Women of Philippi
To be fair, I should take a look at the traditional way I’ve understood first century religious life to have been, for Jewish women.
Putting together what little there is in scripture that specifically pertains to women in a religious context, and archaeological research, here are some sort of grounded facts:
1. For one thing, only the tribe of Levi could serve in a priestly capacity, and only men could be priests. In fact, it’s even more narrow than just that. Priests had to be men, descended from Aaron (documented, not just anecdotal), be between 30 and 50 years old, and have no blemishes or disabilities of any kind. If they contracted leprosy, they were done forever. Not only that, they had to have an approved marriage—they had to marry a virgin (no widows, no divorcees, either).
Most people couldn’t be priests, but absolutely never could a woman be a priest.
2. Men could, in most instances, purify themselves over the course of a 24 hour period. Women, however, were faced with ritual uncleanness that lasted a minimum of seven days, twelve times a year, corresponding to their monthly cycle. What’s more, every time they gave birth, they faced another time of ritual uncleanness—forty days for giving birth to a boy, and eighty days for giving birth to a girl. In fact, any time a woman experienced a discharge, that also rendered her ritually unclean.
Imagine how limiting that must have been for women, in terms of being barred from entering the temple, or synagogues.
3. Women were regularly depicted in scripture as musicians. There are lots of examples of this, the most famous being Miriam leading all the Israelite women in a victory song after crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20–21). Deborah is another famous example, when she composed and sang a celebration song of victory over General Sisera and the Canaanite armies (Judges 5:1–31). Some other examples of women leading worship are found in these following texts: Judges 11:34, Judges 21:19–21, 1 Samuel 18:6–7, Psalms 68:11–12, Jeremiah 31:4, 10-14.
And that’s not even half of all the worship leading women did in the Old Testament!!
4. Women could be Nazirites. (Numbers 6:2)
5. Women could share in the sacred feasts and festivals, if they wanted to. (1 Samuel 1:9, 21-22)
6. Women could serve at the door of the Tabernacle. (Exodus 38:8)
7. Women offered their own valuables in the building of the Tabernacle. In fact, the great basin in the outer court was made solely from the women’s mirrors. Pretty cool, huh? (Exodus 35:22, 25, 26)
8. Women could offer sacrifices. (Judges 13:13-14)
9. God revealed Himself to, and spoke to women. (Genesis 16:7, 21:17, 18:9-10, Judges 13:3-5, 9)
Now, what I’d always been taught, was that according to Jewish tradition, women were only allowed in a raised gallery that followed three sides of the synagogue—and the temple, too, by the way. They were allowed to observe the ceremonies, but never permitted to participate in them.
Evidently (because I haven’t read any of these works myself) Rabbinic texts were full of contempt for women—there’s an interesting blog that goes into a lot of this, if you’re interested. Rabbis taught that women were not to be spoken to, or greeted (or even looked at, according to some Pharisees, who prided themselves for closing their eyes and walking into walls rather than look at a women) in public.
Women weren’t to be given an education, and they couldn’t receive an inheritance (so, I guess, whoever came up with that managed to heavily re-interpret Moses’ law). They had to walk six paces behind their husband, and they could never, ever, uncover their hair. That was considered so shockingly risqué and brazen, it would be like advertising themselves as street walkers.
Women’s testimony was considered suspect, they didn’t have the right to divorce (again, whoever managed to push that little bit of legislation through must have done a major rewrite on Mosaic Law, jes sayin’), and they weren’t allowed to be disciples.
Furthermore, according to this traditional understanding of first century Jewish women in a religious context, they were not allowed to recite the shema in public, and they couldn’t read the Torah in public, either. Nobody expected women to show up for any of the great festivals.
Now, I’m just telling you, this is what I’d always understood as the real deal for Jewish women in first century Palestine. I’d read that Pharisees would pray, “Thank You, O God, that I am not a dog, a gentile or a woman.” They equated women with Satan, as having no brain, being really no better than an animal, created to serve men. (yeah, I am more or less quoting from some rabbinic sources). Pretty awful stuff.
So, with the traditional understanding, then, the women meeting by the Gangites River were doing something clandestine, something they would have been punished for. They would have been pretty scared to see four Jewish men walking their way, especially since at least one of those approaching men most likely had the bearing of a Pharisee (that would have been Paul).
It hurts me to have read these thing, researching for this blog post. This is patriarchy on steroids, patriarchy run amok. There’s a name for this sort of rancorous animosity towards women. It’s not in the least spiritual or holy. It’s called “misogyny,” contempt for, and an ingrained prejudice against, women. And, I am quite certain many first century women, in all kinds of categories, whether wealthy or poor; Roman, Greek, or Jewish; whether married, slave, widow, or whatever; had to face this sort of withering malice.
So, if this were the case, for those God-fearing women, hungry for time with the Lord, meeting together to pray, to worship God and read something of His word, try to imagine the impact of Paul and his companions welcoming them with joy, honoring them as equals, worshiping with them, and giving them exciting, life-giving teaching. Think of their transformation from cowering in dread and fear, to bursting forth with euphoria and wonder.
Try to picture the warm sun and blue sky, the beautiful rippling music of the river and the singing birds, the fresh scent of trees, grass, flowers, and river spray, the loveliness of that place, and the glorious new life of paradise being born within those women of Macedonia.
All passages taken from the New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.