This entry on the roles and status of women consists of four articles:
The introductory article is an overview of the status of women in biblical times, and the remaining articles are more detailed discussions of women in the Ancient Near East and Israel, in Judaism of the Second Temple Period, and in Early Christianity. Related discussion is found in entries on individual women named in the Bible, and the impact of the Bible's images of women on modern views is discussed in Feminism and the Bible.
Before the Babylonian exile in 587/586 BCE, women in Israel enjoyed a status and freedom comparable to that of men. Israel lived in a patriarchal world, but her society was always informed by a faith that gave equality to women in the eyes of God. Thus, the woman is understood in the tenth‐century BCE story of Genesis 2.18 as the necessary complement of the man and as his helper in a relationship of mutual companionship (cf. Mal. 2.14) and assistance, just as male and female both are necessary to the image of God in the sixth‐century BCE account of Genesis 1.27. The subordination of women to men is considered to be the result of human sin (Gen. 3), and the subsequent practice of polygamy (Gen. 4.19) is a manifestation of the spread of sin.
Women are found serving as prophets (Exod. 15.20; 2 Kings 22.14–20), judges (Judg. 4–5), and queens (1 Kings 19; 2 Kings 11) in preexilic Israel. They are never excluded from the worship of God (Deut. 16.13–14; 1 Sam. 1–2). They are sometimes honored as models of wisdom (2 Sam. 14; 20.16–22). The honor of mothers ranks with that of fathers in Israel's basic law, the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20.12; Deut. 5.16). The family rights of wives and mothers are protected by law (Gen. 16.5–6; 38). The woman who engages in profitable commercial enterprises, who teaches with wisdom, and who serves the community through deeds of charity is honored as an ideal (Prov. 31.10–31).
Though single females lived under the authority of their fathers in Israel, love and choice in marriage were known (Gen. 24.57, 67; 29.20), and the woman was never considered a piece of property to be bartered. Sexual love was celebrated as a gift of God (Gen. 2.23; Song of Solomon), and the marital relationship was so prized that it could serve as a metaphor of the love between God and his covenant people (Jer. 2.2; Hos. 2.14–20)—an impossibility if marriage had been a repressive relationship for the woman.
Those preexilic stories in the Bible that exhibit cruelty toward women and treat them as objects of degradation reflect the environment in which Israel lived and are intended as protests against it (Gen. 19.8; Judg. 11; 19.22–30).
When Israel was carried into Babylonian exile, her priests in exile determined that they would draw up a plan for Israel's life that would ensure that she would never again be judged by God. They therefore collected together and wrote priestly legislation that would ensure Israel's ritual and social purity. At the same time, they emphasized the importance of circumcision as a sign of the covenant (Gen. 17). This emphasis brought sexuality into the realm of the cult and related females to the covenant community only through their males. The blood of the sacrifice on the altar became the means of atonement for sin (Lev. 10.17–18; 16; 17.10–11), and blood outside of the cult became ritually unclean (Gen. 9.4). Thus, women were excluded from the cult during their menstruation (Lev. 15.19–31) and childbirth (Lev. 12.2–5). Indeed, they were increasingly segregated in worship and society. They had access to the holy only through their males. A woman's court was added to the Temple to distance them from the sanctuary. Their vows to God were no longer considered as valuable as those of males (Num. 27.1–8), and a husband could annul the vow of his wife (Num. 30.1–5). In the Second Temple period, women were excluded from testifying in a court trial; they were not to be seen in public or to speak with strangers, and outside their homes they were to be doubly veiled. They could not even teach or be taught the Torah in their homes—a far cry from that time when Huldah the prophet interpreted Deuteronomy for King Josiah (2 Kings 22.14–20)—and they were not to be educated. They had become second‐class Jews, excluded from the worship and teaching of God, with status scarcely above that of slaves.
The actions of Jesus of Nazareth toward women were therefore revolutionary. He did not hesitate to engage even unclean foreign women in public conversation (John 4.27). He ignored all strictures of ritual impurity (Mark 5.25–34, 35–43). He himself taught women (Luke 10.38–42), gave them an equal rank with men as daughters of Abraham (Luke 13.10–17), openly ministered to them as “children of wisdom” (Luke 7.35–50), and afforded them the highest respect as persons (Matt. 5.28). Women belonged to the inner circle of the disciples (Luke 8.1–3), and they are attested as the first witnesses of the resurrection (Luke 24.1–11; John 20.18). The Fourth Gospel begins and ends with the testimony of a woman to the Christ (John 4.29; 20.18).
Women therefore played a leading role in earliest Christianity, being baptized and receiving the Spirit (Acts 2.17; 5.14; 8.12; 16.15), doing acts of charity (9.36), suffering imprisonment for their faith (8.3; 9.1–2), and serving as ministers of the church (Rom. 16.1–7). They were allowed to preach and to pray in worship (1 Cor. 11.5), as well as to prophesy (Acts 21.8–9) and to teach (18.25–26). Their equal status in Christ was strongly affirmed by Paul, who considered the ancient subordination of women in Genesis 3.16 to have been overcome by Christ (Gal. 3.27–28). When Paul was faced with the misuse of Christian freedom in his churches, however, he could revert to his Pharisaic background to silence both contentious men and women in his congregations (1 Cor. 14.28, 33–36).
As Christianity spread through the Roman world of the late first and early second centuries CE, it faced the necessity of consolidating its doctrine and regularizing its polity, over against judaizers and gnostics. Unfortunately, in an alien environment, the church bought these developments at the price of the freedom of females. Because some women fell prey to gnostic teachings, they were forbidden leadership in some churches, on the basis of rabbinic interpretations of the scriptures (1 Tim. 2.11–15; 2 Tim. 3.6–9; Tit. 2.1–10). Patriarchal patterns of marriage reasserted themselves (1 Pet. 3.1–6; Col. 3.18), though these were often tempered by a high view of marriage and of the mutual subjection of both husband and wife to Christ (Eph. 5.21–33). Most importantly, political power struggles for control of ecclesiastical districts (cf. 3 John) led to the formation of a male hierarchy in the church that often continues to this day, in opposition to the witness of much of the Bible.
