Stately Women of the New Testament by Kaye Terry Hanson

Mary visits Elisabeth. From the Bible Videos series. Courtesy The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

This presentation was given May 15, 2013. A video is available.


New Testament scripture is filled with references to stately women, some whose names we know, like Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26–38; Luke 2); Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin and mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:24–56); another Mary and her sister, Martha (Luke 10:38–42); Mary of Magdala (Luke 8:2; Matt 27:61–28:1: John 20:14–18); Dorcas, the Greek equivalent of the Aramaic name Tabitha, a woman of Joppa who was healed by Peter (Acts 9:36–42); Timothy’s mother, Eunice, who was a Jewess and believed (Acts 16:1; 2 Tim. 1:5); Lydia, a seller of purple (Acts 16:14–15).

Ancient pages are also filled with stately women whose names we don’t know, like the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4:4–42); the widow of Nain whose son was restored to life (John 7:11–17); the mother of Peter’s wife who was healed (Matt. 8:14–15); for that matter, Peter’s wife; the young daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:21–24); the woman with the issue of blood who touched the Savior’s garment in a crowd (Mark 5:25–34); the daughter of a Canaanite woman who was healed (Matt 15:21–28); the crippled woman healed on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10–17); an adulterous woman (John 8:1–11); and that exemplary widow who gave her two mites at the temple (Luke 21:1–4), several women watched near the cross, (we know the names of three of them, all from Galilee, Luke 8:2–3), and John speaks of an elect lady (2 John).

We also know women who reach us from their central places in the Savior’s teachings. You remember the woman who sweeps her house looking for a lost coin (Matt. 18:12–14); ten virgins, five who were wise and five who were foolish (Matt. 25:1–13); and two women grinding at the mill (Matt 24:36–41).

Which leads us to the subject for today. “In the Mediterranean, females stand at the center of the domestic, while males are expected to have their primary location in the public sphere.”[1]

Let’s look at some general social expectations of women in the first century Mediterranean world as they pertain to

  • Family and home
  • Motherhood and childrearing
  • Hospitality and house church

Then let’s apply those expectations in relationship to some specific women we grow to know and love in the New Testament.


Expectations—Family and Home

First, let us understand that “in the Jewish context, hidden from public view does not imply inferiority.”[2] Most expectations come culturally and we simply accept that which we grow up with or become accustomed to. To illustrate, I sometimes in my classrooms expose my students to this:

  • I once showed this world map in a class where a student from Argentina burst into applause and called out, “You’ve finally got it right!”

Consider these thoughts:

  • There is no up or down on a ball.
  • Our familiar map is drawn that way because much mapping was done when the “sun was never setting on the British Empire” and they, understandably, put Great Britain in the middle top of maps.
  • What we look at culturally is not right or wrong, just different.

In the first century AD, as sometimes happens now, when a daughter of a Mediterranean family married, she left her parents’ home and moved to her husband’s family home, where her ties likely became more close to his family for the rest of her life. In fact, some Eastern cultures, even today, expect the daughter-in-law, as the years go by, to be the primary caregiver for the husband’s aging parents. Ideally, she sees that as an honor and a privilege. “The bride in some sense passes from her family of origin to her husband’s family, though the understanding of what this means varies widely.”[3]

But in the family of origin, “children face punishment from the gods if they neglect or dishonor their parents; this implies that dishonouring one’s parents is a sin against the gods.”[4]

“Not only is the duty of honouring gods connected to that of honouring one’s parents, but parents and gods are in close relationship as regards the ground for duties as well: they cooperate for the good of the children.”[5]

So, the dutiful young wife creates a home that is welcoming and comfortable. Generally her husband deals with the affairs of the outside world and she deals with the affairs within the home. “Concepts of public and private exist in all cultures, but how they are concretely expressed can differ widely. Here the open public spaces of markets, temples, civic buildings, and law courts are male space because public civic life is male activity. When it is necessary for women to be there, they are expected to behave with feminine modesty and cover their heads with a veil to mark clearly the gender distinction and the fact that they are under proper male control. . . . Philo concedes, possibly under Roman influence, that adult women of the family will have some occasion for social encounter with outsiders, but not unmarried daughters.”[6]

Public and private are necessary aspects of the lives of both men and women. Neither sex is restricted to either area, but tradition did say that the private sphere should be the dominant area of a woman’s life. However, even a man, whose primary involvement is public, was reminded that his highest achievements are the acts that he does in private.[7]

This division of “inside/outside” or “private/public” behavior presses women to be highly concerned for reputation and usually develops a high sense of loyalty and trust and honesty toward the family and the husband and brothers and fathers who represent the world outside the home.[8] It becomes easy to understand the terms “honor and shame” when the reputation of the women is so important to the entire family. Shyness, deference, passivity, timidity, and restraint are natural results of limited sociality.

