Discovering Women at Work in the Bible

Updated: Apr 24

Welcome to First Century Womanhood 101, our primer to integrating yourself into the first century! If you missed our introduction to this class, please go back so that you can orientate yourself in our focus, our resources, and our goal: to prepare you for living as a first-century woman. If time-travel is not in your itinerary, I hope you will learn something new and feel a little closer to our sisters in the Bible! Our focus throughout this series is ancient Jewish culture, but we will also be looking a little at Greek and Roman women of the same era.


Occupations and Roles for Women in the Time of Jesus


The first step to creating your first-century persona will be choosing what role you will fill as a woman—or more accurately, what your societal rank and family will probably choose for you. The family system here is tightly knit, with sons apprenticing under their fathers or older male relatives. As a woman in this environment, you will help the family create income by participating in the family business or by supplementing the household income with your side business.


Some of these careers I share below are appropriate for a woman to run on her own. In other occupations, your daily tasks will vary from your male relations in the same trade. Either way, in a world where the taxman is always waiting with his hand out, you will be expected to carry your weight.


Remember: the goal of your career is never to get rich but rather to maintain the level of status to which you were born. Besides supporting your family, you need to make enough income to cover the taxes, to give to the poor, and to donate to the temple.


If you have chosen to become a first-century woman because you seek a simpler life, you may find it, but you will also find yourself working harder than ever before.


Let's take a closer look at some of the occupations you may be expected to fill in your new life. I have included scriptures to help you find these roles in the pages of the Bible.


Baker


Bread is one of the essential elements of life. As a baker, you will create both leavened and unleavened loaves. You will leaven bread by adding some of a previous batch to the new dough where the yeast will spread. Alternatively, you can create yeast by fermenting grape juice to create yeast and add it to the dough.


You may have to grind your own grain, usually wheat or barley, but also millet or spelt. Barley is more affordable than wheat, so it is the bread of the masses. If you grind by hand, count on hours of hard labor every day, perhaps up to three hours to create enough flour to feed a family of five. On the upside, you can look forward to some seriously toned arms! A commercial baker will generally have a donkey to turn a large mill to do the work for you.


Besides basic bread, you might add oils, spices, or date honey to create sweetened cakes. Pastries and other sweet treats are popular for holidays and feasts.


The oven you use for baking your creations might vary. The Romans introduced stone-lined ovens, but you may also use several small clay ovens or griddles at a time. (Leviticus 7:9, 26:26; 1 Samuel 8:13; Ezekiel 4:9)


Cook


In most households, mothers and daughters will cook for their families. The wealthy might hire you to do their cooking for them, in which case you will need to be proficient in the preparation of various meats like beef, lamb, goat, venison, fish, and fowl. You will also need to be able to craft tasty side dishes and stews out of chickpeas, lentils, beans, fresh greens, herbs, and fruit. As a cook in a Jewish household, you must follow all purity requirements for the selection and storage of food, and know what to do if anything in your kitchen is touched by a pest like a rodent, rabbit, or fly. (Leviticus 11; 1 Samuel 8:13)



Farm Laborer


Farm life never ceases and there is always something more to do! Depending on your location, you might help plant, weed, and harvest grain crops or tend to olive, fig, pomegranate, or date trees. Herbs and fresh greens are usually grown in smaller gardens, as well as chickpeas, lentils, and beans. Vineyards require special care. Depending on the area and the projected use for the grapes, you may have to support the crops on trellises and know how to prune and graft without causing damage. You may run a booth on market days, selling your produce to the locals.


As a farmer laborer you can expect to work long days, and your family and community will be counting on the crops to survive another year. Your hard labor is rewarded with busy and social harvest seasons when the communities gather at the threshing floor and the grape or olive presses. The entire nation celebrates the harvest with festivals in Jerusalem and you can take satisfaction in a job well done.


You will also need to ensure that you obey the laws of Sabbath rest for the land, as well as leaving the gleanings for the poor. If you are a wealthy woman, you may be able to buy your own fields and vineyards. (Exodus 23:11; Deuteronomy 28:30; Ruth 2:23; Proverbs 31:16)


Fisher-woman


Fish from the Sea of Galilee is salted and shipped far from its basalt shores, even as far as Rome itself. Fishing boats are expensive and the methods of fishing are labor-intensive and often performed at night.


