This coming Sunday, we hear a story in which Jesus is in the home of two women: Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42). It’s a passage that is much beloved for the radical portrayal it offers: Jesus willing to teach a woman, Jesus willing to break the mould of traditional patriarchal expectations. This story gives is opportunity to consider the strong emphasis on women that is found in the story of Jesus told within the orderly account that we attribute to Luke.
Feminist scholars have noted the prominence accorded to women as followers of Jesus throughout this orderly account, and the particular emphasis on women that surfaces at specific moments in the narrative. The presence of women amongst the movement initiated by Jesus, and their taking on of leadership roles within that movement, is no surprise, given that it is only in the second of the two volumes attributed to Luke that we find such a clear declaration about this matter.
Every Pentecost, when we read and hear the story of that day, we are told that Peter, in beginning his speech, cites in detail a prophetic word uttered centuries earlier by Joel. Speaking in the name of God, the prophet declares, “God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17–18).
This prophecy is significant, both in what follows in the events recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, but also in terms of the place that women occupy in the Gospel of Luke. Women have significant roles, both in the stories told in the ensuing chapters about the movement initiated by Jesus, and also in what has come before, the account of the words and activities of Jesus himself.
In the Acts of the Apostles, this strand of female faithfulness continues, but appears to become somewhat diminished as the narrative continues. We need to keep asking, is what we find in this narrative (and what is missing) a result of the ordering of material undertaken by the author? If the specific mentions of women fade later in Acts, was this intentional or accidental?
Very early in Acts, the spirit is poured out upon males and females alike (Acts 2:17–18). This Pentecost scene in Jerusalem has a paradigmatic function for the narrative that follows (in the same way as the scene in the Nazareth synagogue functions in the Gospel). Many of the elements in the Lukan Pentecost story recur throughout the ensuing stories of the good news being proclaimed in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Antioch, throughout Asia Minor and Macedonia, into Greece (Corinth and Athens) and ultimately to Rome.
Amongst the significant women who are presented as positive models of faithfulness, we find Tabitha in Joppa, a woman “full of good works, acts of charity” (9:36); Mary, in whose house the believers meet in Jerusalem (12:12); Lydia in Philippi, who likewise provides hospitality to Paul and his companions (16:15); Priscilla, who with her husband, Aquila, teaches Apollos in Ephesus (18:26); and the four female prophets in Caesarea (21:9). Each of these women, we must conclude, exercise a leadership role in the early church.
However, the frequency of explicit references to women in Acts lessens as the narrative continues. Whilst there are faithful women noted amongst the converts in some places, women fade from view and are almost entirely absent from the latter sections of Acts. Is this intentional on the part of the author?
There are women in the audiences to whom preaches in various towns and cities in his travels, often specifically identified as being women of higher social status. We might assume that this was par for the course in the towns and cities of the Hellenistic world; at least, in four locations, this is clearly the case, as those listening to Paul include “devout women of high standing” in Antioch (13:50), “not a few of the leading women” in Thessaloniki (17:4), “not a few Greek women and men of high standing” in Beroea (17:12), and “a woman named Damaris, and others with them” in Athens (17:34). Were there, likewise, women in other crowds which heard Paul?
In Corinth, Paul stays for some time with “a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla” (18:1–4). We know about this couple from Paul’s own letters (Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; and see 2 Tim 4:19; in each case, the female is identified as Prisca). The gathering in the house of Aquila and Priscilla clearly included females, hearing the proclamation of the good news that Paul brought.
However, in the face of intense opposition, Paul, with Silas and Timothy, “left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God; his house was next door to the synagogue” (18:7). When we learn that “Crispus, the official of the synagogue, became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household” (18:8), we can reasonably assume that this household included women—a partner, some children, and certainly some female servants.
There are no women specifically mentioned when Paul falls into difficulties in the theatre, the public arena, in Ephesus (19:23–41), nor when farewelling the Ephesian elders in Miletus, presumably in a private meeting (20:17–38). Yet, could it have been possible that this latter group included women? Whilst it may seem unlikely to us, if we focus on the dominant patriarchal makeup of society at the time, Jesus had established a movement in which equality of males and females was clearly advocated.
