December 11, 2011

Women In Ministry III: The Cultural New Testament Palette

In this section I will be presenting the cultural influence and historal writings surrounding the New Testament Church…both before and during (Greek/Roman) and after (Post Apostolic, Church Fathers). This will provide the contextual setting for what follows by building a picture of the world that cradled the embryonic Christian church in the time of Christ and immediately thereafter in the time of His disciples including Paul. I believe understanding the culture and world around the fledgling church is critical because even pious and devout people of faith are still profoundly influenced by the culture/world because we are all subject to our fallen and sinful human nature. The only person that gets a bye on this stipulation is obviously Jesus as He was more than just a man, He is divine and perfectly obedient to the Father too.


Most would think that the Greeks (therefore Hellenized culture) would’ve held women in high standing or high regard because their pantheon of gods included strong female goddesses as well as male deities. They had Athena, Artemis along with Hera, Zeus' wife. All of them were considered powerful deities. Being the product of human imaginations it is clear that the mindset of culture should’ve been female-affirming based on the driving imagery of these imaginary goddesses. Such was not the case. Human women fared poorly by comparison. Many if not most women (other than the rich or privileged) lived repressed and hidden lives. Although they were honored in the Pantheon and honored in literature or drama, daily life was completely different (Tucker et al 54).

The men in ancient Athens who found their wives boring and good for little else than housework and rearing children had recourse to prostitutes in the form or πόρνη / porne (bottom end of the scale), ἑταῖραι / hetairai (top end of scale) or the ἱεροδούλη / hierodoule (temple prostitutes) depending on social standing, companions who could provide party conversation and other "favors". Wives had little to say about it. The situation of women varied geographically. Women in Sparta were better off than those in Athens but only because they were expected to bear children for warfare. Regardless, most woman in ancient Greece had a dreary existence, with little genuine sexual pleasure, to say nothing about respect and companionship. A wife or woman in general literally had the status of a child, having the legal status of a minor compared to the male of the household. Surprisingly, women within Greek culture did play a large role in religion. They were even allotted the position of priestess although there is no evidence to prove they were ever accepted as prophets or oracles. In Greek religions they were clearly not allowed or accepted as teachers. This very well may have played a strong and influential role on the mindset of 1st century Jews that had converted to Christianity as Hellenized cultural influence pervaded the entire empire. Within this base of culture we see the burgeoning Roman empire and to some extent this Hellenized influence carries over into the occupying Roman influences that we will see in 1st Century Judaism and therefore Christianity also (Harkness 52-54, Tucker et al 55).


In the Roman world leading up to the time of Christ women fared a little bit better than the Greeks before them but the Romans also portrayed women in art, which was often sexually explicit. Like the Greeks, the man who wanted a female “companion” could always procure a prostitute. Under Roman rule education for women was increased, age difference between husbands and wives was decreased and these trends brought men and women into a closer more functional relationships. There was a transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire following the victory of Augustus in 31 B.C. that facilitated the passage of laws to ensure growth and stability of families. There were penalties leveled for adultery and rewards for large families. The “institution” of the family came under modicum of state protection (Tucker et al 55). Regardless of the “official” laws, women continued to be inferior to men in actuality.

Although women’s standards in the Roman Empire fall short of today’s standards they were clearly and improvement over the Greek influence, especially for the women in the “upper crust” of society. They enjoyed better relations, managed their homes, engaged in discussion, and had freedom to be involved outside the home in social activities. This certainly played into the type of treatment women received in early Christianity that was based in an ever changing Greco-Roman (Hellenized) Culture. There were both misogynistic (Greek) and more egalitarian influence (Roman) concurrent to the launch of the Christian faith. Certainly members of the new sect of male-dominated Judaism called Christianity would’ve also been affected by this amorphous cultural/religious intermingling (Harkness 55-56, Tucker et al 56).


Philo who was an Alexandrian philosopher said the status of women was much higher in Hellenistic Egypt than it had been in classical Greece and also much higher than it was in communities visited by Paul. Women in Alexandria during the Hellenistic period enjoyed dignity and freedom, and those of the aristocracy were esteemed by men. There are even accounts by Philo of women teaching and respectable women were allowed to engage religious ceremonies. Even in light of this fact Philo takes a negative tact as a matter of personal opinion. He viewed the righteous women of the Old Testament as exceptions not the rules. He essentially viewed women as dumb and actually said they that women are:
"…best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house" and “the female sex is irrational and akin to bestial passions, fear, sorrow, pleasure and desire, from which ensue incurable weaknesses and indescribable diseases.” (Harkness 52-55, Tucker et al 62-63)
I guess what we can surmise about the culture surrounding the early New Testament Church and the cultures leading up to them is the following. In a slow painstaking and plodding manner conditions improved for woman…at least by law and on the record. This is strangely akin to the civil rights of African Americans after the US Civil War. Although laws were on the books and officially people (woman, African Americans) should’ve been treated better, the truth of the matter is that it was “business as usual”. The de facto (genuine) position of society and men in leadership roles both in political and religious institutions were that women by-and-large were inferior and in most cases not suitable for leadership or teaching roles except in extraordinary situations. The historical evidence that this cultural “influence” had a profound bearing on the early Church seems nearly overwhelming.

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