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Bible minimalizes women's roles, scholars say

Mary December 24, 1997
Web posted at: 4:03 p.m. EST (2103 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Does the Bible accurately portray the role of women who were followers of Jesus Christ during the first century? No, according to Biblical scholars.

Take the Virgin Mary, for example. There may be more images of the mother of Jesus Christ than of any other woman in the world. Yet religious scholars say she is barely mentioned in the Bible after the first Christmas.

During the first-century, scholars estimate there were as many women disciples of Jesus as there were men. Like the men, the women were drawn from the villages along the Sea of Galilee -- drawn by a message that did not discriminate.

CNN's Walter Rodgers reports from Jerusalem
icon 3 min., 15 sec. VXtreme streaming video

"The Bible opens up, Christ himself opened it up to everybody," the Rev. Petra Heldt, a Lutheran pastor in Jerusalem, told CNN. "Jews and gentiles, women and men, whoever followed him were his disciples. And we have beautiful leadership by women."

But the men who compiled the scriptures chose to play down the role of women.

"In the first generation of Jesus and Paul, woman had full equality. They did everything a man could do in the church, and then, subsequently, it was men who decided the canon of scripture that marginalized women," said Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a Roman Catholic scholar.


Many scholars believe the role of women was downplayed in an effort to make Christianity more appealing to the pagan Greek and Roman patriarchal societies.

Even paintings of Jesus at the Last Supper show him surrounded by men. But scholars say those are prime examples of the distorted history.

"I don't think popular understanding of the Last Supper is correct," Murphy-O'Connor said. "It was the last meal with his friends, and I think the women came with him from Galilee. It would have been impossible to exclude them from that meal."

Religious historians say wealthy women helped bankroll the work of Christ and his apostles, and that women paid for some of the earliest Christian churches. Before the churches were built, women literally opened the doors of their homes so they could be used as places of worship.

Scholars say the men who marginalized the roles of women during Christianity's early days set a precedent that still affects the role of women in their churches.

"By systematically not giving a chance to 50 percent of the population, something is utterly wrong." Heldt said. "It is wrong to those who might have had a call. Women, I am sure, throughout the centuries, had calls from God to serve him. And they simply were not given the right."

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers contributed to this report.


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