Untangling a Myth:  How the New Testament Elevated the Status of Women in the First Century - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Untangling a Myth:

How the New Testament Elevated the Status of Women in the First Century

Armstrong Atlantic State University
In the history of Christianity few things have raised so much controversy as the doctrinal subordination of women. Those who adhere to it claim not only broad historical support, but clear biblical warrant as well. However, if one treats the Bible as a source document for this subordination, serious problems arise. First, the relevant texts are few in number, comprising a miniscule portion of the document’s total word count. Secondly, the target passages do not present an open-and-shut case when compared with the prevailing first-century Jewish and Greco-Roman beliefs and practices with respect to a woman’s status, value, role, and the extent of her liberty. On the contrary, against the background of first-century culture, the Bible elevated the status of women in obvious and significant ways. Within the Jewish spectrum, it will be enough to focus on the writings of Josephus and Philo, two Hellenistic Jews whose writings were roughly contemporary with Scripture. They will serve well to illustrate common Jewish values with respect to women, which will contrast greatly against the New Testament.

The well-known first-century Jewish historian Josephus made his case early in his polemic work, Against Apion: “A woman, it says, is inferior to a man in all respects. So, let her obey, not that she may be abused, but that she may be ruled; for God has given power to the man.”[1] Regarding the issue of marriage and fidelity, Josephus stated in the text that women are to be transferred from the hands of one male authority figure to another, and that a man is to “betroth [a woman] from the man with authority to give her.”[2] Women had no legal status and their testimony was inadmissible in court: “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.”[3] Women were put in the same category as slaves, who were not allowed to testify due to the “ignobility of their soul.”[4] Reinforced at multiple levels of Hellenistic Jewish culture, women were regarded as socially dependant, a status which is seated in the very nature of her gender, anchored in the order of creation. 

A Roman bust of Josephus

While comparing the writings of Eusebius to Josephus’ in the appendix of Apion, J. M. G. Barclay, Professor of Jewish Studies at Durham University, commented, “[a]lthough both texts may draw remotely on Gen 3:16, there is no direct scriptural source for this rule. Both balance the demand for women’s obedience with the prohibition of hubris, and thus reflect a common tradition concerning marital power-relations. This probably relates to the development of ‘household codes’ in the Greco-Roman world.”[5] While Jewish law provided many important legal protections for women, the overall legal framework obviously assumed their inferiority. Consider the case of an illicit sexual relationship, which Josephus pondered in Antiquities of the Jews: “Let him that hath corrupted a virgin not yet espoused marry her; but if the father of the damsel be not willing that she should be his wife, let him pay fifty shekels as the price of her prostitution.”[6] Similarly, the law imposed unequal consequences in cases of alleged marital infidelity: “But for him that brings an accusation and calumny against his wife in an impudent and rash manner, let him be punished by receiving forty stripes save one, and let him pay fifty shekels to her father: but if the damsel be convicted, as having been corrupted, and is one of the common people, let her be stoned, because she did not preserve her virginity till she were lawfully married.”[7]

Josephus’ own behavior displayed a conspicuous approval of the view of women in his time. He described the dissolution of his first marriage in the autobiographical Testimonium Flavianum: “Yet at his [Vespasian’s] command I married a virgin, who was from among the captives of that country, yet she did not live with me long, but was divorced, upon my being freed from my bonds, and my going to Alexandria.”[8] He was free to divorce her with no substantive grounds, while she was left without recourse. The end of Josephus’ second marriage is even more illuminating: “At this period I divorced my wife, being displeased at her behavior. She had borne me three children, of whom two died.”[9] This time, not only is the inequity from the standpoint of legal justification apparent, but a second critical issue emerges: though the unpleasing behavior is left unspecified, Josephus is clearly displeased with the fact that his wife had birthed three children, yet only one survived. Her worth as a being and her value as a producer of viable offspring were indistinguishable from one another, a theme which pervaded across a variety of texts. The Essenes, a reclusive sect of Judaism, took the matter a step further. They allowed a “trial run” marriage of sorts during which “they try their spouses for three years; and if they find that they have their natural purgations thrice, as trials that they are likely to be fruitful, they then actually marry them.”[10]

The overall sense from Josephus was that women were valued in the same way that oxen, slaves or other possessions were valued, with no detectible reverence paid to their humanity. According to Josephus, women were valuable only insofar as they were to be utilized for purposes of procreation and the sexual satisfaction of men. However, men were considered wise to guard themselves from the wiles of women, who used their sexuality to corrupt the male psyche. According to Josephus, the Pharisees believed that men were to “guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man.”[11] During his account of Vespasian’s siege of Jotapata, Josephus believed in confining women to their homes “lest they should render the warlike actions of the men too effeminate.”[12] All of this reflected a sense of cowering feminine dependency, and implied an inferiority judged not by the relative merits of individual members of the gender group, but as the result of a natural incapacity seated in the gender collectively.

