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Cutting Edges: Woman of Pompeii

By Dr. Charles Cosgrove, Professor of Early Christian Literature at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

Eliza Garrett, patron founder of Garrett Biblical Institute, lived and died before archeological excavations brought to light a certain nameless, but not faceless, woman of ancient Pompeii. Garrett would have found something to like about this baker’s wife, whose image, nearly two millennia old now, was preserved as a wall painting in a house she shared with her husband, Terentius Neo. The portrait is now at the Museum of Naples, but this year it made a journey, with many other Pompeiian artifacts, to the British Museum in London, where I viewed it in July.

The woman in the portrait looks out from the painting with an air of confident composure. Her hair, coiffed in a style of the 50s–60s, is adorned with a thin red headband. Pearl earrings, a red tunic, and mantle complete her attire. Remarkably, in her right hand she holds a stylus and in her left a set of writing tablets. She is educated. By posing with her stylus and tablets she expresses her pride in that fact.

Her husband’s image shows him in a bleached toga, which marks him as a candidate for public office. In his right hand is a scroll, indicating that he, too, is literate.

The two of them appear to be about the same age and are shown side by side in a single portrait, she slightly in the foreground, as if to stress that she is not simply “the wife” but a partner. Do the wax tablets, often used for tabulations, suggest that she served as accountant in her husband’s bakery business?

We have no reason to think that this woman was a Christian or that the Christian mission reached Pompeii before that city was destroyed and covered with volcanic ash in 79 C.E. Women like her played an important role in the early church, especially in the mission of Paul. Blessed with education, property, or their own business, they assumed various roles of leadership. Prisca and Aquila (Paul puts her name ahead of his) instructed Apollos. Phoebe was Paul’s patron and led an entourage to Rome with his letter to the Roman church. Junia was an apostle along with her husband, Andronicas.

By the second century, however, patriarchy had vigorously reasserted itself in most churches and, despite their numerical superiority, women were largely blocked from leadership roles. The majority of churches were by then organized in a structure of offices to which only men were appointed, and it was only communions somewhat on the margins—the churches of Montanists and Gnostics—that continued to affirm some form of gender equality inspired by Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is “no longer male and female.”

Terentius Neo and his wife lived in Paul’s time, and their portrait helps me picture the more affluent members of his churches who provided meeting places for worship, funds for missionary travel, contributions to the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, and perhaps also the writing materials and the scribes Paul needed to carry on his correspondence. There is a gentleness in the look of this Pompeiian couple that also makes them appealing.

I was so taken with Neo and his wife when I viewed their portrait last summer that I purchased a fine copy, which I now display in a corner of my faculty office at the seminary. On the adjacent wall nearby is an etching of another woman, who is not nameless—Eliza Garrett—and I like to imagine her and the Pompeiian woman engaging in a wordless communication across the ages. Clearly, neither was content with confinement to the background. Both wanted to have a say in things that matter. As one who believes that I am better off when women have an equal say in everything that matters, I think I owe them both a debt.