Tell their stories on radio! Learn More

Radio Series: Women in Scripture and Mission

Ancient women on bible

Christian history is full of remarkable women. Here we highlight women in the Old Testament, New Testament, and in mission since the early days of the church to the twenty-first century. Some of their lives are complex, where there is much to say. Others are barely remembered. However, their stories are worth knowing. They were created in God’s image as a strong rescue, and through the power of the Holy Spirit they prophesy, heal, preach, teach, create, lead, fight, nurture, protect, and disciple others. All-in-all, these leaders provide the church with a window into how women are an integral part of God’s work in our world.

Like Moses, Elizabeth was a Levite descendant. Elderly and pregnant with John the Baptist, her son was the forerunner to the Savior. Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black* highlights the significance of God’s choice of Elizabeth to bear a son who would announce the coming Messiah. Elizabeth represented both communal and personal suffering, which God would begin to address in the birth of her son. Like all her people, she lived under the oppressive rule of the Romans, but as a Levite, the worship of her tribe reminded the people of God’s character in saving the Hebrews from slavery. As a barren woman, Elizabeth did not have the joy or reassurance of children to care for her in her old age or to carry on their family name. Scripture is laden with descriptions of the social stigma and pain associated with barren women. God interceded in this situation with a son in her old age, healing her personal suffering. But this son also addressed the communal need for a liberating God, symbolized in John the Baptist residing in the desert like Moses. God chose Elizabeth to honor God’s liberation of the Levites while also demonstrating his personal concern for the suffering of individuals.

Beyond the symbolic choice of Elizabeth, Luke contrasts her reaction to conceiving a child to that of her husband Zechariah. God struck Zechariah mute because of his doubt in God’s word, whereas the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth with the gift of prophecy to speak of the Lord. When Mary came to visit, Elizabeth identified her as the mother of her Lord. She too, was the one to declare the name of her own son, John. Zechariah’s speech only returned when he agreed with her.

Elizabeth begins the cluster of New Testament women prophets who informed the people of Jesus’ coming significance. She was the first to identify the Lord. In Elizabeth’s presence, Mary prophesied what has been called the Magnifcat, revealing that Jesus’ coming will overturn the powerful to raise the weak. And when the infant Jesus entered the temple with his mother, Mary, and Joseph, Anna recognized Jesus and with her gift of prophecy she taught the people who were assembled.

To see more on God’s empowerment of women at critical times, read: “At Critical Moments,” by Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, August 10, 2011.

*As an Amazon Associate CBE earns from qualifying purchases.

Old Testament Women

Eve

by Kimberly Dickson

“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper (ezer) as his partner’” (Gen. 2:18 NRSV).

Eve at Creation

God declares that it is not good for Adam to be alone, and he rescued Adam through the creation of Eve. Scripture repeatedly describes God as ezer, a Hebrew word meaning “strong rescue.” This is most familiar to us in Psalm 121:1-2, “I lift my eyes up to the mountains, where does my ezer (my help) come from? My ezer (my help) comes from the Lord, the Maker of the Heavens and the Earth.” Here we understand that “helper” is a strong rescue. In fact, ezer is used 21 times in scripture, most often to describe God’s strong rescue of Israel. 

Created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), as a strong rescue (Gen. 2:18), Eve rescues Adam from governing creation alone. The creation context of Genesis 2 concerns the garden which provides the source for man’s work and sustenance, as well as his need for a strong partner in governing it. Yet Christian teachings have misconstrued Eve’s strong rescue to mean that women’s purpose is to rescue men from their sexual temptations.1 This passage NEVER mentions or alludes to sex or reproduction. In fact, in Genesis 2, God specifically forms the animals to see if they might provide a strong rescue and partner for Adam in governing. They do not. Adam’s rescue can only come from one who shares God’s image, which the animals do not. So, God puts him into a deep sleep and creates Eve from Adam’s side. Then Adam immediately recognizes that Eve shares his substance. In a beautiful poem of delight, we read: 

“This one at last, bone of my bones 

       And flesh of my flesh; 

 This one shall be called ‘woman’ 

       For out of man this one has been taken” Genesis 2:22 (NAB) 

As the garden sustains both Adam and Eve, together they both worked to preserve and care for it. With their shared spiritual and physical origins, Adam and Eve shared authority together in caring for creation.  

To learn more on the creation of Eve, see “Created in God’s Image: Theological and Social Impact” by John Wijngaards.

Notes

  1. Mark Driscoll, pastor of a former mega-church with multiple satellite churches in Seattle, Washington, regularly taught this heresy. See the podcast,
  2. Mike Cosper, “The Things We Do to Women,” July 26, 2021 in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, podcast, 56 min. 

Sarah

by Kimberly Dickson

Sarah, like all humanity, is complicated. Much of her story is resonant with the sex-trafficking underworld we’ve learned so much about in past decades. Sarah was both Abraham’s wife and his half-sister, something the Mosaic law later condemns (Lev. 18:9). Twice, Abraham objectified Sarah’s beauty to save his own life. He offered her to the leaders of the lands to take and “know” as their wife. Like prostitutes controlled by their pimps, she supported Abraham’s misleading story that she was his sister rather than his wife (Gen.12:11-20; Gen. 20:1-7). In Egypt, sold for Abraham’s life and welfare, she acquired her own slave, Hagar (Gen. 16:1). Though Sarah was beautiful, she was barren, unable to bear children. She aged without the comfort of knowing she would have a child to carry on her legacy, to care for her in her old age, and to be her glory. But she was resourceful. Having been traded for sex, Sarah also gave her slave to her husband to bear a child. According to Ancient Near East law, the child born to the slave would be considered Sarah’s own child.1 Though a survivor of abuse, she was also an abuser, so much so that her slave Hagar fled from her into the desert (Gen. 16:1-9). Later, Sarah required Abraham to expel Hagar and her child from the family, and he complied. Intertwined in this story is an amazing degree of freedom and equality between Sarah and Abraham. Though Abraham victimized Sarah, by the time they were old, she had earned his ear and his respect. In fact, Jewish tradition celebrates their oneness and equality.2

Amid the abuse Sarah endured in a patriarchal society, and the abuse she perpetuated— God entered her story and showed himself as a God of redemption. God noticed her laughter as God promised she would bear a son in her old age, and God instructed Abraham to listen to and follow her (Gen. 16:2, 21:12). God ensured the covenant promise came through her rather than any of Abraham’s other wives, “I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Gen. 17:16). At this moment, God changed her name to Sarah, which is the feminine form of chief or prince (Gen. 17:15-19, 21). “A change of name in the Bible indicates a new phase in that person’s cooperation with the divine purpose.”3 She became a chieftess, or princess, as the leader of the tribe of Israel.

To learn more about Sarah’s change of name, see “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38,” by Anna Beresford in Priscilla Papers, Vol 35 no 4 (Autumn 2021), page 11.

To learn about the Jewish perspective on Abraham and Sarah see: “The Oneness of Abraham and Sarah,” by Aliyah Jacobs in Mutuality, December 24, 2014.

Notes

  1. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 226-227.
  2. Aliyah Jacobs, “The Oneness of Abraham and Sarah,” Mutuality (December 24, 2014).
  3. Terrence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” NIB 1:459, quoted in Anna Beresford, “Whose Wife Shall She Be,” Priscilla Papers, 35 No. 4 (Autumn 2021): 11. 

Hagar

by Kimberly Dickson

Hagar’s story is recorded in Genesis 16:1-16 and 21:9-19. An Egyptian slave owned by Sarah, Hagar likely joined Sarah while Sarah was part of Pharoah’s household in Egypt, (Gen. 12:10-15). As Sarah lost faith that she would bear a child, she gave Hagar to Abraham to bear a son in her name. It was common practice in the Ancient Near Eastern culture to offer concubines in overcoming infertility.1 In this particular case, Scripture indicates that in bearing a child, Hagar became Abraham’s wife, while remaining Sarah’s slave.

When Hagar became pregnant, her household status increased, inciting Sarah’s jealousy and vindictiveness. With Abraham’s permission, Sarah abused Hagar to the point that she escaped to the desert. Destitute in the desert, God saw Hagar and assured her of his presence and concern for her survival and future by asking her to name her son Ishmael which means “God has heard.” In response, Hagar called God El Roi, the “God who sees.” Hagar is the first person to name God in all of scripture. Womanist, Delores Williams, speculates that for the sake of Hagar and her unborn son’s survival, God asked her to return to her abusive situation.2

Years later Hagar cries out to El Roi. Expelled to the desert by her husband Abraham, at the behest of Sarah, freed from slavery but without resources, Hagar realizes death is closing in. Hearing Ishmael’s cry, God spoke to Hagar. He pointed her to water for their survival and reignited her hope by repeating his promise that he would make her children into a great nation. True to God’s word, her son’s people did become a great nation, with Ishmael’s descendants recorded in Genesis 25:18.

African American women find great affinity with the story of Hagar. They identify with Hagar’s slavery, abuse by an abused woman, escape, and freedom paired with great economic peril. But Hagar also speaks to their experience because God sees, hears, and provides for Hagar’s survival. The gold-standard exegesis of Hagar’s story was written by Womanist author Delores Williams in her book, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk.

To see artwork created by Edmonia Lewis remembering Hagar, see: Six Black Female Artists Christians Should Know by Cara Quinn.

Amy R. Buckly explains Hagar’s story, and God’s amazing interventions to preserve both her and Ishmael’s life in: “In the Midst of the Mess: Hagar and the God Who Sees,” in Mutuality.

To go deeper read: “Cast Out and Cast Off: Hagar, Leah, and the God who Sees,” by I. Daniel Hawk.

Notes

  1. Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible, 226-227. 
  2. Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 20-21. 

Miriam

by Kimberly Dickson

A daughter born into slavery was often named “Mary” as “one who has endured much suffering.” Miriam, or “Mary,” was born under Egyptian slavery at a particularly cruel point in history. Pharoah had ordered the murder of all the baby boys to prevent an uprising. History suggests that the girls were raped so that their children would be rejected by the Hebrews and Egyptians, ensuring they would be made perpetual slaves.1 Despite the great suffering of Miriam’s time, she was a child of courage and ingenuity who saved and protected her baby brother, Moses. She also provided a way for him to know his birth-family and their history by recommending her own mother as his wet nurse.

We later learn of “Miriam the Prophet,” in Exodus 15. Prophets are called and appointed by God to speak God’s word to the people just as Miriam speaks to Israel through her victory song. Here she not only proclaims the death of the enemy, but her song also affirms the death of the Egyptian gods and a growing understanding of YHWH.2 Her importance as a chosen leader of God is remembered in Micah 6:8, where she, Moses, and Aaron are all given credit for bringing the Israelites out of slavery.

Miriam leads the women with “timbrels and dancing” in a victory song known as “The Song of the Sea” or “Miriam’s Song” (Gen. 15:20). Throughout the Old Testament when men returned from battle, they were greeted in song and dance by those remaining behind, the women. Thus, the women were the percussionists (timbrel is a type of small drum), musicians, dancers, and hymn writers. Though Moses has been credited with writing the victory song, the fact that women were the greeting musicians, and that the Dead Sea scrolls attribute eight of the song’s verses to Miriam, cause scholars to presume that Miriam authored the entire song, rather than one verse.3

Miriam is clearly a beloved leader for the people. In Numbers 12:1-16, she and Aaron are disciplined for rebuking Moses. Yet, the people refuse to move on without Miriam. She represents them in their strengths and weaknesses, courageous enough to facilitate their rescue from Egypt, joyous enough to lead them in worship before God, and human enough to fail and be disciplined. Therefore, they wait for her until she is ready to travel with them.

To learn more about the circumstances of Miriam’s birth, see: “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement” by Boaz Johnson.

To learn more about Prophets, see: “Women Prophets in the Old Testament” by Christine Marchetti.

To learn about the scriptural preservation of women’s words in oral tradition, read: “Who First Told the Bible’s Stories and Why It Matters” by Jeff Miller.

Notes

  1. Boaz Johnson, “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality (December 13, 2019).  
  2. Johnson, “The Mary’s of the Bible”.
  3. Carol Meyers, Exodus: The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (NY: The Cambridge University Press, 2005), 116-119. 

Zipporah

by Kimberly Dickson

Moses married Zipporah, a shepherd and daughter to Jethro the Midianite, a priest of YHWH the Lord. Moses first met Zipporah in the wilderness when she and her sisters were being harassed by other shepherds as they tried to water their sheep at a well. A rich scriptural tradition of shepherding informs an imagination of Zipporah’s life, that ranges from Jacob shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep, David protecting his sheep from lions with a simple sling, and to Jesus describing a God who leaves his 99 sheep to find the one that is lost. Shepherding is dangerous work, filled with physical toil, sacrifice, and for females, harassment as they care for their flock. Ultimately, though, it is a life that is characterized by quick instincts that ensure their flocks are protected and can thrive. In this case, Moses defended the girls and helped them water their sheep. Scripture tells us that Zipporah’s father was so impressed with Moses, he invited him to stay with them, ultimately giving Zipporah to Moses as a wife (Exod. 2:16-22).

The fact that Zipporah’s father was a priest is crucial to this story. Zipporah’s upbringing in a wise, priestly family provided her with understanding in the ways of worship. When God confronted Moses and was ready to kill him, Zipporah interceded as a priest would in approaching God. As surprising as this is to our western sensibilities, history confirms that female priestly roles were part of Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Zipporah’s word choice,selection of instrument (the flint), and the way she circumcised her son reflects her knowledge of priestly work.1 Together, with her shepherd’s instinct to protect the flock, and her priestly knowledge, she quickly appeased the wrath of the Lord, and saved Moses’ life (Exod. 4:24-26).2

Zipporah is discussed in several books reviewed by CBE. See a review of Imagining Equity by Katie Strand Winslow, who looks at outside women who engage in God’s work of preserving life, including such women as Zipporah.

