Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Context

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Women in the Apostolic Fathers.

Portrait of a Young Woman
“Portrait of a Young Woman”

In order to properly understand conceptions of women in the Apostolic Fathers, one must consider not only the writings themselves but also the general context of the first and second centuries, including Greco-Roman and earlier Christian evidence.[1] Of course, this attempt at contextualization becomes immediately problematized by the fact that, there was no “typical woman” or single female perspective in the ancient world, for a cacophony of social, political, economic, and religious factors defies the painting of a unified picture or situation of women.[2] Speaking generally, however, some shards of evidence may be pieced together.

One starting point involves the tutela impuberum: a classical Roman law which placed orphaned underaged children under a guardianship, a protection sometimes extended to unmarried daughters of majority.[3] During the first century, this practice became increasingly rare, however, especially when Claudius abolished the practice for women beyond puberty.[4] In its place arose the practice of tutor-ship, which was intended to protect the property rights of minors.[5] Of course, by no means may it be assumed that this practice was accepted everywhere, nor that it could be applied to poor families with little or no property. Nonetheless, Roman guardianships and tutors do suggest a general view of females that placed them under the care and authority of a male. Building on this, Kerstin Aspegren argues that even the terminology of “male” and “female” became embedded with assumptions of authority and ethics, with “woman” symbolizing imperfection and evil.[6] How far beyond figurative literary portraits these ideas extended remains a matter for discussion elsewhere.

ShepherdEarly Christian conceptions of women remain hotly debated. For some scholars, the Jesus Movement was a radically egalitarian golden age which was usurped and corrupted by the later establishment of church hierarchy.[7] For others, the message of Christianity for women developed alongside the development of hierarchy and practice.[8] For example, textual evidence suggests that some women held a form of church office (Rom. 16:1, 7),[9] rightly prophesied (Acts 21:8-9),[10] read (possibly in a liturgical setting),[11] and partook in the daily life of the Church, even suffering persecution.[12] This complexity of factors and influences disallows the portrayal of a monolithic “situation of women” in the Greco-Roman and Christian worlds. What may be said, however, is that women occupied a place of tension in the ancient world, with prescriptive and lived realities rarely standing in unison. Women in Christianity held particularly “tense” positions, as ongoing development of church order, practice, and scriptural interpretation often stood at odds with the lived experiences and practices of Christian women. This complex situation forms the context for the writings of the Apostolic Fathers to which we now turn.


[1] Carolyn Osiek and Jennifer Pouya, “Construction of Gender Roles in the Roman Imperial World,” in Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, eds. Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), 44-56. Trevett, 3.

[2] Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 18. Trevett, 12.

[3] Esther Yue, “Mirror Reading and Guardians of Women in the Early Roman Empire,” JTS 59, 2 (2008): 681. On the general social and public place of women in the Greco-Roman world, see Susan Treggiari, “Jobs for Women,” American Journal of Ancient History 1, 1 (1976): 76-104. Ramsey MacMullen, “Women in Public in the Roman Empire,” History 29, 1 (1980): 208-18.

[4] Yue, 682-3.

[5] Ibid., 683. On women claiming exemption from this practice later in the Imperial period, see Yue, 685-91.

[6] Kerstin Aspegren, The Male Woman: A Feminine Ideal in the Early Church (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1990), 11-4.

[7] Koester, 11. Gal. 3:28.

[8] Matthijs den Dulk, “I Permit No Woman to Teach Except for Thecla: The Curious Case of the Pastoral Epistles and the Acts of Paul Reconsidered,” Novum Testamentum 54 (2012): 176-203. See also Kristi Upson-Saia, Early Christian Dress: Gender, Virtue, and Authority (New York: Routledge, 2011), 11.

[9] Acts of Thecla. Eisen, 47-55.

[10] Didache 11-13. Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11. Eisen, 70. Eisen notes that Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Origen do not raise any fundamental objections to women prophesying, only how particular movements were abusing prophecy or teaching false doctrine. See also Eusebius H.E. 5.16-17.

[11] Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 1.2.2; 1.3.3; 2.1.3. Trevett, 19.

[12] Trevett, 11.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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