Women in First Century Synagogues

Women in First Century Synagogues March 7, 2013

From Rabbi Joshua:

Question: What do women do by way of leadership in messianic Judaism today?

During the Second Temple period in ancient Israel, women were able to actively participate within the larger society, both socially and religiously. Women served as leaders of synagogues, participated in ritual services, learned and taught Jewish law, were counted in a minyan, and from archaeological evidence, do not seem to have been physically separated from men during prayer. There was active participation of women in all facets of Jewish ritual life. According to Shmuel Safrai:

In the Second Temple period women were religiously the equals of men: ancient Jewish sources from the land of Israel and from the Diaspora show that women frequented the synagogue and studied in the beit midrash (study hall). Women could be members of the quorum of ten needed to say the “Eighteen Benedictions”…and like men, women were permitted to say “Amen” in response to the priestly blessing.[1]

Archaeological evidence supports that women were not necessarily separated from the men in the synagogue. This is the result of no apparent evidence from any of the numerous synagogues that have been excavated that would seem to indicate men and women were required to sit separately….

This scholarly assumption is supported by Safrai, who comments, “Rabbinic sources mention various functions for synagogue balconies and upper rooms, but there is never a connection made between these structures and women.”[3] The first reference to a mechitza is connected to Abaye (4th Cent. CE) in the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 81a). In many opinions, it is unrelated to the synagogue.[4] As a result of recent scholarly insight into this arena, any kind of inference of women’s inferiority based on supposed separation during prayer is not supported by archaeological or textual evidence.

Inscriptions discovered in ancient synagogues from the early centuries also testify to women having served in various leadership capacities throughout the Jewish world. These inscriptions include heads of synagogues (αρχισυναγωγος), leaders (αρχηγισσα), and elders (πρεσβυτερα and other parallels).[5] These inscriptions (in feminine conjugations) bear witness to the very public roles of women. Thus further proving that women were indeed active members within their spiritual communities.

"Thank-you!I can easily see men speaking religious blather for centuries - they are doing a ..."

Kevin Giles — The ETS Response ..."
"Fluffybabybunnyrabbit indeed...;-)"

Kevin Giles — The ETS Response ..."
"The reality of course is all these fellows entirely misunderstand the man Christ Jesus - ..."

Kevin Giles — The ETS Response ..."
"I do not know much about this Apostles creed but I believe that God likes ..."

N.T. Wright and those Pesky Creeds

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • bill

    Bernadette Brooten’s book on women in leadership/partonesses in ancient synagogue inscriptions is helpful in this discussion.

  • EricW
  • Tim

    If women were practically equal to men with respect to the religious life of Jewish people in the second temple period then does the perspective represented in the NT on the role of women in the church owe more to Hellenistic influence?

  • Tim,

    Often the role of women as represented in the NT is often misunderstood or misrepresented. There is actually much within the NT that is supportive of women’s roles – but these are largely ignored.

    There are only two places that would seem to be against women serving in a clerical role (1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:12). From an initial reading, these two portions do seem to support a position against women in leadership. However, a much closer reading of these two texts, their historical and linguistic context, as well as Paul’s support and encouragement of women leaders in other passages may dispel the logic behind such claims.

    For example, if our initial reading would support Paul being against women serving in spiritual leadership, then his very last chapter of his Letter to the Romans would be problematic. In Romans 16, Paul addresses his fellow co-workers, ministers, and leaders. Surprisingly, 40% of the names mentioned are women. Included in this list are Phoebe who is describes as a Deacon (διάκονον) and worthy of any “help she may require from you (v. 2),” and Priscilla, a co-leader along with her husband Aquila. Furthermore, one of these women, Junia, is traditionally understood within early Christian literature as being an apostle (Rom. 16:7). The position of an apostle was one of the highest positions of spiritual leadership within the early community of Jewish Jesus followers.

    There are also many other examples of women within the NT … but these are often overlooked.

