Was Jesus more egalitarian than his contemporaries?

The Claim

Jesus is sometimes depicted as being far more egalitarian than all his contemporaries.[1] [2] This view is resisted by a range of scholars.

While Browning notes ‘Early Christian teachings look more egalitarian than almost any religious or philosophical movement contemporary to early Christianity’,[3] he also observes ‘Greco-Roman views were more complicated than we sometimes think and were themselves giving birth to new degrees of gender equality and male parental involvement’. [4]

Corley challenges the idea that Jesus introduced a radical and unique egalitarianism.[5] Brown agrees that ‘the New Testament authors seem consistently more “egalitarian” than their Greco-Roman cultural counterparts’, but does not see them as consistent egalitarians.[6]

The Stoics

Stoic views were traditionally egalitarian,[7] they condemned gender discrimination,[8] and they have even been identified as having at least inclinations towards feminist views.[9] Though not consistently egalitarian[10] and definitely not feminist,[11] and though misogyny can still be found in some of their writings,[12] [13] they still remain a useful point of comparison when assessing other literature as egalitarian, since they were the most egalitarian of the 1st century Roman philosophical groups.[14] [15] [16]

Stoicism was widespread,[17] and even had an egalitarian influence on Roman law.[18] Seneca the Younger’s earlier reputation as a ‘feminist’ has not withstood academic scrutiny,[19] but he is still recognized as having expressed significant egalitarian views.[20] [21]

Musonius Rufus is still regarded highly for his egalitarian attitude. [22] [23] Unlike Paul, Musonius Rufus did not make any call for women to be subject,[24] and opposed explicitly a range of misogynist prejudices,[25] challenging the view of any form of gendered division of tasks,[26] with a statement which has no Biblical parallel.[27]

Jewish Society

Women in 1st century Jewish society enjoyed active religious participation,[28] [29] and some even held leadership positions.[30] [31] [32]

The Essenes & Therapeutae

Both of them 1st century Jewish communities, the Essenes are believed by many scholars to have been egalitarian,[33] [34] and the Therapeutae are known for their egalitarian attitudes towards the division of labor.[35] [36]

Who Was More Egalitarian?

Unlike Musonius Rufus and the Therapeutae, neither Paul nor Jesus opposed a gendered division of tasks. Unlike Jewish inscriptions, we find no sisters as elders or titled ecclesial leaders in the New Testament.


[1] ‘Horsley argues that Jesus chose to be a social revolutionary, siding with the poor and oppressed and taking on the power elites. It is his view that Jesus sought to reorganize village life in Galilee along more egalitarian and nonpatriarchal lines and that his essential teaching was addressed to such settings, not to traveling disciples.’ Witherington, ‘The Jesus Quest: The third search for the Jew of Nazareth’, p. 240 (2nd ed. 1997).

[2] ‘Into that patriarchal society he also injected the witness of his own community which was different, and more egalitarian, than the society at large.’, ibid., p. 175.

[3] Browning, ‘Equality and the Family: A Fundamental, Practical Theology of Children’, p. 175 (2007).

[4] Ibid., p. 175.

[5] ‘While this study affirms the role of women in Jesus’ own community and in subsequent Jesus movements, it challenges both the assumption that Jesus himself fought ancient patriarchal limitations on women and the hypothesis that the presence of women among his disciples was unique within Hellenistic Judaism.’, Corley, ‘Women and the Historical Jesus: Feminist Myths of Christian Origins’ (2002).

[6]Yet I do not believe that the New Testament writers were uniformly “egalitarians” (an anachronism, in any event), though the New Testament authors seem consistently more “egalitarian” than their Greco-Roman cultural counterparts.’, Brown, ‘Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutic’, p. 238 (2007).

[7]  ‘That Stoicism is fundamentally egalitarian and universalistic is well established.’, Hill, ‘The First Wave of Feminism: Were the Stoics Feminists?’, History of Political Thought, (22.1), p. 15 (2001).

[8] ‘The Stoics condemned discrimination against people based on class, gender, ethnicity or any other contingent facts about them.’, ibid., p. 17.

[9]  ‘A cursory review of Stoic literature certainly points to a Stoic feminism’, ibid., p. 19.

[10] ‘We have seen that the Stoics fall short in achieving a systematic feminism’, ibid., p. 34.

[11] ‘feminism-at least as that word is generally understood-and Stoicism are fundamentally and essentially incompatible’, Engel, ‘Women’s Role in the Home and the State: Stoic Theory Reconsidered’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, (101), p. 268 (2003).

[12] ‘despite the feminist potential of so much Stoic writing, subordinating and misogynistic tendencies are clearly present.’, Hill, ‘The First Wave of Feminism: Were the Stoics Feminists?’, History of Political Thought, (22.1), p. 40 (2001).

[13]the late Stoics are not as wholly sympathetic to women as some scholars have asserted, and it will become clear that they never advocated the political empowerment of women. Indeed, when given the opportunity to do so, they explicitly rejected the suggestion.’, Engel, ‘Women’s Role in the Home and the State: Stoic Theory Reconsidered’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, (101), p. 273 (2003).

[14] ‘Perhaps they are better understood as failed proto-liberal feminists’, Hill, ‘The First Wave of Feminism: Were the Stoics Feminists?’, History of Political Thought, (22.1), p. 40 (2001).

