Volume 32 - Issue 3


by Carolyn Osiek, Margaret Macdonald with Janet Tulloch

Two balanced and careful social historians paint a picture of the complex interactions and roles of women (wives, widows, slaves, girls) in New Testament times and then see how these insights might illumine our reading of the texts (canonical and other) pertaining to women’s involvement in early church life. Broadly, their thesis is that a greater understanding of women’s lives in the contemporary household will help us to see that household-based churches necessarily involved women having a significant influence at multiple levels, in contrast to later church meeting places outside of the home. The authors examine such subjects as the roles of wives, the experience of childbirth and childcare, the education of girls, the position of female slaves and women’s involvement in the patronage system, while Janet Tulloch contributes a chapter on contemporary artistic portrayal of women apparently hosting funerary banquets. Perhaps the most intriguing theme was their consideration of the impact that wives must have had in the early church, but which is often neglected in the search for evidence of more official ministry roles. They also offer more ideas as to what it may have involved for a woman to host a church in her home (as did Lydia, Nympha, and possibly others), distinguishing between the role of hosting/presiding and that of teaching/leading the group.

The book is strong on historical context and light on conclusions and applications which is perhaps academically justified given the speculative nature of reconstructing the house church experience. One feels throughout that there is very limited evidence of the extent to which the early church reflected contemporary social structures (such as patronage), and the usefulness of the enterprise is therefore diminished. So although there may be some truth in their reconstructions, we should prioritise the clear statements in Scripture concerning early church structures and women’s roles. The most interesting sources treated, such as Celsus’s The True Doctrine, critique the early Christian church, finding rich material in the involvement of women in the practice and spread of the new faith.

Laura Nelson