The Lives and Rights of Women in the NT World

If we want to understand the mindset of the NT writers, we must first understand their culture and influences. Nowhere is this more important than the study of whether the NT writers were misogynists.

In Judaism girls under the age of twelve were really owned by their father as they could not own possessions, or have any right to the fruit of their labour and if they were raped, then the compensation was paid to the father, not to them. Most girls were betrothed at this age, and girls could not refuse a marriage, only express a wish to stay at home until puberty; if, however, her father died, she could prevent her mother or brothers from marrying her off until she was twelve and a half. Women over the age of twelve, however, were considered adults and had some rights. If she were not already married, the woman could not be betrothed against her will, although as most girls were already betrothed, this bears little significance.

In the Old Testament, in Exodus 20:12 it was written “honour your father and your mother” and in Leviticus 19:3 “revere his mother and his father”, and this was taken as saying that both parents should be honoured and respected equally. In the Talmud it was written that a man should love his wife as himself (which can be seen in some of Paul’s writings) and respect her more than himself. During this time, women were not looked upon as chattels, or people to be shunned, but as having a duty to perform marrying and preferably bearing children, and men having a duty to perform in respecting them and in looking after them, as they could not work – in the same way that they would take care of an elderly person.

Men had certain duties towards their wives, which the wife could then demand in court. He had to provide food, clothing, shelter, and material wants, as well as to fulfil his connubial duty and redeem her from foreign captivity. However, technically only men could divorce women, if they caused an ‘impediment’ to the marriage and they could have more than one wife (although this was unusual) which decreased the woman’s security in marriage. While not technically able to pronounce the ‘formula of divorce’, women could use a bill written by them and valid because of them, so in a way, women could divorce. Women could divorce their husbands if they could not support them or was impotent and this did not allow her to have children, which was her primary duty.

Legally, women had rights, unlike common slaves; these included being able to hold property in their own rights, being able to inherit if their were no male heirs, and if she remarried, her property was her own although her husband had the right to use it. She could sell or give away any inherited property before betrothal and according to the School of Shammai, after betrothal too. Above all things, because she could not work, a woman had the right to support, her right to maintenance from her father or husband’s estate came before that of any male inheritors.

In Jewish law women were very much inferiors, but had rights and responsibilities as indeed the husband had to her. She was not, as some have inferred, a kind of chattel, to be divorced at will and had no rights whatsoever. As many of the New Testament writers write about new forms of worship, the role that women played in Jewish worship is, perhaps of greater import. Woman’s influence in the home was very great; Rabbi Phineas ben Hannah wrote that woman had an atoning force not inferior to the altar within the family. A woman’s religion was very important in Judaism, as it was only if the mother was Jewish that her child was, and there was a saying that if a wicked man married a pious woman, then he would become pious. However, the influence of women on men worked in another way too, as if someone was caught in adultery, it was generally the woman who was stoned.

Because of their influence on their children, there was considerable debate as to what women should learn of their religion. Rabbi ben Azzai said that women should have knowledge of the Law and Mishnah Nedarim 4:3 says “he may teach Scripture to his sons and daughters”. The majority view was that women should be educated in the matter of religion, though it is uncertain whether this was to save themselves, or just to ensure that their sons did not grow up not knowing the Law and breaking the Commandments. A minority of people, such as Rabbi Eliezer held that it was an extravagance to teach women the Law, but most people did not hold this view. Women were expected to know the holy language and some became known for learning and were consulted by scholars, for example, Rabbi Meir’s wife Beruiah.

As in many cultures, a minority of men believed women ought to be ignorant of their religion, and not taught the language or have participation in that religion, but by no means all. From the time of Jesus and after there is evidence that women were allowed to take Naziritic vows and even suspected adulteresses could bring sacrifices to Temple. Astonishingly for the time, women could slaughter animals for sacrifice, even for the Most Holy Things and, although Mishnah Menahoth says they cannot, they were allowed to lay hands on the sacrifice. More surprisingly, women could wave the offerings in the air (which was a function normally performed by a priest) with the aid of a priest. Women of priestly descent had special rights and privileges and women lit the candles at the Feast of Dedication. On the other hand, however, women could not stray from their one court in the Temple, and after Old Testament times, were not allowed to sit with men in synagogue.

