Christians Airbrushed Women Out of History
A band of forgotten women were hugely influential in the rise of Christianity, a five-year study has found
But Professor Kate Cooper, from The University of Manchester, says their contribution has been neglected by the mainstream churches.
The study identifies dozens of forgotten Christian women who were influential in the first and second centuries, during a period when Christianity was - in some respects - more progressive towards women than today. They include Lydia the Purple-seller of Philippi remembered in the Book of Acts, who was the first person to sponsor St Paul.
According to Professor Cooper, women played a central role in spreading the new Christian faith through informal friendship and family networks.
Their authority within Christian communities was earned through their role as parents, community organisers, and small business owners. They regularly preached the gospel in the first two centuries of Christianity, and in some communities women carried out baptisms.
It wasn’t until the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, in around 313 AD, the religion became institutionalised: male bishops were now government officials and women came to be seen as players in the background rather than public figures.
Professor Cooper said, ‘These women – saints who had a radical and powerful presence in the early church – have been hidden in plain sight.
‘Many Gospel stories, for example – such as the story of Mary and Martha in the Gospel of Luke – can tell us far more about women’s role if we stop to pay close attention – something male writers have not done.
‘The ancient sources mention the women, but over time less and less attention was given to their role. Really, they have been airbrushed out of history.
‘It is quite sad that a religion which began with a mother and her wonderful baby should still have so much difficulty with remembering to honour the contribution of its women.’
Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women by Professor Kate Cooper from The University of Manchester is published by Atlantic Books.