Ancient Near East and Israel
The images of women in the Bible were shaped by literary genres and colored by historical circumstances and political ideologies. Furthermore, over the last two and a half millennia the Bible has accumulated additional resonances from the religious traditions that take it as a foundation. In essence, however, the Bible is an ancient Near Eastern document and can best be studied and understood in that context.
Women and the Family.
Family and family ties determined the status and fate of women as well as men. An Israelite man or woman's formal name customarily included the name of the father (2 Sam. 20.1; 21.8); alternatively, a woman might be referred to as “PN (personal name) the wife of PN” (Judg. 4.4). Children were subject to their father (but see Deut. 21.18–21; Exod. 21.15) until the parents arranged for their marriage (e.g., Isaac in Gen. 24; Rachel and Leah in Gen. 29). Nevertheless, love poetry from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Israel (the Song of Solomon) implies that children may have had some influence on their parents' selection. At her marriage the Israelite bride moved to her husband's household (Gen. 24) and was thenceforth subject to him.
The strains in a society so rooted in the family are occasionally apparent in the Bible. The outrages against Hagar (Gen. 16; 21), Dinah (Gen. 34), and the two Tamars (Gen. 38; 1 Kings 13) arise partly out of the sexual dynamics of the family. A childless widow had little autonomy and was supposed to return to her father's house (Lev. 22.13; but cf. Ruth 1.8). Widows with sons, divorced women (Num. 30.9), and prostitutes (Josh. 6.22) were probably less dependent on male authority, but if they were poor, their lives could become precarious in the absence of a related male protector (Ruth 1.4–6).
The Bible reflects Israel's double standard in its attitude toward male and female sexuality. Virginity was required of the bride but not of the groom (Deut. 22.13–21); by contrast, in Babylon before the sixth century BCE the bride's virginity was not an important part of marriage agreements. Husbands were free to visit prostitutes even as they enjoyed exclusive rights to their wives' sexuality. In Israel adultery with a married woman meant death for both offenders (Lev. 20.10; Exod. 20.14; Deut. 22.22), but a man who raped an unbetrothed virgin was simply compelled to marry her (Deut. 22.28–29; Exod. 22.16–17; cf. 2 Sam. 13.15–16). Deuteronomy 24.1–4 implies that only men initiated divorces (cf. Jer. 3.8; Isa. 50.1). In only one book of the Bible, the Song of Solomon, are male and female sexuality described in an equally positive manner.
The limitations placed on ancient Near Eastern women can be regarded in part as a function of patrilineal systems that try to keep children and property within the family, rather than as an example of low female status. Families usually traced their genealogies through the male line, with sons inheriting the bulk of the father's property. The biblical term for the family household, “the father's house” (Exod. 6.14; Num. 1.2), reflects the priority of the paternal family line. A wife suspected of infidelity thus threatened more than just the husband's honor; the identity of her children could no longer be securely tied to the husband and his lineage.
When there were no sons, daughters could play a role in preserving the integrity of the family property. At Nuzi in eastern Assyria and at Emar in Syria, a father without sons could declare his daughter legally a son and heir. Similarly, Numbers 36 provides for the daughters of Zelophehad to inherit their father's estate (cf. Job 42.15), but with the qualification that they must marry within their father's clan. The fact that the patriarchs were related to their spouses may be a reflex of these sorts of concerns.
It is not surprising that most biblical references to women concern mothers. Whereas Abraham's servant enumerates his master's greatness in terms of property (Gen. 24.35), Sarah's prominence comes from being potentially, then actually, Isaac's mother. Rachel (Gen. 29.31–30.24; 35.16–20) and Hannah (1 Sam. 1) suffer for their apparent sterility. The only stipulation in the Ten Commandments that treats women and men equally is the command to honor both father and mother (Exod. 20.12; Deut. 5.16; cf. Lev. 20.9; Prov. 30.17).
The Bible's focus on male‐dominated institutions and values ignores the details of a woman's everyday life in the home. Although the Bible portrays men and women preparing food (Gen. 18.6–7; Gen. 27), it assumes that women did the cooking for their families. Mothers provided the primary care and nurture for children until they were weaned at about three years old (1 Sam. 1.22, 24). From Proverbs 1.8 and 31.1 and by ethnographic analogy, it appears that mothers were also responsible for the socialization and much of the moral education of their small children (Prov. 6.20).
Mothers are particularly prominent in one of the most familiar biblical stories, that of the miraculous birth of a son to a sterile mother. Despite its primary focus on God and the child, the genre is careful to mark the mother as special. For example, Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world, cannot resist Sarah's beauty (Gen. 12.12–20; cf. the similar stories of Rachel, Gen. 29.10–30; 31.19, 34–37; Samson's mother, Judg. 13.1–20; and Hannah, 1 Sam. 1.9–2.10). This theme reappears in the Gospel accounts of Elizabeth (Luke 1) and of Mary (Luke 1.26–56; Matt. 1.18–25), whose virginity, rather than sterility, serves to imply that Jesus' birth is the most miraculous of all.
Social Patterns and Female Power.
By combining ethnography and archaeology, scholars are reassessing the nature of the premonarchic Israelite community (1200–1000 BCE) and of women's roles in this period. The pattern of complex households in small villages was probably a response to the labor needs generated by early Israel's agrarian environment. Micah's household (Judg. 17–18), with living units occupied by Micah, his mother, his sons (and perhaps their wives), a hired priest, and servants, mirrors the archaeological evidence. Because each household member made a crucial contribution to the household, there was greater scope for women to exercise informal authority (Gen. 25.28; 27.5–17, 42–46; 28.4, 6–7; 1 Sam. 1.22–28; 2 Sam. 25; 2 Kings 4.8–10; 8.8). Indeed, the Bible accepts as normative the phenomenon of wives counseling and influencing their husbands (e.g., Eve; Samson's mother; Abigail; the Shunammite woman; Job's wife).
