Personhood in Early Christian Thought and Practice (Personhood Part IV)

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism in the middle of the first century AD and emerged as a separate religion altogether by the end of that century. Among the most distinctive doctrines of early Christianity were the beliefs that God had become incarnate as a human being and, through a process of recapitulation, had opened the possibility of spiritual salvation to all people. The idea of the incarnation is perhaps the most central and distinctive belief of Christianity. The doctrine’s classic and arguably most eloquent statement is found in the opening to the Gospel of John, composed probably in the last decade of the first century AD: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.”17 Christians believed that God had become man in the person of Jesus Christ, thereby redeeming and sanctifying human nature. The doctrine of the incarnation was linked with the idea of the Imago Dei from a very early point in Christian thought and served to significantly strengthen and solidify the importance and content of that idea.18 The early Christian author and bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in about 180, summarized the relationship of the two doctrines and their implications for humanity, writing,

And then, again, this Word was manifested when the Word of God was made man, assimilating Himself to man, and man to Himself, so that by means of his resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father. For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God, but it was not [actually] shown; for the Word was as yet invisible, after whose image man was created, Wherefore also he did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh, He confirmed both these: for He both showed forth the image truly, since He became Himself what was His image; and He re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word.19

In the same work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus also offered the earliest expanded explanations of early Christian soteriology. In his explanations, he asserts that “the Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred.”20 To that end, according to Irenaeus, he passed through every age and state, “not despising or evading any condition of humanity” and “sanctifying every age” as he passed through each without sinning.21 Finally, he suffered and died in perfect obedience, undoing the sin of Adam, and resurrected, defeating death. In doing all of this, he made spiritual salvation possible; in the most succinct soteriological statement of Irenaeus: “our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”22 By the fourth century, the standard statement of Christian soteriology was even more succinct and direct: “He was made man that we might be made God.”23 Significantly, this salvation and deification was made available to all people of any age, class, or gender. The declaration of the universality of salvation by the important early Christian leader Paul in about AD 50-60 seems as if it had been formulated to run directly contrary to the ethos of the Greco-Roman world: “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”24

For those who heard of these beliefs in Late Antiquity, they were shocking. These unique Christian beliefs were seen as perplexing, subversive, and worthy of mockery by both Jews as well as followers of Greco-Roman pagan religions and philosophies.25 Christianity was particularly threatening to members of the latter groups as its simultaneous continuation of the zeal for social justice present in Judaism coupled with the reinvigoration and expansion of this zeal in conjunction with its own original ideas proved very attractive to the oppressed and marginalized classes of the Roman Empire. One early Christian text, written in the second half of the first century, records Roman opponents of Christianity claiming Christians “have turned the world upside down.”26 In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, “Christianity’s claim that all were equal before God and all equally precious to him ran through class-conscious, minority-despising, weakness-ridiculing Greco-Roman society like a charged current.”27 As a result, Christians faced persecution from both Jewish and Roman authorities as well as disdain and suspicion from their neighbors. In spite of this persecution, however, the poor, slaves, women, and other marginalized and oppressed classes of the Roman Empire flocked to the new religion. Such was the pull that Christianity exerted on these groups and, simultaneously, the disgust it excited in the Roman Empire’s elite, that Celsus, one of Christianity’s early detractors, was able to write in about 178 that it was “only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the divine word [that is, Christian evangelists] wish to make converts.”28

The practical ramifications of Christian ideas about personhood were tremendous. With the introduction of the idea of a Kingdom of God which stood over and in opposition to the world and which all Christians, by virtue of membership in the Church, were members of, the idea of nationhood, and therefore any possibility of xenophobia, receded into superfluity. The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, an early Christian apologetic text written sometime in the mid to late second century, delights in the diversity of Christians and their ubiquitous presence in “Greek as well as barbarian cities,” asserting “they pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”29 The treatment of the poor, slaves, and other low social classes in early Christian writings similarly revels in the counterintuitive assertion that they are in fact the “happy” and “blessed” bearers of a better spiritual condition than the materially prosperous and socially powerful.30