So, the young Mediterranean wife, barely more than a little girl by our standards today, faced the daunting task of being “creator, molder, and guardian of the . . . home. The family has always been the unit of . . . existence, and while the man has always been the family’s public representative, the woman has been its soul.”[9]


Expectations—Motherhood and Childrearing

Motherhood in the first-century Mediterranean world was a dangerous business. Average life expectancy for women was about 25 years. For men it was nearer 40. So few children survived infancy that a mother during that time required several pregnancies in hopes that even one child might live to maturity. “Perhaps a third of the babies born died before they reached ten years of age.” Even to maintain replacement levels of a husband and wife, a mother would need to have five to seven pregnancies to hope that two children would remain alive until they were old enough to have children themselves. No wonder young women were married so young.[10]

Some scholars point to the eight or nine days given before a Greek or Roman child was named as a time when the decision was made whether to raise the child or not. “Pagan writers were surprised and even offended that Jews raised all their children.”[11] Greco-Roman doctors agreed that a baby ought to be swaddled and some philosophers recommended that a baby be wrapped on a pillow with fingers straightened and bandaged so they would grow straight. Arms and legs and head must be restricted in movement for two months. “Doctors complained that women of the lower classes refused to follow their advice, but bathed newborn bodies too often, would not wrap them in bandages, rocked them when they cried, and nursed to soothe them.”[12]

I am reminded of an experience in my own early years of teaching. Our yearly convention in the Omaha Public Schools invited a young author named Jonathan Kozol who had written a book called Death at an Early Age about his first year of teaching in a difficult inner-city school. I was intrigued by his subject because I was having a difficult first year of teaching in an inner-city school. But that is another story. On the day he spoke to us, he told a tale I haven’t been able to forget of 9 young children who were orphaned wards of the state. I can’t remember which state. But I do remember that when state money ran out for those children, the state, in desperation, housed them in a hospital ward with mentally ill women. All nine children, at the beginning of the year, tested with below-average IQs. At the end of the year, all nine tested with above-average IQs. The only thing researchers could come up with that made the difference was the treatment by the women. The women held the children, told them stories, rocked them, listened to them, held their hands, played with them. All nine of those children grew up to earn advanced degrees—not something usually done by children who have tested with below-average IQs.

In the Mediterranean world, women were responsible for the care of both boys and girls, usually in the women’s quarters. Men had little to do with the raising of children until “boys were wrenched”[13] from the world of women into the world of men and girls were sent off to be married.

I am reminded of a time when I was a young mother myself. Next door to me in southern California lived my first Jewish friends. I was fascinated with the young wife’s tales of being raised as a conservative Jew and how she loved to go to synagogue as a child and play among the men as her family worshipped. How disappointed she was the day she was relegated to the women’s section and could never again play freely among her father’s friends.

I also think of the number of bar mitzvahs I have attended over the years at the Western Wall and the best-laid celebratory plans the families make to get a site as close to the women’s side as possible, so mothers and grandmothers and aunts and sisters can hear and see every step of a son’s bar mitzvah.

“Mothers were primary caregivers of young children. Between seven and sixteen or seventeen in the Greco-Roman world, the father and often a tutor took over education of the children, until the time when the upper-class son would be given the adult toga and might study with a rhetorician or a philosopher.”[14] Among Jews, most boys, even of the lower classes, learned to read and write because of their future responsibilities in the synagogue. Most girls did not.

Much concern has been shown by Christian writers, who often refer to the responsibilities of bringing up children with the proper discipline.[15] Children seemed to be regarded as investments in the family’s future. Children also recognized they have duties to parents, especially in obedience and respect.