Samuel is reported to have predicted in the late eleventh century BCE that kingship would break up the rural family and disrupt old patterns of formal and informal family authority (1 Sam. 8.11–13). And, in fact, small freeholds did give way to landed estates (1 Sam. 8.14; 1 Kings 21; Isa. 5.8), although Israel's economy remained agriculturally based, and rural women probably influenced their families more than their urban counterparts. Urban male‐dominated royal, military, economic, and religious institutions took the lead in shaping Israelite culture and defining its norms and values. The Bible is rooted in these institutions; this explains why so much of Israelite women's lives, experiences, and values have remained hidden and inaccessible.
Women's Legal Status.
Cuneiform tablets show that wealthy Mesopotamian wives and widows throughout history made business contracts and appeared in court as plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses. They borrowed and lent money, and bought and sold property. Almost always, however, the woman is acting in concert with or on behalf of her husband or another male family member. In Egypt, women from different social strata engaged in litigation and owned houses and fields, which they seem to have been able to bequeath as they liked (but usually within the family).
Israelite seals and seal impressions with women's names provide important evidence that in Israel, as in Mesopotamia and Egypt, women had the right to sign documents, a fact that the Bible never hints at. Relatively egalitarian ideals underlie the old laws of Exodus 21.26–32, where a value is placed on an injury irrespective of the sex of the injured party. But casuistic laws that begin “If a man …” usually refer to the man with the Hebrew word ʾîš (“a male”) rather than with the generic ʾādām (“human being”). When an occasional law clearly applies to both men and women, ʾiššâ (“woman”) may be added (Lev. 13.38; Num. 6.2). Apodictic laws are declared in second person masculine verb forms and may implicitly exclude women, as do many collective social terms. For example, in Exodus 19.14 Moses returns to “the people,” who in the next verse are ordered to stay away from women (cf. 2 Sam. 5.1; 19.15; 1 Kings 12.1; 2 Kings 21.24).
Women's Activities Outside the Home.
Besides being wives, concubines, and mothers, the Bible shows women working in the fields (Ruth 2.21–23), fetching water (Gen. 24.11, 15), and tending flocks (Gen. 29.9; Exod. 2.16, 21). They were midwives (Gen. 35.17; Exod. 1.15) and nurses (Ruth 4.16; 1 Kings 1.2, 4). Royal establishments employed women as perfumers, bakers, cooks (1 Sam. 8.13), and singers (2 Sam. 19.35). Although only men are mentioned as potters in the Bible, ethnographic analogies suggest that women were skilled in this important craft, and in weaving as well. There are references to enslaved women, some of whom would have been debt‐slaves (Deut. 15.12) or war‐captives (Deut. 20.14). Prostitutes were tolerated but, as in Mesopotamia, they were relegated to the margins of society (Deut. 23.17 outlaws only prostitutes associated with non‐Yahwistic cults).
Wives of rulers, queens, and women of the nobility were able to act with a relative degree of autonomy (1 Kings 21.1–16). The queen of Sheba, who may have belonged to a dynasty of Arabian queens, negotiated with King Solomon (1 Kings 10). Biblical accession formulas in 1 and 2 Kings are careful to note the name of each new Judahite king's mother (e.g., 1 Kings 15.2, 10), and the queen mother may have had quasi‐official status.
Women's Religious Practice and Experience.
All biblical evidence for women's religious experience has been filtered through male eyes; thus much remains hidden. The description of the ideal wife (Prov. 31.10–31), for example, mentions her wise advice, but is mute about religious activity. Men and women incurred temporary ritual impurity, and thus exclusion from the cult, for genital emissions (Lev. 12.2–5; 15.1–33), but menstruation especially penalized women. A woman after the birth of a son was impure for seven days, but for fourteen after a daughter's birth (Lev. 12.2–5).
Biblical laws obliged only men to attend the three primary pilgrimage feasts (Exod. 23.17; 34.23; Deut 16.16), but women such as Hannah clearly participated as well. During the festival she prays and makes a vow (1 Sam. 1–13, 27), and when Samuel is born she praises God with a song of thanksgiving (1 Sam. 2.1–10; cf. Exod. 15.20–21). The detailed legislation regarding women's vows (Num. 30) suggests that this was a significant form of female piety. The personal piety of several women appears in accounts of wives or widows consulting or helping prophets (1 Kings 14.1–6; 17.8–16; 2 Kings 4.1–37). The motif in the Gospels of women appealing to and following Jesus (e.g., Mark 7.24–30; John.11.1–44) derives in part from these stories.
Monotheistic Israel differed from Mesopotamia and Egypt, where women served many deities as priestesses and even as high priestesses. The Israelite priesthood consisted of men who inherited the office from their fathers. Some women in Israel, called qedēšôt (formerly translated as “sacred prostitutes”) were apparently consecrated to non‐Yahwistic cults (Hos. 4.14; Deut. 23.19–20), but their function is unclear. Women served in some unexplained capacity at the tent shrine (Exod. 38.8; 1 Sam. 2.22), and after the exile the Temple employed female singers (Ezra 2.65; Neh. 7.67.).
What Israelite women did at the pilgrim feasts and how their worship differed from that of men is unclear, but it is an instructive question. Recognizing that gender differentiation—in tandem with the preconceptions of the observer—plays a role in determining what is considered “religious,” scholars are beginning to reassess the ancient forms of women's piety. For example, Hannah stays home from the feast to nurse Samuel (1 Sam. 1.22), which might suggest that women's spirituality was contingent upon and secondary to men's. Is she temporarily cutting herself off from God, or were there compensatory home‐centered rituals?
Besides the preparation of the corpse (cf. Mark 16.1; Luke 23.55–24.1) and funerary lamentations (Jer. 9.17), Israelite women no doubt participated in additional rituals related to the lifecycle. One suspects that midwives performed birth rituals (Gen. 35.17). The tradition of mourning for Jephthah's daughter (Judg. 11.37–40) may have been a rite of passage for adolescent girls. Zipporah performs a marriage‐related circumcision (Exod. 4.24–26). The prophets Deborah (Judg. 4.4) and Huldah (2 Kings 22.14) were married women; perhaps they should be compared to postmenopausal women in other societies who become religious practitioners.
