Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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The setting of the New Testament is the first-century Roman Empire, an ancient world whose culture is alien to those of us who live in modern western societies. Not too long ago, our understanding of women in this ancient world was limited. It was presumed first-century women were housebound with few freedoms and rights, and that good women lived quiet lives in anonymity under the authority of husbands or fathers. This scenario was indeed the case for many women, but it was not the case for all women. If we read the New Testament carefully we can see this for ourselves.

In the New Testament, we see that women were active in public spaces. Some women were artisans like Priscilla, or in business like Lydia. Some were independently wealthy like Phoebe, and some were even of royal birth with the privileges and power that came with nobility.[1] There was not one place or one role for women as though all women were the same. In fact, only two roles were out of bounds for women: being a Roman soldier or an imperial official.[2] Women filled many places and many different roles in society and in the church.

In this article, I look at the social dynamic of class-consciousness, a dynamic that typically trumped gender.[3] I also look at what the New Testament says about particular women who were wealthy. My hope is that this discussion will present a broader, more authentic view, beyond limited stereotypes, of the place and participation of certain women in the first-century church.

While this article narrowly focuses on wealthy women, who made up a small but significant part of the early church, I want to emphasise upfront that wealth is not, and was not, a prerequisite for ministry. Jesus and Paul especially welcomed the poor and marginalised as both members and ministers in the Jesus movement. (See endnotes 11 and 36 for more on this.)


Patriarchy was a prevailing dynamic of Roman society, but it was not the only dynamic at work.[4] As well as being patriarchal, Roman society was utterly class-conscious. The two dynamics are not exactly the same, even though there is some overlap. Class distinctions were observed and reinforced daily. For instance, where someone sat in the theatre was determined by class. And where someone sat at a dinner party, if fortunate enough to be invited, was determined by class and even by relative status, or precedence, within one’s class.[5]

In the highly stratified Roman world, women came from every class. Some New Testament women were free-born Roman citizens and were independently wealthy householders. Some even came from families of the senatorial or equestrian ranks, the two upper classes of Roman society, or they came from equally high-status families in the provinces.[6] The wealth of individuals and families in the upper classes was vast. And with wealth came power. Men and women who were commoners could be affluent, but their level of wealth was usually not on the same level as that of senators and equestrians.

The number of high-status people was small compared with the rest of the population, possibly only one percent.[7] Yet, from the very beginning, the church attracted high-status women.[8] By the second and third centuries, the number of young noblewomen converting to Christianity would create a real problem—noblemen were not converting in nearly the same numbers. As a result, a number of women of noble rank could not find Christian husbands of the same rank.[9] It was illegal for high-status Roman women to marry outside their rank. If they did, they could forfeit their noble status, their power, and even their wealth. In around 200 AD, church leaders such as Tertullian and Callistus would address this problem.[10] Church leaders wanted noble Christian women to maintain their rank because the women could then use their wealth and influence to benefit the church, which they frequently did. Unlike the stereotypes, these were women who controlled their own finances.


Women of Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens (Acts 17)

Another stereotype of first-century women is that they were mostly housebound. It is true that in the Greek world of previous centuries, many women, especially high-status women, had led cloistered, hidden lives. Yet the relative levels of restriction or freedom varied greatly whether a Greek woman lived, for example, in Athens or Sparta or Macedonia. In the first century AD, high-status women living in Roman cities, such as Corinth and Philippi (which were Roman colonies), and of course Rome itself, had more freedoms and more legal rights than their Greek sisters of preceding centuries. They also had more freedoms than women living in cities that were still predominately influenced by Greek customs, cities such as Athens. Nevertheless, even some first-century Greek women were making their presence felt in society. Again, we only need to look at the New Testament to see that this was the case.