As a woman, you will likely not be casting nets. As a member of a fishing family, you still have your part to play. You may weave baskets to hold the catch. You will wash, make, and repair nets, and help sort the fish as they are brought to shore. Some of the fish will be sold locally, so you might tend a booth on market days. You also might help deliver the fish to Magdala for salting, or help in the salting of the fish and packing it into barrels for shipment. (Matthew 4:18, 21; Luke 5:2; John 21:3, 11; Ezekiel 26:14)


Midwife


As a midwife, you will be on call 24/7 in your local community. You will be trained on the job by an older, more experienced midwife. As a midwife, you will learn how to utilize a birthing stool, slings, and other methods for keeping the laboring woman upright and in an optimal position. You will have the support of the other women in the household, and perhaps friends and neighbors in the community.


Once the baby is born, you must give it the proper care by cutting the cord, washing the baby, and rubbing him or her with salt to ward off infection before swaddling it tightly.


You will learn the best herbs to help a mother heal and to increase her milk production. You may be part of the support team that assists in the house while the mother regains her strength. (Exodus 1:15-18; Ezekiel 16:4)


Perfumer


As a perfumer, you will be expected to source and combine oils, aloes, and various herbs and spices for scented oils and incense. You may grow the spices yourself, or import them from far away lands. Scents include myrrh, cinnamon, fragrant cane, cassia, statce, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense. Current research is unsure of the modern names for some of these fragrances, but as a first-century woman, you will be trained on-site.


There are specific recipes for use in the temple, not to be used by anyone else. You can combine your own combination of fragrances into cosmetics, lotions, and perfumes to sell to the wealthy in your shop. You may also sell spices and oils to anoint the dead. (Exodus 30:22-38, 1 Samuel 8:13, John 19:40)


Potter


Pottery is still the most popular material for storage and cooking. Though the use of glassware and stone storage jars is increasing, pottery is both affordable and light, and the clay pots can cook food evenly without sticking to the pan. Being a potter is a labor-intensive job, and as a woman, your role will depend on the availability of men in the family.


Raw claw will be brought to your family's shop, where it must be trodden underfoot in troughs to soften it, and materials will be added to increase durability. The exact recipe varies depending on availability in the region.


The potter will shape many items on a pottery wheel, turned by his own foot or by an apprentice. The crafted items are often stamped with decorative motifs. The clay then must be dried and baked in ovens. Some pottery will crack in the firing process, rendering it useless. Broken pottery is thrown into a heap to be ground down and added to new batches of raw clay. The ovens for firing the clay are very smoky and kept outside of city limits, so expect to live out of town or to commute daily for your work. You will probably help run a booth or market days or keep a full-time shop in a city. (Jeremiah 18:1-23)


Shepherdess


Sheep and goats are essential to your new homeland, providing meat, milk, and wool. They are hardier than cattle and able to thrive on the dried grass and thistles of late summer. As a shepherdess, you will help oversee the flocks of your family or be hired out. Your job includes keeping the animals safe from predators, leading them to water and good grazing, and keeping them safe in a sheepfold or cave at night.


You are expected to ensure an 80% survival rate for new births in the flock, and if more than 14% of the goats or 15% of the sheep die in a year, you will be expected to recompense the owner.


You will compete for the best grazing with other shepherds, who will try to encroach on your territory. It is a lonely occupation, but you will be free to enjoy the fresh air and the open spaces of the fields. You will help with the yearly shearing of sheep with the other shepherds.


