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’ve been imprisoned, they’ve 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 states, “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. Though, the actual historical record of his martyrdom is sketchy.
In Romans 16:7, Paul mentions a missionary couple, Andronicus and Junia, who had been imprisoned, presumably because of their ministry. And Junia is a woman.
“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.
Persecuted Women in the 1st–3rd Centuries
Until Christianity became a legal 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 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 deacons: “I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves ‘who were called deacons/ ministers’ (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.
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.
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), 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. More 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.
 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).
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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 as recorded by Eusebius in his Church History 5.1.37ff.
The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, some of which is taken from Perpetua’s own prison diary.
13 thoughts on “Did Jesus aim to spare women from persecution?”
In what ways were the 12 men “special”, in comparison to the women?
It is true that traveling the open road was more dangerous for women than men.
Lydia-Euodia and Syntyche were also courageous. Hosting a fledgling church was dangerous, as Jason found out.
Hi Richard, Jesus set the Twelve apart from his other male and female disciples. This may have been for symbolic reasons (cf. the Twelve Tribes of Israel). And the Twelve were especially charged with being witnesses of Jesus’s entire ministry to Israel.
I’ve just come back from a conference where I gave two talks. The second one was on “Daring Women of the Bible.” Lydia was the New Testament woman I focused on the most, noting the dangers of being a Christian minister and/or a host of a house church in the first century.
Mary (Acts 12:12) was also brave considering that Agrippa had just killed James and imprisoned Peter. And the fact that Peter goes straight to Mary’s house after being released from prison, indicates that her house was a hub for Christian meetings.
Similarly, Paul and Silas go to Lydia’s house after being released from prison and after being asked to leave town. I have a couple of paragraphs commenting on Lydia’s courage here: https://margmowczko.com/lydia-of-thyatira-philippi/
That is a nice parallel between Mary (Acts 12:12) and Lydia. Good point.
Yes, Jesus sets the 12 apart from other men. But did he set them apart from the women? Perhaps it was the segregation of the sexes that set women and men apart from each other.
I do think a main function of the Twelve was symbolic. The women don’t seem to have a similar symbolic function. And the writers of the Synoptic Gospels occasionally point out that the Twelve were present in a certain scene, such as the Last Supper, or that they were privy to a certain teaching. They don’t make similar points about the women, even though they may well have been present in many of these instances.
Fair enough. So we do not read about a special role given to a group of female disciples, equivalent to the 12 male disciples. It is an argument from silence. What could explain this silence? The 12 men would be able to travel without suffering sexual harassment, for example. Could this explain why Jesus gave them a special role? Or could it explain why the gospel writers wrote more about them than about the women? The men’s freedom to travel would have allowed them to evangelize many of the communities for which the gospels were written. If Mark was written from the reminiscences of Peter, it would naturally have more to say about the experiences of the 12 male disciples than about the females. The other synoptic gospels used Mark. I have not thought through all the possibilities: I am just saying that we need to be cautious about the argument from silence.
I’m not sure what statements I’ve made that are an argument from silence. I’ve simply stated that the Twelve (who were all men) were in a special group, and this statement is not from silence.
Also, we see in ancient texts, including the NT, that missionaries travelled in groups or in male-female pairs (cf. 1 Cor. 9:5). (More on 1 Cor. 9:5 here.) It’s unlikely women, let alone “a” woman, travelled alone.
Sexual harassment and forced prostitution were persecutions that were more common for women than for men, but the NT is silent about sparing women from persecution.
In case you can’t tell from my pushback, I always appreciate your input on these things, Richard. Thank you.
Hi Marg, you wrote, “The women don’t seem to have a similar symbolic function.” Isn’t this an argument from silence? If Mark’s gospel had been written from the reminiscences of Mary Magdalene, instead of Peter (say), it might have told us about a special role of an inner circle of women disciples, and less about the 12 special male disciples. If Alphonso Davies were to write about Canadian national football (soccer), he would write mostly about the men’s team because that is what he would know about. Does that help to explain my point?
There is a difference between being courageous and being foolish. The early Christian missionaries were (all?) Roman citizens. I do not think this is because the non-citizens lacked courage. I think it is because, with courage, the Roman citizen missionaries could achieve what would have been foolish for non-citizens to attempt. Since the missionaries were Roman citizens for practical security reasons, it is reasonable to suppose that they skewed male for the same reason.
All I can go on are the surviving records (canonical and apocryphal) of Jesus’s ministry, and in these records I can’t see that the women had a symbolic function. So I think my choice of words, “seem,” is valid. But if you have an inkling of something different, I’m keen to hear it.
Thank you for your latest article. I am glad that you refer to the return by Paul and Silas to Lydia’s house after they had been asked to leave Philippi.
Having ordered the beating and imprisonment of Paul and Silas, the “στρατηγοὶ” (military commanders?) in Philippi became afraid when they learnt that Paul was a Roman citizen, and implored them to leave. By going back to Lydia’s house, Paul and Silas were saying, “This lady and her family are friends of ours. If you try to treat them as you have treated us, you will have us to answer to!” Their return to her house made a clear statement to the authorities, and provided a degree of protection for her, her family and the other new believers.
Hi Trevor, I can’t see that Paul and Silas returning to Lydia’s was to her benefit in any way. What could the itinerant preachers, who were foreigners in the city, have done (humanly speaking) if Lydia was thrown in prison or harassed in some other way?
If anything, it might have been the other way round: Lydia’s standing in the community may have given Paul and Silas some protection while they were under her roof, and she could have put in a good word for them.
Thank you for your interesting comment. The advantage that Paul and Silas had is that they were both Roman citizens and that they had been mistreated by the city authorities, who were worried about the risk of retribution. I am sure that you are right that as a supplier of luxury goods Lydia had some status. Perhaps she even had some influential friends, or at least, influential clients.
Trevor, the Roman citizenship of Paul and Silas gave them protection, but I can’t see how it gave protection to their friends, such as Lydia. Lydia was probably not a Roman citizen since her nam is Greek. I believe that recent studies have shown that her trade is NOT an indication of her wealth or status, so there is no reason to suppose that she had connections that would have given her protection. My article on Euodia and Syntyche argues that Lydia struggled shoulder-to-shoulder beside Paul in the face of persecution, and that Paul urged the Philippians to similarly struggle alongside Lydia-Euodia and Syntyche in the face of the ongoing opposition. Phil 4:1-4 is saying that Lydia (a.ka. Euodia) and Syntyche had stood firm, with Paul, so the Philippians should stand firm with them.
there is an underground church in a moslem country made up mostly of and led by women. they are facing hardship and even death every day for being christian. i am sure they are the strongest bravest women in the world.