Sunday, March 08, 2009
The Truth About First Century Women - International Women's Day Synchroblog
Today is International Women's Day, a day dedicated to the celebration of women’s social, economic and political achievements worldwide, and I'm celebrating by participating in the IWD Syncroblog my wife is organizing. She specifically asked us to write about women in the Bible, and I couldn't help but think of some of the things I've been learning in the "Early Church and Roman Society" class I'm currently taking at Austin Presbyterian Seminary. It's a fascinating class all around, and, fortuitously enough, we've actually just started discussing the roles of women in first-century cultures. Understanding this context is essential, I think, to understanding how the New Testament addresses the role of women in society and especially the early church. We have to know what it stands in contrast to in order to understand how revolutionary the Bible was for its day in regards to women.

First off, it's important to recognize that when talk about the cultures of the New Testament, we're not just talking about one monolithic thing. In our class we actually distinguished four different sets of cultural expectations that could have provided the setting for the New Testament writings about women: Jewish, Roman, Classical Greek/Athenian, and Macedonian/Hellenistic (I was intrigued to discover that Hellenistic - i.e. post-Alexander Macedonian -attitudes towards women were somewhat different than the older, Classical Greek ideals.) We also distinguished between upper and lower class gender norms, as well as cultural ideals versus actual practice.

I can't get into all of these here, but for this post at least, I did want to focus specifically on Jewish attitudes towards women in setting of the gospels. While of course we can't just disregard the Roman, Greek and Hellenistic contexts either since 1) many of the gospels were shaped within those settings, and 2) Roman and especially Hellenistic norms were certainly an influencing factor on Jewish culture in first century Palestine, when we look at the context of Jesus' teachings the Jewish cultural setting is primary and provides the baseline for everything else. The most intriguing thing I discovered in my class discussion was that there was apparently a pretty sharp divide between theory and practice among the Jews of Jesus day. Textual evidence (mainly from the rabbis) rarely talks about women except in regards to cleanliness laws, and, unlike other ancient Mediterranean cultures, there were no special festivals or days dedicated to women, or any specifically female civic or religious societies in first-century Judaism. When women are mentioned by the rabbis, it is basically just to recommend that they be kept separate from the men both in the synagogue and at home, and that they not be seen in public any more than necessary.

Archaeological evidence (e.g. tablets, inscriptions, architecture, etc.), however, shows that most of these rabbinical restrictions were rarely (if ever) enforced in actuality. For example, while the early rabbis wanted to have a separate "women's section" of the synagogue, archaeologists have yet to uncover any first century synagogues with such a partition. Likewise, while the rabbinical writings generally restrict theological training to men, ancient inscriptions indicate that in actuality many women did receive instruction in the Torah. Or consider the gospel narratives themselves. While written norms wanted to keep Jewish women indoors and away from the public sphere, in the gospels we see Jesus frequently encountering women out and about in society. The inevitable conclusion, as my professor pointed out, is that the picture of first century Jewish women as cloistered and segregated is not much more than an unrealized "ideal" created by a small handful of influential (male) rabbis. It may have been what the religious leaders thought "ought" to be the case, but the actual lives of real people were far different.

We also pointed out that a lot of this discrepancy probably had to do with socio-economic realities. Whether we're talking about Roman, Greek, or Jewish culture, the rules that apply to upper-class women are often simply impossible for the working class poor to abide by. When you're barely making it (as most people in this time period were) everyone, male or female, does whatever is necessary to survive. The rabbi can talk all he wants about how women shouldn't be out in public, but when your family's very survival depends on a wife or daughter going and selling your wares in the marketplace, religious ideals are usually going to take second place to economic realities.

Looking at it in this light, I can't help but draw a comparison with the situation in a lot of conservative churches these days. I can recall sitting in very culturally and theologically conservative churches and listening to the pastor tell his rural, working-class congregation that God's ideal for the family is for women to be stay-at-home-moms and for the men to be out working in the world as the breadwinners. And I recall looking around at the wives and mothers actually present as he said this and realizing that the vast majority of them didn't have any choice but to work outside the home. Given the hard realities of a depressed rural economy, most families simply can't survive on a single income anymore. What this pastor was preaching had no relevance to the actual lives of his people, and did little more than create guilt complexes for those women who were being told that they were disobeying God by doing what was necessary to provide for their families.

In these sorts of contexts then Jesus' teachings and example in the gospels is truly liberating. Rather than laying heavy burdens on his listeners by agreeing with the unrealistic ideals of the Pharisaical rabbis, Jesus stepped into the reality of women's lives and affirmed them where they were at. Never do we see Jesus telling a woman to retreat from engagement in society or to simply stay in their place as women. In fact, when Martha rebuked Mary for leaving her feminine role and daring to go receive rabbinical training along with the men, it is Martha, not Mary, that Jesus chastises. Likewise, we see Jesus out in public engaging in theological dialogue with women (e.g. the Woman at the Well, the Canaanite woman, and Martha herself after the death of her brother Lazarus), welcoming their presence as followers and disciples, and enlisting them as the very first witnesses to the resurrection. Jesus countered the dominant ideology of his day by dignifying the roles women were already playing in society and expanding their roles as participants in his mission. Rather than seeing themselves as victims of economic circumstance falling short of God's ideal, women could see their active, productive roles in public society as valuable assets for the kingdom of God. As my own experience in the aforementioned church bears out, this is a message that still needed for many women today.