In Acts 17, quite a few noblewomen (literally “women of the first families”) in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica became believers (Acts 17:4). It was no small thing for a Greco-Roman woman to convert to Christianity, as wives were expected to worship the gods of their husbands. Moreover, religious activities of the household and community were interwoven with the rhythms and activities of daily life. Despite the difficulties, many “honourable Greek women” became believers in Berea also (Acts 17:12). The Greek word for “honourable” (euschēmōn) in Acts 17:12 does not simply mean “respectable,” in that the women had good manners and high morals; it means “of high standing” or even “noble.”[11]

Further on in Acts 17, an Athenian woman named Damaris is mentioned alongside a man named Dionysius. Dionysius was a council member of the Areopagus (the supreme judicial court of the Athenians) and therefore from the upper classes. Damaris, Dionysius, and unnamed others with them, became believers. The fact that Damaris is named alongside Dionysius seems to indicate they are both from the upper classes but the nameless Athenians are not.

Luke, the author of Acts, was writing under the benefaction of a high-status person, Theophilus, and probably wanted to highlight prominent, high-status people who were converting to Christianity. These would be people Theophilus could identify with, and they would have lent respectability to the new movement. Nevertheless, we must not forget that the number of elite women and men becoming Christians was small compared with lower-class men and women who were also converting and who were active in church life and ministry.


Lydia of Philippi (Acts 16)

Some of the high-status Greek women who were becoming believers and joining the church had previously converted to Judaism. For a few decades, or even longer, most converts to Christianity were Jewish or inclined toward Judaism in some regard. This may have been the case for the Greek women in Thessalonica mentioned in Acts 17:1-4. It was certainly the case for Lydia in Philippi who is described in Acts 16:14 as a “God-worshipper” a term indicating “not merely a devout person of any sort but a Gentile who worships the biblical God.”[12]

Lydia is also described as a businesswoman who dealt with costly cloth dyed with Tyrian purple. Because Lydia was a businesswoman she cannot have been of the highest class, as these people typically did not engage in business. Men and women in the most elite class were like dukes and duchesses who lived exclusively of the wealth of their agricultural estates.[13] But members of the equestrian rank, or the provincial equivalent, could engage in business. Because Lydia dealt with a luxury item, which could only be used by the upper classes,[14] and because she would have required a great deal of capital to run her business, she may have belonged to a class equivalent to the equestrian class. It is more likely, however, that she was a relatively wealthy commoner.[15]

We know that Lydia had a home large enough to accommodate Paul and his companions, and that she seemingly had the freedom to invite them into her home without first asking a male guardian. When she and her household had been baptised, she says to Paul, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house” (Acts 16:15 CEB). Paul accepted her hospitality. Lydia opened her home to Paul and his fellow travellers and to gatherings of the first church at Philippi (Acts 16:40).[16]

Philippi was a Roman colony situated in Macedonia. Macedonia was one place where women had relative freedoms even when the Greeks ruled.

If Macedonia produced perhaps the most competent group of men the world had yet seen, the women were in all respects the men’s counterparts; they played a large part in affairs, received envoys and obtained concessions for them from their husbands, built temples, founded cities, engaged mercenaries, commanded armies, held fortresses, and acted on occasion as regents or even co-rulers.[17]

Some of the leading women of Thessalonica, Berea and Philippi, all Macedonian cities, joined the church where their wealth, clout, and protection could be used to benefit other members of their churches.

Wealthy women in the first century

Paul in the presence of Agrippa II, Bernice and Festus (Acts 25:23–26:32).
Oil painting by Vasiliy Surikov, 1875 


Bernice (Acts chapter 2526)

As well as prominent Greek and Jewish women who became Christians, the New Testament mentions other powerful women who did not become Christians. These women were the celebrities of their day and had some influence on the politics and on the moral tone of society, especially politics and morality regarding women.

