Some Christians think that the acceptance of women as leaders and teachers in churches is a recent phenomenon backed by innovative and faulty interpretations of the Bible. So I was interested to read that Adolf Harnack, a staunch Lutheran and respected church historian, was honest and approving in his appraisal of the ministry of New Testament women in his work Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten. Especially as this work was published in 1902, more than a century ago.
Harnack begins his section on women in ministry with this statement: “It is quite clear that women appeared in the local assemblies with the consent of the apostle [Paul] and that they prayed and prophesied in public” (cf. 1 Cor 11:5f). (p. 217) Harnack then mentions several women by name with a few lines describing each of their ministries. Here are brief excerpts from just a few of these descriptions.
It is “probable that she was a woman of property and a patroness (not an employee) of the church at Cenchrea.” (p. 219)
“She was a fellow-labourer of Paul i.e. a missionary and at the same time the leader of a small church, and both of these injunctions imply that she taught.” (p. 219)
Harnack has quite a few things to say about Prisca (or Priscilla). He even has her name in a footnote on page 223 as the possible author of the letter to the Hebrews. (More on this speculative idea here.)
“From Colossians 4:15 we learn that there was a conventicle in Colosse presided over by a woman called Nympha, for it was in her house that the meetings took place.” (p. 220)
(‘Conventicle’ means a small religious meeting.)
“From the Apocalypse we hear of a Christian, though heretical, prophetess at Thyatira called Jezebel who seduced the church. Which tacitly presupposes that women could be, and actually were, prophetesses.” (p. 223)
Alke and Gavia
Harnack mentions these two women from the church at Smyrna, who he associates with the ‘chosen lady’ in 2 John. (p. 223-224) Alke and Gavia were prominent women in the Smyrnean church in the early second century. They were possibly house church leaders or in charge of a group of celibate women. The two women are mentioned in the collection of writings known as the Apostolic Fathers.
The Chosen Lady
Harnack notes that this woman, who was a recipient of John’s second letter, held “a prominent position in an unknown church in Asia.” He adds, “She appears to have been distinguished for exceptional hospitality, and the author therefore warns her in a friendly way against receiving heretical itinerant teachers into her house.” (p. 224)
Unfortunately, Junia is absent from Harnack’s discussion. Ever since Luther’s German translation of Junia’s name as “den Juniam” (which is masculine), many Germans, including Harnack, have wrongly supposed that Junia was a man. Nevertheless, Harnack acknowledges in a footnote that Chrysostom took Junia to be a woman with the feminine name “Junia”. (More on this here.)
Despite recognising that women were ministers, and even claiming that Prisca could qualify for the title “apostle” (p. 219), Harnack is conflicted about a few of Paul’s instructions concerning women and ministry. He offers the suggestion that Paul allowed women to pray and prophesy in an ecstatic state “over which no one could exercise control”, but that they were forbidden from public instruction. (p. 218) I don’t accept this explanation. Paul did not allow uncontrolled charismatic ministry in church meetings (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26-40).
Harnack also makes an interesting comment about the prominence of women in heretical Christian groups which he loosely labels as “gnostics”: “Among the gnostics especially, the women played a great role, for the gnostic looked not to the sex but to the Spirit.” (p. 229) Women did have more freedom to minister in some second-century groups that were considered unorthodox, but we have little evidence of what either men or women did in meetings of actual gnostics. Nevertheless, the principle Harnack is making is sound as it is gifting, especially spiritual gifting, and not gender, that qualifies a person for Christian ministry. With gifting in mind, Harnack correctly notes that Prisca could not have taken part “in missionary work and in teaching unless she had been inspired and set apart by the Holy Spirit.” (p. 219) This should hold true for men as well as women ministers.
I don’t know a lot about Harnack, but I have shared these quotations here because they demonstrate that the understanding that women were leaders and teachers in New Testament churches is neither new nor novel. Over one hundred years ago, well before equality was accepted as a social ideal in Germany and other parts of the western world, Adolf Harnack acknowledged that the New Testament presents certain women as the leaders and teachers of their churches.
 I’m quoting from the English translation by James Moffatt of Harnack’s The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Vol. 2 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998), 217ff. The quotations come from volume 2, book 4, chapter 2, section 4 of The Expansion. (Online source.)
