Dr Susan Hylen is Associate Professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She has recently published Women in the New Testament World with Oxford University Press, and I asked her about the book.
IP: How long have you been interested in the first-century context of women in the New Testament world? What first sparked your interest?
SH: I’ve been interested in interpreting New Testament stories about women since I was a seminary student. I grew up in a denomination that ordained women, so I was surprised to discover when I got to seminary that many found the subject controversial. I read a lot of feminist biblical scholarship at that time because of the conversations I had with other students there.
As a doctoral student, I studied other topics, but when I began developing classes as a professor, I returned to the subject of women because I thought it would appeal to my undergraduate students. One of the first classes I taught was an introductory college course, “Women in the New Testament.” At first, I taught it much the way I had learned the material in seminary. But as I kept reading and re-reading the primary sources, I noticed things that didn’t fit what I had been taught. I became more interested in the subject as a result, and I kept exploring the ancient evidence.
IP: In the first chapter of your book, you note the influence of the ‘one-sex theory’, that in the ancient world the female was viewed as an inferior version of the male. Why has that been important as a background to our reading of the New Testament?
SH: There are a number of ancient sources that state very clearly that women were inherently inferior to men. The one-sex theory is one example of this, and it suggests that the ancients saw a biological basis for women’s position in society. If women were anatomically inferior to men, it would suggest that ancient people understood all women, as a category, to be inferior to all men. Many modern readers have taken this idea to mean that actual women were submissive and subordinate to men in every way.
The idea that women were malformed men doesn’t actually prepare us well to understand much of the evidence from the first and second centuries. Women held civic offices and priesthoods, often with the same titles that men held. They owned property. They gave instructions to others with the assumption their wishes would be carried out. They exerted political and social pressure to influence others. My research is asking how all this evidence fits with the other evidence we see that assumes women are inferior to men.
When we read the New Testament, we bring our assumptions about what women’s lives were like, what they were capable of, and those ideas shape what we read. So, if we think that ancient people all thought that women were innately inferior to men, we will use that to understand what we read in the New Testament. If we were to understand that social and legal norms supported women’s participation in their communities, we may start to see this reflected in the New Testament as well.
IP: You then note that a range of evidence points to a wide variety of roles and experiences for women in the ancient world. In what ways does evidence challenge common assumptions about women’s roles?
SH: The evidence challenges a number of our modern ideas. One important example is the notion that women did not own property. This is simply untrue. Women owned one-third to one-fifth of property in the New Testament period, and the pattern included Jewish, Greek, and Roman women of different social classes.
We also make a lot of false assumptions about the relationships between husbands and wives. In particular, many modern readers assume that women were legally subject to their husbands, and we imagine the authority husbands had to be all-encompassing. But the reality in this period was quite different. Many women were legally independent, and they were not under their husband’s authority. The property wives owned could make it beneficial for the husband to remain in the marriage, and that could give the wife some power within the marriage.
There are a number of other ideas that I challenge in the book. For example, people today often argue that women could only lead in “private” settings but not “public” ones, or that elite women could lead but not lower-class women. Neither of these is a good way to explain the evidence from the period.
IP: One of the questions that continues to be contested is the role of women in leadership in the early Christian communities. How does your background evidence throw light on this?
SH: People have recognized for a long time that there are indicators that suggest that women were leaders in the New Testament period. For example, Phoebe is called a “deacon” in Romans 16:1. But interpreters also grapple with the passages of the New Testament that suggest women’s subordination to men. The statements of women’s submission leave us asking: How do these things fit together? It seems like we have women leaders alongside statements that women can’t be leaders.
When I read widely in the historical context, I saw the same pattern. There are statements that women cannot serve as magistrates alongside inscriptions praising women who were magistrates. There are statements that praise women for obedience to their husbands at the same time they portray the same woman advocating for her political interests. This pattern suggested to me that although modern readers have seen the ancient texts as contradictory, ancient people must not have seen it the same way. I started trying to understand how these social norms might have made sense from an ancient perspective.
One thing I discovered in my research is the way that ancient norms of modesty gave women a much wider range of action that we might expect. Although “modesty” was a classically feminine virtue, it was also a male virtue in the period, and in fact was seen as a qualification of good leaders in the period. Women who exhibited modesty may have been seen as good candidates for leadership roles.
IP: You note the virtues that were commonly expected of women in the first century. Do we see evidence of these expectations in the New Testament?
