The Role of Women in Early Christianity

In the earliest development of Christianity, Mary Magdalene stood as the model for the role women would play in the early Church. Her status as “apostle” and even “apostle to the apostles” should have defined a new, elevated status for women. It should have been the opportunity for women to rise to equal status and men to accept that status afforded to women by the relationship Jesus had with the women he surrounded himself with.  What has transpired is quite the opposite, her relationship with Jesus was so threatening to the male hierarchy that it has allowed a false legend to define her which ultimately resulted in discrediting sexuality in general and dis-empowering women over all.

Mary Magdalene’s character was the source of confusion, either purposeful or through misunderstanding – or both  – which resulted in one power struggle after another. What should have represented a correction in the way women were perceived in society ended up the source of conflict in the Christian Church that continues today. The conflicts center around sexuality, the authority of an all-male clergy that began in the Gospels themselves. The Gospels were not written to be historical documents and as such are based on memories that were shaped by time. Sadly, the prevailing attitude toward women dominated the resultant doctrine and Mary Magdalene was relegated to being a whore, a repentant sinner, regardless of the fact that there is no indication that this was ever the case. It fit the political landscape of the time, the power brokers were once again able to use God to justify their maltreatment of women.

We should be looking to Jesus to see how he treated women and that should be the model going forward. Jesus treated women with respect, as equals in his circle of apostles and disciples. He refused to reduce women to only their sexuality. Jesus clearly loved Mary Magdalene and all women, found them worthy of his teachings and wanted to raise their status in society. And women responded and loved him back. They were his devout followers, they stayed with him at the cross, they witnessed his resurrection. They should be recognized for the role  they played in his life not relegated to an ancient predetermined mindset. Women were meant to be set free from the ties that bound them to a lesser status than men. Jesus demonstrated how he wanted women to be treated and society did not respond accordingly. Men then and sometimes now can only see women in a two-dimensional way – either as the Virgin, with Mother Mary as the Archetype or as  the repentant whore the role in which Mary Magdalene was unfairly cast.

It was Jesus who gave women three-dimensionality and it was he who rejected male domination. He empowered women and gave them full status through his teaching. The erosion of that status began as soon as the Gospels were written down decades after Jesus death and it is these Gospels that represent the attitudes of men of the time not those of the teachings of Jesus. Not surprisingly,the figure who most embodies the teaching of Jesus regarding women and at the same time, the conflict over which this takes place in the Church, is that of Mary Magdalene. And yet she should be our model for the correct way to treat women, what Jesus taught, a time when women and men would take their respective places as equals.

We all need to honor Mary Magdalene and bloom.






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