Women who played a vital role in the rise of Christianity have been “airbrushed out of history”, according to a five-year study.
In a new book out this month, Professor Kate Cooper from Manchester University reveals how mainstream churches have largely neglected the contribution of Christian women, who were influential in the first and second centuries.
Despite having spread the new Christian faith through informal friendship and family networks, over time less attention was given to their role.
Christianity became institutionalised when Roman Emperor Constantine converted to the religion in around 313 AD, and women came to be seen as background players.
In effect, says Cooper, “they have been airbrushed out of history”.
“These women – saints who had a radical and powerful presence in the early church – have been hidden in plain sight,” said the professor of ancient history at Manchester University.
“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.”
Cooper added: “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 identifies Lydia the Purple-seller of Philippi. Remembered in the Bible’s Book of Acts, she was the first person to sponsor St Paul.
Cooper also explores the influence of Thecla of Iconium, believed by second century Christians to have been one of St Paul’s disciples.
The Manchester professor shows how Thekla rebelled against her family to refuse marriage – an unthinkable act at the time.
“Though there is no certain evidence that Thecla existed, her story was hugely influential in the first few hundred years of early Christianity,” said Cooper.
“The influence of her story was far-reaching, in that it became the root of the Catholic theology of chastity and virginity.
“Every major Christian male writer in the fourth century had a sister, and these young women were encouraged to follow Thecla’s example. Rather than criticizing her for disobeying her mother, the early Church celebrated her courage.
“Christianity was quite revolutionary in the way it treated its women, especially when you realise how sexist the ancient world was.
“So it’s sad that Thecla and her contemporaries are not properly remembered and honoured today. They should be an inspiration: for example to the people campaigning for women bishops and priests.”
Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women will be reviewed in a future issue of BBC History Magazine. Visit historyextra.com/books.