This article is available in Spanish here.

Priscilla, the Artisan 

I was chatting with a group of people the other day and, as part of a conversation, my friend “Norman” mentioned that the apostle Paul and a man named Aquila were tentmakers by trade. I piped in and said that Priscilla, Aquila’s wife, was also a tentmaker. Norman looked blank, obviously confused by my comment that Priscilla, a woman, was a tentmaker. His confusion made me feel unsure of the truth of my comment, so I said nothing more about it.

When I got home I checked my New Testament and, sure enough, Acts 18:3b says of Aquila and Priscilla that “they were tentmakers by trade.” Priscilla, as well as her husband Aquila, was an artisan; she was a worker, skilled in a trade.[1] [More on Priscilla here.]

Some may be surprised to realise that a respectable Jewish woman was engaged in a trade in the 1st century AD. This is because many false ideas about the lives of Bible women have crept into our modern imagination, ideas that have little bearing on reality.

The Bible shows that it was not unusual for ancient women to have a job. The Bible mentions women who worked in commercial trade (Prov. 31:16a, 24; Acts 16:14), in agriculture (Josh. 15:17-19; Ruth 2:8; Prov. 31:16b), as millers (Exod. 11:5; Matt. 24:41), as shepherds (Gen. 29:9; Exod. 2:16), as artisans, especially in textiles (Exod. 26:1 NIV; Acts 18:3), as perfumers and cooks (1 Sam. 8:13), as midwives (Exod.. 1:15ff), as nurses (Gen 35:8; Exod.. 2:7; 2 Sam 4:4; 1 Kings 1:4) as domestic servants (Acts 12:13, etc) and as professional mourners (Jer. 9:17). Women could also be patrons (Acts 16:40; Rom. 16:1-2) and leaders (Judg. ch 4-5; 2 Sam. 20:16). One Bible woman even built towns (1 Chron. 7:24). Many women, and men, worked from home, yet the Bible nowhere criticises women who worked outside the home, in the public sphere.

Lynn Cohick (2009:232-238) cites evidence from New Testament times that shows that women were shopkeepers and vendors, jewellery makers, fullers and dyers, and at least one woman we know of was a blacksmith.[2] In the Greco-Roman world, the setting of the New Testament, women could work in just about every profession. A women could not be a soldier or a Roman senator, however.

Many people assume that ancient women spent much of their lives cloistered within their homes. A secluded life may have been the case for some women in wealthy families, but the practice was neither standard nor universal. In Bible times most people were poor, and poor people—both men and women, and even their children—worked hard to provide for their families. Moreover, in the Greco-Roman world, many men, women and children were slaves, and slaves worked.[3]

Working Women in the New Testament

Image: Relief of a women grocer. Ostia, Italy.

Lydia, the Trader

Even some wealthy women worked. Lydia was a wealthy business woman. She was engaged in the lucrative trade of dealing with purple cloth. The purple dye was rare, and the dyed cloth was very expensive. Only the most elite and richest people wore purple clothes, so the cloth was a symbol of power and prestige (cf. Judg. 8:26; Esth. 8:15; Prov. 31:22; Luke 16:19).[4] As well as being a business woman, Lydia appears to have been the one in charge of her household.[5]

Working Women in the New TestamentLydia was the first Christian convert in Europe. She responded to Paul’s gospel ministry when he visited her town of Philippi.[6] Subsequently, the fledgling Christian congregation in Philippi met in her home.  Lynn Cohick (2009:190) notes that when Paul and Silas prepare to leave Philippi they went to Lydia’s house (not the jailor’s house) and met with the believers there. Presumably Lydia followed the pattern found throughout the New Testament that the owner of the house in which the church met was also the church leader. [More on Lydia and other church leaders in Philippi here.]

Image: Fresco showing two women and a man working together. From the fullonica (dyer’s shop) of Veranius Hypsaeus in Pompeii.

Phoebe, the Patron 

While not exactly a job, being a patron was an influential public role that wealthy women could hold in the first century Greco-Roman world. Lydia appears to have been a patron or benefactor. Phoebe was almost certainly a patron.

Tradition holds that it was Phoebe who carried Paul’s letter to the Romans. As was the custom in those days, the letter carrier bore the authority of the one who sent him or her. A usual part of delivering letters was explaining their contents to the recipient(s) and passing on verbal messages from the sender.[7] So Paul must have thought highly of Phoebe to entrust her with the delivery of his letter.

In Romans 16:1-2 Paul speaks warmly of Phoebe and describes her as both a diakonos and a prostatis.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a minister (diakonos) of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you assist her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she has been a patron (prostatis) of many, and of myself as well. Romans 16:1-2.

Paul typically used the word diakonos for an agent or minister with a sacred commission. [See endnote 8.] Phoebe was a Christian minister in the church of Cenchreae. Phoebe was also a prostatis. This word and its cognates can mean “leader”.

