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The Status of Women in Greek, Roman and Jewish Society by Elisabeth M Tetlow from 'Women and Ministry in the New Testament'

The Status of Women in Greek, Roman and Jewish Society

by Elisabeth M Tetlow

from Women and Ministry in the New Testament,Paulist Press, 1980 pp 5 - 29.
Republised on our website with the necessary permissions


The social world of the Mediterranean in the time of Jesus had a long and complex history. Israel was not the only great civilization in ancient times. In the East there had been Akkadians, Hittites, Assyrians and Persians among others, and in Palestine itself there had been Canaanite city-states. These societies had been for the most part patriarchal, relegating women to an inferior and subordinate position.

Most societies in the ancient world were patriarchal. There were, however, a few exceptions. In the third millennium B.C. the Sumerians accorded women a position which was almost equal to that of men. Women were, for example, able to own and control the use of property. They were educated and legally able to take more than one husband. In the second millennium, however, Sumerian men achieved supremacy and reduced the rights and status of women from that time on.(1)

In the West, Egypt was another exception. The status of Egyptian women was high and their legal rights approached equality with men throughout the last three millennia B.C.(2) Marriages were monogamous and commonly by mutual consent. Women had equal rights in inheritance.(3) Because of these rights many women were able to become wealthy and through their wealth acquire political power. A few women even ruled as pharaohs.(4)

The civilization of Sumer died out and its place in the East was taken by patriarchal societies. The civilization of Egypt on the other hand survived. By the time of the hellenistic period, the continuous tradition of freedom, education and equality of women in Egyptian society was beginning to have an influence on the position of women in Greek society in other parts of the hellenic empire. The Romans also encountered the influence of Egypt as Julius Caesar and later Mark Antony mingled their destinies with its queen, Cleopatra VII. By the first century the eastern part of the empire was firmly committed to patriarchy and the subordination of women. In the West, at least in Egypt, women were educated, free and almost equal in status to men. Greek and Roman societies were between the two extremes. In both there was a tension of opposites: a patriarchal ideal of the silent and obedient wife, working in seclusion within the home, and the reality of historical women who owned wealth and property and exercised a role in political society. The real women of history were constantly challenging the patriarchal ideal of male dominance and superiority.

Judaism in the first century had emerged from the oriental patriarchal tradition in which women were considered the property of men with no rights, no role in society except childbearing, and no education. In the intertestamental period Judaism was, however, affected by its encounter with hellenism. This produced a double effect. Some schools within Judaism reacted negatively, attempting to reinforce the subordination and seclusion of women in order to safeguard the purity of Judaism against the influence of hellenism. In the diaspora this was often impossible. The Jewish people were living within hellenistic society. There were Jewish women who had acquired wealth and education within that society.(5) Such women were beginning to have a voice in business and politics. Many Jews lived their everyday lives more according to the mores of hellenistic society than those of Torah and Talmud. Greek philosophical and theological ideas began to be taken up by Jewish philosophers and theologians.(6)

It was into this complex world that Christianity was born. Christianity originated in the Judaism of Palestine, which was itself partially hellenized. It soon spread to Greece, Egypt and Rome. It was within the experience of its encounter with these cultures that

the Christian faith was formulated and its scripture composed. In these lands of the first-century Mediterranean world, the earliest Church made decisions about the position and role of women within the Christian community. Such decisions were inevitably affected by the context of Jewish, Hellenistic or Roman culture in which they were made. This chapter will examine the question of the status and religious role of women in Greek, Roman and Jewish societies in the centuries that preceded the birth of Christ.


The quest for historical information about the status of women in ancient Greek society is a lively issue among scholars today.(7) There are a variety of available sources into which the historian may delve for information about women: ancient historians, biographers, orators, philosophers, poets and playwrights, as well as data found in the fine arts, in inscriptions and papyri, and in urban and religious archaeology.

Scholars have long debated whether the earliest social and religious structures were matriarchal. Matriarchy has many shades of meaning, from a society in which the roles of men and women are equal to one in which women rule and men are subordinate. At least among the heavenly hierarchy of ancient Greece goddesses at first predominated. Hesiod’s Theogony, which was composed around 700 B.C., described the shift in power from the earlier goddesses, whom he associated with passions and evil forces, to the rational heroic male god, Zeus. Once he had gained power, Zeus established a patriarchal order among the gods. Thenceforth male gods were free to exploit goddesses and earthly women at their pleasure.

The Late Bronze Age

In the eighth century B.C. the blind poet Homer described the period of the Trojan War which had taken place near the end of the Bronze Age, four centuries earlier.(8) Many powerful and influential women appeared in the Homeric epics, among them the Greek queens Helen, Clytemnestra and Penelope. Marriage was frequently matrilineal, that is, the inheritance passed from mother to daughter. The right of Helen to leave her husband and enter into a new marriage with Paris was not challenged. The probable reason why Menelaus and his allies went to war over the issue was that Menelaus’ own right to the throne of Sparta lay in his status as Helen’s husband. If she married another, he would lose his right to political and economic power in the city-state. Likewise after Agamemnon had departed, Clytemnestra herself held the rule of Mycenae. She proceeded to take a new husband and together they continued to rule, finally killing Agamemnon upon his return. During Odysseus’ absence, Penelope was besieged by suitors, probably not so much because she was personally attractive, but rather because she ruled the wealthy and politically important city-state of Ithaca.

