The Evolution of the Social Image of the Woman in Primitive Christianity and its Historical Repercussions

The Evolution of the Social Image of the Woman in Primitive Christianity and its Historical Repercussions

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Human evolution and transdisciplinarity

The compatibility or incompatibility of evolution and creation is a problem with ancient roots which has been addressed at different moments throughout the history of humanity and which continues to have important repercussions in the, sometimes difficult, dialogue between science and creeds

The two poles of the problem are also reflected in a controversy which has been taking place in recent years between “Scientific creationism” (understood as a scientific explanation of evolution) and “evolutionism”. The debate, which begun in the field of natural sciences (principally biology), has extended beyond the realm of experts and is experiencing broad social repercussions. Definitively, our aim, once again, is to explain the fascinating subject of the origin and evolution of the human species, in the field of sciences, and to establish its compatibility or incompatibility with the image of a God Creator, in the field of creeds.

It could be thought that, in all this debate, human and social sciences have not intervened because they have no role to play, among other things, because it seems that human evolution ends when the human species can be considered as such. That is, when the process of hominization is finished. Human and social sciences, however, begin their studies of Man when he bursts into History and begins to “produce” culture; in other words, when the process of humanisation begins.

There has been little crossover between these different sciences, to the great detriment of both, in my opinion. I believe so because, having the same object of study, by interacting they could illuminate each other mutually, develop or inspire new methodologies of access to the question, exchange results, and, most importantly, avoid the construction of a gulf between the processes of hominization and humanization.

Natural sciences study the periods of evolution and biological involution which lead to the birth or disappearance of new species; human sciences study the events or causes which make people or society evolve or involve and which perfect or destroy processes of humanization. It is possible that all these processes work in sequences which are, to a point, comparable.

I believe we find ourselves in an interesting moment to promote a holistic conception of the concept of “human evolution” and to develop a transdisciplinary treatment of this conception with a more fluid dialogue between social and human sciences, on the one hand, and natural sciences, on the other. Sciences like history, anthropology, sociology, economics and others, have a lot to contribute to this global conception of the evolutionary development of Man.

On the other hand, as we suggested at the beginning, in the debate on human evolution, understood as a process of hominization, sciences and creeds are concerned. The same thing happens in the development of the processes of humanization: the field of creeds has reserved itself to theology and/or philosophy since the development of modernity has gradually imposed the specialisation of different areas of knowledge.

I also consider that, particularly in this field, a global approach to areas of knowledge would allow us to arrive to unsuspected conclusions if transdisciplinarity were really exercised.

Regarding evolution, in the processes previous to hominization, some species disappear and others follow a line of progressive improvement which, in the case of the human species, affects both genders similarly. However, once the process of humanization began, the role of the two genders of the human species was soon notably different in the heart of different societies.

Making a symbolic use of evolutionary language, it would seem that the evolutionary line of the human species began to crack in one of its branches. Due to different causes, one of the genders became socially irrelevant and the different ancient cultures created mythological or symbolic stories to explain the origin of the human being in which, in one way or another, the inferiority of the woman was expressed.

If this is so, the results of the study of the processes of humanization could not be extrapolated globally to the two genders of the human species. It is urgent that we study why there is a deficit in the social development of one of the genders in the majority of cultures, in both ancient and modern times. If the different causes of this deficit are identified with the help of different sciences, we may be able to obtain results which illuminate the state of current development and correct future developments. Because neither must an abyss be established between ancient wisdom and the posterior achievements of different sciences.

With this preamble my aim is to approach the question with which this article deals: “The evolution of the social image of the woman in primitive Christianity and its historical repercussions”. I will approach it from a philological perspective applied to the texts of the Bible and their interpretation. With this focus I aim to offer proof of the benefits of transdisciplinarity applied, specifically, to the biblical texts on the origin of Man and their primitive interpretation. We must take into account that philology is a science which studies texts in their context and which, at the same time, is itself transdisciplinary because an exact knowledge of context supposes the contribution of other disciplines such as history, literature, anthropology and, specifically in the case of biblical texts, theology. Further on we will explain this statement in more detail.