For Judaism, it was quite logical that women could not become priests, or have any cultic role outside the home, or teach the young. This was not because of the misogyny of the Rabbis but rather because, according to Jewish law, women were unclean at least once a month, and after childbirth were also unclean. This meant they would not be able to perform all the duties expected of a priest. Women could not be allowed to teach for a very good reason, they were not forced to be taught the Torah as men were, and it was essential that no misunderstanding occur in teaching the young the Scriptures.

In Judaism, women were regarded as inferior, having fewer legal rights than men and doubtless misogyny was as widespread among them as other cultures of the world. However, in order to protect women, they were given rights and men had a clear duty toward them. In religion, which was obviously the primary concern of the New Testament writers, women were, for the main part, treated in a similar way to men. Jewish men would grow up believing that if women were not equal in the temporal world, they were so, or nearly so, in the matter of religion.

Another group of women important for the New Testament writers, especially Paul, were the Greek women. There were three classes of women in most Greek cities, citizen-women, concubines and companions, and each had their own rights and privileges. Citizen-women were widely respected in their roles and wives and mothers but were extremely sheltered - Attican women (in the area near to Athens) were the most sheltered and subordinate in Greece. Women were married at fifteen or sixteen ideally having “seen little of the world and inquired about nothing” [1] and once married, women lived in a separate and guarded chambers. Women were appreciated only because they produced male heirs – as with many places in the ancient world female babies were often left on hillsides to die. These women had few rights to acquire or retain property except their dowry, which was their security, and were not valid witnesses in court. In Athens, a relationship with a concubine was recognised by law but the most fortunate women in the city were the Companions. As these were often foreign women, they had no civic rights (or restrictions). There were measures in place to try to restrain them – they could not manage public affairs, marry citizens or usurp citizen-women’s positions. However, many of them were educated, “the only educated women in Athens” [2] and the companions were allowed to participate in cults. As they were better educated, the companions were more respected.

Although also within Greece, the situation in Sparta was somewhat different. There, as almost everywhere, women’s role was to bear male children, but the Spartans had a different idea of how women should go about this. Women were educated and were trained to be strong, brave and resolute so that their sons would be the same. They competed with men in competitions and offered sacrifices, in order for the men to be able to gauge what their children would be like (weak women were not allowed to marry). When they were fifteen their sons were taken away for military instruction and then women were allowed to do whatever they liked within legal and moral grounds. Some women even held public office and were involved in public projects, but only as far as their husbands allowed. Spartan women were subordinate to their husband or father but had greater civil and property rights and security (because there was no polygamy) than Jewish women. This may account for Paul’s attitude to them as what was respectable for a Greek woman would not be so for a Jewish one, and vice versa.

An important community in the life of the early Church was the community in Corinth, the subject of two of Paul’s canonical letters. Corinth was famous as the city of courtesans and companions, which necessarily compromised the citizen-women. Corinthian citizen-women had greater freedom and respect than Athenian and there were separate festivals in which they were honoured.

As with all the different conceptions of women, it is important to see their part in religion. Women were usually only active in goddess cults but could have limited activity within god cults such as Bacchus/Dionysus. However, women were the only ones usually subject to divine inspiration/ prophecy and were the only ones allowed to give the oracle of Apollo. They often led processions in secret rituals, (with a male overseer) and in the cult of Despoina there were some places only women could enter freely, men could only enter them once a year. Women had limited importance in Greek cults and could not really take part much, as they were in most religions except for some of the Egyptian cults such as that of Isis.

Overall, women in the Greek world had slightly more freedom than Jewish women, but had the insecurity of competition with concubines and companions. Pseudo-Demosthenes wrote “mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our person, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households” [3]. Such was the status and function of the different women in the Greek world.