Also, see Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us About Freedom by Kelley Nikondeha.

Notes

  1. Carol Meyers discusses the fact that Zipporah demonstrates priestly knowledge. Carol Meyers, Exodus: The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (NY: The Cambridge University Press, 2005), 12, 63-66.
  2. Tikva Frymer-Kensky addresses the ritualistic elements that Zipporah knew and used as a protector. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 30. 

Hulda

by Kimberly Dickson

Prophets speak on behalf of God to the people, especially to Israel’s leaders. During King Josiah’s reign Huldah served as a court prophet. When the book of the Law was found (probably Deuteronomy), the high priest Hilkiah turned to Huldah to discern God’s voice. Hulda’s prophecy was delivered to the highest-ranking civic and religious leaders in Israel. Though both Jeremiah and Zephaniah were prophets at the time, these leaders turned to Hulda instead.

Hulda validated the authenticity of The Book of the Law and the curses it contained against Israel for straying from God’s laws. She affirmed the curses were applicable to Israel at that moment, as Israel was engaged in horrific idol worship. Amongst the horrors, women were prostituted in the temple, and children were burned alive as sacrifices to Molech. Hulda’s prophecy came at a turning point in Israel’s history, marking the end of Israel’s occupation of the land.

When King Josiah and his court heard Hulda’s powerful message, they responded in earnest. They wiped out all traces of idol worship in the nation by smashing and grinding the idols into powder so they could not be used again. King Josiah’s humble response to Hulda’s preaching and leadership led to Israel’s greatest revival and God’s personal message to King Josiah, “Your eyes will not see the evil which I am bringing on this place.” God’s retribution would be delayed (2 Kgs. 22:8–20 and 2 Chr. 34:14–33).

To learn more, see: “Women Prophets in the Old Testament” by Christine Marchetti in Priscilla Papers.

What is this Woman Doing Preaching in My Bible?” by Sara Ronnevik in Mutuality, October 13, 2014. 

The story of Esther demonstrates how authentic leadership is forged in intimacy with God and manifest in attention to the defenseless. Completing what Vashti began, Esther risks all for good, breaking the silence to expose her husband’s abusive regime moving toward a genocide. As the story unfolds, so do the contrasts between good and evil, between righteous and corrupt leadership. With their thirst for control and exploitation, Haman and Xerxes provide a stark contrast to the bold and holy leadership of Queen Esther.

A lust for power—rooted in narcissism—swallows Haman whole. Yet equally depraved is King Xerxes! He promotes Haman to chief of staff despite his lack of accomplishments or his interest in the affairs of Susa or its people. Some commentators also believe that Haman may have been part of a plot to assassinate the King, averted only through the loyalty of Esther and Mordecai. Even so, Xerxes honors Haman, decreeing that all must kneel in homage. Mordecai refuses—a move that ignites Haman’s vindictiveness. So, Haman plots to kill Mordecai and massacre the Jews. Appealing to Xerxes’ greed, Haman asks to slaughter the Jews. Without a second thought, Xerxes agrees, and both head off to get drunk.

Abdicating his responsibilities to corrupt officials, Xerxes is inaccessible and derelict as a leader. More interested in pleasure than serving the needs of his people, his indecisiveness and self-indulgence create a leadership vacuum, filled initially by Haman but ultimately by Esther—a genuine leader, a woman, and a Jew.

Unlike the inaccessible Xerxes, Queen Esther is always on hand, attentive to the vulnerable, and ready to act. She is available intellectually and maneuvers within an honor/shame culture to secure safety for the Jews. Esther is especially attentive spiritually. While Xerxes wallows in wine and women, Esther fasts and prays.

Esther embodies what her husband cannot—leadership that defends the vulnerable. Her husband signs away their lives, but Esther becomes their deliverer. She gives her people a voice, breaking the silence on Haman’s plot and delivering the Jews from slaughter. Unlike Haman, who is bent on destroying life, Esther is ready to give her life to save others. While Haman believes he controls his destiny and that of his enemies, Esther is humble and contrite. For her, the future is unclear, but she is ready to die if necessary.

Esther’s availability, self-sacrifice, humility, and holy wisdom make her one of the great leaders in Scripture. What we see in Esther is found supremely in our savior Christ—who delivered us from our worst enemies–sin and death. Because of Christ we enter a complete rest, just as the Jews entered peace and rest from their enemies because of Esther. In this way, Esther foreshadows our complete deliverance in Christ.

A woman leader, representing a hated minority, Esther responded to God’s call, risking her life to break the silence and stand against evil and abusive power. In a patriarchal culture like Susa, God chose a woman as a deliverer. Scripture honors Esther (9:29) as a woman in full authority. Let’s honor Esther by imitating her leadership—characterized by prayer, courage, and self-sacrifice on behalf of despised outsiders oppressed by the powerful. The name “Esther” means “star.” May we—like Esther—shine God’s light on injustice, expose oppression, and break the silence on abuse wherever we find it.

To learn more, see: “More Than a Pretty Face,” by Emmaline Kempf.

Part 2, “More Than a Beautiful Body: Star Wars, Beauty Standards, and the Imago Dei,” by Emmaline Kempf.

Power Brokers: Vashti, Mordecai, and Esther,” by Young Lee Hertig.

Listen to Young Lee Hertig’s workshop on her chapter in Mirrored Reflections: Reframing Biblical Characters regarding Power Brokers: Vashti, Mordecai and Esther, titled “Women Leaders Navigate the Patriarchal Systems of Family and Church: Young Lee Hertig.”

Esther: When God Calls for Disobedience,” by Allison Quient.

Character Counts,” by Mimi Haddad.

Calling all Deborah’s, Esther’s and Junias” by Grace Medina.

Shiphrah and Puah

by Kimberly Dickson

Genesis ends with the Hebrews flourishing in Egypt under the protection of Joseph as second in command. The book of Exodus opens hundreds of years later. The Hebrews are settled in the strategic location of Goshen on fertile ground along the Nile and at the crossroads of international trade. They have so increased, “filling the land,” that the Egyptians begin to worry about their numbers and the possibility of an uprising. So, Pharoah orders them into hard labor, a time-honored method of reducing a people’s lifespan and increasing mother and infant mortality rates.1 However, Exodus tells us that “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread” (Ex. 1:12 NRSV), an indicator of God’s blessing, especially upon the pregnant mothers.

Exodus then centers on two women responsible for multiplying healthy babies, the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Interestingly the text does not cite Pharoah’s name but remembers these two women personally signifying their importance to the Israelites, “The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah” (Ex 1:15).2 Pharoah ordered them to initiate a genocide by killing the newly delivered boys, but to preserve the newborn girls’ lives, “but if it is a girl, she shall live” (Ex. 1:16). There are two reasons that Pharoah may have preserved the life of the girls. In a male-dominated society, Pharoah likely underestimated the power of women.3 As the first three chapters of Exodus develop, the reader learns that Pharoah’s blindness to the power of women sets the stage for his own demise.4 Motivated by power and economics, the Egyptians raped the girls to ensure the rejection of their children by both Hebrews and Egyptians, thus forcing them into a perpetual slave population.5 Miriam’s name alludes to this expectation as it means “one who endures much suffering.”6

The question arises, what then will these midwives do? Afterall , midwives were honored throughout the Ancient Near East for their medical skill in bringing new life and were often referred to as “wise women.”7 Like traditional healers through the ages, their wisdom embodied their very being. They recognized the smells of the earth and the herbs that brought healing; their skilled hands delivered hundreds of babies; their sight evaluated weakness and strength; and their intuition knew the best methods of healing.8 As life-givers and preservers, they naturally feared the God who created and gave life (Ex 1:17a). Pharoah’s order undermined their very profession and faith. Therefore, the midwives refused to comply and “let the boys live” (Ex. 1:17b).

Exodus highlights their leadership that defied Pharoah’s order to kill baby boys. Womanist Wilda Gafney makes the logical leap that Puah and Shiphrah must be the leaders of the midwives since the text says, the Hebrews filled the land in Exodus 1:7. It would have been impossible for only two women to care for so many, apparently fertile, women. Thus, Puah and Shiphrah, were likely leaders of the midwives and their instructions to the other midwives were crucial.9 They “did not do as the king of Egypt commanded, but they let the boys live” (Ex. 1:17b).

Pharoah calls them in a second time, demanding to know, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” (Ex. 1:18). This time the midwives cleverly used his prejudice and bias against him with an ethnic slur and wordplay. Though most English translations state that the Hebrew women are too “lively” or “vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Ex 1:19b), this is incorrect for three reasons. First, the accepted translation compliments the Hebrew women compared to the Egyptian women, something that would not have been politically astute. Second, the translation of the Hebrew word “chayah” into “lively” or “vigorous” only occurs in this one verse. Otherwise, it means undomesticated, wild animals, or beast-like creatures.10 Thus, many Old Testament scholars now translate it to mean “animal.” Richard Elliott Freedman’s translation reads:

“And the midwives said to Pharoah, “Because the Hebrews aren’t like the Egyptian women, because they’re animals! Before the midwives come to them, they’ve given birth!” (Ex 1:19).11

And third, people who are part of the “other” or “oppressed” group recognize the age-old technique of survival, where humor, irony, and wit are used against the oppressor to blind him to their very techniques of survival.12 For Tykva Frymer-Kensky, “Pharoah sees Israel as ‘other,’ they make an ethnic slur belittling these others. In this way, they demonstrate to Pharoah they are not in favor of Hebrews. Not seeing the power of these women to defy him, Pharoah is all too willing to hear something negative about Hebrews and falls for their trick.”13 The midwives use a racial slur, and Pharoah is deceived.14

Lastly, God not only blesses the midwives’ leadership in peaceful civil disobedience. God also preserves the Abrahamic covenant and honors the life-giving work of their midwifery, “So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong,” (Ex. 1:20).15 Astonishingly, God made the women heads of households. “And because the midwives feared God, he gave to them houses,” (Ex. 1:21). Again, our English Bibles usually translate this as “family.” But the Hebrew meaning is “house” and uses the same language within a covenant context when God promised David that his house would endure, 2 Samuel 7:11 . God honors the midwives’ leadership by establishing them as heads of households, with no mention or concern regarding men or husbands in their lives.

The author of Exodus recognized that these powerful women initiated an uprising against Pharoah that “birthed resistance in the other [women]” who followed their leadership.17 Their holy defiance was complete when God freed the Hebrews from slavery and defeated Egypt (Ex. 15:1-20).

Read More on Shiphrah and Puah in:

Rational and Emotional Faith” by Megan Greulich in Mutuality.

Who’s Who? Biblical Models of Women in Leadership” by Gracy Ying May in Priscilla Papers

Black is Blessed: A Study of Black/African Women and Men in Scripture” by Catherine Clark Kroeger in Priscilla Papers

Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach us about Freedom” by Mary Lou Wiley a Book Review on Defiant

Notes

  1. Kat Armas, Abuelita Faith: What Women on the Margins Teach Us about Wisdom, Persistence, and Strength (Ada, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 58-59.
  2. Scholars believe the defeated Pharoah was not important to the Israelite story. Richard Elliott Friedman, The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 69.
  3. This is a common conclusion among scholars. Tykva Frymer Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible: A New Testament of Their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 25; Kat Armas, Abuelita Faith, 59.
  4. Tykva Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible, 25; Kat Armas, Abuelita Faith, 59.
  5. Boaz Johnson, “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality 26, no. 4 (December 13, 2019).
  6. Johnson, “The Mary’s of the Bible.”
  7. Carol Meyers, Exodus: The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 40.
  8. Kat Armas highlights the embodied wisdom of women traditional healers over the ages, which she also recognizes in Puah and Shiphrah. While Christian tradition has tended to demonize these women, Biblical tradition honors them. See Aubelita Faith, 60-61.
  9. Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 89.
  10. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2000), 310.
  11. Friedman, The Exodus, 220; Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 91; Armas, Abuelita Faith, 61.
  12. Meyers, Exodus, 37-38.
  13. Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible, 25-26.
  14. Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 90; Armas, Abuelita Faith, 61.
  15. CBE International’s on staff Biblical language adviser, Amber Burgess argues” dealt well” is often used “in conjunction with wording related to the Abrahamic Covenant or is used in relation to the preservation of the Abrahamic Covenant.” While the verb ”yatab” can have many uses, Exodus 1:20 is using it in relation to the preservation of the Abrahamic Covenant.” Amber Burgess, Personal E-mail, May 26, 2022.
  16. Meyers, Exodus, 37. Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 91.
  17. Armas, Abuelita Faith, 62.

Hannah

by Kimberly Dickson

The books of Samuel begin by describing Hannah’s dysfunctional family for all to see. We quickly discover Hannah’s condition: she cannot bear children. We know this to be a painful situation. In our day, when families confront the devastating diagnosis of infertility, they often spend vast amounts of time, energy, and money seeking medical solutions. But Hannah and Elkanah lived when Israel was just a confederacy of tribes living under the judges, and according to the end of Judges, they had just endured a horrendous civil war.1 Not only was their existence precarious, their Ephramite tribe in particular saw themselves as having a special mandate to bear children (Gen. 48:16b, 19b–20), the one thing Hannah could not do.2 Elkanah addressed this problem as would any man in Ancient Near Eastern culture: he married a second wife, Peninnah, who was fertile.

 When Scripture describes marriages that have more than one wife, a relational mess ensues (think of Sarah and Hagar, or Rachel and Leah). Hannah’s situation was no different. First Samuel describes Elkanah and his family annually traveling to Shiloh, to offer sacrifices to the Lord of hosts. And during these times Peninnah did as the reader expects:

[Hannah’s] rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. (1 Sam. 1: NRSV). 