Most telling for me is the great message of Matthew’s account of Jesus blessing the children, “for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14). And the magnificence of the 3 Nephi account in the New World at the temple in Bountiful: “And he spake unto the multitude, and said unto them: Behold your little ones. And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them” (3 Ne. 17:23–24).


Expectations—Hospitality and House Church

Women in the Mediterranean world even today continue to carry a reputation for hospitality. Travelers, the hungry, those in need were welcome as well as those invited for a celebration. Consider the wedding in Cana when the wine runs out and Mary urges her son, Jesus, to turn water into wine—a lot of water. We know six water pots were filled. Each water pot contained two or three firkins apiece. Each firkin is about nine gallons, so each pot has at least 18 gallons in it, there are six of them. So we are talking about at least 108 gallons of wine. That’s a really big party or a smaller party going on for a long time. In other words, it’s a lot of hospitality.

“The house seems to have been a favorite site for teaching (Mark 2:1; 3:20; 7:17; 9:28). Beyond the households that welcomed Jesus for meals and residence, the first groups of his followers after his death began meeting in private houses.”[16]

The Savior used a feast at the house of Matthew to teach of tolerance and love as he ate with publicans and sinners (Matt. 9:9–13).

The natural result of such hospitality is that a home becomes a gathering place for Saints, for investigators, for listening to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The first Christian churches were “house churches,” and remained so until after the death of Paul. “As house churches they also represent the basic social organizations through which the gospel advances from Palestine to Rome. Literally, the church spread ‘from house to house’ (Acts 20:20): from the households of Galilee, Jerusalem, and Jericho to those of Damascus, Joppa, Caesarea, Tyre, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, Troas, Corinth, and Rome.”[17]

“The household, . . . once the gathering place of the powerless and marginalized, eventually emerges as the institution where God’s spirit is truly active and where familial relations, shared resources, and communal values concretize the vision of a salvation available to all the families of the earth.”[18]

I am reminded of a visit to the Amish in central Pennsylvania this year where we basked in delight at their pushing back modernity to focus on working together to keep their families untouched by the world and its wickedness. We learned that they still meet for Sabbath worship in house churches once or twice a month and other Sabbaths in their own homes with only their own families.

A beautiful application, of course, is that the household becomes a symbol of the kingdom of God. “The boundaries of this symbolical family or household of God are expanded to include the marginalized, the outcasts, Samaritans, and Gentiles.”[19] Me. “In this kingdom/household, God is experienced as a merciful, generous, and forgiving ‘Father.’”[20]

I am also reminded of Robert Frost, who wrote in his poem “The Death of the Hired Man” that “home is where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”


Specific Women

Against this background of expectations for women of family and home, motherhood and childrearing, hospitality and house-church arrives the gospel of Jesus Christ, taught first by the Master himself and later by those he called to carry on his work. Let’s consider Mary and Elisabeth, Mary and Martha, Lydia, Phoebe, and some women whose names we do not know.

Mary and Elisabeth. Mary and Elisabeth’s relationship is not exactly known. “The Greek term translated ‘cousin,’ syngenis (see Luke 1:36), is a general word for relative. That they were cousins is a relationship popularized by John Wycliffe’s translation of the New Testament in the fourteenth century.”[21] It is clear, however, that the two women are related to one another.

It’s the comparing and contrasting that intrigues me. Here we have two women; one very young, another very much older—“well stricken in years,” says Luke (Luke 1:7, 18). Past childbearing. Yet each suffers the shame of the culture in which they live. Elisabeth’s shame comes from never having had a child. We have seen Old Testament women—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah, others, suffer from the same unexplainable inability to bear children. In Elisabeth’s case the shame is several months past. She has retreated into the privacy of her home now that her pregnancy is more than five months progressed.

Mary, on the other hand, is newly pregnant and recently betrothed to Joseph. Her shame is not yet fully upon her because everyone does not yet know she will have a baby. In this difficult circumstance—one that can at worst result in death for Mary, who is pregnant out of wedlock—she stands to lose her soon-to-be husband, Joseph, because he is in no way obligated to marry her. In fact, he decides to “put her away privily” and just get on with his life, until he is visited by the same angel, Gabriel, who has brought the “good news” both to Mary and to Elisabeth’s husband, Zacharias, in the temple.