 Kevin Giles (1992:36) writes [9]:

The meaning of [prostatis] has been much debated. In either its masculine or feminine form it means literally ‘one who stands before.’ This meaning is never lost whether it be translated leader, president, protector or patron . . . Its verbal form is proistanai (cf. Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17), a term used of male church leaders elsewhere in the New Testament.

 In his first letter to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome used the masculine form of prostatis (prostatēs) in relation to Jesus [10]:

This is the way, beloved, in which we found our salvation; even Jesus Christ, the high priest of our oblations, the champion [prostatēs] and defender of our weakness. 1 Clement 36:1,  translation by Charles Hoole.

This is the way, dearly beloved, wherein we found our salvation, even Jesus Christ the High priest of our offerings, the Guardian [prostatēs] and Helper of our weakness. 1 Clement 36:1, translation by J. B. Lightfoot.

. . . to thee do we give thanks through the high priest and protector [prostatēs] of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom to thee be the glory and majesty, now and to all generations, world without end. Amen. 1 Clement 61:3b, translation by Charles Hoole.

. . . we praise Thee through the High priest and Guardian [prostatēs] of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom be the glory and the majesty unto Thee both now and for all generations and for ever and ever. Amen.  1 Clement 61:3b, translation by J.B. Lightfoot

Working Women in the New TestamentOne meaning of prostatis is “patron”.[11] This meaning ties in with Paul’s statement that Phoebe had helped many people including himself. A patron, or benefactor, held a highly respected and influential position in the society of that time. In fact, leadership and benefaction went hand in hand. (Cohick 2009:190) Phoebe would have had to be wealthy to be a patron. (Like Paul, Jesus was also the recipient of patronage from independently wealthy women.  Women travelled with Jesus and supported him using their own money. Luke 8:1-3.)

Image: Mosaic of wealthy Roman woman, 1st Century AD, Pompeii.

It seems that Phoebe travelled widely for the sake of the Gospel. In his commentary on Romans 16:1-2, Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393-460) writes, “[Paul] opened the world to her and in every land and sea she is celebrated. For not only do the Romans and Greeks know her, but even all the barbarians.” Phoebe was not a stay-at-home wife and mother. She was active as a diakonos and prostatis in the church of Cenchreae and further afield. [More on Phoebe here.]

The Complementarian View of Working Women

Regardless of clear Biblical examples of women who worked outside the home and held positions of influence, hierarchical complementarians state that God has created men, and not women, with an orientation towards work.[12]  The Bible verse they use to back this statement is Genesis 2:15.

The LORD God took the human and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Genesis 2:15

The first woman had not yet been formed when Adam was told to care for the earth in Genesis 2:15. She  simply wasn’t around. So while this verse may be understood to indicate that Adam and, by extension, men were created to work, it cannot be understood to imply that only men, and not women, were created to work. Moreover, caring for young children (which most people feel is mainly a woman’s role) feels very much like hard work at times.

Young Women with Young Children

Complementarians promote the idea that the “biblical” ideal is that women stay at home. They teach that the woman’s primary domain (or dominion) is in the home, caring for her husband and children, while the man’s primary domain (or dominion) is outside of the home working for money.[13]

The only time that the Bible mentions that women should stay at home is in two instructions regarding young women. In his letter to Titus (who was stationed in Crete), Paul wrote that the older women should, “… teach younger women to love their husbands and children to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.” (Tit. 2:4b-5).

In his first letter to Timothy (who was stationed in Ephesus), Paul wrote, “ I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach …” (1 Tim. 5:14).[14]

Paul gives his reason for these two sets of instructions: He did not want the word of God to be maligned by opponents of the Christian faith. Paul wanted the young women to uphold the current cultural ideal of the virtuous Roman matron who were from the upper classes. (Our Western cultural mores are very different.)

Paul did not want the young wives of Crete or the young widows of Ephesus bringing disrepute to Christianity by being idle and lazy, and by having the appearance of any sort of shameful misconduct. It seems that the young Christian wives in Crete may have been bad wives and mothers as the instructions in Titus 2:4-5 are very basic indeed.

The situation in Ephesus was different.  Some people in the Ephesian church were forbidding marriage (1 Tim. 4:3). To counteract this heresy, Paul encouraged the young widows to get married.

Paul’s instructions were specifically related to young women of child-bearing age. Nowhere does the Bible give any indication that girls or older women should be confined to the home or restricted to domestic duties. Furthermore, Paul’s instructions to the young wives and widows were given to a specific group of women in specific churches situated in a culture very different from our own, and cannot be taken as universal timeless directives to all women.

I personally think it is important for mothers with young children not to have the added burden of being in the workforce.[15] Caring for young children is a tremendously important responsibility. I feel sorry for the parents and the children when both parents work outside of the home, and the children are cared for by professionals and “strangers”. Sadly, our culture and our economy in the West makes it very difficult for a parent to stay at home with their young children.

Conclusion

While I think the ideal situation is that parents, the father or the mother, stay at home with young children, I cannot see that God frowns upon working women. The Bible never tries to make the case that women were not made with an orientation for work. Rather, the Bible shows us that many godly women worked.

