What New Testament Women Were Really Like
Review of ‘Finding Phoebe’ by Susan E. Hylen
What were New Testament women really like?
The conventional opinion is that they were powerless. “Women were subject to men and unable to wield real authority,” writes Susan E. Hylen, summarizing this view. “They did not own property or participate in civic life in significant ways. They were not educated. Although a few interpreters suggest that some women were acting contrary to this, they usually agree that this behavior was unusual or new.”
Hylen challenges conventional opinion in Finding Phoebe, which takes its title from a woman the apostle Paul named in Romans 16:1–2: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”
These verses describe Phoebe’s ecclesial office (“deacon”) and social role (“benefactor”). They imply that Phoebe was a higher status individual than Paul, with whom she had had a patron-client relationship.
Some scholars further believe that Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to Rome because he commended her at the top of a list of named individuals. She may have read the letter publicly to the church there and perhaps even answered congregational questions about it.
If so, then Paul’s commendation of Phoebe necessarily qualifies his apparent prohibition of women’s speech in 1 Timothy 2:12: “ I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Rather than being contradictory, however, Paul’s commendation and prohibition were contextually consistent.
Ancient hearers of both letters would have interpreted his words according to what Hylen calls “the rules of culture,” in which we see “the ideal of silence alongside so many instances of women speaking.”
On many occasions, ancient society applauded women’s work, civic and religious roles, social influence, and public speech, finding them consistent with feminine virtues.
These cultural rules were at work in both the New Testament and the broader society, and not just regarding women’s silence and speech. Hylen surveys data on three other topics: wealth and property, social influence and status, and feminine virtues.
A consistent pattern emerges from these data: “Many passages of the New Testament communicate the commonly accepted idea [in ancient society] that women were inferior to men,” she writes. “However, alongside these norms were other ideals that allowed and even encouraged women’s active participation in their communities. And the New Testament texts conveyed those ideals as well.”
In other words, on many occasions, ancient society applauded women’s work, civic and religious roles, social influence, and public speech, finding them consistent with feminine virtues such as modesty, industry, loyalty, and marital harmony. Women were not powerless, even if they did not have power equal to men.
Hylen wrote Finding Phoebe for a general audience. Its aim is to help readers develop a more accurate understanding of women in the New Testament era. It quotes a variety of ancient writings to good effect, without getting bogged down in technical academic discussions.
(For those interested in a more academic treatment of the same topic, see Hylen’s Women in the New Testament World, published by Oxford University Press in 2018.)
Each chapter concludes with questions for reflection and/or discussion, which makes this a good text for book clubs, small groups, and Sunday school classes.
“My argument in this book has not been that the ancient church was egalitarian,” Hylen writes on the book’s penultimate page. I differ from Hylen on that point, believing the New Testament advocates the equality of women and men, though I’m not going to argue that matter here.
By the same token, however, the data she surveys offers a compelling rebuttal of any form of patriarchy that entirely prohibits women’s leadership, silences their voices, or confines them to domestic work. Neither ancient culture nor the New Testament limited women in these absolute ways.
We shouldn’t do so either.