Modern readers of the New Testament often imagine that women’s lives in the first and second centuries C.E. were highly restricted. This mind-set has led to a number of myths concerning women and their condition in first-century Roman Judea, or what many call the New Testament period. While women were not considered the equals of men, a number of legal and social norms contradict modern expectations. A better understanding of these conventions may reshape the interpretation of biblical texts.
1: Women were controlled by their fathers or husbands.
According to Roman law, women were under the legal authority of their father until he died. But the same was true for men: When a father died, his adult sons and daughters became legally independent. They could own their own property and inherited property from their father.
In most cases, marriage did not alter the legal independence of women. At an earlier time it had been common for women to come under the legal authority of their husbands, but by the first century C.E. this was not the case. Most marriages took a legal form in which the woman remained in her father’s authority if he was alive or retained her legal independence if her father had died. Thus, a husband exercised legal authority over other members of his household—but not over his wife. There were social norms that supported the notion that wives should defer to husbands, but the reality of women’s legal status should not be obscured by such statements.