Women in the World of the Earliest Christians

For anybody who is interested, here’s my book review from Books and Culture. The editor, John Wilson, gave me special permission to publish this here. So as a return favor let me say that a subscription to B&C will give you irrefutable proof six times a year that there are intelligent and thoughtful Christians in existence.

Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life, by Lynn H. Cohick. 350 pages, Baker Academic

A few months ago I led my small group in a study of the so-called household codes in Ephesians—instructions for husbands, wives, fathers, children, slaves and masters. What struck me in that familiar text is my ignorance of context. For generations Christians have analyzed and argued over the precise meaning of the Greek text, but at the end of our word studies we rarely discuss the social situation Paul wrote into. That surely matters enormously. Words never get used in a vacuum; they apply force to the existing structures of thought and try to shift them around.

Was Paul speaking into a uniformly authoritarian patriarchal system? Then his admonitions to subject individuals (wives, children, slaves) might merely affirm prevailing belief about their duties to submit and obey, while his urging authority figures (husbands, fathers, masters) to love, not to provoke, and to reward, might be intended to revolutionize the home by undermining its assumptions about power.

If, on the other hand, Paul addressed homes that were dangerously turbulent, with slaves about to revolt and wives ready to rebel, we might more fairly read him as a social conservative seeking, above all, to stabilize the existing order (even while humanizing it).

Which is it? Over the years I have picked up a certain amount of lore about first-century society, but I was not sure whether this amounted to myth or scholarship.

Lynn Cohick, a New Testament professor at Wheaton College, has greatly helped me by carefully unraveling the Greco-Roman-Jewish-Christian society in which the early church arose. She focuses her attention on women as daughters, mothers, wives, workers, slaves, prostitutes and benefactors. Since men figure in most of those roles, she covers a great deal of the whole social scene.

Cohick’s approach is not ideological. She carefully sifts and summarizes the evidence, offering a portrait of first-century society that is subtle and complex. It would be hard to use this material to score points. Like all good historical scholarship, it shows off many facets of an ancient world, some of which seem to reflect back to us our own faces, and others which, like windows in a fairy tale castle, show scenes both hideous and alien.

For example: it was a given in the first century that slaves were available for sexual use, at the will of the master. No stigma attached to a man who had sexual liasons, so long as they were not with other men’s wives. The sexual use of slaves and prostitutes was utterly without shame. As Cohick points out, this throws a strange light on Paul’s commands for slaves to obey their masters. Does he mean to except sexual obedience? We usually footnote his command (along with the command of children to obey their parents) with the assumption that one does not obey if the command is immoral. But no Gentile in the ancient world would think it immoral for a slave to be used sexually.  “In the Greco-Roman context, [obeying masters] would include accepting sexual advances and working as a prostitute.” [280] “So while prostitution in itself is unacceptable [in the early church] those who are compelled to participate are not liable. Again, while intercourse outside marriage is unacceptable, slaves (male and female) are not pushed out of the church if they tolerate their owner’s advances, as they are legally bound to do.” [282]

Another alien scene—though not a hideous one—is the role of the benefactor or patron. The first-century Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote that patronage “constitutes the chief bond of human society.” [286] Rooted in the home—in family wealth and family honor—benefaction involved both public and private deeds of charity. Women could be benefactors, and as such could become powerful political figures. Statues were frequently erected to women because of their benefaction; men looked up to and depended on such women, without the slightest sense of shame. Because benefaction came from the home, a woman benefactor could be a figure of very public importance without sacrificing her female modesty and virtuous life as a wife, mother and domestic manager—important qualities for Roman women.

Cohick says that Lydia as described in Acts 16 is clearly honored as a benefactor for Paul. Rather than imagine her cooking and cleaning for the apostle, earlier readers would have seen a woman managing an extensive household of slaves and employees and running a sizeable business. It would be unthinkable for her not to exert leadership in the Philippian church. “Leadership and benefaction went hand in hand in the Greco-Roman world.” [190]

Greco-Roman attitudes toward women were complicated. Roman, Greek and Jewish literature is full of assumptions that women are inferior, ill-mannered, and unable to sustain the noble behavior expected of men. “Extensive critique of the wicked or lazy wife permeates both Jewish and gentile writings.” [84] And yet, it is clear from inscriptions on graves and monuments that women were often revered and loved in real life.

In a society where honor and shame were the principal currencies of success, a woman’s honor was said to come from chaste living as a wife and mother, loving and honoring her husband (often with deep affection), who governed her and the home where she found her place. “Romans valued love and harmony within marriage,” [131] and though children were expected, they were not the reason for marriage. Indeed, “Elizabeth and Zechariah… represent the general Greco-Roman sentiment that supports long-lasting relationships regardless of producing children.” [152] Paul’s command for husbands to love their wives would have found a willing acceptance among the Romans.

First century society was unanimous in saying that a woman’s place was in the home. And yet, as Cohick chronicles, women were not kept in purdah; the marketplace was full of women, who bought and sold there. Women operated businesses with their husbands, their statues were often on display, they held the highest religious rank as priests and officiants, they populated the baths where they mixed with people of all ranks. Through family influence, and through benefaction, women could and did wield power; and they frequently controlled the family wealth, which they had legal right to do. (Unlike, say, in America at its founding 1700 years later.)

And were Jews very different from gentiles? As far as women are concerned, Cohick says no. She reports that Jewish attitudes were strikingly different in several distinct areas. Jews accepted polygamy (unknown in Roman society) and sought to make marriages within their own family circle or clan. (Romans were more interested in matches that offered money or status, wherever it was found.) Jews were concerned about menstruating women as impure; this did not trouble Greco-Roman society. And Jews sought to avoid sex outside marriage; men were not to have sex with their slaves. In general, though, Jews followed Romans in their marriage customs, their views of women, their attitudes toward children, slavery, benefaction and many other subjects. Jews and gentiles who joined in first-century churches had much in common, along with some sharp differences.

Though we read the Bible with awareness of gender and religious differences, we rarely notice class. Yet reading Cohick, I was led to think that “rich and poor” differences among early Christians were highly significant. The range of class ran from patricians whose honor was rooted in ancient privilege, to slaves who had no right to their own bodies. Both lived in the same households, where one party was free to use the other party sexually, to buy or sell him or her, to insult him and beat him at will. To seat these two parties in the same assembly, with honor granted to the weaker, was surely radical in a society where honor and reputation were more significant than achievement and learning. To give, say, practical marriage advice to a congregation harboring both benefactors and slaves would challenge anybody.

In the end, Cohick’s book does not give me any simple way to read Ephesians. Societies are enormously complex, with many internal contradictions. Everything that is true is also not true. That is so in America today; it was true in Ephesus then. (Is America squeamish about sex, or libertine? Yes. Was the Roman man absolute master of his home, or did women exercise their own forms of power? Yes. ) One can read Paul (or Jesus, or Jeremiah) to fit our ideological battles, but the more one knows the more difficult it is to do so. The mystery of God’s word grows as one contemplates its ability to speak powerfully to different genders, classes, religions and times.

Cohick does use her learning to scrape away some misreadings. For example, she convincingly debunks the assumption that the Samaritan woman at the well was an immoral woman; and she demonstrates, contra many translations, that the Junia of Romans 16:7, “outstanding among the apostles,” was not Junias, a man. More generally, she enriches any reading of the New Testament by providing a lively, multifaceted portrait of the people who wrote and first read it.


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