This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology. You can visit my web pages here, but note that they are not kept up-to-date.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why so many NT female benefactors?

In this post I show that about half of the benefactors of the church in the New Testament were women, and that this is a much higher proportion than is found among benefactors to the Jews or among benefactors in the general population. This demands an explanation and I will suggest that women gave to the church because the church empowered them. 
NT specialist tend to be weak in mathematics, but
 their neglect of statistics is inexcusable. While certain women benefactors of the Jews, such as Julia Severa and Tation, have been much celebrated, no-one has attempted to actually count the women benefactors, as far as I know. However, Matthew S. Colins writes in
Money, Sex and Power in Recovering the Role of Women 1992:
It should be emphasized at this point that the number of women functioning as patrons was only a small percentage of the overall patronage system. By some estimates, they constituted only five percent of the known patrons during the period of the Empire. (p15) .... the number of women acting as patrons was also small, both in the wider social world and within the synagogue. (p19) .... As regards social custom, it appears that the role of patrons in relation to the synagogue was similar to the expected role of patrons in society in general. Both women and men appear to have functioned in this role, perhaps even in the same proportion as in the wider cultural world. (p20)
The epigraphic evidence for Jewish benefaction has been gathered together by Lifshitz (Donateurs Et Fondateurs Dans Les Synagogues Juives, 1967). To this database of 102 inscriptions we can add the Aphrodisias inscriptions, which contain the names of 126 benefactors. There is also Mindus Faustus of the Ostia synagogue, and Papous of Egypt. Have I missed any? In all there are about 248 benefactors of known gender, of which only about 9% (about 23) are female. However, it should be noted that more than half of the ~225 men that I counted are found in the Aphrodisias incriptions, which contain only one woman. Also, 8 of the ~23 women (but just 5 men) are mentioned as donors of a single pavement in Syria. Clearly the Aphrodisias donors and the pavement donors are not statistically independent and should therefore be discounted to some extent. If these finds are removed from consideration we get that 13% of Jewish benefaction was by women. Our sample size is limited so we cannot be precise. However, in my judgement, we can be confident that women represented between 5% and 20% of benefactors of the Jews in inscriptions. The value probably lies between 10 and 15%. This is not surprising since men controlled most of the wealth in the ancient world.

Benefactors in the New Testament
The benefactors of the church in the NT probably include:

Mary Magdalene (Mark 15:40; Luke 8:2-3; Matt 27:56)
Mary mother of James and Joseph (Mark 15:40; Matt 27:56)
Joanna (Luke 8:2-3)
Susanna (Luke 8:2-3)
The mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matt 27:56)
Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2).
Tabitha/Dorcas (Acts 9:36-41)
Lydia (Acts 16:4-15, 40)
The women with the alabaster jar (Mark 14:3-9)
Mary the mother of John-Mark (Acts 12:12)
Nympha (Col 4:15)

Joseph-Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37)
Gaius Titius Justus-Stephanas (Acts 18:7; Rom 16:23)
Aquila (Acts 18:2-3; 1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3).
Crispus-Sosthenes (Acts 18:8, 17; 1 Cor 1:1, 14) 
Jason-Aristarchus (Acts 17:6-9)
Epaenetus (Rom 16:5)
Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1)
Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27:60)
Publius (Acts 28:7-8)

Listed above are 9 men. From the Jewish benefaction inscriptions discussed above, we should expect only 1 woman benefactor for every 9 men, but we have no fewer than 11! While there is some ambiguity about who counts as a benefactor, it is clear that about 50% of the benefactors of the church in the New Testament were women. This is an astonishing finding and demands an explanation. Men had most of the money and less than 20% of synagogue benefactors were women, so why were 50% of church benefactors women?
Intriguingly, the Megido church, which is perhaps the earliest church yet discovered, refers to one women benefactor, Akeptous, and one man, Gaianos. See here.

Some commentators say that Luke has a 'special interest' in women, and they insinuate that he exaggerates their role. This is unlikely since Luke/Lucius was a man.  In any case, if we remove Luke-Acts from our sources, we are left with 6 women and 4 men in the lists above, so the ratio does not change.

The high frequency of female benefactors in the NT is explicable if the church was supportive of the rights of women. People give to organizations that they find empowering. Women funded the church because it gave them a voice. This is my assumption for now, but I would be interested to hear of any alternative explanations.

Further resources:
I have discussed most of the NT benefactors here.
"Diakonos and prostatis: Women's patronage in Early Christianityby Carolyn Osiek.
Richard Bauckham's book: "Gospel Women".


  1. Luke 8:2-3 is one of the most fascinating texts in the bible, but I can't say I've ever seen or heard any in-depth analysis of it.


  2. Footnote:
    It would be very useful to have a list of pagan and Jewish benefactors from literary sources.
    Also, Carolyn Osiek has kindly brought my attention to the fact that Colins' quotation above concerns patrons rather than benefactors in general, so we are not comparing apples to apples here.

  3. Further footnote:
    Susan Sorek discusses women benefactors in Remembered for Good: A Jewish Benefaction System in Ancient Palestine. She agrees that, among the benefactors of the Jews, males far outnumbered females. She says that female benefactors were particularly rare in Palestine. She suggests, but does not demonstrate, that women may have preferred acts of piety and hospitality, rather than the kinds of benefaction that would have been recorded in inscriptions. She mentions Tabitha (Acts 9:36-42) but gives no equivalent figures from non-Christian Jewish literature.