Click here for the rest of the IWD Synchroblog posts.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 2:47 PM | Permalink |


At 3/08/2009 08:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Mike you said:

"Rather than laying heavy burdens on his listeners by affirming the unrealistic ideals of the Pharisaical rabbis, Jesus stepped into the reality of women's lives and affirmed them where they were at."

What a great example for us as followers of Jesus to follow.


At 3/08/2009 10:02:00 PM, Blogger Scholastica

Interesting post. I agree that many NT scholars tend to overplay the "ideal" version of women's social role as private/sequestered from men while underplaying the obvious - that the Gospel stories indicate that women *were* out and about in public life, to some extent. Some scholars in particular seem invested in establishing this dichotomy in order to prove that Jesus was a 1st century feminist. Have you read or heard of "Women & the Historical Jesus: Feminist Myths of Christian Origins" by Kathleen Corley? I found it a thought-provoking read.

As a side note, I would add that the Jewish holiday traditionally associated with women is Rosh Hodesh, the new moon festival. I am not certain how far the back the association goes though...


At 3/08/2009 10:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Likewise, while the rabbinical writings generally restrict theological training to men, ancient inscriptions indicate that in actuality many women did receive instruction in the Torah.

Intriguing! Citation? (Ideally web or semi-popular, as I have no access to an academic library.)


At 3/08/2009 10:56:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Scholastica - thanks for the book recommendation. And personally I don't think it's necessary to show that the rabbinical ideal was actually carried out very often to still demonstrate that Jesus was opposed to it, and did in fact elevate the status of women. And while the term "feminist" may be historically anachronistic, in the substance of his approach (i.e. in treating women as fully equal members of the human race) I do think Jesus actually was what we today would call a "feminist".

AH - I'm going off my notes from the professor so I don't actually have any citations. I can ask him about it though next time I'm in class.


At 3/09/2009 01:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

That would be awesome, thanks Mike.


At 3/09/2009 02:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

Great post, Mike. I would be interested in any citations you could provide as well.


At 3/09/2009 08:23:00 PM, Blogger Unknown

Thanks for the post. It's great to find more on the NT period and context. Learning of the history and social conditions always helps me deepen my understanding of the text and see things from a different perspective, something I think Christ calls us all to do.


At 3/10/2009 01:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Thank you so much. If you dont mind, I'd like to re-produce your entry onto my own blog so I can get your voice out into my own community here in NYC Chinatown. Please let me know if this is ok. I've already done so with Kathy Escobar's entry on IWD.
=) Jasmine
Inner-City Chinatown, NYC


At 3/10/2009 09:17:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

No problem kupercaya. Feel free to use whatever you like.


At 3/11/2009 09:44:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Okay, here are a few citations (according to my professors) where you can find out more about early inscription data regarding women's roles in the early Roman Empire:

Eisen, Ute. Women Office Holders and Early Christianity

Kramer, Ross. Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World

Osiek, Carolyn & MacDonald, Margaret. A Women's Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity


At 3/11/2009 02:16:00 PM, Blogger M James

I think what is most interesting is the trajectory of womens rights. In ancient Egypt and Babylonia, women had tons of rights, some of them pretty modern. They could own property, borrow money, sign contracts, initiate divorce, appear in court as a witness,etc. They could even become Pharaoh!

But then, starting with the Greeks and Romans, all the way through until fairly recently in history, they lost all those rights.

I would be fascinated to read your thoughts on why that was!


At 3/11/2009 08:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Thanks, Mike! The link is here:


At 3/11/2009 10:45:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Interesting point Michael, I'm not quite sure how to explain why certain cultures have more open attitudes towards women than others. It doesn't necessarily break down along geographic or religious lines. e.g. Babylon may have been more progressive but other Mesopotamian cultures - Assyrians, Persians, etc. - weren't necessarily; and while Classical Greece was more restrictive, Hellenistic Greece was less so. And while most later European cultures were more or less patriarchal, the Celts, who dominated most of Europe before the Romans, were one of the most egalitarian societies in the ancient world. Also, some cultures shifted over time. Rome was more open at certain times, and more restrictive at others.

So yeah, I have no idea. I haven't done a lot of reading on what factors influence a culture to be more or less patriarchal, though it would be a really interesting study. I wonder if anyone has done any work on the topic. Anything I came up with would be pure speculation.


At 3/11/2009 11:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Thanks, Mike!

Lainie, I did some on-line searching on my own for citations. I wasn't able to find anything too detailed, but books on google books have footnotes that indicate that the following books should have good Judaism-centric info (although I haven't seen them myself, as they're not in my public library system :( )

"And All Your Children Shall Be Learned: Women and the Study of Torah in Jewish Law and History," by Shoshana Pantel Zolty

"Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue," by Bernadette, J. Brooten