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Present and Accounted For: Women in the New Testament

On February 02, 2017

The recent winter issue of CBE's Mutuality magazine was themed, "New Testament Women." Its articles discuss Martha, the Samaritan woman of John 4, the "Chosen Lady" of 2 John, Anna of Luke 2, and others. The forthcoming spring 2017 issue of Priscilla Papers, CBE's academic journal, will be on the same theme and will include articles on various New Testament women. Arise, CBE's blog, has also recently featured some New Testament women (here and here).

In addition, I recently purchased Cynthia Westfall's excellent new book, Paul and Gender. For these reasons and others, I've been reading and thinking a lot about New Testament women lately.

There is, of course, much to be said about the women who appear in the New Testament. The resources mentioned above are only the tip of the iceberg. Thus, we shouldn’t expect one article to answer all our questions: What does Phoebe’s status as deacon imply? How did Priscilla relate to Aquila when they taught together? What sorts of prophetic messages did Philip’s daughters utter? What can we know about Damaris of Acts 17?

Instead of deliberating focused questions such as these, I want to make an overarching observation. And, like many broad observations, it is one that often goes overlooked.

My observation is this: New Testament authors assume that women are in their audience. In Philippians 4:2, for example, Paul says, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord” (CEB). Reading this verse in its context makes it clear that Paul assumes Euodia and Syntyche will be present when his letter is read aloud to the Philippian congregation.

Similarly, when Paul addresses a letter “To Philemon our dearly loved coworker, Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house” (CEB), he assumes with confidence that Apphia herself will be present to hear his words. When Luke begins the Parable of the Lost Sheep with the words, “What man …” (Luke 15:4), he immediately adds the Parable of the Lost Coin, which opens with the words, “Or what woman …” (15:8).

New Testament authors pictured women among their readers and hearers. Now consider, for example, how this realization might affect our hearing of a passage such as Paul’s opening thanksgiving in Philippians 1:3-6: “I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus” (CEB). I’ve underlined the several places in the passage where Paul speaks to both men and women.

Not only are women in the audience, but they are present with, even working alongside, the New Testament authors themselves. In 2 Timothy 4:21, for example, Paul says, “Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, Claudia, and all the brothers and sisters say hello” (CEB). Here, Paul mentions four co-workers, three men and one woman. Then he offers greetings from “all the brothers,” clearly demonstrating that the traditional translation “brothers” is better understood as “brothers and sisters.”

New Testament authors believed that their audiences (those they wrote to) included both men and women, and this stands in contrast to various Old Testament texts, most famously the Ten Commandments, which are clearly written with only male readers and hearers in mind (based on the grammar and on the absence of “your neighbor’s husband” from the list of people and things not to be coveted; see Exodus 20:17 and Deuteronomy 5:21; for other examples, see Joshua 1:14 or the prohibitions in Leviticus 18.6-23).

The phrase “present and accounted for,” in addition to being the title of this article, is simply a formal way of indicating that a person is demonstrably present. To paraphrase, it means something like, “I belong here, I am here, and I can prove it.” Likewise, women in the New Testament are present and accounted for. They belong in the New Testament. They are in the New Testament. And we can prove it.

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