Finding Phoebe: What the NT Women Were Really Like

Finding Phoebe: What the NT Women Were Really Like March 13, 2023

Back in 1977 B.C. (by which I mean before computer and before cellphone), when I was doing my doctoral dissertation at Durham on ‘Women in the NT’,  there were precious few monographs of any depth or quality on this subject. So much was that the case, that Cambridge decided, in an unprecedented move to publish my dissertation in their SNTS monograph series in two different volumes, one on Women in the Ministry of Jesus, one on Women in the Earliest Churches, and as if that were not enough, they wanted a Reader’s Digest version of the first two for lay people which my wife Ann and I produced in the early nineties entitled Women and the Genesis of Christianity.  But by the 80s and 90s and now in the 21rst century, books on women in the NT can populate whole bookshelves.  It has been a growth industry. One of the very best recent books of this sort is Prof. Susan Hylen’s interesting volume Finding Phoebe, hot off the press (Eerdmans, 2023,  200 pages  $21.99 pb).   Hylen is a professor of NT at Candler School of Theology, and was previously at Vanderbilt Divinity, and before that did her dissertation at Princeton.  She is also an ordained Presbyterian minister.

This particular volume focuses on providing a thick description of the social and historical context in which women operated in the Greco-Roman world,  and Hylen only interacts with primary sources— inscriptions. (CIL, CIG etc.), ancient writers of relevance such as Plutarch, Xenophon, Juvenal, Livy etc., and evidence from the papyri.  There are numerous good insights that come from reading such data,  but also a word of caution is in order, as Hylen notes. namely that most of the written evidence is about socially more elite women of various sorts. (who made up perhaps 10% of all women in the Greco-Roman world, at most), and I would add that women’s roles  in the various subcultures of the Greco-Roman world varied from subculture to subculture, though all of them operated in a culture that was basically patriarchal.  In addition, because so much of the papyrological evidence comes Egypt, it worth noting that women had a wider scope of roles they could play in Egypt, including being a Pharaoh (e.g. Hatshepsut, cf. Cleopatra) than they could play in some other subcultures.  I would commend persons interested in a deep dive into the inscriptions to work through the many volumes of New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, that Edwin Judge at MacQuarrie down under, and others spearheaded.

Hylen’s book is easy to read, and pitched at just the right level for entry level college or seminary students, and one of the things she does especially well is to help us to see that the issue of women and their roles in antiquity is complex and affected by a variety of factors, not least because there were various things that could give a person higher social status, and gender was merely one of them— wealth, citizenship, education, ethnicity were other such factors.  This is why Wayne Meeks in his landmark study on the first urban Christians talked about Paul’s status inconsistency— high in some respects, not so much in others.   This was true of first century women in the Greco-Roman world as well.

Hylen probably has a higher than average estimate on how much literacy there was among women in the NT world, for as Teresa Morgan has shown, education was overwhelmingly for elite males.  And frankly there were not schools, there were teachers or philosophers who were hired as tutors, so one should not envision a modern classroom setting. It is interesting however that unlike modern education, younger students would be in the same sessions with older ones, and sometimes the younger ones were tutored and helped by the older ones. In any case, because of the widespread use of scribes even by the very literate such as Paul or Cicero, it is very difficult to detect the level of literacy of those who used scribes.  Being able to read was one thing, being able to write with a fair hand without numerous errors was another.

Hylen is absolutely right that there is strong evidence of women being patrons of various persons, civic groups, religious entities, cities, and more.  She is also right that in a Greco-Roman setting women certainly could and did have property even beyond their dowry, and the roles they played in a marriage involved commerce or business as well as household management.  She has a good deal to say about the traditional role of spinning wool and making clothes, but it is clear that wool-working was not simply a catchall phrase for any sort of work done in the home.  Augustus went out of his way to pass laws encouraging the traditional wool-working of wives and women in the home, and proudly wore such garments that his wife made (Suetonius, The Deified Augustus 73).  He did not want the traditional practices to be neglected as the Empire was being born.

