Images of Biblical Women in Earliest Christian Culture

As the Apostles of Jesus began their work, they made their way around the lands of the Mediterranean and into Africa and Asia, preaching to both men and women. Jesus had many women followers and some served in leadership positions, but as the age of the Apostles came to an end, the leadership roles of women diminished. Scholars believe that women didn't write the New Testament, although no one knows for sure who wrote those sacred texts. As men served as fathers of the early Church, pondering, thinking, and formulating church doctrine, women kept the biblical stories alive through their storytelling skills, songs, and religious ritual.

In Africa, especially, the seeds of Christianity took hold in the ritual of oral storytelling, and experienced phenomenal growth. Within the first half-dozen centuries after the death of Jesus, Africa produced such notable early Church fathers, thinkers, and writers as Clement, Justin Martyr, Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine (whose mother, Monica, was later canonized as a saint).

The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency (1 Corinthians 7:4–5).

Church fathers grappled with many thorny points of theology and conflicting ideas within those first few centuries. Among them was the idea of Eve and original sin, as well as issues around human sexuality. The female characters that were probably the most popular in oral stories of that time were Eve and the Virgin Mary. These two women represented, more or less, polar extremes. Eve was seen as having consorted with the Serpent and bringing sin upon humans through her act of defiance, while a submissive and obedient Mary gave birth to the Savior, sent from the Father, to redeem humankind.

An early Christian father and student of Clement of Alexandria, Origen (A.D. 185 to circa A.D. 254) expressed a belief that sexual intercourse, unthinkable outside of marriage, was impure even within marriage, because of the passion felt and expressed by the couple, although Origen apparently believed that the couple initially had been devoid of any sexual temptation and feelings. The “fall from grace,” according to Origen, is what necessitated marriage. The offspring produced within a marriage from a passionate conjugal act made the child impure at birth. Thus, the impurity inherent in sexual relationships continued through generations. According to one source, Origen derived his thinking, in part, from the Apostle Paul's letter to the Corinthians.

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