The Hebrew word that describes Peninnah as a rival is tzara. This word describes nations at war, as adversaries, and rarely describes individual people.3 Hannah was not enduring low-level interpersonal problems. No, the Hebrew emphasizes her endurance of war-like abuse. Beaten down year after year, Hannah demonstrated classic signs of depression—weeping and refusing to eat.

Co-Dependency in Abuse

Scripture states that her husband, Elkanah, loved Hannah. But when he approached his weeping wife to comfort her, his words betray either overt cluelessness to the warlike dynamics in his own family, or judgment requiring justification: “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad?” (1 Sam. 1:8a). He did not wait for her reply but went on to ask an impossible question, demonstrating that he was not interested in hearing her. Instead, he asked, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8b). Considering the era in which they lived, this question is tone deaf. Women had no property or inheritance rights. Not only would ten sons save her reputation and stop the abuse, but ten sons also would ensure that she would not be destitute when Elkanah died. Further, the question displays Elkanah’s own self-absorption as “he places himself, and not the plight of Hannah, in the central focus. He significantly does not tell Hannah that she is worth more to him than ten sons.”4 If she answered no, she dishonored him, if she answered yes, she denied the reality of her destitute future.5

These questions reveal Elkanah’s refusal to acknowledge the abuse happening in his home and furthermore demonstrate that he would do nothing to stop the abuse. In modern terminology, we would say Elkanah was a co-dependent character to the abuse. Elkanah’s questions seem to be the “lightbulb moment” for Hannah. Her actions and voice from this point forward demonstrate her understanding of Genesis 3:16, where God tells Eve that the consequences of sin will be evident in her turning her attention toward man, enabling him to rule over her.6 With Hannah’s focus on her husband rather than God, she had no tools to escape abuse. So she turned her head back toward God, the way God originally created women. And that made all the difference for Hannah, for their family, and for the nation of Israel.

Practical Steps Toward Healing

With a change of focus came a change in behavior toward health. Hannah ate. Then she stepped away from her abusive family to go pray alone at the temple. Separation from abuse indicates a good, strong, healing movement. She then poured her soul out to God, releasing her pain of abuse, specifically using a Hebrew word that means oppression, abuse, affliction, and misery.7 She was telling God the truth and begging God not to forget her! In fact her prayer was very similar to the cries of the afflicted Hebrews suffering under slavery in Egypt. And then in simple language she asked God, not her husband, to solve her problem.  If God would hear her prayers and allow her to bear a son, Hannah would dedicate her son to God’s service.

Hannah’s prayers continued and were so deep from within her soul that only her lips moved, causing the priest, Eli, to mistake her for a drunk. But instead of silence at another accusation slung at her, Hannah defended herself. In 1 Samuel 1:16, Hannah Likewise, Hannah brought her anguish before God, the one with ultimate authority.

Rather than condemning her, Eli blessed her. Though no outward situation changed, Hannah changed, transformed as she shifted her attention from being powerless to an active agent who honestly laid her oppression before God. When she returned to her family, she was not the same person who left. Hannah Genesis 2 describes God’s reaction to Adam’s situation after God asked him to govern the garden. God saw it was too much for man alone. So God created woman and called her an ezer, a strong rescue (Gen. 2:18). Interestingly, through Hannah’s transformation the situation in her family transformed. First Samuel 1:19 notes the change: now they all worshipped together as a family, Elkanah knew his wife, and God remembered her, giving her a child. 

Family leadership dynamics changed as well. Rather than submitting to Elkanah’s yearly trip to Shiloh, where Hannah had been abused year after year, Hannah defined the terms for herself and her child going forward. She informed Elkanah that she would remain home and raise Samuel until his time of weaning, which could have been anywhere between four to six years old. She would decide when to return to Shiloh, and when she did, she would dedicate her son to God’s service. Rather than Hannah’s assertiveness earning Elkanah’s rebuke, it instead earned her husband’s approval. Although Mosaic law allowed husbands to nullify their wives’ vows before God, Elkanah encouraged Hannah, saying, 8 (1 Sam. 1:23a).

Child Abandonment or A New Future?

Hannah’s dedication of Samuel to the Lord and then leaving him at the temple with Eli looks harsh in our modern eyes. Some scholars claim that Hannah exploited Samuel to increase her own ranking in the family and then abandoned him.9 But Scripture provides evidence that Hannah maintained a close relationship with her son, sewing and bringing him clothes as he grew (1 Sam. 2:19). Scripture indicates that Samuel maintained a strong relationship with his family and clan from Ramah, for as an adult after completing a judicial circuit within Israel, (1 Sam. 7:17a). Rather than abandonment, Hannah ensured her son’s future, independent and free from his older half-siblings. And based on the description of Peninnah’s war-like treatment of Hannah, that future may have been precarious. Unknowingly, Hannah’s actions to ensure Samuel’s future ensured that Israel too had a future.

In a beautiful hymn that begins 1 Samuel 2, Hannah describes the God she experienced, the one who rescues the abused and makes the barren woman fertile. And truly, she went on to have five more children. Like the songwriters Miriam and Deborah before her, Hannah explains that God sees, hears, and responds to the poor, the oppressed, and the downcast. The high and mighty oppressors will be brought down. Her song of hope testifies to her own experience, that the almighty God is on the side of the abused and that God transforms individuals, families, and nations. The tiny and threatened people of Israel recognized their own situation in her words, and her theology became the theology that set the standard for her son and the coming monarchy.

Notes

  1. Bruce Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 957.
  2. Tracey Stringer, “Hannah: More Than a Mother,” Priscilla Papers 33, no. 1 (Winter 2019), 3.
  3. Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 975.
  4. Yairah Amit, “Am I Not More Devoted to You than Ten Sons? (1 Samuel 1:8): Male and Female Interpretations,” in A Feminist Companion to Samuel and Kings, ed. A. Brenner (Sheffield: Sheffiled Academic, 1994), 68–76. Quoted by Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 975.
  5. John Peterson, Reading Women’s Stories: Female Characters in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 44.
  6. First wave Christian feminist, Katharine Bushnell makes a detailed study of the Hebrew word teshuqa commonly interpreted “desire” in Genesis 3:16, discovering that the earliest translations were “to turn towards” and more in keeping with the intent of the passage. I find her argument convincing. Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word for Women (Minneapolis: CBE International, 2003), 57–66.
  7. HALOT, עָנִי ‘ani, 856.
  8. Some translations say, “May the Lord establish his word” rather than “your word.” The different translations are due to differences in ancient texts.  The ancient Hebrew Masoretic Text reads “his,” but the Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls and Syriac read “your.”
  9. Naomi Steinberg, “Children in the Hebrew Bible and the Case of Samuel from Personal Experience to Analysis,” Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, edited by Athalya Brenner-Idan and Archie C. C. Lee (Bloomsbury Publishing Place, 2016), 197. Proquest EBook Central. Accessed September 30, 2022.

Abigail

by Kimberly Dickson

Abigail: Businesswoman, Diplomat, Peacemaker, Prophet

Stuck Between Two Extremes

Many of us have read the story of Abigail, Nabal, and David in 1 Samuel 25 so many times that we fail to appreciate the precarious situation in which Abigail finds herself. She is caught between two powerful systems threatening both her life and those of her household.

Nabal’s power stems from his expansive property, agriculture, and wealth. The text describes him partying like a king (1 Sam. 25:36). Simply put, he represents established power. To Nabal, David represents a rebellious servant fleeing from his master and running a criminal protection racket.1 Nabal asks, “Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. Why should I take my bread and water and the meat I have slaughtered from my shearers, and give to men coming from who knows where?” (1 Sam. 24:10-11).

Meanwhile, David’s power comes from violence, perfected in his military background and fed by desperation. We meet him on the run, hiding in a cave surrounded by indebted and desperate men. When he doesn’t get his way with Nabal, the narrator tells us of his crude intentions to kill “[every] one who pisses against the wall” (1 Sam. 25:22 Everett Fox).2 To David, Nabal represents a wealthy potential patron who could care for him and his men.

Nabal treats David as we treat terrorists, refusing to negotiate, and David takes up the role, marching on his plantation to kill all the men. Abigail and the rest of the household are caught in the middle.

Nabal: An Abusive Drunk

Countless women recognize their own circumstances in Abigail. From the outside, Abigail has it all. She is beautiful, intelligent, and married to a very wealthy man. She had her own servants, the loyalty of her husband’s staff, and unquestioned access to all the household abundance. But beneath this wealth, Abigail is navigating a marriage to a drunk who is likely abusive.

After her peacemaking mission to David, she comes home and finds her husband drunk and partying, so she decides not to tell him about it until the morning, “when Nabal was sober” (1 Sam. 25:36–37). Those raised by or married to alcoholics recognize Abigail’s choice to wait until the alcohol has worn off. The fact that she does not approach him that night speaks to her years of bitter experience with his drunkenness that taught her when to avoid her husband in her own home.3

The text further suggests an abusive side to Nabal. Both his servants and Abigail describe him using the phrase “son of Belial,” often translated into English as wicked or worthless (1 Sam. 25:17, 25). The Old Testament repeatedly uses this phrase to describe men who disregard God’s law, specifically in the context of egregious abuse, including the following:

  • The men in Sodom who demanded to rape Lot’s angelic visitors in Genesis 19
  • The men in Gibeah who raped the Levite’s concubine all night in Judges 19
  • Eli’s sons who raped the military women at the entrance to the tent of meeting in 1 Samuel 24

Who Really Runs the Business?

Beyond being an abusive drunk, the text describes Nabal as a greedy fool to whom his servants don’t even defer for important business matters. Instead of telling Nabal about David’s protection of Nabal’s flocks from banditry and wild animals, they tell Abigail, explaining that their master “is such a wicked man [son of Belial] that no one can talk to him” (1 Sam. 25:17b).

This raises the question of Nabal’s business skills. Did he did not recognize how well his flocks fared that year compared to years past? Did he did not question his shepherds so that he could replicate their strategies in the coming years? And later, when Abigail tells him of the disaster she averted, rather than appreciate her business savvy, he goes into shock and dies ten days later. How could he be so wealthy and have no business instinct? Many business leaders, particularly women, will recognize the answer hidden in the text. Nabal was just the front. Abigail was the businesswoman.

First Samuel 25 is full of clues that point to Abigail’s business smarts. The servants went to her and told her all that happened, and then they said, “Now think it over and see what you can do” (v. 17a). She quickly understands David’s threat. She has unquestioned access and authority to marshal the necessary resources to stave off disaster. And her own words to David provide the final clue, “Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name—his name means Fool, and folly goes with him. And as for me, your servant, I did not see the men my lord sent” (1 Sam. 25:25). David’s men had gone to the wrong person, the man, when in fact a woman—Abigail—ran the business. Oh, how so many of us can relate!

David: A Man of Violence

Unlike Nabal, David was not known as a drunk or a fool. No, he was a brilliant strategist. But as a man of war, violence was his language and an issue that surrounded him his entire life. In fact, this chapter is sandwiched between two chapters of David being tempted to kill Saul, God’s anointed, and his own violent streak scared him.5 But now, faced with a rich, established man who was not anointed by God, David had no misgivings about violence. First Samuel 25:21–22 reveals David’s brooding about the vengeance he would exact, “It’s been useless­—all my watching over this fellow’s property in the wilderness so that nothing of his was missing. He has paid me back evil for good. May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!”

David’s violent streak is barely controlled against Saul, and later we see it unleashed against Bathsheba and Uriah. But in this instance, Abigail intervenes, saving David from himself.

Abigail: A Skilled Diplomat in the Art of Peacemaking

David met his strategic match in Abigail, a successful businesswoman who had navigated the world of abusive men. As Birch says, “If David was quick to take action for violence, Abigail matches his decisiveness in the effort to avoid violence.”6 Taking executive action, she quickly loads donkeys with a feast of supplies for David’s men.

Like her clever ancestor Jacob who anticipated meeting Esau’s vengeance, Abigail sent the supplies ahead to appease and distract David’s anger, softening him before they met face-to-face. Rather than sending a mediator in her place, she courageously met David and foreshadowed Jesus by taking her husband’s blame upon herself to save him and her entire household.7 As a peacemaker she employed the diplomatic skills women have used to persuade men for eons, convincing David that she was on his side.8

Thus Abigail convinced David to save himself from the stain of bloodguilt that would impede his path to the throne. Abigail also anticipated the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7 by prophesying that “the Lord your God will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my lord, because you fight the Lord’s battles” (1 Sam. 25:28a).9 In so doing Abigail saved not just herself and her household, but David’s future and the future of Israel!

Disaster Averted!

Just as David heeded his first wife Michal’s strategic plan to save his life, David listens to Abigail and recognizes God speaking through her, saying, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands” (1 Sam. 25:32–33).

He then admits what Abigail and anyone who has experienced abuse knows, violence affects more than the intended target. Though David’s explicit plan was to take out the men, he knows there would have been collateral damage, saying, “Otherwise, as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me . . .” (1 Sam. 25:34).

Though Abigail saves her household from destruction, she is left widowed. Her husband cannot absorb the magnitude of what has happened and dies of shock. When David hears that she has been widowed, he honors her request and remembers her, asking for her hand in marriage (1 Sam. 25:39). Through her incredible skill, Abigail not only saves her household’s lives and David’s reputation, she also secures her own future in the royal household.

