grandma held the baby’s hands while he was circumcised. The baby’s mother and the baby’s father took turns speaking, and by the way, the baby’s mother is one of the most educated, most accomplished, most powerful women I know. And his grandparents, and his aunts and uncles, both men and women, spoke. The gown the baby wore had been worn by grandfathers and uncles, but also his mother and aunt at their naming ceremonies. The blessings and hopes and wishes and desires for peace and strength and joy and renewal were so exquisitely beautiful, and I bawled my eyes out through the whole thing. When the rabbi wrapped our friends and their baby together in a tallit, or prayer shawl, I felt like my heart was going to burst. The love of that mother and father for each other and for their baby, the connection with their ancestors and their faith tradition, the community that they had so generously made me a part of, welcoming that baby into the world… it was so, so beautiful. And it was still so, so hard for me.

I share this because this experience highlighted again how complicated it all is. There is joy tangled up with pain. There is beauty tangled up with hurt. And as I try to untangle those elements of history and religion and human psychology I want to be able to confront difficult and problematic aspects of culture in order to improve life for everyone. But as I identify those problems I don’t want to lose my bearings. I don’t want to become a cynic whose vision is filtered through dark, pessimistic, ill-tempered lenses. And above all, I never, ever want to hurt anyone. I want to keep seeing the beauty and to keep believing the best in people. 

So I guess that’s kind of a declaration of the ethos of this whole project: I want to be honest and critical about systems, but I want to be careful and tender with human beings. And that’s specifically the needle that we will try to thread today as we talk about complexity in religious belief on the next step of our historical timeline. We just left off with the Hebrews and the Greeks in The Creation of Patriarchy, and when we pick up the next book we are going to start with the early church fathers in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, so on this bonus episode my reading partner and I are going to fill in the gap with a few important aspects of early Christianity, focusing especially on the Virgin Mary. This is another topic that is precious to many people, and we will try to be both honest and gentle in our analysis. We’ve gleaned this information from a few different books, rather than just one essential text, and all our sources are published in the show notes on our website, Breaking Down Patriarchy.com. So… let’s get started, and first, I’d like to introduce my reading partner for today, Sophie Allebest. Hi Sophie!

Sophie: Hi!

Amy: You may have noticed from the last name that Sophie and I are related. She is my third daughter, and she is currently in high school. She loves everything having to do with Art, History, Art History, Poetry, and Philosophy... and while our whole family is really into all of those subjects as well, Sophie, you are definitely our resident expert on Art History, and your insights will be really a valuable asset for today’s discussion. So I’m so happy you’re here!

Sophie: Thanks for having me!!

Amy: I like to ask my reading partners what interested them in this podcast project - I know you’ve been hearing about it every day for months - so maybe what interested you in this specific topic.


Ok! Well I was really interested in this topic because it touches on a lot of the subjects that I love most. I get to learn about women’s history, which I learn less about in school. This project gives me a closer connection to the people and especially women who came before me. And in this episode, we’re going to be talking about some of the different ways Mary was depicted in art, and that’s something I love learning about. Art does so much more than look beautiful (which is still important to me!), but it also lends itself to psychological analysis. Looking for the details in the Art and what those details say about the artist’s intentions is really rewarding for me.  Art is really a reflection of the artist and the artist’s environment, so with a painting or a sculpture you get a good idea of the world at the time, and how certain subjects were viewed. And we are obviously going to talk about religion, which is another thing that brings me so much joy to talk about. I find it fascinating to look at what religion comes from in a society and why it formed the way it did, and then ask the question, “what does that say about that society?” and then it’s interesting to see how that exact religion goes on to impact the people and government. Thanks for inviting me, Mom!


Thanks, Sophie - those are such great points. 

Today we are going to talk briefly about 4 concepts.

First, we’ll talk about Christian views on women, as presented in the New Testament of the Bible.

Second, we will talk about the early Christian church and the Virgin Mary.

Third, we will talk about convents and the lives of nuns.

And fourth, we will talk about the Protestant Reformation and its impact on women.

Sound good, Sophie?

Sophie: Sounds good!


OK. The first concept is the figure of Jesus Christ in the Christian Gospels. One book I read on this topic is Christ’s Emancipation of Women in the New Testament, by Lynn Wilson. The thesis of her book is that Jesus’ behaviors and message are very pro-woman and even liberating, especially in the context of gendered oppression in which they lived. She points out that Jesus is a revolutionary figure: In John 4:7 and John 5:30 he initiates conversations with women (which was strongly discouraged at the time), in Luke 10 he includes them publicly as his students and disciples, in the book of Mark he allows a menstruating woman to touch him, which was completely inappropriate and a violation of the social norms and actually quite scandalous, and in Matthew 28 he appears first to women after his resurrection, thus entrusting them with the role of witnesses. Actually as a Catholic friend pointed out to me once, if you define the Christian church as the people who were witnesses of Christ’s divinity, then for those hours after Mary Magdalene saw the resurrected Jesus, and before she told the disciples, Mary Magdalene was the Christian Church. She was the only one who knew. And of course another aspect of the Christian Gospels that elevated women was the fact that a human woman, Mary, was entrusted with being the mother of the Son of God.