Hellenistic Biblical philosopher Philo Judaeus, though less well known, was by no means any less clear about his assessment of the place and capabilities of women. In his work On the Special Laws, he insisted that women were to be transferred from one male keeper to the next and guarded from becoming the sexual property of depraved men. Like Josephus, Philo thought of women as little more than vehicles by which the species was propagated; religious piety would not allow him to pursue sexual pleasure for its own sake lest he violate stringent Jewish ideals around self-mastery (egkrateia, enkrateia). His views of women followed suit: “But those people deserve to be reproached who are ploughing a hard and stony soil. And who can these be but they who have connected themselves with barren women? For such men are only hunters after intemperate pleasure, and in the excess of their licentious passions they waste their seed of their own deliberate purpose.  Since for what other reason can they espouse such women?  It cannot be for a hope of children, which they are aware must, of necessity, be disappointed, but rather to gratify their excess in lust and incurable incontinence.”[13]

Portrait of Philo, 16th cen.

Philo regarded women as irrational creatures who are ruled primarily by emotions: “For are not those persons womanly in whose minds reason is overcome by compassion?”[14] Along the same lines, he stated that “The masculine soul is that which devotes itself to God alone, as the Father and Creator of the universe and the cause of all things that exist; but the female soul is that which depends upon all the things which are created, and as such are liable to destruction.”[15] Women were thought of as naturally dependent beings, reliant on male keepers and could not be counted on to exercise independent faculties of reasoning. Philo advised that men never form any kind of relationship with a woman outside a strictly regulated marriage, for “if any man should choose to form an alliance with such a woman, he must be content to bear the reputation of effeminacy and a complete want of manly courage and vigour.”[16] Finally, Philo showed no uncertainty in terms of the places women should occupy socially: “Market places, and council chambers, and courts of justice, and large companies and assemblies of numerous crowds, and a life in the open air full of arguments and actions relating to war and peace, are suited to men; but taking care of the house and remaining at home are the proper duties of women; the virgins having their apartments in the centre of the house within the innermost doors, and the full-grown women not going beyond the vestibule and outer courts.”[17]

Moreover, Philo asserted that society was divided into two segments: “The Market” and “Oikonome,” which, roughly translated means something like “house-manager” (feminine gender ending). His point was that men alone were fit for “The Market,” which is to say for the public sphere. Women were, by contrast, fit only for the home. To cross this gender boundary would have been an unthinkable violation not just of cultural mores, but of the creation order, and thus was tantamount to a defiance of Yahweh himself.

The Biblical literature stands in stark contrast to the Jewish writings. Christianity, and the beliefs and values it espouses, did not arise from within a vacuum, nor did the Bible fall from the sky in the first century, fully formed and complete with maps. Whatever one’s opinion is with respect to its divine authorship, the Bible was certainly the product of human effort, and was subject to the Hellenistic Jewish worldview through which the authors viewed the task of writing it. This worldview came with clear ideas about what a woman was and what her role should be. It was only natural that the Apostle Paul adopted the ethics and manners of speaking which were available to him in order to present a comprehensible message to the target culture and to ensure that Christianity retained its status as a religio licita (a legal religion) in the Roman Empire. This had the added benefit of making Christianity attractive to Paul’s Gentile audience. Passages that seem to argue for subordination are best understood within this context. The reader can plainly see Paul arguing for a Christian practice which would retain its cultural relevance on one hand, while elevating the status of Christian women on the other. Consider a passage from Ephesians. Here, Paul wrote a cultural assertion one would expect: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”[18]

There would be nothing out of the ordinary if Paul left it at that. The text would stand without contradiction alongside the background texts cited earlier. However, Paul continued with an exhortation to husbands: “[h]usbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”[19] There was nothing remotely like this in the writings of Paul’s contemporaries. He continued: “In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes it and tenderly cares for it.”[20] Paul made a summary statement a few verses later: “[e]ach of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband,”[21] which stood as a bookend with the verse that began the unit, Ephesians 5:21: “submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.”[22] These twin exhortations stood in stark contrast with the ideals of the culture from within which Paul wrote. He made a related, but distinct, point in 1 Corinthians at the beginning of an extended discussion on orderly worship. After he established Christianity’s place in Roman culture, he introduced the counter-cultural assertion that “woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.”[23] Paul then adds a summary statement as he did in Ephesians: “But everything comes from God.”[24] All were equal, irrespective of gender, before the deity who created them, who created the marriage covenant and who made no distinctions between them. 

