Living in the First Century World #9
During the first century Roman world, women were in no way considered equal to men—being systematically regulated to certain well-defined roles. There were variations within this system due to social standing, wealth and other factors, but for the most part in the Roman culture the woman’s main role was to marry (usually very young), have numerous children (due to the high infant mortality rate), and take care of the home. Women from lower classes quite frequently held jobs outside of the home (in such areas as agriculture, markets, crafts, as midwives and as wet-nurses, etc.), but were otherwise still very limited within the Roman world.
Perhaps the best way to frame the limitations is to understand the established Roman family system. Family units—wives, children, slaves—were headed by the most senior male within the family (the paterfamilias). He had all legal rights over his daughters until they were married (again often at an early age and often in an arranged marriage). Girls growing up in this system (among the more elite) would be given an education, but were always under the control of a male. After she married the control shifted to her husband. A proper Roman woman would busy herself with the details of her home, her children, spend her time weaving clothes for the family and taking care of the family needs. Even her name indicated her unequal status to men. It was the common practice that a daughter took her father’s name and feminized it. While legally she could inherit property, she would have to always have a male representing her interests in it. It was truly a heavily male-oriented culture. One writer bluntly states:
Roman women didn’t get equal rights with men. Roman law continued to insist that women could not be emperors, or be in the Roman Senate, or govern a province, or join the army. Men could beat or rape their wives, just as they beat and raped their slaves. A Roman woman could divorce her husband, but generally he kept the children. Women who were slaves were frequently physically and sexually abused, and often saw their children killed or sold away from them. (From Women in Ancient Rome by K.E. Carr)
Another historian notes:
A dichotomy existed within the lives of Roman women. They did have some personal freedoms, but they had little chance for individuality or personal choice. They were under the constant supervision of their fathers, male relatives, and husbands, who regularly kissed them on the mouth to find out if they had drunk wine. Drinking wine was strictly forbidden for Roman women and they could be punished by death. In Memorable Deeds and Sayings from the first century AD, Maximus tells us how Egnatius Metellus beat his wife to death for drinking wine. It was believed that wine caused women to have adulterous relationships, which were very common since so many marriages took place for political or economic reasons, not for love or passion. Women found to have committed adultery could be put to death by their fathers or guardians. Women often married men who were much older than themselves. They married whoever they were told to. (From Ancient Roman Women: A Look at their Lives by Moya K. Mason)
These two quotes, then demonstrate how, in general, women were viewed and treated in the first century. To be fair there were exceptions to this (women with three children and freedwomen with four children had expanded legal rights for instance) and at the latter stages of the empire a notable change occurred granting women unprecedented rights (coincidence?)
A New Paradigm
Into this mix came Christianity and it brought both a challenge and a change to how women were valued and treated. It outlined a fundamental new way of relating to each other—not based primarily on gender or cultural norms, but on Jesus. In him relationships were redefined and values were re-set—illustrated by Paul’s teaching of there no longer being male or female based values, but rather all are to be one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
Obviously, Paul was not suggesting some type of absence or denial of gender or gender roles. Just as with the other relationships he addresses in that Galatian text, the idea is that in the kingdom everyone is elevated equally through Christ and by the grace of God. Male and female, therefore, in God’s kingdom all have equal status; equal access to the blessings and rewards of the kingdom; they are equally valued and needed within the kingdom; and they should be treated with mutual respect and honor. In God’s kingdom women are in no way inferior to men and should not be treated as such. Jesus died to make it so.
That this was a new paradigm—a new way of thinking within the brand new community called church–to the Roman world would be an understatement. While some women within Rome did participate and occasionally even lead certain religious rites and rituals (Vestal Virgins for instance—serving the Roman goddess, Vesta), in no way were they considered equal with men. Jewish women, in general, enjoyed a slightly more elevated position within their culture, but again, theirs was also a male-dominated existence. The idea then that there is neither male nor female—was quite shocking, but also quite evident. The high value of women is noted throughout the New Testament and within the church. Note Paul’s specific mention of many women within the churches in his letters (in Romans 16 for instance). This kind of recognition and praise was most uncommon.
Gifted women are named throughout the New Testament (Phoebe, who was a deaconess—Romans 16:1-2; Phillip’s prophetic daughters—Acts 21:9; Dorcas the dress maker—Acts 9:36-43; Priscilla, co-teacher of the gospel with her husband—Acts 18; Eunice and Lois, Timothy’s mother and grandmother—2 Timothy 1:5). And while men were given the overall headship and spiritual leadership within the home and the church (Ephesians 5:22-23; 1 Corinthians 11:3), along with that is a rather revolutionary idea that within the home there is a mutual submission also practiced (Ephesians 5:21); that men are to love their wives just as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25) and as he loves himself, showing her respect (Ephesians 5:33). Beyond the home, Paul also indicates that women used their giftedness within the church—women praying and prophesying within the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).
As we process this teaching—at a point in which women have historically unprecedented rights and equality—they likely do not resonate as strongly as they did within the first century. Women then hearing a message of equality; of respectful treatment; of a place that valued her gifts; had to wonder if it were true. For men hearing the message it was nothing short of scandal. But it was a message flowing directly out of the grace, love and mercy of God; a message of how different his kingdom was from any other; a message, again, that eventually changed an empire.
For anyone paying attention though, it is not that shocking. Look no further than Christ’s incredible treatment and acceptance of women within his ministry. He truly is the great equalizer. Only through him could this happen—neither male nor female. Remember the overarching goal is unity in him. He bridges the gap between slave and free; he overcomes the hostility between Jew and Greek. He closes the gender gap. In his kingdom all are welcome and all are equal. Everyone has a place. Everyone has a gift. Everyone is needed.
This was the beautiful, penetrating message that captured hearts and souls in the brutality and harshness that was the Roman Empire for most. Christ’s new community genuinely was a place of refuge for those seeking a new life, new values, and new meaning. For women it offered the only place in which they would be accepted—not for how they looked, what they had to offer, their social standing, or any other measure other than the fact that Christ had redeemed them and offered them new and equal standing within his community based on his grace.