Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture

By John Pairman Brown | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4

The Shifting Roles of Women

Marxism steered classical scholars in the former Socialist bloc, and by reaction scholars in the West, to the study of ancient slavery. Feminism has created a substantial literature on the status and roles of women, in both classical antiquity and the biblical world. But, as in other realms, classical and biblical feminist studies hardly intersect. Ideological battles over ancient slavery acted as proxy for battles over modern class structure. Ideological battles over the status of women in Israel and the early church are even more intense, because in the church the Bible still often stands as an authoritative model for contemporary structures.

Marxism and feminism each brought an embarrassing truth to light. The ancient societies that humanists and Christians had seen as the matrix of a new individualism and freedom—the Hellenic polis and monarchic Israel— are precisely those where restrictions on slaves and women (in spite of local variations among Greek cities) are clearest. In part, the notable restrictions reflect better documentation; in part, they are real. Gould points out that,1 since we have no texts or monuments from classical Athens made by women,2 we cannot “look at the world as it was seen by women”; we can only deal with “the dominant, male model of society.” Roger Just, an anthropologist, adds that the “male view of society still retains its significance, for social reality is a social construct and what people think themselves and others to be remains a primary object of social enquiry.”3 No doubt Athens, Just goes on, had a

1. John Gould, “Law, Custom and Myth: Aspects of the Social Position of Women in Clas-
sical Athens” JHS 100 (1980) 39.

2. Apart from descriptions of their embroidery, e.g., in the robe carried up to the Athenian
acropolis (Plato, Euth. 6C) with representations of struggles between the gods.

3 Roger Just, Women in Athenian Law and Life (London: Routledge, 1989), 3—4. This is the
work on this subject that I have found most helpful.

-119-

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