Jesus never tells women to "get back home" into their proper place, and all of his teachings are for everyone: everyone is supposed to be “as wise as serpents” (the women too!) and “as gentle as doves” (the men too!). He doesn't say that the men should be strong and the women humble - he says all human beings should be both strong and humble. He doesn't make gendered distinctions.


Right! Exactly!

But then... you have Paul. He is definitely grounded in sexist tradition, and because he never met Jesus and only converted after Jesus died, he never observed how Jesus behaved with women. Maybe that wouldn’t have helped anyway, but he definitely has a different attitude toward women than Jesus did, and maybe it would have helped him to see how radically inclusive Jesus had been.

Here are some thoughts from Paul about women:

  • This is from 1 Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 3-6, in the NIV:

But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off. 

Sophie, will you read the next one?

Sophie: Yes. This is from the book of Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 22-24. 

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 

Sophie: I’m wondering if there is a correlation between churches that emphasize submitting to God, and churches that tell women to submit to men. Do churches that encourage having a more familiar relationship with God, rather than bowing down and submitting,  also have more gender equality?

Amy: What a great question! I think that it makes sense that a world-view that emphasizes hierarchies probably starts with God to men and then passes down the chain. I am thinking of how the word “Islam” means “Submission,” as in “submission to God, and that would be interesting to analyze… I’m also thinking of Buddhism, and how Buddhism doesn’t emphasize submission to an all-powerful deity,  and is more about individual mindfulness, but one of the Buddhist sacred texts I read had a lot of sexist stuff in it, just like every other religious text I’ve ever read too. So maybe we should explore that when we expand the project to other traditions, which I intend to do. What a great question.

And will you read the next one?

Sophie: Yep! It’s First Corinthians, chapter 14, verses 34 to 35. 

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Cor. 14:34-35)


Ok, I have to throw in here that one time, years ago, I was sitting in an all-women’s church meeting and the teacher was teaching a lesson on something that got kind of complicated, and there was a pretty lively discussion of a scriptural passage, and a woman behind me got flustered and just called out, “This is too complicated! Let’s just go home and ask our husbands.” I have never forgotten that. 

Ok, last quote from Paul:

This is from 1 Tim. 2:11-15)

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Tim. 2:11-15)

So from these quotes we can see that Paul’s views on women are firmly rooted in the Biblical story of Eve, which we talked about on our last episode. He emphasizes the version of Genesis wherein Eve was formed second after Adam giving her lower status, he emphasizes her sin, and bringing Adam into sin, and he says her only redemption is by bearing children. He assigns all of Eve’s guilt to women in general, and due to that  guilt, he makes rules about what women can and can’t do - they have to cover their heads in shame, wives have to submit to their husbands, in general women have to submit to men and never have authority over a man (not because they should be equal, but because men should in fact have authority over a woman), they can’t speak in church, they should always be quiet and in full submission. All of these opinions and interpretations are a HUGE departure from the teachings of Jesus Christ, and yet they got compiled in the same book of scripture, which millions upon millions of people have regarded as “the word of God,” and think of as God’s law and God’s will.

And actually if you want to read a really great book about what it means to live by the literal words of the Bible as a woman, you should read a book by Rachel Held Evans. It’s called A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master." Evans is herself a believing Christian but she points out some big problems, and she does it in a really smart, really funny way.


Sophie: Ok, now I’ll talk about the early Christian church and the Virgin Mary.

I started by looking on the website “Encyclopedia Britannica,” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Roman-Catholicism),  and the first thing I found interesting was this sentence: “because of the influence of Plato and Aristotle on those who developed it, Roman Catholic doctrine must be studied philosophically even to understand its theological vocabulary.” It’s good to keep in mind that early Christianity was heavily influenced by the ancient Greeks. That’s really important when we think about how people viewed women.

Yes. And I will never forget this moment in my first quarter of my master’s degree when the professor was talking about the influence of ancient Rome on the early church, and he said that the papacy and the Catholic Church’s hierarchy was organized in the same way that the Roman Empire’s military had been organized. I nearly fell out of my chair. So yes, there were lots of influences on Christianity, and they were all extremely androcentric, patriarchal structures.


Wow, that’s so interesting! 

Ok, so back to the Church history: A basic timeline goes something like this:

According to the Catholic tradition, the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, and it is a continuation of the early Christian community established by the Disciples of Jesus. Catholics believe that Saint Peter was Rome's first bishop - Saint Peter was the one who was appointed to be the head of the Church by Jesus Christ himself and he is always depicted in Art holding keys because he received the keys to the kingdom of heaven from Jesus. After Jesus’ death he ministered in Rome in the first century AD, and so that became the headquarters of the church. And then Saint Peter consecrated Linus as the next bishop - or pope - and that started the unbroken line all the way to the current pope, Pope Francis. By the end of the 2nd century, bishops began congregating in regional synods (which means a church council) to resolve questions about doctrine and policy.

Jesus's apostles gained converts in Jewish communities around the Mediterranean Sea, and over 40 Christian communities had been established by 100. Although most of these were in the Roman Empire, notable Christian communities were also established in Armenia, Iran and along the Indian Malabar Coast. The new religion

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.