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Sex and Gender in the Ancient World

Most people agree that there are parts of the Bible that are not applicable today.  We don’t normally execute people for being witches or for disobeying parents anymore (at least in the U.S.).  But what about same-sex relations?  Are the Bible’s injunctions still applicable about *that*?  It turns out the issues that are involved are different from those surrounding witches and rowdy kids, and n ways most people wouldn’t suspect.

It’s not as easy to explain why, and so I’ve been laying the background generally by talking about the Bible’s understanding of sex and gender broadly.  So far I’ve talked about the creation of Adam and Eve and what it says about gender and the relationships of male and female (the only gender categories available to the authors), and about how that basic story underlies the insistence by some early Christian authors (1 Timothy 5:11-15, e.g.) that women should be completely submissive to men, and therefore not exercise authority over them or even speak in church (or does it mean generally, unless spoken to?).

Now I’d like to explain how people in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds — the world of the New Testament — understood the relations between the genders generally.   It’s not at all the way most people today think about it, in a surprising way.  I’ve talked about it on the blog before, but it’s important to talk about it here again!  Here is how I discuss the matter in my Introduction to the New Testament.

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People in our world typically consider males and females to be two different kinds of human beings related to one another like two sides of the same coin. We sometimes refer to “my better half” or to “the other half of the human race.” In antiquity, however most people did not think of men and women as different in kind but as ….

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Why I’m To Be Pitied for Being the Wrong *Kind* of Fundamentalist!

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Colin P  November 4, 2019

    Sorry for being off topic once again. I’m just rewatching your Great Courses series on the historical Jesus. You explain that following the crucification and resurrection Jesus’ followers went searching the scriptures to make sense of it all giving rise to the idea of a suffering messiah. According to the Paul the early church was led by James, Peter and John. Based on the picture of them taken from the gospels you’ve suggested that they were a fairly illiterate lot. Would them have been able to search the scriptures? If they didn’t, who did?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2019

      Yeah, I’m not sure how it actually happened on the ground, whether there were literate members of the church ealry on or if it was all based on what they *heard* when others read, say in synagogue. But those three almost certainly couldn’t read.

      • Avatar
        kurtruthann  November 6, 2019

        Hello, Bart
        The early Christians were previously Jews and Jews had their young teenagers go through Bar Mitzvah. This required them to read and understand the Torah. Jesus had this at age 12, it appears. Once they learned how to read, they should be able to read other things. I don’t believe that the early Christians were as illiterate as sometimes described, though they may not have had a more extensive schooling. Some did, I remember Paul…
        This is why I believe Peter, James and John could have written the books attributed to them.
        Nice Blog!

        • Bart
          Bart  November 7, 2019

          I’m afraid the later practices of Bar Mitzvah were not in place in Judaism at the time.

      • Avatar
        Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  November 7, 2019

        For centuries, the vast majority of Christians were illiterate.
        And yet, they knew entire passages of the Bible for having heard them read in public in churches and cathedrals.
        And by the monks of the Ordinis Predicatorum. and other traveling preachers, who appeared as flies when the end of the first millennium.

  2. Avatar
    KenPho  November 4, 2019

    This thinking permeates churches today. I confronted my pastor when he said he was disgusted by those who didnt believe in a literal hell. (I being a universalist. )My husband was told to keep me in line, that I was ignorant, depressed, a feminist(an insult). I was kicked out of every ministry, and told I was to appear before a group of elders to “discuss”. The mind control was so strong. I left and never looked back. It was freeing.

    • Avatar
      Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  November 7, 2019

      Ask your pastor, two things.
      1º If there is hell, it has to be a physical place for the condemned humans to live in body and soul. But where is that place? There are no inconcretions or fables that serve as an answer. He has to tell you where it is. In the universe? It has not yet been found and is it highly unlikely that it is in the universe. Out of the Universe? But if according to Christian believers, outside the universe is the eternal nothingness! Absurd
      2º The laws of Thermodynamics and that hell that they tell you exist real and physically: Is that said hell endothermic or exothermic? The difference is important, because in one case, and as the souls and bodies of humans enter in hell — since nobody can get out of hell –, it will cool until it freezes or esplode like a bomb.

  3. Avatar
    jhague  November 4, 2019

    1. Are there ancient writings that actually state that women are “men” who had been only partially formed in the womb? Did they think this of male and female animals also?
    2. Are there also ancient writings that specifically state that a man/man relationship meant that a man was being penetrated and therefore dominated? The current day misunderstanding of the meaning of the few Bible passages regarding this would be better understood if the Bible authors would have spelled this out.
    3. So a female/female relationship did not have anything to do with dominance but was considered unnatural? If so, was this just the biblical authors or the Greek and Roman worlds in general?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2019

      1. Yup! 2. Yup! 3. It was inappropriate dominance by one of the women.

      Good place to turn, the classic by Thomas Laqueur Making Sex.

  4. Avatar
    Thespologian  November 4, 2019

    “When women did attain levels of authority, as was happening with increasing regularity in the Roman world.” Are you speaking strictly within a church/Christian/religious context when you refer to the Roman world (unless you’re simply referrring to a time period and not a culture)? Or were there instances of female authority carrying over into Roman life, though maybe not public, outside that of worship?

  5. Avatar
    AstaKask  November 4, 2019

    Does this differ from how ancient Judaism and early Christianity saw genders and sexuality? The Bible seems to condemn homosexual activity regardless of who was penetrating whom.

  6. Avatar
    Johnkunnathi  November 4, 2019

    Very insightful information. Thank you!

