The role of women in religious life in the Greco-Roman world (1 Corinthians 14)

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The religious activities of women in the Greco-Roman world spanned a wide range and exhibited enormous diversity. Some mystery cults included ecstatic, orgiastic worship in which women played a prominent role, and priestesses were commob in the worship of Greek goddesses. Some religious festivals in Greece were exclusively for women, an example is the Thesmophoria, which honoured the goddess Demeter. The Bacchae, a play by the Greek poet Euripides (fifth century B.C.), tells of frenzied religious celebration of the god Dionysus by women who followed his cult. Other pagan religions created space for significant sexual expression during religious festivals, and fertility cults employed women for the purpose of ritual or sacred prostitution. On the other hand, within Judaism women’s access to the inner courts of the Jerusalem temple was restricted, and scholars debate whether the synagogues of the time displayed gender segregation.

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul provided guidelines for orderly worship, including some instructions specifically addressing the activities of women in worship (14:33-35). Evidence from Corinth reveals that the city contained several temples to Aphrodite and Apollo, and Paul’s readers would have been familiar with these and with other cults that were widespread in the Greco-Roman world. Especially women from Aphrodite’s temple would disturb the Corinthian church as they came in to the church speaking in tongues. This brings new light to Pauls stating that women should remain silent in the church (14:34).


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