A Woman’s Place in the First Century
The family was the basic unit of society in all the cultures that provide the background for early Christianity. The family was united by common religious observances and economic interdependence. The family consisted of the entire household — husband, wife, children, and sometimes other relatives and slaves.
Jewish marriages show many similarities to Greek and Roman practices. The marriage was a contract between families. There were two stages: the betrothal (or “acquisition” of the bride) and the wedding proper (taking the bride into the husband’s home). The betrothal had the legal force of marriage and could only be broken by divorce (cf. Matt. 1:18-19). The bride was prepared by bathing, anointing, and clothing with special adornments. She was escorted from her father’s house by an accompaniment of song, dance, and musical instruments. Weddings most often took place in the evening followed by seven days of festivities.
Divorce was uncommon among the Jews, but divorce was permitted by the Pharisees in the N.T. Some allowed divorce for any reason that displeased the husband — even poor cooking. Others believed there must be a serious moral lapse such as adultery. But there was a different standard for women — a wife could never divorce her husband, though under certain circumstances she could force him to divorce her. Divorce required little formality. A simple oral or written notice was sufficient. In Rome or Greece, by the first century, marriage could be terminated by the woman as well as the man, but under Jewish law only the husband could divorce his wife. A woman’s dowry (the daughter’s share of the parental estate) was returned to her in case of divorce. One reason divorce was not common among the Jews was that divorce placed a stigma on both parties and was considered to be a violation of the biblical ideal.
Women were to be unobserved in public. The veil was one symbol that reflected this status in society. The veil was a requirement for every married woman. In addition to being a symbol of modesty and virtue, the veil also indicated a woman’s married status and subordination to her husband. In keeping with the idea that women were to be unobserved in public, men were not supposed to look at married women, converse with women in public, or even give a woman a greeting when they passed on the street. The oral law stated, “Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no, not with his own wife.” It was unusual for a Jewish teacher to converse with a woman in a public place. The rabbis taught that women were not to be saluted or spoken to in the streets, and not to be instructed in the law. Jewish women were not as restricted in public appearance as Greek women, but did not have the freedom of first century Roman women.
Eastern women were discouraged from going out in public at all. As in any social custom, exceptions existed, especially among the royalty and the wealthy. Often, a woman had to help her husband in business. In addition, religious festivals were occasions when men and women mixed in public. Women who lived in the country were not as inclined to observe the strict law regarding the veil. These women were more free to go out in public as they helped their husbands in the fields and sold produce. Particularly at harvest time, women would help in the fields and also help crushing grapes and olives in the presses.
A Housewife’s Day
Mothers then, as now, would have been occupied with household chores and watching the children. A house in the first century in a village was small, probably a square, flat-roofed building made of dried mud bricks with the exterior being white-washed. In villages, houses were clustered around small courtyards where the women did the laundry, cooked over charcoal or wood fires, and the children played. The houses were clustered together for protection and efficient use of land, leaving the open fields for cultivation. In these courtyards were chicken coops, dove cotes, woodsheds, straw sheds, and other small storage buildings. Animals were kept in the courtyards: sheep and goats were raised for meat, milk, and wool; chickens for meat and eggs; donkeys for carrying heavy burdens.
The houses usually had only one room, but might have had a second floor where married children lived. The doorway opened directly on the street. If there were windows, they were cut in the walls and veiled by curtains. The floor was hard-packed dirt mixed with clay and ash to make it as hard as cement and covered with a few straw or leather mats. Furniture was sparse, probably only a few wooden stools and a low wooden table.
On the outside, a wooden ladder led to the roof which had a parapet about eighteen inches high built around the edge (Deut. 22:8). Rooftop areas provided useful space for doing chores, drying clothes and flax, and in the hot summer months for eating and sleeping.
