Morality Ch. 7: Should Girls Be Educated?

An educated woman in New Testament times was regarded as haughty and most probably immoral. Christians therefore had to be circumspect about educating women. If Paul and Jesus hadn’t encouraged this, would the church be like the Taliban?

It’s amazing to think that my daughters will have more opportunity to enter the career of their choice than at any other time in history. All I have to worry about is that they will choose wisely. For the first time, too, women can expect to progress in most professions without needing to emulate men; they can employ their skills and personality with true equality. It is easy to look down on other societies where things are less equal, but things were very different in the West until fairly recently. Across the road from my office is Newnham College, which was established for girls in 1871 despite protests. Cambridge University reluctantly allowed women to attend university lectures so long as they didn’t sit the exams.1 Women were not awarded full Cambridge degrees until 1948, and they didn’t make up 50 percent of the students until 2002!

In the Roman world of New Testament times, an educated woman was treated with suspicion. Sallust (a first-century BC Roman historian) wrote scathingly about a wealthy woman, Sempronia. She excelled in the social arts and in Greek and Latin literature, wrote poetry, conversed with wit and charm, and could “dance more adeptly than any respectable woman would have needed to. … She took the initiative with men far more frequently than they did with her.”2

The only women who were expected to have an education were the hetairai – the high-class call girls. They had to be sophisticated and educated in music, dance, coiffure, and other “feminine skills.” The most highly sought-after hetairai also studied philosophy, literature, and other subjects, which made them capable of intelligent conversation with their clients. A generous host would provide expensive hetairai for his guests not only for after-dinner “exercise,” but also to contribute knowledgeably to the discussions during the meal.3 Wives weren’t traditionally invited to accompany their husbands on these occasions – they were expected to wait demurely at home. But things were changing.

During the first century a women’s liberation movement was gathering steam. Women gained new legal rights, including the authority to spend their own money how they wanted without their husband’s permission. They began to be educated in areas that were normally the reserve of men and attended parties alongside their husbands. Unfortunately, the movement was distasteful to most people because some women began to demand equality with regard to taking lovers (such as Sempronia, described above), so the movement became associated with immorality. It was normal for men to have lovers or sleep with slaves whenever they wished, but a woman faced divorce if she spent even an evening away from home without permission. All that changed when rich women started to openly pursue famous gladiators or poets – and then boast about their conquests. The most infamous example was Messalina, the wife of the emperor Claudius. She (allegedly) summoned the entire Praetorian Guard to attend her high-society ladies’ party and organized a competition to see who could have sex with the most men.

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Women’s lib

These “liberated” women misused their freedom and brought suspicion down on anyone who spoke up for equality of the sexes. Any woman who wanted equality was assumed to be immoral, and because of this even education was thought to be dangerous. The father of Seneca (a Stoic at the start of the first century AD) says that education makes a woman lazy and vain.4 Rabbi Eliezer (a very conservative rabbi at the end of the first century AD) says, “If you teach your daughter the Scriptures, you might as well teach her to be sexually immoral.”5 In other words, even seemingly good education will corrupt women. Today we find this logic difficult to understand, though we see the same thinking among the Taliban who used to burn down girls’ schools to defend morality as they see it.

In the first century, the new Christians had a problem: they believed in equality at a time when this was potentially scandalous. They believed in the equality of slaves and free men, which was bad enough, but even worse, they also believed that men and women were equal (Gal 3:28). The danger was that if they proclaimed this too loudly, it could confirm the general belief that Christianity was “an abomination … a most vile superstition … hideous and shameful” (as the Roman historian Tacitus describes it).6

Given all this, it was amazing that Paul allowed women the right to pray and prophesy in public meetings (1 Cor 11:5). In the Jewish world women did not even pray at the dinner table at home, let alone lead prayers in a synagogue; in the Roman world, prayers were spoken by a priest or the highest-status male who was present. And as well as the radical step of permitting women to pray aloud in public, Paul also, controversially, allowed them to attend teaching meetings and gain an education. This was unheard of. One indication that this wasn’t normal lies in the name of the room in which teaching or symposia normally took place – it was traditionally called the andr┼Źn – that is, the “men’s room.”

Paul did draw the line, though, at allowing women to speak out during teaching meetings (1 Cor 14:35). This was a bridge too far that would not have been accepted in those times under any circumstances. Speaking out, even under the guise of asking for information, would have been regarded as contributing to the teaching process. This was especially the case in Jewish and Roman societies, where so much teaching consisted of asking a pupil questions to reinforce what they had learned. His response, that women should ask their husbands at home, is identical to that of Plutarch (a first-century AD moralist), who says: “If they do not receive the seed of a good education and do not develop this education in company with their husbands they will, left to themselves, conceive a lot of ridiculous ideas and unworthy aims and emotions.”7 In other words, Paul is telling them to follow the Roman customs and stop stirring up trouble in a public meeting.

