In the last post we looked at some of the New Testament evidence to assess the trustworthiness of a woman’s testimony in the ancient world. The evidence in the New Testament pointed to a general distrust of the witness of women, but in this post we will broaden the scope of our investigation to include the Greco-Roman and Jewish world in the time of Jesus. 

The prevailing view in the first-century Greco-Roman world was that women were gullible, “susceptible to religious madness, [and] inclined towards excesses in religious activities.”[1] A representative example of the view of women during this time comes from Strabo, the Greek historian, who writes, “For in dealing with a crowd of women… a philosopher cannot influence them by reason or exhort them to reverence, piety and faith; nay, there is need of religious fear also, and this cannot be aroused without myths and marvels.”[2] Further examples of the credibility of women in religious matters are not confined to pagan or Greek sources alone. Scorn from one of the earliest critics of the church, Celsus, demonstrates that criticism of the women’s testimony was an authentic one for the early church. Origen writes in his work “Contra Celsum” (“Against Celsus”) that one of Celsus’ critiques to the resurrection appearances is that Mary Magdalene is “A half-frantic woman, as you state.”[3] The force of Celsus’ argument is due to Mary Magdalene’s sex as a woman and not simply due to her emotional state.

Though Greek and early Christian sources reference the unreliability of women, there are also precedents from Jewish texts that support the same low assessment of women. Two texts are commonly appealed to as evidence for the unreliability of a woman’s testimony: Mishnah Rosh Hashana 1:8 and a passage from Josephus’s “Jewish Antiquities.” The passage in the Mishnah lists various groups of unreliable witnesses: gamblers, those that lend with interest, pigeon racers, those who trade in Sabbath years, and slaves. At the end of this list the Mishnah says, “This is the rule: all testimony that a woman is not fit to give, these [above] are also not fit to give.”[4] The meaning of these verses is that the former groups are assigned the same level of plausible testimony as women. That is, women are the standard of implausible testimony by which these other groups are to be judged.

The text from Josephus is even more explicit in its skepticism towards the testimony of women. In Josephus’s retelling of the Deuteronomic text of Moses’ commands to the Israelites before they cross over into the Promised Land, Josephus’ records Moses’ decree that at least two witnesses are needed for a law case and that their testimony will be verified by their past conduct. However, Josephus continues to record Moses as saying, “From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex.”[5] In this passage, Josephus makes no room for women to give evidence, even if the standard two or three witnesses are present.

However, these two texts must be used with some caution. Although tradition has the collection of the Mishnah beginning just after the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70, the laws were not written down until around the year 200 CE.[6] Carolyn Osiek sums up well the care that must be applied with using the Mishnah to make judgements about Jesus’ time. She notes that the Mishnaic law is not clear on the ability of women to serve as witnesses and that “use of these sources to shed light on first-century Judaism must always be done with caution, since the compilations were done several centuries later.”[7]

Though the Josephus text is closer in provenance to the time of Jesus, the actual law that Josephus ascribes to Moses is not found in the traditional Deuteronomic text nor in the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures. In the Josephus text we simply may have Josephus’ view of the credibility of women and not a wider cultural assumption of the value of women’s testimony. In fact, there may even be a category mistake in using these legal texts. Women could not bring accusations against another person, but they were considered reliable on issues specific to women, in business matters, and when a woman was the only one present.[8] However, these situations and settings regarding a woman’s testimony in judicial cases are different than the context of divine revelation or religious knowledge that the women at the empty tomb received.

From the above Greco-Roman and Jewish sources we are left with some historical plausibility to view the testimony of women as sufficiently embarrassing. However, the late dates for the Mishnah and the potential bias of Josephus leave us with some doubt about how the testimony of women was actually received at the time of Jesus. The next post will examine one more source closer to the time of Jesus and see if it gives us greater historical accuracy.

Footnote:

[1] Margaret Y. MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hysterical Woman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 123.

[2] Strabo and Horace Leonard Jones, The geography of Strabo: in eight volumes. 1: Books 1 – 2, Reprinted., The Loeb classical library 49 (Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1997), 70.

[3] Origen, “Origen against Celsus,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Frederick Crombie, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 453.

[4] “Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:8” Sefaria. https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Rosh_Hashanah.1?lang=bi (Accessed January 21, 2019).

[5] Flavius Josephus and Flavius Josephus, Books IV-VI, trans. Thackeray and Ralph Marcus, Reprint., Jewish antiquities 6 (Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005), 107.

[6] Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, “Mishnah,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture, ed. Judith Reesa Baskin, 434-436 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 435.

[7] Carolyn Osiek, “The Women at the Tomb: What Are They Doing There?,” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 53, no. 1/2 (January, 1997), 104.

[8] Osiek, 104.