Lynn H. Cohick, PhD, associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and coauthor of The New Testament in Antiquity, has written a most fascinating volume on the understated role of women during the era of early Christianity. Cohick states that “the immediate impetus for writing this book was my frustration over the various analyses concerning New Testament women” (p. 21). Cohick analyzes the scant information regarding women from literature, artwork, inscriptions, and business receipts to paint a true portrait of the Greco-Roman, Christian, Jewish and gentile mother, daughter, sister, wife, slave and business owner. In addition to fragmentary information, Cohick had to deal with first century satirists (i.e. Seneca and Juvenal), who sought to minimize the role of women, portraying them as sexually immoral beings and hence, the cause of divorce.
Cohick provides riveting and often lurid details concerning the exposure of children, the Vestal Virgins and the cult of the Bona Dea (the “Good Goddess”). She cites that infant exposure, the act of leaving a newborn child that was rejected by the father or for reasons of poverty, did not always result in a death sentence. Cohick admits “that the parents might have expected to eventually reunite with their child. This implies both that they did not expect the child would die from being set out of their house and that they supposed someone would raise the child” (p. 37). It is interesting to note that the practice of exposure was condemned in the Jewish culture. Exposure was more of a Greco-Roman custom.
The Vestal Virgins, in charge of the Palladium, a religious object of worship that presaged the safety of Rome, were sworn to a life of chastity, with dire consequences for those who were defiled. Those Virgins who were proven unchaste were buried alive. Cohick quotes Plutarch, who stated that “a small room was dug into the ground, entered by means of a ladder. In the room, a bed, a lamp, and a bit of bread, water, milk, and oil were provided because it was deemed ‘impious to allow a body that was consecrated to the most holy rites to die of starvation’” (p. 164). The Vestal Virgins also presided over the festivals of the Bona Dea—a Roman goddess of chastity. The mysterious festivals were held twice a year (May 1st and in early December), and included women only. Cohick states that “all males, including slaves and animals, were removed. Busts and statues of men were draped so that no male eyes could observe the function. Blindness was the punishment for any man who ventured uninvited by the goddess into her temple” (p. 167).
The first four chapters of Cohick’s book are devoted to family relationships: wife, mother and daughter. Topics include the exposure of children, betrothal practices, endogamy and polygyny, the history of dining, and divorce. The last five chapters are dedicated to what women did, including occupations, religious life and benefaction. Later topics include the Vestal Virgins, the Bona Dea cult, Jewish women interpreting the law, and the qualifications of both midwives and wet nurses.
Lynn Cohick’s book is highly recommended for serious students of early Christian history, and feminist studies. Her book is extremely well-researched, adequately sourced, and contains a wide variety of bibliographic sources for further study. The use of illustrations from steles, temples and shrines adds ambiance to the argument that women truly mattered in the world of early Christianity. One hopes that Ms. Cohick will issue a future volume on the role of women in the fourth and fifth centuries. A study of the impact of such dynamic women as Helen (mother of Emperor Constantine) and Monica (mother of Augustine) would be equally fascinating!