Miriam (Exod. 15.20), Deborah (Judg. 4.4), Huldah (2 Kings 22.14), and Noadiah (Neh. 6.14) are called prophets (see also Ezek. 13.17; Joel 2.28). Deborah's and Huldah's prophecy seems to differ in no way from male prophecy. Contemporaneously with Huldah (seventh century BCE), the Assyrians were very interested in and influenced by prophecy; texts mention female prophets, many of whom apparently operated independently of any temple cult.
Power struggles among priestly families may underlie the account in Numbers 12 of Miriam's and Aaron's revolt. Micah 6.4 is mute on the subject of any wrongdoing, and equally commends Miriam, Moses, and Aaron as deliverers. Miriam's very presence in the account of the Exodus (Exod. 15.20–21) and wilderness wanderings, complete with death notice in Numbers 20.1, suggests that she was an important cultic leader in Israelite memory.
Certain practices that the Bible considers abhorrent may at times have constituted mainstream Israelite religious activity. Significant female participation may be sought in lost, hidden, or forbidden categories of worship. The Bible condemns Saul for consulting Samuel's ghost through the female medium at Endor (1 Sam. 28; see Witch), and disapproves of what seems to be a cult of the dead (Isa. 65.4); yet recent research has shown that the cult of dead ancestors was important to many Israelites (see Afterlife and Immortality). In the two biblical episodes involving teraphim (household gods related to the cult of dead ancestors), the persons handling them are women (Gen. 31.19; 1 Sam. 19.13).
The numerous female clay figurines (often called Asherah figurines) found in Israelite domestic and tomb contexts must have had a religious function, perhaps related to a mother‐goddess cult. Evidence from Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai and elsewhere, in combination with reassessments of the biblical text, suggests that many Israelites during the monarchy worshiped the Canaanite goddess Asherah, possibly even as a consort of Yahweh.
It is worth noting two exceptions to the Bible's tendency to treat women as lesser members of the religious congregation; both mark the inauguration in Jerusalem of a new religious era. When David installs the ark in Jerusalem, women and men share in the ritual meal (2 Sam. 6.9), and when Ezra conducts his public reading of the Torah (Neh. 8.2–3), the text stresses that his audience consists of understanding men and women. Reminiscent of the latter passage is Genesis 1's assumption of the equal status of male and female (v. 27); the gender‐inclusiveness of this text (generally dated to the exilic period) may reflect the importance of women among the exiles in maintaining the cohesion of family, community, and religion in the absence of male‐dominated institutions such as the kingship and the Temple priesthood, which could no longer be regarded as keepers of the national identity.
Women play an important role in the Bible's symbolic repertory. One of the most striking and influential metaphors in the Bible is the personification of Wisdom as a woman (Prov. 1; 8; 9). Jeremiah 31.15 describes war‐ravaged Israel as a mother, Rachel, weeping for her dead children. In a familiar biblical metaphor, God too becomes a parent who feels exasperation but also compassion—literally “womb‐feeling” (Hos. 2.23; Jer. 31.20; see Mercy of God)—for the child Israel. Israel, Jerusalem, and even foreign nations and cities may be personified as daughters (see Isa. 1.8; 23.12; Lamentations). Marriage becomes a central metaphor to describe the past and future intimacy of God the husband and Israel the wife (e.g., Hos. 2.14–20; Ezek. 16.1–4; Jer. 2.2), who all too often turns into an adulteress (“playing the harlot”) with other gods (Hos. 2; Jer. 3.6–10; Ezek 16.15). Political considerations help to explain the function of some women in the Bible. Abishag is actually a symbolic pawn, first of the northern tribes (1 Kings 1.3), then of Adonijah (1 Kings 2.17). The story of Rahab (Josh. 2; 6.22–25) and the presence of women in genealogies (1 Chron. 1–9; cf. Matt. 1.1–16) served to imply that the descendants of these women belonged to kinship groups considered subordinate by more dominant Israelite tribes.
Biblical laws against a man lying “with a male as with a woman” (Lev. 18.22) and against cross‐dressing (Deut. 22.5) suggest that the borders between male and female realms are not to be crossed. Women are not warriors; thus it is ultimate humiliation for Sisera and Abimelech to die at the hands of a woman (cf. Judith). Jeremiah's oracle against Babylon even threatens Babylonian mercenaries with becoming women (Jer. 50.37). At the same time, in the deliberately shocking imagery that characterizes prophetic discourse, Jeremiah epitomizes the newness of the era when Jerusalem will be restored by suggesting some sort of gender reversal (Jer. 31.22).
Negative Views of Women.
Women in the Bible are generally less important than men and subject to male authority, but paradoxically women are also very powerful in one respect, their seductive persuasiveness. The Bible singles out foreign women as dangerous, liable to lead their partners away from exclusive Yahwism (Deut. 7.1–4; 23.17–18; Num. 25; 1 Kings 11.1–6; Ezek. 8.14–15; Ezra 9.2–10.44; Neh. 13.23–27). The Bible condemns Phoenician Jezebel for persuading Ahab to neglect the Israelite covenant with Yahweh (1 Kings 16.31–33; 21). Canaanite Rahab (Josh. 2.9–11) and Ruth the Moabite are exceptions as good foreign women who take Yahweh as their God. The opposite phenomenon—Israelite women led to apostasy by foreign men—is addressed only metaphorically, when Israel is personified as a adulterous wife who has been unfaithful to her husband, Yahweh (Hos. 1–3; Ezek. 16).
The prophets denounce vain and selfish women (Isa. 3.16–23; Amos 4.1), and Proverbs scorns contentious and headstrong women (Prov. 21.19; 27.15; 11.22). The “strange” woman of Proverbs 1–9, a combination of every possible negative female type (an adulteress, a cult‐related prostitute, a goddess, a foreign woman), is a literary creation who functions rhetorically as the exact opposite of a positive female figure, Lady Wisdom.
The Bible's negative assessment of several women may arise from an unspoken political or rhetorical subtext (e.g., Michal, Jezebel, Athaliah, Gomer). Potiphar's wife (Gen. 39.6–21) and Delilah (Judg. 16.4–21) are bad women indeed, but folklorists recognize that these “evil” women play a crucial role in propelling the central character toward hero status, a story pattern repeated in countless folktales.
