Part of the A Gender Study: The Real Lives of Women and Men in the Bible series

What We Can Learn from Women’s Roles in Ancient Synagogues

Every semester, my New Testament (NT) Literature students face a very inconvenient truth: NT authors assume that their readers have some understanding of the ancient world, more specifically, of early Judaism and the Greco-Roman culture. This culture included a view women’s roles in that society, including in synagogues. I point out to them that when Jesus walks into the synagogue of Nazareth in Luke 4, the author does not stop to say, “Give me a moment, I will explain to you what occurs in an ancient synagogue on the sabbath.”

Enjoying this article? Read more from The Biblical Mind.

My New York City students presume to know something about synagogues having come into superficial contact with the diverse Jewish communities of the city. Along with this, many of them have been misinformed through Sunday sermons—sometimes with well-known anti-semitic tropes—about the poor state of women in ancient Judaism.1See Amy-Jill Levine, “Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made About Early Judaism,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, ed. A.J. Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, 2nd rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 762. Jesus’ interaction with women in the gospels is viewed as a full break with standard Jewish practice, because it is assumed that Jewish women were oppressed and subordinated much more than women in the non-Jewish world were.

For these reasons, each year my new students are typically surprised when I tell them that men and women sat together in the synagogue on the sabbath. Eyebrows raise higher when I add that women may have also functioned as the leaders of synagogues. Perhaps this fact is surprising to readers of this essay as well. So here, I’ll deal briefly with the role of women in that space, to inform our reading of biblical texts that pertain to the roles of men and women in society, the synagogue, and the church.

Complicating the Picture

It’s true that certain religious roles in ancient Judaism appear to be predominantly male offices. For example, we have no evidence of a female functioning as a priest or Levite in Jerusalem’s temple. As Angela Standhartinger notes, this differs from the diverse women’s roles in Greek and Roman religions:

Material evidence, artefacts, images, inscriptions, and alike, all document women serving their gods in manifold ways. They act as priestesses, lead processions, offer prayers, preside in sacrifices, pour out libations, decorate statues, preside over cultic meals, and perform many other religious activities.2“Female Officiants in Second Temple Judaism,” in Gender and Second-Temple Judaism, ed. Kathy Ehrensperger and Shayna Seinfeld (London: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2020), 220.

Yet, like most things, what happened in real life was more complicated, and all the more interesting. Three ancient Jewish inscriptions refer to three individual priestesses. One dating to the first century BCE is the most relevant for us. It was discovered in the cemetery of ancient Leontopolis (Heliopolis), a city in Egypt’s delta. It refers to a priestess named Marion. The city is the same in which Onias IV, heir to the Jerusalem high priesthood, built a competitive temple.3Bernadette J. Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues, Brown Judaic Studies 36 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1982), 73–74.[/mfn that Josephus describes was similar to the one in Jerusalem but “smaller and poorer.”3Ant. 13:172. Though this temple is said to have followed Jewish practices,4War 7:426–431. it would be mistaken to assume that this required the exclusion of female priests. Bernadette Brooten is right: we should not simply conclude that women were not allowed to function as priestesses among the Jewish people.5Brooten, Women Leaders, 99.

Unfortunately, we also lack any reference to female sages/rabbis. But something may be said about their disciples. For the moment, we are going to presume that Jesus’ treatment of women in the gospels, especially Luke, was not particularly liberating, progressive, or counter-cultural. It simply reflected a form of Judaism that some people practiced in the first century CE.6The author’s Understanding the Gospels as Ancient Jewish Literature (Jerusalem: Carta Press, 2018), 36–38. It can be argued that Luke’s description of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his teaching implies discipleship.710:39. See m. Avot 1:4. This should not be wholly surprising as the same gospel indicates that Jesus’ disciple group grew beyond the twelve.810:1. Years ago in one of the Society of  Biblical Literature’s Annual Meetings, a good friend, Sharon Alley, argued that the description later in the passage that Mary had chosen the “good portion” is further indicating the idea that Mary is being portrayed as a disciple of Jesus. Though it may have been uncommon, there is little reason to believe that these additional disciples have to be male. In fact, some of the women present at the crucifixion are described by Matthew as having followed Jesus from the Galilee. Some of these women were likely benefactors of Jesus’ ministry.9Luke 8:1–3. We have evidence in antiquity of women who had significant possessions of their own. See Philip F. Esler, Babatha’s Archive: The Yadin Papyri and Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); also, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/scrolls/life.html As Tal Ilan notes, women were able to become members of an ancient Jewish groups such as the Pharisees.10Tal Ilan, “Post-Biblical and Rabbinic Women,” Jewish Women’s Archive: Encyclopedia, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/post-biblical-and-rabbinic-women. So, it is probable that women were among Jesus’ larger disciple group as well.

Women’s Roles in the First-Century Synagogue

Still, it leaves us with the question of women’s roles in the first century synagogue. For this, we will look briefly at three issues: 1) gender separation, 2) reading the Torah on the sabbath, and 3) synagogue leadership.11For a more robust discussion on this issue, see Lee Levine, “Women in the Synagogue,” in The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Year, 2nd ed. (New Have, London: Yale University Press, 2005), 499–518.     

