Beverly Gaventa says it’s hard to generalise about the experience of women in the ancient world.
It’s a little hard to say how unusual this is in the culture, in part because we get different strands of evidence. For example, Philo, down in Alexandria – roughly contemporary with Paul – says “we keep our women at home, and pregnant”. You know, I mean he doesn’t quite say that, but it’s pretty close! Well that would have come as news to Luke, who describes a pregnant Mary making a trek to see her cousin Elizabeth in the other side of the country and he doesn’t say anyone’s with her, or guarding her, or protecting her. Kind of an odd thing to do. Luke also has stories about women in the circle around Jesus.
The evidence varies and it … the evidence varies depending on where you are, what level of society you’re in. I think Roman women are … in general we know that Roman women were better placed to do things – to head the home, to run the home, which was really to run a small enterprise, than Greek women were who were … who did not sit at dinner with men, for example.
So it’s very hard to generalise. I do think we have to be careful about not making early Christians sound as if they’re such an odd phenomenon, right. However I do think it is unusual – and one of the reasons I think it is unusual and they experience it that way is that we also see pretty early on evidence of some pushback. By the time you get to the end of the first century, in a letter from Clement in Rome to Corinth, he comments on how, you know, you’ve done a good job of making sure your women don’t get too uppity. So we see the pushback early on against the roles of women.