SH: Ancient women were expected to be modest, industrious, and loyal to their families. There has been a way of interpreting those virtues as very constraining for women. For example, if you imagine a woman working tirelessly within the confines of her home for the sake of her family, then she seems to be conforming to these traditional ideals. What I hope people will see in my discussion of the virtues is that social expectations created greater opportunities for women than this very narrow portrait suggests. Women’s industriousness might mean that they developed a business, like brickmaking or textile production. They did so in part out of devotion to their families, but it didn’t mean they remained at home or that the work was directed by their husbands. Such women weren’t viewed as immodest—in fact, they were often praised as conforming to the ideal. Some women advocated forcefully for the political position of their families, and even those women could be praised for traditional virtues.
Understanding this complexity in how virtues were practiced can help us interpret New Testament texts. There are lots of cases where this might make a difference. For example, in the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), the widow who persistently advocates for her needs is probably not doing anything people of the time would have found unusual. Like the other parables, the scenario conveys an everyday situation.
But this idea can also be important to the way we understand passages that we have understood as highly restrictive of women, like 1 Timothy 2:8-15. Controlling speech was part of the virtue of modesty but enacting that virtue did not constrain women’s behavior as broadly as we have imagined. In that social context, there were lots of situations where women’s speech and even authority over men would have been expected, and early readers of the New Testament would have understood that these situations didn’t contradict the social norms of modesty.
IP: You make some surprising observations about the extent to which women enjoyed wealth and power in first century society. Is this reflected in the New Testament texts?
SH: There are a couple of really powerful women who are mentioned in the New Testament, but only in passing. One is Pilate’s wife, who would have been a woman of very high status and influence. In Matthew’s telling of the passion story, she sent word to Pilate of a dream she had indicating Jesus’s innocence (Matt 27:19). Her intervention doesn’t change the outcome of the story, but it’s part of the way Matthew affirms Jesus’s innocence, and it gives us a glimpse of the kind of authority women like Pilate’s wife had.
More often, women in the New Testament are lower in status, but they still owned property and used it to pursue their interests. The women who travelled with Jesus and supported his ministry (Luke 8:1-3) are a good example of this. Other stories, like the widow who gives her two coins to the temple (Mark 12:41-44), really don’t make any sense unless you understand that the woman was the owner of her property, even if she didn’t have very much. Lydia, a businesswoman and head of a household, prevailed upon Paul and his companions to stay with her (Acts 16:14-15). She displays some of the social power wielded by other women of her time.
IP: How should we interpret the discussions of speech and silence in the New Testament, especially in the Pauline texts? Do you interpret them as conforming to or challenging the culture norms of the day?
SH: I think that the language about silence (1 Cor 14:33b-36 and 1 Tim 2:11-12) would have made sense to ancient readers according to the social norms they understood. There’s lots of ancient criticism of both men and women who can’t keep quiet when they should. It was a virtue to control one’s speech in the presence of those with greater social status.
But ancient readers would have been shocked to think that all women should always be silent around all men. For them, the virtue of controlling speech was relative depending on one’s social status. Social standing wasn’t only a matter of gender; family background, citizenship, wealth, enslaved or free status, and virtue also contributed to one’s social position. Women had lower status than men if all other factors were equal. But often a woman might have greater standing then men, and in those cases, she would have been expected to speak.
In the example of Pilate’s wife above, she interjected her views into an important trial, and this wasn’t viewed as improper. Modern readers have often taken the language about women’s silence as a universal statement. Ancient readers would have affirmed that women’s silence was an ideal, but the ideal did not have the universal effects that we have imagined.
IP: What do you think are the most important insights that this background information offers for our reading of the New Testament texts about men and women?
SH: Women of the first and second century were actors in their own right, who pursued their interests and engaged in economic and social activities in many of the same ways men did. The status of women varied greatly (as did men’s status), so we shouldn’t imagine that all women could do whatever they wished. However, they had significant legal and social capacities, and these expectations would have shaped the first readers of the New Testament.
I hope that the historical work I have done will enliven the way readers interpret New Testament texts. In familiar stories, we may see something new because we understand the social fabric of the ancient world in a new way. Sometimes these insights can be of great personal importance, as in the case of passages that we relate to questions of women’s leadership in churches today. Other times, they are more mundane, like seeing the social power of a woman like Pilate’s wife. In each case, these insights can enrich our understanding of the Bible.
IP: Thanks very much for your time, and for sharing some of your fascinating research.
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