Their names may seem unfamiliar and their numbers few compared with the celebrated men of the New Testament. But search the Scriptures carefully, and you will find them: Phoebe, Prisca, Junia, and other strong women of faith who—like the apostles Peter and Paul—spread the Gospel and led communities of believers in the earliest days of the Christian church.
Yet unlike their male counterparts, whose words and deeds were carefully preserved in the Christian canon, relatively little is remembered of these early female leaders. Then, as now, it seems, the role of women in the church was a controversial subject. Given the patriarchal culture from which Christianity and its Scriptures sprang, and the male-dominated church hierarchy that eventually emerged, some modern scholars find it remarkable that their memory has survived at all.
Ironically, it is mainly in the writings of Paul—who was no flaming egalitarian on gender issues—that we learn of these influential Christian women. In the final chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, he includes them in a list of associates to whom he sends his greetings. Although the information he conveys is indirect and scanty, scholars say it reveals important clues to the social status and missionary activity of women in the early church.
"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well."
Such a glowing recommendation from the missionary apostle is a clear indication of the high esteem—and, as some scholars argue, the high position—this gentile woman held in the nascent Christian community.
Phoebe is often portrayed as a wealthy, independent woman, probably a widow, who traveled widely on personal business but most likely also in her work as a leader of the church at Cenchreae, a busy seaport east of Corinth. Because she is named first in Paul's list of greetings, many scholars assume she was the bearer of Paul's letter and had traveled to Rome perhaps to begin to arrange for the apostle's planned missionary journey to Spain.
The titles Paul used in the original Greek to describe her are telling: adelphe, or "sister," indicating he considered her a co-worker in the faith; diakonos, or "deacon," the same title Paul applied to himself and other men engaged in preaching and teaching; and prostatis, often translated as "patron" or "benefactor," though it may also mean a presiding officer, guardian, or leader.
As a woman of means, scholars say, Phoebe probably owned a home large enough to accommodate Christian gatherings. It is likely, therefore, that she was the patron and leader of a house church and perhaps offered hospitality and financial support to traveling Christians, including Paul. That would help explain why Paul felt so indebted to her.
Some commentators have attempted to cast Phoebe in a more limited and traditionally feminine role, perhaps as a minister to women only. Some English Bible translations call her "deaconess" or simply a "servant." But as Prof. Jouette Bassler of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University points out, the word Paul uses (diakonos) has "no gender distinctions" and "clearly points to a leadership role over the whole church, not just part of it...Phoebe is thus a church official, a minister of the church in Cenchreae."
"Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the gentiles."
Prisca, also called Priscilla in the book of Acts, and her husband, Aquila, a tent maker from the region of Pontus on the south shore of the Black Sea, were known by the early church as important and well-traveled missionaries and occasional traveling companions of Paul.
They also were among the first Jewish Christians in Rome, where scholars say they established a house church and probably taught in the synagogues as well. According to Acts, they were forced to leave Rome when the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from the city in 49. That expulsion also was noted by the Roman historian Suetonius, who described it as a response to "disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus"—a reference, many scholars believe, to riotous quarrels in the synagogues between believers and nonbelievers in Christ.
From Rome, the couple moved to Corinth, where they set up a tent-making shop. It was there that they first met Paul, also a tent maker, who probably worked and lodged with them. After a year and a half in Corinth, they accompanied Paul to Ephesus, where they once again set up a house church.
The house church in those early days of Christianity, notes Prof. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of Harvard Divinity School, was "the beginning and center of the Christian mission" in a city or district. "It provided space for the preaching of the Gospel and for worship gatherings, as well as for social and Eucharistic table sharing." Prisca, Schussler Fiorenza and others contend, probably functioned as the leader of the house church in Ephesus. "The fact that Prisca's name appears first in four of six New Testament references" to the couple, notes Bassler of smu, "probably points to her more active role in the life of the church."
While in Ephesus, the couple apparently saved Paul's life and exposed themselves to danger in the process. Although the incident is not explained, it was no doubt similar to several other episodes reported in Acts in which the feisty apostle was chased, beaten, or jailed by his opponents. Prisca and Aquila's unspecified intervention won them Paul's endless gratitude.
After the emperor's edict was lifted in 54, Prisca and her husband returned to Rome, where they re-established a house church and presumably labored for many more years. According to one legend, the fourth-century St. Priscae church on the Aventine Hill in Rome was built on the site of the couple's home. Others have suggested that Prisca authored the anonymous New Testament letter to the Hebrews. While neither legend can be confirmed, as Bassler notes, "they attest to the power of her memory in the early church."
"Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was."
A female apostle? So it seems, although not everyone agrees. The name of Junia appears once in the New Testament and scarcely anywhere else in church writings except in occasional discussions over the years as to whether she, in fact, was a she.
Assuming that Junia was a woman, as many modern scholars do, she probably was a freed slave who took on the name of her slave master and was subsequently granted Roman citizenship. Paul described her and her missionary partner—possibly her husband—as "relatives," which scholars say could mean blood kin or may simply mean fellow Jews.
That Paul describes her as an apostle is of greatest import to many modern readers. To Paul, it meant she had seen a vision of the risen Christ, as he did, and was engaged in missionary work. Some others in Paul's time and later have defined apostles as those who were chosen by Jesus as disciples and who saw him after the Resurrection—in other words, the original 12 (all men) less Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, plus the one chosen as Judas's replacement.
But for many, the question of gender is the stickler. As Bernadette Brooten, professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis University, has noted, early church writers "either explicitly interpreted Junia as a female or did not comment" on gender at all. It was not until the 13th century that church leaders began to assert that the person in question was not Junia but Junias, a man.
What reason did they give for this change? "The answer," Brooten writes in Women in Scripture, a dictionary of women in the Bible, "is simple: A woman could not have been an apostle," and therefore, "the woman who is here called an apostle could not have been a woman." Further, she notes, while the female Latin name Junia has been found over 250 times in inscriptions from ancient Rome, "we do not have a single shred of evidence that the name Junias ever existed."
The implications for modern Christian women, says Brooten, are unmistakable. "If the first-century Junia could be an apostle, it is hard to see how her 20th-century counterpart should not be allowed to become even a priest."