Book Reviews

A Companion to Women in the Ancient World

Sharon L. James and Sheila Dillon Chichester, UK 2015-06-01

Blackwell’s Companion to Women in the Ancient World includes an introduction and thirty-nine articles by competent scholars, divided chronologically into five parts about various aspects of the lives of ancient women. Each part is introduced by a brief case study (part 3 has two) that is narrow in focus and often provides a concrete example of women in the period under examination. One reason this volume is helpful for both scholars and motivated readers is that the editors are consciously attempting to present advances in the field since Sarah B. Pomeroy’s 1975 “groundbreaking” study, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (p. 1). Since then, the study of ancient women has exploded in a number of fields (e.g., classics, archaeology, art history) and has generally been approached from two directions: some have focused on the material evidence and others on texts (p. 1). To further complicate things, each source has inherent biases demanding careful consideration for use in understanding women (p. 1). Thus, this volume is a handy, one-stop resource for anyone interested in current thinking on the subject.

Part 1 is the only part not exclusively devoted to women in the Greco-Roman world. It contains five articles on women in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Minoa and Mycenae, Etruria (the Etruscans), and as described in Homer. Even these articles contribute to the Greco-Roman focus, as only Mesopotamia and Egypt are not part of the prehistory of the Greek and Roman civilizations. The focus on the Greeks and Romans does not limit the usefulness of this volume for the student of the New Testament. All the events of the New Testament took place in the far-reaching Roman empire of the first century.

Parts 2 and 3 focus on classical Greece and the pre-imperial Roman Hellenistic period. These span the time period of the fifth-century BC until the dawn of the New Testament period. Articles cover topics such as law, dress, education, and patronage. Lora L. Holland’s article “Women and Roman Religion” (pp. 204–14) departs from the more negative approaches of the past and argues for an important role for women in broader Roman religion (p. 206). As expected due to the extant sources, there is a focus on the Vestal Virgins; however, Holland successfully digs deep to discover more about female priesthoods (pp. 206–9). Basically, she gathers as much data as possible and approaches it with more methodological tools than many past studies (p. 213). Her approach does not focus on women in isolation from men but rather as the two function together (p. 206). Thus, she is part of an approach to ancient women that is in its infancy, and she is encouraging others to continue this type of study (p. 213). Laura S. Lieber, in her article “Jewish Women: Texts and Contexts” (pp. 329–42), suggests that the position of women in the Hellenistic period was elevated from what they had experienced previously (pp. 330–32). During this period, female children were frequently named for women in their families (p. 333) and had basically the same experiences as non-Jewish women (pp 334–35, 341). It appears, however, that after the New Testament period, when later rabbinic teaching began to focus on Jewish practices, women’s lives became more and more restricted (pp. 340–41).

Part 4 focuses on the early Roman empire. This would be the New Testament period and beyond. These five articles discuss women and their portrayal in art during the Augustan period (27 BC–AD 14), in the bay of Naples area (i.e., around Pompeii) before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. In the article “Women in Augustan Rome” (pp. 372–84), Judith P. Hallett explores the changes in circumstances of women during the reign of the emperor Augustus. Much of the change was driven by the emperor’s own laws, which made penalties for adultery more severe and also restricted the highest classes of people from marrying much below their status (p. 373). Essentially, Augustus emphasized the importance of marriage and family as well as chastity for women (p. 373). Hallett also considers the way in which women were portrayed in the literature of that time (pp. 375–82). Although there is much diversity in the representation of women, it appears that much of this was in line with Augustus’s moral vision and was prescriptive for behavior (p. 384).

The final part covers the post-New-Testament times into the early Christian period of the empire. The final article, “Becoming Christian,” by Ross S. Kraemer discusses the conversion of women in the New Testament and later writings (to the late fifth century), some of which is from the New Testament Apocrypha (e.g., Acts of Thomas). The article acknowledges that this literature presents exclusively voluntary conversions but argues that coercion was probably involved in some. Kraemer is probably correct in some cases, such as with the Letter of Severus Minorca on the Conversion of the Jews (AD 418; pp. 526–27). However, she also notes that some texts mention entire households coming to faith, such as in the Acts of Thomas and 1 Corinthians 1:16, where Paul baptized Stephanus and his whole household (see also, 16:15). She finds it difficult to concede that everyone in these households consented (p. 534).

We cannot know for sure what is in the hearts of all people, but Kraemer seems to fail to consider the way in which households operated during this period and/or is reading more into “conversion” than such texts imply. In addition, the church made distinctions between texts. Kraemer may not agree, but it would be better to date Acts earlier (she dates it in the early second century [p. 525]) and to see more of a contrast between the New Testament and the later literature. Acts and Paul were received differently by the Christian church than this later literature. There is a reason for this. Meanwhile, the account in Thomas may be fictional, which would make her point on this event moot. Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking article. Kraemer wrestles with whether Christianity was more appealing to women than men (as some writers have claimed) (p. 535). She suggests the available data cannot sustain this conclusion (p. 535). This certainly demands more attention, and if true, has significant ramifications for understanding church history.

This is an excellent introduction to the topic of women in the ancient world. For those wishing to dig deeper, each article concludes with a section of “recommended reading.” Students of the New Testament will be greatly served by a better understanding of what it was like to be a woman in and around the first century. The volume concludes with a topical bibliography on women in (non-Egyptian) late antiquity (basically after the period covered in the book), a massive fifty-nine page bibliography, an index of women, and a subject index.

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