Women in the Earliest Church, Part 4

According to the Book of Acts, when the apostle Paul arrived in the city of Corinth in Greece he met up with a husband and wife Christian missionary team of Prisca and Aquila. The text states that the two were among a number of Jews who had been expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius. Roman historian Suetonius reported a commotion among the Jewish residents of Rome at about this time instigated, he says, by or on behalf of someone named “Chrestus.” (Fifth-century historian Orosius fixes the date of this event at 49 CE.) Many scholars agree that these three reports are referring to the same event and that Chrestus, a common Roman name, is an accidental misspelling of Christus or Christ. Putting these bits of information together we can suggest that the Jewish couple should be numbered among those Roman Jewish-Christians who created trouble within the city’s synagogues by preaching Christ. The resulting disputes between Christian and non-Christian Jews reached such a pitch that riots forced Claudius to expel the perpetrators following which Prisca and Aquila moved to Greece.

In three of the four New Testament references to this couple, Prisca is named first possibly indicating that she was better remembered for her work on behalf of the young church than her husband. Acts calls her Priscilla (pronounced priss-KILL-uh) which means “little Prisca,” an appellative that some feminist scholars feel is an intentional slight by the author designed to diminish the importance of this mobile woman missionary. Whether this is true, the growing Jesus movement remembered her as both a founder and leader of a number of very early house churches. She is the only woman mentioned in Acts (besides Jesus’s mother) who is also referred to in other New Testament texts (1 Corinthians, Romans, 2 Timothy).

Arriving in Corinth, the couple set up shop as “tent makers.” The exact meaning behind the Greek term for this occupation is debated. Most now believe that the two were actually leatherworkers though some scholars still maintain that they worked in woven fabrics such as goat-hair cloth used for awnings and sunshades as well as tents. The two would have resided behind or above their shop which would have been located along a urban thoroughfare in a “strip mall” consisting of similar shops called tabernae. Their Christian outreach program likely began by talking to customers at their shop which led eventually to hosting gatherings in their living space. We are reminded by archaeologists that no more than 20 persons would have been able to meet in the typical residences of the time. If the couple were particularly successful, other “house churches” would have become necessary. As we discussed earlier, the interior of the home was typically the provenance of women and Prisca would have organized and coordinated the house church meetings likely preaching and baptizing as well.

Prisca and Aquila were Christians before they left Rome, a reminder that Paul was hardly the only missionary spreading the gospel. The origins of Roman Christianity are still shrouded in mystery but we would be well-served to remember that Jews in Rome maintained close connections with their brothers and sisters in Palestine. Pilgrims and business contacts were the likeliest means by which news of a risen messiah reached Italy.

When Paul, also a tent maker, arrived in Corinth he, too, needed to earn a living. He discovered  the shop run by Prisca and Aquila and successfully entreated them to give him a job. He worked alongside them participating in their missionary program until he could afford to move out on his own. Paul would later move on to Ephesus across the Aegean Sea on the western Turkish coast taking the couple with him. Here too, Prisca and Aquila set up shop and organized a house church. Paul soon left them in Ephesus to visit Jerusalem but returned later and spent three more years there. He managed to get himself into trouble in Ephesus, probably resulting in his imprisonment. In later years, he would thank the couple for “risking their necks” to save him.

Once again Paul left Ephesus to return to Jerusalem bringing with him a substantial financial donation he had collected from the Gentile churches in Greece, Macedonia, and Asia (Turkey). The Emperor Claudius had died by this time and it could be that Paul sent Aquila and Prisca back to Rome to prepare the Roman Christians for his planned future arrival. At the end of his letter to the Roman church(es), Paul added a greeting to the couple who had by that time relocated. Once again, it seems they established a brand new house church if, in fact, they did not move back into their previous residence.

Scholars are uncertain whether Prisca’s and Aquila’s ability to frequently move and establish house churches on each occasion indicates that they were wealthy. The fact that they had to work at each city may mean that manual labor was essential to their survival. However, travel was not cheap nor was acquiring a residence. We also do not know if the couple had children and took them along adding to the financial burden. At least one scholar has even questioned whether the couple was legally married at all. Only Roman citizens were legally allowed to marry; slaves and freedpersons were not guaranteed this rite. Perhaps Prisca was a missionary co-worker, or spiritual sister, of Aquila rather than his wife. Her role may have been to direct her preaching primarily to women while Aquila conducted missionary work among men. After all, men were hardly in a position to conduct a ministry to women who were often secluded in their homes. Traveling with a man would have afforded an unmarried woman a necessary level of security; a single woman journeying about alone was practically unheard of.

It seems more likely, however, whether Roman citizens or not, that the couple were Jews who had been married in a local synagogue and who now pursued their calling as Christian missionaries. That Acts, and thus any older tradition it includes, identifies Prisca as a married woman before naming her husband, may indicate that she was from among the upper Jewish social stratum. But whether prosperous or not, their status among Romans in the empire would have been low. However, archaeological remains at Pompeii suggest that even with low social status, some Christians owned spacious homes with which a large house church would have been quite feasible. Also, Acts records that Prisca taught and not just to women. Was she then an educated woman? Was she versed in Jewish scripture? There were women members of at least one Jewish philosophical school in Alexandria, Egypt. Perhaps she was afforded some sort of rabbinic-style education in Rome. Like most characters named in the New Testament, our information is limited and debatable. But we are fortunate to have this much written about a woman from these times, a woman who by all accounts was a vital player in the growth of the early church.

Next: Chloe the businesswoman, the deaconess Phoebe, and Junia, the only named woman apostle.

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