Not all women were quiet and housebound in the first-century Greco-Roman world, the setting of the New Testament. The writer of Acts tells us there were prominent, leading women in Pisidian Antioch in Asia Minor (Acts 13:50) and in the Macedonian towns of Thessalonica (Acts 17:4) and Berea (Acts 17:12).[1] Other New Testament verses also indicate there were women, as well as men, who had clout and influence in their cities, communities, and churches.[2]

The prominence of women in the ancient city of Ephesus often comes up in discussions about the context of 1 Timothy 2:9-15. Some believe the culture of prominent women in the pagan cult of Artemis Ephesia influenced Christian women and gave them a troublesome boldness in the church during the time Timothy was in Ephesus as Paul’s envoy. And they believe Paul’s instructions concerning women in First Timothy should be understood against the cultural background of prominent, powerful women.

It is not clear, however, just how powerful Ephesian women could be in the first century. And let’s not forget there were male priests in Ephesus too. The idea that the cult of Artemis was a predominately female cult is not supported by ancient evidence. Many pagan cults in the first century had both male and female priests.

Rick Strelan, in his book Paul, Artemis, and the Jews in Ephesus, writes about women’s roles in pagan cults and he quotes from various scholars.

In terms of cultic life in Ephesus, it is clear that women played a significant role and held important offices in many cults. The mythology of Ephesus [including the myth that Ephesus was founded by warrior women known as Amazons] bolstered their status in the Artemis cult. According to Pausanias, from very early days, if not originally, the Amazon women resided at the sacred place and performed rituals to Artemis there (7.2.4). Cultic activity for women was more prominent in Asia Minor than elsewhere (Ramsay 1900:67). Kearsley notes that the fifteen women who were archiereiai (“chief priests” or “high priests”) in Ephesus is the largest group known from any city (1986:186). At least some held the title in their own right and were not dependent on the title of their husbands. Women were prominent in the Artemis cults as priestesses; and in the cult of Hestia Boulaia in the civic centre of Ephesus, the influential position of prytanis is known to have been held by women (for example, Claudia Trophime I.Eph IV.1012). Favonia Flacilla was both prytanis and gymnasiarchos (I.Eph IV.1060).[3]

A prytanis was a priest or priestess who ministered in the Prytaneion. The Prytaneion was a large administrative building situated in “a central position in the Upper Agora and was the home of Hestia Boulaia with the sacred fire of the city.”[4] Paul Trebilco states that “In Asia Minor twenty-eight women were known to have held the position of prytanis (a position of very high rank involving the finances and cultic life of the city) in eight cities of the first three centuries of the Common Era.”[5] While we have evidence for twenty-eight, there may have been even more women who held this office. In his commentary on Ephesians, Clinton Arnold explains that the prytanis “was similar to the mayor of a city, and this office holder presided over the town council.”[6] Thus, the priest or priestess of a Greco-Roman city, including the city of Ephesus, exercised “liturgical authority in parallel to the legislative, judicial, financial or military authority of the city’s officials.”[7] Political and religious activities were intertwined in the Greco-Roman world.

The prominence of women in the cultic life of Ephesus

The remains of the Prytaneion of Ancient Ephesus © M. Steskal 2006
(Wikimedia Commons)

S.M. Baugh presents a different view of Ephesian women. He presents them as possessing the virtues of the respectable Roman matron—quietness and modesty—and not as being either powerful or prominent. I doubt, however, that a high degree of quiet respectability was uniformly typical among Ephesian women. There are many indications (from ancient statues found in Ephesus, etc) that the “new Roman woman,” with new social freedoms and powers, was making her influence felt among the wealthier women. 1 Timothy 2:9-10, where wealthy women in the Ephesian church are given corrective instructions about their clothing and hairstyles, is another indication that not all women in Ephesus were the epitome of sōphrosunē, modest propriety.

Baugh comments on the evidence of inscriptions and somewhat downplays the significance of women officeholders and the titles and positions they held, but he concedes,

Nevertheless, Ephesian women and girls do appear in some official capacities, not just as the honorably mentioned wives of patriarchs and patrons. Evidence to this effect picks up in the first century AD, so we cannot trace it to a long-standing emphasis on a “feminine principle” connected to Amazons, Ephesian culture, or Artemis Ephesia. Upon examination, we find a few first-century women filling one or more of four offices: priestess of Artemis, kosmeteira, prytanis, and high priestess of Asia.[8]

There are considerable difficulties in working out the relevance of women officeholders in the Ephesian cults to women in the Ephesian church. The pagan officeholders were all, without exception, from elite families,[9] whereas the Christian women in churches founded by Paul were from a range of classes. According to Wayne Meeks, members of Pauline churches were from a broad cross-section of society, ranging from wealthy men and women to poor slaves, with many people being artisans, as was Paul himself.[10] However, we know that Paul had friends in Ephesus who were Asiarchs, elite, wealthy and prominent members of society, who were presumably Christians (Acts 19:31). Wealthy Ephesian women may have felt emboldened by the example of the wealthy pagan priestesses, but it unlikely this was the case for the majority of Christian women who were from poorer classes.

