Monday, December 03, 2007

Women of the Bible – Priscilla

Priscilla (also known as Prisca) was a first century Christian woman who, like Lydia, hosted a house-church in her home. Unlike Lydia though, Priscilla is always mentioned with her husband Aquila. The team of Priscilla and Aquila (or Aquila and Priscilla) did great things for Christ, likely hosting house-churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, then again in Rome, and then again in Ephesus.

Luke introduces Priscilla and her husband to us in Acts 18. We learn that they came from Rome due to Emperor Claudius expelling “all the Jew” from Rome due to “their continual tumults instigated by Chrestus” (Claudius, 25). Chrestus was a common misspelling of Christ. Paul meets the couple in Corinth as they have a lot in common. Like Paul, they were tentmakers, Jewish Christians, and likely already leaders in the church. (There is no mention of their conversion and if Paul did convert them, they would be his “first fruits” in Greece, not the house of Stephanus, 1 Corinthians 16.15.) Paul stays with them until he leaves for Ephesus, at which time he takes them to Ephesus and leaves them there. Finally, Luke tells us that Apollos came to Ephesus and preached in the synagogue. When our couple hears him, they invite him to their house and “explain they way of God more adequately” to him. Luke does not focus on the subject of the teaching, instead he highlights the wisdom of Aquila and Priscilla in how they instruct Apollos and in the humility of Apollos by his willingness to be taught even though he was a “learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.”

Critics downplay Priscilla's participation and even point out the private nature of this teaching, away from the synagogue. Yet nowhere do we see Priscilla taking a backseat to her husband and this “private” setting of their home was where the church met in Ephesus! Perhaps this was Bible class at the Ephesus Church of Christ (grin).

Others overemphasize Priscilla’s involvement citing name order (Priscilla is mentioned ahead of her husband in this passage). This is an unreasonable position as well.

Which name is mentioned first? Aquila is mentioned first in Acts 18.2 and 1 Corinthians 16.19. Priscilla is mentioned first in Acts 18.18, Acts 18.19, Acts 18.26 Romans 16.3 and 2 Timothy 4.19. Much discussion revolves around Priscilla being mentioned first five times, but it is mostly speculation. What does seem significant is that she is mentioned at all. Other leading men, such as Peter and James (1 Corinthians 9.5) have wives who are not even mentioned at all in most cases, and never by name. The usual way to introduce a family would be to simply mention the husband by name. If emphasis was needed to show his wife was also present one would say, "...and his wife." Mentioning Priscilla, by name no less, is significant apart from the order. Furthermore, there are textual variants on 2 Timothy where Aquila’s name comes first.

It seems to me the balance of the naming order really tells the story here. Priscilla and Aquila were a team. They worked together in every aspect of their ministry in which we know about. This strikes me as very similar to Adam and Eve. Perhaps they were just too busy serving to worry much about who should be in charge or get the glory.

1 Corinthians 16.19 Paul sends warm greeting from Aquila and Priscilla when writing from Ephesus to Corinth. Apollos is also in Ephesus, but is not mentioned to the Corinthians even though he has been in Corinth before as well. Paul also mentions the church that meets in their house, perhaps to share the success the couple has had in Ephesus. House churches were the standard organizational structure for the early church. Priscilla and Aquila were experts at running such a church. They did so in Corinth and now in Ephesus and will soon do the same in Rome. Paul seems to send this couple to cities that require strong local leadership.

Romans 16.3-5 give some strong descriptions of our couple. Only Priscilla and Aquila receive the compliment of being Paul’s “fellow workers” in Acts 16. He uses this same term for Apollos (1 Cor. 3.9) and Luke and Mark (Phil. 1.24). It is likely a term that refers to those dedicated to Christ and leading others (believers and unbelievers) to him. Paul also mentions that they risked their lives for him. It is possible that this is a metaphor, but given the trouble Paul had in Ephesus it could just as likely been real physical danger. The larger influence of our couple is seen in this statement: “all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.” Finally, we find out that Aquila and Priscilla are now in Rome. They are likely running another house church here and reporting to Paul (which maybe why he is so informed on what is happening there, Romans 14 & 15 especially).

2 Timothy 4.19 tells us little more about our couple other than they seemed to have returned to Ephesus after their stay in Rome.

Priscilla and her husband worked closely with Paul, but were also independent church leaders in the 1st century. Sometimes they followed Paul to a destination and sometimes they preceded him there. In both cases, they coordinated with Paul and received some of his highest compliments for their leadership. Witherington (Women in the Earliest Church, 1920, pg 114) summarizes their activities as follows:

One gets the impression they were two of Paul’s closest and most reliable workers, and it is likely they were involved in a wide range of activities from providing hospitality for Paul to church planting, to teaching and preaching (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; and Acts 18:1-3, 26-28). Clearly they were a major factor in the Gentile mission.

1 comment:

Maryellen said...

This is especially interesting to me because today, I'll be attending a Bible study on Women in the Bible. Today, we will study Priscilla.

I don't teach, but when I get to the study I won't have to be a dunce, having read this post. Thank you.