Women in the Earliest Church, Part 1

The Acts of the Apostles is one of those New Testament texts that is often overlooked in favor of the gospels or letters of Paul. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating document, full of history, mystery, and hidden clues as to the activities and personalities within the early Jesus community. From a historian’s point of view, we must be cautious about accepting everything written in Acts at face value. But by exercising some discretion, we can learn a lot from the ancient traditions preserved in its pages. In this series of articles, we will examine the many contributions of women to the new messianic movement founded on the memory of Jesus according to Acts.

Some scholars argue that the author of Acts emphasizes the role of women only to show how they are subordinate to men, reflecting the conflict over gender roles that existed within the churches of the author’s own time (late 1st or early 2nd century). While there are probably some reflections of the concerns of that later period in Acts, I think, on the whole, women in the post-Easter church are portrayed in a generally positive manner considering the patriarchal nature of society at this time.

The first Jewish woman named in Acts (5:1-11) is, admittedly, portrayed in an unflattering manner but so is her husband. Sapphira (Aramaic = Ŝappîrāh, “beautiful one”) was married to a relatively wealthy man or was wealthy herself. She and her husband Ananias (Hebrew = Hananiah, “Yahweh has shown favor”) were at least successful enough financially that they could afford to sell a piece of real estate in order to donate a large share of the proceeds to the new movement centered in Jerusalem. Their plan was to retain some of the income for themselves, perhaps creating a private rainy day fund. Acts has heavily reworked this folkloric tale, but from what can still be determined there seems to have been no particular moral or ethical problem with the couple’s plan as such. A serious issue arose, however, because they lied by either announcing or implying that they would contribute all of the proceeds to the movement’s general coffers, a sort of community chest used to support the membership. Their deception was considered tantamount to lying to God since the Jerusalem leadership was being guided by the Holy Spirit. At this point, the story turns fanciful and even incredible.

Ananias, confronted first by Peter over the issue, immediately drops dead from the accusation. Within hours, after he is said to have been hurriedly buried without any notification made to his widow,* Sapphira is questioned, discovers her husband’s recent demise, and likewise falls dead. Neither husband nor wife is even given a chance to repent! Perhaps behind these legendary accretions lies the story of an actual wealthy couple remembered by the community for being deceptive with regard to their donations. Some premature fate may have befallen them and was interpreted as divine punishment. Their situation was developed into a moral lesson about the dangers of money and the value of practicing honesty toward one’s brothers and sisters.†

The next notice of women members of the new Jerusalem community is found in the story of a dispute between Greek-speaking Jewish believers (called “Hellenists”) and Aramaic-speaking Jewish believers (“Hebrews”) over the treatment of widows (Acts 6:1). According to Acts, these Hellenist widows were being shortchanged during the daily distribution from the commonly-held food bank. We have reason to suspect the historical validity of this episode, however. The Jesus movement seems to have been no more than a couple of years old at this point, hardly enough time for a significant body of believing widows to have developed. This situation likely does reflect events at the time of the author and thus says little about women in the first few years after Easter. Not only that, the seven Hellenists appointed resolve the issue of equitable distribution and “wait on tables” never do; they are shown only to be preachers and missionaries. The account likely provides the author’s church with an origin story for the developing office of deacon.

Perhaps the author reflects contemporary events, however, when he later notes that women believers were being persecuted by certain synagogue authorities in Jerusalem (Acts 8:3). Both men and women were being drug from their houses and taken to prison. Few details are given about these assaults but the blame is placed squarely on Paul (Saul), later to become a leading missionary of the gospel (he accepts blame for his actions in his own letters; see Gal. 1:13, Phil. 3:6). Paul would eventually become instrumental in establishing churches outside of Israel in which women would become leading authorities. The target of his hostility at this early stage may have been the Hellenist believers who were also members of Greek-speaking Jerusalem synagogues. These Jews hailed mainly from the Diaspora, that is, the community of “dispersed” Jews throughout the Greco-Roman world. (In most of the world at this time, Greek was the universal language of literature and commerce.) Mostly for religious reason, Jews from the Diaspora occasionally relocated to Jerusalem to be near the Temple but found they could not speak the more prevalent Aramaic language spoken there. So they formed communities and synagogues within the city where they could gather and have fellowship with like-minded Jews who shared the same language (e.g. Acts 6:9). Some eventually became influenced by believers in Jesus and began sharing their “aberrant” message, perhaps some teaching that was interpreted by others as being negative toward the Temple or the Mosaic Law (Torah). Paul, likely also a member if not a leader of one of these synagogues, zealously pursued and punished these heretics. Acts implies he participated in the fatal lynching of Stephen, regarded as the first Christian martyrdom (Acts 6:8-8:1a).

In the next article on women in the early church, we will discuss the healing of Tabitha, the house-church of Mary, and the discipleship of Thecla.

*Some commentators have appealed to Lev. 10:1-5 or Joshua 7 to defend the hasty burial. In the Leviticus account, two of Aaron’s sons defied the rules of sacrifice by making an unapproved incense offering – they were consumed by holy fire from heaven and their remains were quickly drug outside the camp. The story in Joshua tells how one of the soldiers involved in the sack of Jericho attempted to conceal some of the booty for himself – he was stoned to death for it, his remains burnt, and his grave hidden with rocks.

†The author here not only includes a woman in this story but also notes her wealth. He did the same thing in his gospel, mentioning the financial contributions to Jesus and his disciples by wealthy women such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, “and many others” – Luke 8:2-3.


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