In general, Homer portrayed these ancient women within the framework of his own patriarchal values. Sons were valued more than daughters. Wifely fidelity was praised, while the double standard was taken for granted. Men could be polygamous and most had slave concubines. Women generally stayed indoors and performed domestic tasks. Upper-class women had slaves to do the more menial jobs. It is quite possible, though, that this portrait of women reflected not only Homer’s own experience in the eighth century, but the actual practice in the twelfth century. Mycenian tablets reported that the food allotment for men at the time was two and a half times that of women.(9) Such would tend to indicate that the position of women was inferior to that of men.

Archaic Greece (800-500 B. C.)

The records of the archaic period are very sparse. The law codes of two city-states do give some information on the status of women there in the latter half of the period. The law code of Sparta was composed in the seventh century and was attributed to Lycurgus. The most important role of women in archaic Sparta was the bearing of children. For this reason women were to be fed equal rations, educated and trained in athletics. Women were able to marry at a later age than in other city-states and therefore faced less danger of death in pregnancy and childbirth. Toward the end of the period many women in Sparta had become quite wealthy and reduced the population by refusing to bear many children.(10) Spartan women were portrayed by Plutarch as heroic and proud.(11)

The law code of Gortyna on Crete dates from about the sam(12) There women had the right to own, control and inherit property. A certain percentage of what a woman produced through her work belonged to her. In divorce a woman retained half her property.

It is known that there were at least nine women poets during this period. A few are known by name, such as Corinna and Sappho, but little of their poetry has been preserved. These women were educated and belonged to the upper class of society. Thus they enjoyed the freedom and the leisure to be able to write. None of them lived in Athens.(13)

Athens in the Clasical Period

The situation of women in archaic and classical Athens was far more restricted than in other Greek city-states. Women were generally excluded from education and political life. The sixth-century law code of Solon legalized prostitution, reflecting social acceptance of the double standard.

There has been some debate among scholars whether women were totally secluded in Athens or whether they enjoyed some measure of freedom.(14) The truth probably lies in between the two extremes. There is evidence that there were very definite expectations for the different sex roles. These did, however, vary somewhat among different socio-economic classes.(15) Women were not completely secluded in ancient Athens, although many men would have liked to see them so. Women did, to some extent, seek a role and a voice in their society. Yet they did not enjoy full social or political freedom as such.

The primary duty of women in ancient Athens was to marry and to bear legitimate children so that their family unit might continue. If there was no son, a daughter might inherit, but was obligated to marry her next of kin. A dowry was given at marriage for the support of the wife. It was to remain intact during the marriage while she received eighteen percent interest on it annually.(16) Divorce might be initiated by either partner, but there are few records of divorces initiated by the wife, who had to be aided in the procedure by her father. In divorce, the children were considered the property of the husband and remained with him.

Marriages were arranged by parents. A girl was expected tomarry by the time she was fourteen. This left few years for her education, which was confined to the home and concerned primarily with domestic affairs. Women were expected to work, but within the home. They spun and wove and managed their slaves. The homes had separate women’s quarters.(17) When their husbands entertained guests, women were not permitted to be present. Yet women did go out of the home to attend festivals and funerals. It is probable, but not certain, that they were able to go to the theater.

Attic literature of the period generally portrayed women as inferior and of dull and unpleasant character.(18) It was thought that women should not be educated since that would make them more dangerous to men.(19) One of the least misogynistic writers in classical Greek literature was Euripides. He portrayed many of his women characters as strong and noble self-sacrificing heroines. Such women were frequently depicted as stronger and nobler than their male counterparts.(20) He also pictured women as victims of patriarchal exploitation.

The greatest proximity to a concept of equality for women in the classical period is in the Utopian literature. In the ideal society there would be no private property and therefore no need for legitimate heirs. Women were allowed far greater freedom and the right to participate in politics. Plato described his view of the ideal society in the Republic.(21) There women were to be educated for the good of the state. Competent women would be able to become guardians and in that position they would rule over both men and women. Women were also to be trained to fight to defend the state. In the Laws Plato presented another, less idealistic sort of Utopia. There he retreated to limiting women to the traditional sex roles of classical Athens, although he did still affirm education of women,(22) In general women were expected to obey men. Even in the Republic Plato noted that the place of woman was within the confines of her home.(23)

Aristotle had an even lower view of women than his teacher. He believed that inequality between men and women was based upon the law of nature. Man is superior, woman inferior. Husbands and fathers should rule over their wives and daughters.(24) Only men were thought capable of philosophy and the virtues. The role of women was obedience and silence. It has benn suggested (25) that the writings of Aristotle codified the general social practice and mores of Athens during the classical period.

In 430 B.C. Pericles proclaimed that “the best reputation a woman can have is not to be spoken of among men for good or evil.”(26) Women were kept in the shadow in classical Athens. Yet they were permitted to testify in court, were generally literate and had some understanding of economics and politics.(27) The seclusion and silence of women was the cultural ideal. It is not certain that all women were willing to comply with such an ideal in actual historical fact.

Plutarch: A later View of Classical Greece

In the first century A.D., Plutarch wrote his Moralia explaining the customs and mores of the ancient Greeks. His works reflect the same ambivalence found in Plato. He described the ideal woman, employing the example of an heroic woman who had helped to liberate her city-state. Even such a woman, after her heroic deed, then withdrew into seclusion in the women’s quarters, never again meddling in politics, and spending the rest of her days quietly weaving among her family.(28)

In marriage, even if the wife contributed the larger part of the estate, it was more fitting that the entire estate be said to belong to the husband.(29) Wives were to be seen only in the company of their husbands. Otherwise, they were to remain secluded and silent.(30)

On the other hand Plutarch did express his disagreement with Thucydides that women should always be silent.(31) He admitted that women should be educated in philosophy, literature, geometry and astronomy.(32) The husband might serve as the teacher of his wife. Then husband and wife could share in the fruits of education by having a more stimulating life together.(33) In case of disagreement, husbands ought to persuade their wives through the use of reason, not force.(34) Plutarch also thought that they should eat meals together.

