Sunday, May 24
Today’s discussion is a REALLY fascinating one about the role of women in the New Testament and the early church.
In today’s episode, looking at the last chapter of Philippians, Chris and Brennan are joined by renowned New Testament scholar Beverly Gaventa, a longtime member of the faculty at Princeton (Presbyterian) Seminary and more recently on the faculty at Baylor University.
At the very beginning of today’s passage, in Phil 4:2, Paul mentions two prominent women in the Philippian church who seem to be in conflict. Scholars believe that these women were likely important and influential members of the congregation in order for their conflict to rise to the level of Paul’s attention from a distant city. Whatever their disagreements were, it seemed to be having an effect on the overall congregation.
Chris, Brennan, and Beverly then discuss at length the role of women in the early church. To acquaint yourself with some of the relevant passages, read Romans 16 and 1 Timothy 2.
In Romans 16:3 Paul mentions Prisca and Aquila. Prisca, the woman and presumably the wife of Aquila, is listed first by Paul which would indicate (especially in a very hierarchical Roman society) that she was the more important and prominent of the two. Paul mentions both as his coworkers. He also mentions “the church in their house” so they seem to be relatively well off, and in the dynamics of their day, if Prisca is of more prominent status than her husband (which could be due to several factors in Roman society), then she is most likely the defacto head of the congregation in their house.
In the same passage Paul mentions Phoebe who is apparently delivering the letter to Rome. Most scholars believe that Phoebe must have been a woman of some means and was likely travelling to Rome on business. A woman in her day would not have traveled to simply deliver a letter. Paul says that she is a deacon, and unlike how some modern and more conservative interpreters have chosen to view it, for Paul there does not seem to be a separate category of women “deaconess'”. Paul also says she is a “benefactor of many”. While we may think of benefactor in the modern sense as simply a generous person who gives some money to help someone or something, in Roman society the term “benefactor” was a technical term. Wealthy people served as “benefactors” to various “clients” who had a great amount of responsibility (even legally) to the benefactor. So Phoebe seemed to have a large network of people who essentially were under her influence and, to some degree, control. Yet these were not servants. It was more of a business arrangement that benefited both parties. Phoebe was then likely a very prominent leader in her church.
Now compare these notions of women leaders in two of Paul’s letters to how 1 Timothy describes the work of women in the church. For multiple reasons, most scholars today believe that 1 Timothy was most likely written by a disciple of Paul at the very end of the 1st Century, long after the death of Paul. Writing a letter in the name and theological tradition of a prominent person (called pseudonymity) was common in Biblical times. But such things as what appears to be a stark contrast between Paul’s description of women in the church in Philippians and Romans (both recognized as a authentic Pauline letters) and the language describing women in 1 Timothy (as well as the household codes describing wives in, for example, Ephesians which is also likely a pseudonymous letter written later by a disciple of Paul) are why scholars believe some letters were not really written by Paul (along with some differences in language, historical situations that are described, and most of differences in theology).
Beverly mentions how suddenly in the early 20th century, there was a rash of reinterpretations of the name Junia (from Romans 16:7). Up to that point, she was always mentioned as a woman. Yet suddenly, many people starting saying that it must really be Junius (a man’s name) because the person is so prominently mentioned among the apostles, and clearly a woman would not be included among the apostles. Beverly states her belief that some of these sorts of “reinterpretations” may have been in reaction to the women’s suffrage movement.
The entire discussion raises the issue of how we approach our interpretation and prioritization of certain scriptures with an agenda, and we do not really learn what the whole scriptural witness tells us. Our social views (conservative or progressive either one) definitely cloud how we read scripture, which scriptures we prioritize, and which scriptures we ignore.
Do you think you have learned something today about the role of women in the New Testament?
Where has this discussion helped you think about this issue in a different light?
How do you think this discussion might affect the way you approach other “hot button” biblical and social issues?