If it was possible to go back in time and visit the first Christians, many modern church-attending believers, as well as non-Christians, would find it difficult to recognise what they were seeing. No church buildings, no pulpits, no clerical collars or titles, no membership cards, not even a New Testament! In the first decades they weren’t even called Christians!
The New Testament consists of 27 books: the four Gospels, Acts, twenty-one epistles, and Revelation. The earliest documents are the thirteen letters that Paul wrote, probably between 49 and 65 A.D., to various Christian fellowships and individuals living between today’s Turkey and Rome. The three letters written by John come from the same author as the Gospel of John, and the letter of James was written by the half-brother of Jesus. Peter wrote two letters, and Jude “brother of James”, wrote one. The letter known as Hebrews was written by an unknown person and was directed primarily to Jews who had become Christians to instruct them on the way in which the Law of Moses, the promises to Abraham, the Temple with its sacrifices and offerings, and the entire Old Testament priesthood and system had been fulfilled and surpassed by the revolution brought about by Jesus the Christ.
These documents, along with Luke’s second volume of history, the Acts of the Apostles, provides an insight, and a surprising one at that, into the life of the early Christian church. As it gradually became distinguished from its roots in Judaism, the opposition it experienced from both the religious Jewish establishment and gentile philosophy became more serious. Because what Christianity was, in actual practice, involved a genuine revolution in thinking, relationships and society. And it all found its source in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. But this revolution was not simply one of attitude and philosophy: its cause went much deeper than that. But, for now, let’s look at the effects before we examine the cause.
When Jesus ministered in Judea and Galilee, his treatment of women was revolutionary. He taught them, along with his male disciples. This was radical in the extreme. In Jewish tradition, women were not considered capable of learning deep spiritual truths. Even in secular law courts, the testimony of a woman was not considered valid. Women were kept in a separate sphere, even in the synagogue and Temple. Just as there was a barrier in the Great Temple in Jerusalem beyond which gentiles (non-Jews) were forbidden to go on pain of death, so there was a Court of the Women, beyond which only males could venture.
The status of women and others can be seen in the daily prayer of pious Jewish men, who thank God that they were not made “…a Gentile…a slave, or …a woman”. Gentiles, often just referred to as Greeks in the letters, were outside the promises of God, not children of Abraham, and destined for destruction. Slaves were, understandably, a class beneath, and Jews had very unhappy memories of when they had been slaves in Egypt and Babylon. When Jesus told them that the Truth would set them free, his Jewish audience were outraged: “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone”. [John 8.33]
So, when Jesus treated women as equals, it shocked and offended many, and even his own disciples were often surprised by his words and actions.
He revealed to a woman, a Samaritan foreigner at that, that he was the Messiah. This was after he had started a conversation with her as she came, alone, to draw water from a well. She was surprised he asked her for a drink, since Jews did not associate in any way with Samaritans, much less Samaritan women. Nor did they address women in public, especially women outdoors alone. John records that “his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” [John 4.27]
He allowed a woman, one of ill repute too, to anoint him, and scandalised the religious people by mixing with men and women equally. Women witnessed his crucifixion and death, when the male disciples were afraid to be seen. Women were the first ones to meet him after his Resurrection, and it was they who spread the news to the men. This, in itself, is significant, remembering that the testimony of a woman was not considered legally valid at that time.
This attitude to women may have been passed off as a trait of Jesus alone. But it was to become a characteristic of the first Christian communities too, and one which would provoke a serious and lasting counter-revolution, one which would affect Christian society forever after. That is what we need to look at next.