Two women of the highest class are mentioned in Acts. Drusilla, a Jewish princess, is mentioned in Acts 24:24. Drusilla was a daughter of Herod Agrippa I, hence a great-granddaughter of Herod the Great.[18] And she was the wife of Felix, the Roman governor of Judea between the years 56 and 60. Bernice, or Berenice, another Jewish princess, is mentioned in Acts 25:13, 23ff and Acts 26:3031. She was also a daughter of Herod Agrippa I. In Acts, she appears as the consort of her brother Agrippa II when they both hear Paul defend himself in Caesarea.

Bernice became one of the most powerful women of her day. When she was sixteen, she married her uncle, Herod V, king of Chalcis and brother of Herodias.[19] (Herodias was responsible for the death of John the Baptist.) Bernice retained the title “queen” after her husband’s death when she was just twenty years old.[20] Rome then gave her brother Herod Agrippa II the kingdom of Chalcis, which he ruled together with Bernice.[21] Because they spent so much time together, rumours of incest circulated. To quell the rumours, Bernice married. She chose to marry the king of Cilicia, but the marriage was not a success, so she returned to live with her brother.[22]

Bernice was in Jerusalem in AD 66 as the Jewish revolt was beginning. She saw the brutality of Roman soldiers towards the Jews, and she sent frequent messages (via men of the equestrian rank) to the governor of Judea, Gessius Florus, concerning this. She even approached his tribunal seat in an attempt to diplomatically reason with him, but the governor did not listen (Josephus, Jewish War 2.309–314). Bernice and her brother then tried to quiet the Jewish uprising themselves, with only temporary success (Josephus, J.W. 2.402–406).

When war did break out in 67, Bernice sided with the Romans, possibly because she saw them as becoming the victors. Furthermore, she became a powerful supporter of the Roman general Vespasian and became his patron. Tacitus writes, “Queen Bernice too, who was then in the prime of youth and beauty, and who had charmed even the old Vespasian by the splendour of her presents, promoted his cause with equal zeal.” (History 2.81.2)[23] His cause was to become emperor, and he was successful. In around 68, Bernice became the lover and consort of Vespasian’s son Titus who was eleven years younger than her. Titus was the general whose troops destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. Probably due to anti-Jewish sentiments in Rome, however, Titus sent Bernice away around the time he became emperor.

Women such as Bernice, Drusilla, and Herodias were powerful wealthy women of the highest class. They were used to getting their way and had a staff of servants and slaves, as well as dependent clients, who did their bidding. [Think of Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but more ambitious, more ruthless, and more powerful.] These noblewomen were not Christian, but their example may well have influenced and emboldened other Jewish women in some way.[24]

We know that some wealthy Jewish women in Asia Minor were benefactors of synagogues and were prominent in their communities. Inscriptions in Asia Minor reveal that a few of these women were referred to with leadership titles such as “ruler of the synagogue.”[25] It is debated if these titles were honorary or whether women did run at least some synagogues in antiquity. Whatever the case, these women were not invisible or powerless.


Junia, Julia, and Claudia?

We have seen that some women from the finest families in Macedonia joined the church, even if the Jewish princesses did not. Are there any Christian women from the senatorial families in Rome mentioned in the New Testament?

Three of the most powerful aristocratic families in Rome were the Junian, Julian, and Claudian families.[26] The women in these families were frequently named Junia, Julia, and Claudia, respectively. Interestingly, in the New Testament, there is a Junia, a Julia, and a Claudia, and they each lived in Rome. Were these women from aristocratic families?

There was a custom of freed slaves taking on the family name of their master or mistress, and this may have been the case for Junia who is mentioned in Romans 16:7. Her partner’s name “Andronicus,” was a common slave name, so they may both have been freed slaves of the imperial household.[27] This is likely the situation for Julia and her husband Philologus, also, who are mentioned in Romans 16:15.[28] Both Junia and Julia and their partners[29] were probably attached to aristocratic households but were not of the upper classes themselves. It is possible that several names in Romans 16 are of Christians who belonged to Caesar’s household.[30]

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul passed on greetings from the Christians in Caesar’s household (Phil. 4:22). (Paul’s letter to the Philippians was written around the time Claudius had been poisoned by his fourth wife and was succeeded by Nero.) A few Christians would even gain positions of power within the imperial household. For example, Emperor Commodus who ruled from 180 to 192 had a Christian concubine named Marcia.[31] Through her influence, many Christians who had been enslaved and sent to the tin mines in Sardinia were freed. One of these slaves, Callistus, became bishop of Rome.