  • So I’m not sure what the sources are for this article (clicking on the numbers sent me to a page with the message that I don’t have access to the blog – must be a private one?), but I’m curious how this could be the case, if women were considered unclean during menstruation – wouldn’t that automatically knock them out of the running at least once a month? It also seems very out of touch with what I’ve read from the Talmud, but perhaps that was a cultural norm of the time period, and was not in accordance with religious teaching? I’d be interested in reading more on women’s roles in first century Judaism and earlier…

  • Just an amusing true anecdote about the Birmingham (UK) synagogue. Until the WW2, the women sat in the gallery, the men downstairs. When the war started, the women insisted on coming downstairs due to the danger of bombing raids. After the end of the war, they never went back up stairs.

  • Anna


    Since women in the ancient world did not have access to reliable birth control, they rarely menstruated because they were usually pregnant or nursing during their reproductive years.

  • EricW

    Elisabeth / Anna: The link in my post above goes to a document with sources. Also, re: ancient birth control: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2676/did-the-ancient-romans-use-a-natural-herb-for-birth-control

  • “The question is larger than what women can do in worship. The question is what view of women shall we have?” (Carroll Osburn, Women in the Church, pg 2, 87)

  • Very interesting analysis. So, would I be correct in assuming, from this viewpoint, what we have often been taught about women having been viewed lowly in Jewish society was wrong? My understanding was that women could not be taught directly by a Rabbi. This was part of the backdrop to Martha’s annoyance with Mary when she is sitting at the feet of Jesus. Or that the disciples were shocked not only that Jesus was conversing with a Samaritan but a woman at Jacob’s well. I was taught that Jesus’ interaction with women was the exception and not the rule. So, if the analysis above is correct, I’ve been taught wrong, if I understand you correctly.

  • scotmcknight

    David, there’s not one comment against Jesus by his contemporaries for his treatment of women. The standard “Jews were hard on women” but “Jesus was nice to women” is woefully mistaken.

  • Cphilips

    Scot re.11,
    Then when did women come to be regarded as lesser? And why?

  • scotmcknight

    Lesser is a bit different issue… seems to me to be inherent to the male’s desire for dominance, and one sees that will for power in Gen 3:16 already. The point I was making was the Jesus showed openness to women but he was never criticized for that; many Christians grab a few rabbinic texts as what all Jews believed; that’s mistaken as there is all kind of variety within Judaism, but I don’t mean to suggest egalitarian perceptions were anywhere near the norm. They weren’t.

  • Andrew

    The Pastorals were not written by Paul but by an anonymous 2nd century Christian. Without a doubt the views on woman there represent the view of the Orthodox church that had by that time adopted many Hellenistic traits. Now how the role of women differed in Judaism in that time period, I really don’t know much about. Safrai’s general statement about “religiously the equal of men” in 2nd Temple Judaism I have a hard time believing going by what else I’ve read about the time period. But as Scot correctly notes, Judaism had great variety pre-70; without a doubt some communities were more egalitarian than others.

  • Wow. Thanks for linking Rabbi Joshua’s, Scot! This was good reading, and I’m glad I stuck around to read the comments, too, where more thoughtful and provoking info was shared.

  • Elisabeth,

    I greatly appreciate Scot McKnight’s repost of my blog post on the role of women in early Judaism. Here are the sources used above:

    [1] Shmuel Safrai, “Were Women Segregated in the Ancient Synagogue.” Jerusalem Perspective, July-Sept. 1997, 34.

    [2] Zeev Weiss, “The Sepphoris Synagogue Mosaic.” Biblical Archaeological Review (Sept./Oct. 2000), 51.

    [3] Ibid. Safrai, 32.

    [4] Ibid. Safrai, 29.

    [5] Kay Silberling, “Position Paper Regarding Leadership/Ordination of Women.” Presented to the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues, October 15, 1993., 69.

    As far as your question regarding menstruation, according to Jewish law, menstruation does not forbid women from participation in most of synagogue life (to that which women are able). And limitations regarding participation in Temple worship is a separate issue, and does not apply in the same way in the synagogue.