Less convincing is the way some of the NT texts are handled in light of trying to provide a thick social description of the setting.  For example, 1 Cor. 14. 33b-36 bears witness to Gentile women who were used to prophecy being a consulting service, for instance up the mountain at Delphi.  By this I mean people would go to the Pythia to ask questions and get an oracular response.  In the Corinthian worship it would be perfectly normal for people including women to ask questions during the time prophecy.  But Biblical prophecy was not about consultation. It was a top down revelation of something the deity wanted the audience to hear and pay attention to.  Gentile women who did not know the nature of Jewish prophecy would not know this.  Paul then instructs these women who are interrupting worship with questions to ask at home.  This is clearly not about silencing women from speaking in worship in general as 1 Cor. 11 makes clear, and as Prof. Hylen mentions.  The silence called for in 1 Cor. 14 has to do with respect for the prophetic speaker when he or she is speaking.  It doesn’t have to do with the gender of the listeners.

Even less forthcoming is the discussion of 1 Tim., 2.8-15 where again the Biblical writer is correcting problems— the men are told to stop grumbling and lift up holy hands in prayer.  The women are told to be quiet so they can listen and learn (hesuchia means quiet, not the same word as the Greek for silence).  Notice that these are clearly high status women who can afford expensive hairdos and clothes and bling.  In other words, the directive is to a particular group of women— more high status women, who likely were used to being able to speak and teach in a religious setting.   The very excellent study by Gary Hoag, entitled Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and the First Letter to Timothy, which helpfully draws on insights from Xenophon of Ephesus’ Ephesiaca shows at some length the religious roles high status women could and did play in Ephesus (and elsewhere) and why there would be an assumption if they became Christ followers that such teaching roles would and could be available for them to play.  In any case the crucial sentence in question involves a present tense verb which never means ‘I would never permit’, but rather means ‘I am not now permitting’.  Why so? Because these high status women need to listen and learn before they undertake teaching or authority roles in the religious service.   The verb authentein in a corrective  context like this one means ‘usurp authority over’ not exercise authority.  These women were trying to assume roles without first listening and learning.

Finally, both in 1 Cor. 14 and here in 1 Tim. 2 nothing is said about women being in submission to men. They are supposed to be in submission to the authorized teaching in 1 Tim. 2 and to the prophecy in 1 Cor. 14.   In the latter, the reference to the Law is not about women being in submission.  The Torah offers no direct imperatives about that.  What is commanded is that when God is speaking or going to speak there is supposed to be silence— ‘the Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence’.   In short, Prof. Hylen could have provided a good deal more appropriate context to prevent the misreading of passages that have wrongly been used to exclude women from ministry.

I could also have wished for more discussion about the household codes, particularly in comparison to what for instance Plutarch says about the relationships between husbands and wives.  It seems clear that there is an attempt to modify the highly patriarchal structure of the household, moving it in a more egalitarian way in regard to wives, slaves, and minors. We hear about mutual submission in Ephes. 5.21, we hear both children and slaves addressed as moral agents who can respond, unlike in the pagan literature on the subject, and the call for the manumission of Onesimus in Philemon on the grounds that he is now a brother in Christ and should no longer be a slave suggests these codes were not about baptizing the patriarchal house structure and calling it good.  Household instructions in pagan contexts are actually just instructions to the man who is the head of the household as to how he can keep his household in order, which is to say by subordinating the other members of the household in one way or another.

Finally, it is not clear to me that ordinary Jewish women, in Jewish settings, for instance in Judaea or Galilee, could divorce their husbands. This is not what early Jewish sources say about the matter.  Nor is it clear to me that women could control the family property and decide who would inherit it.  Obviously, the more social elite, and the royals made up their own rules at times about such things, but the evidence about ordinary Jewish women not living in the Diaspora and not highly Hellenized or of high status. seems to be another matter.  The story about the widow’s mite indicates she has almost no liquid assets and what she gave may have been the remains of her dowry.  But clearly there was a spectrum of possibilities for women when it came to property in the Greco-Roman world.  Prof. Hylen should not be faulted however for not dealing in depth with some of the issues  I have just raised, as that was not the level or the intended focus of her study.

This is a very good entry level book for college and seminary students which makes them think hard about the variables in the social context and how reading the NT should be done in context, not only in regard to Phoebe, but in regard to all the women mentioned in the NT.  I will certainly be assigning this fine study to my students.

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