Plutarch made reference to women prophets and poets.(35) He noted the general literacy of married women and praised women who possessed political wisdom.(36) He gave examples of women who exercised a political role. One such woman in Phrygia administered the government of her city-state and did so “excellently.”(37) The women portrayed in Plutarch’s Moralia come from all areas of Greece. This may account for the greater freedom and education of women than was common in classical Athens. It is also possible that Plutarch reflected some of the mores of Roman and Hellenistic society in his own times.


Women in classical Greece did have some education and some role in society. Both were likely to be greater if they did not live in Athens. However, neither their education nor their social role was equal to that of men of the same socio-economic class. Women did not have the freedom to determine their own lives. There was a saying in ancient Greece, at various times attributed to Thales, Socrates and Plato, in which man thanked the gods that he was not uncivilized, a slave, or a woman.(38)


The hellenistic period extended from the time of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century until the Roman conquests in the first century B.C. Culturally Hellenism continued to exercise an important influence in the Roman empire in the first centuries A.D.

Alexander the Great brought the era of the Greek city-states to an end. They were replaced by a vast cosmopolitan empire. This fact had a great impact on all aspects of social life and culture. As society changed, so the position and role of women within society also changed

The hellenistic queens in Greece, Syria and Egypt held real political power. The mother of Alexander, the Macedonian queen Olympias, ruled Greece when her son was away on his conquests. In Egypt, Arsinoe II co-ruled with her husband, Ptolemy II. The images of both appeared on contemporary coins. Cleopatra VII ruled in her own right at the end of the hellenistic period.(39)

Yet the situation of women at this time was far from ideal. Their marriages were arranged. Even the marriages of queens were political alliances. In hellenistic Egypt, brother-sister marriages were common in ruling families, in order to preserve economic power within the family unit. Kings practiced polygamy. The wife who was most adept at political intrigue and even murder was the one who survived and gained power in the hellenistic courts

Women in the colonies lacked the forms of male protection which they had known in Greece. Consequently they had to learn to protect themselves. Marriage and family life were weakened as the empire expanded. One of the most effective resources of women in this period was economic power. Through their personal wealth women were able to gain legal rights and a voice in public affairs. Many women were honored for their generosity toward the state. In the first century B.C. a woman magistrate was honored for building a reservoir and an aqueduct.(40) Both the accomplishments and the political office of the woman may have been a function of her own personal wealth. In Sparta at this time women owned forty percent of the land and exercised great political and economic power.(41)

Laws varied in different regions of the empire. In Egypt women had the right to make contracts and wills and the obligation of taxation. Distinctions were made between Greek and Egyptian women. The former required a male guardian in order to make a legal contract; the latter did not. In Greece women had the right to conduct business, make loans and manumit slaves with the approval of their guardians.(42)

Hellenistic marriage contracts stated rights and obligations for both spouses, although these were different for husband and wife. In the case of divorce the dowry was returned to the wife and the husband had to continue to support the children. The communal property, however, was retained by the husband.(43) The double standard prevailed and was recognized. Husbands could take concubines and prostitution was legal.

Upper-class women received some degree of education and many were literate. In hellenistic Egypt there was greater literacy among women than among men.(44) There were hellenistic women poets, such as Erinna, some of whose verses are extant.(45) In 218 B.C. Aristodama, a woman poet of Smyrna, was granted honorary citizenship by the Aetolians.(46)

The dominant philosophical schools of the Stoics and Neopyth-agoreans excluded women and emphasized traditional sex roles.(47) They were challenged by the Epicureans and the Cynics. The Epicureans admitted women on an equal level to their school. There was a woman philosopher among the Cynics named Hipparchia who taught in public with her husband.(48)

When the parochial Greek city-states became a worldwide empire great changes occurred in society and mores. Women exercised political power with skill. Political and economic power made some women equal in status to men. Other women became competent professionals in athletics, music, poetry, literature, philosophy, oratory, medicine and various crafts.(49) Class barriers were breaking down and the institution of the family was weakened. Traditional social roles of the sexes were challenged and this resulted in controversy and conflict.(50) A man could no longer presume his wife’s compliance with a role of seclusion, passivity and silence. The challenge had come, not from a change in philosophic or social ideals, but from the concrete fact of historical women who possessed real economic power and who used it to struggle for freedom and equality.

The Religious Role of Women in Ancient and Hellenistic Greece

Frescoes of the ancient Minoan civilization on Crete portray many women priestesses. They wore special ornate dress and danced in the sacred olive grove as part of the religious cult. Goddesses were pictured surrounded by female dancers. Male priests were fewer in number and dressed in the same style of clothes as the women priests.(51)

From the time of the installation of Zeus at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of the gods, the role of women in traditional Greek religion became subordinate to that of men. Even the rites of the goddesses were dominated by male priests.(52) Some cults excluded women from any form of participation.(53)

There was a woman “priest” of Apollo at Delphi who was called a Pythia. She was usually a middle-aged, celibate, uneducated woman who was chosen and then trained by the male priest. Her role was to go into a trance, possibly under the influence of drugs, during which she would utter gibberish. This was then interpreted by the male priests according to their own political research and an oracle was given by them to the petitioner,

The woman priest of Athena Polias, the patron goddess of Athens, was important and influential in the political life of the city in the classical and hellenistic periods. The office was hereditary in a prominent noble family. On the annual feast of the Panathenaea, women and men participated in the processions and young virgins carried baskets.(54)

