More On The Roles Of Women In Antiquity -- By: Craig S. Keener

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 10:4 (Fall 1996)
Article: More On The Roles Of Women In Antiquity
Author: Craig S. Keener

More On The Roles Of Women In Antiquity

Craig S. Keener

Craig S. Keener is Visiting Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern Baptist Seminary, and is a frequent contributor to Priscilla Papers.

Evangelical egalitarians often argue that the biblical writers were progressive in their day. It may therefore be helpful to survey some male views about women in the general period in which the New Testament was being written. We should keep in mind that the New Testament writers were not the only progressive voices in their culture; they were, however, among the more progressive rather than the repressive.

In this article I include some samples, especially (though not exclusively) information I have discovered since writing Paul, Women & Wives (Hendrickson, 1992). It should be kept in mind that these samples tell us more about the ideals of thinkers than about actual male-female relationships (which among both the rural poor and the educated urban elite probably tended to be more equal than such sources would indicate). Nevertheless, they do provide an interesting comparison with similar statements of “ideals” in the New Testament.

The Harshest Sources

Athenian orators centuries before Jesus made some of the most dramatic statements. One noted that men could sleep with high-class prostitutes for pleasure, concubines for more regular nurture of their bodies, and wives to bear legitimate children and guard their households (Demosth. Or. 59, Against Neaera 122). Athenians seemed surprised by the greater freedom exhibited among Spartan women (Arist. Pol. 1269b; Gorgo 5 in Plut. Sayings of Spartan Women, Mor. 240E), though even Spartan women obeyed their fathers and husbands (anonymous 22, Spartan Women, Mor. 242B).

The Ideal Of Wifely Submission

But while most cultures might “look good” compared with classical Athens, some attitudes endured over a long period, and in the rest of this article we cite sources from a wide chronological and geographical range.1 The ideal for wives—not always followed even among those who promoted it—was their obedience to their husbands (Dio Cass. 54.16.4-5). This included a sort of modesty that might be called “shyness” today (Dio Cass, ibid.; Demosth. Against Meidias 79; Sirach 22:5).2 Some women, like the empress Livia, held considerable power (Dio Cass. 56.47.1), but they remained the notable exception rather than the rule.3

The Purported Inferiority Of Women

The subordination of...

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