“Hearing the Stories of the Women of the Bible
in Their Own Contexts“
A Review of
Women in the World of the Earliest Christians:
Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life
by Lynn Cohick.
Reviewed by Chase Roden.
Women in the World of the Earliest Christians:
Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life.
Paperback: Baker, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Think of the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4 — the one who has had five husbands and who is, at the time of meeting Jesus, living with a man who is not her husband. What is your mental image of her? If you’re like many Bible-readers, you may think of her as a “loose woman.” Some interpreters have even called her an outcast in her community, forced to go to the well by herself because no reputable woman would want to be seen with her. This characterization is dead wrong, argues Lynn Cohick in Women in the World of the Earliest Christians.
As any responsible Biblical interpreter knows, it is frighteningly easy to read our own culture and values into the Bible, even with extensive practice. The best way to combat this eisegetical tendency is to learn the true historical background of scripture, and Cohick nobly takes on the task, focusing specifically on painting a picture of the everyday life of women in the time and setting of the early church. In doing so, she reveals a world vastly different from what most modern readers will expect.
Although the voice of women in antiquity has often been hushed to the faintest whisper, Cohick presents a mix of original research and adept synthesis of current academic work on a wide-ranging variety of topics to dig deep into historical sources to uncover echoes of these women’s stories. Her sources are wide-ranging and often clever; she works with not only the traditional mainstays of historians such as epigraphs, civic inscriptions, marriage contracts, and contemporary accounts, but also pays close attention to small details in surprising sources, often with great reward. For instance, when examining Jewish marriage customs, Cohick examines the way that key terms are translated from the Hebrew Bible into Septuagint Greek; specifically, she notes that the Hebrew word mohar, for “bride price” (money or valuables paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family) is translated into Septuagint Greek as pherne or “dowry.” This detail could easily be passed over, but Cohick notes that it represents a major change of custom from the time and setting of the composition of the Hebrew sources to that of the Septuagint audience.
Cohick finds another surprising historical resource in against-the-grain readings of rhetoricians such Juvenal and Seneca the Elder; instead of taking them at face value or even writing them off as useless due to the often-misogynistic content and rhetorical purpose of their writings, she is able to draw evidence about Roman mores and practices from the charges they don’t level against their political opponents. Although much of the portrait of ancient women’s life that Cohick paints is based on historical speculation, she is careful to separate fact from conjecture, always providing the specific evidence leading up to her claims.
Because the book presents the author’s original research along with application of the work of other academics, the tone can abruptly shift in places from accessible to technical. For instance, Cohick finds herself in the position of explaining the basics of Greek grammatical cases (“names have different endings depending on their place in the sentence”) while arguing for her own interpretation of the Greek Iounian as the accusative form of the female name Iounia over the possible interpretation of the word as a form of a hypothetical male name Iounias. This tension is represented in the text by Cohick’s need to occasionally switch from transliterated Greek to Greek type. This might turn away some readers, but these technical sections are relatively rare and reward careful study. As always, the problem of including original research in a book written to be accessible is that the less-academic reader is left with little ability to judge the veracity of the author’s research over and against her colleagues, but Cohick generally provides citations to contemporary differing viewpoints where necessary.
In creating her portrait of women’s lives, Cohick fights against simplistic dichotomies and other academic “shortcuts,” such as the widely-held assumption that Palestinian Jews are “closer to ‘true’ Judaism” than their kinsfolk in the Diaspora, or the idea that Hellenism or even Judaism are simply-described “movements” that one either is a part of or not. Along those lines, Dr. Cohick is very careful not to claim to present a portrait of “women’s life” in general; in the book’s conclusion, she writes that “at the beginning of my project … the more information I gathered, the less coherent and consistent the picture of real women appeared” (322). It is easy to imagine that scenario when reading the book, because in each section Cohick considers the complexities of class, setting, wealth, and historical situation — each of which can change a person’s story dramatically. In this regard, Cohick is influenced positively by the “people’s history” school of thought, always attempting to draw distinctions between the stories of the elite and the often sparse evidence for what we know of the lives of the poorer majority of the population.
So, to return to the Samaritan woman at the well; although Dr. Cohick’s research is compelling — especially her study on the informal patronage system of the day as a means for wealthy women to exert power equal in some respects to their male counterparts — her most valuable theological asset might be her ability to listen to the women of the Bible and hear their stories in their own contexts. These excursions run throughout the book; the author pauses where applicable to take a close look at one of the women of the Bible and see how her research illuminates that woman’s character. In the case of the Samaritan, the result is a portrait not of a sinful outcast, but of a woman who has lived a hard life yet who is still respected in her community. As a woman, she could scarcely be blamed if she were divorced five times, since she probably wasn‘t even capable of filing for divorce. Regardless, Cohick informs us that serial marriage doesn‘t fit the social milieu; far more likely is that the woman had been widowed repeatedly — a sadly common occurrence in the era. As for Jesus’s comment about the woman living with a man out of wedlock, Cohick presents a strong case that the comment is meant to indicate Jesus’s prescience and not his judgment, as there are a number of socially-acceptable living situations this could represent. Finally, Cohick points out that this alleged outcast is extremely well-received when she returns to town to tell everyone she has just met a prophet who might be the Messiah; it can hardly be the point of the story that the Samaritan woman is an outcast sinner.
Overall, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians is an excellent academic book that most anyone who aspires to interpret the Bible would do well to read. In addition to being engaging and well-written, each chapter stands on its own, making it an invaluable resource for quick reference and research on the topics it covers.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com