Here’s more on what he says about Prisca on page 222.
 Not including Junia, Harnack counts fifteen women and eighteen men who were greeted by Paul in Romans 16. (p. 220). He wrote, “. . . no fewer than fifteen women are saluted, alongside of eighteen men [in Romans 16], and all these must have rendered important services to the church, or to the apostle, or to both . . .” (p.220). However, I can only count ten women and, unlike Harnack, I include Junia. These ten women are Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Prisca (v.3-5a), Mary (v.6), Junia (v.7), Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis (v.12), Rufus’ mother (v.13), Julia, (v.15), and Nereus’ sister. Who are the other six who Harnack thought were women?
Are “Hermas” (v.14) and “Olympas” (v.15) actually the feminine names “Herma” and “Olympa”? (The more usual feminine forms are “Hermia” and “Olympia”.) I’ve seen it suggested that “Herodion” (v.11) is really the feminine name “Herodiana,” but I can’t see that this is possible. Many of the names in Romans 16, such as Herodion, are given with a description, and the grammatical gender of the description helps us to ascertain the actual gender of the person, but other names such as Herma(s) and Olympa(s) give us no clues of their gender.
 Harnack was (and still is) a respected historian but I disagree with some of his theological views. Unlike Harnack, I believe in Jesus’ incarnation and miraculous ministry. I have a collection of statements from evangelical scholars about women in ministry here.
You can support my work for as little as $3 USD a month.
Become a Patron!
Prominent Biblical Scholars on Women in Ministry
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Paul and Women, in a Nutshell
Phoebe: Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea
Did Priscilla Teach Apollos?
Jezebel of Thyatira: A Female False Prophet
Articles on Junia here.
The Church in Smyrna and her Women
The Means of Ministry: Gifts, Grace, Faith . . . Gender?
Chrysostom on 5 NT Women Leaders
Atto of Vercelli on Female Priests/Elders in the Early Church
2 thoughts on “Harnack’s positive descriptions of NT women ministers”
Thank you for this post, Marg.
I don’t buy Harnack’s explanation of women only prophesying in an extatic state either, but I’ve noticed lately that some who oppose women in ministry apparently do.
Whenever Miriam, Deborah, Abigail, Phoebe, Prisca or any other Bible woman is put forward as evidence of female leadership, those opposed will often belittle the role she played. But, failing that, her being inspired is instead used as a dismissive argument. It’s “Well, Miriam was inspired by the Spirit to sing, so it’s not strange that she did”, or “Well, Philip’s daughters aren’t called ‘prophets’, it just says that they prophesied – and how could they not if they were inspired?”
On a good day, this reasoning amuses me in its absurdity; on a bad day it really annoys me. It suggests that God only chooses women as an exception, and that women, unlike men, have to be extraordinariliy, “uncontrollably”, gifted to be considered for leadership. Drawn to its extreme, this reasoning suggests that the Holy Spirit, who gives indiscriminately, still discriminates between men and women. Why we as humans would choose to uphold opressive hierarchies and in doing so effectively limit God’s use of and work among His people, rather than rejoice in the awesome and amazing grace and gifts that have been given to all believers to build up and strengthen the body of Christ is beyond me.
I’ve noticed too that there are Christians who believe prophetesses and female ministers in the Bible ministered in some kind of ad hoc, improvised, or ecstatic manner, but when we read the Bible carefully we see this just isn’t true.
There was a recognised place for prophetesses in Israel. They had a respected role and were free to exercise their ministry with the authority that comes with a God-ordained ministry. We know that Deborah and Huldah were relied upon and sought out by prominent, powerful men. These men recognised the authority and wisdom of these women prophetic leaders. No one seems to quibble over the fact that Anna was a known prophetess who was a “fixture” in the Temple, and told everyone, men and women, about the deliverance of Israel.
Miriam’s song was most likely not ad hoc or ecstatic. I’ve written about the role of women in leading the Israelite community in mourning and celebrations here.
And the idea that Philip’s daughters weren’t true prophetesses shows a lack of understanding of the Greek use of participles. It also shows an ignorance of Church history. Philip’s daughters were highly regarded as prophetesses by the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church. More on them here.
Many of the complementarian arguments are ignorant, annoying and just plain tiresome.