Plutarch made reference to women priests of Dionysius who were involved in a political demonstration, using their office to influence the political authority at Elis.(55) He also mentioned a woman priest of Demeter who performed marriage ceremonies.(56)

The role of women in traditional Greek religion was generally more restricted than it was in the syncretistic mystery cults which came to prominence in the empire during the hellenistic period. Many women converted to the mystery religions. It is possible that some of these conversions were motivated by the greater role women were permitted to play in the mystery cults. Some of the cults disregarded social and sexual roles completely. The cult of Agdistis in Philadelphia admitted men and women, free persons and slaves. The Eleusian mysteries from the fourth century B.C. on admitted women, slaves and Greek-speaking foreigners.(57)

In the Eleusian mysteries the highest office was held by a male chief priest. The lower ranking priests were both men and women. The woman priest of Demeter and the male chief priest were each paid a small coin by every initiate. Events at Eleusis were dated according to the name and year in office of this priestess. Some women priests were married, others lived in celibate communities.(58)

Women were able to exercise a leadership role in the mystery religions.(59) Women priests and religious functionaries were publicly honored in hellenistic society.(60) The mystery religions did not, however, proclaim the social equality of women. In general they held a negative view of sex and demanded continence before and during their rites. Asexual spiritual marriage was practiced. Although such a view to some extent freed women from being regarded and treated merely as sex objects, it ultimately reinforced the theory of their inferiority. If sexual relations were considered evil, it was because contact with women was believed contaminating, not contact with men,


The status of women in the Roman empire was influenced by the position of women in hellenistic society and also in the earlier Italian civilization of Etruria. The Etruscans had accorded women great freedom and respect. Women were allowed to participate independently in society and business.(61)

In the Roman empire many women possessed great wealth. Influenced by the example of hellenistic queens who had also lived in an empire where their husbands were frequently absent on campaigns for long periods of time, Roman women began to exercise political power. Yet they rarely actually held political office. They sometimes ruled in the name of their absent husband or son who held the title of the office. In other parts of the empire women fared better in attaining political office, although it is possible that their titles were merely honorific.(62) Women also influenced the men who held office through their economic power.

In theory, traditional sex roles were still accepted by Roman society. This fact created tension between the theoretical ideal of the woman staying at home and weaving, and the reality of historical women moving with relative freedom in the political arena and marketplace.

According to Roman law women were under the complete control of the pater familias, the male head of the extended family unit. This power extended to life and death. A death penalty could be imposed upon a woman for adultery or drinking alcohol.(63) The pater familias arranged marriages and appointed guardians for the women of his family. A woman could not legally transact business, make a contract or a will, or manumit a slave without the approval of her guardian.(64) However, a woman might request a new guardian or a reversal of a decision by a guardian by submitting her case to a magistrate. By the time of Augustus a free woman was exempt from the control of a guardian after she had borne three children; a freed woman after the birth of four.(65) The law of guardians was not rigidly enforced and women frequently did transact business independently of them.

There were different types of marriage in Roman society. In manus marriage the woman left the control of the pater familias and came under the jurisdiction of her husband. This type of marriage tended to be more stable. In non-manus marriage the woman remained under the authority of her pater familias, which tended to give her more freedom.(66) Some women actually chose their own spouses.(67) Most women married between the ages of twelve and fifteen. Widowhood and divorce were common. Divorce could be initiated by either spouse or by the wife’s father. Few divorces at the request of the wife are recorded. The husband retained custody of the children. In subsequent marriages at a later age, women had greater choice in the selection of a spouse

Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, was an influential Roman woman who was honored because, as a widow with twelve children, she refused an offer of marriage from a hellenistic prince in fidelity to the memory of her late husband.(68) Well educated, Cornelia wrote letters which were later published. She had great political influence during the reigns of her sons. She continued to entertain learned guests in her home after her sons had been assassinated.(69) Widows with few children were, however, exhorted to remarry. Widows who committed suicide upon the death of their husbands were greatly honored.(70)

The double standard was upheld by law. Only the adultery of a woman was a crime which required punishment. Prostitution was legal. Marriages and divorces were arranged on the basis of political and economic reasons. Daughters were not given individual names. They were called by the feminine form of the name of their father. If there were more than one daughter, they were numbered.(71) Infanticide, especially of girl babies, was practiced.

Yet Roman women had a legal right to inherit. They amassed great fortunes. The role of a wife was to manage the household. All chores were done by slaves, although the ideal wife was still expected to spin and weave like her ancient ancestors. The women of the upper classes were in reality free from work. They were able to go out: to market, to festivals, to attend banquets in mixed company. Status in Roman society was sought through public display of wealth. Some women in the imperial court were actually proclaimed gods in the state cult of emperor worship.(72) Shrines were erected to them in the provinces and their images were found on coins. Statues and buildings were erected in Rome to honor important men and women. Women were able to petition the Senate and even held protest demonstrations against oppressive laws.(73)

Women were expected to supervise the education of their children. The education of women was valued in Roman society. It was possible for girls to attend school. Women studied music, philosophy, literature, grammar and geometry. In the first century A.D. the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus urged that women receive the same education as men.(74) Roman women wrote letters, memoirs and poetry. They presided over literary salons.(75) There were women painters and women physicians.(76)

Among the lower classes in Roman society women received a smaller allotment of grain than did men and boys. Freedwomen sold merchandise in the markets, formed trade guilds, lent money, did laundry and served as waitresses. Men and women slaves could take paying jobs and save their money to buy their freedom.(77) In some ways lower-class Roman women enjoyed greater freedom than women of the aristocracy. There were fewer restrictions on morality and marriage and less supervision.(78)

Thus women in Roman society did exercise a public role. They held real political and economic power. Yet they were restricted for the most part from holding political offices. Women were always legally and theoretically subordinate to men. Women of the upper classes were able to become well educated. This increased the possibility of their being respected by men. The status of women in Roman society was never in fact, however, equal to that of men.

