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Breadwinners and Benefactors

Lynn Cohick argues that early Christian women were more active in public life than we might think.

Many women in the Greco-Roman world of the first century were influencing senators, leading businesses, and giving out loans. In Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Baker Academic), Wheaton College New Testament professor Lynn Cohick examines literature, inscriptions, and other evidence to uncover what life was like for the earliest Christian women. Cohick spoke with Christianity Today online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey about her findings.

What are some misconceptions about women in the early Christian world?

One misconception is that women were not really part of the culture, that they were at home, uneducated, had their babies, worked their gardens, and that was it. What we find are very wealthy women who were patrons, doling out gifts and influencing senators. Only women were midwives or wet nurses, and there were women who were shopkeepers, heads of businesses, and lenders.

Where do our misconceptions come from?

We read people like Aristotle, who describes women as being inherently less than men. Then people read this as though it is describing rather than prescribing. Or, Christians read a rabbinic text like, "Thank God I am not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman," and conclude that most Jewish men were against women. But I think the comment means that Jewish men were very thankful they could do the whole law while women could not, maybe in part because of childbirth purity codes.

Where do you find biblical examples that show women influencers?

In Acts, we see Lydia, who is a patron with clout, and Phoebe, whom Paul describes as a benefactor (Rom. 16:1-2). When you come across a Mary Magdalene and a Joanna in Luke 8, they supported Jesus and the disciples with their own money. This is not like they are having bake ...

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