Genesis never refers to a woman as the cause of the human condition (see Eve). The earliest biblical reference to this concept occurs in Sirach 25.24 (early second century BCE). It is a doctrine, like the related ones of original sin and Satan, that developed during the Second Temple Period (ca. 500 BCE – 70 CE), to be taken up in turn by early Christianity (1 Tim. 2.12–14; cf. Rom. 5.12).
Social Reality and Narrative Patterns.
Investigators of women's history view with interest the intersection between religious symbols and narrative patterns on the one hand and social reality on the other. The fact that Ishtar or Hathor is an authoritative female deity does not mean that real‐life women could achieve comparable power in Egyptian or Mesopotamian society.
Nevertheless, in actual society and in literature, women who function on the upper or lower margins of normative society—queens, wealthy widows, priestesses, prostitutes—may transcend otherwise static boundaries determined by gender. As high priestess of the Sumerian mood god, the princess Enheduanna (twenty‐third century BCE) composed hymns which may have provided a model for later hymnists. The prostitute Rahab negotiates successfully for the common good of her family and Israel (Josh. 2; 6). In the Gilgamesh Epic, the prostitute Shamhat is pivotal in bringing Enkidu from bestiality to civilization; her role may usefully be compared to that of Eve in Genesis 3. Anthropologists have observed that this mediating quality is often a distinctive aspect of femaleness.
A recurrent pattern in biblical stories about women is their use of indirection, even subterfuge, to achieve divinely sanctioned ends (e.g., Rebekah, Gen. 27; Tamar, Gen. 38; Shiphrah and Puah, Exod. 1.15–21; Esther). By seemingly devious actions which invert or overthrow established but restrictive social hierarchies, women often bring about a new order of life and freedom.
Mary Joan Winn Leith
Second Temple Period
Interest in the role and status of women in Second Temple Judaism (and generally in Judaism and Christianity) has increased exponentially in the past twenty‐five years. As research has progressed, however, the difficulty of reclaiming women's voices from a largely silent patriarchal textual tradition has been acknowledged. The major groups of texts of the Second Temple period are androcentric in focus, written by male authors for a male audience, and they mention women only rarely and usually in peripheral contexts. A second body of evidence that can be utilized in the search for women's lives is archaeological, the material remains of society both in Palestine and in the Diaspora. But material remains are generally silent as to the gender of their owners, and so are subject to the potentially biased interpretation of the excavator. These limitations make the recovery of women's lives from the Second Temple period fraught with difficulty.
Women's Daily Lives.
The beginning of the Second Temple period was the era of Persian domination of the ancient Near East (538–332 BCE). During this time Jewish settlement was concentrated in Babylon, Judea, and to a more limited extent in Egypt. Judea in this period was poor, with a rural, agrarian economy. Extended families (the “father's house”) worked their own fields and were self‐reliant in most matters of daily existence. Both women's and men's work was essential to the survival of the family unit. Women's tasks included agricultural labor, food processing, textile manufacture, and child care (women would often have ten or more pregnancies to insure that a minimum number of children survived to adulthood). Because of the interdependent nature of the family unit, gender roles were not sharply defined except for biological function.
As Greek culture spread over the ancient Near East, especially in the Hellenistic period (332 – ca. 200 BCE), the mingling of the two worlds produced the unique blend of culture called Hellenism. Hellenism created a more urban, mobile society, and also saw the rise of an extensive Diaspora community, particularly in Alexandria in Egypt and in Asia Minor. Urban life brought with it smaller families and specialized economic roles, so that women's roles became more circumscribed. While men performed their tasks in the public sphere, women became more confined to the home, limited to their maternal and housekeeping roles (this is primarily true for upper‐ and middle‐class women). Spinning and weaving continued to be women's work. Upper‐class women evidently could and did play active roles in the Greco‐Roman Jewish Diaspora, but for the vast majority of women such occasions were limited. Educational opportunities expanded for women in this period, but a good part of the population remained illiterate. The visual arts reveal a new interest in the eroticism of women. So women as women are both more visible, in art and literature, and less visible, being more and more confined to the home. This created a tension in Hellenistic society's view of women, reflected in Jewish literature of the period.
Women in Postexilic Biblical Literature.
The group of canonical works from the Persian period is small, and few of those are concerned with women; notable exceptions are the books of Esther, Ruth, and the Song of Solomon, all of which contain positive portrayals of women.
The book of Esther, written in the late Persian–early Hellenistic period, is a fictional account of events leading up to the Jewish festival of Purim. Set in the eastern Diaspora, the book describes how a young Jewish girl named Esther became the consort of the Persian king and saved her people from destruction by her resourcefulness and courage. Notorious for its lack of interest in religious matters (it never mentions God, although the author clearly believes in a divine providence at work in human affairs), the book focuses on the Jews as an ethnic group and on Esther as a human heroine who saves her people by her own actions and thus as a role model for Jews in the Diaspora.
The date of the book of Ruth is disputed, but sometime in the fifth century BCE is reasonable, understanding the book as a response to the postexilic decrees by Ezra and Nehemiah against intermarriage. The main character is Ruth the Moabite, who accompanies her Israelite mother‐in‐law Naomi back to Judea after the death of their husbands, and eventually, through her own praiseworthy actions, becomes the ancestress of king David. The book concerns itself with the mundane things of life: food, marriage, offspring, and particularly the covenant‐loyalty of one (foreign) woman for another. Ruth becomes the paradigm of loyalty for all women and men, and her attachment to Naomi resembles the marriage vow: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (1.16–17).
The Song of Solomon (of uncertain date, but with final redaction in the Second Temple period), is the only book in the Bible partly written in a woman's voice. It is a series of love songs that are frankly erotic in character, celebrating the sexual life between an unnamed woman and a man, with the woman acting as a free agent, pursuing her lover, initiating their encounters, and glorying in their physical love. Conspicuously absent are the usual biblical roles for women, those of wife and mother. The couple functions as equals in their erotic union, resulting in an unusual and compelling portrayal of the woman.
Women in the Apocrypha.
The Apocrypha are writings considered canonical by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, but not by Judaism and the Protestant churches. Like the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha comprise various types of literature, and also like the Hebrew Bible, they are androcentric, mentioning women only occasionally, when their lives impinge on the activities of men. Two important portraits of women are found in the Additions to Esther and the book of Judith.