The Role of Women in Roman Religion

The Romans had an official state cult of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, of domesticity and continuity of family and state. The head of this cult was the pontifex maximus. Under him there was a college of pontiffs. There is no feminine form of the word pontifex. Women were excluded from the highest office in Roman religion.

Under the authority of the pontiffs were the vestal virgins, who had the task of tending the sacred hearth-fire of the state. The Romans considered this function so important that the welfare of the state was thought to depend upon it. A virgin who let the fire go out was publicly flogged. One who was involved in sexual immorality, which was thought to pollute the cult, was buried alive.(79)

The vestal virgins were all daughters of patrician families until the time of Augustus.(80) There were six altogether. The eldest had authority over the others. When a position fell open, twenty candidates were selected from among whom one virgin was chosen by lot. The service began between the ages of six and ten and lasted for thirty years. After having completed thirty years of service a virgin was free to retire and to marry. But most were by that time rather old to find a suitable marriage partner and preferred to continue in office where they enjoyed power and authority that increased with age and seniority.

The vestal virgins were the only Roman women who were legally independent of the authority of the pater familias. When they entered the service they were given a share of property over which they retained ownership. They played an official role in some festivals. Their position was highly visible as they rode through the streets in special chariots and were given the best seats at banquets, spectacles and the theater. Important political documents and wills were entrusted to their care. They sometimes even influenced emperors.(81) The vestals were, however, always under the authority of the pontiffs.

The wives of priests were sometimes priestesses. The flaminica was the wife of the flamen dialis and a priestess of Juno. When she died her husband’s priesthood was terminated.(82) In the cults of the imperial family in the provinces, there were women priests serving the divinized empresses.(83)

Some cults, such as those of Hercules and Mithra, admitted only men. Others, such as the cult of the Bona Dea, admitted only women. A woman magistrate presided over this cult and the vestal virgins also played a role in it. Some of the women’s cults admitted only those of a certain social or marital class. The cults of Patrician Chastity and Womanly Fortune admitted only patrician women of no more than one husband (univiri). The cult of Plebian Chastity admitted plebian univiri. The cult of Virile Fortune was especially for prostitutes. These cults of Fortune and Chastity tended to reinforce traditional sex roles and mores for women.(84)

The Romans imported Greek priestesses for the hellenistic mystery cult of Ceres and granted them Roman citizenship(85). This was a women’s cult comprised of matrons and virgins. It excluded men and persons of the lower classes. The Egyptian mystery cult of Isis was also popular in the Roman empire. In Roman inscriptions naming twenty-six priests (sacerdotes) of Isis in Italy, six of these priests were women. They were women of both the upper and lower classes.(86) Frescoes in Pompeii and Herculaneum depict women participating in the rites of Isis. This cult was considered revolutionary by the Roman authorities and it was suppressed several times.

Thus in the Roman empire women did exercise an official role in religion, although they were not admitted to the highest religious offices. Religion was ultimately controlled by men. Even cults admitting only women were frequently used by the male authorities to reinforce the subordinate role of women. Roman men and women were permitted to convert to new religions as long as these were not seen as threatening to the well-being of the state.


Women in the Old Testament

The opening chapters of the Old Testament present two very different stories about creation and attitudes toward woman. The older yahwistic account in Genesis 2 describes the creation of man, Adam, from the dust of the earth. Woman is created only later and out of the body of the man. The narrative continues in Chapter 3 with the story of the fall. Later tradition interpreted these passages to mean that woman from the first moment of her existence was by nature subordinate to man and the source of all sin and evil.

This creation story does not fully represent the thought of Israel on the subject either of creation or of woman. Several centuries later another account of creation was composed by priestly editors. Such was its importance in their eyes that it was set as an introduction to the entire Pentateuch. In this story in Genesis 1, man and woman are created at the same time. Both are fashioned in the image of their creator (1:27). Both are blessed and commissioned by God to fill the earth and rule over it (1:28). It is significant that woman as well as man was said to image God and to receive God’s blessing and commission.

In general women in the Old Testament were legally the property of men.(87) This condition is characteristic of patriarchal societies. Before marriage the girl was the property of her father. After marriage a woman became the property of her husband.(88) Widows were placed under the authority of their fathers, sons or brothers-in-law.(89) polygamy was common. Women were considered objects of property among the spoils of war.(90)

The ten commandments are an example of early, yet continuous, legal tradition of Israel. Stylistically they are addressed to men. The last commandment lists a wife among objects of property which are not to be coveted. Yet men are also exhorted to honor mothers as well as fathers, and to allow both women and men to rest on the sabbath.

A woman achieved some measure of social status by becoming the mother of a son. Conversely, a sterile woman was divorced. Sarah and Rebecca were especially revered as the mothers of Israel. The narratives about the patriarchal period, although written much later, mention some freedom of women to appear in public.(91) Later Hebrew women generally led a harem-like existence, confined within the home. As time went on, the restrictions gradually became more elaborate and were combined with formal penalties for their transgression. The patriarch ruled family and clan in Hebrew society. Inheritance passed from father to son. Men could initiate divorce at will. Women were bound in marital fidelity.

