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Women in the World of the Earliest Christians

Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life

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Lynn Cohick provides an accurate and full picture of the earliest Christian women by examining a wide variety of first-century Jewish and Greco-Roman documents that illuminate their lives. She organizes the book around three major spheres of life: family (daughter, wife, mother, widow), religious community (including both official and unofficial activities), and society in general (work, slavery, prostitution, benefaction). Cohick shows that although women during this period were active at all levels within their religious communities, their influence was not always identified by leadership titles nor did their gender always determine their level of participation.

Women in the World of the Earliest Christians corrects our understanding of early Christian women by offering an authentic and descriptive historical picture of their lives. The book includes black-and-white illustrations from the ancient world.

Contents Introduction 1. Women as Daughters 2. Marriage and Matron Ideals 3. Wives and the Realities of Marriage 4. Motherhood 5. Religious Activities of Gentile Women and God-Fearers 6. Religious Activities and Informal Power of Jewish and Christian Women 7. Women’s Work 8. Slaves and Prostitutes 9. Benefactors and the Institution of Patronage Conclusion Indexes


"Lynn Cohick combines insights from ancient Roman and Jewish texts with current scholarship on the lifestyles and limitations of being female in the first Christian century. The New Testament is not her primary focus, but it is frequently discussed, providing many fascinating parallels, which sometimes confirm and sometimes question traditional interpretations. As well as summarizing previous findings, the book includes many provocative new ideas, which will become the focus of much new work."--David Instone-Brewer, senior research fellow in rabbinics and the New Testament, Tyndale House, Cambridge

"Dr. Cohick offers a richly detailed and finely nuanced invitation into the lives of women in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The study profits from her integrated examination of literary, epigraphic, iconographic, and archaeological evidence. She exposes gender bias and ideology in literary evidence without discarding what reliable evidence these texts offer for the reconstruction of women's 'real life' experience. She remains attentive throughout not only to issues of gender but also to issues of status, class, and ethnicity and to the bearing these have on the levels of self-direction, involvement, and influence enjoyed by women in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. This book challenges some oft-heard generalizations about women, women's roles, and women's influence, replacing these with the more complicated and varied realities of women's experience in the ancient world."--David A. deSilva, Trustees' Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek, Ashland Theological Seminary

"Many preconceptions exist about the role of women in the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds at the time of Jesus. Women in the World of the Earliest Christians is a wonderful tour of the real terrain, providing a solid array of general principles and specific examples. By taking us through the world of women at that time, Cohick offers a solid glimpse of first-century culture--a wonderful window into the world of the New Testament that is well worth the read."--Darrell L. Bock, research professor of New Testament studies, Dallas Theological Seminary

"Cohick invites the reader into the lives of women in the ancient world. She carefully assesses the available information--from literature, artwork, inscriptions, and even business receipts--sketching a portrait of 'real women's experiences' in the early days of Christianity. This portrait is one that moves beyond the stereotype of women sequestered at home, but it takes full account of the patriarchy that characterized their world. To combine fascinating storytelling with careful historical assessment is no simple task; Cohick does so with ease. Essential reading!"--Jeannine Brown, professor of New Testament, Bethel Seminary

"What a gift--a scholarly volume that dusts off images and memorabilia tucked into the 'family album' of Greco-Roman life only to find women everywhere! Cohick deftly examines a variety of ancient sources to reveal explicit and implied norms and actual behaviors, freedoms, and restrictions of women in this first-century context. From treatises to business receipts, the ordinary is allowed to shed light on the extraordinary variety, complexity, and communal significance of women's contributions at every level of social and religious life--rural, urban, Jew, Gentile, wealthy, poor, pagan, Christian. This careful historical investigation does not play to modern temptations that either deconstruct women as props in an androcentric, patriarchal drama and reconstruct them as contemporary free agents or dismiss authentic access to their historical particularity. Nor does it ignore the social structures in which early Christian women and men became Jesus followers. Rather, it offers evidence that Greco-Roman women--daughters and mothers, educators and matrons, slaves and free women, religious leaders and patrons with civic influence--were active participants in an honor/shame-based culture in which gender, status, class, and ethnicity were interwoven. For those wanting a fuller glimpse of the embodied world into which the New Testament was given and enacted, noting its differences from and echoes in contemporary life, this book is a lovely, valuable contribution."--Cherith Fee Nordling

"This is an important book for all students of the New Testament, however novice or advanced. Cohick's historical sensibilities and sympathetic reading of the whole range of available evidence overturn a number of caricatures that have for decades plagued claims about women (and men) in the world of the early church. Her presentation of the life of the ordinary Roman woman from Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian sources is a model of careful exploration and nuanced reconstruction. It deserves to be read attentively and consulted often."--Joel B. Green, professor of New Testament interpretation, Fuller Theological Seminary

The Author

  1. Lynn Cohick

    Lynn Cohick

    Lynn H. Cohick (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is distinguished professor of New Testament and director of Houston Theological Seminary in Houston, Texas, where she also leads the Doctor of Ministry program. She previously served as provost, dean of academic...

