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The Surprising Understanding of Gender in the Ancient World

Back in January I made three posts on the role of women in the churches of Paul (see the posts of January 16, 17, and 18).  These raised various questions from readers about how and why women went from having a fairly *prominent* role in Paul’s own churches to having thoroughly *diminished* roles in the churches that arose after his day, as embodied for example in the Pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (books that claim to be written by Paul but that he did not himself write; they were produced by a later author who, among other things, opposed the role of women in the church).

I’d like to answer these questions by discussing a matter that most modern readers of the Bible (or of other ancient texts) simply are unaware of: how ancient people understood the relationship of the genders.   We ourselves have a “common sense” of what the differences between male and female are, and we naturally assume that our common sense has been the common sense of everyone who ever has lived.  It turns out that’s not true at all!  It’s hard to believe, but easily demonstrated, that ancient people understood the relationship of the genders very differently from us.  Here is what I say about it in my textbook on the New Testament.



The Pauline churches eventually moved to the position embraced by the Pastoral epistles. They restricted the roles that women could play in the churches, insisted that Christians be married, and made Christian women submit to the dictates of their husbands both at home and in the church. It would be easy to attribute this move simply to male chauvinism, as much alive in antiquity as it is today, but the matter is somewhat more complicated. In particular, we need to consider what male domination might have meant in an ancient context; for most people in the ancient Roman world thought about gender relations in terms that are quite foreign to us who live in the modern Western world.

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….

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Why Women Came to be Silenced
Jesus Kissing Mary Magdalene: A Blast From the Past



  1. Avatar
    godspell  March 5, 2018

    And this begs the question–why did Jesus seem to largely disregard this perception of women, leading to the prominence of women in the very early church, and their continuing important role in subsequent centuries?

    Because to Jesus, the body is not important. If women are inferior because of their bodies, what is that to him? It’s the soul that matters. If a woman has greater faith and devotion than a man, she is superior to that man. The fact that women were so ofen more generous and nurturing than men, tending to the sick and infirm, would in his eyes, count in their favor. In a sense, he was asking men to be more like women.

    This is a pattern we see recurring throughout Christianity. Teresa of Avila was accepted as an equal by John of the Cross and Pedro de Alcantara, because they, as mystics, were likewise unconcerned with the body, looked past it to the spirit within. However, most men she encountered, including priests and bishops, went on treating her as an inferior, even after she founded a religious order.

    I’m not suggesting this, in itself, is the answer to gender inequity. I’m not personally of the opinion that the body does not matter at all, and of course we understand the differences in our bodies much better now. (Vive la difference!)

    But it’s important to remember that patriarchy was never a Christian invention. It was something imposed on Christianity after its founding, once it became a significant part of what had been, long before Jesus was born, a deeply patriarchal society. Paganism was every bit as patriarchal, even though female divinities were worshipped. Jesus’ mother has, for all intents and purposes, been worshipped for most of Christian history, but that didn’t make any difference to the status of women. That was just a remnant of earlier pagan practices reasserting itself in disguise.

  2. Robert
    Robert  March 5, 2018

    How would you account for Paul’s more ‘enlightened’ view of women? Do you think it can be traced back to Jesus’ own views? If so, how would you account for hus views? Was it relatively common among some apocalyticists of the time? I don’t recall it being present in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2018

      I think it’s tied to his apocalyptic agenda. Maybe I’ll say something about it. (The view was not represented, though, in other apocalyptic texts, such as in the DSS)

      • Robert
        Robert  March 6, 2018

        “I think it’s [it = more ‘enlightened’ view of women] tied to his apocalyptic agenda. Maybe I’ll say something about it. (The view was not represented, though, in other apocalyptic texts, such as in the DSS)”

        Whose apocalyptic agenda, Jesus’ or Paul’s, or both? And where did it come from? Was it invented by Jesus (or Paul) or borrowed from someone else? I can perhaps see it as tied to Jesus’ apocalyptic agenda if he saw women as among the oppressed, ie, among the last now but who shall be among the first in the Kingdom of God. Thus, this might be seen as an already partially realized eschatology among Jesus and his followers. Another small nuance to an otherwise purely future-oriented caricature of Jesus’ apocalyptic worldview.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 8, 2018

          Possibly both. Jesus and Paul both thought that in the Kingdom all human differences (slave/free; male/female) would be leveled out, and that people should start inaugurating the world of the kingdom in the present.

          • Avatar
            Jana  March 16, 2018

            Thank you for the added clarification Dr. Ehrman.

  3. Avatar
    billsturm  March 5, 2018

    I realize I am new to this blog, but how can you say, without a single reference, that Paul did not write the epistles bearing his name? I noticed this sort of approach in your syllabus’ from your published courses under “Great Courses.” Over and over again you say “Scholars agree” or “scholars say.” It seems elementary in any professional guild to at least cite such dogmatism. Has that requirement left the building because you’re so respected?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2018

      Ah right — to answer that question would require a book, not a sentence! But yes, on these blog posts I often have to speak in short hand. If you want to pursue the question, I’ve written a general book for a broader audience explaining why Paul didn’t write a number of the books ascribed to him (both in the NT and outside of it), called Forged. For the heavy hitting scholarship where I actually try to demonstrate the point with serious argumentation, I have lengthy discussions in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.

