Pagan societies in Biblical times devalued women, granting them little more dignity than animals. Even Greek philosophers, with their great learning, regarded them as inferior creatures by nature. Aristotle once said, “Woman may be said to be an inferior to man.”
But the Jewish Scriptures respected women and their role in society.
Women held high value in Old Testament Jewish culture. They were portrayed as esteemed partners and cherished companions to their husbands. And venerated as mothers to be respected and obeyed. [Proverbs 19:14, Ecclesiastes 9:9, Exodus 20:12, Colossians 3:20, Proverbs 1:8.]
But they often held prominent and influential roles outside the home, as well.
Women participated in all aspects of society. They owned property and farmed, engaged in commerce, and performed manual labor. [Proverbs 31:16,18, Exodus 35:25, Ruth 2:7.]
From the very first chapter, God makes it clear that men and women are created equally. They are equally created in the image of God, and equally blessed by him. And they share joint dominion over every living thing; coworkers laboring side by side (Genesis 1).
God also established his Mosaic covenant, or agreement, with all of the Israelite people, including women. They were equally responsible for following God’s laws, and equally shared in the blessings God poured out on his people. [Deuteronomy 29:10-11, Joshua 8:34-35.]
And although excluded from the Levitical priesthood, women participated in temple worship, prayed, and even served in the temple. [Deuteronomy 31:12, 1 Samuel 1:12, Exodus 38:8.]
They also joined in religious processions, singing and playing music. [Psalm 68:24-25, 2 Samuel 6:5.]
The Old Testament also commends many women for their wisdom. Queen Esther who bravely risked her own life to save her people. Abigail who saved her household by helping King David. [1 Samuel 25:32-33.] And the woman personified as wisdom itself in Proverbs 31.
On occasion, women even held important leadership roles in Israel. Miriam was a prophetess who helped lead the Israelites in the desert, [Micah 6:4.] Deborah, another prophetess was also a judge in Israel. [Judges 4:4.] And Huldah, was both a prophetess and adviser to the king, [2 Kings 22:14.]
Yet even in New Testament times, women held low status in most Oriental cultures.
In the great Roman empire, based on Hellenistic thought, women were seen as mere chattel. Personal possessions of their husbands or fathers. Barely above the status of slaves, they were totally subject to their fathers, husbands, or eldest brothers. Women, in general, were limited to the home and family, not even entitled to education, unless they came from great or wealthy families.
From the time of the Babylonian deportation, Jewish culture also became increasingly influenced by other cultures, including the Greek. The Jewish Talmud (largely written in Babylon) stated: “It is the way of a woman to stay at home and it is the way of a man to go out into the marketplace,” and “Never speak to a woman in the street, even if she is your wife.”
It is no wonder Christ’s disciples showed such consternation at him talking with a strange Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. And no surprise that women in the New Testament temple were restricted to the women’s court, even though no such court is ever mentioned in Solomon’s Old Testament temple.
Yet, overall, women continued to hold a high place in Jewish culture.
Unlike most of the surrounding Oriental cultures, Jewish women were free to mingle in society at home and abroad. They also fulfilled important roles, both in private and public life.
Anna the prophetess stayed in temple night and day, fasting and praying, [Luke 2:36-37.] Lydia of Thyatira (a convert to Judaism) engaged in the commerce of selling purple goods, [Atti 16:14.] Dorcas (possibly a wealthy widow), dedicated her time to good works, making clothing for the poor, [Acts 9:36.] And in Romans chapter 16, Paul sends greetings to many women known as diligent coworkers: Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Rufus’ mother, and Julia.
The sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany had the prerogative of offering frequent hospitality to Christ and his disciples. And although neither they nor their brother Lazarus appeared to have an occupation, Mary was free to purchase and use an expensive perfume on the Lord. [John 12:2-3.]
And Christ elevated the woman’s position even more.
He treated them with dignity and respect, conversing with them in both private and public. It was to a woman that he first revealed his true identity as Messiah. [John 4:26.] And he never hesitated to heal them, to bless their children, or restore their honor. [Matthew 9:22, Luke 13:13, John 8:11. Women were also among Christ’s followers, Mark 15:41.]
It was mostly women who stayed by him at the cross, and they were first to pay their respects at his tomb, and therefore to see the risen Christ.
Following in his footsteps, the early church likewise held women in high esteem.
Women were present on the Day of Pentecost, and active in the early church. They helped the poor, ministered to the sick, and showed hospitality.
They also played a significant role in the church and in the spread of the gospel. Phoebe, respected by Paul, was a deaconess in the Corinthian church. [Romans 16:1.] Priscilla, one of Paul’s valued coworkers, helped instruct Apollos, an influential scholar, [Acts 18:26.] And Eunice and Lois, Timothy’s mother and grandmother, were credited for having instilled such strong and sincere faith in him, [2 Timothy 1:5.]
The Scriptures show that man and woman are created equally in God, but wonderfully different. The greater leadership roles were given to men. Yet, women also held an important role. From creation onward, women were coworkers with men. Serving with them side by side in their usually quieter, and often more gentle, leadership roles.
Each tools in God’s hands, neither greater than the other. Just as both needle and thread are necessary to a seamstress, men and women, with their differing roles were tools in God’s hands, equally essential in his service.
For Christ came to offer true equality and true freedom to all — women included.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:28-29).
Sketches of Jewish Social Life, chapter 9 (Bible Study Tools)
The Biblical Portrait of Women (Grace to You)
Jesus and the Role of Women (Jews for Jesus)
Roman Education (The History Learning Site