Learn More

Abigail: Old Testament Type-of-Christ by Heather Celoria

Who’s Who? Biblical Models of Women in Leadership by Grace Ying May

Taking Initiative by Karen L. H. Shaw

Notes

  1. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 317. See also Bruce Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpeter’s Bible, Volume Two (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 1166. See also Jared Byas and Peter Enns, “Joel Baden-The Historical David: The Bible for Normal People,” produced by B4NP Podcast, Bible for Normal People, October 3, 2022. This is not an original idea. Many scholars note that David’s behavior, and especially his willingness to kill all of the men in Nabal’s household for not “paying up” for services Nabal had no knowledge or choice in securing, is very reminiscent of protection rackets.
  2. Everett Fox, The Early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes (New York: Schocken Books, 2014), 400. Fox preserves the literal Hebrew in this English translation, which can also be found in old translations like the KJV. Our modern English translations tend to gentrify David’s language. Fox points out that this language is playing off the insult of dogs—Nabal is a Calebite, a word closely associated with the insulting word “dog,” who pisses on the wall. This is earthy language of military men, not foreign to our own world today.
  3. Wilda Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 206. Gafney speaks to the truth that children and spouses of drunks know how to avoid drunken people in their home.
  4. Kimberly Dickson’s translation. The Hebrew word describing these women is zaviot. Scholars agree that this word has a strong military meaning and describes God as the Lord of Hosts (zaviot), which as Birch says, “emphasizes the God who fights as a warrior for Israel.” Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 1087. Considering the strong military meaning of this word, Dickson concludes that patriarchal interpretations are at the root of this translation of “serving” in the context of women at the tent of meeting. If serving was the author’s intention, there is a different common and appropriate word for service.
  5. Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 1166. Birch’s commentary on David’s rise and kingship returns again and again to the issue of David’s violent streak, how it scared him in the case of Saul, how Abigail helped him control it, and how it eventually got the best of him in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah.
  6. Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 1167.
  7. Heather Celoria, “Abigail: Old Testament Type-of-Christ,” Mutuality, July 12, 2012.
  8. Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, 319–320.
  9. Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, 321. Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 1168.

New Testament Women

Elizabeth

by Kimberly Dickson

Like Moses, Elizabeth was a Levite descendant. Elderly and pregnant with John the Baptist, her son was the forerunner to the Savior. Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black* highlights the significance of God’s choice of Elizabeth to bear a son who would announce the coming Messiah. Elizabeth represented both communal and personal suffering, which God would begin to address in the birth of her son. Like all her people, she lived under the oppressive rule of the Romans, but as a Levite, the worship of her tribe reminded the people of God’s character in saving the Hebrews from slavery. As a barren woman, Elizabeth did not have the joy or reassurance of children to care for her in her old age or to carry on their family name. Scripture is laden with descriptions of the social stigma and pain associated with barren women. God interceded in this situation with a son in her old age, healing her personal suffering. But this son also addressed the communal need for a liberating God, symbolized in John the Baptist residing in the desert like Moses. God chose Elizabeth to honor God’s liberation of the Levites while also demonstrating his personal concern for the suffering of individuals.

Beyond the symbolic choice of Elizabeth, Luke contrasts her reaction to conceiving a child to that of her husband Zechariah. God struck Zechariah mute because of his doubt in God’s word, whereas the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth with the gift of prophecy to speak of the Lord. When Mary came to visit, Elizabeth identified her as the mother of her Lord. She too, was the one to declare the name of her own son, John. Zechariah’s speech only returned when he agreed with her.

Elizabeth begins the cluster of New Testament women prophets who informed the people of Jesus’ coming significance. She was the first to identify the Lord. In Elizabeth’s presence, Mary prophesied what has been called the Magnifcat, revealing that Jesus’ coming will overturn the powerful to raise the weak. And when the infant Jesus entered the temple with his mother, Mary, and Joseph, Anna recognized Jesus and with her gift of prophecy she taught the people who were assembled.

To see more on God’s empowerment of women at critical times, read: “At Critical Moments,” by Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, August 10, 2011.

*As an Amazon Associate CBE earns from qualifying purchases.

Anna

by Kimberly Dickson

Anna was an 84-year-old prophet. She was widowed after only seven years of marriage and devoted the rest of her life to prayer and fasting in the temple. When Mary and Joseph presented the infant Jesus to the Lord at the temple, two elderly prophets, Simeon and Anna recognized him as Savior (Luke 2:22-38).

Luke pairs Simeon and Anna but swaps gender expectations with Simeon giving a private revelation and Anna the public revelation. Simeon prophesied over the child, and spoke “to his mother Mary,” his prophecy was a quiet family affair. Yet, Anna proclaimed Jesus’ identity and its meaning to all who were there and awaiting Jerusalem’s redemption. Like Hulda, the Old Testament prophet, Anna’s prophetic context was not in the home or with a private audience in the temple. Instead, it was in the central location for worship—the temple—where Anna displayed her deep knowledge of the Scriptures to a public audience of both men and women waiting for redemption.

Significantly, the Hebrew law required two testimonies to settle a dispute or confirm an event (Deut. 17:6,19:5). Luke uses Anna and Simeon as evidence of trustworthy testimonies of Jesus’ significance. By using Anna and Simeon for this purpose, he also emphasizes complementary mutuality in the testimony of both a man and a woman.

To learn more, see: “Anna: Proclaimer of God’s Grace,” by Allison Quient, March 12, 2014.

Finding the Beginning of Female Missionaries in the New Testament,” by Sarah Rodriguez in Mutuality, December 4, 2016.

To see more on God’s empowerment of women at critical times, read: “At Critical Moments,” by Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, August 10, 2011.

Mary of Bethany

by Kimberly Dickson

Mary makes several appearances in the New Testament that demonstrate her discipleship such as anointing Jesus (John 12:3), and by the time of her brother’s death, leading the Jerusalem Jews to Jesus as recounted in John 11:18-45. She is known as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as well as Mary of Bethany. Because these accounts are spread across the gospels, with each account preserving different parts of her history, people often fail to see that Mary is obviously a well-known and honored name in the early church.

Like the many other Marys of the New Testament, Mary’s name signifies that she was born during a desperate time in Israel’s history. The name “Mary” means “one who cries bitter tears,” signaling her parents’ helplessness as they imagined her prospects under a system where the poor were often forced to relinquish their daughters into the hands of Roman soldiers.1 But Mary’s life took a different turn. Tearfully, she mourns the death of her brother Lazarus, moving Jesus to heal her brother. The First Nations Version of Scripture appropriately names her, “Healing Tears .”

Readers are often introduced to Mary through her sister Martha who complains to Jesus that Mary is shirking her hospitality duties by sitting at Jesus’s feet and listening to him teach (Luke 10:38-42). Readers respond in a variety of ways. Many women who hear Martha’s complaint feel a pang of sympathy for Martha—overloaded mothers especially feel Jesus’ rebuke to Martha as a reminder to slow down and enjoy the precious moments we have with our families while we have them. But what modern readers can easily miss are the cultural cues that point to this passage’s counter-cultural significance. Simply put, Luke describes Mary as choosing to sit at the feet of Jesus to become a rabbi one day and teach others. The linguistic clues revolve around Mary “sitting at the feet of Jesus”—the posture of disciples training to be teaching rabbis. Paul describes his own rabbinical training as “sitting at the feet of” Gamaliel in Acts 22:3.2 Close reading of the many Mary and Martha greetings to Jesus reveal that he is their teacher, or rabbi, and they are his disciples. Further, Martha’s confrontation with Jesus is the first recorded acceptance of a woman student by a rabbi, as he praised Mary’s choice to sit at his feet and learn.3

While some agree that women were allowed to learn, they argue that this passage does not endorse women’s teaching, reinforced by the fact that the Bible does not include any mention of Mary teaching.4 There are several problems with this argument. First, in Luke 8:21 Jesus has just explained that only those who do his work are his disciples. Further, Mary Stromer Hanson highlights how John 11:1-46 does in fact provide a detailed account of Mary leading the Jerusalem Jews at the time of the death and resurrection of her brother Lazarus (see her article linked below). John 11:18-19 details the Jerusalem Jews who “had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. ” Hanson notes that from this point on, these Jews are associated with Mary, mourning with her in her home, weeping before Jesus and ultimately following her to witness Jesus’s miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead.5 John 11:31 reads, “When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn.” When Mary greets Jesus, she bursts into tears which first results in the Jews who follow her weeping, after which Jesus also weeps, “When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33, NRSV). Only then does Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, with scripture noting the Jews who followed Mary saying, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did believed in him” (John 11:45, NRSV).

Mary’s prominence among the early church is obvious by the fact that the early synoptic gospels did not think it was necessary to include her name when they wrote about her anointing Jesus with oil (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9). Though Jesus says that she will be remembered for all time, as her act is remembered, none of the gospel writers thought to record her name because everyone knew her name! However, nearly two generations later, as John was writing his gospel, people were starting to forget the details of the early stories. In this context, he not only includes her name in his account of her anointing Jesus with oil (John 12:1-11), but he also reminds his leaders of her prominence when recounting Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, saying, “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 11:2, NRSV). As Stanley Grenz suggests, Mary’s anointing of Jesus at Bethany implies that she

understood the true nature of Jesus’ messiahship, a theological insight that Jesus’ male disciples failed to grasp throughout his entire earthly ministry…she seemed to realize that the Lord’s vocation included death. On this basis, Jesus rebuked the disciples’ grumblings against her, and he praised her action.6

Mary was one of Jesus’ disciples, sitting at his feet and learning, anointing Jesus before his crucifixion, and leading Jews to Jesus to witness his miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead.

To learn more, see “Mary and Martha: Celebrating the Gifts of Others,” by Janet Galante and Molly Kate Hance in Priscilla Papers.

Reinterpreting Mary and Martha: Part 1,” by Mary Stromer Hanson 

Mary and Martha: Models of Leadership,” by Mary Stromer Hanson 

Notes

  1. Boaz Johnson, “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality (December 13, 2019),  
  2. Stanley J. Grenz and Deinise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 1995), 75.
  3. Leanne M. Dzubinski and Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles Throughout Christian History (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 15-17.
  4. Elizabeth Gillan Muir, A Woman’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019), 11.
  5. Mary Stromer Hanson, “Reinterpreting Mary and Martha: Part 1,” Mutuality Blog, June 28, 2016.
  6. Grenz, Women in the Church, 76. 

Mary Magdalene

by Kimberly Dickson

Mary Magdalene is such a prominent woman in Jesus’ ministry that many stories have built up around her! A number of these have to do with her name. Mary is so common in the New Testament that the various scriptural Mary’s have been confused or conflated. The name itself literally means, “The One Who Has Endured Much Pain and Suffering,”1 which the First Nations Version accurately translates to “Strong Tears.” Boaz Johnson explains why this name was so common at the time of Jesus’ birth:

During the time of Jesus, the Sadducees, a political party, were in control of towns and villages. They had tax collectors who would subjug ate common people to debt slavery. They then handed over girls from towns and villages to Roman soldiers as sexual slaves, to curry favor with them. Because of this horrible system, whenever a girl was born the parents would, in all sadness, name the baby Mary. They knew that the life of these girls would be bitter and painful.2

The fact that Mary was delivered from seven demons (Luke 8:2) speaks to the abuse she likely endured.

During the sixth century Roman Catholic church history conflated Mary’s demon possession with Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom John attributes to anointing Jesus with oil (John 12:8). This confusion grew until Mary Magdalene became known as a former prostitute who was restored by Jesus even though there is no Mary identified in Scripture as a prostitute! Luke 7:36-50 has been traditionally used to support this story, though it neither mentions a name nor prostitution. Nevertheless, Mary Magdalene was regularly represented in religious art as half-naked with only her hair covering her nudity. Despite this false portrayal, the Holy Spirit was at work using this for redemptive purposes. Mary Magdalene came to represent the abused and prostituted women who Jesus healed, and therefore whom the church should welcome and love. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic communities continue to carry on this false narrative, though they both officially rejected this story in the 16th century. Yet, according to Scripture, Mary Magdalene was delivered from seven demons and became a devoted disciple of Jesus by following and supporting him from the early days, which continued through to his crucifixion (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25), burial (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:47) and resurrection (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 20:1-2). In fact, she is the only person that the gospels depict at all these events.

Mary’s second name, Magdalene, speaks to financial independence and capacity to devote herself to Jesus’ ministry. The use of “Magdalene” does not follow the cultural paterfamilia (male-head of family) pattern of naming her through association to the male-head of her tribe or family, such as her father or husband. Thus, she was relationally and financially independent and able to make her own decisions. This is further supported by the fact that Scripture identifies her as one of the financial supporters of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1-3). The Gospels and Paul’s letters regularly highlight women who broke the stereotypical paterfamilia “head of household” pattern, as seen in women, such as Susanna, Phoebe, Joanne, and Lydia. These women were “patrons,” meaning women of considerable independent influence, with political and financial power to protect and promote the churches.

The name Magdalene itself is unique. Many have assumed that it describes where she came from, such as the village of Magdala. This is like saying “Jesus of Nazareth.” Excavations have revealed several villages in Palestine from the first century with a name similar to Magdala. So, her name could just indicate where she came from. In contrast to this, there is no evidence of early church history associating Mary to a region, however, there is historical evidence that associates her name with the Hebrew and Aramaic honorific meaning of magdala, as “tower” or “magnified.” Jerome, an early church leader who worked with Paula translating ancient texts into Latin (the Latin Vulgate), explained the early tradition regarding her name; she was given that name because she was a tower of faith. Therefore, just as Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter (Rock), he gave Mary the name Magdala (Tower).3

The Orthodox tradition has stayed true to the scriptural witness of Mary Magdalene in remembering her as the “Apostle to the Apostles.” She has earned this title because she was the first person whom the risen Christ spoke to, instructing her to return to the disciples to tell them the good news of his resurrection. This raises the question, who qualifies as an apostle? Many churches assume that only The Twelve and Paul were considered true apostles. Although contrary to widely held belief, Paul gave the title of apostle to Junia and her husband. There are two scriptural definitions of an apostle. The first is: “one who has accompanied Jesus during his earthly ministry and who has become a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22); the second is: one “who has witnessed an appearance of the risen Christ and who has received a divine call or commission to proclaim Christ’s message” (1 Cor 9:1; 15:3-11; Gal. 1:11-19).4 Mary fulfills the criteria of both definitions, thereby providing evidence that the Orthodox Christians accurately label her as “the Apostle to the Apostles.”