In 2 Timothy, a letter presumed to have been written by Paul while he was in Rome, greetings are sent from a woman named Claudia. Identifying Claudia is difficult for it was a common name, but, because of the names mentioned with hers in 2 Timothy 4:21, especially those of Pudens and Linus, there have been some suggestions as to who this woman was. One suggestion is that she was Claudia Rufina whose husband was a Roman senator named Pudens. This puts Claudia Rufina in the highest class. Another suggestion is that she was the mother of Linus who, in church tradition, is said to have been bishop of the church in Rome in 67. Still another suggestion is that she was the daughter of Caratacus, a British chieftain who was captured and then freed by Emperor Claudius. Whatever her real identity and social status, Claudia, and the other individuals mentioned with her in 2 Timothy 4:21, were each prominent in the church at Rome sometime towards the end of the first century.

Some Christian women mentioned in the New Testament were of noble or aristocratic birth. But there are other women who, while they appear to be independent householders and relatively wealthy, did not belong to one of the upper classes. Roman laws first introduced in the late first century BC had made it possible for some women to retain their own wealth and not transfer it to their husbands’ families. This meant that if a woman from a wealthy family outlived her husband and father, she could become wealthy in her own right. The average age of first-time Roman brides was fourteen and the average of first-time husbands was twenty-four, though husbands could be considerably older. [Think of Marianne and Colonel Brandon in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility who were 16 and 35 when they married.] Thus it was not unusual for a wife to outlive her husband, provided she survived childbirth. It seems from the biblical texts that Lydia in Philippi, Nympha in Laodicea, the Chosen Lady in Asia Minor, and others acted independently and so may have been relatively wealthy widows. These women hosted and cared for congregations in their own homes.


Phoebe of Cenchrea (Romans 16:12)

Another woman who seemed to act independently of a husband or father is Phoebe of Cenchrea. In Romans 16:12, Paul identifies this woman with three pieces of information that refer to her ecclesial status: she is “our sister”, “diakonos (‘deacon, minister’) of the church at Cenchrea”, and “a prostatis (‘patron’) of many” including Paul.

A patron—prostatis (feminine) or prostatēs (masculine)—was, without exception, an influential person in Roman society. Until recently, however, when translating or commenting on prostatis in Romans 16:2, mundane words such as “helper” have typically been used. James Dunn notes the bias against recognising Phoebe as an influential woman: “The unwillingness of commentators to give prostatis its most natural and obvious sense of patron is most striking.”[32] He adds that, unlike many modern readers, Paul’s original audience “were unlikely to think of Phoebe as other than a figure of significance whose wealth and influence had been put at the disposal of the church at Cenchrea.”[33]

The practice of patronage flourished in the early Roman Empire and was an essential part of Roman society. Seneca even described it as “the chief bond of human society” (De Beneficiis 1.4.2). Having a patron was an often necessary means of gaining “access to goods, protection, or opportunities for employment and advancement.”[34] As well as being an important part of Roman society at all levels, patronage was also important in the church. Edwin Judge has remarked, “Christianity was a movement sponsored by local patrons to their social dependents.”[35]

Though the practice of patronage was informal and voluntary, certain social constraints and reciprocal obligations were integral to the client-patron relationship. And a wealthy man or woman who made a generous donation to his or her city, community, guild, or to an individual, etc., was able to exercise considerable influence and power.[36] Forbes and Harrower write:

Because patronage was ‘in many ways gender-blind’ women could deliberately, or as a by-product of their benefaction, increase their honour and presence in the public arena. … Women patrons thus won for themselves liberty to speak and act in political and religious affairs.[37]

It may be that the power of patrons was tempered in early Christian communities. Nevertheless, wealthy women who acted as patrons continued to be influential in the church even when other ministerial functions and positions were increasingly denied to them.[38] In many churches, male ministers “welcomed women as patrons and even offered them roles in which they could act as collaborators. By AD 200, the role of women [as patrons and collaborators] in Christian churches was quite unmistakable.”[39] Like the apostle Paul, some of the great men of early Christianity, such as Clement of Alexandria (b. 150), Origen (b. 1845), and Jerome (b.  347) were supported by wealthy female friends and colleagues.[40]


The customs surrounding class distinctions and patronage gave high-status and wealthy women power and prominence in Greco-Roman society. These customs also enabled high-status and wealthy women to have influence in the church; they were her patrons, house church leaders, and ministers. Unlike common stereotypes, these women were not necessarily housebound and sheltered, quiet or anonymous. Much like other Christians, these wealthy women used their various resources and gifts to benefit their churches.

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[1] In the ancient world, noblemen and noblewomen could wield deadly power towards people below them, often with impunity.

[2] Lynn H. Cohick writes, “Two jobs were restricted to women only: midwifery and wet-nursing, and two jobs were off-limits: soldiering and holding an imperial office.” Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 31.

[3] Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, 22.

[4] “Patriarchy is the power of the fathers: a familial-social, ideological, political system in which men—by force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law and language, custom, etiquette, education and the division of labour—determine what part women shall or shall not play, and in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male.”
Adrienne Rich, Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), 57.

[5] James wrote against preferential seating in his New Testament letter (Jas 2:19).

[6] “The “orders” (ordines) or “estates” of imperial Roman Society . . . were clear-cut, legally established categories. The two most important and enduring ones were the senators and the knights: the ordo senatorius and the ordo equester. In addition, the families whose members had served or were eligible to serve in the councils or senates of the provincial cities constituted a local order in those places.”
Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 53.

[7] Meeks, First Urban Christians, 53.

[8] The early church was attractive to women, including women of high status. Moreover, “Within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.” Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 95.

[9] Peter Lampe notes that we cannot even name forty people of the senatorial class who were Christians before the time of Constantine (who died in 337), but of these forty individuals two-thirds are women. Lampe, Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries: From Paul to Valentinus, trans. Michael Steinhauser (London: Continuum, 2003), 119. No doubt there were still other Christians of the senatorial class whose names we do not know.

[10] See Tertullian, The Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage, translated and annotated by William P. Le Saint, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 13 (New York: Paulist Press, 1951)

[11] See Walter Bauer, “εὐσχήμων”, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition (BDAG), revised and edited by F.W Danker, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 414.
As examples, Joseph of Arimathea is described as euschēmōn (Mark 15:43), as are some women from Pisidian Antioch in Asia Minor who gave Paul a hard time (Acts 13:50).
There is no doubt that wealthy women and men played important, leading roles in the church, but poorer people also made vital contributions and became leaders. Moreover, Paul speaks strongly against some kind of bias towards honourable and elite men and women in the churches. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul used the body as a metaphor for the church and included the word euschēmōn:

… the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable [or, honorable (euschēmōn)] members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 1 Corinthians 12:2225 NRSV.

[12] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 493.

[13] Families of the senatorial class needed to have a net worth of more than 1,000,000 sestertii, and they did not engage in business. (As a very rough guide: one sestertius could buy two loaves of bread.) In the first century, some, but not all, of these senatorial families were of aristocratic descent.

[14] Clothes dyed with Tyrian purple, also known as imperial or royal purple, were also worn by high-class prostitutes. See Bruce Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 42–43, 100, 105.

