A snapshot of daily life for first-century women in the Roman Empire and the Christian Church
What was life like for women in the Christian Church during the first century C.E.? When the books of the New Testament were being written, how did women contribute to and participate in the Church?
In her article “Women in the Early Church,” published in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Holly Beers of Westmont College looks at some of the ways women served in the early Church. The Bible expounds on many of these, and archaeological and historical sources identify others. Before delving into the specifics, Beers first establishes what constituted normal life for women in the Roman Empire.
During the first century C.E., the average woman in the Roman Empire spent the majority of her day providing for her family’s basic needs. This primarily constituted household work and food preparation. Elite women had time for luxuries and may have learned to read and write, but the average woman would have been busy with work from sun up to sun down.
The movements of elite women were often restricted, and they stayed primarily in the private sphere. In contrast, the average woman would have moved through public and private spheres. Beers explains, “The necessity of feeding all the hungry mouths in the household would require women to be in the fields working the land and then preparing the agricultural product for consumption or in the public marketplaces buying and selling food, clothing, and other necessities. In this way, women’s work likely hinged on the labor of men in the family.” In the New Testament, we see examples of women in the marketplace (e.g., Lydia in Acts 16:14) and working in the family trade (e.g., Priscilla in Acts 18:2–3).
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For many women, life was fraught with difficulties and dangers. Childbirth was perilous; about 10–15 percent of women did not survive, marking it as “the riskiest activit[y] women would encounter in their lives.” Further, women living in cities had to wrestle with unsafe housing and poor sanitation, which often led to disease.
These realities reveal the resilience of first-century women.
Although the majority of the Roman Empire’s population (about 85–90 percent) lived in rural areas during the first century C.E., cities were centers of business, trade, politics, and religion. As such, most of the early Christian churches began in cities.
Christians first met in houses or public spaces, such as gardens or shops, rather than in designated religious buildings. Their gatherings included times of prayer, singing, and instruction, as well as the Lord’s Supper (a communal meal, which was established by Jesus to commemorate his sacrificial death and new covenant; see Mark 14:22–25).[a] A major way women participated in the early Church was through this meal turned sacrament.
Ways women participated in the early Church
(1) Women helped prepare the Lord’s Supper. Beers explains the connection between women and meals: “Because women were almost always in charge of the food in their extended family groups, organizing and hosting this meal for the assembly would have provided natural opportunities for women to serve and even lead, all while children played nearby.” Women also partook of the meal.
(2) Women offered prayers. The Book of Acts describes how prayer was a central part of early Christian gatherings (e.g., Acts 1:14; 12:12–27), with men and women praying together.
(3) Women led hymns. First Corinthians 14:26 describes early Christian meetings: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” Beers clarifies that in the communal setting of the early Church, everyone would have offered something. For women, this included singing and leading hymns.
(4) Women read and interpreted Scripture. Although not everyone was literate, women who were may have read passages of Scripture in gatherings—and also offered interpretations. Acts 18:24–26 describes how Priscilla and Aquila helped instruct the teacher Apollos.
(5) Women performed acts of charity, which met the physical needs of their community. This involved providing clothing and food for those in need. Acts 9:36–39 extols Tabitha for her charity and specifically mentions the numerous tunics and clothing items she gave to the widows in her community. Acts also describes how the early Church gave to those in need and provided food for the widows among its members (4:32–35; 6:1–5). Although men were appointed to distribute the food, women would have helped with this process—from contributing foodstuffs to preparing food.
These are a few of the ways women served in the first-century Church. Learn more about first-century women’s lives in Holly Beer’s article “Women in the Early Church,” published in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, and in her book A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman.
[a] See Steven Shisley, Biblical Views: “From Supper to Sacrament: How the Last Supper Evolved,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2017. [link: https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/43/2/8]
Biblical Views: Tabitha and Lydia—Models of Early Christian Women Leaders What roles did women fill in the early Christian community as described in the Book of Acts? What does this New Testament book say about women leaders, and how does this portrayal differ from Greco-Roman characterizations in general of women leaders and intellectuals? How do we situate Tabitha (Acts 9:36–43) and Lydia (Acts 16:11–15, 40) within this social world?
Thecla: The Apostle Who Defied Women’s DestinyWho was Thecla? Little known today, especially in Protestant churches, Thecla of Iconium enjoyed fame perhaps second only to Mary, mother of Jesus, in the early Christian era. Thecla’s anonymity is all the more remarkable because women were so prominent in the formation of the church. The Gospels mention women who accompanied Jesus and the 12 apostles from town to town and supported them financially—Joanna, Mary Magdala, Susanna “and many others” (Luke 8:3). We know that Jesus considered himself “at home” in the home of Mary and her sister Martha (Luke 10:38–41; John 11:1–3, 12:2). After Jesus’ death, women evidently traveled as missionaries with their husbands or brothers (Romans 16:3, 7, 15); in Romans 16:7, Paul calls Junia an apostle, and he greets Euodia and Syntyche as “coworkers” (Philippians 4:2–3)—a term (in Greek, sunergos) that he usually reserved for apostles. Paul also makes it clear that women were expected to “prophesy” in the churches (1 Corinthians 11:5–10).
Were There Women at Qumran? Qumran is widely believed to have been an Essene settlement. But how does this identification square with the role of women in the Jewish sect as described in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which likely originated in this supposedly celibate community?
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