Mary travels from Nazareth to the Jerusalem area. Her visit must have brought her relief and understanding to be able to converse freely about her expected baby with a trusted older woman. Scripture records that Elisabeth, as she welcomes Mary to her home, recognizes immediately that Mary is to become the mother of the Son of God. Elisabeth says, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:42). By so saying, she becomes the first mortal to witness of the earthly divinity of Jesus Christ, though he is still in embryo. “The babe,” Elisabeth says, “leaped in my womb for joy” (Luke 1:44). And “Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost” (Luke 1:41). We are later told that John carries the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb, a statement that tells us a great deal about John, but even more about Elisabeth.

Well, Elisabeth brings John the Baptist into the world as a forerunner of Jesus Christ. And Mary marries Joseph, who has received a visit from the same angel, Gabriel, and she delivers Jesus Christ to mortality.

What amazing days those must have been with shepherds and wise men visiting and angels singing through the skies, with Herod’s orders to kill boy babies and fleeing into Egypt for safety. Yet somehow, knowing what we know about mothers’ responsibilities to rear and teach their children, I wonder how soon and how often and how clearly both Elisabeth and Mary began whispering their true stories of angel visits to their little boys, knowing there are no surprises if you tell the stories even before the child can understand. I wonder if some lullabies they sang were songs they heard from heavenly choirs. “One of the closest . . . relationships in Mediterranean culture is that of mother and son.”[22]

Mary and Martha. Several times when the Savior goes to Jerusalem, we meet Mary and Martha, two sisters, who live in Bethany with their brother, Lazarus—the same Lazarus whom Jesus raises from the dead near the end of His own life.

Whenever the Savior goes to Jerusalem he seems to stay with Mary and Martha because they live a scant two kilometers away, just around the shoulder of the Mount of Olives, although going there by foot requires a stiff uphill climb. My favorite passage about Mary and Martha illustrates both hospitality and house church in a way. And it is a passage all Relief Society sisters will have heard taught several times as we wrestle with what is really the “good part.” It is brief so I’ll read it all.

He entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou are careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38–42)

Surely all women are familiar with the pressure of serving the guests and making them comfortable. It’s not that Martha wouldn’t love to also be sitting at the Savior’s feet, and it’s not that Mary seems to be oblivious to the needs in the kitchen. What I love about this story is that Martha is so comfortable with the Savior that she is able to say, apparently in front of her sister, “Please, make her help.” I love that and what it says of this family’s familiarity with the Savior. He teaches then that all things are worthwhile, and perhaps we women should be “cumbered” and “careful” and “troubled” less. Someone has to be sure the family and guests eat. And someone can sit and listen for this moment.

Lydia. “In Philippi, Paul and Silas encountered the merchant Lydia, who accepted baptism ‘with all her household’ and prevailed upon Paul to accept her hospitality” (Acts 16:14–15). Paul and Silas were taken to jail and then by the jailer to his house, but before they left the city, they returned to Lydia’s house to discover that “a group of believers was already established” (Acts 16:40).[23] Lydia was a seller of purple, a merchant, who probably had important contacts and a reasonable amount of wealth. “On the Sabbath the missionaries found the Jewish place of prayer . . . and reached the heart of the businesswoman Lydia, who is called ‘devout toward God’” (Acts 16:14).[24] “[Lydia] may be one source of assistance that Paul received from Philippi soon after and long after leaving.”[25]

“It is possible that Philippi allowed more prominence to women because of traditional customs in that region. This would explain why women could help found this congregation and why Lydia plays a prominent role in Acts 16. . . . She was surely well-to-do, since she sold purple fabrics, which was associated with wealth throughout the history of the Mediterranean world. . . . Lydia probably filled the role of patroness, providing housing for the apostles and presumably later for the church there. Although this still cast her in a lower social role than men, her role was analogous to that of a wealthy freedman: she wielded some measure of economic power, and hence respectability within nonaristocratic society.”[26]