[15] While it is likely Lydia ran her own business, it is also possible she was employed as a dealer of purple fabric by someone else. (More on Lydia here.)

[16] Lydia’s hospitality in Philippi somewhat fits a pattern that Ben Witherington has observed:

… prominent women are mentioned wherever house churches are mentioned in the New Testament. Women converts of some means who were offering occasional lodging and hospitality to fellow Christians became the Christian equivalent of a ‘mother of the synagogue’ as their homes, originally hostels for travelling Christians, became regular meeting places of the converts in their area. … the house was the center for the Church [in which] women quite naturally were in the forefront of providing for Christian life and growth, and the spread of the Gospel.
Ben Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 212-213.

[17] W. Tarn and G.T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilisation, Third Edition (London: Methuen, 1952), 98–99.

[18] Herod Agrippa I is mentioned in Acts 12. He had James, the brother of John, killed, and Peter imprisoned.

[19] Chalcis was a small kingdom situated in Lebanon.

[20] “On a Latin inscription from Beirut she is called ‘Queen Berenice, daughter of the great king Agrippa’ (Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions (1927) pp. 24344); on a Greek inscription she is called ‘Julia Berenice, the great queen’ (IG III.556 = CIG 361).”
F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 457 fn 27.

[21] In parts of the ancient world, it was not an oddity for a woman to be a ruler, even in her own right. Egypt sometimes had women rulers, the most famous being Cleopatra VII, the last Egyptian pharaoh. And Kush (called Ethiopia in the Bible) sometimes had women rulers. Candace mentioned in passing Acts 8:27 is one such ruler. “Candace” (or, Kandake) was a dynastic name or title.

[22] Women who were Roman citizens could easily divorce their husbands, and divorces were common in the upper classes as new political allegiances were formed and old ones broken. (More on divorce here and here.)

[23] Tacitus, “The History”, Complete Works of Tacitus, ed. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (New York: Random House, 1873, 1942) Source: Perseus.

[24] The dress and behaviour of wealthy women in the Ephesian church, addressed in 1 Timothy 2:9-10, may have been influenced by the dress and behaviour of elite women who were seen as role models.

[25] For example, a second-century AD inscription from Smyrna mentions a woman named Rufina who was a synagogue ruler. The inscription reads: “Rufina, a Jewess synagogue ruler [archesynagōgos], built this tomb for her freed slaves and the slaves raised in her household. No one else has a right to bury anyone here.” (CII 741; IGR IV. 1452) See Bernadette J. Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background, Brown Judaic Studies, 36 (Atlanta and Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982)
(More on leading women in synagogues and churches in Asia Minor here.)

[26] The first five Roman emperors—Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero—belonged to the Julio-Claudian dynasty. That is, their lineage came from both the Julian and Claudian families.

[27] “[Werner] Eck assumes that Andronicus’ name marks him as a freedman and that therefore Junia, too, must be a freedwoman of the gens Iunia [Junii family](Eck 1971, 392) . . .” Meeks, First Urban Christians, 57.

[28] Philologus may well be the same man who is mentioned in several surviving inscriptions of the imperial household. See J.B. Lightfoot, Epistle to the Philippians (London and Cambridge: MacMillan, 1869), 175.

[29] Slaves and freedmen could not legally marry under Roman law; nevertheless, there were many couples belonging to these lower classes who lived as husband and wife.

[30] Lightfoot, Epistle to the Philippians, 171.

[31] Though they were not legally married, Commodus and Marcia lived as husband and wife. Marcia was acknowledged as the consort of Commodus and she was known for her acts of benefaction.

[32] James D.G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, WBC Vol. 38B, (Dallas, TX: Word, 1988), 888.

[33] Dunn, Romans 9–16, 889.

[34] David deSilva, “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament,” Ashland Theological Journal 31 (1999), 32.

[35] Edwin A. Judge, The Early Christians as a Scholastic Community (London: Tyndale Press, 1960), 8.