      • Avatar
        billsturm  March 6, 2018

        Thank you, Sir.
        I’ll buy it now.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  March 13, 2018

        If you are looking for ideas on where to go in the future, I think this (Pauline authorship) would make for a popular series of posts. You’ve indicated it’s fairly long and technical, but perhaps you could highlight the key high-level points.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 13, 2018

          I’m sure I’ve posted on it before, but I’ll have to look!

      • Avatar
        The Agnostic Christian  December 9, 2018

        A very gracious reply Bart.

  4. epicurus
    epicurus  March 5, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman – I’m just curious if you are aquatinted with Dr Molly Worthen in the History Dept at UNC. I just finished a recently released Great Courses Series she did on History Of Christianity from The Reformation to the Modern Megachurch. It was excellent. It was 36 lectures but should have been more, something I’m sure all professors wish for their courses.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2018

      Yes indeed, I do know her. She’s terrific!

    • Avatar
      Joshquint  November 1, 2019

      i arrived here asking google the same question (whether these two eminent scholars with such gifts for teaching, have interacted publicly). i would love to see a moderated conversation between the two.

      • Bart
        Bart  November 1, 2019

        We’re actually on a panel together on Tuesday, but it’s not open to the public (it’s part of a PhD seminar)

  5. Avatar
    Hon Wai  March 5, 2018

    To what extent can we rely on the writings of aristocrats, political, social and intellectual elites in antiquity as guide to what the wider populace thought, including on differences of gender and gender roles?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2018

      It’s an enormous, and insoluble, problem. But it’s what we have. Virtually all our evidence comes from elites who probably don’t represent the views of hoi polloi! For *that* we have to turn to other evidence (e.g., archaeology; a careful reading of texts to see what popular views are being opposed, and so on.)

  6. Avatar
    fishician  March 5, 2018

    Jesus and Paul seemed more liberal toward women (Jesus had female disciples and supporters, and Paul cites female co-workers), but the 2nd generation of Christians were less so (as in the Pastoral Epistles). Is that at least in part because of the transition from a Jewish sect to a primarily Gentile (Roman) church? Did the Gentile influence cause the shift, or was it there already?

  7. Avatar
    doug  March 5, 2018

    In ancient times when a man had an adolescent boy as a sex partner, why did he prefer a boy rather than a girl?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2018

      Sexual preferences are often culturally constructed. Girls were off-limits because they were under the control of their fathers, and were to be kept virgins for their marriage. Having sex with them was strictly forbidden — it was stealing another man’s property (two men’s — the father’s and the future husband’s)

      • Avatar
        Caiaphas  March 8, 2018

        I recommend the first chapter of “A Natural History of Homosexuality” (Mondimore, 1996) for its discussion of the “whys” of ancient Greek pederasty.

    • Avatar
      ardeare  March 6, 2018

      In modern times, there have been thousands of reports of men taking adolescent boys as sex partners in that part of the world. As obscene as it may sound, many of these men are looked upon as being superior for possessing such property (boys). Indeed it is cultural and remains rampant in Afghanistan to this day. The common name for it is “Bacha Bazi.” Here is a recent article from 2018 that gives us some idea of how ingrained and accepted it is in some middle eastern societies and cultures. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/23/world/asia/afghanistan-military-abuse.html

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 9, 2018

        It’s not unknown in this part of the world. We’ve done a somewhat better job of criminalizing it. Somewhat.

        Exploitation of children in any form is wrong. But difficult to completely stamp out. Only animals are worse-treated, and for the same reasons. Them that’s got shall get. Them’s that not shall lose. So the bible says, and it still is news.

        And God bless the child that’s got his own.

  8. Avatar
    Eric  March 5, 2018

    I recall this topic from one of your Great Courses lectures. It was (is) so striking of a paradigm shift that it has bubbled up in my memory on many occasions. Hard for a “modern” to a head around. The “incomplete man” theory. Of course, their understanding of biology, etc, was very limited.

  9. Avatar
    fishician  March 5, 2018

    (Excuse me for double dipping!) If you consider the ancient concept of the man implanting a homunculus (little man) into the woman, it makes sense that they thought a female just hadn’t developed fully into a male.

  10. Avatar
    Tempo1936  March 6, 2018

    I am a relatively New subscriber to the blog. You itemize the Postings over the past two years on the current blog. However Would it be possible to access A complete listing of all postings going back to the beginning? The search function is limited to specific subjects But this is only useful if the subscriber is aware of the subject on which you have blogged. Thanks so much.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2018

      There is also a chronological list, month by month, from the very beginning (April 2012!); click on the box under “Archives”

  11. Avatar
    jhague  March 6, 2018

    It is surprising that the ancients thought of women as undeveloped/imperfect men. The men obviously knew that having sex with a woman caused her to become pregnant and give birth to a human life! Something a man could not do! Plus, I am guessing that men were mostly attracted to women just as now. From the writings of that time, does it seem that men were domineering over women mostly because men are physically stronger than women? This would also be the case for why physically strong men would domineer over weaker men in antiquity.