Priscilla, Lydia and Phoebe worked, travelled and had influential leadership roles in ministry. Interestingly, nothing is mentioned of Lydia’s or Phoebe’s husbands. We do not even know whether any of these women had children. Apart from knowing that Priscilla was married to Aquila, Paul did not identify these women by their family relationships or their domestic situations. Instead they were described and identified by their work, their travels and especially by their ministries.[16]


Endnotes

[1] Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned six times in the New Testament. Priscilla’s name is mentioned before Aquila’s in four of these verses, indicating either her superior rank or her prominence in ministry. Priscilla and Aquila were ministry colleagues of Paul and they led churches in their home in Rome and later in Ephesus. It is clear from the few verses about Priscilla and Aquila that they travelled a great deal in their lifetime. [More on Priscilla here.]

[2] Many new insights about women in New Testament times (gleaned from ancient inscriptions and papyri) are taking a long time to reach Christian ministers (and their congregations), many of whom continue to teach that women were largely confined to the home and domestic duties.

[3] In some cultures, virgin daughters of marriageable age (of wealthy families) were cloistered. It is widely known that in Classical times women in Athens were cloistered, but women in Sparta had great freedoms and powers. In New Testament times, women in Macedonia (which included the cities of Philippi and Thessalonica, etc,) had great freedoms and powers.

[4] Rome held an imperial monopoly over the purple dye extracted from the muricid mollusc (Tyrian murex). This mollusc flourished in the waters near Thyatira where Lydia was from. (Cohick 2009:188-189)

[5] “Luke presents [Lydia] as master in the home, for she leads her household in baptism, much the same way as the jailer does later in the story (Acts 16:33-34). Moreover, she invites Paul and Silas into her home, again presenting a picture of one in charge of the household. . . that she had a home large enough to accommodate Paul and his group, as well as the finances to care for their needs, suggests that she was wealthy . . . Lydia is portrayed as a benefactor, a very privileged position in the Hellenistic world (including Judaisim) . . . Leadership and benefaction went hand in hand  . . . .” (Cohick 2009:189-190)

[6] Paul met Lydia at a Jewish meeting. Paul only addresses women (Acts 16:13). He did not seem to have felt it was inappropriate for him to join the women and tell them about Jesus.

[7] More about the role of letter carriers in New Testament times here.

[8] Whenever Paul uses the term diakonos he uses it in reference to an agent with a sacred commission. Even the diakonos in Romans 13:4, who is a magistrate or other government minister, is described as an agent with a sacred commission: as a “diakonos of God”. In 1 Corinthians 11, however, Paul refers to false apostles as diakonoi (“agents”) of Satan (1 Cor. 11:13-15). All other diakonoi in Paul’s letters refer to Christian ministers. These include: Paul (Rom. 15:25; 1 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, etc), Epaphras (Col. 1:7), Tychicus (Eph. 6:21-22; Col. 4:7-9), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5) and even Jesus Christ (Mark 10:42-45; Rom. 15:8).

[9] Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians (Sydney: Collins Dove Publishers, 1992)

[10] I am indebted to Suzanne McCarthy for pointing this out.

[11] LSJ lexicon (pp. 1526–27) identifies prostatis as the feminine form of prostatēs, for which it gives the following meanings: “one who stands before, front-rank man . . . leader, chief . . . ruler . . . chief authors . . . administrator . . . president or presiding officer . . . one who stands before and protects, guardian, champion . . . patron . . . suppliant . . . .”

[12] This statement is found in a course (designed for young people) that promotes complementarian gender roles.  A sample of the course can be found on John Piper’s website “Desiring God” here.

[13] The concept of the two domains: the outer, public domain for men and the inner, private domain for women was first put forward by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. [More about Aristotle and his views on men and women here.]

[14] It seems that the idle widows may have been helping the spread of a proto-Gnostic, or syncretistic, heresy that was plaguing the Ephesian church by going door to door with their silly talk (1 Tim. 5:13-15 cf. 1 Tim. 1:3; 6:20-21). [My articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 in Context here.]

[15] This is a verse I often give to new mothers:

[God] tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.  Isaiah 40:11 (NIV 2011) cf. Genesis 33:13-14.

[15] The way the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) board members are listed on this page is a ridiculous example of a hierarchical gender bias. The male board members are identified by their professional ministry titles. The women, however, are identified primarily as homemakers (except for one lady whose primary descriptor is “pastor’s wife”); this is despite the fact that these women are writers, speakers and university professors, etc.

In contrast to Paul, the CBMW see a woman’s identity as primarily linked with her role in the home and who she is married too. They consider that a woman’s outside interests, talents, skills, titles, ministries or career are not nearly as important as being a homemaker. Yet no Bible woman is identified primarily as a homemaker. The CBMW are going beyond what the Bible says about women.


Further Reading:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Lynn H. Cohick’s book, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life, Baker Academic, 2009. It is one of the resources I used for this article.


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Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea
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Mark Chanski on Gender Roles
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