Women in Church Leadership
Women in the Gentile World
Introduction and BackgroundWomen in the Gospels
Women in the Gentile WorldWomen in the Earliest Churches
Women in Palestinian JudaismReferences

All cultures of Jesus' time were patriarchal. Women were subordinated first to their fathers, then to their husbands. However, their socioeconomic status could vary markedly according to the degree of civil and inheritance rights each of their Mediterranean cultures permitted them.

Greece and Macedonia In 340 BCE, Demosthenes wrote: “Keep mistresses for the sake of pleasure, concubines for daily care of our person, wives to bear legitimate children and be faithful guardians of households.”  Only Greek wives were citizens with the right to vote. They had a limited right to own property apart from their dowry. Concubines and mistresses had no civil rights, though mistresses were educated to be the pleasurable soul-companions of their lovers. As in Rome, unwanted daughters and sons could be left on the hillside to die.  Macedonian women fared better. They built temples, founded cities, engaged armies, and held fortresses. They were regents and co-rulers. Men admired their wives and named cities after them. Thessalonika was such a city, and here women were given inheritable civic rights. A Macedonian businesswoman, Lydia, founded the church at Phillipi after her conversion by Paul.

Egypt and Rome Egyptian women were juridically equal to men. They were buyers, sellers, borrowers, and lenders. They paid taxes, could initiate a divorce, and petition the government for support.  The eldest daughter was permitted to be a legitimate heir. In Rome, the authority of the father was paramount. A Roman girl was “sold” in name into the hands of her future husband. Both daughters and sons were educated, boys until the age of seventeen, girls until thirteen when their marriage was normally arranged by their parents. A Roman woman couldn't conduct business in her own name, but she could enlist the help of a male relative or friend to serve as her agent. Women had inheritance rights and the right to divorce though they were not permitted to vote or hold public office.  Nevertheless, wealthy Roman matrons had considerable power and influence because they were the de facto heads of households and business managers while their spouses were off fighting Caesar's wars or otherwise engaged in matters of state.

Christianity did not flourish among Palestinian Jews. Instead, it expanded rapidly in the Hellenist cultures surrounding the Mediterranean. This was due in no small part to the influence of wealthy women, both Gentile and Jewish. Women’s roles in Hellenist cultures influenced women’s roles in the early church. Generally speaking, women had greater socioeconomic status in cultures with strong female deities (Aphrodite in Corinth, Artemis in Ephesis and Isis in Egypt). In virtually all Gentile cultures both women and men exercised leadership in religious worship.

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