Did Jesus choose only men to be among the Twelve to spare women from persecution?
Jesus chose twelve men to be a special group of disciples, and in a previous article, I gave a few reasons why it made sense that only men were in this special group. But lately, I’ve been hearing people suggest a different reason. This reason is that Jesus chose only men to be among the Twelve because he knew the harsh persecution these men would face. The idea is that Jesus was being a gentleman and so he chose to spare women from this hardship.
The first time I heard this idea I was shocked. Are women, in general, not able to withstand hardship or face persecution? I disagree strongly with this sentiment, and so does the record of history. If we look in the New Testament, if we look at church history from the first century onwards, and if we look beyond the headline news of today, we see that women, as well as men, were and are persecuted for their faith. And some women, as well as men, have been valiant in their sufferings.
In this blog post, I’ve put together a few brief notes on women and persecution, especially women in the early church which is the area of church history I’m most familiar with. Is there anything in the New Testament or church history which hints at the idea that Jesus aimed to spare women from persecution?
Persecuted Women Associated with Paul
From the very beginning of Christianity, women as well as men have been persecuted. They were imprisoned, they were been beaten and tortured, and many were even killed for their Christian faith
The apostle Paul is recorded a few times in the book of Acts as saying that he harassed men and women of “the Way” (Christianity). In Acts 22:4 he stated, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison” (cf. Acts 8:3; 9:1–2; 26:9–10).
Paul himself later went through all kinds of ordeals: imprisonments, beatings, death threats, and a stoning where he was left for dead (2 Cor. 11:23–26). In a later letter written to Timothy, he acknowledged that persecution was to be expected and that things were getting worse (2 Tim. 3:12f cf. Heb. 13:23). Paul was eventually martyred for his faith. However, the actual historical record of his martyrdom is sketchy.
“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (Romans 16:7).
A few verses earlier in Romans 16, Paul mentions another missionary couple, Priscilla and Aquila, who were his good friends and ministry colleagues. Paul says that the couple literally risked their necks for his sake (Rom. 16:3–5). We aren’t told what happened, but it seems all three were in a dangerous situation and that Priscilla and Aquila bore the brunt of this to save Paul.
Chrysostom commented on the bravery of Priscilla, Junia, Mary of Rome (Rom. 16:6), and women like them when he said,
“For the women of those days were more spirited than lions, sharing with the apostles their labours for the gospel’s sake. In this way they went travelling with them, and also performed all other ministries.” (Homily 31 on Romans; Greek: PG 60, 669)
Persecuted Women in the First Few Centuries AD
Until Christianity became a tolerated religion in 313, being a Christian in the Roman world could be difficult and dangerous. There was often suspicion, hostility, and alienation from family, friends, and the community when someone rejected their traditional customs, Jewish or pagan, to follow Jesus. The whole background of 1 Peter and Revelation is the persecution of Christians, and women were not exempt.
The author of 1 Clement, writing around the year 90, mentions Christian women tortured for their faith. He refers to them as “Danaïds and Dircae” indicating humiliating, degrading, and cruel tortures. The Danaïds and Dircae scenarios were hideous forms of entertainment that featured women in the arena and which typically led to barbaric deaths.
Clement of Alexandria (born AD 150) mentions a story of Peter’s wife. But it may be legendary, rather than based on fact.
“They say, accordingly, that the blessed Peter, on seeing his wife led to death, rejoiced on account of her call and conveyance home, and called very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, ‘Remember the Lord.’ Such was the marriage of the blessed, and their perfect disposition toward those dearest to them.” Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7.11.
In a letter written by Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan, when Pliny was the governor of Pontus and Bithynia (111 to 113), he writes that he interrogated and tortured two female ministers: “I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves ‘who were called ministers/ deacons’ (quae ministrae dicebantur)” (Pliny, Letters 10.96.8). Pliny was suspicious of Christians and wanted to know what they were on about, so he used a favourite Roman method, interrogation by torture. Perhaps these women recalled Jesus’s words in Matthew 10:17–18 when they were being interrogated by the governor.
In chapter 8 of his Church History, Eusebius wrote about the persecution of Christians in his own time, in the first dozen, or so, years of the 300s. He recounts examples of specific men and women who were tortured and killed, often horrifically, and makes this observation:
As for the women, inspired by the divine Word, they showed themselves as manly [courageous] as the men. Some were subjected to the same ordeals as men and won the same prize for their valor; others, while dragged away to seduction [that is, rape], surrendered their spirits to death rather than their bodies to dishonor. (Eusebius, Church History 8.14.14)
Peter Brown, in his wonderful book The Body and Society, comments on the martyrdom stories of men and women in the early church. This includes the famous story of two women Perpetua and Felicitas, the story of Blandina, and the stories of many other men and women. Peter Brown remarked, “In the legacy of courage, at least, men and women were remembered as equals within the Church.” There’s no exaggeration in this statement.