[36] Jesus referred to the practice of patronage in Luke 22:24-27 using the word “benefactors” euergetai (cf. Matt. 20:25-28). Jesus rejected this Greco-Roman leadership model “and the manner in which those in authority exercised power and authority over those under them.” Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vission for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 244.

[37] Greg W. Forbes and Scott D. Harrower, Raised from Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 32.

[38] Paul regarded charismata as one of the primary qualifications for ministry; and poor, as well as wealthy, people ministered in churches founded by Paul and other apostles. There is ample evidence that women, whether rich or poor, were prophets in the early church. For example, the apocryphal 3 Corinthians mentions Theonoe, and Fragment 9 of the apocryphal Acts of Paul mentions Myrte, both prophetesses in the Corinthian church. The prophesying daughters of Philip were well known in the early church, and Eusebius associates them with apostolic gifts, teaching, and foundational ministry (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.9; cf. 5.17.3).
Slaves were not excluded from ministry. Ignatius, writing in around 110, mentions that the bishop of Ephesus was Onesimus (Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 1:3). Onesimus was a common slave name. Hippolytus wrote that Callistus, bishop of Rome (217-222) had been a slave (Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies 9.11). Pliny (governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia in Asia Minor in 113-117) wrote that he had tortured and interrogated two slave women. He believed these women were Christian ministers or deacons (Latin: ministrae) (Pliny the Younger, Epistle to Trajan, 10:96). See also endnote 11.

[39] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 144-145.

[40] Many of these women were well-educated. The education of girls in ancient Roman society is beyond the scope of this paper.


Bust of a second-century Roman woman, an excerpt from a photo taken by Mary Harrsch via Flickr.
Paul in the presence of Agrippa, Berenice, and Festus, painting by Vasiliy Surikov, 1875  (Wikimedia)

Postscript: March 26 2023
Antistia Pollita: the Roman woman who “haunted” Nero

I read this short paragraph today about an elite woman named Antistia Pollita whose husband Rubellius Plautus had been murdered by Nero in AD 65. The paragraph is in the Annals written by Roman historian Tacitus in AD 117. Here he describes Antistia Pollita as “forgetting her sex.” That is, she was not quiet and well-behaved. Rather, she was brave, very brave, and made herself a nuisance. (She reminds me a bit of Rizpah in 2 Samuel 21.)

With [Roman consul Lucius Antistius Vetus] was his daughter [Antistia Pollita], who, to say nothing of the now imminent peril, had all the fury of a long grief ever since she had seen the murderers of her husband Plautus. She had clasped his bleeding neck, and still kept by her the blood-stained apparel, clinging in her widowhood to perpetual sorrow, and using only such nourishment as might suffice to avert starvation.

Then at her father’s bidding she went to Neapolis. And as she was forbidden to approach Nero, she would haunt his doors and implore him to hear an innocent man, and not surrender to a [traitorous] freedman one who had once been his colleague in the consulship, now pleading with the cries of a woman, now again forgetting her sex and lifting up her voice in a tone of menace, till the emperor showed himself unmoved alike by entreaty and reproach. Tacitus, Annals 16.10.
[The Latin vidua inpexa, translated here as “widowhood,” could mean “a widow with uncombed loose hair” which was a sign of mourning.]

But it didn’t work. Antistia, her father, and her grandmother Sextia were compelled to suicide. Tacitus briefly describes the scene in Annals 16.11.

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The Means of Ministry: Gifts, Grace, Faith … Gender?
Extra Honour for Underdogs (1 Cor. 12:12–31)

7 thoughts on “Wealthy Women in the First-Century Roman World and in the Church

  1. Bauckham posits that many of the named people in the gospels would have been known personally by the original hearers, so that is one reason they were named.

    I have read that it seems one reason Luke-Acts was written was as a response to the claim that Christianity was a “slave religion” suitable only for lower class people.