Perhaps the most powerful and practical explication of early Christian views on slavery is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. At 335 words in the original Greek, it is the shortest surviving letter of Paul and one of the shortest books of the New Testament. Onesimus, a Christian slave whose master, Philemon, was also a Christian, had run away from his master and joined up with Paul. Paul, however, decided to send Onesimus back to his master with this letter. It must be remembered that Philemon was a Roman pater familias, or male head of household. According to the laws cited earlier in this paper, Philemon had the right of deciding life and death within his household and Onesimus was his property. Paul’s words, in this historical context, are remarkable and astounding; he admonishes Philemon to “receive” Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave — a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh [that is, as a sharer in a common human nature] and in the Lord [that is, as a fellow Christian].”31

By the end of the fourth century, this assertion of an ontological equality, shared nature, and spiritual brotherhood of master and slave would become, in the minds of some of the greatest and most influential Christian thinkers and leaders, arguably, the world’s first full-fledged ideology of abolitionism. Gregory of Nyssa, an important fourth century bishop, for instance, was one of the first writers in history to condemn slavery as an institution. Significantly, he based his arguments against slavery on Christian anthropology, writing,

What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?32

Not all Christian leaders were willing to go as far as Gregory in their condemnation of slavery. Many, including such important figures as John Chrysostom, a late fourth and early fifth century bishop of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the single greatest influence on subsequent theological development in Western Christianity, were more equivocal in their condemnation. Both Chrysostom and Augustine insisted, for instance, that slavery was a necessary evil that had been instituted by God as a result of man’s primeval fall into sin.

As ambiguous as some of these condemnations of slavery were, they were, nonetheless, condemnations, and such a condemnatory attitude had obvious ramifications in Christian practice. Several slaves and former slaves, for example, were elected to the highest positions of leadership in the Church. In fact, one Onesimus was named as the bishop of Ephesus by Ignatius of Antioch in a letter written in about 107; while some modern historians doubt the identification, Christian hagiography has traditionally identified this Onesimus with the Onesimus about whom Paul wrote his letter to Philemon.33 34 In the third century, one former slave, Callistus, who was elected bishop of Rome, the most prominent see in the Christian Church, even decreed, in defiance of the Roman law contained in the Twelve Tables, that “among Christians a slave could marry a free person with the blessing of the Church.”35 By the fifth century, Patrick, the famous missionary and bishop of Ireland who was also a former slave, was able to write in a way that assumed rather than argued the innate immorality of Christians enslaving fellow Christians.36 Slavery declined throughout the Middle Ages, replaced by serfdom throughout much of Europe, and was not revived as a major institution again until the early modern era.

Early Christian ideas regarding women also presented a major challenge to Greco-Roman conceptions of personhood. Henry Chadwick, in his classic treatment of early Christianity, points out that, in Late Antiquity, “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women” specifically because “Christians believed in the equality of men and women before God.”37 For this belief, early Christians drew not only on the ideas of the Imago Dei and the incarnation, but a specific recognition of the distinctive role that had been played by the Virgin Mary in the redemptive work of Jesus according to the framework of early Christian soteriology. In one of his discussions of the process of salvation through recapitulation, Irenaeus of Lyons summarized this role:

The Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve, who was already espoused to a man, was unhappily misled,—was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary, who was [also espoused] to a man. For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain (portaret) God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness (advocata) of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience.38

