(The first installment in this series is A Brief History of Women – Ancient Western World)
The Jewish tradition especially supported a limited biological role of women; the initial rabbinical ruling was that a man bound in a childless marriage had to remain married to that woman for ten years. After than period, he could either divorce her and marry a new wife, or keep the barren wife and take a new wife to produce his children. It was from this initial ruling of the legitimacy of divorce that the rabbis began interpreting the law and creating sub-laws. They also decided that divorce was appropriate if a woman cheated on her husband (but not the other way around). “The teacher Shammai, for one, took the conservative position: the only offense serious enough to justify divorce was the wife’s infidelity. Shammai’s opponent Hillel, famous for his liberal judgments, argued instead that a man may divorce his wife for any reason he chooses, ‘even if she burn his soup!’ The well-known teacher Akiba, who agreed with Hillel, added emphatically, ‘and even if he finds a younger woman more beautiful than she.’”[i] Woman had no security aside from their ability to produce male children. They were worthless enough in Jewish society to be cast aside at any whim.
The priests and rabbis took Genesis as their justification for ruling over women in every aspect—Eve messed up the world because she had too much freedom so God told Eve, in the garden, that Adam would rule over her from then on. Even Martin Luther, the great Reformer, shared this limited view of the importance of women. He said, “If a woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not, let her only die from bearing, she is there to do it.”[ii]
When Christ was on the earth, he reinstated equality between the sexes. Some of the most important lessons he taught were directly to women. He testified of himself as the Messiah for the first time openly to the Samaritan woman at the well. He appeared first to Mary in the garden after his resurrection. He resurrected Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, from the dead because of his love for that family. He taught women, he respected women, he took care of women (especially his mother), and taught others how women should be treated. He dissolved the rabbi’s justification of divorce in a quick sermon, which gave women much more claim on their husbands and more freedom in their homes and societies.
“From the beginning of the creation God made them male and female, For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh, so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. . . Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another she committeth adultery” (Mark 10:6-12)
He never taught that women should do what men do, and he never suggested that men do what women are called to do; he supported and taught about the roles of each. His teachings encouraged men and women to work together to ensure social cohesiveness and mutual support.
After the light of the gospel in the true church of Jesus Christ had permeated their society for a brief time, women were cast aside again, this time as promoters of evil. During the 3rd and 4th Centuries, A.D., they were seen as devices of evil to lure men from God, trying to seduce men to leave their faith and focus their lives on family instead of solely on the Lord.
The early Christian church debased the position of women by misinterpreting Paul’s letters about marriage and missionary work. Among other things, he wrote, “it is better to marry than to burn”, “He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.” “So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.” [iii] Paul was talking about how it was difficult to be a missionary and be married at the same time, but out of the context of the on-going conversation he was having with the Corinthians, of which only this letter survived, it appeared to the Christian world that he disproved of marriage. When marriage was dismissed as a lesser form of worship, women were also dismissed from importance in society.
In response to this negative view of marriage, asceticism was practiced as the highest form of worship; devout men (and occasionally women) would go out into the desert, separate themselves from society and family and live off of the land. They spent hours in prayer and fasting, they slept on the bare ground or on mats that they wove from reeds or grasses. Asceticism literally means Spiritual Exercise. These were spiritual athletes who deprived themselves of all earthly pleasures and comforts in order to worship God. Sometimes they taught people who came to learn from them, but more often they avoided them.[iv]
Monasticism came about because too many Christians wanted to be ascetic and they started crowding each other in their solitary lives. They formed little groups of ascetics, they lived together and worked, ate, prayed and fasted together. Monks still live this way throughout the world, as do nuns. This lifestyle is based on the idea that a person would please God by returning to an Edenic state on his or her own without sin, sex, or children. Monasticism continued to be practiced throughout the middle ages and those who were the most devout in their asceticism often became the leaders of the church. Their doctrines became church doctrines and spread their negative ideas of marriage, women and children across continents.
One of these monastic fathers, Methodius, generalized his experience to the body of the church. He argued that “although marriage and procreation were necessary ‘in the beginning’ to multiply the human race, they now represent only a crude and archaic relic of human origins, a kind of dinosaur age preceding the evolution of the true human being, the celibate. . . .Paul did not require celibacy, but he certainly preferred it for any who were capable of achieving this ‘means of restoring humanity to Paradise.’”[v] Thus, the Dark Ages of Europe were even more dimmed by the misunderstanding and mistreatment of women.
[i] Elaine Pagels. Adam and Eve and the Serpent. (Random House, New York: 1988), 13-14.
[ii] Gilman, 45.
[iii] 1 Corinthians 7:9, 27, 32-33,38
[iv] Pagels, 82-91
[v] Ibid., 86.