A Typical Housewife’s Day
The family’s day began at sunrise with a breakfast of curds and bread. Women would go to the village well early, carrying a jug to get fresh water for the day’s needs. The women carried the heavy water pots home on their head or shoulders. The well was the center of village life. One or two days a week the marketplace would be packed with farmers and merchants selling their wares. On these days, the women would buy provisions for the week. There was also a street of shops where craftsmen made and sold their wares — the blacksmith, carpenter, matmaker, potter, and basket-weaver.
The daily tasks of women included baking bread (first she had to grind the barley between millstones), spinning, weaving, mending, washing, and making cheese and curds from goat’s milk in a goatskin churn. Suppers were substantial, but simple: bread and wine, and sometimes dried, salted fish or boiled chicken. People had a variety of vegetables to eat including beans, lentils, cucumbers, leeks, and onions. For dessert they might have nuts, melons, figs, grapes, or pomegranates. They did not have sugar but used wild honey and thick grape or fig syrup for sweetening. In warm weather cooking was done in the courtyard. On cold and rainy days cooking was done indoors on a portable clay stove fueled with charcoal or twigs. At mealtime the family sat on mats around the cooking pots, using bread as scoops to get the food. Probably these same mats were used as beds each night.
Clothing: A woman used the distaff and spindle to make yarn or thread from raw wool or flax. Galilee was known for its fields of sky-blue flax and sturdy linen cloth was made from flax fibers. Dying the thread probably was done at home also, or could have been done by the town dyer. After she made the thread or yarn she had to weave the yarn or thread into cloth. The typical loom in the first century produced cloth about three-feet wide. In Galilee, looms were often wider and a garment could be woven in one piece (see John 19:23). Over a tunic a man would have worn a loose-fitting outer garment, or mantle. The wife made her own clothes also. She wore the same type of tunic as a man, but her mantle was fuller, with enough fringe to cover her feet. Most women wore head coverings. Both men and women wore sandals which they probably purchased from the local sandal maker.
Education: In a traditional Jewish village girls were not given regular schooling, but a girl’s mother taught her what she needed to know so she would be able to fulfill her role as a wife and mother. Among the most important lessons were the rules that pertained to Jewish law and tradition, particularly the dietary laws. A girl also learned how to set the table and to decorate and purify both table and home for the Sabbath and special holidays such as Passover. In learning how to make these preparations, she learned the customs and history that lay behind them. Training for girls in home making was not taken lightly. Girls also learned how to master such skills as spinning and weaving, treating illnesses with herbal remedies, and helping with the delivery of babies. Girls were also taught to play musical instruments since music was permitted if it was connected with religious festivities.
Because of household responsibilities, the Jewish wife and mother was exempt from certain religious observances. She was not required to go to Jerusalem for the various feasts, to observe the daily recitation of the shema, or to be present at the reading of the law. All women did not choose to be exempted as we have the example of Mary attending the Passover feast with Joseph (Luke 2:41). A woman could go no farther into the temple than the Court of Women. In synagogue services, women were bystanders.
The first century Jewish man thanked God that he was not born “a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” This was one element in a prayer of thanksgiving that was in the ancient Jewish prayer book. Teachings in the Talmud emphasized however that every individual possessed equality, dignity, and self-worth. But in practice this equality was defined in terms of strict male-female roles. The home was regarded as the primary sphere of expression and activity for a woman and the public arena was reserved for men. The rabbis taught that these two spheres were separate but equal. Though women did much of the hard work, they had a low position, both in society and in the family.
Jesus dealing with women, for example his readiness to speak to and help the Samaritan woman (John 4), contrasted strongly with prevailing attitudes. In the New Testament Jesus often referred to women in his parables and included them among his disciples. In the early church, women helped spread the gospel and prophesied.
Although the life of the first-century Jewish wife seems oppressive to us, those women found great fulfillment in the role of wife and mother, and she was revered in her role.
Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity.
Biblical Illustrator, Winter 1991.
Reader’s Digest, Great People of the Bible and How They Lived.
Reader’s Digest, Jesus and His Times.
5047 Kingsbury Dr., Pittsboro, Indiana 46167
Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 9 p18 May 4, 2000