Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
There are things you can tell about an entire ocean even if you have only one cup of water from it. Naturally a scientist would like to have as many cups and as broad a sampling as possible, but even a single cup is of some help. The same is true when investigating the world of the New Testament. You can learn something even from one ancient document, though the explorer of the ancient world would like to have as many documents as possible.
I hope once a week to present a small sample of information that mirrors some aspect of the ancient world surrounding nascent Christianity.
Who’s Who Among Ephesian Women
For many generations men and women in the pews have been misled by preachers in the pulpits, who were misled by their seminary professors, who were misled by historians and archaeologists, who were themselves especially misled by their own prejudices. In spite of the growing body of evidence, they just could not believe that there were influential women in the Hellenistic-Roman cities of the Aegean region.
I refer to this misinformation about the status and role of women in the world of the apostle Paul because ignorance on this subject makes one vulnerable in areas of exegesis, interpretation, and theology. Much has been written in the past 30 years to make it clearer that the women in the cities of Paul’s first, second, and third missionary journeys were not living in the same kind of world portrayed by the (male) classical Greek authors of ancient Athens, much less a world dominated by some Taliban-like rulers of remote Afghanistan.
Antoninus Pius, Rome mint, AD 138.
Used with the kind permission of
Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.,
Accordingly there is no reason to doubt the historical accuracy of Luke when he alludes to “women of prominence/women of high standing” (NASB/NIV) in Acts 13:50 or “prominent Greek women/women of influence” (NIV/The Message) in Acts 17:12. When Paul tells an unnamed co-worker at Philippi to “help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers” (Phil. 4), we can assume that women in Paul’s world were able to get about and participate in many, though certainly not all, of the city’s activities.
Turning to the artifacts of Roman Ephesus, we encounter one such participating woman from the middle of the second century AD, a little-known woman named Cominia Junia. Part of her life was lived during the reign of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 86-161). Unlike the extant ancient literature that was basically controlled by the males of that world, the excavated inscriptions and statues of that world often tell a fuller story than the literature. Like Lydia (Acts 16) and like the unnamed influential women of Luke’s narrative, this Cominia Junia is also a very religious woman. Traces from Roman Ephesus reveal a woman with both public presence and piety to the gods.
|Round altar displayed in the
Museum at Selçuk, Turkey.
The first inscription is not like the many thousands of small, private votive religious texts that were dedicated to some god or goddess for help in the past. In this inscription discovered by John Turtle Wood in the 1860s, Cominia Junia publicly dedicated a now lost statue and altar of the Egyptian goddess Isis (in the harbor area), to those who manage the fishery toll office near the harbor, to the Emperor, and to the city of Ephesus, “First and Greatest Metropolis of Asia” (Inscriptions from Ephesus, # 1503).
A second testimony to this pious Ephesian woman was discovered nearly a century after her name first came to light (Inscriptions from Ephesus, # 1266). The iconography of this monument also testifies to the religious orientation of Cominia Junia’s altar. Cominia was honoring a vow made to the Ephesian goddess Artemis (cf. Acts 19:23-41) and from her own personal financial resources she had set up this base, with its now missing statue of the goddess, and dedicated an altar.
The visual remains show a praying woman, a sacrificial fire, and a single musician to accompany the worship. Since she has her head covered for the sake of the religious setting (cf. 1 Cor. 11:5-6) she is worshipping according to “Roman liturgical style.” Both inscriptions mention that the respective monument was financed by Cominia Junia herself, using her own resources, and they both mention religious altars, with the second monument depicting a solemn scene of worship and devotion to the great goddess Artemis. If this pious woman continued in her worship of the Ephesian goddess, then she would have become deeply troubled when she learned of Christians who taught that pagan deities were made with hands and were not really gods after all (Acts 19:26). Or, perhaps she was a “seeker” and her religious proclivities eventually led to the worship of the one, true God.