I recently received a question on Twitter about where, in patristic sources, we see early Christianity mocked for being a religion filled with women. The short answer: lots of places.
Before we get there, though, we should note that early Christianity received this criticism precisely because it was so popular with women. Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates that perhaps two-thirds of the Christianity community during the second century was made up of women. This was exactly opposite to the broader Greco-Roman world, where women only made up about one-third of the population.
Women left the religious systems of the Greco-Roman world, with which they were familiar, and consciously decided to join the burgeoning Christian movement. No one forced them to do so. No one made them become Christians.
On the contrary, Christianity was a cultural pariah. It was an outsider movement in all sorts of ways—legal, social, religious, and political. Believers were widely despised, viewed with suspicion and scorn, and regarded as threats to a stable society.
And yet women flocked to the early Christian movement anyway.
How Critics Attacked
Women pop up all over the place in our earliest Christian sources. They’re persecuted by the Roman government; they’re hosting churches in their homes; they’re caring for the poor and those in prison; they’re traveling as missionaries; they’re wealthy patrons supporting the church financially; and so much more.
The prevalence of Christian women is precisely what the earliest critics took aim at. Looking for a way to undermine this new religious movement, the involvement of women provided an easy target. Why? Because it was standard fare in the Greco-Roman world to attack religions with women (see, for example, the way Livy denigrated the cult of Dionysus). Such religions simply didn’t meet the Roman masculine ideal; they were therefore prime targets of ridicule.
Early Christianity was routinely mocked for being so popular with women.
Here are a five brief examples of how critics attacked early Christianity.
1. Celsus, Christianity’s most persistent critic, pointed to the involvement of women as a cause for derision: “[Christians] show they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable, and stupid, only slaves, women, and little children” (Cels. 3.44). Here was a standard polemic against Christianity: it lacked the Greco-Roman ideals of masculinity and was chiefly a religion for women and children.
2. Celsus continued his ridicule by accusing Christians of hiding in their “private houses” and being unwilling to engage in the public sphere—yet another way to associate Christianity with women, who often managed those households. He did the same thing elsewhere when he observed that Christian women would take children “to the wooldresser’s shop, or the cobbler’s, or the washerwoman’s shop that they might learn perfection” (Cels. 3.55). Celsus was likely referring to the way women catechized and instructed children in homes or private business. But the criticism isn’t hard to see: the early Christian movement is domestic, not public, and it’s run by women.
3. When Pliny the Younger wrote his famous letter to Emperor Trajan, the fact that the only Christians he mentioned were “two female slaves” was a less-than-veiled signal that Christianity is emasculated and emasculating (even if some men happen to participate). Earlier in the letter, Pliny had already complained that this new religious movement had affected “both sexes,” men and women (Ep. 10.96.9).
4. Lucian, a virulent critic of early Christianity, commented on the “widows and orphan children” gullible enough to bring meals to the charlatan Peregrinus while he was in prison (Peregr. 12). This wasn’t a positive reference; rather, it was yet another reason to regard the Christian movement, in the eyes of the cultural elite, as unworthy of serious consideration.
This certainly turns the tables on the criticism that early Christianity was a patriarchal, misogynistic religion hostile to women.
5. The final example is particularly egregious. In the early third century, Minucius Felix penned an apologetic work called Octavius, which contained a dialogue between a pagan named Caecilius and a Christian named Octavius. Caecilius offered a lengthy diatribe against Christianity, including the criticism that early Christianity was recruiting from “the dregs of the populace and credulous women with the inability natural to their sex” (Oct. 8.4). Ouch.
Turning the Tables
So, what do we make of the fact that early Christianity was mocked for being pro-women? Well, it certainly turns the tables on today’s overused criticism that early Christianity was a patriarchal, misogynistic religion hostile to women. Though that claim is repeated ad nauseam, it is hard to sustain in the context of the ancient world. Indeed, it seems more true of the non-Christian, Greco-Roman elites.
In short, if early Christianity was a bad place for women, then it seems all the women who joined the movement never got the memo.