As modern readers, we don’t notice the barbed way in which Paul recommends education for women in 1 Timothy 2:12-14 by sarcastically criticizing the lack of it. On first reading he appears to put the blame squarely on Eve for being deceived when Adam wasn’t. But Paul also reminds the reader of the reason why she was deceived: Eve was not there when God explained to Adam about not eating the fruit (in Gen 2:16-17) – she had not yet been created. The implication is that Adam didn’t do a very good job of teaching Eve about what God had said and, because of that, the serpent was able to deceive her. Paul also implies that Adam was doubly guilty: first for failing to teach God’s command properly to Eve, and second for joining in with her sin even though he knew better. Any intelligent man would have felt a pang of conscience reading this because, in refusing to educate women, they were repeating Adam’s mistake. In plain language, Paul blames men for the fact that women were likely to have little understanding and were therefore more liable to commit sin through ignorance.

At Jesus’ feet

Jesus was also in favor of educating women, though this wasn’t part of his public message. When he was a guest at the house of Mary and Martha, he used the time as a teaching session for his disciples. We know, of course, that Mary sat down with the disciples to listen to him, but it is difficult for us to appreciate how forward and presumptuous this would have seemed. Women were not supposed to seek education – and certainly not alongside men. Martha ignored it at first, perhaps in the hope that Mary was just dawdling there temporarily, but when it became clear that Mary was deliberately including herself among Jesus’ pupils, Martha lost her temper. We can imagine everyone suddenly noticing Mary and looking at her with shock and undisguised disgust, but Jesus stands up for her. He is happy that Mary has chosen to learn and even calls it the “better” path (Luke 10:38-42).

If Jesus had spoken only in synagogues, he wouldn’t have been able to reach women very well. But instead he preached outside – anywhere – in the Gentile area of the Temple (where the women and money changers were allowed) and even on isolated hillsides. When the thousands were fed, they included “men … women and children” (Matt 14:21; 15:38). Women even followed Jesus around to help and presumably to learn, like the disciples (Matt 27:55; Luke 8:3; 23:49, 55).

There is nothing in the Old Testament about educating women. This was partly because very few people indeed were given any form of education. The practice of writing may have been widespread, as indicated by the multiple pottery shards bearing people’s names, which presumably indicated ownership. But the phonetic alphabet they used could be learned in a couple of hours, so this didn’t require a formal education system. It was only merchants who needed more literacy in order to understand contracts and accounts. We should assume the ideal wife described in Proverbs 31 had this higher level of learning because she traded in cloth and land. But only senior civil servants such as Daniel would have been given a proper education.

So it is difficult to decide whether there is any timeless command about whether to educate girls. The command doesn’t need to occur in the Old Testament, and it is relatively minor in the New Testament. The more important issue is, like in some cultures today, mixed up with whether girls and boys are equal. And on that matter Paul is clear: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

No one today would argue that the Bible teaches women should not be educated. After all, Paul says “a woman should learn” – though we must admit that the full sentence is “A woman should learn in quietness” (1 Tim 2:11). However, it was a close call – it would have been so easy for Paul to ban teaching women like he banned them uncovering their heads.8 Why did Paul go against his upbringing in Judaism and against the Roman culture by allowing women to learn? There is nothing in the Old Testament to tell him that women should be educated. His most likely source is the Gospel traditions that were circulating. If it hadn’t been for the example shown by Jesus, the church might have, like the Taliban, refused to educate girls.

Of course, the medieval church appeared to backtrack on this, because they only actively taught men. But this was a matter of culture rather than policy. Nuns were encouraged as much as monks to read and meditate on Scripture, though being a scribe was considered a male job. In a similar way, children of rich parents were given tutors, though there was more incentive to educate males, who would use knowledge to earn money. But that didn’t stop young princess Elizabeth (b. 1533) learning enough to read Erasmus’s newly printed New Testament in Greek. The church laid the foundations so that when society could afford it, education was available for girls as well as boys.

1^ “History of Newnham” (
2^ Sallust, The War with Catiline 25, trans. Judith Peller Hallett in Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (New York: Schocken Books, 1975, 1995), 171-72.
3^ For more on hetairai see
4^ Seneca, Ad Helviam 17.3 (
5^ Mishnah Sotah 3:4 (
6^ Tacitus, Annales 15.44 (
7^ Plutarch, Advice to the Bride and Groom or Moralia: Conjugalia Praecepta 48 (
8^ See chapter 27, “Jesus’ Effeminate Hair.”

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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