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Women at Worship in First Century Israel

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Was there division between men and women while they worshipped? Did women have roles in the early church? Did women have the same requirements for worship as men? When did the Jewish people start using synagogues, and why?

Come along with us as we explore How to Live as a Woman in First-century Israel, the era of Jesus Christ and the new Christian church. In this series we are walking in the shoes of a first-century woman, seeing the world through her eyes. If you are not planning any trips back in time, I hope this series will help you understand the context of the Bible and show you how ancient Jewish, Roman, and Greek culture affected the early Christian church.

First-century Judaism is different than modern Judaism, so it's important to try and see historical evidence without a modern lens.

So far we have explored women at work in the Bible, managing a household and slaves, delved into marriage and divorce, and what to wear and how to stay clean in a time without running water or shampoo. Now we will look at a crucial aspect of woman's life: How to Worship.

What Faith Looked Like in the First Century

In the twenty-first century, worship has become very much an individual decision. We don't like to meddle too much in other people's faith because we don't want to judge and we certainly don't want to come off as holier-than-thou. Traveling back in time, you will find that faith is very much a group mentality and that there are duties that you are to uphold for the good of everyone. (1)

The worship experiences laid out by Moses focused on worshipping God as a nation so that the nation could be blessed and could bless others. God's people were often blessed or punished as a basis of national-level obedience. God wanted an entire nation of obedient people living in harmony with God and with each other, and worship reflected that desire.

Even sacrifices that were brought by an individual became a group blessing. After the selected portions were given to God, the meat was brought home and shared by the family and friends. (Go here for more about Old Testament sacrifices and what they meant.)

There were some sacrifices offered up for the atonement of the entire nation. Festivals brought the people together to worship God throughout the year, and reconnect with each other too. The Passover includes a meal that brings people together to commemorate the glory of God in their history.

This concept of the importance of the group in faith continues into the first century. When Paul speaks to the church family he uses the Greek plural "you". "Do you [plural] not know that you [plural] are God's temple and that the Spirit of God dwells in you [plural]?" 1 Corinthians 3:16 (2)

As much as possible, worship and faith were meant to be lived out in community.

Where Did God's People Worship?

Though God has always accepted prayers and worship, when it comes to structures, originally there was only one place to worship God. It started off as a tabernacle, a building with wooden walls and a tent spread over top. It was beautiful and made of expensive materials and housed the ark of the covenant, but more importantly, it was the place where God dwelled among the people. (For more on the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant, how it was constructed and what happened to them, go here!)

Later, Solomon built God a temple of stone. God allowed this temple to be destroyed by the Babylonians as punishment for Judah's sins, as we read in 2 Chronicles 36:11-21. When the people returned from their Babylonian captivity, they rebuilt the temple, but it was a shadow of the glory of the original.

It wasn't until the reign of Herod, the same king who ordered the murder of Bethlehem babies, that the temple was restored to its full glory. Herod gave large sums to so that Jerusalem priests and skilled tradesmen could expand the temple courts and enlarge and beautify the whole complex. (3)

As a woman living in the first century, you might be able to see some of the ongoing work in the vast temple area. This enormous project which began before the birth of Jesus continues on for almost forty years after Jesus' death, until the temple's destruction in 70 AD. (For a more on the Temple Courts, go to this post!)

Women at the Jerusalem Temple

As a woman going up to worship at the temple, you might stop first to ritually submerse yourself in a mikveh. There are buildings set apart for this purpose near the temple courts.

Then, you can go up the steps and through one of the many gates into the temple courts. This beautiful and enormous courtyard is surrounded on all sides by a colonnade and has an intricately tiled stone floor. In this part of the courtyard, anybody is welcome, even Gentiles.

As you approach the gleaming white and gold temple, you will come to a low stone wall. Only Jews can pass through into this next area. (3) You will continue on into the inner courtyards of the temple. The first courtyard is called the Court of Women, and any Jew, male or female, child or adult, can worship together here. This is where the Levites sing on the steps before the beautiful Nicanor Gate, and any important speeches are given.

As a woman you do not go up into the next, much smaller, courtyard, the Court of Israel, unless you are bringing a sacrifice, then you are welcome to go into the court and approach the altar where the priest will sacrifice it. Even the men in your family can go so far in the temple, for only the priests can enter into the temple building itself. (3)

The Emergence of the Synagogue

As the people of God spread far from Jerusalem and the temple, synagogues began to spring up in the time period between the old and new testaments. They were a way for the Jewish people to retain their cohesiveness even when far from their homeland. These houses of prayer are sometimes held in houses, and sometimes they have their own special building. Synagogues are also the schoolroom for local boys, a place for travelers to stay, and some hold the ritual bath called a mikveh. As a woman, you will spend plenty of time in the synagogue. (4)

From what we can see looking at the surviving portions of synagogues from the early turn of the century, you can expect a simple building supported by interior columns and with tiered benches on three sides. There is often a closet to store the scrolls and a seat for the teacher. Sometimes the floors have beautiful mosaics. The windows are high to let out the heat. (5)

There is no evidence of a screened-off area for women or any indication that families did not sit together. Though verses like 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 are about churches, this is in the time when the Christian church often met in a synagogue and their gatherings were based on the synagogue practices, and here we see men and women obviously gathered together.

