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Women in Acts Part I

March 18, 2013

When I began my mini-series on women in the gospels I noted that I felt that understanding Paul’s explicit statements about the roles of women required understanding his context. This same logic carries over to the study of the women present in the book of Acts. When Paul’s actions are recorded (and not just his advice) what do we see about how he acts towards women? Obviously the book of Acts includes more than just stories about Paul but all of it forms important context for the Epistles.

One question to address when we discuss women in Acts is how meaningful it is that Luke frequently tells us that both men and women were present at or participated in an event. Such statements could be highlighting the presence of women as a new feature of the Christian community or it could merely reflect a writing style. It could also take a middle ground where Luke’s writing style takes more notice of women because of his participation in a community where women were important. The evidence that this is writing style is relatively straightforward: in Acts 25:13 (and in some of the actions that follow) Luke tells us that King Agrippa is accompanied by his wife Bernice. Bernice appears to be entirely unimportant to the actions that occur in this section of Acts (unlike Procurator Felix’s wife Drusilla whose Jewish origin explains some of Felix’s knowledge of Judaism). Mentioning Bernice would then appear to merely be a matter of style. However, Bernice (sometimes spelled Berenice) was involved in some important regional events, especially several years after the events recorded in Acts. It is possible that Luke mentions her because of her prominence without signaling anything about his general attitude towards mentioning women. There is not much other evidence that Luke simply mentions women by default although I could imagine 9:2 (Saul gets a letter allowing him to arrest both men and women), 13:50 (the Jewish leaders stir up the prominent women and leading men against Paul), and 21:5 (even women and children come to see Paul off) being used as such. However, all three instances could also be making important points. 9:2 may stress the intensity of the persecution of Christians (along with 8:3, the imprisonment of both sexes) and the fact that women bore this persecution alongside men who the culture would consider better able to bear it. 13:50 may be related to other mentions of prominent women being converted (17:4, 17:12). 21:5 seems to me to emphasize the fact that the entire community is very worried about Paul and everyone wants to be present to say goodbye.

Better evidence that Paul means to single out the presence of women comes through the women he specifically names: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of John, Sapphira, Tabitha/Dorcas, Rhoda, Lydia, Damaris, and Priscilla. Three of these women (Rhoda, Tabitha, and Damaris) are otherwise uninformative for our project. Rhoda is a servant in Mary’s house (12:12-13), Tabitha is healed by Peter (9:36-43), and Damaris is converted by Paul (17:34). However, the use of their names seems important. Luke is certainly content to leave people anonymous (indeed, when he mentions Damaris he mentions only Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, and “many others”) and so the people he mentions by name are probably either people who are somehow important (as with Dionysius) or otherwise known to the community he is writing to. However, even if we discarded all of this evidence the book of Acts tells us that women were baptized (8:12), converted, and persecuted, alongside men. Obviously women were not invisible background characters to the story of the early Church. In the next article I will expand upon what we learn from the women that Luke gives us names for.


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