Phoebe. Phoebe is the bearer of Paul’s letter to the Romans. “Romans 16:1–2 is clearly a statement of recommendation on Phoebe’s behalf. Since she bears Paul’s letter, she may be called upon to explain anything ambiguous in the letter when the Romans read it, and Paul wishes them to understand that she is indeed qualified to explain his writing. He argues this point by citing her church offices.”[27] Phoebe is called in Greek a diakonos, usually translated as minister, deacon, or servant. “At the very least, then, Phoebe held a position of considerable responsibility, prominence, and authority in her congregation. She probably taught the Scriptures as well, but if she did not, she was at least trusted with sufficient regard theologically to be placed in this prominent authority role in the church, and to be recommended to those who might depend on her to help them understand Paul’s letter to them.”[28] Today, we might call her the Relief Society President.[29]

Women Whose Names We Don’t Know. A small crowd of women whose names we don’t know emerges from the New Testament. Several of these are widows for whom life has become most difficult because they live outside the protection of a man. Jesus raises the widow’s son at Nain (Mark 7:11–17) and teaches the parable of the importunate widow (Mark 18:1–8). In Acts Luke tells about a conflict in Jerusalem in which a group of the Hellenists’ widows are being neglected, and a woman named Tabitha dies. When the disciples call Peter to come help her, he finds the widows weeping over this woman who had been “devoted to good acts of charity” (Acts 9:36, 39). The widows show Peter the beautiful clothing Tabitha has made. A friend of mine who reads Greek says they are wearing the clothing. “Tabitha may well have been keeping this group of single women in her house. Peter raises her and calls ‘the saints and widows,’ showing her to be alive” (Acts 9:41).[30]



We see, then, that the Mediterranean world is peopled with faithful women who heard and believed and understood the gospel of Jesus Christ. From the Savior’s mother, Mary, and a close relative, Elisabeth, we see first testimonies of the Savior’s mortal existence, even then under way. From Mary and Martha we find women who welcome, admire, and love the Savior even before he raises their brother Lazarus from eternal sleep. “I know,” says Martha, “that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24). Not yet understanding the Savior’s plan for bringing Lazarus back from the dead, Mary left her ceremonial sitting of shiva to fall at the Savior’s feet and say, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died” (John 11:32). Then, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

We see early women who teach, bear testimony, follow, witness, serve, help one another, hope, offer home and food and comfort to other early Saints as well as early Apostles. These are not shy, passive, timid women restrained from knowing the truth. Women, you see, were allowed to know then that Jesus is the Christ as we are allowed to know now.

The Lord loves his daughters and his sons.


[1] Jerome H. Neyrey, ed., The Social World of Luke—Acts (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 42.

[2] Moshe Meiselman, Jewish Woman in Jewish Law (New York: KATV Publishing House, 1978), 12.

[3] Carolyn Osiek and David L. Batch, Families in the New Testament (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 42.

[4] Peter Balla, The Child-Parent Relationship in the New Testament and Its Environment (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 37.

[5] Ibid. 71.

[6] Ibid. 44.

[7] Meiselman, 15.

[8] Bruce Malina and Jerome H. Neyrey, “Honor and Shame,” in Neyrey, 42.

[9] Meiselman, 16.

[10] Osiek and Balch suggest that so many women died in childbirth in Greco-Roman society that available single women or widows were pressured to remarry. The number of widows we read about in the Gospels in Christian household communities would actually have been unusual, 139.

[11] Ibid. 66.

[12] Ibid. Osiek and Balch quote Pliny the Elder, Nat. Hist. 7.2–3, cited by Rouselle, Porneia, 51–54.

[13] Ibid 42.

[14] Ibid. 67.

[15] Ibid. 165.

[16] Osiek and Balch, 32.

[17] Neyrey, 226.

[18] Ibid. 217.

[19] See John H. Elliott, “Temple versus Household in Luke–Acts,” in Neyrey, 227

[20] Ibid.

[21] S. Kent Brown, Mary and Elisabeth (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2002), 31.

[22] Osiek and Balch, Ibid. 42.

[23] Ibid. 33.

[24] Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1983), 54.

[25] Ibid. 292.

[26] Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 243.

[27] Ibid. 238.

[28] Ibid. 239.

[29] The nature of Phoebe’s role is uncertain. I certainly do not suggest that a “proto–Relief Society” existed at the time of Christ, only that in today’s LDS Church the Relief Society president appears to play a similar role.

[30] Osiek and Balch, 139.

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