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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.
Some may be surprised to realise that a respectable Jewish woman was engaged in a trade in the first 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.
More on Priscilla here.
Working Women in the Bible
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; Tobit 2:11ff NRSV; 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), leaders (Judg. ch 4-5; 2 Sam. 20:16) and ruling queens (1 Kings 10:1ff; Acts 8:27). 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. In the Greco-Roman world, the setting of the New Testament, women could work in just about every profession. A woman 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 in the Greek East of the Roman Empire, but the practice was neither standard nor universal. In Bible times most people were poor, and poor people (men and women, and even children) worked hard for their livelihood. Moreover, in the Greco-Roman world, many men, women, and children were slaves, and slaves worked.
Image: Relief of a women grocer. Ostia, Italy.
Lydia the Merchant
Even some wealthy women worked. Lydia was a wealthy businesswoman. 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). As well as being a businesswoman, Lydia appears to have been the one in charge of her household.
Lydia was Paul’s first Christian convert in Europe. She responded to Paul’s message when he visited her town of Philippi. Subsequently, the fledgeling 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 jailer’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 here.
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 may have been a patron or benefactor. We can be more certain, however, that Phoebe was a patron.
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 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 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. Phoebe was a Christian minister in the church of Cenchreae. She was also a prostatis. This word and its cognates can mean “leader.”
Kevin Giles writes:
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.
One meaning of prostatis is “patron.” 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. 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.)
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. So Paul must have thought highly of Phoebe to entrust her with the delivery of his letter.
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.
Adam and Eve and Working Women
Regardless of clear biblical examples of women who worked and who held positions of influence, some Christians claim that God has created men, and not women, with an orientation towards work. A Bible verse sometimes used to back this claim is Genesis 2:15.
Then the Lord God took the human and put him into the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. Genesis 2:15
The first woman had not yet been formed when Adam was told to care for the garden. 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.
Furthermore, Genesis 5 tells us that Adam was 130 years old when Seth, the third son, was born. Even if Eve had given birth to a few daughters as well, what has she been doing all these years? Are we meant to envisage that she never tilled the ground alongside Adam? Moreover, caring for young children, which has traditionally been a woman’s role, feels very much like hard work at times (as does carrying water which is often delegated to women).
A discussion on Eve’s role as helper is here.
Young Women with Young Children
Some Christians 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. The only time the Bible mentions that women should stay at home, however, is in two instructions regarding young women.
In his letter to Titus (who was stationed in Crete), Paul wrote that the older women should “encourage the young women to love their husbands and to love their children, to be self-controlled, pure, workers at home, kind, and in submission to their husbands, so that God’s word will not be slandered.” (Tit. 2:4-5 CSB).
In his first letter to Timothy (who was stationed in Ephesus), Paul wrote, “So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” (1 Tim. 5:14 NIV).
Paul gives his reason for these two sets of instructions: He did not want the word of God to be slandered by opponents of the Christian faith. Paul wanted the young (free) women to uphold the current cultural ideal of virtuous Roman matrons. (The culture in western societies today 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, or by having the appearance of any sort of shameful misconduct. Perhaps the young Christian wives in Crete were not good wives or mothers; the instructions in Titus 2:4-5 are very basic. Furthermore, the instructions are similar to advice given by pagan women to young wives. Paul’s instruction directly reflects the cultural values, and language, of his day.
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, some of whom were idle, 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 the domestic sphere. 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.
Caring for young children is a tremendously important responsibility. It is unfortunate when parents work outside of the home and young children are cared for by professionals and “strangers.” Sadly, our culture and our economy in the West, and in other parts of the world, make it difficult for a parent to stay at home with their young children.
While the ideal situation is that parents, the father or the mother, or another relative, 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 tells us that many women worked without the slightest hint of censure.
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 three 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, but especially by their faith and ministries to the church.
 Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned six times in the Greek New Testament. Priscilla’s name is mentioned before Aquila’s in four of these verses. This may indicate 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.
 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.
 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, wealthy women in Macedonia (which included the cities of Philippi and Thessalonica) had a deal of freedom and power.
 Lynn Cohick notes,
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 Judaism) … Leadership and benefaction went hand in hand …”
Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (Baker Academic, 2009),189-190.
 Paul met Lydia at a Jewish meeting comprised of only, or mostly, 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.
 Paul typically uses the term diakonos for 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, a “diakonos of God.” In 1 Corinthians 11, however, Paul refers to false apostles as diakonoi (“agents”) of Satan (1 Cor. 11:13-15). Diakonoi in Paul’s letters are typically 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).
 Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians (Sydney: Collins Dove Publishers, 1992).
 The LSJ lexicon identifies prostatis as the feminine form of prostatēs and 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 …”
Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Ninth Edition, revised by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1996), 1526-27.
(LSJ is online here.)
 More about the role of letter carriers in New Testament times here.
 This statement is found in a course designed for young people that promotes complementarian gender roles: men are leaders with authority, women are submissive assistants of men. A sample of the course was on John Piper’s website “Desiring God” but is no longer online.
 The concept of the two domains—the outer, public domain for men and the inner, private domain for women—was first promoted by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. [More about Aristotle and his views on men and women here.] But in Greco-Roman society, there is not always a clear demarcation between the two spheres. Many businesses and trades operated from homes.
 It seems that the idle young widows may have been helping the spread of a 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 here.]
 The pagan Theano, for example, instructed the younger women to listen to the teaching of older women:
Indeed, to you younger women authority has been given by custom to rule over the household slaves once you have been married, but the teaching (didaskalia) ought to come from the older women (presbyterōn) because they are forever giving advice about household management. For it is good first to learn the things you do not know and to consider the counsel of the older women the most suitable; for a young soul must be brought up in these teachings from girlhood.
Quoted by Annette Bourland Huizenga in her book, Moral Education for Women in the Pastoral and Pythagorean Letters: Philosophers of the Household. (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2013), 50.
 Similar words and concepts that occur in Titus 2:4-5 are also frequently found on epitaphs expressing the virtues of deceased pagan wives. On the coffin cartonnage of a pagan woman, who died around the same time as the letter to Titus was written, are inscribed these words:
Here lies Valeria, daughter of Marcus, of free-born status from Caesarea in Mauritania. She was kind, affectionate, dignified, blameless, she loved her husband (philandros [as in Tit. 2:4]), loved her children (philoteknos [as in Tit. 2:4]), kept the marriage bed chaste. Out of respect and love for what is good, her husband Lucius Dexios from Herculaneum buried her. AE 828; SEG 1536.
This epitaph is discussed by G.H.R. Horsley in “11. A Woman’s Virtue,” New Documents illustrating early Christianity, Vol. 3 (North Ryde: The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1983), 40-43. In the same article, Horsley provides more examples of epitaphs of wives with the words philandros and philoteknos. See also “80” in New Docs Vol. 2.
 The way the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) board members are listed on this page is an unfortunate example of gender bias. The male board members are identified by their professional titles. The women, however, are identified firstly 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 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 to. 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.
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A fresco showing two women and a man working together. From the fullonica (dyer’s shop) of Veranius Hypsaeus in Pompeii. (Wikimedia)
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. It is available through the publisher and Amazon.
“Busy at Home”: How does Titus 2:4-5 apply today?
Bible Women who weren’t “Keepers at Home”
Did Priscilla Teach Apollos?
At Home with Priscilla and Aquila
Lydia of Thyatira: The founding member of the Philippian church
Phoebe: Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea
Partnering Together: Paul’s Female Coworkers
Is motherhood the highest calling for women?
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
The Women who Protected Moses