Women in the New Testament World

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Susan E. Hylen
Essentials of Biblical Studies Series
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2018.
     224 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190237585.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Susan E. Hylen has worked extensively on women and early Christianity, covering topics such as female political leadership, roles, and literary figures throughout her career. Her recent work, Women in the New Testament World, is a continuation of her prior research, providing an accessible—and inexpensive—introductory volume that examines the lives of women in the Roman Empire from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE. The books of the New Testament are not the main sources of information for this study, although they are mentioned when relevant. Rather, the work is concerned with addressing the ancient world as a whole, and weaves together varying sources of evidence as present in both material culture and written sources. Artifacts, art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and law are all presented side by side in order to provide the reader with a complex and nuanced understanding of all aspects of Roman society. Hylen’s primary objective is to “provide as clear a picture as possible of the legal and social status of women” in the New Testament’s historical and cultural setting (4).

Hylen’s work does not shy away from the problems that the material poses. The author takes time, in the first chapter, to initially contextualize the material by problematizing the idea of both women and the New Testament world as historical subjects, noting the ancient world’s differing conception of women and gender, as well as the difficulty in constructing women’s “political, social, and legal positions” from a collection of indirect evidence (5, 9). The following chapter explains how one can interpret apparently contradictory evidence about women, their leadership, and roles in the ancient world. This section also debunks the common myths about women during this time. Women’s roles as illegitimate, exceptional, local, or limited are all problematized or discredited (27, 29, 30, 32). Engaging with other prominent scholars in this area of study, such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Elaine Pagels, and Ross Shepard Kraemer, Hylen integrates old standards alongside more recent scholarship (31-32). The chapters that follow systematically address gendered virtues, issues of marriage, class and patronage, occupations, and speech. Each initially addresses women’s issues within the Roman Empire, and then segues into a discussion of these issues as presented in the New Testament. The conclusion of each chapter is a concise synthesis of the two perspectives, allowing for greater insight into the interplay between the New Testament and its larger context.

This book also provides assistance to new scholars as well as nonprofessionals. The bibliography is divided into primary and secondary source material, pragmatic for those looking to see where many of the ideas discussed in the book originated within the ancient world, and how they have subsequently been addressed in later scholarship. Furthermore, each primary source is cited in translation, so as not to assume any prior knowledge of Greek or Latin on the part of the reader (14). In addition to the standard bibliography, two indices are also included: one for primary sources (catalogued by verse); and another for topical material. These clearly delineated and thoughtfully curated sources are therefore easily accessible from nearly any perspective.

What Women in the New Testament World lacks, however, is the complete engagement with female reproductive issues. Considering the significance of women’s reproduction in the ancient world—with its ability to grant Roman citizenship—childbearing was of particular importance (72). Aside from a passing remark that “contraceptive substances were known,” no other discussion of family planning is addressed, despite their practice in antiquity (115). Furthermore, there is never any mention of rape. Though admittedly a reality for both sexes, this subject is particularly important for women, as they are expected to maintain marital fidelity more so than their spouses (54). Barren women and prostitutes are also never mentioned.

Another element that the work could benefit from would be more frequent citations. Though Hylen already provides many sources for her argument, given that this book is geared toward beginners to the subject matter, it should be easy for anyone interested in the material to find what they are looking for elsewhere, and thus supplement the work with their own independent study. Some of Hylen’s assertions—such as the shift toward a “renewed attention to the connections between domestic ideals and civic responsibility”—could be strengthened by either showing that progression for the reader, or citing where one may find such material (38). Overall, however, this is not significant enough to impact the quality of the book itself.

Women in the New Testament World is suggested for anyone seeking to better understand the world that women lived in during the composition of the New Testament. Many of the chapters promptly address the common assumptions regarding women in the first centuries, systematically opposing them in a well-organized and thoughtful manner. The brevity of the work only heightens the achievement. The amount of content packed into such a small volume is a feat in itself. Hylen’s work will serve as a standard introductory primer in classrooms that are interested in addressing gender issues in the ancient world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

T. G. Barkasy is a graduate student in Religious Studies at the University of Chicago.

Date of Review: 
September 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Susan E. Hylen is Associate Professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. She is the author of four books, including A Modest Apostle: Thecla and the History of Women in the Early Church.

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