Somehow a few Hebrew women did manage to exercise a leadership role in public life. In the period of the settlement, Deborah led the people Israel as judge and as military commander in battle against the Canaanites. Queen Athaliah ruled the southern kingdom for six years after the death of her son, Ahaziah.(92) A late hellenistic book presents a literary portrait of another Hebrew queen, Esther, in legendary Persia.

A number of women are named in the Old Testament as functioning in the important religious office of prophet: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, the wife of Isaiah, and Noadiah.(93) Hymns whose composition was attributed to women stand among the oldest religious literature of Israel.(94) There is also mention in the Old Testament of women sages.(95) Women were, however, totally excluded from the religious office of priest in Israel.

According to the Torah, women were impure during times of menstruation and childbirth. They were impure twice as long after the birth of a daughter as after the birth of a son. Any contact with women at such times rendered a man ritually unclean. Women also were thought to contaminate any object they touched. Ritual purity was of primary importance in the Jewish tradition of priesthood and temple cult. A major reason why women were excluded from the priesthood and from full participation in the temple cult was their frequent ritual impurity. Even within the synagogue women were kept at a distance and seated in an area segregated from the men.

Post-Biblical Judaism

In the intertestamental and early rabbinic periods Judaism stood in constant struggle to preserve its identity against the influences of secular hellenistic culture. As a result, in many areas it reacted against the social advances which were taking place in the empire. Judaism frequently adopted the strictest, most literal interpretations of the Torah, and encased these within elaborate rubrics and further regulations.

In the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha of the intertestamental period women were generally portrayed as temptresses and evil sex objects. Men were strongly advised to avoid all possible contact with women except what was necessary for the procreation of children. Foreign women were thought to be especially dangerous. One book went so far as to state that women as such were evil.(96)

Rabbinic literature expressed an even more stridently misogy-nistic attitude toward women. Women were described not only as evil temptresses, but also as witches and nymphomaniacs.(97) They were further caricatured as greedy, vain, lazy and frivolous.(98) Rabbinic society was for the most part monagamous, but polygamy was still permitted to men. Divorce was compulsory if a wife was childless for ten years. Male children were viewed as preferable to female children. Every morning each Jewish man prayed in thanksgiving to God that he had been created a man and not a woman.(99)

Wives were generally to be confined to the home. In the presence of others their heads had to be covered and faces veiled. When male guests were invited women were not allowed to eat meals with their families. All conversation between men and women was discouraged.(100) Women were not permitted to receive any education. Legally they were still considered the property of men. Their testimony was not accepted as evidence in court.

In Jewish religion women were also kept subordinate and silent. Women were more restricted in Judaism than they had been in the Old Testament.(101) They could not recite the prayers at meals. They were not obligated as men were to go up to Jerusalem to participate in the major pilgrim festivals. Women were barred from studying the Torah.(102) They could not be counted among the minyan, the quorum of men who had to be present for worship to take place. Theoretically any adult person had the right to read and to preach in the synagogue.(103) But in practice women were kept physically separate from men in the synagogue and were not allowed to read at all. Furthermore, women were denied the education which would have enabled them to preach.

Sectarian Judaism

There were different opinions concerning the position of women among the various Jewish sects. The Essene literature of Qumran is quite negative both toward women and sex. It was a celibate community which was dominated by priests. There was no real place for women either theologically or in the reality of its existence in the desert wilderness of Judaea.

In the diaspora, on the other hand, Jewish sects were more greatly affected by the experience of hellenism and foreign cultures. In the Jewish colony at Elephantine in Upper Egypt women could own property and transact business, take oaths and initiate divorce. They were also taxed and called up for military service.(104) The Therapeutae, an Essene-like sect living in Egypt, were also much more positive in their attitude toward women than the Essenes of Palestine. The Therapeutae admitted women to full membership in the community. Women were, however, still segregated and silent during worship. Both the Elephantine colony and the Therapeutae may have been influenced by the freedom and high position of women in Egyptian society.

Philo and Jesephus

Philo was a hellenistic Jewish philosopher living in first century Alexandria. He resisted the influence of his Egyptian environment and viewed women as inferior and evil creatures.(105) Their proper place was in seclusion and in subordination to men, ruled by father or husband.(106) He believed that man was led by reason and woman by sensuality.(107) Influenced by the spirit-matter dichotomy of neo-platonism, he viewed sex, which involved contact with matter, as evil.(108) Spiritual man, according to Philo, did well to avoid contact with sensual woman. On the other hand, he did advocate some, but not equal, education for women.

The Palestinian Jewish historian Josephus spent part of his later life in Rome. As a Jew he accepted the theoretical inferiority of women. As an historian living within the Roman empire he described a number of influential women in his historical works.(109) He made note of the quite normal resentment of Alexandra, the mother of Mariamne, at Herod’s restriction of her freedom. On the other hand he reiterated that women could not be witnesses and were segregated during worship.(110) It is the Jewish view of woman that emerges as dominant in the thought of Josephus:

The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the man.(111)


The position of women in the Mediterranean world of the first century differed from culture to culture. In general it is possible to say that women were nowhere totally free or equal. Yet Hellenistic, Roman and Egyptian women did enjoy some degree of freedom and exercised a real political, economic, and religious role in their societies. First century Judaism lived in the Roman empire and in the cultural milieu of Hellenism. It was unable to ignore secular culture, but had to react to it positively or negatively.

Christianity was born into this complex and syncretistic world. The societies of this world still by and large advocated the traditional role of subordination and silence of women as the ideal. Yet in real life the women of history were neither subordinate nor silent. The ideal was challenged in the forum of real life. The tension and conflict generated by this challenge were the social milieu in which New Testament Christianity was formulated.


