The Synagogue and the Church: A Study of Their Common Backgrounds and Practices (Part 10)

Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at Read the series so far.

Chapter Six (continued): The Place of Women

Women in the Synagogue

Nothing is said about women in listing the requirement of ten men as the bare minimum for the establishment of a synagogue. The express instructions about the process of Gentile conversion to Judaism focus on male proselytes, but the mention of female proselytes in the Mishnah de facto establishes that female Gentiles could also convert to Judaism. And though women could convert to Judaism, this does not necessarily indicate that women were allowed to become a part of the synagogue. Kaufman Kohler, renowned Jewish scholar and President of Hebrew Union College, asserted matter-of-factly,

Women could not be members of the synagogue, though they seem to have performed synagogal functions of their own, and so prominent women were elected as mothers of the synagogue (‘Mater Synagogue’)…. They attended the service…, but could take no part in the common service.1

Bacher confirms Kaufmann’s assertion that women could not be members of the congregation, but also notes that as a concession, it was allowed that women could be included among the Scripture readers if absolutely necessary to meet the formal requirements.2 Beyond this, the women seem to have been largely ignored.

The Pharisees’ practice of not speaking to women in public may be taken as a barometer of their treatment in the synagogue. John Gill in his comments on John 4:27 gives a sampling of passages from rabbinic literature on this matter:

[A]ccording to the Jewish canons, it was not judged decent, right, and proper, nor indeed lawful, to enter into a conversation, or hold any long discourse with a woman. Their rule is this, “do not multiply discourse with a woman, with his wife they say, much less with his neighbour’s wife: hence the wise men say, at whatsoever time a man multiplies discourse with a woman, he is the cause of evil to himself, and ceases from the words of the law, and at last shall go down into hell.”

And especially this was thought to be very unseemly in any public place, as in an inn, or in the street: hence that direction: “let not a man talk with a woman in the streets, even with his wife, and there is no need to say with another man’s wife.”

And particularly it was thought very unbecoming a religious man, a doctor, or scholar, or a disciple of a wise man so to do. This is one of the six things which are a reproach to a scholar, “to talk with a woman in the street.” And it is even said, “let him not talk with a woman in the street, though she is his wife, or his sister, or his daughter.”3

While the quotes cited by Gill deal specifically with public conversation with a woman, the attitude they reveal may have carried over into the synagogue. John Lightfoot quotes the Babylonian Talmud, “Rabbi Meir saith, Every man is bound to these three benedictions: Blessed be God that he hath not made me a heathen; that he hath not made me a woman; that he hath not made me stupid.”4

In Acts 16:13, those whom Paul met at “the place of prayer” are described as women, with no mention of any men at all. There seems to have been no surprise on Paul’s part to find women there, this place which served in lieu of a formal synagogue, and he did not hesitate to speak to them publicly and personally. It is notable that at Lystra, where there is no synagogue mentioned, the only believers we know by name are two Jewish women, Lois and Eunice, the grandmother and mother respectively of Timothy (his father was a Gentile), and by whom Timothy apparently was taught from an early age the Scriptures, perhaps even at a Lystran “place of prayer” (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:14, 15).

Women seem to have had a rather restricted place in the synagogue. None of the offices in the synagogue seem to have been open to them. Likewise, they were apparently not permitted to address the synagogue, nor publicly pray there. They were not counted when determining whether there was the necessary minimum number to constitute a synagogue. They were not granted seats, but were consigned to a balcony. Whether, in cases where the synagogue lacked a balcony, the men and women were seated on separate sides of the building is not clearly affirmed. Some suggest that the women were required to be veiled in the synagogue, though that seems to be clearly discredited, at least in the early centuries of our era.

Schaff asserts, without documentation, that the men and women were seated separately in the synagogue, with a low wall or dividing screen separating the two.5 Philo, however, in his essay, “On the Contemplative Life,” describes what is evidently the life and practices of a sect of devout Jews (though he never precisely identifies them as such). In discussing their assemblies on the seventh day and the place in which they met (obviously a synagogue building), he notes that,

[T]his common holy place to which they all come together on the seventh day is a two-fold circuit, being separated partly into the apartment for the men, and partly into a chamber for the women, for women also, in accordance with the usual fashion there, form a part of the audience, having the same feelings of admiration as the men, and having adopted the same sect with equal deliberation and decision; and the wall which is between the houses rises from the ground three or four cubits upwards, like a battlement, and the upper portion rises upwards to the roof without any opening on two accounts; first of all, in order that the modesty which is so becoming to the female sex may be preserved, and secondly, that the women may be easily able to comprehend what is said being seated within earshot, since there is then nothing which can possibly intercept the voice of him who is speaking.6

Kaufman Kohler agrees: “They [viz. women in the synagogue] were without doubt at all times…separated from the men by some sort of wall or barrier….”7 Of course there are certain cautions necessary in considering this quote from Philo: first, it is a quote about a certain sect within Judaism. Second, it describes conditions and practices as he knew them in Alexandria, not necessarily how they might have been either in Palestine or elsewhere in the Diaspora. Edersheim expressly rejects the idea of a dividing wall in first century synagogues in Palestine.8

Women in the Church

Paul says, significantly, that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The social distinctions which normally separate Jew from Gentile, slave from freeman, male from female, are not operative in our relationship in Christ. In Christ Jesus, all are Abraham’s seed (spiritually), and heirs of God in accordance with the promise of God (Galatians 3:29). Similarly, Peter urges Christian husbands to treat their wives with respect because they are “co-heirs of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). The better treatment of women in Christianity (vis-à-vis Judaism) is reflected in the church as well. Women have a prominent and important place in the NT church, significantly more so than in the synagogue.