In contrast to the other cultures contemporary to Jesus and the New Testament writers, the women of Macedonia had a great deal of freedom. Many women had influence and prominence; for example, Lydia in Acts 16 was a well-to-do businesswoman. It has been said,

“if Macedonia produced perhaps the most competent group of men the world has yet seen, the women were in all respects the men’s counterparts. They played a large part in affairs, received envoys, and obtained concessions from them for their husbands, built temples, founded cities, engaged mercenaries, commanded armies, built fortresses and acted on occasion as regents or even co-ruler…” [4].

There is evidence that cities were named after women and they possessed inheritable civic rights in order to honour them.

Women possessed considerable influence and there were women politarchs (officials) in Thessalonica. Both men and women could be money-earners as there is evidence of tombs being paid for out of common earnings. Which obviously gave women more freedom. They had official recognition from the governments of the day – public bodies erected monuments to women as they did men. There was no law against women ruling, as there was in many other countries, Eurydice and Olympias (the mother of Alexander the Great) ruled Macedonia and Queen Arsinae II ruled Egypt. From her time the Queen’s head appeared on coins along with the King’s, obviously indicating if not some sharing of power, then at least the recognition that women also had a part to play in the welfare of the nation. Queens such as these were known to have corresponded intellectually with such people as the physicist Strato and had an influence on non-royal women.

In Macedonia, while freedom and education were available to all in theory, but as with the education of both sexes in most cultures, this was really only available to those who did not need to work. Most women probably held traditional roles as they did elsewhere in the world, but the principle was there and for some, important, influential women, freedom and education was available in actuality, which it was not elsewhere.

In Asia Minor, women also had a measure of freedom and equality unlike anywhere else apart from Macedonia. Public offices, charities and cults all had women as regular participants and in Ephesus they served in the temple of Artemis. More unusually, on the island of Kos women led the worship of Dionysus who was a male god and usually women were only assigned a small part in his cult. Women were allowed to hold public offices and cultic roles elsewhere only held by men, for example, Aurelia Harnastia was priestess of Hera, demiourgos (a high magistrate) and Chief Priestess. Likewise, Aristodama (a priestess of Smyrra) was given honorary citizenship of Thessaly. In similarity to Judaism, a woman’s dowry was her own, although her husband had a right to use it, and after his death she could do as she wished with her possessions.

The reason for this unusual freedom for women was the important Isis cult from Egypt and the Hellenisation of Asia Minor after the time of Alexander the Great. This cult spread to many places, allowing women more freedom in cultic roles than ever before, as Christianity has been asserted by some to have also done. It was very unusual for women to be given an important role in cultic offices, even in Hellenic cults, but especially in Judaism. The fact that “several of them [women] obtained the highest priesthood of Asia [is] – perhaps the greatest honour that could be paid to anyone”.

So we can see that, although by our standards women in the 1st Century were certainly oppressed, they had relative freedom in some societies. It is perhaps unfortunate for the world that the NT writers came from Judaism, which was relatively more oppressive a society, than from Greece, where there were greater freedoms. But in their society, as in all others, there were some who fought to give women a little more equality, and those who did not, regardless of what the scriptures actually said. The same can be observed with the writings of Paul - some have taken them to mean that women are evil (such as Tertullian, in his famous quote), whereas others have taken them to mean that women are equal to men.


1/ Ben Witherington III "Women and the Genesis of Christianity" (Cambridge University Press 1990)

2. James Donaldson "Woman, her position and influence in Ancient Greece and Rome and Among Early Christians" (London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1907, p59)

3. Pseudo-Demosthenes, Against Neaera 122, Private Orations III (Loeb Classical Library; London: William Heinemann 1939) p444-7 J W.W. Tarn and G.T. Smith Hellenistic Civilisation 3rd Ed. (London: Edward Arnold, 1952) p98

4. J. Donaldson "Woman: Her position and influence in ancient Greece and Rome and in the Early Church" (London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1907) p124

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