Did bias of New Testament authors distort truth about women? One woman better than 13 men?

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One woman better than 13 men?

The accuracy of recording and copying the words of Jesus Christ is explored in Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said? This includes determining whether the bias of the New Testament authors negatively impacted the truth of what they recorded. Every author has a bias, but this doesn’t necessarily result in the truth being distorted. The biased New Testament writers such as Peter and Paul were killed because they refused to deny Jesus Christ. Such martyrs were clearly passionate about Jesus, but this bias does not necessarily mean they fabricated falsehoods about him.

How to examine the influence of bias

One way in which Echoes of Jesus explores this aspect of reliability is by examining what historians of an opposite bias wrote about Christians within the first two centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion. If those of opposing biases agree on a fact, then this helps establish the credibility of both parties. If they disagree, it may mean that one party has fabricated an event or distorted what really happened.

I discovered a vast amount of harmony between the writings of these two groups who held very opposing biases. One of these harmonious viewpoints is the status of women within the Christian communities. The following compares the comments about this status made in the New Testament with those made by a non-Christian governor. These historical accounts could have recorded different viewpoints on this as women had different levels of importance and independence based on the culture they lived in.

The status of women in Jesus’ world

The dependence of women upon men was an established part of Roman law in the first century. The law stipulated that Roman women were legally obliged to have a nominated male family member act in their legal and financial interests.[1] In effect women were allowed to own and inherit property, but the control of this property belonged to men. Women were not allowed to attend political assemblies and they were prohibited from all political positions. Roman religious cults were mostly dominated by men, but some did allow priestesses.[2]

Mainstream Jewish religion at the time of Jesus Christ largely considered women to be the equal of men in a religious context, with women frequently attending the Jewish meeting places (synagogues). There was no special sections in the synagogues for women, and women participated in the ‘regular study sessions that were conducted in the synagogue’s bet midrash (house of study)… like men, women offered their sacrifices at the [Temple] Altar in the Priests’ Court, passing through the Israelites’ Court [Men’s court] in order to do so.’[3] By way of contrast, the Jewish sect called the Essenes banned women from community assemblies, study of the Essene holy books (the Torah), and prayer.[4]

New Testament and the importance of Christian women

The writings of the first Christians record that women were an important part of the Christian community:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church (Greek: diakonotes ekklesias) in Cenchreae (Romans 16:1, NIV).[5]

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means (Luke 8:1-3, NIV).

The first quote reveals that Paul, the writer of Romans, regarded at least one woman worthy enough to be called a sister and a deacon. The second passage highlights women’s importance to Jesus Christ and the first twelve disciples. Later in this article I will explore the function and/or role of deakons/deakonesses in the Christian community.

Anti-Christian torturer refers to the importance of Christian women

The above New Testament comments parallel those found in records made by a ruler who tortured Christian women. The Roman governor Pliny the Younger wrote the following in about 110 AD:

I judged it so much more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses…[6]

Despite having a strong bias against Christians, Pliny’s record mirrors that found in the New Testament. This reveals that in this particular matter there is no evidence that the Christian authors fabricated stories to make women look like they had important roles with the Christian communities. They could have been motivated to do this if they had wanted Christianity to look more like mainstream Judaism than the cult of the Essenes.

Are there any other examples of such mirrored facts?

Echoes of Jesus provides 48 examples of facts from the New Testament that are in harmony with the writings of non-Christians within the first two centuries.[7] These parallels include important events, such as the crucifixion of Jesus in Judea by Pilate. The non-Christian authors were often strongly biased against Christians. This line of evidence reinforces the truthfulness of the records made by the New Testament authors, despite their own biases.

Echoes of Jesus, now in its second edition, introduces the reader to the ancient non-Christian authors, their ways of viewing the world, and their credibility. It explores the reliability of these amazing documents that have survived over the centuries.

But what was a deaconess and were they very important?

In the New Testament, the noun diakonos refers to those who serve the Christian community. By itself the Greek diakonos does not specify whether a male or a female is intended. However when the grammar of the phrase includes an article – such as the, a or an in English, then the gender becomes apparent: ho diakonos (masculine) and h diakonos(feminine).

In the upside-down world of Jesus’ kingdom, leaders are those who serve:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).”

Probably the first deacons were seven men who were set aside by the twelve disciples to serve. They were to be ‘known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:1-4).’ Two of these seven, Philip and Stephen, were important preachers and evangelists. Although these seven were not called deacons, their responsibilities included the need to ‘wait on tables (Greek: diakoneō trapeza) (Acts 6: 2).’

What was Phoebe’s highest honour?