Religious Persecution Today
Religious persecution has never stopped; it still continues. Last year, for example, more than 2000 Christians were killed in Nigeria, and this year the number is already well over 1000. (Source: Christian Post) Just because they are Christians.
The politics behind these murders in Nigeria are different from the politics behind Christian persecution in the Roman Empire, and different again from the politics behind other episodes of persecution that have taken place throughout the world at different times. But a common thread is that women are usually not excluded, and sometimes, they are even targeted.
I live in a country where Christians are not beaten, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs. But many of Jesus’s first female followers, as well as his later disciples, gave up everything to follow him. We mustn’t underestimate the courage of female followers of Christ. And we mustn’t be ignorant of the countless men and women who stood up for what they believed and were persecuted and even killed.
Jesus speaks about persecution a few times in the Gospels. He knew persecution would happen. Yet nothing in the Gospels suggests that Jesus wanted to spare his female followers, but not men. The idea that Jesus didn’t choose any women to be among the Twelve in order to spare them from being mistreated and persecuted is a contrived idea with no basis. Jesus’s female followers were not spared.
While I have your attention, please take a moment to say a prayer for our brothers and sisters in Christ and other political prisoners who are presently suffering because of their beliefs and convictions.
“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3 NRSV).
 Slander and lies (e.g., Matt. 5:10–12), confiscation of property, slavery, ostracization (e.g., John 16:2), sexual assault, and exile were, and are, other forms of religious persecution.
 Prisons in ancient times were often dark, cramped, putrid, and generally miserable places. Prisoners could be chained or placed in stocks. And women, such as Junia, could be sexually abused by prisoners or prison guards. This was not an uncommon experience for female prisoners. Furthermore, if Andronicus and Junia were freedmen, and not freeborn Roman citizens, their imprisonment would most likely have involved torture. I have more on Paul’s fellow prisoners here.
“Because of jealousy, women were persecuted as Danaïds and Dircae, suffering in this way terrible and unholy tortures …” (1 Clement 6:2). Christine Trevett briefly explains Clement’s reference to “Danaïds and Dircae.”
The humiliation of arena victims was the norm and the crowd was entertained by having victims enact, pantomime-like, scenes from mythology. . . . In the case of the Danaïds, then, helpless Christian women may have been pursued by “suitors” or else forced to re-enact the punishment of Tartarus [filling bottomless barrels with water] . . . As for being like a Dirce, in the mythology, Dirce was wife to Lycus, king of Thebes, who had a slave girl called Antiope, a Theban princess. Dirce treated her cruelly, but Antiope was avenged by the son she had had to abandon. Dirce’s fate was to be tied to the horns of a bull and dragged to death as punishment for her cruelty. Christian victims did suffer a “dragging” in the arena, and this would be the point of [Clement’s] analogy.
Trevett, Christian Women and the Time of the Apostolic Fathers (AD c.80–160): Corinth, Rome and Asia Minor (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006), 52–54.
Later in this letter, the author of 1 Clement speaks more generally about the bravery of women and states, “Many women, being strengthened by the grace of God, have performed courageous deeds” (1 Clement 55:3). And he mentions Esther from the Hebrew Bible and Judith from the Septuagint to back up his claim.
 I’ve quoted from Paul L. Maier, Eusebius – The Church History (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999, 2007), 310. The Greek of 8.14.14 is on the Perseus website. A different English translation is on the New Advent website.
 Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men and Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 142.
 Jesus mentions persecution in Matthew 5:10–12 (which is said to a large crowd), Matthew 10:16–18 (spoken to the Twelve), Mark 10:29–30 (spoken to Jesus’s disciples but not limited to the Twelve), and John 15:20, 16:2 (spoken to Jesus’s disciples who would have included the Twelve).
Female Martyrs and their Ministry in the Early Church
Junia: The Jewish Woman Imprisoned with Paul
A List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1–16
The Twelve Apostles were All Male
Jesus had many female followers – many!
All my articles on Jesus and Women are here.
All my articles that look at persecution are here.
All my articles on brave Bible women are here.
A series on deacons in the apostolic and post-apostolic periods and Phoebe are here.
The Martyrdom of Blandina (AD 177), as recorded by Eusebius in his Church History 5.1.37ff.
The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas (c. 203), some of which was taken from Perpetua’s own prison diary.
The Martyrdom of the Scillitan Martyrs: seven men and five women were beheaded in Carthage on the 17th of July, 180. The five women were Januaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata, and Secunda.
The Martyrdom of Justin Martyr (c. 165): Justin, the famous philosopher and apologist, was scourged and beheaded in Rome with six of his students including a woman named Charito who is quoted as confessing, “I am a Christian by the grace of God.”