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Women in Acts Part II

March 25, 2013

This continues Part I of a discussion of the women in the book of Acts.  The women Luke provides us names for along with Philip’s four unnamed prophesying daughters (Acts 21:9) provide us with useful information about what women did in the early church.  Obviously Philip’s daughters tell us that women prophesied (although this is something that would not be surprising in either a Jewish or Greek context).  Mary the mother of Jesus has an important role in Luke’s gospel as well and I have discussed her role throughout the New Testament elsewhere.  However, it is worth remembering that she and “the other women” (probably the women who supported Jesus during his ministry) are present early in Acts meeting and praying with the disciples.

Mary the mother of John is not discussed at any great length.  She appears only in passing in 12:12-13 when Peter is in prison and the believers meet at her house to pray.  However, I think it is important that they meet at her house.  Even today it would be odd for a Bible Study to meet at the house of someone who was only marginally involved.  Instead, it makes more sense to assume that John’s mother was a known and respected figure amongst the early Christians in Jerusalem and that meeting at her house was safe for the persecuted church and made sense given her role.  Of course, her role could also be largely due to the prominence of her son or some blend of her own actions and the fact that everyone would know and respect John.

Sapphira seems like an odd figure to single out to discuss the role of women in the New Testament since she is rather dramatically struck dead but her dialog with Peter actually tells us quite a bit.  The story, which opens Acts 5 begins by telling us that Ananias sold property and held on to some of the money, with the full knowledge of his wife, instead of donating it.  Ananias then goes to Peter and gives the partial donation to him, apparently claiming that it is the whole thing.  (It is rather important for the interpretation of the whole story here that Peter stresses that the money was Ananias’ to keep or donate and that his crime is lying about what he did.)  Peter tells Ananias that the Holy Spirit has laid bare his crimes and then Ananias keels over dead.  This story by itself would make perfect sense and tell us nothing about the role of women in the early church.  However, when Sapphira shows up three hours later Peter does not act as if Ananias were the dominating ruler of the household and that Sapphira was merely a pawn.  Instead, he gives her the chance to make a different decision than her husband.  When she repeats her husband’s lie she also dies.  Now, this may not be especially surprising to us but for a patriarchal culture it might make perfect sense for a woman to either be passed over as someone with no decision-making power about this matter or for her to be punished for her husband’s crime.  Instead, Peter recognizes Sapphira as a separately-culpable entity and her punishment comes about because she chooses to repeat her husband’s crime and not because she is simply associated with him.  (This is one of the larger revolutions of Christianity, of course, that every single individual regardless of social position can choose to follow or reject Jesus.  I happen to believe that this is the philosophical foundation from which our modern notion that everyone should be equal before the law grew.)

Lydia is an important figure in Philippi and her appearances span most of Chapter 16.  Lydia is first encountered when Paul and his companions go outside the city on the Sabbath looking for a semi-formal place of prayer.  This almost certainly means that the people Paul and his companions encounter are Jews.  Moreover, they are apparently all women but this does not stop Paul and his companions from trying to convert them.  One of the women present in the place of prayer is Lydia who is from another city and who makes her living trading in (expensive) purple cloth.  She has a house in Philippi which may mean that she has a house in two cities, Philippi and her home town of Thyatira which would make her quite wealthy.  Of course, it could be that she is simply from Thyatira initially and no longer has any residence there.  What is important is that she and her household are baptized.  Who is her household?  No husband is ever mentioned.  Instead, Lydia appears to be the head of a household.  This household may be simply Lydia and her servants or slaves or it may include children.  The absence of her husband in the story does not necessarily mean that Lydia was never married or even that her husband is not still living but elsewhere when Paul stops by.  In any case Lydia offers her house to Paul and his companions.  This tends to suggest that Lydia either has a fairly large household with some male relatives around to prevent scandal or that she is simply an old enough woman for this not to be an issue.

After Lydia’s house becomes Paul’s base, Paul and Silas get themselves into trouble with the local authorities.  Paul (in a style that does not at all match the submissiveness towards government that some impute to him after reading Romans 13) uses the Roman citizenship that he and Silas hold as a stick to get them released by threatening to make a great deal of trouble about their illegal treatment.  The local officials show up and ask Paul and Silas to leave quietly and maybe not mention this business about publicly beating Roman citizens.  In what appears to be more arm-twistings Paul first returns to Lydia’s house to encourage the Christians in the city.  This suggests that Lydia’s house is the meeting place for these Christians which, in turn, tends to suggest that Lydia is the center of this budding church.

Finally we come to Priscilla who is often mentioned in discussions of women in the New Testament.  In Acts Priscilla’s actions are restricted to Chapter 18 where she and her husband Aquila first appear, are converted, and eventually mentor Apollos.  Priscilla and Aquila are never mentioned separately in the New Testament which suggests that both of them were active in the early church (as opposed to one being active and one tagging along quietly).  Moreover, the normal order of their names is Priscilla and Aquila.  I can’t speak directly to the importance of the order of names in the New Testament but certainly the normal cultural order would be to place the more important person first (e.g., Agrippa and Bernice in Acts 25:13).  In Acts the actions of Priscilla and Aquila are straightforward but important.  First they meet Paul who apparently gets along well with them because of a shared ethnicity and profession.  It is never clearly stated that they convert to Christianity but it is rather obvious that they do so because when Paul leaves for Syria Priscilla and Aquila accompany him.  They then stay at Ephesus where they apparently act as leading members of that community.  When a zealous but only-partly trained man named Apollos appears in Ephesus it is Priscilla and Aquila who bring him into their home and complete his education.

Overall the book of Acts is mostly concerned with the actions of men, specifically Peter (most of the first half of the book) and Paul (most of the second half).  However, women do show up as important supporting characters within the book.  It seems impossible to argue that Acts shows us anything other than a world in which women are considered worthwhile to convert, responsible for their own faith, and separate in religious culpability from their husbands.  This in itself is something of an upset to the Roman order but the fact that women also appear in roles where they bring the church together in their homes and act as teachers/evangelists is obviously a much larger break from the expected social norms.

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