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WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 24, 2020)—During the first century C.E., life for women was fraught with difficulty and danger. Yet their resilience shines through biblical texts, as well as through the archaeological and historical record. In her article “Women in the Early Church,” published in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Holly Beers of Westmont College looks, first, at what constituted normal life for women in the Roman Empire and, second, at some of the ways women served in the early Church.
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 most women 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.
Childbirth was perilous; about 10–15 percent of women did not survive. Women living in cities also had to wrestle with unsafe housing and poor sanitation, which often led to disease. In spite of these responsibilities and obstacles, women served in important ways within their religious communities.
Women participated in the early Church in a variety of ways. They helped prepare the Lord’s Supper (a communal meal to commemorate Jesus’s sacrificial death and new covenant; see Mark 14:22–25), and they partook of the meal. They also offered prayers and led hymns. 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. 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—and also possibly reading and interpreting Scripture, for those who were literate. Women performed acts of charity, which met the physical needs of their community. They provided clothing and food for those in need.
These examples demonstrate that women were not only active participants in, but also important members of, the early Church.
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