As Marg Mowcko notes, “In Paul’s more general teaching on ministry and ministry gifts, including his teaching on leadership ministry gifts, the apostle gives no hint that some ministries are for men and some are for women”—so could this apply to the group with whom he met in Miletus. See https://margmowczko.com/pauls-qualifications-for-church-leaders/ ; whilst the quote is from footnote 13, the argument of the whole post keeps open this possibility. If it was a possibility, and if the author of Acts knew this, then his failure to mention this would be striking. But this is a rather hypothetical line of interpretation.
When Paul travels from Greece to Troas (20:1–6), only males are noted as his companions: “he was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Beroea, by Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, by Gaius from Derbe, and by Timothy, as well as by Tychicus and Trophimus from Asia” (20:4). There are no clear indications, either in Acts, or in Paul’s own letters, that women travelled with him on his journeys.
In Troas, when he meets to “break bread” (20:7), we can reasonably hypothesise that women were present along with men as “Paul was holding a discussion with them … [and] continued speaking until midnight” (20:7). Why might not the same apply to those travelling with Paul? Especially since this would have continued the model that was first provided by Jesus (Luke 8:1–3; 23:55).
When Paul arrives in Ptolemais, he greets “the believers” (21:7), presumably a mixed group of males and females. In the next city, Caesarea, Paul stays with Philip, the father of “four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy” (21:9). They remain unnamed, and also apparently inactive in terms of their giftedness; it is Agabus, a male prophet visiting from Judea, who provides active prophetic words (21:10–11).
On the next leg, into the house of “Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple”, Paul was accompanied by “some of the disciples from Caesarea” (21:16). Again, given the nature of the movement established by Jesus, the presence of women amongst those disciples can reasonably be assumed.
When he is arrested whilst undergoing a ritual in the Temple in Jerusalem (21:27–36), he is in the company of “four men who are under a vow” (21:23). It is considered that this was most likely to have been a Nazirite vow, akin to what he had previously undertaken in Cenchreae (18:18). Such a vow was originally open to men and to women (Num 6:1–4), but it is thought that it had become a specifically priestly vow by this time (see https://www.thetorah.com/article/can-a-husband-annul-his-wifes-nazirite-vow ) So no females are in the story of Acts 21, nor might we expect them to be.
After this arrest, when Paul is brought before a series of officials whilst under arrest (chs.22—26), before being taken as a prisoner to Rome (28:14–16), the protagonists in the story are all males. Only the consort of Felix, Drusilla, in Caesarea (24:10–21) and her sister Berenice, the consort of Agrippa, in later scenes in Caesarea (25:13, 23; 26:30), provide a female presence in this long section. Berenice engages in the discussion about Paul after his speech (26:30–31); the decision about Paul, however, is made by the two men, Festus and Agrippa (26:32).
On Berenice and Drusilla, see https://margmowczko.com/wealthy-women-roman-world-and-church/
Have the faithful female followers of Jesus and the spirit-inspired women of the Pentecost prophecy dwindled away to nothing as the movement spreads across the Hellenistic world?
From the first sermon of Jesus, set in Nazareth and presented as a key moment for Jesus, Luke has him explicitly draw attention to the faithfulness of a woman. The anonymous widow from Zarephath in Sidon (Luke 4:26), alongside the named male from Syria (4:27), formed prototypes of those who would become faithful followers of Jesus. Both males and females became disciples of Jesus, and later, members of the early church communities. Discipleship was seen to be inclusive in gender terms.
At an equally-significant moment, in the way that Luke orders events and tells his story, at the coming of the spirit during the festival of Pentecost, Luke has Peter refer to an older prophecy which now is coming to pass: “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even upon my slaves, both men and women” (Acts 2:17–18). The equal role of women and men is clear and central.
The movement appears to have followed that vision, but the way that the Lukan narrative is developed sadly allows that vision to slip from view. Women, spirit-inspired and strategic in leadership within the movement, disappear from view, even though, as we have indicated above, it is quite plausible to argue for the presence of women, alongside men, at virtually every step of the way.
Later evidence for the developing Christian church attests to the ongoing activity of women in preaching, leading, caring, hosting, and even writing. That Luke had a particular reason to hide, or at least diminish, this fact, is a worrying conclusion to draw—but it seems to be the most logical deduction. What that reason is, however, is not at all clear to me. Had the author of this second volume succumbed to the dominant patriarchal culture of the time, and allowed women to fall from view in his narrative?