1. Samuel Noah Kramer, “The Goddesses and the Theologians: Reflections on Women’s Rights in Ancient Sumer,” unpublished address to the Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale XII (Rome, July, 1974). Cited by Leonard Swidler, Women in Judaism (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1976), pp. 4-5.

2. From 2778 B.C. until 30 B.C., with the exception of a few brief periods of feudalism. Cf. Swidler, Women in Judaism, pp. 5-6.

3. Swidler, Women in Judaism, pp. 5-7.

4. Queen Hatshepsut (eighteenth dynasty) reigned from 1503 to 1482 B.C.

5. Ac 13:50. Lydia, in Ac 16:14-15, was a “Godfearer.”

6. Philo, Wisdom.

7. Cf. Marylin B. Arthur, “Classics,” Signs 2(1976), pp. 382-403 for a review of the literature and the state of the debate.

8. 1184 B.C. is the traditional date of the fall of Troy.

9. Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (New York: Schocken, 1975), p. 30.

10. Plutarch, “Life of Lycurgus,” 14-16. Cited in Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, Women in Greece and Rome (Toronto: Samuel Stevens, 1977), pp. 52-54. Cf. Pomeroy, op. cit., p. 38.

11. Cf. Plutarch, Lacaenarum Apophthegmata II, 240c ff. Cited by A. Oepke, “Gyne,” in Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-74), I, 777. Henceforth this work will be abbreviated TDNT.

12. 7th/6th century B.C. It is preserved in a 5th century inscription.

13. Pomeroy, op. cit., p. 56.

14. Cf. Arthur, art. cit., p. 389, and H. D. F. Kitto, The Greeks (Baltimore: Penguin, 1951), pp. 219-220. The strongest position on the freedom of Greek women was taken by Arthur W. Gomme, “The Position of Women in Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C.,” Essays in Greek History and Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 1937), pp. 89-115, although few scholars have agreed with him.

15. Pomeroy, op. cit., p. 60.

16. Ibid., p. 63.

17. Aristophanes, Thes. 414 ff., 790 ff., noted that women were kept in the women’s quarters where they were guarded by dogs. Cf. Oepke, TDNT I, 777

18. Oepke, TDNT I, 777, cites examples from Sophocles and Menander.

19. Menander, Fr. 702. Cited by Oepke, TDNT I, 777.

20. For example, Alcestis and Polyxena in Euripides, and also Antigone, Ismene and Deianira in Sophocles.

21. Plato, Republic V, 453e-457e.

22. Plato, Laws VII, 802e, 814, VIII, 833d, 834d.

23. Plato, Republic IX, 579b.

24. Aristotle, Politics I, 12.

25. Arthur, art. cit., p. 394.

26. Pericles, “Funeral Oration,” trans. in Kitto, op. cit., p. 221.

27. Arthur, art. cit., p. 393.

28. Plutarch, “Bravery of Women,” Moralia III, 257e.

29. Plutarch, “Advice to Bride and Groom,” Moralia II, 140ff.

30. Ibid., 139c, 142d.

31. Plutarch, “Bravery,” 242e.

32. Plutarch, “Advice,” 138c.

33. Ibid., 146a.

34. Ibid., 139e.

35. Plutarch, “Bravery,” 243a.

36. Ibid., 252a, 255e.

37. Ibid. 263c. Cf. 257e.

38. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers I, 33. Cf. Oepke, TDNT l, 777, n. 4.

39. According to Plutarch, “Life of Mark Antony,” 25-27, Cleopatra VII spoke at least nine languages. Cited in Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., p. 127.

40. Cf. Pomeroy, op. cit., pp. 125-126.

41. Pomeroy, op. cit., p. 38.

42. Ibid., pp. 127, 130.

43. Ibid., pp. 128-129.

44. Swidler, Women in Judaism, pp. 18, 179, n. 68.

45. Pomeroy, op. cit., p. 137.

46. Ibid., p. 126.

47. For example, in the Pythagorean community in Italy in the 3rd/2nd century B.C., men were to be politicians and philosophers, while women were to keep house and care for their husbands. Courage and intellect were considered male qualities, chastity the quality of a woman. Cf. Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., p. 85 for texts.

48. Cf. Abraham Malherbe (ed.), The Cynic Epistles (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1977), pp. 54-55, 78-83, 94-95, 172-175, 282-285.

49. Swidler, Women in Judaism, pp. 14-15. Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., cites inscription about Polygnota of Thebes, a woman harpist, p. 13, and Diogenes Laertius on the woman philosopher Hipparchia, p. 12. Cf. n. 48 above.

50. Wayne A. Meeks, “The Image of Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity,” History of Religions 13(1974), p. 206.

51. S. Alexiou, Minoan Civilization (Heraklion: Alexiou, 1969), pp. 41, 44, 105-106.

52. Mary Rose D’Angelo, “Women and the Early Church: Reflecting on the Problematique of Christ and Culture," L. and A. Swidler, Women Priests, pp. 196, 201, n. 38.

53 For example, the cults of Delphi, Hercules and Aphrodite Acraia on Cyprus. Cf. Swidler, Women in Judaism, p. 21; Oepke, TDNT 1, 786.

54. Pomeroy, op. cit., p. 75.

55. Plutarch, “Bravery,” 251e.

56. Plutarch, “Advice,” 138b. In the fourth century B.C. Demosthenes referred to a woman, Phano, who, as wife of the archon, performed sacrifices for the state (Contra Naera, cited in Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., p. 37). There is also mention of a woman priest of Demeter and Kore in the 2nd/3rd century A.D. (inscription cited in Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., p. 194).