The Additions to Esther are six major blocks of material added to the Hebrew book of Esther, along with minor changes in the text, when it was translated into Greek, probably in 78 BCE. The Additions attempt to remedy problems perceived in the Hebrew book: the lack of mention of God and Esther's non‐Jewish lifestyle. The changes make Esther a pious but passive girl, relying on God instead of herself, so that God becomes the true hero of the story. Esther's beauty is emphasized and her brains and skill downplayed. The changes may have rendered Esther more palatable as a heroine to a Hellenistic audience accustomed to passive romantic heroines. This, then, is an example of conscious downgrading of the role of a woman.
The book of Judith, probably composed in the second century BCE, presents an unambiguous female hero. In this fictitious narrative, Judith (whose name is a feminine form of the word for “Jew”), a beautiful, wealthy, and pious widow, leaves her quiet existence to save her town of Bethulia from the besieging Assyrians. She does this by pretending to desert to the enemy and then seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes; when he is drunk, she cuts off his head and returns to Bethulia in triumph. Thus “one Hebrew woman has brought disgrace on the house of King Nebuchadnezzar” (14.18). However, this behavior by a woman is acceptable only in national emergencies; after the Assyrians are defeated, Judith returns to her quiet existence, remaining a widow until her death. Women's power is expressed in Judith, but only within the confines of patriarchy.
Women in the Pseudepigrapha.
Similarly ambivalent attitudes toward women also exists in the eclectic collection of Jewish writings known as the Pseudepigrapha. The Conversion of Asenath and The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are two examples of the wide variety of portraits of women in this literature.
The Conversion of Asenath was written to answer the question of how Joseph, the quintessential man of God, could have married an Egyptian, “Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On” (Gen. 41.45). According to the story, Joseph does indeed refuse to marry Asenath at first, because she is an idol worshipper. But Asenath, who the text emphasizes is a virgin, is so stricken by Joseph's refusal that she repents and converts to the worship of Joseph's God. The bulk of the story is the account of Asenath's conversion. She retires to her chamber, puts on mourning garments, and laments and fasts for seven days. On the eighth day she repents her idolatry and confesses to God. In response an archangel appears to her, declares that her repentance has been accepted, and gives her a mysterious honeycomb to eat. Her marriage to Joseph follows, and she lives (basically) happily ever after. Asenath is the prototype for all future proselytes, an important role for a woman. However, once again her prominence is within the context of patriarchy, for the purpose of her conversion is to enable her to marry Joseph.
The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are part of the genre of pseudepigraphical literature known as testaments, which are the deathbed words of prominent figures from Israel's past, in this case the eponymous ancestors of the twelve tribes. Each testament is concerned with particular virtues or vices, which the patriarch instructs his offspring to practice or ignore. The theme of chastity enjoys special prominence in the Testaments. Therefore in the Testaments women exist chiefly as temptations for pious men, their lewdness often coupled with drunkenness as an aid to fornication. For example, Judah, telling of his intercourse with his daughter‐in‐law Tamar, says, “Since I was drunk with wine, I did not recognize her and her beauty enticed me because of her manner of tricking herself out” (12.3; The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha [ed. James H. Charlesworth, Doubleday, 1983] 1, 798). Reuben, while discussing his sin with his father's concubine Bilhah, says, “Do not devote your attention to a woman's looks, nor live with a woman who is already married, nor become involved in affairs with women” (3.1; ibid., 783). In the Testaments, women exist only as objects to trip up heedless men.
All of the above examples are from literature that in some way features women prominently. But we know almost nothing about the communities that produced this literature and their relation to one another. With classical sources, we are on firmer ground, for we know more about the authors and their audiences.
Women in the Classical Sources.
Josephus and Philo are the main sources for Jewish thought about women in classical literature. Josephus, who wrote in Rome under the patronage of the Flavian emperors after the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 CE), wrote several works, including The Antiquities of the Jews, which is essentially a rewriting of the biblical text for apologetic purposes. In attempting to present Jews and Judaism in a favorable light to his Greco‐Roman audience, Josephus makes many changes in the presentation of biblical narratives, including their portrayals of women. One example will suffice. When Josephus rewrites the story of Esther, he has before him both the Hebrew and the Septuagint versions of the book. He chooses to retain most of the changes introduced by the latter, heightening the erotic aspect even more, and downplaying Esther's active role in the story. Thus, the Jewish people are saved, but mainly because Esther is beautiful and the king desires her sexually, not because of her intelligence and resourcefulness.
Philo, a first‐century CE Alexandrian Jew with an extensive knowledge of Greek philosophy and literature, undertakes an allegorical interpretation of the biblical text that is a fusion of Jewish thought and Greek philosophy. Therefore, the women and men in the biblical stories become symbols for higher philosophical realities. In the process the women are completely denigrated. Philo draws his dichotomy of male/female from Pythagorean and Aristotelian schemes. Man is nous or “mind,” the higher intellectual capacity; woman, on the other hand, is aisthēsis or “sense‐impression,” the lower form of perception. Man (nous) is immortal, in the image of God, while woman is mortal, closely connected with sōma, “body.” Since the goal of nous is to be free of the troubles of the body, woman is automatically placed in the category of undesirable and wrong. Philo's are the most systematically misogynist of all the writings we have surveyed.
A pattern has emerged in this survey. The earlier literature, stemming from a period when gender roles were more egalitarian and both men and women had essential economic and social roles to play, allows women greater freedom of action and a louder voice (Esther, Ruth, Song of Solomon). The later literature, influenced by Hellenistic culture with its more restricted view of women's roles, allows women to act only in relation to men, or in situations of crisis (Asenath, Judith). Finally, in literature written by men on whom the influence of Greek thought is clear, women are more thoroughly denigrated and swept from the stage of an all‐male world (Josephus, Philo).
Sidnie Ann White
Information on early Christian women is found in the New Testament, writings of the early church fathers, apocryphal and gnostic literature, and archaeological finds such as inscriptions and papyri. In recent years, these sources, historically overlooked for data on women, have been exploited by scholars, resulting in dozens of important secondary works. While the evidence must be treated carefully by the historian and theologian, it furnishes proof that data on the women of antiquity do exist; in fact, the study of women in the New Testament and early church constitutes one of the liveliest and most fruitful areas of biblical scholarship today.
