Biblical Archaeology Review 42:4, July/August 2016

Biblical Views: Tabitha and Lydia—Models of Early Christian Women Leaders

By Teresa Calpino

BAR July/August 2016 cover

What roles did women fill in the early Christian community as described in the Book of Acts? What does this New Testament book say about women leaders, and how does this portrayal differ from Greco-Roman characterizations in general of women leaders and intellectuals?

In Satires from the late first or early second century C.E., the Roman satiric poet Juvenal expresses his opinion of Roman women as scholars:

Don’t let the lady reclining next to you have her own rhetorical style or brandish phrases before hurling her rounded syllogism at you. Don’t let her know the whole of history. Let there be a few things in books that she doesn’t even understand. I loathe the woman who is forever referring to Palaemon’s Grammar and thumbing through it, observing all the laws and rules of speech, or who quotes lines I’ve never heard, a female scholar indeed!

Reading this quotation might lead you to lament its misogyny and the status of women in the Greco-Roman world. However, this type of statement may not be normative. These sorts of scathing comments were all written by male, elite authors. These men were highly invested in maintaining the economic and social status quo, so any threats to this balance were viewed with suspicion at best and bitter invective at worst. Therefore, their critiques are best read reflexively; namely, there would be no need for these criticisms without the pervasiveness of female autonomy.

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