The Myths About Women in the New Testament Period by Susan E. Hylen

Modern readers of the New Testament often imagine that women’s lives in the first and second centuries C.E. were highly restricted. This mind-set has led to a number of myths concerning women and their condition in first-century Roman Judea, or what many call the New Testament period. While women were not considered the equals of men, a number of legal and social norms contradict modern expectations. A better understanding of these conventions may reshape the interpretation of biblical texts.

1: Women were controlled by their fathers or husbands.

According to Roman law, women were under the legal authority of their father until he died. But the same was true for men: When a father died, his adult sons and daughters became legally independent. They could own their own property and inherited property from their father.

In most cases, marriage did not alter the legal independence of women. At an earlier time it had been common for women to come under the legal authority of their husbands, but by the first century C.E. this was not the case. Most marriages took a legal form in which the woman remained in her father’s authority if he was alive or retained her legal independence if her father had died. Thus, a husband exercised legal authority over other members of his household—but not over his wife. There were social norms that supported the notion that wives should defer to husbands, but the reality of women’s legal status should not be obscured by such statements.

Many people in the first century were governed by local customs rather than Roman law, and so it can be difficult to know the exact legal arrangements that governed all marriages. However, evidence suggests that women in the provinces—including Judea—exerted similar kinds of authority over their property. This suggests that they had legal rights in marriage similar to those of Roman women.

2: Women did not own property.

When their father died, both sons and daughters inherited property and were viewed by law as its owner. Scholars estimate that women in this period owned one-fifth to one-third of all property. Although women were not the equals of men in terms of wealth, women’s ownership was a normal part of everyday life.

Inscriptions and papyrus fragments record women owning large and small amounts of property. Some owned only a few household utensils. Others owned a business, such as a restaurant or brick factory. Many women owned slaves: some only one, and others, hundreds. A small proportion of women owned vast estates. The New Testament example of Lydia (Acts 16:14-15) assumes these patterns are normal. Lydia owns a business and is the head of a household that likely includes slaves.

When a woman married, part of her property was given to her husband for the duration of the marriage. A husband could benefit from the use or investment of the dowry, but he could not sell it. The dowry was viewed as the wife’s property, and it was to be returned to her when the marriage ended, whether through divorce or death. Dowries were of modest size, and women commonly owned property that was not part of their dowry.

3: Women did not exercise leadership.

Ownership of property came with social expectations to use that property for the good of one’s family and community. Many of the great building projects of the Roman period were undertaken not by the state but by individual wealthy patrons. They offered such gifts to promote the beauty and stature of their city. In return, they received honor from the city and from individuals. The honor patrons accrued allowed them to assert influence over economic, political, and social matters.

Many women were honored for such gifts. Sometimes the city decreed that a statue and inscription be erected in the city square. A building was often dedicated with a plaque honoring the donor. Lower-class people also pursued honor, albeit on a different scale. These women gave smaller gifts or a portion of a building’s renovation.

Women also served in a variety of civic offices. Some were priests who sponsored festivals to the deity and took on ceremonial roles. Other officers funded banquets and games. Men held these offices more frequently than women. However, women were often honored with the same titles men held. They served the same functions and gained influence in their communities.

4: Women were always subordinate to men.

Cultural conventions supported the idea that women should defer to men who were their social peers or to men of higher status. Yet there were many instances in which women had higher status than men. Women owned male and female slaves, whom they commanded to do their bidding. Men and women of lower standing sought higher-class women as patrons. In many cases, women clearly had higher social status than men, and they were expected to act in ways that conveyed that standing.

Even among men who were peers, expectations of a woman’s deference were not absolute. Women advocated for their political positions with people who had access to power. Letters from the period show women sending instructions regarding agricultural work, the purchase or sale of goods, and the care of children.

Women were praised for feminine virtues that conveyed subordination even as they pursued active roles in their communities. Philosophical writings and funeral inscriptions praise women who bravely risked their safety or social position in pursuit of the civic good. They describe some of these same women with traditional virtues like “modest” and “obedient.” This suggests that, from within the culture, an active life did not contradict traditional virtues. Social expectations affirmed women’s subordinate position but also encouraged women to assert authority and leadership for the sake of the common good.

5: Women could lead in private, not in public.

Women were associated with the realm of the household, but the assertion that women functioned only in private is misleading. First, what the culture considered “private” was very different from our modern definitions. Only the loftiest legislative and judicial tasks were defined as “public.” These functions were largely (though not always) restricted to men. But wide segments of life, including commerce, education, and the use of social influence, were “private” concerns. The activities appropriate for women were much broader than we have imagined.

Second, on a practical level, a woman’s daily tasks were not restricted to the household. Women bought and sold goods in the market. They worked in business alongside their husbands or on their own. They visited patrons and received visits from others. All of this was appropriate and even virtuous activity for women.