This understanding of the role played by the Virgin Mary in the scheme of salvation as well as the individual life of the believer would continue to expand throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Second century documents such as the Infancy Gospel of James make such claims as that Mary was dedicated to the service of God by her parents before her birth, raised in the Temple of Jerusalem, and remained a virgin consecrated to God throughout her life.39 By the middle of the third century, prayers were being addressed to her; the earliest surviving example of such prayers dates from about 250: “Under thy compassion we take refuge, Theotokos [Birthgiver-of-God]; do not disregard our prayers in the midst of tribulation, but deliver us from danger, O Only Pure, Only Blessed One.”40 In 431, the Council of Ephesus, considered the Third Ecumenical Council, officially approved the Virgin Mary’s popular title of Θεοτόκος (Theotokos, meaning “God-bearer” and often, though incorrectly, translated as “Mother of God”).41 The Middle Ages would see such expansions in Mariology and in Marian devotion as the advent of the Rosary, the addition of holidays to the Christian festal calendar which celebrated her sinless birth and assumption into heaven, and her acquisition of such titles as “Queen of Heaven.”42 These views and practices surrounding Mary clearly had important implications for views about women more generally.

By the end of the fourth century, Gregory Nazienzen, the bishop of Constantinople who presided over the Second Ecumenical Council in that city in 381, was proclaiming the full ontological equality of men and women on the basis of distinctively Christian beliefs, simultaneously calling for the legal and social equality of women. In his “Fifth Theological Oration,” he wrote, addressing Roman men,

What was the reason why they restrained the woman, but indulged the man, and that a woman who practices evil against her husband’s bed is an adulteress, and the penalties of the law for this are very severe; but if the husband commits fornication against his wife, he has no account to give? I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve this custom. Those who made the law were men, and therefore their legislation is hard on women, since they have placed children also under the authority of their fathers, while leaving the weaker sex uncared for. God does not do so, but says Honor your father and your mother, which is the first commandment with promise. … See the equality of [God’s] legislation. There is one Maker of man and woman; one debt is owed by children to both parents.

… How, though you are equally a body, do you legislate unequally? If you inquire into the worse — The Woman Sinned, and so did Adam. The serpent deceived them both; and one was not found to be the stronger and the other weaker. But do you consider the better? Christ saves both by His Passion. Was He made flesh for the Man? So He was also for the Woman. Did He die for the Man? The Woman also is saved by His death. He is called of the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the man is honored; but He is born of a Virgin, and this is on the woman’s side. The two, He says, shall be one flesh; so let the one flesh have equal honor.43

Like slaves, women were also able to attain important positions in the early Church. The gospels record that Jesus had many followers who were women. One of them, Mary Magdalene, was the first to see and speak with him following his resurrection and was sent by him to tell the other followers that he had come back from the dead.44 For fulfilling this role, she was designated “equal to the apostles” and “apostle to the apostles” in the later Christian hagiographic tradition. Paul also mentions several important women in the first century Church throughout his letters, such as Junia, whom he describes as “of note among the apostles.”45

Christianity also offered women an opportunity to adopt a way of life which freed them from the atmosphere of subjugation and androcentrism which permeated Greco-Roman family life. From an early point, Christians adopted celibacy as their ideal. In his first letter to the Corinthians, written in about AD 55, for instance, Paul recommended that virgins remain unmarried and that widows not remarry.46 For women in the Roman Empire, a life of celibacy represented a means of escape from the patriarchal system of the Roman family in which women were subject to their fathers, husbands, and other male family members. According to Princeton professor of religion Elaine Pagels, “their vows of celibacy served many converts as a declaration of independence from the crushing pressures of tradition and of their families, who ordinarily arranged marriages at puberty and so determined the course of their children’s lives.”47

This idealization of celibacy developed into institutional monasticism by the end of the fourth century. The monastic way of life continued throughout the Middle Ages to attract many women who desired independence from patriarchal family structures. Significantly, female monastics, like the female martyrs before them, attracted a great deal of reverence by Medieval Christians of both genders. One example of this reverence is found in the hagiography of Mary of Egypt, written by Sophronius, bishop of Jerusalem, in the seventh century. According to his hagiography, Mary had renounced her former sinful lifestyle and, like many others before her, retreated into the deserts of Egypt to adopt a life of fasting and prayer. While walking through the desert, she was discovered by Zosimas, a priest and monk at a nearby monastery, who immediately recognized her holiness. In contradiction to the traditional Eastern Christian practice, in which it is customary for anyone meeting a priest to bow, ask for his blessing, and kiss his hand, “Zosimas threw himself on the ground and asked for her blessing.”48 Sophronius’ account continues,