We are struck by the courage of Mary Magdalene’s presence at Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, beside several other women, considering the absence of male disciples. In fact, the male disciples were afraid and hiding behind a locked door (John 20:19). Kenneth Bailey, an expert on Middle Eastern culture, provides important context. The Romans were not naïve to the Jewish unrest under their occupation. During religious festivals, when they expected Jewish nationalism to be heightened, they also boosted their presence. Thus, it is not coincidence that Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities during the Jewish Passover. His teachings were thinly veiled (or not veiled at all) claims to a new kingdom and rule, posing a threat to the Romans. His crucifixion on Passover sent a message to his followers suggesting they would be targeted next. However, it was the men whom the Roman authorities expected to be dangerous, not the women! Women and children could move about freely. As a result, the men were hiding while the women and children were witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.5 As the gospel teaches, Jesus revealed himself as the resurrected Christ to the very women the ruling powers judged as insignificant, and even the disciples judged as “idle gossips.” (Luke 24:11). Regardless of the world’s values, Jesus instructed Mary Magdalene to go and ”tell the disciples.” The women’s witness is at the heart of the gospel and human history.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mary Magdalene,” by Lidija Novakovic in Prisicilla Papers, June 5, 2006.

To learn more about the naming of Mary, see: “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement” by Boaz Johnson.

To learn about the Middle Eastern culture and its impact on the movements of men versus women and children, see: “God’s Word to Middle Eastern Women,” by Kevin Zabihi in Mutuality, October 20, 2021.

Christ is Risen: The Nonsense of a Hysterical Woman,” by Chesna Hinkley in Mutuality April 15, 2020.

Notes

  1. Boaz Johnson, ”The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality (December 13, 2019). 
  2. Boaz Johnson,” The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality (December 13, 2019).
  3. Yonat Shimron, ”Was Mary Magdalene really from Magdala? Two Scholars Examine the Evidence,” Religion News Service (January 7, 2022). 
  4. Lidija Novakovic, ”Frequently Asked Questions About Mary Magdalene,” Priscilla Papers, (June 5, 2006).
  5. John’s presence indicates he was still a youth as compared to the other disciples at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Kevin Zabihi, ”God’s Word to Middle Eastern Women,” Mutuality (October 20,2021).

Samaritan Woman

by Kimberly Dickson

While Jesus’ disciples were gathering supplies for dinner, Jesus met the Samaritan Woman at the well. Mid-day, in public, they engaged in the longest theological discussion recorded in Scripture. She challenged Jesus with her theological concerns, and he seriously entertained her questions and answered them, neither dominating the conversation nor demeaning her.1 During this discussion Jesus first revealed his identity as the Messiah, favoring a woman for his revelation over his disciples. Taken seriously, and convinced of Jesus’ identity and message, she went and effectively evangelized to her whole village. She is still remembered in churches as the first Christian evangelist.

The disciples’ confusion in finding Jesus speaking to this woman shows his counter-cultural approach to women at the margins. In broad daylight he associated himself with an ethnic group the Jews disparaged, the Samaritans. At the time, Jews would not eat or drink from anything associated with a Samaritan, yet he asked her for a drink, which meant he would need to drink from her bucket. Furthermore, he entrusted to a woman theological details regarding the Messiah in an era when women did not study Torah. She was a lowly woman forced to fetch water in the heat of the day, rather than the usual mornings and evenings, because she was ostracized by her own people due to the number of husbands in her life. While tradition has attributed these men to her own loose lifestyle, it is likely that she was married as a child to an older man, and through Levirate-like laws continued to outlive the older men assigned to her in marriage. By the fifth husband, she would have been considered bad luck. Despite this, Jesus saw in her a responsive, theological mind worth engaging. In her, he saw someone worthy of being the first to learn his true identity. In her he identified an evangelist, as she enthusiastically and effectively led her entire village, both men and women, to Jesus as Messiah. May we too take seriously women considered outcasts or who are ostracized, and like Jesus, see them as the key to the future of the church!

To learn more about the cultural background of the Samaritan Woman and the Orthodox church’s remembrance of her, see: “Samaritan Sinner, Celebrated Saint: The Story of the First Christian Missionary,” by Bronwen Speedie in Mutuality: New Testament Women, December 4, 2016.

To learn more about modern day “Samaritan type women,” listen to the Mutuality Matters: Global Impact podcast interview: “Healing the Outcasts: Fistula Repair in Bangladesh” with Dr. Beatrice Ambuen-Berger.

To read about Jesus’ counter-cultural engagement, see: “Dominance: Patriarchy’s Logic,” by Mimi Haddad in Mutuality July 2021.

Which Women Matter to God,” by Jill Lin, January 20, 2021.

Notes

  1. To read more about how men tend to dominate conversations with women, see J.W. Wartick, “Are Men Talking Too Much,” Mutuality (July 8, 2020).  

Phoebe

by Kimberly Dickson

“I commend you to our sister Phoebe, a deacon (diakanos) of the church at Cenchrea, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor (prostatis) of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:1-2 NRSV).

Paul introduces Phoebe to the Roman church, asking them to welcome her as she carried his letter to them. Paul routinely provided credentials for his letter carriers (2 Cor. 8:16-24; Eph. 6:21-22; Phil. 2:25-30; Col. 4:7-9), but Phoebe’s welcome was vitally important as she was an unknown to the Roman church, and she carried Paul’s most important theological work, his letter to the Romans.1 Thus, in this introduction, Paul “commends” Phoebe, which is a way of asking the church to trust her just as he has.2 This trust was critical, because those who carried correspondence were responsible for reading and explaining its contents to the recipients. Like seminary students today, she would have been taught by Paul, to ensure she could accurately convey the letter’s meaning, explain difficult sections, and help the congregation understand its complexities and implications. As Dr. Jeffrey Miller says, in today’s language we would call her a preacher.3

Paul’s introduction of Phoebe supports the fact that Phoebe was an experienced and powerful leader. He describes her as a deacon with the same Greek word diakanos, which was used to describe his work and that of other leaders, such as Timothy, Apollo, Epaphras, and Tychicus. In the early church, this term meant “servant,” and it was applied to those who served the congregation in teaching, administration, and guidance. When this word is used in Scripture to refer to a man, English translations typically use the word “minister.” Only for Phoebe has the term been translated as “servant” or “helper,” though this distinction does not honestly represent Paul’s use of the word.4 The fact that Paul designated Phoebe a deacon at the church of Cenchrea meant that she served in an official church position that required vetting. This was clear to the early church fathers, such as Origen (c. 187- c. 253) and John Chrysostom (late 300‘s), who understood that Phoebe had been ordained in her church.5 Thus, she should be trusted, because she was vetted and approved by the Cenchrea church to lead.

Further, Paul called her a prostatis, meaning one who presides.6 In English it is often translated as “benefactor” or “patron, ” but for Phoebe “helper.” In Roman society a patron was a position of honor and power and was meant “to manage/manager, rule/ruler, or lead/leader.”7 Patrons interceded in legal and financial affairs on behalf of those they represented, and the term could even mean that they stood before gods to entreat them on behalf of their clients.8 So, when Paul describes Phoebe as a prostatis, he is indicating she was an honored person with great authority. Therefore, the fact that Paul describes Phoebe as both a deacon and a patron indicates that she was a person of authority in the church of Cenchrea, who taught and represented the church.

However, that is not all. Paul also indicates that Phoebe was a missionary through the technical language of “receive Phoebe in the Lord,” and “give her anything she may need.” Paul uses similar language in relation to Timothy in 1 Corinthians 16:10-11 and to Titus in 2 Corinthians 7:15.9 In fact, Phoebe‘s missionary activity was recognized throughout the ancient world, as noted by inscriptions and writings of the early church fathers.10

To learn more, see: “Phoebe Through the Eyes of Paul,” by Julie R. Frady.

Ordained Women in the Church,” by Christine Marchetti in Priscilla Papers.

Editor’s Reflection: Autumn 2020,” by Jeff Miller, in Priscilla Papers.

Notes

  1. Belleview, ”Women Leaders in the Bible,” 82.
  2. Julia R. Frady, ”Phoebe through the Eyes of Paul,” Mutuality: Making Peace with Paul vol. 28, no. 1 (March 25, 2021). 
  3. Jeff Miller, “Letter from the Editor,” Priscilla Papers: The Academic Journal of CBE International vol. 34, no. 4 (Autumn 2020): 3. 
  4. Dzubinski, Women in the Mission of the Church, 47-48.
  5. Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church, 6.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Dzubinski, Women in the Mission of the Church, 49.
  8. Frady, “Phoebe Through the Eyes of Paul.”
  9. Belleview, “Women Leaders in the Bible,” 82. 
  10. Muir, A Woman’s History of the Early Church, 7. 

Priscilla

by Kimberly Dickson

Priscilla worked together with her husband Aquilla as teachers, missionaries, and church planters. They were Jewish Christians in Rome who established one of the first places of Christian worship in the city.1 When persecution broke out against Jews in Rome in AD 49, they planted a house church in Corinth where Paul was able to stay and work with them as tentmakers (Acts 18:1-4). They became close friends of Paul who mentioned them six times in scripture. When reporting back to their sending church in Rome, Paul says, “they risked their lives for me” (Rom 16:1). From Corinth they moved to Ephesus where they began another church. In Ephesus they noticed that Apollo, another well taught and renowned Jewish Christian speaker, did not fully understand the gospel. Together they brought him into their home and instructed him (Acts 18:24-26). They later returned to Rome, where ancient Christian tradition holds that Priscilla and Aquila were killed in further persecutions against Christians in AD 64.2

Scripture often lists Priscilla’s name first, which is interesting because Roman customs paralleled the Western custom that list the man’s name first, as in “Mr. and Mrs.” Scholars agree that this unusual ordering signifies Priscilla’s importance. At the least, she is thought to be from an aristocratic family, related to the Roman senator Pudens, while Aquilla is likely of the lower freedman status.3 This phenomenon of an aristocratic woman marrying someone of a lower class was a new movement in the Christian church. Understandably, Christ’s equalizing message attracted a great many women to the young and growing church, so much so that it became the target of jokes. This influx of women into Christianity made it difficult for Christian women to find Christian men of the same class to marry, causing church leadership to seek ways to change Roman law so that women of the senatorial class could marry slaves or freedmen.4 Priscilla and Aquilla may be early examples of this changing pattern.

While it is likely true that Scripture sometimes lists Priscilla’s name first due to her higher social status; Linda Belleview recognized a pattern. Luke and Paul cite Aquilla’s name first when introducing them in general or when referring to their tent-making work (Acts 18:2; 1 Cor. 16:19). However, they mention Priscilla’s name first when discussing issues of ministry (Acts 18:18; Rom. 16; 2 Tim 4:19), including the teaching of Apollo. Priscilla is the primary teacher who taught a gifted leader in their house church—the very church Paul restricts women unschooled in Scripture from usurping authority to domineer over men (1 Tim. 2:12).5 This switching of names speaks to the couple’s mutuality in leadership indicating her appropriate use of authority, while also suggesting that Priscilla took the lead in ministry.6

Since the time of the early church, Christians have suggested different authors for the anonymous book of Hebrews. In the last hundred years, scholars have begun to conclude that Priscilla could very well be this author. Factors that speak to this theory are Priscilla’s obvious leadership ability, her aristocratic upbringing and education, her close relationship with Paul and Timothy, and her ability to teach people such as Apollo. The fact that the author is anonymous, though claims to have been a close companion of Paul and Timothy, lends credence to a woman author who did not want to hinder the book’s receptivity.

To learn more about Priscilla, including the translation of 1 Timothy 2:11-12, see: “Priscilla Speaks,” by Mimi Haddad in Mutuality: Making Peace with Paul.

To learn about leaders working together in mutuality, listen to: Leaders Working Together Across the Gender Divide: Insights form Priscilla and Aquila, by Jeanne Porter.

To learn about Priscilla’s teaching and leadership, see “Equality in Ephesian Leadership,” by Dalaina May in Mutuality.

To see a thorough look at Priscilla’s life, see: “Priscilla, Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews?” By Mimi Haddad.

Ruth Hoppin has spent several decades studying the evidence of Priscilla’s authorship of Hebrews. See her work at:

Priscilla and Plausibility: Responding to Questions about Priscilla as Author of Hebrews” by Ruth Hoppin in Priscilla Papers, April 30, 2011.

The Book of Hebrews Revisited: Is Priscilla the author? And How Does this Epistle’s Theology Relate to Gender?” by Ruth Hoppin.

Priscilla’s Letter” by Estella B. Horning.

See the book review on the novel, “Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian” in Priscilla Papers.

Notes

  1. Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church, 7. 
  2. Ibid., 7. 
  3. Ibid., 7. 
  4. Ibid., 10.
  5. See CBE listed articles to discuss the basis for this translation. 
  6. Linda L. Belleview, “Women Leaders in the Bible,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Cynthia Long Westfall, and Christa L. McKirland (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 83. 

Lydia

by Kimberly Dickson

We do not appreciate how incredible Lydia’s life in Acts really was. Justo Gonzalez in Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes, brilliantly explains how her history in Acts 16 is part of a series that depicts the Jewish church in Jerusalem coming to terms with the expansion of God’s kingdom. Before Lydia is introduced, Acts describes how Peter came to terms with the Holy Spirit’s inclusion of the gentile Roman soldier Cornelius and his entire household. Peter would naturally have resisted their inclusion, as part of his steadfast rejection of unclean meat that he demonstrated in his vision. However, when Peter saw the Holy Spirit descend on the unclean, uncircumcised yet god-fearing Romans, Cornelius and his family, he was compelled to admit that God intended to include them on an equal footing with faithful Jews. Not surprisingly, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was confronted by the church for eating unclean food withGentile. In contrast, though, when he told them what happened, “they praised God saying, ‘then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18 ).

