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Women in the New Testament

June 4, 2012

Some time ago I wrapped up the Old Testament section of my Women in the Bible series. I had intended to begin the New Testament section with an overview of the changing roles of women between the Old and New Testaments. However, unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament takes place in Jewish, Greek, and Roman worlds. Moreover, an individual woman in the New Testament might be influenced by social norms from all three of these cultures. Would a Jewish woman who had grown up in Hellenized Anatolia and now lived in a Roman colony (all of which describes Lydia from Acts 16:14) follow Jewish norms, Roman norms, Greek norms, or perhaps even local Anatolian norms? I honestly have no idea. However, I can tell you that whatever norms she followed they allowed her to own property because Lydia offers the use of her house to Paul and his associates. Indeed, a straightforward reading of the text would suggest that Lydia was a wealthy merchant running a household. However, we can’t tell how widely applicable this would be to other women. Is this a Jewish thing that Greek women wouldn’t do? Is this a Roman thing that Jewish women in Galilee wouldn’t do? Who knows? Well, someone does, but it’s an immense project, larger than writing a dissertation. I’m not about to do it. What I can do is a much shorter overview of some major themes and changes.

One thing that does seem clear is that Greek culture was more restrictive of women than Israelite culture. Greek women seem to have been greatly restricted as to the extent that they could own property or do business and the Greek men who have left us records frequently seem to wish that respectable women would stay home in order to present them with less opportunities to cheat on their husbands. Some of this attitude also seems to be present in Roman society where scandals involving accusations of adultery could play an important role in politics. However, in reality upper-class women probably enjoyed more freedom than their husbands might wish simply because they had some of the clout upper class people always enjoy. Lower class women probably had even more freedom simply because lower class families could not afford to keep their daughters and wives secluded.

Greece and Rome, unlike Israel, also had traditions of monogamy. Unfortunately for women, Greece and Rome also had widespread legal prostitution, men were allowed and perhaps expected to have sex with their female slaves, and married men were not expected to forego any of this. So, while a man might be prevented from taking another legal wife without divorcing his first wife, he was not prevented from sleeping with other women. Indeed, there is reason to believe that certain sorts of social events provided female slaves for sex as a matter of course.

Finally, the Greek and Roman worlds also had religious roles reserved for women that could grant women considerable power. Certain gods were expected to be served by women and these women could sometimes escape the limitations placed on other women by virtue of their priestly duties. In fact, some religious festivals and operations were able to exclude men. Only women who worked as priestesses within these female cults could actually live within a female-dominated world. This is perhaps worth bearing in mind when we discuss the roles of Greek and Roman women within the early church.

But what about Jewish culture? The gospel is first preached to Jews by Jews and so that culture is perhaps the most important one, whatever later evangelists like Paul had to deal with in the wider Greek world. Given the lack of data from the Old Testament it is somewhat hard to detect changes between the Old and New Testaments, but several things are clear.

First, despite a lack of mention of this in the New Testament itself, polygamy remained practiced in Israel. Josephus (a first-century Jewish historian) mentions that Herod the Great had several wives simultaneously, along with a short note that Jews had been long permitted to marry many wives (Wars of the Jews, Book 1, Chapter 24). Perhaps the reason that this plays so little role in the New Testament is that polygamy is frequently restricted to wealthier individuals (Herod, Josephus’ example, was obviously fabulously wealthy and powerful) and few wealthy individuals get more than a brief mention in the New Testament.

Second, women continued to rise to positions of extreme power on rare occasions across the Near East. Roughly seventy years before the birth of Jesus Judea itself was ruled by the elderly queen Alexandra (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 12, Chapter 16). Alexandra reigned as sole regent for nine years after the death of her husband. Her reign appears to have been a relatively good one although when she died her son had already begun a rebellion to take the throne from her. It is perhaps important that Alexandra took sole regency at age sixty-four. While I have not yet found a document that says this explicitly, there does seem to be a tendency in ancient patriarchal cultures to see women at or below childbearing age as property to be transferred between men to insure inheritance while women past childbearing age accrue respect as elders and mothers.

Some additional documents from the Jewish mercenary garrison in Elephantine, Egypt are also worth noting. Two of these documents deal with issues specifically pertaining to women. In one we see that a man has fathered a child with his female slave (who is, just to reinforce the conditions of slavery, actually branded or tattooed with his name) and that he intends for this slave and his child to be freed upon his death and become members of his household. It is of some interest to note that this man is seemingly content to admit that he fathered his slaves’ child in a legal document before witnesses, but more interesting is the document pertaining to this child’s marriage.

In this document we see several important things. First, the contract, while it names the groom Ananiah and the bride Yehoyishma, is between the male members of the two families. So, despite the fact that it appears that the document enforces a fair deal for Yehoyishma (at least given the culture) Yehoyishma may not have had any say in the contract. Instead, her half-brothers (her brothers by her father’s legal wife or wives) appear as signatories to the contract.

Second, and more encouraging, Yehoyishma has the right to initiate divorce. If she divorces Ananiah then she owes Ananiah “divorce money”. If, on the other hand, Ananiah should divorce her then she is allowed to keep her bride-price even though she leaves Ananiah.

Third, Yehoyishma controls property, at least to some extent. There is a record of what she brings into the marriage and the contract specifies that she retains that in the event of a divorce. Moreover, Yehoyishma and Ananiah appear to inherit equally from one another. It appears that their children would inherit from them first, but if one should die before they have children the other inherits from the dead spouse provided that they do not remarry.

Fourth, Ananiah appears to be prohibited from marrying a second wife. This is probably part and parcel of the inheritance clause (Ananiah cannot remarry without forfeiting his right to Yehoyishma’s belongings unless he is raising their children) but since it is worded to indicate that Ananiah remarrying constitutes divorce (something the document seems to allow after death) it is hard to see how Ananiah could take a second wife while Yehoyishma lives.

Finally, both Ananiah and Yehoyishma owe each other certain culturally-specified rights and the failure to provide these to one another constitutes divorce. If we were to guess based on things like Exodus 21:10-11 then we might assume that Ananiah owes Yehoyishma material support and probably sex. Yehoyishma almost certainly owes Ananiah sex as well, but other rights owed to Ananiah are less clear.

Now, drawing elaborate conclusions from a single document can be a dangerous thing. However, the conclusions I have drawn based on this particular document make a great deal of sense based on what we saw in the Old Testament. They appear to be rather natural extensions of previous traditions and the idea of a marriage contract, at least, seems rather well established at this point since one also appears in the book of Tobit. It would appear that the status of women in Jewish life, at least, allows limited access to many rights while Greek and Roman life restrict women (except certain priestesses) more thoroughly.

However, none of this does more than set the stage for an examination of the New Testament. What does Jesus, and later his apostles, have to say to and about women?

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