The Greco‐Roman and Jewish Heritage.
Like Christians in general, women in the early church were products of the wider culture. In general, women were dependent both financially and legally on the men in their lives—fathers, husbands, uncles, brothers, and sons. Women generally married while still teenagers, bore one or more children, and died young (the average life expectancy was thirty‐four years), often in childbirth. If a girl survived childhood (i.e., was not exposed), and a woman survived childbirth, she might live a long life and bury her husband: women were the primary caretakers of the graves of family members, including those of in‐laws. It was also women who passed on the household (usually the men's) religious practices such as ancestor worship to their descendants.
Except in the most outlying rural areas, women were not isolated from each other or from other men. Middle‐ and upper‐class women living in villas or in urban areas often functioned as chief household managers, especially when their husbands were absent for long periods of time on commerce or at war. While there is considerable evidence for independent and wealthy women, most women lived in slavery, near poverty, or middle‐class stability; therefore, most worked for wages for their own economic survival and that of their families, even if they were married to a merchant or freedman. In some cases, women may have been secluded in their homes, but for the most part they moved freely in many spheres of the Greco‐Roman world—the agora, baths, businesses, and religious associations.
With regard to religious background, some early Christian women were Jewish, since Christianity was a sect of Judaism for a time. Other women converted from Greco‐Roman cults, while still others, often in the same family or neighborhood, remained non‐Christian. This coexistence of adherents of different religions systems was often peaceful but could lead to conflict, often over the issue of appropriate roles of women in the various groups.
Evidence from both Jewish and Greco‐Roman circles shows that women held leadership roles in these groups. In Judaism, archaeological and other evidence demonstrates that some women in the first few centuries CE held positions such as head of a synagogue (archisynagōgis), leader (archēgissa), elder (presbytis), “mother of the synagogue” (mater synagogae), and priest (hiereia). The exact functions of these women are difficult to ascertain, but they were probably equivalent to the functions of men bearing parallel titles. The evidence further demonstrates that women were integrated into regular services, not segregated in “women's galleries” or separate rooms, and that some were major financial contributors to local synagogues.
Similarly, women held leadership roles in many, if not most, of the myriad Greco‐Roman cults that allowed women members. Some of their functions included priest, musician, stolist, prophet, torchbearer, dancer, and mourner. Outside of religion, women worked as midwives, lawyers, merchants, artists, teachers, physicians, prostitutes, and laborers and professionals of all sorts.
Women in positions of authority in religion and society did not constitute a majority: the culture was still patriarchal, that is, controlled primarily by men. However, the fact that women did play some leadership roles in both Judaism and the larger society became significant for the growth of Christianity: women who were drawn to it undoubtedly would have expected to be active participants in the new cult if not leaders. Their presence had a definite effect on the development of the canon, the emerging role of the priest and bishop, as well as liturgy, theology, and battles with heresy and gnosticism.
Women in the Early Christian Movement.
The New Testament and early church fathers provide preliminary data on women. The earliest evidence, from Paul's letters, suggests that women functioned as dynamic leaders of the movement (Phil. 4.2–3; Rom. 16), deacons (Rom. 16.1–2), apostles (Rom. 16.7), and missionaries (1 Cor. 16.19; Rom. 16.3–4). The Gospels relate that Jesus had women followers as well as men (Mark 15.40–41; Matt. 27.55; Luke 8.1–3) and treated women as equals (cf. John 4.9, 27; Luke 10.38–42); it was also women who were the first to bear witness to his resurrection. The Acts of the Apostles mention the four daughters of Philip who prophesied (21.9); Lydia from Thyatira, a merchant and the head of her household (16.14–15); the missionary couple, Priscilla and Aquila (chap. 18); house‐church leaders (12.12); and prominent converts (17.4, 12).
Thus, in pre‐Pauline and Pauline Christian communities, women appear to have functioned almost identically to men. In fact, it is possible that more women than men were house‐church leaders, hosting vital prayer meetings that became the kernel of the movement. At least one woman deacon, Phoebe, is recorded in the New Testament (Rom. 16.1–2), and she functioned as an official teacher and missionary in the church of Cenchreae. Euodia and Syntyche from Philippi (Phil. 4.2–3) were prominent leaders of that community, and Junia served the church at Rome as an apostle (Rom. 16.7). The most prominent woman in the New Testament is Prisca/Priscilla, who worked alongside her husband and was probably the more renowned of the pair (1 Cor. 16.19; Rom. 16.3–4; Acts 18). The women Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis in Romans 16 are described as having labored (kopian) for the Lord, the same term Paul used to describe his own evangelizing and teaching activities. (See Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, New York, 1983.)
Celibacy became a major life‐style choice for both men and women early in the Christian movement, and by the third and fourth centuries men and women were living in houses and monasteries (a term that includes convents) segregated by gender. Renunciation by men was not deemed problematic, but the popularity of female celibacy led to fears that women's independence would undermine the very fabric of home and society. Early attestations of this popularity and the subsequent social tensions it created are found in many of the apocryphal Acts of the second and third centuries, including the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of Peter, and the Acts of Thomas (see Apocrypha, article on Christian Apocrypha). In the stories in these Acts, celibacy was idealized, and many women were portrayed as heroines for breaking off engagements and leaving husbands and traditional home situations for the sake of the gospel. While many of the stories in the Acts may be fictitious, they probably originated in oral form in circles of independent women and reflect actual people, events, and trends.
Other threats to the survival of the young church in the eyes of male leaders included the leadership of independent women in gnostic and heretical groups. Two prophets, Priscilla andMaximilla, were prominent in the Montanist sect of the second century, and women in those groups may have baptized and celebrated the Eucharist (Cyprian, Ep. 75.10; Epiphanius, Haer. 49.2). Some gnostic sects also allowed women to serve as priests and to baptize (Hippolytus, Haer. 6.35; Irenaeus, Haer. 1.13.1–2; Epiphanius, Haer. 42.4; Tertullian, Praescr. 41). Bishop Atto of Vercelli (ca. 885–961) wrote in several tracts that women were ordained just like men in the ancient church, were leaders of communities, were called elders (presbyterae), and fulfilled the duties of preaching, directing, and teaching.
