Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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. As was the case in many pagan cults in the first century, Artemis 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.

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?[13] 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.

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[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.

[12] Several Eastern cities, other than Ephesus, also had foundation myths that involve the Amazonian women: Cyme is said to have been founded by an Amazon named Cyme; Smyrna is said to have been founded by an Amazon name Smyrna; Myrine is said to have been founded by an Amazon name Myrina, etc. And there is no suggestion the women in these cities were dominating or aggressive.

It is possible that even in ancient times, the Amazonian myth was not taken seriously. Historian Mary Beard makes this general comment about the Amazons.

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.

[13] 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.

The prominence of women in the cultic life of Ephesus

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

Related Articles

The Regalia of Artemis Ephesia
1 Timothy 2:12 in Context: Artemis and Her Temple
An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 that joins the dots of 2:11-15
Questions about how to interpret 1 Timothy 2:12
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Paul’s Female Coworkers
Likewise women . . . likewise husbands (1 Timothy 2:9)
Paul’s Instructions about Modest Dress

13 thoughts on “The prominence of women in the cults of Ephesus

  1. Was Paul addressing all women in 2:11-12? Or someone in particular? You’ll notice he moves from singular nouns in v. 11-12 to a plural one in v.15. Could it be there was one woman who was teaching false doctrine?

    We know the early Gnostics were a presence in Ephesus (thanks to the letter to the Ephesian church in Revelation– mentioning the Nicolatians). The reason Paul gives in v. 13 and 14 is a direct refute of what the Gnostics taught about Eve.

    I really wonder if Paul is speaking about one particular woman who was teaching false doctrine. Paul is refuting her teaching and refusing to allow her a platform to teach it. This makes perfect sense in light of the context of the entire epistle.

    1. I think it’s very likely that the change from plural to singular indicates that Paul is addressing a particular woman in verses 11-12. In fact, I believe 1 Timothy 2:11-15 refers to a specific couple in the Ephesian church and, in particular, the bad teaching and behaviour of the wife. I mention this in various articles about 1 Timothy 2:12 here: https://margmowczko.com/category/equality-and-gender-issues/1-timothy-212/

  2. I am a Presbyterian minister (male – the only type allowed, sadly, in the Presbyterian Church in Australia) and I’ve written a document supporting women’s rights to have leading roles in the Church.
    I am very grateful for this work, and my work that helped me earn my M.Th has convinced me even more, through my research, that there is indeed neither male or female – we are all one in Christ.
    I wouldn’t mind pursuing this towards a doctorate, so important do I consider it. In 2019 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church will discuss whether or not women should be elders in the church and I know that there will be a strong push to ban women from eldership. In fact New South Wales is the only state in Australia which has women elders.
    May God bless your work and may the Holy Spirit convince the detractors of women ‘s right to hold leadership positions in the church (or anywhere) of their error. – Rev Tony Lang

  3. Dear Marg,
    I just noted that you live in Australia! If you live north of Sydney there is a fair chance that we don’t live very far apart.
    I do too. Please email me if you would like to. We live around Lake Macquarie.
    Kind Regards,
    Tony Lang

  4. PS: Me again! If you would like to send me your email,
    I’d be happy to send my paper to you. It’s about 3000 words, and I’ve handed it out to the elders of the Presbyterian Church I attend in Newcastle area. (I’ve retired).
    Kind Regards,
    Tony Lang

    1. Hi Tony,

      I’ll send you an email. I’d love to read your paper.


  5. Recently, listened to a sermon on this tribe of women, and their influence in and on the Ephesus church. I have heard that the women in Ephesus were considered unruly, and Paul was addressing this group of women if not one woman. My question is if this group of women were notoriously violent worshipping the goddess Cybele or Artemis?

    This question of Paul’s letter and how to translate is a question in many discussions in my circle. Very interesting. Thank you for any insight.

    1. Hi Debra,

      There is a myth of Amazonian warrior women attached to Ephesus. It is likely that this myth has no basis in fact. But if there were real Amazons, they date to more than a thousand years before the time Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus!

      Though the Amazons were part of Ephesian mythology, the Ephesians also celebrated the myth that the city was founded by a prince of Athens named Androklos. They also celebrated myths concerning Artemis. Evidence from inscriptions indicates that in the first and second centuries CE, emperor worship of Augustus, as well as the worship Artemis, and the celebration of Androklos were popular. There is less evidence for the continued celebration, or veneration, of the Amazons.

      There is no evidence at all that women who worshipped either Artemis of Ephesus or Cybele of Phrygia were violent. The male priests of Cybele, called Galli, could be violent to themselves by whipping and even castrating themselves, but women were not part of this frenzied activity.

      In the first century, the Romans found aspects of the cult of Cybele repugnant, and Roman citizens were banned from becoming Galli, except under Claudius, but the cult of the Ephesian Artemis was socially respectable, and the priests and priestesses typically came from the elite classes.

      It is important not to confuse the two cults. They were totally distinct in the first century, and had been for centuries. Furthermore, Cybele was one of numerous gods worshipped in Ephesus, and she was a minor goddess there. Artemis of Ephesus, on the other hand, was the patron goddess of the city and her influence was powerful and everywhere in Ephesus.

      I have more about Artemis of Ephesus here: https://margmowczko.com/regalia-artemis-ephesia/

      1. Good Day Marg,

        Thank you so much for your reply. My ‘digging in’ has much to do with the verses in Timothy and 1 Corinthians which are used to say Paul was saying no women in leadership at all. It has very interesting in what I am learning proving that Scriptures especially the letters should be read with historical, context, and culture when discerning.

        Your above article has assisted my digging much. So once again, thank you.

  6. Marg, I was doing some reading today and blundered upon what seems to be an “oldie but goodie.” This is written by the same James Strong who has given us his concordance. Though an American, the English is very dated and very British, an academic stilt most likely; you are the better judge. It seems to be an anthropology. Mr. Strong finds that the male and female vary in physiology but not in heart and mind. From this he notes that no depth of vision is required to see that the “twain are one!” I found this to be well worth the read. The publishing date is 1880. As such it is very important. I don’t know how my wife and I missed this reference work. Please comment

    1. That was such an interesting read, Russell. I found some of it very heartening. The concept of woman being a female man is something I mention in a footnote of my recent article on “manhood” in the ESV. https://margmowczko.com/biblical-manhood-masculinity-esv/

      This kind of reminds me of something Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis (d. 403), wrote. He makes exaggerated and ugly insults against people and groups he regards as heretics, but he also makes a surprisingly lovely comment about the equal relationship of man and woman before the fall.

  7. How are you Marg? I’m kinda looking for a leading on why Apostle Paul told Timothy to tell the Ephesian church in 1st Timothy 2:10-11. Would you kindly explain. I’ve read on your article of the Amazons and how it does not clearly affect the converted Christian women to be unruly hence I’m left at a blank.

    1. Hi Allan, I’m not sure the Ephesian women (plural) were being unruly.

      In 1 Timothy 2:8-15 Paul addresses problem behaviour from (1) angry men (verse 8), (2) overdressed rich women (verses 9-10), and (3) a woman who needed to learn and stop teaching and who needed to stop domineering her husband (verses 11-15).

      All my articles on 1 Timothy 2 are here:

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