The woman and primitive Christianity

If, jumping several centuries, we contemplate the current situation of the woman in some societies, we can see how she is beginning to be an agent of History or, at least, she is undertaking a path of development of a certain protagonism in society. Although this phenomenon, unfortunately, is not universal, it is clearly perceptible in western societies, heirs, in certain ways, of European culture. People are often amazed and astonished at the strength and speed with which a new, more egalitarian or less discriminatory mentality is imposing itself and doing away with ancestral prejudices.

This would appear to be an eclosion typical of modern times, without important cultural antecedents prior to the nineteenth century, as if something new had emerged almost from nothing. In reality, the collective awakening of the woman, with regard to her own dignity as a person and to the social consequences that this recognition entailed is a modern phenomenon. But an event of this import can not be explained without the ancestral roots which have made it possible now and without some ancestral causes and prejudices which made it impossible up until now.

In this communication, although I will refer to the contribution of Christianity in its origins as a dynamic element in the progressive liberation of the woman, I will focus mainly on the analysis of a series of events which occurred in the fourth century and which represented a step backward on the newly laid path towards the social protagonism of the woman. I will allude, in more general terms, to various factors which influenced this retrocession and I will particularly concentrate on the analysis of some biblical exegesis texts and translations which express this new mentality. I will seek to clarify how these texts collaborate, in turn, in the justification and development of a progressive discrimination of the woman in society.

The Greek and Latin civilization developed thinking, literature, law and so many other basic aspects on which we base ourselves today, but it was a culture managed by men in which women were considered, from the anthropological point of view, inferior to men. In this context, the message of Jesus and his acts towards women were the seed of a real revolution with respect to the standardised patterns of their Jewish context and of all the Greek and Latin culture.

I will not dwell on this fact about which there are numerous studies. I only wish to point out that the revelation that Jesus made of one God, Father of all human beings without distinction of sex, race or social class, was an element which was clearly countercultural and which brought with it such possibilities of transforming society that the real question about the role played by the woman in History afterwards should be: How is it possible that a culture, heir to the Christian message, has taken centuries to collectively realise that the woman exists?

I would like to note the enormous difficulty for a countercultural message to open its way as the resistance, both mental and affective as well as in many other forms, which is rooted in society creates an authentic barrier which hinders change and may even make it impossible. This was the initial challenge to the implantation of Christianity into the heart of Roman culture and society: the wish to modify the cosmovision of the new converts by proposing a new way to understand God, man, history and life itself through the offer, not of a rational discourse of a philosophical nature, but of a radically new message which affected the totality of the person.

Although the message of Jesus entered in confrontation, in many aspects, with the ways of thinking, the uses and customs of the society where it was being spread, it gathered force with surprising success. With regard to our topic of interest, that is, the recognition of the dignity of the woman and the repercussions that this recognition had on a social level, there are data to suggest that, albeit in a precarious way, the Christian woman enjoyed a certain level of protagonism in the early communities. But, with the passage of time, different factors began to impose a regression in the path marked out until, with regard to the Latin Church, a turning point was reached in the fourth century. The changes which the Church underwent at this time promoted a theological reflection which expressed and, to a point justified a new way of understanding life, relations with political power, relations between men and women etc.

Changes in the Latin Church of the Fourth Century

In the fourth century a political process took place at the heart of the Roman Empire which a social change with enormous repercussions for the Christian community. This change began under the reign of Constantine with the Edict of Milan (313) which conceded freedom of worship to all the religions of the Roman Empire and culminated with the Edict of Salonica, promulgated by Teodosio in 380, which made Christianity the religion of the State. The situation of progressive dominance of Christianity, reinforced by its link with the political powers, lasted until the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the year 476.

