THE ROLE OF WOMEN
in First-Century Judaism and the Church
by Dr. Roy B. Blizzard
Those who are familiar with Judaism and Jewish Law are aware that women have always been held in the highest regard. In no way were women considered to be inferior to men. Because of woman's roles as wife, mother, and homemaker, her sphere of activity is different from man's but no less important to the community of God. Because of a basic misunderstanding of the Hebrew foundation of the Christian faith, all too many Christian leaders have read the New Testament, found seemingly damaging passages relative to the function of women in the home and church, and then taken these passages out of context--bringing them into our 20th century Western world. In order to correctly understand the role of women in the Church of the first century, it is imperative that we project ourselves back into that historical and cultural context, asking, "To whom was the author writing, why was he writing, and do his words have any practical application for the Church today?"
To whom was Paul writing when he wrote, "I allow no woman to teach or to have authority over men" (I Timothy 2:12)? And again, "The women should keep quiet in the churches" (I Corinthians 14:34)? It is principally these two passages that have been used in Christendom to support the position that a woman has no authority to teach in the Church. In most of the more conservative main-line Christian denominations, this has been the basic position, in varying degrees, for several centuries. The woman is inferior to the man and although she can perhaps teach children, and of course, other women, she cannot teach men and certainly she may not serve as a pastor or priest.
This conclusion is the unfortunate result of taking a passage out of its proper historical and cultural context. To whom was Paul writing? To those who had embraced Jesus as Messiah out of a gentile (pagan) background. Their religious system was one that centered around the worship of gods and goddesses that were served in their temples by cult prostitutes. At Corinth, in Paul's day, there was a temple to the many-breasted fertility goddess, Artemis (also called Diana in some English translations of the New Testament), who was served by one thousand cult prostitutes. In this religious system, women had the dominant role. The women in the Church at Corinth, as through all the cities in Asia, had largely come out of this religious system. In Judaism, the woman, although always considered an equal to man, was exempt from all the positive commandments that would require her to be in a certain place at a certain time (Kiddushin 1:7). Given her role as a wife and mother, the reasons for this should be obvious.
The woman's principal responsibilities were domestic; the man's religious. Therefore, the woman was not required to go to synagogue, to put on talit (the prayer shawl) or tefillin (phylacteries), but she had the liberty to do so if she so desired. Apart from these religious observances, Jewish law recognized no distinction between the sexes insofar as religious responsibility is concerned. "Scripture places men and women on an equality with regard to all the laws of the Torah" (Baba Kama 15a). In the gentile churches, the women were attempting to assume a dominant role, just as they had done in the pagan temples.
In recent times, within the context of the "Shepherding-Discipleship" movement, a teaching called "The Five-Fold Ministries" spread throughout those congregations that were a part of this movement. The teaching quickly gained in popularity and ultimately spread far beyond the confines of those in the "Shepherding-Discipleship" movement. Many well-meaning and otherwise scripturally sound pastors and congregations ignorantly espouse this teaching today, unaware of its origins or error.
The concept of "Five-Fold Ministries" was taken from Ephesians 4:11: "And He appointed some to be apostles, some pastors and teachers." These ministries, or gifts, were held to be for men only, and no woman could serve in any of these special offices. Of course, it was within this same movement that the teaching was promulgated that the woman was to be in submission to her husband in all things, as unto the Lord. The teaching went so far that women were instructed that even if their husbands were ungodly, and not believers, they were still to submit to them and just trust God for deliverance from difficult situations. The concept of submission became a cornerstone of the "Shepherding-Discipleship" theology.
The popularity of this movement was short-lived, and it died out only a few years after it began, with minor exceptions. Unfortunately, however, this teaching is experiencing a revival today, principally in Charismatic Christian circles. The clergy promulgating this revival is in most cases uneducated, but possessing a high degree of visibility via Christian television, which is almost completely controlled by Charismatic Christians, many of whom have been less than spiritually discerning in allowing a teaching to be promulgated which is not only error, but spiritual bondage.