Another difficulty is knowing whether, or how, the foundation myths of Ephesus influenced attitudes in daily life, especially as several myths contradict each other.[11] I suggest the influence of the Amazonian myth on first-century Ephesian society has been exaggerated by some.[12] Did the Ephesians really identify their women with Amazonian warrior women? Or, conversely, did they treat the Amazonian myth as we treat Santa Claus, for example, as a bit of fun that encourages social cohesion? Did the myths truly bolster the status of women in Ephesus? Or did women mostly conform to the more limited expectations of broader Greco-Roman society? We do not have enough information to give definitive answers to these questions.

My friend Lyn Kidson, who did her PhD on First Timothy, rightly suggests that we should be investigating the social value placed on being a priestess and the kind of virtues that were celebrated in the selection of the women who held this role. This investigation may give us a better indication of the place of women in Ephesian society.

The status and roles of women in Ephesus is an area of study that continues to be investigated by scholars, and I look forward to learning more about it. In the meantime, as I explore the first-century Greco-Roman setting of the New Testament for myself, and use this information to help me understand the biblical text (including 1 Timothy 2:12), I want to be cautious and avoid making overstatements about life in the first-century church that may be misleading.


[1] Other inscriptions of interest: IvE 892 (McCabe Ephesos 1266) and IvE 980 (McCabe Ephesos 1267).

[2] Articles on women leaders in the New Testament church here.

[3] Rick Streland, Paul, Artemis and the Jews in Ephesus (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1996), 120. You can read relevant pages from this book here.

Ros Kearsley writes,

The change towards more female prytaneis begins to occur during the Augustan period, and the prytaneis‘ primary function in Ephesus the city . . . was to keep the fire burning on the sacred hearth of the city. In this sense, the prytanis performed a similar function to the college of Vestal Virgins in Rome.’
R.A. Kearsley, “Women and Public Life in Imperial Asia Minor: Hellenistic Tradition and Augustan Ideology,” Ancient West and East, 4.1 ( 2005): 98-121, 110.

[4] Guy MacLean Rogers, The Sacred Identity of Ephesos: The Myths of a Roman City (London: Routledge, 1991), 67.

[5] Paul Trebilco, Jewish Communities in Asia Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 120.

[6] Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Volume 10 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 375. You can read relevant pages from this book here.

[7] L. Bruit Zaidman and P. Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 49. Quoted by Andrew D. Clarke in Serve the Community of the Church: Christians as Leaders and Ministers (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000), 29.

[8] S.M. Baugh, “A Foreign World: Ephesus in the First Century”, in A.J. Köstenberger & T.R. Schreiner (Eds.), Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, Second Edition, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 28.

[9] Guy Maclean Rogers (commenting about the generous endowment of Salutaris for a celebration in 104 CE) states:

The priestess of Artemis appears as the chief official of the cult of AD 104. She was in charge of the liturgy of the cult, and several different priestesses claimed to have celebrated the mysteries during the first and second centuries AD . . . These priestesses came from prominent local families of wealth, and were represented in inscriptions spread throughout the city as daughters and wives of asiarchs, neopoioi, and Roman citizens, often for generations. Often, but not exclusively, family wealth was used to fulfil the functions of the priesthood, which included the erection of buildings, and over civic projects, entailing great expense.
Rogers, Sacred Identity of Ephesos, 54-55.

[10] See Wayne Meeks’ discussion in chapter two of The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983)

[11] We have evidence that the foundation myth concerning Androcles was celebrated by the Ephesians in the first and second centuries CE. Androcles, believed to have been the son of the king of Athens, led an Ionian immigration to the region in around 1100 BCE. He supposedly founded Ephesus on the site where he caught and killed a wild boar. Evidence of any celebration of the myth of Amazons in the first century CE is slight. See Rogers, Sacred Identity of Ephesos.

Historian Mary Beard makes this general comment about the Amazon myth:

An enormous amount of modern feminist energy has been wasted on trying to prove that these Amazons did once exist, with all the seductive possibilities of a historical society that really was ruled by and for women. Dream on. The hard truth is that the Amazons were a Greek male myth. The basic message was that the only good Amazon was a dead one . . . or one that had been mastered in the bedroom.
Mary Beard, “Women in Power: From Medusa to Merkel” in London Review of Books 39.6 (16 March 2017), 9-14.

[12] Andrew D. Clarke writes about the importance of myths in the Eastern cities of the Roman Empire.

Following the decline of the great Hellenistic era and the subsequent rise of Roman domination in the East, it is unsurprising that many of the long established cities endeavoured to maintain links with their cherished past by fostering myths which celebrated the ancient foundation of their community. It was, after all, those in the East (as opposed to the Roman West) who had an ancient imperial heritage to which they could turn, and which they could refashion to their advantage in their new political climate. Even some of the more recently founded cities followed suit and adopted myths of their own.
Serve the Community of the Church: Christians as Leaders and Ministers (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000), 24.

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