  12. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 6, 2018

    I may be misrepresenting her position, but I think Amy-Jill Levine has said in some of her talks that Jewish women of the 1st century CE ok had lot more autonomy than is.oftem supposed. They could own property and they used it to wield power. If Jesus was the beneficiary of the financial assistance and status of a few wealthy women, could that not have set a precedent for the early churches: a precedent that Paul would have had no reason to oppose?

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  March 7, 2018

      Sorry for all the typos. My phone’s browser was acting up and wouldn’t let me edit.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2018

      Yup, that may be part of it all.

  13. Avatar
    madi22  March 16, 2018

    Hey Bart, thanks for posting this very informative content, just curious though do you believe Jesus (if he came back to earth now) would be in support of equal rights for women and approve of the feminism movement?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2018

      I think it’s impossible to know what Jesus would be like in a 21st century American setting — it would not be just this one issue that would change but just about everything connected with his world view, making it hard to say how any one element would figure into it. But from a modern persepctive Jesus *does* seem to have been connected with and interacted with women more than generally would have been expected in his world.

      • Avatar
        GregAnderson  May 27, 2018

        Yeah. “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” And I’m not even going to quote the Gospel of John. Jesus thoroughly enjoyed the attentions of women. This is well attested in the gospels.

  14. Avatar
    Apocryphile  April 5, 2018

    Male dominance and degrees of power have direct parallels to other primates in the “animal” world, of course. It’s simply a direct evolutionary inheritance from our closest cousins, the great apes. I think it can be argued (at least from our 21st century perspective) that we’ve made substantial progress in the area of gender relations, but we should never forget that these ancient tendencies are never far below the surface, as witnessed by the continuing phenomena of sexual harassment and physical violence – the perpetrators being almost always male. That’s why the recent shooting at U-Tube HQ was such a surprise – the shooter was a woman. So, the gender differences are still there, no matter how much we might want to downplay their influence in today’s ‘enlightened’ western society.

  15. Avatar
    Magdalene  April 14, 2018

    I just signed up—this is so cool. Not too long ago I took a college course entitled Sex and Gender in the Ancient World. The professor very much echoed this post’s points and initially I thought he was making it all up. It took me two more courses on ancient thought to start believing these attitudes genuinely held sway. It’s a mind bender , for sure, and endlessly fascinating.

  16. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 19, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Since one of the criteria for being an apostle was seeing the risen Jesus, do you think Junia from Romans is a female apostle, and do you think it is possible she was one of the 500 brothers and sisters from 1 Cor. 15:6?


  17. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 27, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman:

    Do you agree?

    “…in regard to 1 Cor. 15.3ff. the list does not include the resurrection appearances to women, who, according to Matthew and John, were the first witnesses. This presumably is because the testimony of women was not regarded so highly as the testimony of men at that time. The list in 1 Cor. 15 had become an established list of testimonies which the community believed was reliable.”

  18. Avatar
    ancadudar@yahoo.com  April 4, 2019

    I studied Greco-Roman culture looking for cues as to how the theology of Ephesians 5:21-33 was formed. If we pay close attention to 5:25-33 where husbands are addressed, it becomes evident that it is the most brilliant piece of deception ever invented!

    We hear the words, “Husbands love your wife as you love yourself” and we apply our Western standard of equality to those words. However, careful examination of the context describes in detail exactly how this love of self is to be played out towards one’s wife. This is not a love of shared status and honor, nor is it a romantic type of love. Instead, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. Our body is an object, the material aspect of our existence, not the conscious part of the soul where our minds and emotions meet.

    A husband is to love his wife as his own body and is to express this love by nourishing and cherishing her with the same level of bodily care he gives himself. To nourish is not an emotional thing, it is to feed and raise to growth. This is namely about food and material resources for the body. To cherish simply means to keep warm and comfortable, found in their literature for breastfeeding infants.

    When a man loves his wife he loves himself, showing that the wife is not a separate entity from the husband. She is literally his possession and body in the eyes of this author. This forms a head-body unit. Wife as the inferior dependent body, husband as superior head part.

    The brilliance in all of this is that the husband is not being asked to do anything other than to feed and clothe his wife who is an extension of his body. This was the standard practice of every respectable married Roman man, nothing Christian about it. Worse, wives were obligated to make her and her husband’s clothing. They were responsible for the whole process of food from production to preparation and were expected to serve husbands his daily meals.

    Deception is found in the charge laid on husbands, it makes husbands appear as if they are giving Christian service and charity. Wives, on the other hand, must give husbands the submission they would give to Christ. This is nothing more than a Patron-Client arrangement, the same structure that was the backbone of the whole Empire.

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