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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:3, Summer 2020

Epistles: Women in the Early Church

By Holly Beers

Biblical Archaeology Review

In what ways did women participate in the Church during the first century C.E.?

Before answering this question, we must first address another: How did women live in the Roman Empire during the first century C.E.? The answer to that question is complicated by a myriad of factors, including the ancient sources available to us. Almost all such sources were written by men and focus on what were seen to be men’s (rather than women’s) concerns, including power and stability within the family, community, and empire. The sources that do address or discuss women often focus on the lives of upper-class women, as most of the people who could read and write came from that class (though the overall percentage of literate people was low). However, upper-class women would have constituted only a tiny portion of the population.

Most people, including women, would have worked from dawn to dusk to provide food for the day for themselves and their extended family groups. The necessity of food is tied to the larger question of women’s work. Although some ancient sources portray women as being secluded in the home behind closed doors, this would have been more common for upper-class women. For the rest of the population, the necessity of feeding all the hungry mouths in the household would require women to be in the fields working the land and then preparing the agricultural product for consumption or in the public marketplaces buying and selling food, clothing, and other necessities. In this way, women’s work likely hinged on the labor of men in the family.

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