Female celibacy and other acts of independence led male leaders to disseminate counter‐treatises in which they prescribed strict behavior for all women and attempted to bring the entire Christian movement more in line with the overall culture's ideal of the patriarchal family and household. The New Testament “household codes” (Eph. 5.21–6.9; Col. 3.18–25; 1 Peter 2.18–3.7; see Ethical Lists), written by followers of Paul, not Paul himself, clearly urged women's subordination to men. The so‐called Pastoral letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) are also early works accepted into the New Testament canon. 1 Timothy 2.11–12 forbade women from speaking in church, and Titus 1.7–9 assumed that only men would be bishops.
Retrenchment and Later Trends.
The church fathers of the second through fourth centuries, being among those who agitated against women's independence, decreed that women could only minister to other women as deacons or be enrolled as virgins or widows. Women deacons as described in third‐ and fourth‐century documents were at least fifty or sixty years of age, ministered to sick and poor women, were present at interviews of women with (male) bishops, priests, or deacons, and instructed women catechumens. Before the decline of adult baptism, women deacons assisted at the baptisms of women, probably their most important role. Women deacons may have been the only women admitted into ministry in the orthodox church by the laying‐on of hands by the bishop. In the earliest church, however, female deacons may have functioned much more similarly to male deacons, since the sources are not always clear.
Widows and virgins, while not ordained, had recognized status and privileges in the early church. However, there were restrictions placed on them. Widows in New Testament times had to be at least sixty years of age and married only once; younger widows were expected to remarry. The references to virgins in the New Testament are more vague (Acts 21.9; 1 Cor. 7.1, 8, 25–38), but the order seems to be closely linked to that of widows.
Meanwhile, the male leaders reserved for themselves the right to serve the whole church in the more important and powerful roles such as elder (presbyteros) and bishop (episkopos) and adhered to the ideal of the monarchical episcopate: the high reverence due the bishop and the subordination of others to that office. Bishops in these fathers' minds could, of course, only be fellow men, and the directives they set down toward women could be stringent.
Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, writing to the Philippians around 110 CE, attempted to limit women's behavior by clearly delineating their roles as virgins, widows, and ever‐faithful wives. Ignatius of Antioch urged Polycarp to be the “protector” of widows and exhorted women to be “altogether contented with their husbands” (Ep. Polycarp 4,5). Libanius (314–95) complained that women distract men from their religious duties (Ep. 1057). Canons from the Council of Gangra in 340 declare anathema women who wear male attire, who leave their husbands, and who cut off their hair, a sign of their subjection.
Tertullian, perhaps the most misogynist of all the early fathers, wrote four lengthy treatises dealing with women: On the Apparel of Women (ca. 202), On the Veiling of Virgins (ca. 204), To His Wife (ca. 207), and On Monogamy (ca. 208). In On the Apparel of Women 1.1, he described women as “the gateway of the devil” and blamed them for leading men astray through their sexual wiles. In chap. 9 of On the Veiling of Women, he wrote, “It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church; but neither is it permitted her to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to say in any sacerdotal office.” To Tertullian's way of thinking, the ideal woman was a totally subservient being, completely regulated by strict rules governing every facet of her life—a far cry from the autonomous woman of many of the nascent Christian communities.
One early church leader who was more positive toward women in some ways was Jerome (342–420). In a number of letters between him and the many women of his social circle, Jerome appears as a sort of mentor and father figure to upper‐class women who had chosen the celibate life‐style. One of his Roman disciples, Paula, founded a monastery near Bethlehem.
However, even some of Jerome's saintly women were admired for leading lives that followed strict rules of behavior, rules not generally applied to men. Fabiola, a young Christian woman from Rome, divorced her husband because he was a sinner; this was applauded by other Christians. However, these same Christians, including Jerome, condemned her for subsequently remarrying: “She did not know that the rigor of the gospel takes away from women all pretext for remarriage, so long as their former husbands are alive.” When she finally realized her “mistake,” she publically confessed and was restored to communion. Then, being wealthy, she sold her property and, with the money, founded a hospital to nurse the poor and sick (Ep. 77).
Monasticism became increasingly important for women in the face of these restrictions and the eradication of heretical and gnostic groups that had promoted women's independence. A number of women besides Paula, mostly from the upper strata of society, founded or cofounded all‐women houses, communities, and nunneries where young women learned to read, write, paint, and draw. Such houses, like those of men, followed rules of order and were self‐supporting and devoted to prayer and good works. At first the houses were independent of local church authorities, but over time they were brought under the jurisdiction of the bishop.
While female monasteries may have been centers of opportunity primarily for members of the upper classes, thereby restricting most other women to marriage in patriarchal households or to lives as virgins and widows dependent on men, these communities nevertheless made important contributions to the entire church that have historically been overlooked. While the evidence is meager, especially compared with evidence from all‐male enclaves, it suggests that all‐women groups produced high‐quality illuminated manuscripts; wove many of the tapestries that adorned the great basilicas, as well as the ornate robes worn by clergy; crafted at least some of the silver Communion ware and jewelry used in the liturgy; and contributed to sketch books that served imperial architects as blueprints for exquisite mosaics that decorated many basilicas. Also, women in some communities taught men reading, writing, and drawing; dispensed wisdom to male leaders; and became renowned as leaders of centers of learning.
Significantly, despite attempts by the hierarchy through the ages to conceal the evidence, there is attestation for women priests into the Byzantine era. An epistle of Pope Gelasius I (492–96) to bishops in Italy and Sicily mentions in annoyance that women were officiating at the sacred altars and taking part in ecclesiastical affairs imputed only to men. An inscription from Bruttium dating to the end of the fifth century mentions the presbytera Leta (Corpus incriptionum latinarum 10.8079), and another from Salona in Dalmatia (425 CE) mentions the presbytera Flavia Vitalia. While these attestations are rare, they confirm that women functioned sacerdotally—and that male bishops occasionally ordained them.