[15] ‘when compared with the attitudes toward women that prevailed in the days in which these arguments were put forward, the arguments are, occasionally, downright astounding.’, Engel, ‘Women’s Role in the Home and the State: Stoic Theory Reconsidered’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, (101), p. 273 (2003).

[16] ‘Stoicism is the only ancient philosophy that provides a sufficiently egalitarian concept of human beings to suit a liberal ideology.’, Long, ‘Stoic Communitarianism And Normative Citizenship’, Social Philosophy & Policy Foundation, p. 242 (2007).

[17] Not merely restricted to the elite classes.

[18] ‘The overall development of Roman equity law was influenced by the Stoic natural law principle of the equality of the sexes’, Hill, ‘The First Wave of Feminism: Were the Stoics Feminists?’, History of Political Thought, (22.1), p. 20 (2001).

[19] ‘Seneca’s feminist tendencies, in particular, seem to me to be vastly overrated’, ibid., p.23.

[20] ‘Seneca, well in advance of his time, is willing to grant women equal opportunity at the banquet table, equal place at the feast of human endeavor. She is, he would argue, everyone’s equal in capacity, and, if she exercise virtue, everyone’s superior.’, Motto, ‘Seneca on Women’s Liberation’, The Classical World (65.5), (1972).

[21] ‘‘You know that a man does wrong in requiring chastity of his wife while he himself is intriguing with the wives of other men.’, Hill, ‘The First Wave of Feminism: Were the Stoics Feminists?’, History of Political Thought, (22.1), p. 29 (2001); note that this statement is actually cited by Ian and Averil, ‘All One’, p. 171 (March 2009).

[22]  ‘Musonius is probably the most enlightened Stoic in his attitude to women, sex and marriage.’, ibid., p. 27.

[23] ‘Musonius tells us that husbands who commit adultery are just as culpable as wives, and it is extremely objectionable for them to have sexual relations with their slave-girls.’, ibid., p. 28.

[24]  ‘There is no demand on his part for subordination of the woman‘, ibid., p. 28.

[25]  ‘It was a common belief that an educated woman would become ‘unpalatable’, arrogant and neglectful of her household duties.126 But the Stoics were bound to question social convention and, recognizing this duty, C. Musonius Rufus challenged Roman prejudices about women head on.’, ibid., p. 32.

[26]  ‘Musonius now questions the reasonableness of a gender-based division of labour in the first place, noting that, apart from the relatively insignificant differences in physical strength and personal bent, no other rationale stands up to close scrutiny as a relevant basis for discrimination’, ibid., p. 33.

[27]  ‘[A]ll human tasks’, he says, ‘are a common obligation and are common for men and women, and none is necessarily appointed for either one exclusively.’, ibid., p. 33.

[28]  Hove, ‘Equality in Christ? Galatians 3:28 and the Gender Dispute’, p. 91 (1999).

[29]  ‘Jewish women in Rome were active participants in the religious life of their communities, both at home and in the public religious life of the synagogue.’, Kraemer, ‘Jewish Women in Rome and Egypt’, in Juschka, ‘Feminism in the study of religion: a reader’, p. 227 (2001).

[30]Other women more clearly singled out for their roles as leaders in the synagogues, include Sara Oura, called presbutis, or elder… Gaudentia is called hierisa, the feminine equivalent of the Greek word for priest.’, ibid., p. 227.

[31] ‘As Brooten has argued, there is no reason to assume that these titles do not reflect a leadership role for the women so designated. …The women called πρεσβύτερα appear to have been members of a synagogue council of elders.27’, Crawford, ‘Mothers, Sisters, and Elders: Titles for Women in Second Temple Jewish and Early Christian Communities’, The Dead Sea Scrolls as Background to Postbiblical Judaism and Early Christianity: Papers from an International Conference at St. Andrews in 2001, p.184 (2003).

[32] ‘Bernadette J. Brooten argues that ’the inscriptional evidence for Jewish women leaders means that one cannot declare it to be a departure from Judaism that early Christian women held leadership positions.’’, Hove, ‘Equality in Christ? Galatians 3:28 and the Gender Dispute’, p. 92 (1999).

[33] ‘the Essenes and the Therapeutai show evidence of influence by Hellenistic utopian thinking (including the egalitarian aspects of such thought)’, ‘egalitarian features of actual ancient Jewish utopian movements

(Essenes or Therapeutai)’. Beavis, ‘Christian Origins, Egalitarianism, and Utopia’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (23.2), pp. 46, 48 (2007).

[34] Evans, ‘Ancient texts for New Testament studies: a guide to the background literature’, p. 86 (2005).

[35] ‘No barriers can be placed around the women Therapeutae that would exclude them from any functions in the community.’, Taylor, ‘The Women “Priests” of Philo’s De Vita Contemplativa; Reconstructing the Therapeutae‘, in ‘On the Cutting Edge: The Study of Women in Biblical Worlds: Essays in Honor of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’, p.118 (2003).

[36] ‘It is striking that the division of labor between elders and juniors is emphatically not along gender lines’, ‘The membership of this community was gender-inclusive, since women participated as both seniors and (implicitly) juniors’, Taylor & Davis, ‘The So-Called Therapeutae of “De Vita Contemplativa”: Identity and Character’, The Harvard Theological Review (91.1), pp. 23, 24 (1998).

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