In 215 B.C., a defeated and cash-strapped Rome passed a new law. The context was their greatest military defeat ever. On August 2, 216 B.C., the Carthaginian general Hannibal destroyed their army at Cannae during the Second Punic War. As the first century Roman historian Livy cried, “Certainly there is no other nation that would not have succumbed beneath such a weight of calamity.”
Except Rome wasn’t like other nations (which was Livy’s point). Rome did not succumb. They tightened their belt, raised a new army, and kept going. Rome epitomized grit.
Which is also why they cracked down on a growing group of independently wealthy women–the wives and daughters who profited from the sudden reduction in male guardians. Rome did this for probably two reasons (historians still argue about it). One reason was certainly the war effort. Rome needed money from everyone. So they passed the Oppian law–“which put severe restrictions on women’s wealth.” Women could no longer dress in luxurious clothes, could no longer ride in carriages (in Rome) except on special occasions, and could only possess half an ounce of gold. Some even had to turn over their war-inheritances to the state. These women were encouraged to spend more money for Rome and less on themselves.
The second reason Rome probably passed the Oppian law was to limit women’s public display of wealth. Rome was in mourning after the Battle of Cannae. It wasn’t a time to have parties and wear fancy clothes. It was a time to batten down the hatches and fight to the death (which is pretty much what they did). It was especially not a time for women to have more money than men. Rome was a very patriarchal society and Roman matrons–safely married women under the guardianship of their husbands–symbolized the success of Roman society. Independently wealthy women free from male leadership did not…..
Rome won, by the way.
But, when the crisis was over, the law restricting women’s wealth continued while laws restricting men’s wealth did not. By 195 B.C., women in Rome had enough. They protested publicly, blockading the streets and even pathways to the Forum, demanding the law be repealed. As Livy tells us, “This crowd of women was growing daily, for now they were even gathering from the towns and villages. Before long they dared go up and solicit consuls, praetors, and other magistrates.”
One consul, Cato the Elder, opposed repealing the law. Listen to what he said, and remember Livy is recording his speech probably during the reign of Caesar Augustus (approximately 30 BC and 17 AD):
“at home our freedom is conquered by female fury, here in the Forum it is bruised and trampled upon, and because we have not contained the individuals, we fear the lot…Indeed, I blushed when, a short while ago, I walked through the midst of a band of women. I should have said, “What kind of behavior is this? Running around in public, blocking streets, and speaking to other women’s husbands! Could you not have asked our own husbands the same thing at home? Are you more charming in public with others’ husbands than at home with your own? And yet, it is not fitting even at home for you to concern yourselves with what laws are passed or repealed here.
Our ancestors did not want women to conduct any – not even private – business without a guardian; they wanted them to be under the authority of parents, brothers, or husbands; we (the gods help us!) even now let them snatch at the government and meddle in the Forum and our assemblies. What are they doing now on the streets and crossroads, if they are not persuading the tribunes to vote for repeal?…If they are victorious now, what will they not attempt? As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors…”
Livy recorded this speech by Cato in his History of Rome. He was a very popular writer, and his History would have been well known. Pliny the Younger, writing toward the end of the first century, depicts Livy as a celebrity. People would have known Livy’s work.
So, as a historian, it isn’t surprising to me at all that echoes of Livy ended up in the New Testament. Just listen to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
“The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (RSV, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35).
No, it isn’t word for word. But it is very close. A definite echo. Paul’s words are quoting from his Roman context. Cato’s speech isn’t the only Roman text to convey this sentiment about women. Baylor Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religion and New Testament scholar Charles Talbert reminds us that Juvenal (early second century AD), in Satires 6, also condemns women who run around publicly intruding on male governance instead of staying at home. Likewise, the Hellenistic Jew Josephus (1st century) states in Against Apion 2.201 that, “The woman, says the law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive…that she may be directed, for the authority has been given by God to the man,” while Philo (late first century BCE to first century AD) states in Hypothetica 8.7.14 that, “The husband seems competent to transmit knowledge of the laws to his wife.”
