Jewish Culture in First Century CE - Continued

Women in a Patriarchal Society

While women’s experiences varied according to the communities and centuries in which they lived, ordinary Jewish women’s lives centered on their families. Jewish women married in their teens (the average age varies according to geography and time period, from 13 to 18) and went to live with their husband’s families.

Marriage reflected the patriarchal culture, as women were expected to bring a dowry from her family, in return, her husband was responsible for “food, clothing, and conjugal rights” (Exodus. 21:10). If the man found something objectionable about the woman, he had the sole prerogative to issue a writ of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1). Before remarrying, the wife is required to get permission from the husband (a ‘get”). This practice continues today for Orthodox Jews. Men had no restrictions about divorce.

Women’s roles in 1st-century Israel were largely defined by a patriarchal social structure. Their primary focus was on domestic life, including raising children, managing the household, and often contributing to economic activities. While there were notable exceptions, women rarely held positions of religious or political leadership. Their voices had less influence in the strictly male-dominated public sphere.

Jewish women in ancient Israel had limitations on their participation in certain religious practices and access to specific areas of worship, they were still active participants in many aspects of religious life within the context of their society. In contrast, the New Testament Gospels, written toward the last quarter of the first century CE, acknowledge that women were among Jesus’ earliest followers. From the beginning, Jewish women disciples, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, had accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means (Luke 8:1-3). 

Paul’s letters also offer some important glimpses into the role of women in early Christianity.  It is not surprising then to see women taking leadership roles in house churches. Paul tells of women who were the leaders of such house churches (Apphia in Philemon 2; Prisca in I Corinthians 16:19). This practice is confirmed by other texts that also mention women who headed churches in their homes, such as Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16:15) and Nympha of Laodicea (Colossians 4:15).

Women held offices and played significant roles in group worship. Paul, for example, greets a deacon named Phoebe (Romans 16:1) and assumes that women are praying and prophesying during worship (I Corinthians 11). As prophets, women’s roles would have included not only ecstatic public speech, but preaching, teaching, leading prayer, and perhaps even performing the eucharist meal. It is not surprising that some scholars have suggested that the majority of Christians in the first century may have been women, especially since their roles were limited in Judaic ceremonies.

Jewish Discrimination and Prejudices in First Century CE

The relationship between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) in first-century Israel was complex and often strained. Many Jews adhered to a concept of ritual purity, believing contact with “unclean” Gentiles could defile them and shunned them.  Eating with Gentiles was generally avoided, and even entering a Gentile’s house was considered problematic by some. These strict interpretations were meant to uphold Jewish identity and religious law. Despite their discomfort, the realities of life under Roman rule made complete separation impossible. Jews and Gentiles interacted in marketplaces, worked side-by-side in some professions, and might even have cautious contact as neighbors.

 Discrimination by Jews towards Gentiles was primarily rooted in religious and cultural differences rather than outright racial prejudice. However, Romans were often the most visible recipients of Jewish resentment. Their polytheistic religion and imposition of Roman customs clashed heavily with Jewish tradition. Samaritans were also subjects of discrimination and considered heretical by mainstream Judaism. Relations between the two groups were generally characterized by mutual distrust and dislike.