She likewise bowed down before him. And thus they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other’s blessing. And one word alone could be heard from both:

“Bless me!” After a long while the woman said to Zosimas:

“Abba Zosimas, it is you who must give blessing and pray. You are dignified by the order of priesthood and for many years you have been standing before the holy altar and offering the sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries.”

This flung Zosimas into even greater terror. At length with tears he said to her:

“O mother, filled with the spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent — for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before. Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God’s sake, for I need your prayers.”

Then giving way before the wish of the elder the woman said:

“Blessed is God Who cares for the salvation of men and their souls.”

Zosimas answered:


One of the most important roles that women served in the early Church was to bring Christianity into the households of Rome’s aristocracy, which eventually allowed the Church to attain a measure of wealth, prestige, and power. According to Chadwick, “it was often through the wives that it [Christianity] penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance.”50 Even the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine I, probably did so under the influence of women. Although he and his hagiographers attributed his conversion to a divine vision he claimed to have witnessed the night before an important battle,51 there was no lack in Christian influence from the women in his life. His mother, Helena, was a Christian and, though the date of her conversion is debated, may have provided him with an education in and exposure to Christianity as a child.52 In addition, his half-sister, Anastasia, bore a name which was largely unique to and popular among Christians and which, in Greek, means “resurrection.” This may indicate that his step-mother, Theodora, who would have been responsible for naming her daughter, was a Christian as well.53 Though it is difficult to discern the details, it is clear that Constantine’s initial exposure to Christianity almost certainly came to him through the influence of the women in his life.

The views of early Christians about children also differed substantially from those which predominated throughout the Greco-Roman world around them. According to O.M. Bakke, a historian of Christianity whose studies have focused on the development of ideas about childhood in Late Antiquity, “whereas pagans thought that a newborn baby was not a human person in the full sense, patristic thinking implies that the newborn possesses the fullness of human dignity.”54 He concludes from his examination of the basis for this belief that “this positive assessment of the worth of babies is connected with the idea that all human beings, even small children, are created in the image of God.”55 This reasoning about the spiritual status of children is evident in the writings of Cyprian of Carthage, an influential North African bishop of the third century, who argued that infants should be baptized on the eighth day after their birth in parallel with the Old Testament admonition to circumcise male children on the eighth day.56 According to Cyprian, infants must be baptized so that “no soul be lost.”57 He continues,

For what is wanting to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hand of God? To us, indeed, and to our eyes, according to the worldly course of days, they who are born appear to receive an increase. But whatever things are made by God, are completed by the majesty and work of God their Maker.58

In another work, the same Cyprian also indicates that it was standard practice in the Christian Church for infants to receive communion before they were even “able to speak” or “able to understand” the Eucharist.59 That infants took part in the sacraments of the Church indicates that they were recognized as possessing full personhood and a status of spiritual equality with adult Christians.

These beliefs led early Christians to condemn practices such as abortion, infanticide, and the use of children for the sexual gratification of adults, all common practices of the Greco-Roman world. The Didache, a late first or early second century text which may be the earliest surviving Christian text not included in the New Testament and which was attributed to the apostles by early Christians, explicitly condemns all three practices in its second chapter. In regards to sexual relations between adults and children, the Didache states simply, “you shall not commit pederasty,” listing the practice along with murder, fornication, and theft.60 In its condemnations of abortion and infanticide, the Didache explicitly equates these practices with murder, commanding, “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.”61

