Long before second-wave feminism influenced researchers to include biographies of “women worthies,” historians writing on the Greco-Roman world included at least passing references to the Caesars’ wives. The dust jacket on the 1962 publication of Roman Women: Their History and Habits said its release marked the first time a book in any language addressed women’s influence on Roman history and the public and private lives of Roman women. Still, it covered mostly upper-class women.
Thirteen years later in 1975 Sarah Pomeroy published a pioneering social history of women in Greece and Rome. Her provocatively titled book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, covered an enormous range, from highest goddess to lowest slave. But the work still described mostly upper- and ruling-class women. Though Pomeroy set out to include those in all classes, the record she had available was still mostly by or about those in power.
Yet in the three decades since she wrote her groundbreaking work, that has changed. We now have new writings, pottery, domiciles, and inscriptions—tons of them. Literally. Thanks to archaeology. Finally we can know more about what everyday people were doing while the Caesars were fighting wars, forging alliances, and generally getting themselves killed.
In the process we’ve added to our stores of knowledge on a number of topics that relate to women. Like Jewish women in the Greco-Roman world. And whether ritual temple prostitution actually ever even happened (probably not). And whether women really are more prone than men to false cults (it is apparently an equal-opportunity pursuit).
And now a new academic book adds a valuable contribution to our understanding. Dr. Lynn Cohick, who teaches New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School, has published Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Baker Academic). Like many before her, Cohick has sought to sketch women as they lived in the various strata of society. But unlike most before her, she has succeeded.
Piecing together the literary, archaeological, epigraphic, and iconographic evidence from classic, Jewish, and Christian sources, Cohick has built a fascinating mosaic of first-century daily life in family, religion, and society. But she doesn’t stop there. She goes on to illuminate women in the New Testament in light of what we now know about both scripture and their cultures. So, for example, based on what we know of marriage, divorce and women’s rights, she raises the question of whether the Samaritan woman was actually an upright woman. Maybe she was dumped and/or widowed and then remarried to a man with another wife. Others have raised this question previously. But never has the possibility seemed more credible.
Cohick also explores the possibility that in the same way Silas and Silvanus (Greek vs. Roman name) are probably the same person, Junia and Joanna might be the same. I was a skeptic when I started reading, but now I’m pretty convinced.
Most of Cohick’s book, though, focuses not on specific Bible characters but on telling readers about the world in which those characters lived. And in that, I found some surprises. I always thought, for example, that women in antiquity who married were then under the complete authority of their husbands. But apparently they stayed under the tutelage of their fathers (or a male biological family member). The fathers could even dissolve marriages to form stronger alliances elsewhere. Yet thanks to Caesar Augustus, if a woman gave birth to three children, the tutorship ended.
Cohick directs her well reasoned arguments to an academic audience, but they’re accessible to anyone interested in New Testament backgrounds. She includes topics such as women and marriage, dowries, adoption, worship practices, and patronage. If you love exploring women of the Bible and the world in which they lived, this book belongs on your wish list.