The temple requires thousands of sheep for sacrifices. Depending on where you live, your yearling males might be destined for Jerusalem. As a shepherdess, you are following in the tradition of Rachel, wife of the patriarch Jacob. (Genesis 29:9)


Tent-Maker


There are still Bedouin who live primarily in tents. They add on to the main tent as the family increases through marriages and children. Travelers to the games in large cities like Ephesus will also create temporary tent-cities for the duration of the games. Your job as a tent-maker is to first spin and then weave black goats hair into cloth to create new tents and to repair existing tents. The goat's hair has a faint animal odor, but it swells with moisture to block the rain and shrinks when dry to let the air circulate through the tent. As a tent-maker you might also weave thick cloth required for sails and repair tears to used sailcloth. (Acts 18:3)


Weaver or Seamstress


Clothing begins on the loom, woven of linen made from flax or wool from sheep. It is important in the Jewish culture that when weaving, you never mix the different materials together.


Looms come in various sizes, from ones that are hung on a wall to others that are as wide as a man's arms that can create a garment in a single piece. Silk is still a new luxury, but you might be asked to create garments for the wealthy out of imported cloth. As well as weaving, you will do embroidery on clothing for the wealthy and for bridal clothing, perhaps even with gold or silver thread.


You may be required to dye your own cloth. The poor wear undyed cloth, so they are dressed in the hues of sheep and goats. For those who can afford it, the linen or wool is dyed colors like brown, pink, yellow, pale blue, or pale purple. Richer tones of red, purple, or deep blue require expensive ingredients to create the dye.


Purple crafted from the glands of murex shellfish near Tyre, called Tyrian Purple, is reserved for the elite. Only the emperor of Rome is permitted to wear a garment entirely made of purple cloth, but you may add bands of purple to the garments of other wealthy customers.


White is another color reserved for the wealthy because of the difficulty to produce a bright white and the struggle we all know in keeping white, white! The cloth must be bleached with a smelly concoction that includes caustic acid, vinegar, and urine. To prepare your recipe you might have to set pots outside for those passing by to pee in.


You will create shorter tunics for laborers, usually ending at the mid-calf for Israelite men. Some women prefer the clothing style of the Greeks, such as chiton which drapes to the floor and can be arranged in many fashionable ways. The wealthy can wear longer or draping clothing because they are not concerned with inhibiting movement. Both men and women require a mantle or cloak to wear over their basic tunics, their construction depending on the social status of the wearer.


Belts of woven cloth are part of your craft, and you might craft hair nets as well as veils. You will add special tassels on the corners of men's clothing, in obedience to the scriptures. (Deuteronomy 22:11, 12; Psalms 45:13; Ezekiel 16:10; Proverbs 31:13, 18, 21, 22, 24; Acts 9:39, 16:14)


Other Trades


These occupations described above are just a few of the trades you might find yourself in when you live in the first century with your family. You might also assist in the production of jewelry, work with a metal-smith, fashion shoes, sandals, and belts out of leather, gather salt at the Dead Sea, assist a scribe by preparing parchment or papyrus or even help create armor. (1)


As a woman, you often take a supporting role within trades, and must always be mindful of dishonoring your family with disrespectful behavior or by putting your reputation at risk through careless associations.


How much freedom do you have as a woman have, really?


How much freedom you have to move in society depends a lot on your location. While Greek women have more restrictions than Jewish women, Roman women generally have greater freedom than their neighbors. If you are a Jewish woman living outside of your homeland, you might have more opportunities to choose your work or run a business. Some women can even become respected physicians and famous athletes in the games.


Of course, the richer you are, the more freedom you have in choosing how you spend your days and money. Wealthy women can be influential in politics and impact society. Interestingly, there is often more freedom given to widowed women than unmarried women. A widow might gain her husband's business and holdings and take over managing the estate. (1)


Alternatively, if there are enough men in your family, you may not be required to help in the trade at all, focusing instead on the care of the home and children.


Speaking of caring for the household, that is the topic of our next post: How to Be a Housewife in First-Century Israel!


So, which lifestyle would you choose? A fishing family by the Sea of Galilee? A farming family in the valleys? A shepherding family living in the hill country? A merchant family in Jerusalem? Please share with me in the comments!



Source: (1) See Dictionary of New Testament Background pages 1278 and 1279

About the Author

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I'm Katrina, and I'm a wife, mom, and a Christian Historical Fiction Author. 

I love words. I love digging into hard questions. I'm passionate about writing stories of faith.

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