Paul addressed the issue of sexuality pointedly. While restricting sex itself to the confines of marriage, he suggested that each partner should give of him or herself to the other because “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”[25] He went on to advise them “not to deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time...”[26] To the modern reader, this seems like an innocuous suggestion, but it implies that the woman in the Church had the power to withhold sex from her husband without fear of any consequent legal repercussion. It suggested that neither she, nor her husband, should have viewed themselves as the sexual property of the other. Importantly, Paul equalized the issue of divorce, and granted each partner an identical freedom to remain married to an unbelieving spouse, insisting that one should not divorce the other simply for the sake of his or her status in the faith.[27] He wrote of a freedom to remain unmarried, which is itself a notable departure from first-century cultural norms.[28]

Paul elevated the status of women beyond the home. In terms of leadership, Paul named no fewer than six women in his final greetings in Romans 11:1−12. Most of them were simply mentioned by way of greeting, which by itself was notable, but two of them bore some scrutiny. The first was Pheobe, whom Paul called “a deacon of the church at Cenchreae.”[29] The Greek word used to render “deacon” (διaκονον, diakonon)was precisely the same word Paul used when referring to male leaders in 1 Timothy verse 3 and even to Paul’s own ministry.[30] Nothing about the context would lead the interpreter to make a different translational choice aside from gender of the subject for whom diakonon is the predicate. Furthermore, he cited Pheobe’s work as a prostasis (προστaτις πολλwν, prostasis pollon), or “benefactor” to many, including himself. Prisca (a shortening of the Greek female name “Priscilla”), along with her husband Aquila, were called “fellow workers” (συνεργοuς μου, synergos mou) in verse 3; Paul cited this couple twice by name in his writings.[31] Paul greeted Mary a few verses later, noting that she “has worked very hard among you.”[32] This terminology should not be dismissed quickly, as Paul used it a number of other times to describe the activities of men.[33] The fact that a woman was never mentioned as an “overseer” (eπiσκοπον, episkopon) or an elder (πρεσβυτeρους, presbyteros) is unsurprising considering the job description. A religious group led by a woman would not have been taken seriously by the target Greco-Roman audience, who would have considered her ill equipped for such a post and utterly unreliable. Though she may not have been able to lead, Christianity gave a woman the freedom to fully participate in the worship services, which is subtly asserted in 1 Corinthians: “but a woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head.”[34] Though it called for head coverings, which were standard attire in that day, the passage also clearly indicated that women prayed and prophesied publicly exactly like their male counterparts, who are mentioned in the previous verse.[35]

Over the millennia, Christianity acquired a reputation as the oppressive, male-dominated religion of the sexually repressed, a mere arm of authoritarian paternalism. Against the backdrop of Jewish literature, which was contemporary with the Bible, it becomes clear that this was never the case; first-century Christianity significantly elevated the status of women while staying within the protective boundaries of the Greco-Roman Household Codes, a position which ensured its survival for the couple of hundred years that followed. Christianity represented a turn away from the prevailing, radical subjugation of women in Judaism toward a society of greater freedom and equality. The Biblical writers saw and believed themselves to be inheritors of a new reality that was somehow connected to a yet-to-come future, and present inhabitants of the future City of God where equality would be the rule.

About the author

Frank is a senior Liberal Studies major who specializes in the history of the Christian Church, particularly American Fundamentalism.  He has spent many years studying Arabic and working in the Middle East.  He is currently developing a thesis on the connection between Christian Fundamentalism and Islamic Fundamentalism, which he will develop more fully as a graduate student in the History Department at Armstrong Atlantic State University.

Recommended citation

Frank Oesterheld, "Untangling a Myth: How the New Testament Elevated the Status of Women in the First Century,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no. 1 (Jan. 2012).


[1]FlaviusJosephus, TheWorksofFlaviusJosephus, trans. WilliamWhiston(AuburnandBuffalo, NY: JohnE. Beardsley, 1895), 2:18−41.
[2]Ibid., 40.
[3]Ibid., 119.
[6]Ibid., 120.
[8]Ibid., 21.
[10]Ibid., 617.
[11]Ibid., 615.
[12]Ibid., 617.
[13]PhiloJudaeus, TheWorksofPhiloJudaeus, trans. C.D. Younge(Cambridge: HaddonBrothersPress, 1855), 312.
[15]Ibid., 347.
[16]Ibid., 311.
[17]Ibid., 345.
[18]Eph. 5:22−24(NewRevisedStandardVersion).
[19]Eph. 5:25.
[20]Eph. 5:28−29.
[21]Eph. 5:33.
[22]Eph. 5:21.
[23]1Cor. 11:11−12.
[24]1Cor. 11:13.
[25]1Cor. 7:4.
[26]1Cor. 7:5.
[27]1Cor. 7:12−16.
[29]AlfredAndreaandJamesOverfield, eds., TheHumanRecord:SourcesofGlobalHistory, Volume1: To1500,seventhedition(Boston: Wadsworth, 2012), 203.
[30]1Cor. 3:5; Eph. 3:7; Col1:12.
[31]1Cor. 16:19.
[32]Rom. 16:6.
[33]1Cor. 3:9; 2Cor. 6:1; Philem1:1, 1:24.
[34]1Cor. 11:5.
[35]1Cor. 11:4.
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