What to Expect in First-Century Synagogue Services

Synagogue services happen on market days (Mondays and Thursdays) as well as on the sabbath. By this time in history, in order to have a meeting, you need to have at least ten present, or you cannot have group prayers, read from the scrolls, or have a proper funeral or wedding. While in the twenty-first-century Jewish community this has to be all men, until the fifth century AD there is no evidence of this, and as late as the twelve century some scholars still claimed that women could make up part of the ten. (6)

When you visit the synagogue, you can expect to spend time in prayer, reciting the Shema and up to 18 benedictions by the end of the first century. After the temple is destroyed in 70AD, the teachers begin writing down oral tradition with zeal and organizing synagogues to take on some of what they sorely missed in their temple practices. (7)

You will hear from the law and the prophets in the synagogue services. Men, it seems, are the only ones permitted to read aloud from the scriptures. Scrolls are expensive,

but the community will raise money to buy their own copies of the Torah. Everyone will listen as it is read in Hebrew. The tricky thing for women, as well as any uneducated men, is that most are not fluent in Hebrew at this time. The commonly spoken language in ancient Israel is Aramaic. Business is done in Greek. Thankfully, the scroll-reader will paraphrase in the common language for you. In some communities, the reading will be from the Septuagint, which is the Old Testament in Greek. (8)

After the reading, it is time for the sermon. This is like a professor and students where questions are invited. Anybody giving a sermon has to be very knowledgeable so they can answer and debate with skill. Memorizing vast swaths of scripture is a very helpful aid for this type of sermon giving, as you can pull out what you need when you need it.

Do Women have Roles Within the Synagogues?

We see inscriptions that identify women with titles as priestess, elder, ruler of the synagogue, or other functionaries. Some believe that these were titles given to women whose husbands filled these roles, but more recent research leads scholars to believe that at least some women did perform these roles. A woman benefactor might be honored by being called “mother of the synagogue”. (9)

What About Women in the Early Christian Church?

Here is are some excerpts from one of my posts on women's roles:

Paul speaks highly of women within the church, greeting and exhorting women who have some sort of public role (Philippians 4:3 and Romans 16).

Paul almost certainly attended the church that grew in Lydia's home, as she was the first convert in Europe (Acts 16:15-14). Tabitha is acclaimed as a woman disciple (Acts 9:36), women can publicly pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:5 and Acts 21:9), and we have an example of a woman teaching and ministering with her husband, and both were good friends of Paul. Aquila and Priscilla can be witnessed together in Acts 18:1-4,18-21, 24-28; 1 Cor 16:19; and Romans 16:3-4.

Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus' feet with the men. Women were the first witnesses to the risen Lord, and sent to tell the others the good news, an apostle's role. In the early church, women can be deacons, which obviously implies a level of moral uprightness, skill, and usefulness. (1 Timothy 3:11)

For more information on how Jesus interacted with women see my post Women in the Gospel of Luke.

Do Women Have the Same Religious Requirements as Men?

Yes, but with allowances. Because you will have times where you are ceremonially unclean, such as during your period or when you have just given birth, there will be times when you will miss synagogue and festivals that require you to travel to Jerusalem, and no one will judge you for it. (10)

During this time, when rabbis are carefully debating what is permitted on the Sabbath, carrying children is considered work. So if your child can not walk to synagogue, you will stay home, or at least one woman from the household will stay home with the children on the Sabbath—perhaps you can rotate with the other women in your family or with your neighbors. However, there with three days a week where there are times of prayer and reading, you should be able to enjoy plenty of synagogue community.

Rabbis expect that everyone prays the Shema daily. (11) You will do this at home, every day. You will still go to Jerusalem to observe the festivals, give sacrifices, and are expected to keep the purity requirements within your home with regard to food, cleanliness, and clothing. You will be expected to memorize scripture, to know the stories. With your husband, you are your children's first teacher in the law and the prophets.

So, what do you think of worship in the first century? What seems the same, what seems different? Let me know in the comments!

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1. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina pages 62 and 66

2. Dictionary of New Testament Background, edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 1179

3. Jewish Antiquities by Josephus, Book 15, chapter 11

4. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson pages 575-576

5. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson pages 506-509

6. "What is more important, the idea that ten males are required for this quorum is not found in ancient sources until at least 500 c.e. Before then, women could be counted as part of the “ten.” Even as late as the twelfth century c.e., authorities such as the Jewish scholar Rabbenu Tam acknowledged that women could be counted as part of the congregational quorum."

7. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 492

8. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 580

9. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson pages 571-572

10. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 78

11. Dictionary of New Testament Background, edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 199


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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