Speaking from St Paul's Cathedral
Professor Helen Bond teamed up recently with Professor Joan Taylor (King's College, London) to speak to over 500 people at St Paul's about the role of women in early Christianity.
The talk, 'My Soul Magnifies the Lord', was presented and recorded in September and is now available as a film and podcast. What follows is a short extract.
Women in the earliest Christian congregations
Introducing the theme for the evening as, "The participation of women in the very earliest Christian congregations," Professor Bond said:
“It is really important to get a sense of the first century context. These are, of course, patriarchal times, when power and privilege was in the hands of men. Women’s roles were much more restricted, frequently confined to domestic space. Unchaperoned interaction with men who weren’t family members would have been frowned upon. There was strong censorship when a woman was considered to have overstepped the proper boundaries.
"It was a world that noticed the actions of men, but rarely those of women; a world that would remember the names of Jesus’ brothers, but not his sisters."
“The Gospels are first and foremost documents of faith, written to strengthen people’s allegiance to Jesus, to declare him as God’s anointed one, the Christ, even God’s unique son. What they were never intended to be is a social history of the Jesus movement; they are not interested in recording who followed him and when, or documenting what drew some people to follow Jesus and others to reject him. The emphasis is on Jesus himself, what he says and does, and what other men make of him."
Clues to the past
“How, then, can we say anything at all about the place of women in the Jesus movement? The trick is to pay attention to tiny clues in the text; places where memories of women’s participation have survived. We’ll also need to use a certain amount of imagination. Our knowledge is full of gaps - our task is to fill them in as plausible a way as possible.
"First clue: 'There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.  These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.' (Mark 15.40-41)
"Second clue: 'Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him,  as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,  and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.' (Luke 8.1-3)
"So, good evidence that Jesus wasn’t just accompanied by 12 male disciples but that there were women there, too. But why would Jesus have wanted women in his group?
"If Jesus and his male disciples went out to the towns and villages preaching in the market places, groups of women would have been able to hear them, but they wouldn’t have been able to ask questions openly, or to come forward to be baptised by a male.
"Women were perfectly placed to befriend other women, to talk to them as they drew water at the wells, washed clothes in the river, or gathered in groups. And women could go into other women’s homes, and talk to them openly.
"In all of these situations, women would have been able to spread the message about Jesus, to anoint with oil and perhaps heal in Jesus’ name, and possibly even baptise women who wanted to join the movement."
The full version of this talk is available in full on YouTube and soundcloud (see below).