57. Meeks, art. cit., p. 169.

58. Pomeroy, op. cit., pp. 76-77.

59. Swidler, Women in Judaism, p. 21. The role of women in the Isis cult is debated. Cf. D’Angelo, art. cit., p. 201, n. 38.

60. Pomeroy, op. cit., p. 125.

61. Swidler, Women in Judaism, p. 22, cites evidence of paintings, epitaphs and tombs.

62. According to some inscriptions, wealthy Greek women held offices and Roman citizenship in the provinces, although the offices may have been honorific. Cf. Arthur, art. cit, p. 401. Swidler, Women in Judaism, p. 24, notes that in Pompeii there were inscriptions of names of women candidates for office. Dio Cassius, History of Rome, 78-79 (cited in Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., p. 122) mentioned that the mother of Caracalla had been appointed “to receive petitions and to have charge of his correspondence in both languages.” However, according to Livy, History of Rome 34, 1-8, (cited in Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., p. 138) Roman women could not hold “magistracies, priesthoods, triumphs, badges of office, gifts or spoils of war.”

63. A. Gellius, Attic Nights X, 23, citing Cato. Cited in Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., p. 147.

64. Table V of the Twelve Tables. Cited in Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., p. 134.

65. Pomeroy, op. cit., p. 151.

66. Ibid., p. 155.

67. Ibid., p. 157.

68. Ptolemy Physcon.

69. Pomeroy, op. cit., p. 150.

70. Ibid., p. 161.

71. For example, Julia I, Julia II, and so on. Cf. M. I. Finley, Aspects of Antiquity (New York: Penguin, 1977), pp. 125-126, Pomeroy, op. cit., p.150

72. For example, the wife and daughter of Julius Caesar.

73. Pomeroy, op. cit., p. 177. Women demonstrated against the Oppian Law in 195 B.C.

74. Musonius Rufus, In stob. ecl. II, 235, 24ff. Cited by Oepke, TDNT I, 780.

75. References in Pomeroy, op. cit., pp. 172-173, 177.

76. Pliny, Natural History 35, 40, mentions women painters. Inscriptions of the first and second centuries A.D. mention women physicians. Cited in Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., p. 172.

77. Pomeroy, op. cit., pp. 200, 203. Inscriptions mention women seamstresses, dressmakers, hairdressers, stenographers, scribes, secretaries, silk slaves, fishmongers, and wool-weighers. Cited in Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., p. 182.

78. Finley, op. cit., p. 131.

79. A vestal virgin was thus executed in A.D. 83, during the reign of Domitian. Cf. Plutarch, “Life of Numa,” 9-10.

80. In A.D. 5 Augustus allowed freed women to apply.

81. J. P. V. D. Balsdon, Roman Women (London: Bodley Head, 1962), p. 238.

82. Ibid., pp. 242-243.

83. Ibid., p. 243. Cf. inscriptions in Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., pp. 152, 193, which mention women priests in the imperial cults in Aphrodisias and Pompeii.

84. Arthur, art. cit., p. 402; Pomeroy, op. cit., pp. 206-208.

85. Pomeroy, op. cit., p. 216. There were also women priests of these cults in the provinces. Cf. inscription of 1st century A.D. which mentions a woman high priest of Asia, in Lefkowitz-Fant, op. cit., pp. 192-193.

86. Pomeroy, op. cit., p. 226.

87. Gn 3:16. Cf. Oepke, TDNT I, 781.

88. 1 Sm 18:17.

89. Men could refuse to enter into levirate marriage; women could not. Dt 25:5-10. Cf. Oepke, TDNT 1, 781.

90. Nm 31:18, Dt 21:10-14.

91. Gn 24:15-21, 29:6-12, 34:1 Also texts from the period of the settlement: Jdg 21:21, Ruth 2:2-3.

92. 2 Kg 11.

93. Ex 15:20, Jdg 4:4, 2 Kg 22:14-20, Is 8:3, Neh 6:14.

94. Ex 15:21 (song of Miriam), Jdg 5 (song of Deborah).

95. 2 Sm 14:2-20, 20:15-22, Jdg 5:29.

96. Test Reub 5:1-2. Cf. Jub, Test XII Pat.

97. Hillel, Aboth 2, 7, bKeth 65a. Cf. Swidler, Women in Judaism, p. 198, n. 78.

98. Gen rabb 45, bQid 49b, 82b. Cf. Oepke, TDNT1, p. 781.

99. R. Yeh.ben Elaj, TBer 7, 18, jBer 13b, bMen 43b. Cf. Oepke, TDNT 1, p. 777.

100. Oepke, TDNT 1, pp. 786-787.

101. bErub 53b, Ab 1, 5. Cited by Oepke, TDNT 1, p. 781.

102. jSota 10a8: “May the words of the Torah be burned, they should not be handed over to women." Cf. Sota 3, 4, bSota 216. Cited in Oepke, TDNT I, pp.781-782.

103. Meg 23a.

104. Cf. Swidler, Women in Judaism, pp. 69-70.

105. Philo, Hypothetica 11, 14-17.

106. Philo, Flaccus 89, De spec. leg. 111, 169-171.

107. Philo, De opif. mund. 165, Leg.all. 38-39.

108. Philo, De spec. leg. III, 113.

109. Josephus, Antiquities VII 11, 8, XI 3, 5, War I 5, 1 (Queen Alexandra), VII 9, 2 (Masada).

110. Josephus, Antiquities V 8, 15.

111. Josephus, Contra Apion II, 201. Trans. by H. St. J. Thackeray, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 373.

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