Phoebe is believed by many to have been given the responsibility by Paul to take his lengthy Letter to the Romans from Corinth to Rome. This was a journey across sea and land. Upon receiving the letter the church in Rome would immediately have realised that Paul held her in high esteem. The letter she carried has been regarded as one of the greatest books of the Bible. So even if Phoebe had not held an important official position in the church, she clearly was regarded very highly and served it in an important way.[8]

Evidence for Deaconesses outside of the New Testament documents

Pliny isn’t the only writer who recorded Christian women being deacons. Etched in a tomb found near Jerusalem are these words:

Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia, the deacon (h diakonos), the second Phoebe.

This epitaph was inscribed in the late 300s AD.[9]

How many women supported Jesus?

Blog 12 Many women support Jesus

The historical record in Luke chapter 8 of women providing support to Jesus raises an interesting question: how many women comprised the ‘many others’ that supported Jesus and the Twelve? Was it 10 or 30 women that pooled their resources? Also, what was the nature of the ‘means’ they used to give support? The Greek word used for ‘means’ is ὑπάρχοντα, hyparchonta, and in this context can refer to possessions, wealth, and property.

One woman better than 13 men

But have women continued to play an important part in the life of the Christian community? You can view my YouTube presentation titled Seriously 2017iii: Women feminists inspired by Jesus. This introductory seminar provides several examples of women who were empowered by Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus living in their lives they raised up the status of women in the world in the 1800s and early 1900s. These Christian women were women’s rights campaigners in that they were teaching that God loves men and women equally. The Christians were promoting women’s rights in countries as diverse as America, India and Australia.

Women, much more so than men, had a major part in the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ in the early 1800s within at least one missionary organisation.  Women were the major supporters of the British and Foreign Bible Society, even though men typically held the ‘public positions of office-bearers.’[10] The Bible Society was very active in that era, with over 2,000 local associations in Britain in the 1820s. The monetary contribution of women in the local branches of the Bible Society was carefully calculated in 1839. They discovered that ‘…as collectors for charitable and religious purposes… one lady was worth exactly 13 gentlemen and a half.[11]

Conclusion

It is possible to examine whether the bias of the New Testament authors distorted the truth, or even created fabrications. This can be done in a number of ways. The evidence from the writings of early non-Christian historians & government officers reveals the same facts as that given in the New Testament concerning the role of Christian women. The New Testament authors have been shown in this way to have documented the truth about the life of women in the early church. Women played a very important and acknowledged role in the life of Jesus and the first Christians, and in the life of Christians nearly 1800 years later.

  • Bias is everywhere, and New Testament authors were biased
  • Distortions created by bias can be detected by comparing the documents of writers with opposing biases.
  • We can read 1900 year – old statements of authors biased against Christians
  • We can compare their facts with those of the New Testament authors
  • One fact that can be compared in this way is the status of women in the early Christian community
  • The role of Christian women in the first few centuries is compared with similar women in the last few centuries
  • Echoes of Jesus provides many examples of facts mirrored by anti-Christian authors and the New Testament authors

Buy here the second edition of Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said?

Illustrations created and provided by Mark Stay.

 References

[1] In AD 9 some types of women were given an exemption from this rule, including freeborn-women with three children, an a freed-woman with four children. Refer to https://inforomanlaw.blogspot.com/2016/03/tutors-curators-tutela-perpetua-mulierum.html /

[2]  M Cartwright, The role of women in the Roman World, https://www.ancient.eu/article/659/the-role-of-women-in-the-roman-world/ Accessed 10/09/2020.

[3] S Safrai, The place of women in first-century synagogues, CBE International, 2002

https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/place-women-first-century-synagogues. Accessed 10/09/2020. Shmuel Safrai was professor of Jewish History of the Mishnaic and Talmudic Period at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel.

[4] A Shemesh, Qumran, In, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. Accessed 10/09/2020. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/qumran.

[5] See also: New Revised Standard Version, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+16&version=NRSV. Accessed 25/08/2020.

[6] J Clerke, Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said? Second edition, p. 324, citing Pliny Pliny, Letters, book 10, letters 96-7. Pliny wrote this in Latin, and the word translated into English as deacon (deaconess) is ministrae. It is regarded as the Latin equivalent of the Greek diakonos.

[7] J Clerke, Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said? Second edition, Appendix 2, points of agreement between biblical and non-biblical sources, pp. 409-413.

[8] Many scholars consider Phoebe to have held the position of deaconess. Others say that she was ‘only’ a servant, and did not have the official title of being a deacon. As the verse in Romans chapter 16 states she was a deacon of a particular local church, many regard this as evidence that she was officially a deacon.

[9] UE. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 159. Cited by: N Vyhmeister, The Ministry of the deaconess through history: Part 1 of 2. In, Ministry: International Journal for Pastors 2008, July.

[10] S Piggin & RD Linder, The fountain of public prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1740-1914, p.131

[11] S Piggin & RD Linder, The fountain of public prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1740-1914, p.131; citing Sunday Times (London), Issue 897, Sunday December 29, 1839.

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