Women in Church Leadership
Women in Palestinian Judaism
Jesus and WomenWomen in the Gospels
Women in the Gentile WorldWomen in the Earliest Churches
Women in Palestinian JudaismReferences

Discovering the “realities of women's lives” in Palestine is fraught with complexity largely because until recently, much of the historical data about first century Judaism derived from later 2-4 century Rabbinic sources. However, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts and the Dead Sea Scrolls expanded our understanding of both early Christianity and first century Palestinian Judaism. The following summary portrait is derived from multiple sources.
Palestinian Hebrew women were among the poorest in the world in Jesus' day. This was due in no small part to Roman agricultural practices that divested the Israelites (particularly Galileans) of their ancestral lands and increasingly impoverished the population.
Hebrew women were not allowed to divorce their husbands, but could be divorced for anything from burning the dinner (Hillel) to adultery (Shammai). In a culture in which women did not survive unless they were linked to the patriarchal household, it was disastrous to be divorced. Seen in this light, Jesus' proscription of divorce is markedly protective of women. The raising of the son of the widow of Nain is another example of Jesus' compassion for the poverty of a woman whose survival was threatened by the loss of her link to the patriarchal household. Most Hebrew women had minimal property rights. Theoretically women could inherit land, but in practice male heirs had precedence.  Even if a woman did inherit property, her husband had the right to its use and its fruits.

A child was held to be Jewish only if the mother was Jewish.  As was the practice in most patriarchal cultures,  Jewish girls were betrothed by their fathers at a young age. A Jewish woman was ritually unclean while menstruating, a reality detailed at length in Leviticus. If she inadvertently touched a man while having her menses, he was obliged to undergo a purification ritual before worshipping at the Temple. In Mark's gospel, the woman afflicted with a twelve-year hemorrhage could have been a social outcast, depending upon how strictly her co-religionists interpreted the purity laws. We see Jesus' lack of concern about ritual impurity in his healing of her after she courageously touched him despite the taboo. (Mk:25)

Women and men were segregated for worship in the Jerusalem Temple, which was destroyed by Rome in 70 AD. While women attended synagogue, we have no evidence that first century Palestinian Jewish women led worship. Whether a woman should be educated in the Torah was hotly debated. As a rule, only the Rabbis' wives were so educated. Women were not normally accepted as witnesses in Jewish law. A woman's primary sphere was in the home where she led table prayers and festival candle lighting ceremonies. 

There are exceptions to the restrictions experienced by women in antiquity. Ross S. Kraemer's study of epigraphic, papyrological and archaeological sources found that in the second century, both women and men in the Jewish Diaspora (Jews who had their homes outside of Israel) held synagogal office. Women were not segregated in Diaspora synagogues and some had economic and religious independence.


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