These early Christian ideas concerning barbarians, slaves, women, and children ran directly counter to the ideas prevalent in the Greco-Roman world, which ideas had been written into law in the Roman Empire. In the early fourth century, however, Constantine became the first Christian Roman emperor. Julian the Apostate, Constantine’s nephew, whose brief reign lasted only two years, was the only non-Christian emperor after Constantine, and even he had been raised as a Christian and left the Church as an adolescent. By the end of the fourth century, under the Emperor Theodosius, Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire. A long process by which the early Christian views of barbarians, slaves, women, and children replaced those of the Greco-Roman world in both thought and law ensued. It is this process that characterizes much of the culture, law, and philosophy of the Middle Ages.


17 John 1:1, 14 (NKJV).

18 2 Corinthians 4:4, Colossians 1:15, and Hebrews 1:3, for example, all explicitly link the Imago Dei and the incarnation. This connection would play a particularly pivotal role in the iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries in the Byzantine Empire, becoming an especially important idea on Eastern Christianity as a result.

19 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, book 5, ch. 16, par. 2, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

20 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, book 5, ch. 19, par. 1.

21 Ibid., book 2, ch. 22, par. 4.

22 Ibid., book 5, preface.

23 Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation, 54, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol.4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

24 Galatians 3:28 (NKJV).

25 According to St. Paul, writing in about AD 54, “we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23, NKJV).

26 Acts 17:6 (NKJV).

27 Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 44.

28 Celsus, as quoted in Origen, Against Celsus, book 3, ch. 49, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

29 Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, 5, in Ante-Nicene Fathers , Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

30 The word μακάριος (makarios) used, for example, in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11), although commonly translated into English as “blessed” carries connotations of both blessedness and happiness.

31 Philemon 15-16.

32 International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Ecclesiastes: An EnglishVersion with Commentary and Supporting Studies: Proceedings of the Seventh International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, ed. Hall, Stuart George, trans. Hall, Stuart George (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993), 73-74. This entire discussion depends upon Eric Denby, “The First Abolitionist? Gregory of Nyssa on Ancient Roman Slavery,” 9 May 2011, (accessed 23 December 2012).

33 Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, 1, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

34 “Apostle Onesimus of the Seventy,” Orthodox Church in America, (accessed 16 April 2013).

35 R. S. Milward, Apostles and Martyrs (Leominster: Gracewing Publishing, 1997), 98.

36 Patrick, “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” (accessed 16 April 2013).

37 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1967), 58.

38 Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies,” book 5, ch. 19, par. 1.

39 Infancy Gospel of James, in Bart Ehrman, ed., Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

40 “Under thy compassion we take refuge…”,, (accessed 16 April 2013).

41 “Medieval Sourcebook: Council of Ephesus, 431,” (accessed 16 April 2013).

42 Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

43 Gregory Nazianzen, “The Fifth Theological Oration,” 6-7, of “Oration XXXVII,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

44 Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:9-11, Luke 24:10, John. 20:2.

45 Romans 16:7 (NKJV).

46 1 Corinthians 7:25-40.

47 Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Random House, 1988), 20.

48 Sophronius of Jerusalem, “The Life of Our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt,” (March 1996), (accessed 16 April 2013).

49 Ibid.

50 Chadwick, 58.

51 That is the story, provided by Constantine himself, recorded in his earliest hagiography, written by a companion, admirer, and Christian bishop. Eusebius Pamphilus, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, book 1, ch. 28, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 1 (Peabody: Hedrickson Publishers, 2004).

52 N. D’Anvers, Lives and Legends of the Great Hermits and Fathers of the Church, With Other Contemporary Saints (London: George Bells & Sons, 1902), 106.

53 Christopher Bush Coleman, Constantine the Great and Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1914), 74.

54 O.M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 109.

55 Ibid.

56 Genesis 17:12.

57 Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle LVIII, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

58 Ibid.

59 Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed, 25, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

60 Didache, 2, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

61 Ibid.


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