First, there is no doubt that women attended the synagogue on the sabbath, holidays, and any other events, as they do now. The gospels function as a source here. In Luke, while teaching at a synagogue, Jesus heals an infirm woman.1210:13–17. Irritated by the healing, the head of the synagogue argues that healing is prohibited on the sabbath. Nothing is said about the presence of the woman; it is neither strange nor unique. Further, it appears perfectly acceptable for Jesus to place hands on the infirm woman. The issues that arise here are about healing on the sabbath and nothing else. Saul (=Paul), as well, encounters men and women in synagogues he enters to arrest early followers of the Way.13=early Christians; e.g., Acts 8:3, 9:2, 22:4. Later, as Paul reaches Philippi (outside the land of Israel), he goes on the sabbath to a “place of prayer,” a diaspora synagogue, without the hint of controversy when he encounters women who had gathered by the river.14In fact, Lydia, who Paul meets by the river, is depicted as the head of her household whose road to faith is unlike that of the jailer—clearly the head of his household—later in the text (Acts 16:15, 27–34).

Now that we have women in the synagogue, where are they seated on the sabbath? Were they separated into an alternate chamber or a balcony?

Before the 20th century, most scholars assumed that gender separation in the synagogue was common practice. Some argued that it should be “taken for granted.”15Emil Schürer, 448, A History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.-A.D. 135); rev. and ed. by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Matthew Black; vol. II (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1979), 448, n. 98.. Shmuel Safrai’s 1964 article, “Was There a Women’s Gallery in the Synagogue of Antiquity,”16Ha-’im hayetah qayemmet ezrat nashim be-bayit ha-kenesset be-tequfah ha-‘atiqah, Tarbiz 32 (1963): 329–338 [Heb.]. started to shift this opinion. He notes, there is no evidence, archaeologically or otherwise, of gender separation in synagogues from the first century 1st to the 4th century CE. Safrai also argues that the first explicit reference to the separation of women and men, as a common practice in synagogues, appear in the medieval period.17Midrash Pirkei Mashiah 3:75 (6th–10th centuries CE).

Yet, there is a source from the first century that references gender separation.18Chad Spigel, “Reconsidering the Question of Separate Seating in Ancient Synagogues,” JJS 63/1 (2012): 62–67. Philo, a first century philosopher, refers to women and men entering separate chambers on the sabbath. This is the practice of a Jewish group called the Therapeutae. The reason for the separation is to preserve the women’s modesty.19Contemplative Life 32–33. Now, whether this was common practice among synagogues, or the isolated practice of the Therapeutae, is still unknown. But, there is little reason for Philo to be so clear if it were a common practice among synagogues of the time.

Still, there are far more clues of no separation. Archaeologically, there is no evidence in first century synagogues of separate chambers or balconies that were specifically for women. Where there are adjacent rooms, none seem intended to separate the congregation. They are often completely cut off from the main hall (e.g., Magdala, Gamla, Herodium, Jericho, Qiryat Sefer) and are sometimes quite small (e.g., Magdala, Jericho, Qiryat Sefer).

In fact, the lack of separation is confirmed if women were allowed to read from the Torah in the first century. There is a saying according to the rabbis, “All are qualified to be among the seven [who read from the Torah], even a minor and a woman, (but) a woman should not be brought to read to the public.”20t. Meg. 3:15. Although, Hannah Safrai suggests that the earliest form of this saying makes it “clear that at first women were permitted to be called up and recite the blessings during the Torah reading.”21“Women and the Ancient Synagogue,” in Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, ed. Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut (Philadelphia, Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 1992), 43. In time this role was eliminated. A later Jewish work says, “But the Sages said, a woman shall not read, because of the honor of the congregation.”22b. Meg. 3:11. For a fuller explanation of this passage see Safrai,“Women,” 42–44. The shift from allowing a women reader to prohibiting it may have been a matter of time that represents the change of synagogue practice over several centuries.

Our understanding about women’s roles in ancient synagogues is strengthened by several inscriptions dating up to the sixth century CE that speak of them as the “head of the synagogue,” “head,” “leader,” or “mother of the synagogue.”23See Brooten, Women Leaders, 1. The most interesting among these is from the 2nd century CE, where a certain Rufina is described as the “head of a synagogue.” This office was also around in the days of the NT, but is generally associated with men.24Mark 5:22, 35, 38; Luke 8:49. 13:14; Acts 13:15, 18:8, 17. From the gospels and Acts, the head of a synagogue is tasked with making sure that the sabbath prohibitions are not violated (Luke 13). They would also invite attendees to give a word during the Sabbath. Paul takes advantage of this invitation while in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:15). Acts 13 reference to “heads of synagogue” suggests that a single synagogue may have had more than one. While this position may have changed in time, it is unlikely that women’s roles in leadership in ancient synagogues became more progressive in antiquity.25It is also unlikely that these titles were honorific or received from their husbands, see Brooten, Women Leaders. That Rufina could be the “head of a synagogue” in the second century suggests that the practice was already in place during a much earlier period.