Were the women allowed to speak, that is, teach or preach in the churches? The instruction of Paul in this regard seems clear enough: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. It is not permitted to a woman to teach nor to exercise authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:11, 12). And again, “As in all the congregations of the saints, let the women be silent in the congregations for it is not permitted to them to speak, but let them be in submission, just as the Law says. For it is a shame to a woman to speak in the congregation” (1 Corinthians 14:33b-35). Jesus in Revelation 2:20, speaks to the congregation in Thyatira: “But I have against you that you have tolerated the women Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet, and she both teaches and deceives my servants, [so that they] fornicate and eat idol offerings.”

All would be unambiguous in this regard, were it not for Paul’s additional remark, “But every woman praying or prophesying with uncovered head shames her head” (1 Corinthians 11:5). The context is clearly one of an assembled congregation, and in its ordinary sense, “prophesying” seems to suggest public teaching or instruction, or preaching of some sort. Lightfoot and Gill make a case, not wholly convincing, that at times “prophesying” in rabbinic literature meant “to sing Psalms,” and they attribute that usage to this text, explaining the prophesying here of the women singing in the church, a permitted activity.9 If that sense could be firmly established for this text, it would resolve a long-standing difficulty.

In the synagogue, the various offices seem to have been the exclusive domain of the men. In the churches, the first and more prominent office, that of “overseer” (episkopos) or “elder” (presbuteros), is so qualified and so used as to restrict it to men only. The “overseer” is to be “man of one woman” (1 Timothy 3:2, literally), and because he must be “able to teach,” this excludes women by the restriction of 1 Timothy 2:12. There are no NT examples of female “overseers” in the churches.

On the other hand, there is good reason to believe that the other office, that of deacon (diakonos) was open to both men and women. 1 Timothy 3, after listing the qualification of the deacons in vv. 8-10, states in v. 11, “Also the women [must be] serious, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.” A common interpretation of v. 11 is that these restrictions apply to the wives of the deacons. However, no corresponding qualifications are required of pastors’ wives, and the idea that Paul would impose requirements on the wives of deacons (the lesser office) but not on the wives of pastors (the greater office) is remarkable.

Not only that, but the deacons’ wives are brought into view in v. 12. While it is true that the first deacons (Acts 6:1-6) were all men, there is a NT example of a deaconess. In Romans 16:1, Paul wrote, “Now I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is also deaconess [Greek, diakonon] of the church in Cenchrea.” While the Greek word in question may mean literally “servant,” nevertheless in a context which identifies her spiritually as a sister and connected with a Christian congregation supports the interpretation that she in fact was an office-holder, a deaconess.10 Because there is no NT mention of “teaching” as a deacon’s or deaconess’ qualifications, there is no danger of a violation of the injunction of 1 Timothy 2:12.

Pliny the younger’s famous letter to the Emperor Trajan might also be appealed to. In A.D. 111, Pliny was appointed imperial legate in Bithynia in northwest Asia Minor. He wrote to the emperor for advice on how to deal with the “Christians” that nearly swarmed in his domain. In his letter, Pliny wrote, “I thought it the more necessary to inquire into the real truth of the matter by subjecting to torture two female slaves, who were called ‘deacons.’”11


1 K. Kohler, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, ed. by James Hastings, vol. II, p. 544.  He cites numerous rabbinic and modern sources to support his contention.

2 W. Bacher, “Synagogue,” in A Dictionary of the Bible, ed. by James Hastings, vol. IV, p. 640.

3 John Gill, Gill’s Commentary, vol. V, p. 634, quoting successively from Pirke Aboth, ch. 1, sect. 5; Bemidbar Rabba, sect. 10, folio 200:2; Babylonian Talmud:Berakhot, folio 43b; Maimonides, Hilch. Dayot, ch. 5, sect. 7.

4 John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, vol. 4, p. 233, quoting tractate Menacoth, folio 43b.

5 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. I, p. 460.

6 Philo Judaeus, The Works of Philo, “On the Contemplative Life,” III, sect. 32, 33; p. 701.

7  K. Kohler, A Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, ed. by James Hastings, vol. II, p. 544.  He cites numerous ancient rabbinic and Christian sources, and some modern ones, to support his affirmation.

8  Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. I, pp. 434, 435.

9 John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, vol. 4, p. 262; John Gill, Gill’s Commentary, vol. VI, pp. 221-222.

10 That Phoebe was a deaconess, and that 1 Timothy 3:11 presents the qualifications for deaconess is either expressly supported or allowed by, among others, John Gill, A Body of Divinity, p. 882 (but in his commentary, he rejects the deaconess interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:11 [Gill’s Commentary, vol. VI, p. 603)]; A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 918; B. H. Carroll, An Interpretation of the English Bible: Galatians, Romans, Philippians, Philemon, p. 205; John R. Sampey, Memoirs of John R. Sampey, p. 169.

11 Quoted in F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament, p. 26.

Douglas K. Kutilek Bio

Doug Kutilek is the editor of, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.

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