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"Women in the World of the Earliest Christians . . . will become the standard for all study of the social location of women in the earliest Christian churches. This is an exceptional book. . . . We've got lots of exegesis of biblical texts but we don't have enough social description of what women did in the ancient world so that we can approach the exegesis through the lens of living realities. This is exactly what [Lynn Cohick's] book provides. . . . She puts each piece of evidence to its rhetorical test: What was the author trying to say when speaking about women? By putting the evidence to this rhetorical test, Lynn challenges a number of common conclusions and pushes the conversation forward. This book is serious but clearly written in very accessible prose; it can be used by college classes. . . . A must-read."--Scot McKnight,

"Thorough scholarly investigation, with scholarly speculation, characterizes this study of Jewish and Christian women of first-century Greco-Roman areas. Cohick . . . draws on ancient classical, Jewish, and Christian writings to determine, as far as possible, what daily life in family, religion, and society was like for women elite (for whom there are naturally the most records), as well as for freed women, slaves, and prostitutes. The author documents social customs and laws, noting biases of male writers of the age, and demonstrates that women could be seen as both subservient by nature and accepted as political and cultural leaders. . . . A bibliography covers the substantial body of literature available, and the author's own unique suggestions and interpretations for present times add to the corpus. . . . This book, for its subject and its well-reasoned arguments, especially on patronage by women, will appeal largely to academic readers."--Anna M. Donnelly, Library Journal

"This is an excellent historical resource book that describes in detail the situation of women in the Greco-Roman world. . . . Throughout, the author maintains a non-ideological stance; while she is clearly appreciative of women's role in this historical context and aware of the constraints imposed on women, her goal is to be as objectively descriptive as possible. The end result is a fine resource, well documented and almost encyclopedic in character, yet still making fascinating and informative reading."--Donald Senior, CP, The Bible Today

"A valuable contribution. . . . 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. . . . Cohick directs her well reasoned arguments to an academic audience, but they're accessible to anyone interested in New Testament backgrounds. . . . If you love exploring women of the Bible and the world in which they lived, this book belongs on your wish list."--Sandi Glahn, Dallas Theological Seminary Book Center blog (

"It is something of an understatement to say that the role of women in the leadership of the church is something which has attracted its fair share of controversy in recent decades. . . . What has been broadly absent, however, is a sustained engagement with the broader Greco-Roman cultural milieu against which the New Testament is to be read. . . . This book is a welcome addition to the literature. Cohick is not seeking to draw theological conclusions, but simply to 'provide an engaging and accurate reconstruction of ancient women's way of life.' This she does admirably. . . . There is wide engagement with ancient sources and the author betrays a good knowledge of the field. This is a useful resource, especially as it seeks to give a purely historical record and refuses to deal in caricatures. There is a useful index and it is not hard to see this book being of great use to all who deal with the New Testament."--Chris Moore,

"By dissecting a wide range of evidence, including ancient Roman and Jewish texts, epigraphs, iconography, and archaeology, Cohick's historical assessments describe women as being active members within their social and religious communities, whether pagan, Jewish, or Christian. . . . Cohick breaks down the sweeping term 'women,' and assumptions concerning their lives in the ancient world, and gives a detailed investigation of various women's lifestyles in the first-century Greco-Roman world."--Casey McCorry, National Catholic Reporter

"This book stands apart in the crowded field of scholarly investigations into the status and roles of women within the Roman Empire and early Christianity. Cohick demonstrates both a deep mastery of the primary texts and an enviable sophistication in her readings of those texts. Cohick interacts with secondary sources, but very little in this work is derivative. The author has mastered the primary sources, and readers will find none of the gross generalizations or simplistic stereotypes that characterize some of the scholarship within this field. . . . The majority of her work investigates the Greco-Roman context, but when Cohick examines biblical texts she brings a fresh and well-trained eye to many long familiar debates. Simply stated, this volume is the best work of its kind that is currently available. It is likely to serve as a standard work for decades to come."--Thomas E. Phillips, Religious Studies Review

"[Cohick] carefully unravel[s] the Greco-Roman-Jewish-Christian society in which the early church arose. . . . Cohick's approach is not ideological. She carefully sifts and summarizes the evidence, offering a portrait of 1st-century society that is subtle and complex. . . . She enriches any reading of the New Testament by providing a lively, multifaceted portrait of the people who wrote and first read it."--Tim Stafford, Books & Culture

"A most fascinating volume on the understated role of women during the era of early Christianity. . . . Cohick's book is highly recommended for serious students of early Christian history, and feminist studies. Her book is extremely well-researched, adequately sourced, and contains a wide variety of bibliographic sources for further study. The use of illustrations from steles, temples, and shrines adds ambiance to the argument that women truly mattered in the world of early Christianity."--Robert P. Russo, Catholic Books Review