Among the important repercussions that political change had in the Christian community I will stress those which would appear to have most significance for the topic in hand.

Christianity, which was previously a minority faith, became a religion of masses; a consequence of this fact was that the processes of massive transmission of faith were often to come about as a result of an imposition rather than through intercultural dialogue. Referring back to what we said earlier about the depth of change of mentality that incorporation to Christianity supposed, the repercussion which the conversions “by decree” had in the life of the Church can be gauged. Society was Christianised but, in many cases, the interior transformation of hearts and minds did not take place.

The Church, meanwhile, in a regime of political freedom and allied with the political powers, had at that moment the possibility to consolidate its own structures, which meant a strengthening of the authority of bishops and a greater and greater role played by the clergy in the oral transmission of the faith. The development of this process led to a progressive masculinization of the power structures of the Church and to a likewise progressive loss of the budding protagonism of lay people. Both aspects meant, logically, a total loss of the budding new that the woman had reached in the first communities. This fact was very important, as a process which had started in the Christian communities and which could have facilitated an increase in the social relevance of the woman in other public fields was aborted. But History happened differently and the political and ecclesial powers were represented exclusively by men for centuries afterwards.

The new social situation required the elaboration of a new, renewed theology which would cover the two great concerns of the Church at that moment: the problem of the first heresies and the justification of its relations with the political powers. The issue of the role of the woman in the Church was not expressly reflected upon in this key moment of ecclesial development; there were other concerns to occupy the Church, but, if we observe the development of the new exegesis and closely examine some nuances of the new translation of the Old Testament carried out by Jerome, we are led to suspect a change which refers back, in a way, to the old cultural situation where the woman still was not dignified.

Having arrived to this point, I would like to clarify that I do not believe that there is an express intention to discriminate against the woman either in the exegesis of the time or in Jerome’s translation of the Bible but rather that the strength of an atavistic mentality ended up taking root when other factors contributed to reinforce it. In other words, the authors of the exegesis and the translation did not find themselves in cultural situation which favoured the clear expression of the new message of the Gospel on this point, and their own mentality is reflected in how they focus on many questions.

As an example of what I have just affirmed I will refer to some texts of Saint Augustine, with regard to the exegesis, and to a passage from the translation by Saint Jerome. The choice of these two figures is intentional on my part. It would be difficult, in the field of the exegesis of the Latin fathers, to find anyone whose influence on all posterior reflection within the Western Church was as great as that of Augustine of Hipona. In the case of Jerome we must remember that his translation of almost all the books of the Old Testament and his revision of the Gospels, the basic nucleus of which is known today as the Vulgata, has been read exclusively in the Latin Church until modern times and the western biblical exegesis has been carried out (based on this/ using this as a reference) for centuries. These two marked two important milestones in the history of the subordination of the woman to the man: its theological and legal legitimization.

The subordination of the woman to the man 1 as an expression of divine will, according to the exegesis of Saint Augustine.

The principles of the anthropology of Augustine are found throughout many of his works, but it is in De Genesi adversus Manichaeos and in De Genesi ad litteram where, in a more systematic manner, the image of the man and the woman are set out.

In these two works, Augustine, when commenting on the creation of the man and the woman (Genesis 1, 27 y 2, 7. 22) distinguishes between two moments: The first creation described in Genesis 1 is the virtual creation of beings, carried out outside of time, and the other creation, the formation of bodies, is carried out in time. As a result of the creation outside of time Adam and Eve are, before God and between themselves, in a situation of equality, but in time, Adam precedes Eve as she is formed from one of Adam’s ribs.

This initial approach will focus decisively on all the Augustinian reflection on the man-woman relationship. The simultaneous creation of two beings, referring only to the soul, establishes an identical relationship between each one of them and God the Creator, as both were created in His image and likeness; but the formation of the body in time clearly indicates the dependence of the woman with respect to the man. This dependence will affect not only the origin of the woman, but it will also be the symbol of the type of relationship that should be established between the sexes. The harmony of human relationships will consist, thus, of the man ordering and the woman obeying. This harmony, in the opinion of Augustine, is desired by God, provided it is governed by love.