    When a slave was freed by a Roman citizen, they also became a Roman citizen. This resulted in a huge elevation in social status, as only about 10% of the people in the Roman empire were Roman citizens.

    Combining all these ideas seems to be a possible reason for named people that appear to have slave names. At the least, it would be encouraging for slaves to hear about some others in a congregation being former slaves.

    1. I think Bauckham has got a point.

      Considering that slaves made up roughly one-third of the general population in parts of the Roman Empire, and that slaves were attracted to Christianity, I imagine they made up over two-thirds of many congregations. Christianity did gain a reputation as being a movement (or, religion) for slaves . . . and women.

      My understanding is that freedmen of Roman citizens did not automatically become Roman citizens themselves. But I’m hazy of all the ins and outs of manumission, especially as regulations changed over time.

      I wonder how many people identified in the NT letters were slaves. I imagine most of them were freeborn or freed, even though slaves made up a large percentage of the congregations.

  2. Here is some speculative information about Priscilla and Aquila’s social status.

    Jerome Murphy-O’Connor suggests Prisca and Aquila may have been freed slaves of the Acilii Glabriones family. Priscilla was not an uncommon name of women in this aristocratic family.

    For example, Manius Acilius Glabrio (consul of Rome during 91 CE with future emperor Trajan) had a wife named Priscilla. It seems Glabrio was a Christian and was executed by Domitian because of his faith (cf. Suetonius, The Life of Domitian, 10.2). This was after Domitian had forced him to fight with wild animals in the arena, which he survived, and during his subsequent exile. (The contest in the arena is mentioned by Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14.3 and alluded to by Juvenal, Satires 4.94.)

    It is thought Glabrio’s body was taken from his place of exile to Rome and interred in an underground tomb that forms part of the Priscilla Catacomb complex. This catacomb was named after his wife, or perhaps another female family member named Priscilla, who founded or donated the burial place. Sarcophagi (“coffins”) in the Hypogeum (“underground tomb”) of the Acilia family are inscribed with names of deceased Acilia family members, and one clearly states that a Priscilla belonged to this family.

    Murphy-O’Connor further suggests Aquila had been a slave of the Acilia family and that when he was manumitted (i.e. freed) he was given the name Acilius, a Latin name, which is the equivalent of Akulus or Akulas in Greek. (Aquila’s name is Akulas in the Greek New Testament.)

    Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Prisca and Aquila: Travelling Tentmakers and Church Builders,” Bible Review 8.6 (December 1992): 40-51, 44.

    Ruth Hoppin is more certain that Prisca was a part of the Acilii Glabriones family and thus of noble birth, while Aquila was perhaps a freedman who had married into the family. Hoppin argues that Prisca, as an educated noble-woman, may have been the author the Letter to the Hebrews.

    Ruth Hoppin, “The Epistle to the Hebrews is Prisca’s Letter,” A Feminist Companion to the Catholic Epistles and Hebrews (London: T & T Clark, 2004), 147-170, 168-169.

    See also Priestesses and Holy Women: In Search of St. Prisca (2013) by Kimberly Majeski.

  3. This is a good article. It has been plaguing my mind of late, while doing a Bible study through the book of Acts, as to who these various notable women were, mentioned both following Paul, as well as being stirred up against him (Acts 13:50). There seems to be little I have been able to find even online, so this has given me more to look into on the subject.

  4. […] It has often been stated that in the ancient world, the male sphere was public and female sphere was domestic. But, in reality, the two spheres overlapped. In the Roman world, men could conduct business and receive clients at home; women could work, or engage in business or public works, outside of the home. […]

  5. […] [23] For information on the vital role of patrons in Greco-Roman society and in the church, see the section on Phoebe here: https://margmowczko.com/wealthy-women-roman-world-and-church/ […]

  6. […] Wealthy Women in the First-Century Roman World and in the Church […]

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