They were with him, weeping, lost and ruined at the foot of the cross, and they rose early a few days later to tend his bruised and beaten body at the tomb. His mother Mary through whom the Savior had come into the world and Mary of Migdol who became the first herald of the good news. It seems clear that in the incarnation and in Gospel proclamation, the hope of Christ, by God’s design and Spirit’s power was first made known through feminine vessels.
Likewise, no one can argue Paul’s revolutionary claim in Galatians for the equality of male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free. It is clear that Paul relied heavily upon female benefactors and Roman dominas as the early church took root in homes across the empire. Paul lauds Prisca and Junia, Phoebe and several others throughout his letters thanking them for their service to the Gospel.
And then, we turn the page. Most who study the New Testament are more than jolted by the shift between the presence and prominence of women in the Jesus Movement and in Pauline circle to the restrictions of what we have come to call the Pastoral letters, specifically, I Timothy and Titus.
Though these letters are attributed to Paul, students of ancient literature know well that the letter to I Timothy reads more like Ignatius than Paul, with its distinguished Greek, some 60 words never used in Paul’s letters, and concern for liturgical order and structure of hierarchy. We wonder where have our mothers gone, why have their stories been erased, why are they told to keep silent when it seems their voices were so necessary in the beginning. It is as if in the 2nd generation of the church, the leaders wanted to correct some of the dynamics introduced by Jesus and Paul, namely the elevation of women.
If context is key, then I Timothy intended for the struggling leader of the church at Ephesus is of great import. Ephesus is a city teaming with female power as it is the home of the world famous Artemesion and the cult of Artemis, the female goddess of fertility and abundance. In this cult, the female goddess is served by female priestesses who braid and adorn themselves with golden jewelry. What’s more, ancient fragments tell us that Prisca and Aquilla return to the city and continue to lead the church in the area after their time in Rome. While a 4th century witness indicates that Priscas was Bishop of Kolophon just outside the city. Ephesus is also the city where John and Mary move onto after the resurrection and reside for some time. By the late 1st century into the 2nd, veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus has already taken root.
If we take all of this into consideration, it is not hard to read I Timothy then as a push back to feminine power, to understand that for some early church leaders it was all a bit too much so that our roles were reduced, redefined and relegated to silence and childbearing such that the firey women of the Gospel are asked to conform to the norms of respectable Roman wives, to be seen, obedient, discreet and not heard. This is how the silencing of our voices began.
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Photo: "Holy Women" St. Apollinare, Nuovo, Ravenna