There are many texts by Saint Augustine in which, one way or another, this domination of the man and the obedience of the woman are linked to the natural order and so, the will of God. Remember, among others, Quaestiones in Heptateuchum 1, 153: “It is also the natural order among human beings that women are subject to men and sons to their fathers, because her also this rule of justice is expressed: that the weaker reason serves the stronger one. Because this is the clear justice between those who dominate and those who serve, that those who are superior in reason exceed in dominance”. As a result of their creation outside time Eve, like Adam, is homo. Homo is, in this case, the generic term to refer to both the man and the woman but, due to the creation in time, Adam is vir, male, and Eva femina, female, opposing terms which refer to the specific sex 2.

From this differentiation, a whole system of lexical oppositions is articulated, whenever allegorical language is used, in which the feminine side is identified with inferior elements and the masculine side with superior elements; and so, the inferior element of the soul is feminine and the superior element is virile, the struggle between the flesh and the spirit is compared to a house in which the wife dominates the husband cf. De Genesi adversus Manichaeos 2, 11, 5.Woman, flesh, inferior element of the soul as opposed to man, spirit, superior element of the soul. These ideas are expressed in the following texts:

“Paul also presents to the males the example of an inferior thing and not only a superior thing, as is God. He does not only say: Men, love your wives as Christ loved his Church, which is a superior element, but he also adds: men should love their wives as they love their own bodies, which is an inferior example” (De Continentia 9, 23). 

“Just as there is in the soul an element which dominates, taking decisions, and another which is subject to obedience, we see that the woman has been physically made for the man” (Conf. 13, 32, 47).

The woman, as we have just seen in the last text, was not only formed of the male but also “for” the male. According to Augustine’s interpretation of the biblical story of the creation of the man, the woman’s raison d’être is to provide the man with what help he might need and specifically in procreation: “More so if we ask why this help was needed, we will probably find no help but the generation of children, as the Earth is a help for the seed, because from one and the other plants are born” (De Gen. ad litt. 9, 11, 19). Of course, the comparison also shows that in procreation the woman helps the man passively, as the earth which receives the seed.

On the other hand, the texts Augustine wrote in order to express the equality of the woman in relation to the man in the order of salvation and in the eschatological dimension are as clear as those which express subordination in the natural order or [the order of] creation : “According to Genesis, it is human nature as such, which has been made in the image of God, a nature which exists in both sexes and which does not permit discrimination against the woman when the question is to understand the image of God”. (De Trinitate 12, 7, 12). As for the body of the woman, inferior in terrestrial life, it will be transformed, at the resurrection, into a spiritual body, sexed, but in which fecundity, the cause of inferiority in the woman, while have no reason for being. The restoration of the levels of equality will be complete according to the eschatological perspective of Augustine. But, doubtlessly, the levels of equality in the order of salvation and in the eschatological perspective do not, in the work of Augustine, have an adequate correspondence in the level of social ordering.

As I said before, it is the work of philologists to value or illuminate texts in their context and, so, we could say that, in the light of the social context in which these texts are produced, the clear affirmation of the dignity of the woman represented a significant advance in relation to the anthropological formulations of the Greek and Latin civilizations. But, in the same way, we must emphasise the fact that Augustine resolved the issue of the dignity of the woman in an ambiguous way, making it compatible with subordination to the man as the will of God, a trap which has made any claim for more protagonism for the woman in the social order much more unlikely to be heard. In other words, to situate the solution to the problems in the afterlife and to describe this life as immovable, by the will of God, was a serious obstacle to any possible evolution towards a more egalitarian conception of the role of either gender in the development of human history.

The subordination of the woman in the translation of Saint Jerome: the legal legitimization of the dominance of the man.