Women’s Many Roles

Synagogues played an important role in first century Jewish society. Archaeology indicates that these buildings were for public use. As communal buildings they could be used throughout the week for various purposes—including storage during wars26e.g., the synagogue at Gamla.—but they were also, importantly—on the sabbath or not—places to read the Torah and to study the commandments, and were identified in the diaspora with prayer. At least some synagogues had rooms for pilgrims, especially in Jerusalem, but also likely those located in villages that received pilgrims and other travelers.

The role of women in that space is multifaceted. First, the evidence leans on the side of women and men sitting together. Second, women in the first century may have been allowed to recite a blessing and read the Torah on the sabbath. This role later became marginalized and eventually eliminated in certain communities. Third, the references to “heads of synagogues” in the gospels and Acts and an inscription from the second century CE, naming Rufina as one of these heads, hints at an earlier practice of naming women to this position. This indicates that they could potentially be responsible for assuring that the synagogue service functioned properly, i.e., calling attendants up to read from the Torah/Prophets, prevent the violation of sabbath prohibitions, etc.

Whatever other functions may have existed for these leaders, it is clear women could have authority in how the synagogue functioned as a religious space. Unfortunately, the women (and most men) with access to these roles were seriously limited. As Tal Ilan states, “In post-biblical Jewish antiquity women were not viewed as equal to men.”27https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/post-biblical-and-rabbinic-women. Although she notes, “In this, Jews were no different from their various Greco-Roman, Semitic or Egyptian neighbors.” Additionally, these roles were likely given to the educated, which in turn required financial resources. Still, if we walked into a first century synagogue, it would not be strange to see women and men seated together. Further, it would not be unbelievable to have a woman recite a blessing and/or read from the Torah/Prophets or have a woman who was the “head of the synagogue.”

End Notes

1. See Amy-Jill Levine, “Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made About Early Judaism,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, ed. A.J. Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, 2nd rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 762.

2. “Female Officiants in Second Temple Judaism,” in Gender and Second-Temple Judaism, ed. Kathy Ehrensperger and Shayna Seinfeld (London: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2020), 220.

3. Bernadette J. Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues, Brown Judaic Studies 36 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1982), 73–74.

4. Ant. 13:172.

5. War 7:426–431.

6. Brooten, Women Leaders, 99.

7. The author’s Understanding the Gospels as Ancient Jewish Literature (Jerusalem: Carta Press, 2018), 36–38.

8. 10:39. See m. Avot 1:4.

9. 10:1. Years ago in one of the Society of  Biblical Literature’s Annual Meetings, a good friend, Sharon Alley, argued that the description later in the passage that Mary had chosen the “good portion” is further indicating the idea that Mary is being portrayed as a disciple of Jesus.

10. Luke 8:1–3. We have evidence in antiquity of women who had significant possessions of their own. See Philip F. Esler, Babatha’s Archive: The Yadin Papyri and Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); also, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/scrolls/life.html

11. Tal Ilan, “Post-Biblical and Rabbinic Women,” Jewish Women’s Archive: Encyclopedia, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/post-biblical-and-rabbinic-women.

12. For a more robust discussion on this issue, see Lee Levine, “Women in the Synagogue,” in The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Year, 2nd ed. (New Have, London: Yale University Press, 2005), 499–518.

13. 10:13–17.

14. =early Christians; e.g., Acts 8:3, 9:2, 22:4.

15. In fact, Lydia, who Paul meets by the river, is depicted as the head of her household whose road to faith is unlike that of the jailer—clearly the head of his household—later in the text (Acts 16:15, 27–34).

16. Emil Schürer, 448, A History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.-A.D. 135); rev. and ed. by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Matthew Black; vol. II (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1979), 448, n. 98.

17. Ha-’im hayetah qayemmet ezrat nashim be-bayit ha-kenesset be-tequfah ha-‘atiqah, Tarbiz 32 (1963): 329–338 [Heb.].

18. Midrash Pirkei Mashiah 3:75 (6th–10th centuries CE).

19. Chad Spigel, “Reconsidering the Question of Separate Seating in Ancient Synagogues,” JJS 63/1 (2012): 62–67.

20. Contemplative Life 32–33.

21. Meg. 3:15.

22. “Women and the Ancient Synagogue,” in Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, ed. Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut (Philadelphia, Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 1992), 43.

23. b. Meg. 3:11. For a fuller explanation of this passage see Safrai,“Women,” 42–44.

24. See Brooten, Women Leaders, 1.

25. Mark 5:22, 35, 38; Luke 8:49. 13:14; Acts 13:15, 18:8, 17.

26. It is also unlikely that these titles were honorific or received from their husbands, see Brooten, Women Leaders.

27. e.g., the synagogue at Gamla.

28. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/post-biblical-and-rabbinic-women. Although she notes, “In this, Jews were no different from their various Greco-Roman, Semitic or Egyptian neighbors.”

Did you enjoy this article? Check out The Biblical Mind podcast.