The teaching in recent days has taken an ever increasingly dangerous slant in stating that these "Five-Fold" ministry gifts are all "ascension gifts." That is, they were given to the Church only after Christ ascended into Heaven. He had to ascend into heaven so that he could bestow these gifts upon men. Of course, only men can function in these "ascension" or "ministry" gifts. Women are expected to be in submission to their husbands and function only under the husband's authority.
Erroneous theological conclusions such as those of this Shepherding-Discipleship and/or Five-Fold Ministries movement are not just resultant from poor biblical exegesis, but are an example of the end result of the Church having divorced herself from her Hebrew roots.
In the first place, the doctrine of the Five-Fold Ministries is fundamentally in error. Consider I Corinthians 12:28, where Paul, who also wrote Ephesians 4:11, speaks of the functions in the Body. Here he enumerates apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healings, helps, administration, tongues, and, implied in vs. 30, interpreters of tongues. Further, we can note against the concept of Five-Fold Ministries the fact that the Greek conjunction kai (and) joining "pastors" and "teachers" in Ephesians 4:11 should be correctly translated as "pastor-teachers," or pastors who are qualified to teach. When we view the subject of the various functions in the Body in light of both I Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11, we see there are not just five "ministries," but ten or eleven, depending on interpretation.
In which of these ministries could women function? In the Jewish community, all of these functions were operative hundreds of years before the establishment of the Church. New inscriptional evidence establishes unequivocally that women functioned in every capacity in which men functioned in the community of God. Inscriptions supporting this date back as early as the first century B.C. The evidence consists of as many as nineteen Greek and Latin inscriptions, spanning the lands of the Bible from Egypt to Israel to Greece. In these inscriptions, women are mentioned as the "head of the synagogue," "leader," "elder," "mother of the synagogue," and even "priestess." All of these inscriptions are given in the original language as well as the English translations, along with the date of the inscription and the location where found in the book, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, by Bernadette J. Brooten (Brown Judaic Studies 36, Scholars Press--Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 14851 (607-254-4636).
In chapter five, "Women as Priests," it is interesting and significant to note that the three Jewish inscriptions known in which a woman is designated as a priest date from as early as the first century B.C. and range from Egypt to Israel to Greece. The inscription found in Israel is from Beth She'arim in Galilee. The inscription can be seen today in Hall K of Catacomb 1. It reads:
Sara, daughter of Naimia, Mother of the priest, Lady Maria, lies here.
Ms. Brooten's full discussion of the inscription and meaning of the term "priestess" is discussed on pages 76-99. Her conclusions, excerpted below from pages 149-151, are significant:
"Seen in the larger context of women's participation in the life of the ancient synagogue, there is no reason not to take the titles as functional, nor to assume that women heads or elders of synagogues had radically different functions than men heads or elders or synagogues. Of the functions outlined for each title, there are none which women could not have carried out...nor is it impossible to imagine Jewish women sitting on councils of elders or teaching or arranging for the religious service. Even women carrying out judicial functions is not impossible in a tradition which reveres one of its women prophets (Deborah) as a judge...It would be especially useful to study possible connections between Judaism and Jewish Christianity. For example, it is striking that several early Christian women leaders were Jewish: the apostle Junia (Romans 16:7), the teacher and missionary Prisca (Acts 18:2, 18, 26; Romans 16:3-4; I Corinthians 16:19; II Timothy 4:19; note that in Acts 18:26 she teaches in a synagogue context...The inscriptional evidence for Jewish women leaders means that one cannot declare it to be a departure from Judaism that early Christian women held leadership positions." (Brooten, pages 149,150)
Not only is it not a departure, but given the fact that the early Church operated in an exclusively Jewish context in Israel at the very least until A.D. 90 and perhaps well into the 5th century, it would be a dramatic departure from the established norms if they had not enjoyed full participation in the community of the believers. To declare and teach otherwise is a grave error and is indicative of a serious flaw in biblical exegesis.
Yavo Digest, 1987
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