As we have just seen, the exegesis of the fourth century, recovering Hellenistic models, designed and reinforced an anthropology in which the woman should be, by nature, subordinated to the male. Logically this anthropology determined and conditioned the role the woman should play in the realm of civil and ecclesial society. In a much more subtle, though no less effective, manner, this new way of thinking also had its reflection in the new translation Jerome carried out of the majority of the Books of the Old Testament.

At first glance it could seem that a translation, in so far as it seeks to be true to the original text, offers little opportunity to reflect the mentality of its author. But we must not forget that any translation, no matter how faithful it is, is an interpretation in which we can find subtle nuances, lexical choices or other resources which express and reflect the mental positioning of the translator.

I have recently begun a line of investigation which, by comparing the differences between the first Latin translations of the Bible and Jerome’s translation, aims to discover signs of the change of mentality in the Church regarding the issue of the woman. I will offer below an example which I found especially noteworthy: the differences in the translation of verse 3, 16 of the Book of Genesis.

First, however, allow me to recall the important differences existing between the historical context in which the first translations of the Bible, known generically as the Vetus Latina, appeared and the context of the translation of Jerome. The translations of the Vetus Latina began to be used from the end of the second century or the beginning of the third century. That is, prior to the social and cultural changes which we have been alluding to throughout this article. The Church prior to the fourth century, in a period of growth, as a social minority which was persecuted, allowed a plurality of expressive translations from the plurality of the different communities. The Church of the fourth century, on the other hand, established in a regime of peace, fortified in its structures, in an alliance with the political powers and with an evident desire to defend the orthodoxy, allowed and promoted the diffusion of a single translation with a model character. Whether or not it is true that Jerome translated under the mandate or the suggestion of the Pope Saint Damasus, it is certain that the new social situation called for a single translation which imposed itself in the Church to the detriment of the old translations and ended up excluding them.

Given these differences, we will compare the different translations of Genesis 3, 16. In this passage, Yahvé speaks about the consequences of sin and says: “With pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” 3.

I will refer only to the different translations of the second part of this expression which in the texts of the Vetus Latina is transmitted as: et conversio tua ad virum tuum et ipse dominabitur and Jerome translates as: et sub viri potestate eris et ipse tui dominabitur.

The key words of what we will say are conversio (according to the Vetus Latina) y potestate (accoding to Jerome). The Vetus Latina translation, in the translation of the word apostrofé, quite clearly reflects the sense of its Greek source 4. As Jerome says in Quaestiones hebraicae in Genesim, Aquila translates as societatem and Simmaco as appetitum or impetum. All these translations, with different nuances, seek to transmit the sense of the Hebrew word which we could translate as “desire for union or collaboration”, “inclination”, “desire”, according to the translation which we have just offered: “your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you”. That is, the woman, who feels and expresses an inclination and desire to be joined with the man (conversio) finds, in return, the exercise of his dominance over her (et ipse dominabitur). The desire of the woman is frustrated by the violence with which the man exercises his dominance over her.

Jerome, on the other hand, introduces the word potestas, the most usual meaning of which, referring to human beings, alludes to the power exercised by law or conferred by the law 5. That is, Jerome’s version could be translated as: “you will be under the legal power of your husband and he will dominate you” 6. This translation is quite surprising because it distances itself from the original Hebrew, from the Greek and Latin translations and from the patristic Latin exegesis prior to it.

Comparing one translation and the other we can see that the conceptual difference is considerable. In the versions prior to Jerome, the woman will suffer the physical pain caused by her children, in childbirth, and the moral pain caused by the husband when he responds to her desire and her attraction with the violence of his dominance. We must remember that the context in which the sentence appears is in the description of the consequences of sin. So, in the old translations and in the original Hebrew it is the dominance of the man which causes another pain to the woman.

Jerome’s interpretation, however, describes a situation within legality, the punishment which God augurs is that the situation of the dominance of the man over the woman will be legitimised as natural and legal. It is the sin of the wife which has caused the legitimisation of the dominance of the husband.