  7. Avatar
    Apocryphile  November 4, 2019

    Considering the ancients’ knowledge of biology, one can sort of understand this view that women were “undeveloped” men – at least below the waist. Though using this same logic, one could also say that men were undeveloped women above the waist. 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2019

      Yeah, right! But actually they didn’t see it that way. Above the waist women were soft instead of strong (breasts); their lungs hadn’t devleoped (high voices); and they didn’t grow facial hair (the manly way to be…)

  8. Avatar
    Scrutinizer  November 4, 2019

    Well, at least for the chest part, the woman’s developed to the full potential vs. men.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  November 4, 2019

    Interesting that women held so much power in the earliest version of what became Christianity–and progressively lost it as pagan converts became the majority, bringing Roman values with them.

  10. Avatar
    timcfix  November 4, 2019

    Oh, for the good old days.

  11. Avatar
    Hon Wai  November 5, 2019

    Have you posted before on gender roles and identity in Jewish culture? Did they view the two genders to be distinct in kinds rather than degrees? The Jews apparently believed homosexuality to be an “abomination”. I wonder why so (other than fact that the Hebrew Bible said it)? Paul’s churches in his own day allowed women to teach and thereby have authority over men. But aren’t these gentile churches operating under Greco-Roman culture?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2019

      I’ll be getting to some of that. Of course jewish culture changed over time. In the Roman period, many *writing* Jews, at least, had very similar views to the Greek and Roman counterparts.

  12. Avatar
    jrbaugh  November 5, 2019

    Given that women were viewed as underdeveloped men, it would seem that the culture would have room for degrees of development and even a sort of gender spectrum, since the concept is essentially non-binary. Is there evidence that this viewpoint allowed for gender ambiguity?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      No, oddly not. At least I’m not familiar with any discussion of it. There *were* men who behaved like women and vice versa, but that was usually seen as a betrayal of their nature that than a continuum.

  13. Avatar
    zfren2009  November 5, 2019

    Perhaps you’ve covered this elsewhere in your blog or books, but I’m curious about the Hebrew origins of these ideas: my understanding is that Jewish folklore says men and women were created equal (Genesis I) but God cursed Adam’s first wife Lilith after she refused to lay down for sexual intercourse. (Lilith was turned into a succubus and is said to rape men in their sleep, kill infants and be eternally tormented by miscarriages.)

    Later Adam complains about being lonely and so God takes a rib out of Adam (literally the side) and creates a woman, Eve. The understanding that Eve is the feminine side of Adam—ie Adam was originally androgynous. This belief comes up in the NT when Jesus is questioned by Jewish scholars (Sadduccees or Pharisees?) about a woman who married four brothers according to Levirate marriage custom. The scholars ask Jesus who she would be married to after the resurrection and Jesus replies there would be no marriage that people would be like the angels, living spirits. Elsewhere I recall the NT says adam was like an angel in the beginning. So the kingdom of God would be a restoration of the original order of things.

    Any comment on the relation of these ideas and stories playing a part in social practice?

    Where do those stories come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      They seem to be created equal in Genesis 1, but definitely not in Genesis 2. Yes, this is a bit of later folklore. Where it came from? We don’t really know, apart from “flook.” No, the NT does not mention Adam as an angel.

  14. Avatar
    mannix  November 5, 2019

    In the “old days” (i.e. when you and I were young) the terms “gender” and “sex” were essentially synonymous. Today, “sex” refers to maleness and femaleness as relates to genotype…vast majority of males have XY sex chromosomes, females XX. (There are variations, but I’m trying to keep it simple). “Gender” connotes how a person lives “his” or “her” life, as a “man” or “woman” respectively (a kind of phenotype). Consequently, there are now male women and female men. Thus, it would not presently be absurd to say that a man can become pregnant! (unless the transgender man underwent surgical treatment to obviate that possibility). You may want to keep in mind the semantic changes.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      Yes, semantics continuously change. About twenty years ago the big difference was between sex as a biological category and gender as a socially-constructed category. (That seems to be the way you’re expressing it in slightly more technical terms?) I never agreed with that, since I think biology is actually socially constructed. My sense is that there is not still any unified terminology, but htat it is all quite varied, even if people with firm definitions think their definitions are “the” definitions. But possibly there’s more consensus than I know about….

  15. Avatar
    HuMelekh7  November 5, 2019

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,
    In light of the context of men and women’s roles and how they were viewed, do you think this sheds more light on 1 Timothy 2’s line of thinking with women and that it was just in regards to that day and not something to looked upon as a model for Christians in a modern setting?

  16. Avatar
    willsguise  November 6, 2019

    Professor Ehrman. Following on from Jhague’s comment above and your reply, while it is obviously not appropriate to your blog to give the kind of detailed references you would add to a scholarly essay, would it be possible for you to write a short piece identifying the original sources for the view that women are inferior men and summarising briefly what each of them actually says?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      I thought that’s what I was doing with Genesis 2! Do you have something else in mind?

  17. Avatar
    cristianp  November 8, 2019

    attending to the subject in question, about sex and gender in the ancient world (Greek and Roman world), the vision of the Roman world in New Testament times is very clear to me. But what was the vision, really, in the Greek world?
    In Sparta, women enjoyed equality before men, both in training in education, athletic and artistic, as well as legal equality
    In the Hellenistic era great female figures were seen emerging, and already in decline after the death of Alexander the Great, such is the case of queens like Berenice, Arsínoe or Cleopatra

    • Bart
      Bart  November 10, 2019

      WE can onnly speak in generalities, of course; but in terms of “gender construction” they were still widely seen, so far as we can tell, as less perfect human specimens than men.

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