In exploring historical texts and Scriptures, we can learn a lot about the role of women in work and worship, including Jesus’ surprising departure from the patriarchy of his day.
A few words from Philo and Josephus about women
Philo of Alexandria was a Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, Egypt during the first century AD. Philo’s writings offer us fascinating glimpses into the world of Hellenistic Jews of the era. According to Philo, a woman’s place was in the home: “The women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house.” Philo divides society into two communities: cities and households. Leadership of these spheres is determined by gender: “Both of these have their governors; the government of the greater is assigned to men under the name of statesmanship, that of the lesser, known as household management, to women. A woman, then, should not be a busybody, meddling with matters outside her household concerns, but should seek a life of seclusion.” Philo’s patriarchal perspective leaves no room for women in public leadership.
Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived later in the first century, described the space where women could worship in the Jerusalem Temple: “A special place of worship was walled off for the women…. On the other sides [of the Temple] there was one gate on the south and one on the north giving access to the women’s court; for women were not permitted to enter by the others nor yet to pass by way of their own gate beyond the partition wall.” Josephus, along with his contemporaries, strictly delimited women’s role in religion. They did not enjoy the same standing as men in Temple worship.
The inscriptions chiseled in stone have a word to say
While Philo and Josephus tightly circumscribed women’s place in worship and work, there is another vein in Jewish texts that opens our eyes to wider roles available to women. Various funeral inscriptions name female “elders” in the Jewish community. People like Peristeria, Sara Ura, Beronike, and others, are identified by this title that may simply be a comment on their age but, more likely, designates their religious office. Support for this view comes from other funeral epitaphs that identify some as principle leaders of synagogues. One says, “Rufina, a Jewish woman, head of the synagogue, built this tomb for her freed slaves and the slaves raised in her house.” Another inscription, dated a few centuries later, names “Sophia of Gortyn, elder and head of the synagogue of Kisamos,” the same title ascribed to a woman named Theopempte. While women could not hold the office of priest in Israel, heading up a synagogue was a vocation open to them.
Jesus honors women
Jesus broke from Philo and Josephus and, indeed, from the patriarchy of his day. As the Rabbi, he instructed Mary as a disciple while Martha adhered to the traditional woman’s role of food preparation, as noble as that was (Luke 10:38-42). Sifri (one of the books of the Jewish Mishnah) says, “And you shall teach your sons – and not your daughters.” Jesus’ attitude was clearly different regarding women and learning Torah (the Law). Women followed Jesus and were his patrons according to Luke 8:1-3. Luke even names them: “Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.” Following an itinerate Rabbi was not a role open to women – but Jesus broke the mold.
Paul and his female co-workers
The apostle Paul names many women who were his coworkers in the gospel. He directly addresses two very prominent women in Philippi in his letter to the church: Euodia and Syntyche. The apostle remarks that they “have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel” and includes them among his “co-workers” (Philippians 4:2-3). He also recognizes “Nympha and the church in her house” (Colossians 4:15). She was a person of means who most likely led the church, as did Priscilla (aka Prisca) and Aquilla who had house-churches (1 Corinthians 16:19; Romans 16:3-5). Paul identifies Priscilla as one of his co-workers, just as her husband. These two were Paul’s co-laborers in the gospel and effective teachers as well. Luke comments that they met Apollos in Ephesus, a disciple of John the Baptist, and “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:24-26). They were not unlike Andronicus and his wife Junia who, according to Paul, were “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7). Paul honors these and many other women in leadership (Romans 16:12).
Among the most noteworthy of Paul’s female co-laborers was Phoebe, the leader of the church in one of the port cities of Corinth: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (Romans 16:1-2). She was a wealthy patron who served as the bearer of the letter to the Romans. Paul also identifies her as a diakonos, that is, someone who was the leader of the congregation and not simply a person who took care of physical and monetary affairs of the church, as many use the title today (compare its use in 1 Corinthians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 4:7). She held a key leadership role in her church and was a principle actor in Paul’s mission to Rome and beyond to Spain.
Sisters of Phoebe today
As a young Christian, I attended a church founded by Sister Mabel Kochendorfer. Members of this small Pentecostal congregation in Central Illinois held that the key qualification for ministry was God’s gifting. Dr. Tracy Malone was, for a time, our pastor in the last church we attended in Illinois. Pastor Tracy was a stellar expositor of Scripture who, after her sermons, would often sing the gospel to us from the pulpit or as she walked down the aisle between the pews. Heaven came to earth in those moments. A few days ago, I was with Dr. Amy Peeler, a former New Testament colleague and ordained member of the pastoral staff at a church outside Chicago. Along with Paul, I can name many other women whose principle and gospel-rooted leadership and teaching have built up the people of God.
Sisters of Phoebe, we celebrate and thank God for you!
Dr. Gene L. Green is the Dean of Trinity International University – Florida. Visit them at tiu.edu/florida
Read last month’s article by Dr. Gene L. Green at: https://www.goodnewsfl.org/let-us-do-good-to-all-people/