Later in Acts, the church is called to expand this vision even further to include Gentile women’s leadership. It begins with Paul’s vision to go to Macedonia, because a man is calling him there to help (Acts 16:9-10). Paul obeys and goes to Philippi in Macedonia, looking for men who worship “at a place of prayer,” (Acts 16:13 ), which implies a synagogue.1 A synagogue required a minimum number of men to be present. Instead, he found god-fearing women worshipping alongside the river. After hearing Paul speak, Lydia–a wealthy businesswoman–accepted Paul’s message and was baptized, along with her whole household. She was the first Christian convert in Europe.2 This takes Peter’s earlier experience one step further. Peter had to come to terms with a god-fearing, uncircumcised gentile man. Paul must come to terms with a gentile god-fearing woman who is the head of her household. The account further highlights how Lydia challenges his preconceived ideas: “If you have found me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home” (Acts 16:15 ). The Jewish views of gentiles and women was clear – on no terms would they enter a gentile home to stay and eat with them. Yet Lydia was inviting Paul to do just that! What is more, as a Macedonian woman she considered herself nearly equal to men.

If Macedonia produced perhaps the most competent group of men the world had yet seen, the women were in all respects the men’s counterparts; they played a large part in affairs, received envoys and obtained concessions for them from their husbands, built temples, founded cities, engaged mercenaries, commanded armies, held fortresses, and acted on occasion as regents or even co-rulers.3

Thus, Lydia was daring Paul to “not just talk the talk but walk the walk.”4 To Paul’s credit, he accepted her challenge, and the church founded in her home became central to Paul’s ministry, a cornerstone of encouragement and the only church from whom he accepted financial support.

The significance of Lydia’s conversion lies in who she was and what she represented for the expansion of the church. Lydia fits well within the Macedonian description of women. She is described as a businesswoman who sells purple cloth. Purple cloth was only worn by the elite, meaning Lydia’s clients were the wealthiest and most influential people of Philippi. Though she was not a woman from the noble class, (as nobles were not allowed to engage in business), she was closely associated with them. Thus, she was in both a position of influence and power. Further, she was free to make her own decisions, independent of the Greco-Roman paterfamilias restrictions evidenced by her decision to become baptized. Without the approval of her father or husband, Lydia freely listened to Paul and chose to follow Jesus. Not only that, but her entire household followed her lead. The Greek is clear that Lydia, a woman, was the head of her household, including family, servants, and slaves.5

She also represents the prototype for house churches. Ben Witherington observes that whenever house churches are mentioned in the New Testament, they are always associated with prominent women.6 Early house churches were often led by women, because the home was within the private realm–women’s domain. Here they could teach and preach without being in the public eye.7 The fact that she hosted Paul and those who traveled with him indicates that her home was large enough to care for and host traveling Christians, making it a central meeting place for believers. In her position, she was likely a patron of the church, providing powerful political and financial support, as well as introducing her influential circle of contacts to the faith.41 Wealthy and influential women, like Lydia, filled a unique position in the early church. They naturally provided support and hospitality, while also lending authority, leadership, and power to the gatherings they hosted in their homes.

In the spirit of Acts, Lydia dismantles preconceived ideas of both ancient Jewish and many modern Christians regarding who could lead, teach, and have authority within the faith. The fact that the church of Philippi supported Paul and received the praises of his Letter to the Philippians speaks volumes to his unquestioned respect of Lydia’s leadership. She represents powerful women who host, lead, protect, and hold authority within the community of believers.

To learn more, see: “Wealthy Women in the First Century Roman World and the Church” in Priscilla Papers: New Testament Women by Margaret Mowczko.

Dismantling Socio-Sacred Hierarchy: Gender and Gentiles in Luke and Acts,” by Moyra Dale in Priscilla Papers: New Testament Women, April 29, 2017.

Notes

  1. Most synagogues outside of Israel were built alongside rivers and were often called “a place of prayer.” Michael David Coogan, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, eds, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible, Fully revised fifth ed. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 1987.
  2. Muir, A Woman’s History of the Christian Church, 9.
  3. W. Tarn and G. T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilization, 3rd ed. (London: Methuen, 1952), 98–99.
  4. Justo J. Gonzales brilliantly unpacks the story of Acts, and particularly of Cornelius and Lydia, with insight from Dr. Loida Martell-Otero, to bring out the growing-pains of the largely Jewish church, as they came to terms with the fact that in God‘s kingdom there truly was no difference between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, and man and woman. Justo J. Gonzalez, Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes (Nashville: Abbingdon Press, 1996), 45- 51.
  5. Carolyn Osiek, Margaret Y. Macdonald and Janet H. Tulloch, A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 157.
  6. Margaret Mowczko notes Ben Witherington’s observation that prominent women and house churches are always matched in NT writing. Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 212–13. Margaret Mowczko in”Wealthy Women in the First Century Roman World and Church,” in Priscilla Papers (July 30, 2018).  
  7. Muir, A Woman’s History, 9. 

Tabitha

by Kaitlyn Schiess

For much of my life, I’ve been called “Debbie’s daughter” more than my own name. My mom worked in churches my whole life—so at every church activity and event, I was “Debbie’s daughter.” In college when I interned for a church where my mom was a beloved leader, I immediately felt the weight of those expectations. I was setting up food for volunteers, and one of the women declared to the group, “Kaitlyn can make these desserts look pretty, she’s Debbie’s daughter. I did not live up to the expectations of my mother’s legacy.

Whoever our families are, we’ve probably felt that weight—of being someone’s sibling or son or niece or grandchild. We struggle to meet the expectations that come with those roles, especially as our families, ourselves, and the world changes. Tabitha’s story is the story of a woman who very likely did not “fit” the family mold. 

Tabitha is introduced in Acts 9:36–43. Some scholars think Tabitha was a widow: she was living among and caring for widows, her husband or children are not named, and she devoted her attention to serving the church. Some scholars think she was an unmarried young woman, perhaps even a formal benefactor, occupying a role of significance and status in a patronage society.1  

However, these descriptions answer questions that the text doesn’t invite us to ask. These descriptions struggle to fit her into the patriarchal family structure of the time—to figure out the answer to a question that was very relevant, that early readers would have asked too: who do you belong to? Where do you fit? What role do you play? 

Yet Luke describes something strange and foreign to people of that time (and very often to us today): that her marital status, family position, or social status do not matter. Essentially, where she fits into a biological or nuclear family does not matter. Where she fits into the kingdom of God matters immensely.  

The New Family of God 

“Family” is crucially important in the Bible, but maybe not in the ways we often think. Christians in the US have adopted a narrow definition of “family” influenced by the American dream: mom, dad, two-and-a-half kids, pets, white picket fence. But “family” in the Bible works differently. The Old Testament has a high emphasis on family—on marriage, procreation, the lineage of the people of God defined by nationality and birth. Yet even in the Old Testament we see God’s plan to explode our concepts of family. God gives Abraham a commission to create a people who would be a blessing to the nations. Rahab joins the people of God from the outside. Ruth, a foreigner, stays with her mother-in-law after her husband dies, a striking picture of “family” as she says, “Your people will be my people” (Ruth 1:16).  

The New Testament explodes our idea of family even more: Jesus repeatedly defines “family” not by biological boundary but by faithfulness to God (Matthew 12:46–50; Luke 11:27–28). Family is no longer about where you “fit” biologically, socially, nationally, or ethnically. It is about belonging to a new family, the family of God. 

This is expressed beautifully in the description of Tabitha: “A disciple” (Acts 9:36). This is the only time in the New Testament that the feminine form of the Greek word for disciple (μαθήτρια), is used. Tabitha is not the only woman disciple in the New Testament, by far. The plural masculine forms of the word “disciples” does not automatically signify a group of only men. It is used many times in the New Testament in contexts that include women (Luke 8:1-10; Matthew 12:49). But this special use of the feminine form of “disciple” is not inconsequential. Tabitha, as a woman, would be defined in her social setting most often by her family: whose daughter she was, who she was married to, what sons she had. But here she is defined as a woman by her real title, her real source of status and significance, her real family: the family of God.  

Then Luke describes what a member of the family of God looks like: “She was devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36 NRSV). Tabitha was known in her larger community for serving the people she loved. Later in the narrative, we get a striking detail about her death that tells us much about her life: the widows she lived with and served bring Peter the tunics she made them (Acts 9:39). They aren’t expecting him to heal her, probably. They are not chastised in the text for trying to buy his miracle services. They bring him these pieces of clothing to say, “This is who this woman we are grieving was.” She loved us. We loved her. Look at this proof! 

Clothed with Righteousness 

 Like family, clothing is significant in the Bible. It is one of the earliest forms of God’s grace in response to our sin. Adam and Eve use uncomfortable fig leaves to cover themselves, but God gives them clothes. The language of being “clothed” in righteousness is all over the place—from Isaiah 61 to Job 29—and the New Testament uses the language of “put on” the new self or Christ, drawing on clothing imagery (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10). 

The women came to Peter with these clothes because they represented the care and protection they received from Tabitha. Without the protection and provision of men, many widows could end up destitute—it’s one reason that throughout all of Scripture they are described as a special class of people to be defended, protected, and cared for. Tabitha honored these women by making them clothes. She was clothed with righteousness by clothing others.  

Tabitha is not praised for typical womanly virtues of her time (or of ours): for running a good household, or for being quiet, chaste, graceful, pure, or delicate. Her good works are not directed toward her husband or her children but toward her larger community, her very real family.  

Tabitha is a reminder to us that women have always played a crucial role in serving, growing, and leading the church. Some scholars see in this passage either a forerunner or an actual description of the order of widows in the church. This was a formal system of caring for vulnerable women, yes, but also a source of authority, service, and leadership in the church.2 Kat Armas, a writer, podcaster, and scholar, says in her book Abuelita Faith “a woman disciple, who is often overlooked in our conversations, was of utmost importance in the story of the early church – so much so, that her life was worthy of resurrection.”3 

Tabitha, Arise! 

 Even more remarkable than Tabitha’s background and service is that she was brought back from the dead. Tabitha’s resurrection reinforces her worth in the community, but it also reinforces the beautiful story of family in Acts 9.  

 Tabitha’s story has a lot of parallels with other similar stories in the Bible. In 1 Kings 17, 2 Kings 4, and Luke 7, Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus all raise a boy from the dead. In each of these stories, the boy’s mother is either a widow or fears she will soon become one. For these women, if their only sons die, they will be without support or protection. The point is implicit: the miracle not only raises a man from the dead but also provides for these vulnerable widows.  

 In Tabitha’s story, the same dynamic is at play. But in the new family of God it is not just the biological sons of these women who have responsibility for them, who are obligated to care for their needs, and who can serve them in intimate and significant ways. No, in this story it is an unrelated woman. She is raised for the sake of her family—the family of God.  

 This story also has parallels with another miracle of Jesus: the story of raising Jairus’s daughter. There is a similar pattern of healing. Jesus makes the mourners leave except for his inner circle and her parents, just as Peter has the other people leave the room. Peter takes her by the hand, as Jesus did. But the most striking similarity is what they say. Luke’s account translates what Jesus said into Greek, but Mark keeps the original Aramaic words: Talitha koum! Little girl, get up!  

At the beginning of the story, Luke tells us that Tabitha was her Aramaic name, but her Greek name was Dorcas. He is writing to an audience that did not primarily speak Aramaic and may have had limited familiarity with other Jewish cultural and religious details. So Luke uses Tabitha’s Greek name “Dorcas.” But when we get to the pivotal moment in the story, Luke tells us that Peter said to her “Tabitha, get up.” In Aramaic he would have said, “Tabitha koum!”4 

Jesus said to a little girl, the child of a prominent man, a leader in the synagogue, “Talitha koum!”  

And Peter says to this grown woman, faithful and humble in her service of widows, “Tabitha koum!”  

From a young girl to an older woman, from the child of someone important in the temple, to a woman dearly important to the people of God in her own right—they are both told to arise. They are both dearly valued by God and celebrated in their communities because of the miracle God has done.  

There’s another reason it’s significant that Peter uses her Aramaic name. Our names matter. Our names often connect us to our families—in ways we love or hate. Our names are often culturally specific, and it is painful when someone doesn’t take the time to learn how to say them. Our brains release dopamine and serotonin when we hear our name.5 Peter said her name—the name she knew in her heart that came from her cultural background, and that she grew up hearing her mother yell and her siblings taunt. Tabitha, arise.  

And she does. We do not regularly experience these things—people rising from the dead. But Tabitha’s story is intended to be imitated, intended to describe an ordinary woman who served her community faithfully and fully. What are we to make of this wild miracle, one that is not common today and was certainly not common then either?  

Tabitha’s story is an example of the high value of women in the church, the importance of treating each other like the family we truly are, and a reminder to live oriented toward the kingdom of God. The brilliant scholar Willie James Jennings says in his commentary on Acts, “This woman matters, and the work she does for widows matters to God. It matters so much that God will not allow death the last word. . . . Tabitha is an activist who lives again in resurrection power.”6  

Tabitha lived like the kingdom of God had actually arrived, like Jesus had actually risen from the dead, and like that actually put demands upon her life—her time, resources, relationships, and her sense of belonging, community, and loyalty. She was adopted into a new family, she had new family members to care for, and her time and resources were not her own. Someone who served like the kingdom of God had arrived got a special taste of it—new life.  

Notes

  1. Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 2: 1716.
  2. John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary 26 (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 247
  3.  Kat Armas, Abuelita Faith: What Women on the Margins Teach Us about Wisdom, Persistence, and Strength (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2021), 91.
  4. F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, NICNT 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 199.
  5. Dennis P. Carmody and Michael Lewis, “Brain Activation When Hearing One’s Own and Others’ Names,” Brain Res, 2006 Oct 20, doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2006.07.121.
  6. Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 100.

