The Place of Women in First-century Synagogues

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Today, public worship can take place in a synagogue only if at least ten adult Jewish males are present. Women do not qualify as part of this quorum. Furthermore, women are separated from men within the synagogue: women worship in an ezrat nashim, a balcony, or section with a divider, located beside or behind the men’s section. Things were considerably different in Jesus’ day.

In the time of Jesus there was no separation of the sexes in the synagogue[1] and women could be counted as part of the ten individuals needed for a religious quorum. This allowed women to be much more active in the religious life of the community than they are today.

The “Ten”

According to halachah, in order to have a congregation, or edah, a minimum of ten persons must be present. Boaz gathered ten elders of Bethlehem to witness the legal transaction that gave him possession of the land that belonged to Naomi, and Ruth the Moabitess as his wife.[2] By the first century C.E. it was established that every public or official religious gathering must have ten persons. Therefore, public or congregational prayer could not be conducted without that minimum presence.

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  • [1] The modern custom of separating men and women in the synagogue is perhaps due to the influence of Islam, from approximately the seventh century C.E. onward.
  • [2] Ruth 4:2.
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