"Women in the World of the Earliest Christians is based on solid research in both literary and non-literary sources from the ancient world. Cohick's judgments are critical, and she rarely oversteps her evidence when drawing conclusions. The book is an important contribution to understanding the real lives of women we find in the pages of the NT for both scholars and interested Bible readers alike. While thick with detail to appease even the most rigorous specialist, the book is accessible to any interested reader. . . . Cohick's historical work and her accessible style have gone a long way in dressing the ghost of the first-century Greco-Roman woman for a twenty-first century reader. Women in the World of the Earliest Christians no doubt will become a standard resource for every serious reader of the NT."--Joel Willitts, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

"[A] richly detailed work. . . . Cohick delivers what she promises. In examining the various stages and compartments of the ancient 'average' woman, this work does provide a complex picture that resists easy generalizations. Refusing to isolate this woman from her network of relationships, this work in turns provides an in-depth discussion of related topics that completes the picture. . . . Taking into account the available literary and nonliterary evidence, Cohick is able to provide a more nuanced and thus realistic picture of the ancient 'average' woman. . . . Methodologically, this study also demonstrates the fruitfulness of the use of a combination of approaches in accessing and interpreting the ancient data."--David W. Pao, Bulletin for Biblical Research

"Cohick's work is a rich compendium of examples from ancient sources, literary and non-literary. The layperson, student, and professional scholar alike will find a rich resource in her collection of primary source anecdotes, whether for filling out a picture of women in the Greco-Roman period, colorful lecture illustrations, or a jumping-off-point for more detailed study of primary source material. Cohick proves herself a cautious and thorough guide along the journey."--Kara J. Lyons-Pardue, Koinonia

"The aim of this helpful study is to depict descriptively the lives of women in the Greco/Roman/Jewish world without using them as props for the NT. . . . This is a very helpful book to provide reasoned discussion and examples of real women and their lives."--Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ, Catholic Biblical Quarterly

"A treatment of the lives of women in the ancient world that is comprehensive in its scope, measured in its assessments, well-organized, and highly readable. . . . Cohick's grasp of the ancient world and its social and political dynamics is excellent. . . . Cohick's discussions of New Testament texts are thorough and measured. . . . This is an excellent resource for the study of the New Testament as it sheds light on the varieties of relationships in the ancient world. It is also a model of careful and comprehensive scholarship. Cohick's treatment of the evidence from the ancient world is subtle and judicious, and her discussions of biblical texts are measured. Though she avoids direct engagement in contemporary discussions of gender, she provides a model for the appropriation of ancient evidence for understanding biblical texts that those who participate in contemporary debates will do well to emulate."--Timothy Gombis, Southeastern Theological Review

"This is a very comprehensive study of women's lives in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century. Cohick takes us into the everyday lives of women of the period, masterfully using private letters, inscriptions, business receipts, statues, votive offerings and art, as well as the normal range of literature. She shows how useful this range of evidence can be at helping us get behind the androcentric perspective of much of ancient literature. . . . [She] giv[es] a well-crafted and detailed look into the lives of women of differing social status and religious backgrounds. She includes helpful analysis throughout of references to women in the New Testament. Her hope is to help us 'think beyond the stylized snapshots of ancient women sequestered in cramped homes, barefoot and pregnant.' This she does admirably and thereby enables us to have a more informed conversation about women's roles in today's religious communities and the wider world."--Gary W. Burnett, Journal for the Study of the New Testament

"[Cohick] illuminates the cultural, religious, and social roles of Greco-Roman women in the second temple period. . . . Cohick makes a convincing argument for the 'patronage' role of women in the life of Jesus and in the ministry of the Apostle Paul, where she demonstrates their ability to financially support and theologically contribute to the birthing and nurturing of Christianity. . . . The reader is encouraged to approach this book with eyes to see all that Cohick has to offer."--John R. Miller, Pneuma Review

"A major strength of this volume is its comparative approach linked to the explicit thesis that no distinct Christian culture existed in the first century. . . . Work on women and gender in early Christianity in the last decade has been dominated by literary analysis and rhetorical readings focused especially on how female identity is constructed by male authors, some of which has been extremely skeptical about the possibility of extracting social realities concerning women's lives from ancient texts. In contrast, Cohick remains strikingly optimistic about historical reconstruction. . . . Her study has restored some much needed balance to current discussion about women's history and the rise of Christianity."--Margaret Y. MacDonald, Church History

"One of the questions that is often asked when exploring the question of the role of women in the earliest Christian communities is that of whether the New Testament is more or less conservative than the surrounding culture. . . . Lynn Cohick's enormously helpful book seeks to fill in some of the background to this question. . . . What results is a fascinating and rich portrait of women's lives in this period. Using a wide range of sources, Cohick paints a picture that covers many aspects of women's existence in the Ancient Jewish and Graeco-Roman world. . . . One of the great strengths of this whole book is that Cohick not only depicts the official position but also offers anecdotes drawn from letters, various kinds of writing, and archaeological evidence of the exceptions to the official position. . . . This is an invaluable book. . . . Anyone who wants to reflect seriously on the nature of the earliest Christian communities, let alone on the role of women in those communities, should make this essential reading, as it brings to life through its balanced exploration of laws and anecdotes the complex, though largely alien, world of the earliest Christians."--Paula Gooder, Theology