Junia the Apostle

by Kimberly Dickson

“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (Rom. 16:7 NIV).

Paul’s reference to Junia as an apostle often stops many protestant Christians in their tracks for three reasons: they have never heard of Junia, they did not think women could be apostles, or they thought there were only twelve apostles. 

In the Beginning

Prior to the Middle Ages the church understood Junia to be a woman. Early church fathers regularly commented on Junia’s greatness as a woman. John Chrysostom provides such an example:

‘Greet Andronicus and Junia . . . who are outstanding among the apostles’: To be an apostle is something great! But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.1

Many other church fathers also commented on Junia as a woman, most notable of whom were Origen of Alexander (185), Jerome (340–419), and Peter Abelard (1079–1142).2 This is especially significant because these patriarchs had a low view of women.  But Junia was such a common woman’s name, the church fathers did not doubt Junia’s sex. In fact scholars have found over 250 Roman inscriptions with the female name Junia from the early church era, without finding any early evidence of the male name Junias.3

Lost in Translation

Though the early church understood that Junia was a woman, since the Middle Ages there has been a growing trend to translate her name “Junias”—a man’s name. This was exacerbated in the twentieth century, so that between the 1940s and early 1970s nearly all English translations cite “Junias” rather than Junia.4

The first translations with the male “Junias” name appeared during the Middle Ages. By that time the center of education had shifted to the university setting, where women were prohibited from learning. In this male-only environment Aquinas solidified a popular theology that viewed women as inferior to men, arguing that men were created in God’s image, but women were only a reflection of men. Such a theology made it impossible to believe that women were apostles, which Martin Luther solidified by translating Junia into the male name, Junias. His translation came to be the basis of later translations, and by the early 1900s most translations had made this shift.5 Not until the late twentieth century did Bible translations begin to correct this error, so that today only two English Bible translations still maintain that Junia was a man.6 These translations help explain why we have trouble believing that Junia, a woman, was an apostle. Many of us grew up or were taught by people whose Bibles noted Junias—as a man. Simply put, we have never heard of Junia because Bible translators did not believe that women could be apostles, so they changed the Bible.7

Okay, Junia Was a Woman, But . . .

Now that Junia’s name is correct in nearly all modern translations, a very small number of complementarian Bible translations still refuse to acknowledge that Junia could be an apostle.  Rather than translating that Junia and Andronicus were “outstanding among the apostles,” they translate Romans 16:7 to say they were “well known by the apostles” or “well known to the apostles.” However, as already demonstrated above, even the early church fathers understood that Junia was an apostle, and a great one at that. Many complementarians now critique their own translations, understanding that their translations purposefully obscured a clear passage.8 For a deeper discussion of this translation issue, see, “Junia, a Female Apostle: An Examination of the Historical Record.”

Were There More Than Twelve Apostles?

Our final question relates to the number of apostles. Most Christians think that Jesus restricted apostleship to the twelve men he appointed. However, Paul refers to many apostles who are clearly outside of the traditional Twelve. In 1 Corinthians 15:5–11, Paul speaks about the apostles, noting the Twelve, but then goes on to include himself as an apostle. In Acts 1:26 Matthais is added to the apostles. In Acts 14:14 Barnabas is called an apostle. In Romans 16:7 Paul mentions Andronicus and Junia as apostles. In 2 Corinthians 8:23 he names Titus and his unnamed companion apostles. In Galatians 1:19 he names the brother of Jesus (also named James) an apostle. And in Philippians he calls Epaphroditus an apostle.

Clearly, by limiting the apostles to the original Twelve—who represent the twelve tribes of Israel—we fail to include all individuals named an apostle in Scripture.

So What Makes a Person an Apostle? 

The basic definition of an apostle is one who has seen the Lord and is sent to others as a witness. Paul provides a definition of an apostle in 1 Corinthians 9:1–2, when he clarifies his credentials as an apostle to the Corinthians:

Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

So the first apostles were the Twelve sent by Jesus, which then expanded to those who had a firsthand witness to Christ’s life and became missionaries of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

How Was Junia Prominent Among the Apostles?

We don’t know the circumstances of Junia’s life. But the pieces of information we do know have led many to conclude that she may have been among the Jews who saw Jesus after his resurrection. In keeping with the definition of being sent out with the testimony of Jesus as a missionary, Origen and most of the church fathers believe that she was among the seventy-two sent out by Jesus.9 We do know from both Scripture and early church documents that these early witnesses, both women and men, suffered great persecution and even imprisonment, causing them to disperse out of Jerusalem. Acts records:

A great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. . . . Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8:1–3).

Kevin Zabihi notes that at the time of Jesus’s death political leaders would not have considered women a threat. This explains the men hiding during Jesus’s crucifixion, while the women witnessed both his death and resurrection. However, as women empowered by Jesus began to teach, preach, and spread the gospel, religious leaders began targeting them for the same persecution and imprisonment as men.

And prison for women was precarious! In prison with the men, they suffered great abuse, sexual and otherwise.10 As we would expect, firsthand witnesses to Jesus who had sacrificed their freedom and personal safety for the sake of the gospel would have been held in high esteem by the early church. Of these apostles, Junia and Andronicus suffered imprisonment due to their testimony of Jesus and were outstanding among the apostles.   

Learn More About Junia

Junia: A Female Apostle: An Examination of the Historical Record by Dennis Preato

Shifting Footings by Scott McKnight

Paul Praises a Woman Apostle by Rena Peterson

Junia: Outstanding Among the Apostles by Allison Quient

A Female Apostle: Was Junia a Man or a Woman? by Dennis Preato

Seven Needed Revisions within Complementarianism by John McKinley

Learn more about how culture helps explain what was happening in the early church at:

God’s Word to Middle Eastern Women by Kevin Zabihi 

Notes:

  1. Bernadette Brooten, “Junia . . . Outstanding among the Apostles (Romans 16.7)” [on-line article], available from https://womenpriests.org/articles-books/brooten-junia-outstanding-among-the-apostles-romans-167-1/ Primary Source quoted in Secondary Source: In Epistolam ad Romanos, Homilia 31, no. 2 (PG 60:669f.).
  2. Preato, “A Female Apostle,” 23.
  3. Bernadette Brooten, “Junia . . . Outstanding among the Apostles,” Women in Scripture, ed. Carol Meyers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 107.
  4. Linda L. Belleview, “Women Leaders in the Bible,” Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural and Practical Perspectives, 3rd ed., ed. Ronald W. Pearce, Cynthia Long Westfall, and Christa L. McKirkland (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021), 77.
  5. Dennis Preato, “Junia: A Female Apostle: An Examination of the Historical Record,” Priscilla Papers 33, no 2 (Spring 2019): 10. Primary Source referenced in Secondary Source: Epistolam ad Romanos, Homilia 31, 2 (J.P. Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus, series Graeca [=PG] 60, 669f.).
  6. Preato notes that the VOICE 2012 and the Amplified Bible 2015 maintain the translation of Junias as a male. Preato, “Junia,” 10.
  7. While a bold assertion, this is the conclusion of Preato, Belleview, Keener, and many others who have researched this topic. To learn more, see Preato, “Junia,” 10: Junia, a Female Apostle: An Examination of the Historical Record 
  8. Preato, “Junia,” 12. See also John McKinley, a complementarian, critiques many of their translation issues in John McKinley, “Seven Needed Revisions within Complementarianism,” Priscilla Papers 36, no. 2 (Spring 2022): 10–11.
  9. Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1995), 93.
  10. Nijay Gupta provides a gruesome and detailed analysis of the Greek used to describe the type of imprisonment Junia and Andronicus experienced, as well as the documents describing Roman imprisonment during the Pauline era. Nijay Gupta, “Reconstructing Junia’s Imprisonment: Examining a Neglected Pauline Comment in Rom 16:7,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 47, no. 4 (2020): 392–395.

Women In Early Church History

Macrina (327-379 AD)

by Kimberly Dickson

Part of a wealthy aristocratic family in Turkey, Macrina (330-379) was a famous theologian in the fourth century. She was a natural leader and an intellectual genius who eventually took over management of her family, encouraging all to embody Christlikeness. Dedicated to following the life of Christ, Macrina also influenced her wealthy family to offer their emergency resources to the poor, a completely counter-cultural move. She also emancipated her slaves and encouraged her servants to view her as their equal.

She devoted herself to reading and studying and is thought to have had one of the most extensive educations of her time.1 In this spirit she established her own community dedicated to Christian study. Through her deep faith, her brother, Basil, converted to Christianity and remained under her mentorship for four years. Both he and their brother Gregory of Nyssa became key church leaders and developed the doctrine of the Trinity. Basil credited much of his theological learning to Macrina. Though the church rightfully honors both brothers, they have largely forgotten Macrina, their teacher, mentor, and sister.

To learn more, see: “Single But Never Alone,” by Mimi Haddad in Mutuality.

Notes

  1.  Leanne M. Dzubinski and Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles through Christian History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 66. 

Paula of Rome (347-404 AD)

by Kimberly Dickson

A mother of five who was widowed in her early 30’s, Paula joined a study with other wealthy widows in Rome, where she became a Christian. Here she met Jerome and decided to devote herself to a monastic life. Leaving Rome to tour the holy lands, she was accompanied by her daughter Eustochium who joined her in monastic life. In Bethlehem she established three monasteries, one for men run by Jerome, one for women which she ran, and one for tourists where the proceeds helped sustain their work. The women in her monasteries became experts in the ancient languages and worked to duplicate ancient texts so that contents would be preserved for centuries. She retained a superior knowledge of the ancient languages, and Jerome said her Hebrew far surpassed his own.1

Though Paula was completely convinced of the ascetic value of self-denial to more fully experience God, she did not limit her spiritual life to inward ascetism alone. Jerome writes that her commitment to the poor was so extreme that she impoverished herself and her family’s riches to care for the destitute. She then used her aristocratic influence by begging for resources to care for the sick, impoverished, and those in need.2

When the Pope asked Jerome to begin a new Latin translation of the Bible, she convinced him of the necessity. To ensure the project was successful, she sought out and paid for the rare books and transcripts needed for the translation from her own wealth. As Jerome translated, she and her daughter, Eustochium, edited the entire work. Not one of their edits was rejected. Further, the mother-daughter team were solely responsible for the translation of the Psalms. The teamwork of Paula, Jerome, and Eustochium produced the longest lasting translation of all time, the Latin Vulgate, used for over 1000 years.

To learn more about Paula, see: “Single But Never Alone,” in Mutuality by Mimi Haddad.

Paula of Rome” in Know Your Mothers by Kimberly Dickson.

To learn more about women Bible translators, see: “Correcting Caricatures: Women in Bible Translation,” by Mimi Haddad.

Notes

  1. Jerome, “Paula, Jerome’s Letter CVIII To Eustochium, Memorials of Her Mother, Paula,” in In Her Own Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought, ed. Amy Oden (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 73. 
  2. Jerome, “Paula, Jerome’s Letter CVIII,” 70. 

Women in Middle Ages History 

Lady Doquz

by Kimberly Dickson

Lady (Khatun) Doquz: One of Many Powerful Christian Mongolian Queens

Though most of us have heard of Genghis Khan sweeping over Asia, eventually conquering the land from China to Hungary, we have probably never heard that the queens of this conquering family were Christians. Despite these women being little known today, they held great power and respect since the beginning of the Mongol empire!1 Explorers, church emissaries, and missionaries traveling through the Mongol empire recount astonishment at the extent of the influence of these women. One Muslim traveler noted the honor women received in the Mongol society, “namely the respect in which women were held by them, indeed they are higher in dignity than the men.”2  

“Arguably the most powerful woman who ever lived,” Sorghaghtani Beki (1190–1252, Beki is a title for “lady” or “queen”) was a Christian and began the trend of Christian queens exerting their influence to shape their empire.3 Sorghaghtani came from Turkic Christianity and married Genghis Khan’s son, Tolui.4 Praising her abilities as surpassing that of any man, historians credit Sorghaghtani with modernizing the nation from its nomadic origins “into a cosmopolitan realm with a structured administration.”5 Following in Sorghaghtani’s footsteps, her daughters and nieces continued in prominent roles that expanded the influence of Christianity and opened the land to Christian evangelism and testimony for hundreds of years. 

Lady (Khatun) Doquz Saves the Christians of Persia 

These queens took their faith and their position seriously. Sorghaghtani’s niece, Lady (Khatun) Doquz stands out for the protections she afforded the Christians in Persia. Her husband Hulagu and son of Sorghaghtani, swept through Western Asia and Persia in a “scorched earth” campaign, ridding Baghdad of people and their cultural heritage. Historian Philip Jenkins said of the destruction, “the city was utterly ruined, amidst a slaughter that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. It remains one of the cultural catastrophes of human history.”6  

Like Esther appealing to the king for the lives of her people, Lady (Khatun) Doquz interceded for the Christians and their places of worship. According to Jenkins, in the midst of near total devastation, most of the Christian population survived and the houses of worship were preserved.7 Historian Rashid-al-Din recounts:  

[S]he strongly supported the Christians so that under her protection [they] had great influence. In order to please her, Hulegu supported and promoted this community, so it was able to build new churches everywhere. Near [her] tent, there was always set up a chapel, where bells rung.8 

Queens Who Ruled After Their Husband’s Death 

This pattern of Mongol queens leading, protecting, and saving the minority Christian population continued into the next generation. Lady (Khatun) Qutui immediately followed Lady (Khatun) Doquz, both in leadership and Eastern Christian faith. She married Lady (Khatun) Doquz’s son, Abaqa Khan, and after he died, she largely ruled the kingdom due to her son’s poor leadership.9 The pattern of ruling after a husband’s death was noted by European travelers, as seen in Plano Carpini’s reflections that after a Khan died,  

It is ruled by one of his wives, for it is the custom among the Tartars that the courts of princes or nobles are not destroyed but women are always appointed to control them and they are given their share of the offerings just as their lord was in the habit of giving them.10  

In Lady (Khatun) Qutui’s situation, when the population finally revolted against her unpopular son, she used her influence to reduce hostility against the church, saving many lives.11  

Christian queens and royal mothers continued to influence the Mongolian empire for generations. Queens rose to the unique power and opportunities afforded them in this empire, resulting in princes and kings being baptized, the church strengthened, and lives saved. 

