With Age Comes Experience

The Role of Older Women in Early Christianity


According to Luke 2:36–38, the elderly and widowed prophetess Anna, depicted here in a 17th-century painting by Rembrandt, served God day and night in the Jerusalem Temple. When Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the Temple as an infant, she immediately recognizes Jesus as the Messiah.

During her time at the 2011 conference of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco, California, BHD contributing blogger Robin Gallaher Branch enjoyed many stimulating lectures, including one by New Testament scholar Mona Tokarek LaFosse on the important role played by older women in the patriarchal society of the New Testament world. While there were certainly competing ideas about the proper role for women in society, LaFosse concludes that older women were especially valued for their abilities to influence family relationships and mold, teach and guide younger women.

Robin Gallaher Branch’s summary of LaFosse’s intriguing lecture is given below.

In her lecture “Roles and Responsibilities for Older Women in Early Christianity,” Mona Tokarek LaFosse, an instructor in New Testament language and literature at Huron University College in Ontario, used Titus 2:3-5 to point out that five distinct groups of people were found in a typical household in the Mediterranean world. Proper behavior was expected among and between individual members, both within the household and in their relationships with the rest of the world. It is possible that early Christian communities “included elements of age hierarchy among women who may or may not have had familial connections,” she said.

Stating at the outset that Titus was a fictive character and that the letter to Titus was pseudo-Paul, LaFosse then examined the letter’s comments about older women. Older women were to be reverent, not slanderous, and not slaves to wine. Their lives and characters were to be models for younger women. They should exhibit self control and be able to teach younger women chaste and proper behavior.

Another model of older women, certainly a competing one, included those who were witches, sex-craved and toothless, LaFosse added.
LaFosse wondered, “Who are these older women in the letter to Titus? Are they fictive? How do older women have power over younger women?” LaFosse pointed out that for a woman, being considered “older” by her family and peers may have been the most powerful time in her life. LaFosse gave the example of how a daughter-in-law was subject to the wishes and commands of her mother-in-law.

LaFosse believed there were many female networks in urban settings in the patriarchal society of the New Testament world. She maintained that the author of Titus recognized the influence of such networks.

She concluded that the “evidence suggests that expected roles for older, non-elite women, such as those referred to in Titus 2:3-5, included modeling, teaching, guidance, matchmaking and patronage for younger women.”

In addition, LaFosse challenged the view that a woman who married was lost to her natal family and cited papyrological evidence suggesting that urban Roman women “retained contact with their natal family after marriage.”

Robin BranchRobin Gallaher Branch is professor of Biblical studies at Victory University (formerly Crichton College) in Memphis, Tennessee, and Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas in Austin in 2000. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2002–2003 academic year to the Faculty of Theology at North-West University. Her most recent book is Jereboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Hendrickson, 2009).


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