Historical repercussions and perspectives for the future

Despite the fact that Augustine had access to sources of Vetus Latina, in his interpretation of the biblical text he established the theological legitimacy of the subordination of the woman to the man, considering it an expression of divine will. Jerome translated Genesis a few years after the first commentary of Augustine and he completed the focus on subordination, subtly alluding to legal legitimacy.

I do not claim to link both facts in a cause effect relationship. What I do want to point out is that the exegesis may influence the mentality of translators and, if there is a conceptual slant in the translation of a text which is considered sacred, this slant could become considered sacred and cause successive slants in the level of the exegesis. This cumulative fact is especially serious if we take into consideration the fact that the Vulgata (as we recalled before) was, for centuries, the only version of the Bible which was authorised by the Catholic Church and that all the exegesis, for centuries, was carried out based on this text. Thus we can explain the perpetuation of a determined image of the woman in the cultures in which these texts has exercised an important influence

But today it is no longer justifiable to cling onto the past, because we have sufficient scientific instruments which allow us to understand phenomena in the light of the moment in which they take place or, as we philologists say, which allow us to read text in their context without extrapolating them, acritically, to different contexts. Cultural, anthropological, legal and all other types of changes which have come about in recent years in relation to the issue of the social image of the woman demonstrate the urgent need for a rereading of biblical and exegesis texts.

If, as a consequence of the growth in popularity of natural sciences, contemporary theology is making an effort to abandon fixist 7 and essentialist developments to explain the origin of Man as “creation in evolution”, why not apply this versatility to the study of texts which raise the question of the origin of the woman and, due to religious prejudices, condition the evolution of her social image? Some groups of female theologians and some male theologians are working along these lines 8.

I also consider that in both the question of the woman and in the questions of the origin of creation, a greater transdisciplinarity between theology and philology is needed. Philology studies the transmission of textual criticism and, for those who are familiar with the methods of this science, it would appear obvious that this discipline contributes a non-arbitrary, but rather a studied versatility. I am convinced that a transdisciplinary rereading could contribute interesting information which would help to restore the most genuine biblical message and to overcome the discrimination of the woman which has such deep roots in ecclesial tradition. The objective of this work has been to make a modest contribution in this sense.


1 For a broad and deep study of this question cf. BORRESEN, K.E., Subordination et équivalence. Nature et rôle de la femme d´après Augustin et Thomas d´Aquin, París-Oslo 1967.

2 I have dealt with this question in more detail in ”Vir y femina en los textos de San Agustín, la influencia de su concepción de lo femenino en la cultura occidental”. In Mujeres y hombres en la formación del pensamiento occidental, vol. I, 123-129, Madrid 1989.

3 According to the Francisco Cantera’s Spanish translation in Sagrada BIblia, a critical version of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts, Madrid 1975.

4 Vetus Latina translates the Greek text of Septuaginta.

5 Cf. Thesaurus Linguae Latinae,, Leipzig 1982, vol. 10, in the entry potestas, 302, line 10

6 Cf. Jane Barr, “ The Vulgate Genesis and St. Jerome’s Attitude to Women”, Studia Patristica vol. XVII, Oxford 1982, 268-273, where the passage is studied but the author does not advise of the relevance, for the purposes of slant, of the legal meaning of the term potestas.

7 The school of thought which defends the immutability of the species is known as fixism.

8 A good Spanish example of the works of various theologians on the question we are speaking about can be found in the collective works: GÓMEZ ACEBO, I. (ed.), En clave mujer… Relectura del Génesis, Bilbao 1997, y GÓMEZ ACEBO, I. (ed.) La mujer en los orígenes del cristianismo, Bilbao 2005. An obligatory reference for then study of the woman in the Bible is: EVANS, M. J., Woman in the Bible: an overview of all the crucial passages on women´s roles, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1984.