There is a natural tendency for us to look back on the Roman era as a more static period than it was. As I have been showing in recent posts, the first century B.C.E was a period of considerable turmoil that culminated in the establishment of the Roman Empire and the Pax Romana. Augustus sought to solidify his control by moving people away from the republican model and toward the idea of Rome as a household writ large with Caesar as the paterfamilias. The array of traditional Roman gods was used to reinforce solidarity with Roman values. Value systems that challenged this hierarchical patronage model were highly suspect. Judaism and Christianity were a threat but they were not the only ones.
While there had been a place for women in worship of the gods, the arrival of the Empire in the late first century began to push women to the fringes of religious rituals. Among women, and among those of lower status, the traditional Roman cults were losing their following. Women and lower class folks were turning to eastern religions that worshiped Isis, Serapis, Cybele, or Attis. These cults offered roles for them. Ben Witherington in Women in the Earliest Churches writes that “Gradually, these foreign [eastern] gods won most of the female population so that in the first century AD Petronius bemoans the fact that Roman matrons no longer worshiped the traditional gods at all.” (21) Witherington goes on to explain:
It was Isis above all the others which Roman men rightly feared. The reasons why this cult had such a powerful impact on Roman women are several. First, probably the only state cults allowing women even a limited role as priestesses were that of Vesta (six women) and that of Ceres, a goddess of fecundity, production and procreation. Second, the cult of Isis, unlike any of the previous cults, was not for the benefit of the state, but to meet the religious and emotional needs of individuals. Isis promised healing, blessing, understanding, and sympathy for their devotees’ sorrow and pain, for she herself had lost a son. Thus, she was a goddess of loving mercy with whom women could identify and to whom men could become intimately attached as a compassionate mother figure. She was all gods summed up into the one personality and was said to have certain powers that usually only male deities possessed. Finally, unlike other cults, the rituals of Isis were flexible and her temples were at once a haven for prostitutes and a sanctuary where women could spend their nights in chastity. Thus, the cult of Isis had tremendous appeal because it was open to all, ignored class barriers and both men and women could hold high office. (Emphasis mine.) (21)
I highlight the last sentence and compare it to the observation (from my previous post) that Jeffers made concerning how Romans were disturbed by Christian behavior:
…the Christians were a mysterious combination of Jews, Greeks, and Romans. They acted like a single people, even though they represented many nations. To the Romans, this clearly was unnatural. Even members of the mystery religions, who also came from various nations, did not claim this kind of unity. (108)
Witherington points out the considerable varieties in status for women from one portion of the Greco-Roman world to the other. While women held some positions of official political power in some segments of the Greek world, Roman women actually tended to have greater freedom and more influence in society. As the Empire emerged, the status of women was changing as well. Some intellectuals entertained the idea that women could intellectually hold their own with men. Women were attaining higher degrees of freedom. Furthermore, slave manumission was happening at such a rapid rate that in 4 C.E., Augustus decreed that emancipation was only for those over thirty years old and the total number of emancipations per year was limited. (Jeffers, 230)
There was something attractive about Paul’s message to wealthy women who were out front in the social change afoot in the Empire. We see high status women reflected in the leadership of the church. Phoebe, Lydia, and Nympha, is just a few. We also see passages like Acts 17:4:
Some of them [at Thessalonica] were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.
And Acts 17:12:
Many of them therefore believed [at Beroea], including not a few Greek women and men of high standing.
We know that wealthy women were in the churches at Corinth and Ephesus. We will explore this more later but it is important to ask what it was about Paul’s message that was so appealing to them.
In the next post we will recap where we have been so far and set the stage for looking at Palestine and the teaching in the New Testament.