The Hellenistic Roman world, both pre and post the beginning of Christianity, viewed women as subordinate to men. The Hellenistic Roman world, again both pre and post the beginning of Christianity, declared that men should convey information to their wives at home instead of women going about in public.
It is not surprising to me that Paul–an educated Roman citizen who would have been very familiar with Livy and Hellenistic Jewish/Roman views about women–could have been so concerned that Christians in Corinth were imposing pagan Roman restrictions on women that he quoted the Roman world view (34-35) just to counter it. In verse 36 there is a word that is often left out in many translations (check out the RSV or KJV).
“What!” Paul continued indignantly after stating the Roman view of women, “Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached? If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized. So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.”
For those skeptical that Paul’s indignation should be translated this way, (“What!”), just check 1 Corinthians 11:22 to see a similar usage (KJV or NRSV). (There are several theories about what is going on in 1 Corinthians 14 and Marg Mowczko provides a good overview here.)
When verses 34-35 are read as a quotation, which is what Talbert argued in 1987 (his article in The Unfettered Word ed. by Robison B. James), Paul certainly could be using them to distinguish between Roman patriarchy (women be silent) and Christian behavior (What? Did the word of God originate with you?). He is quoting the Roman world view to counter it with the Christian world view. Of course, if these two verses (34-35) are a later addition as other scholars suspect (see here for an overview), it still doesn’t surprise me to find Livy added in. Roman women were supposed to be silent and submissive (just see Cato’s speech above). Roman women were not supposed to be publicly prophesying and speaking in tongues alongside men the way Paul depicts women as doing in the early church (what all of 1 Corinthians 14 is really about, and what Paul clearly shows women doing in 1 Corinthians 11).
In other words, Sarah Bessey is right. Patriarchy isn’t God’s dream for humanity; patriarchy was the dream of non-Christian Rome.
As a historian, I know the Roman view of women (as reflected in 1 Corinthians 14) is just one of many, many examples of patriarchy in the ancient world. Indeed, patriarchy is a constant in world history. From The Ramayana in ancient India to the Epic of Gilgamesh in ancient Sumeria, texts from early civilizations reveal the gender hierarchies that privileged men (especially men of certain classes) and subordinated women. As Gerda Lerner argued in her monumental study, The Creation of Patriarchy, male dominance over women is rooted in the historical development of civilizations. It is a power structure created and maintained by human labor. The Roman system which elevated men and subordinated women fits perfectly in the framework of human history.
Which is what makes the New Testament so revolutionary. While we get echoes of human patriarchy in the New Testament, especially as the early church tries to make sense of its place in a very pagan world, we get a whole lot more of passages subverting traditional gender roles and emphasizing women as leaders. Beth Moore, one of the greatest students of biblical text and teachers of biblical truth in the modern church, made the right point in her twitter response to Owen Strachan:
“What I plead for Is to grapple with the entire text from Mt 1 thru Rev 22 on ever matter concerning women. To grapple with Paul’s words in 1 Tim/! For 14 as authoritative, God-breathed!- alongside other words Paul wrote, equally inspired & make sense of the many women he served alongside. Above all else, we must search the attitudes of Christ Jesus himself toward women.”
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is actually not a difficult passage. It fits in beautifully with human history. The most difficult passage in the New Testament to explain, historically speaking, is the end of Galatians 3:
“For you are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This is what is radical. This is what makes Christianity so different from the rest of human history. This is what sets both men and women free……
I find it ironic that we spend so much time today fighting to make Christianity look like the things of this world instead of fighting to make it like the world Jesus showed us was possible. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Instead of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as God’s dream for humanity, doesn’t the world of Galatians 3 seem more like Jesus?
Patriarchy may be a part of Christian history, but that doesn’t make it Christian.
Stay tuned for next time as we continue Disrupting Christian Patriarchy–moving into the medieval world and discussing the problem of the 12 disciples. Oh yeah, we will also tackle Owen Strachan’s claims about women preaching. See you in two weeks. Pictures from my favorite bridge in Rome with Bernini’s angels.