Missionary Queens 

The Western church recognized in these women the same potential as the early European Christian queens who used their relationships and influence in royal courts to spread Christianity throughout Europe.12 Just as Pope Gregory the Great honored Queen Bertha’s request that missionaries be sent to Kent, resulting in the baptism of her pagan husband and 10,000 Anglo-Saxons on Christmas day in 597, the popes of the Middle Ages recognized the same power in the Mongol queens.13  

Among the many communications between the church and the queens, Pope Nicholas IV (1289–1291) encouraged the queen mother, Nukdan, praising her as a shining light, congratulating her faith, and encouraging her in evangelism.14 Pope John XXII (1316–1334) urged the Mongol Khan Abusca to imitate his wife in receiving baptism, and the next year congratulated him on his son’s (and heir apparent) baptism.15  

While the Mongol queens hailed from Eastern and Greek churches, these communications across church traditions marked a unique time in church history when the church highlighted their faith commonalities amidst their diversity of traditions. The Holy Spirit honored that era, empowering the queens and enlivening churches throughout the Mongolian Empire. 

Learn More 

Little is written about these women and their era, and most of it is not accessible to the general population. But if you are interested in learning more about Pope Gregory the Great and his views on women, see Equality and Pastoral Rule. 

Evidence of early royal conversions due to their wife’s faith: Women’s History Month: The Early Church. 

Women in Modern History

Susanna Wesley 

by Kimberly Dickson

Susanna Wesley was married to a Church of England pastor. She also homeschooled her 19 children, though only ten of them lived to adulthood. Her life was not easy by any standards. They struggled financially, and her husband did not endear himself to their community. Twice their house caught on fire. Her son, John Wesley, recounted one of these events escaping only because a neighbor found and threw him from an upstairs window.1

Susanna became a spiritual leader in her community. When her husband traveled, Susanna, displeased with the assistant pastor’s preaching, held services in her home for those in and close to her family. Navigating her era’s restrictions on women, she read aloud the writings of her husband and other pastors. Her household so enjoyed her services that word spread and her services grew to over 200 people. The assistant minister grew jealous, as his services only attracted around 20 people, so he complained to her husband who was away in London. When Mr. Wesley suggested to Susanna that she stop the services, she wrote to him saying:

If you do, after all, think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me that you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send me your positive command, in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting this opportunity of doing good when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He decided to let her continue.2

Susanna’s spiritual influence is seen in her deep theological letters advising her sons, John and Charles, the leaders of the Wesleyan Revivals. Likewise, her lived example gave John Wesley the flexibility to recognize that God’s spirit can indeed call women to preach. Thus, during his lifetime, John Wesley ordained several women as preachers in the Methodist Movement.

To learn more about modern day women’s leadership in the Wesleyan church, read: “A Global Fight for Egalitarianism and Holistic Justice” by Sarah Rodriguez.

To learn more about the Holiness Movement, John Wesley, and the influence of his mother, see: “Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: The Rise of Women’s Ordination in the Holiness Tradition,” by Michelle Sanchez in Priscilla Papers, October 30, 2010.

Description of books that contain more information on Susanna Wesley can be found here:

The Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters

We Need to Read Books on Women in History

Notes

  1. Glenn T. Miller, The Modern Church: From the Dawn of the Reformation to the Eve of the Third Millenium (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 95. See also, John Wesley The Preacher: A Dramatic recreation of one of the most powerful preachers in all of church history.“ BBC Film. April 2008.
     
  2. Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 182-183.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1887)

by Kimberly Dickson

Sojourner Truth (1797-1887) was an abolitionist, suffragist, preacher, and social reformer. She caught the attention of many political leaders, and even President Abraham Lincoln was one of her admirers. Sojourner Truth, or Isabella, was born a slave and remembers hearing her mother cry long into the night as she mourned the loss of her children who had been sold away. Isabella’s mother reminded her,

Now ‘chile, when you’re grown up, you may be sold away from your mother an’ all your ole friends, an’ have great troubles come on ye; an’ when you has these troubles come on ye, ye jes’ go to God, an’ He’ll help ye.1

Isabella was sold away from her parents and “married” to a slave on her plantation at the age of 17. After giving birth to five children, Isabella decided to run away, convinced that God wanted freedom for the slave. She hired herself out as a house servant to a Quaker couple, and for the first time, she earned money for her labor. She changed her name from Isabella to Sojourner Truth because, as she said:

My name was Isabella, but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa’n’t goin’ to keep nothin’ of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ being a sign unto them. Afterward I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth because I was to declare the truth to the people.2

Truth felt called to preach the gospel. She traveled from Connecticut to Massachusetts preaching as she went. So fiery were her sermons, the farmers would leave their work to enjoy her skillful preaching.

The abolitionists Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison discovered Truth’s talent as a speaker, and they persuaded her to address audiences on behalf of the American Antislavery Society . Not only did Truth electrify crowds with her poignant wisdom and impeccable allegory, but she also eventually published her accounts as a slave.

Many of the abolitionists became advocates for women’s suffrage, as the parallels were endless. Sojourner was a popular speaker for women’s rights. When she rose to speak, her stature was imposing and her voice was powerful, with rich tones that no one dared to interrupt. During a suffragist convention in Ohio, Truth gave what was perhaps her most famous lecture on women’s rights and her words ring immortal. She said:

I born my children and seen most of them sold to slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard—and ar’n’t I a woman?…Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ weren’t a woman. Whar did your Christ come from?” As she stood there with outstretched arms and eyes3 did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him.”4

Lest you think this uneducated woman was not theologically astute, this same reasoning is used by Karl Barth and the Cappadocians who argued that there is a subtle judgment on men in the birth of Christ, who was conceived without their involvement.

In 1864, Sojourner Truth met Abraham Lincoln, who told this freed slave that he had been observant of her work for years. She was commissioned by Washington to work on behalf of the Freedmans Hospital, where she was obliged to ride the street cars. Anticipating the civil rights movement years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Sojourner challenged the Jim Crow laws which segregated the street cars by race. Exhausted by her duties at the hospital, Truth sat in a seat reserved for white people. The driver pulled her from her seat dislocating her shoulder. He was promptly fired, and after the ordeal, Sojourner had the pleasure of observing that the street cars “looked like salt and pepper on the inside.”

In 1887, Sojourner died having failed to secure a land act on which she hoped to relocate and employ former slaves. Her funeral procession was attended by a thousand persons: abolitionists, suffragists, and friends who recalled how Truth had served her country and said how happy she was “that the stars and stripes of the American flag no longer represent the scars and stripes of the slave.”

To learn more, see: “Celebrating Sojourner truth as Extraordinary Also Means Lament, Why She Had to Be,” by Sarah Lindsay.

To see applications for today see “Muted in the Movement for Equality” by David Hart.

Notes

  1. Susanna Wesley, “Letters and Writings (1709-1725),” in In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought, ed. Amy Oden (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 250.
  2. Harriet Beecher Stowe, ”Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sibyl,” in The Atlantic.
  3. Harriet Beecher Stowe, ”Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sibyl,” in The Atlantic.
  4. Women’s Rights National Historic Park, ”Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman?” in National Park Service.

Amanda Berry Smith

by Kimberly Dickson

Amanda Smith was born into slavery in Maryland in 1837. Her father, dedicated to buying his family out of slavery, worked all day making brooms and then in the fields until the early hours of the morning. He eventually succeeded in freeing his entire family. Amanda reflected on this when she became a Christian saying, “I often say to people that I have the right to shout more than some folks. I have been bought twice and set free twice, so I feel I have a good right to shout Hallelujah!”1 Like her father, Amanda worked long hours, often as a scrubwoman for twelve hours, followed by hours of ironing.2 However, her most significant impact came from her faith.

Amanda Berry Smith was deeply influenced by the Holiness Movement that grew out of Wesleyan Methodism. A charismatic movement known under many names, its preachers emphasized the power of the Holy Spirit to engage all people in the work of God – regardless of sex, race, or class. The Holiness Movement, specifically known for its emphasis on entire sanctification, which,

believed that sanctification redefined who a person was. No longer were sanctified people primarily marked by sin, their past, or the norms of society. Rather, their identity in Christ was what mattered. This emphasis on sanctification and the death of self relativized the gender norms of American culture and empowered women preachers in the Holiness tradition.3

Amanda Berry Smith internalized this redefinition explaining, “You may not know it, but I am a princess in disguise. I am a child of the King.”4

Convinced that she was called by God to preach, Amanda did not wait for a church ordination but instead preached to both white and black camp meeting congregations across much of the United States. As she said, “The thought never entered my mind, for I had received my ordination from him who said, ‘You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and ordained you, that you might go and bring forth fruit.’”5 Many people’s hearts were first opened to her because of her beautiful singing voice, and through her preaching many came to a saving knowledge of Jesus. She received invitations to preach from Maine to Texas and was highly regarded by the leading women of the Holiness Movement in England. Hannah Whitall Smith and Mary Broadman invited Amanda to preach as the first international black woman evangelist in England.

The Holiness Movement also focused on the conditions of the oppressed, working to change and improve their situation. Amanda’s life reflected these values. After her speaking tour in England, she traveled to India where she labored for two years, both in small villages and large cities. But it was in Liberia and Sierra Leone where she dedicated eight years of her life (1881-1889) to

helping with churches, establishing temperance societies, and working to improve the status of women and education for children. . . .Smith’s ministry in those countries was so prolific that at its end, famed Methodist missionary William Taylor insisted that she had done more for the cause of missions and temperance in Africa than the of all missionaries before her.”6

Her outreach did not end there. Back in the United States, she adopted homeless children and eventually founded an orphanage for black children in the city of Chicago. Despite the prejudice and racism Amanda experienced her whole life, she allowed the word of God to redefine her. As she said,

Somehow I always had a fear of white people—that is, I was not afraid of them in the sense of doing me harm or anything of that kind—but a kind of fear because they were white, and were there, and I was black and was here! But that morning on Green Street, as I stood on my feet trembling, I hear these words distinctly. . . . ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free there is neither male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28). . . . And as I looked at white people that I had always seemed to be afraid of, now they looked so small. The great mountain had become a mole hill. ‘Therefore, if the Son shall make you free, then are you free, indeed.’ All praise to my victorious Christ!7

In this reliance on scripture to redefine her identity, Amanda realized she only needed to answer God’s call, and God called her to preach. Through her courage and obedience to the call of the Holy Spirit, she brought countless lives across the globe to a transformative knowledge of God.

To understand Amanda Berry Smith’s work ethic, read: “Our Heritage-Part 3,” by Liz Sykes.

The impact of Amanda Berry Smith’s ministry is discussed in “In the Name of the Gospel,” by Estrelda Alexander, in Mutuality, September 5, 2009.

Amanda Berry Smith is one of many voices highlighted in this deep dive into the consequences of our belief: “Ideas Have Consequences,” by Mimi Haddad in Priscilla Papers, January 30, 2012.

To more deeply understand the Holiness Movement, see: “Your Daughters Shall Prophecy: The Rise of Women’s Ordination in the Holiness Tradition,” by Michelle Sanchez in Priscilla Papers, October 30, 2010.

10 Awesome Women Pastors from History,” by Ruth Perry, March 6, 2018.

Women’s History Month: Women in the Modern Mission Movement,” by Mimi Haddad.

Notes

  1. Leanne M. Dsubinski and Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 136. 
  2. Liz Sykes, ”Our Heritage – Part 3,” Mutuality (January 20, 2014). 
  3. Dzubinski, Women in the Mission of the Church, 136. 
  4. Walter B. Sloan, These Sixty Years: The Story of the Keswick Convention (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1935), 91. 
  5. Sykes, “Our Heritage”.
  6. Estrelda Alexander, “In the Name of the Gospel,” Mutuality (September 5, 2009). 
  7. Paul Chilcote, The Methodist Defense of Women in Ministry (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2017), 104. 

Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922)

by Kimberly Dickson

Pandita Ramabai was born a Brahmin, the highest Hindu caste in India. Her father defied Hindu tradition and taught his daughters to learn the Hindu holy texts. This progressive bent was surprising, considering he married Ramabai’s mother when she was only nine years old. However, at an early age both of her parents died of starvation during a national famine, leaving Ramabai and her brother as orphans. To stay alive, they traversed India performing recitations of the holy Hindu texts to earn income. Ramabai was so adept at recitations that she was noticed by Hindu scholars of her day and became an example of what Indian women could accomplish if they were allowed to study.

Like her father, Pandita Ramabai defied strict Hindu tradition and married a man from a lower caste. Though her husband died young, through her experiences in marriage and life, Ramabai was exposed to the evils of Hinduism that devalued women and low caste people. She found that women in particular suffered from child marriage, wife burning, the denial of education, temple prostitution, abandonment, and more. Thus, when she was exposed to Christianity in the late 1800’s she became convinced that Christ was good news for Indian women. But Ramabai was concerned about the Christian faith she saw in India on two counts.

First, she discovered that Indian Bible translations incorporated Hindu ideas that were oppressive to low caste people and women. To address this need, she deepened her studies of Greek and Hebrew, and then translated the entire Bible into Marathi, the Indian language in her area. This translation was true to the Jesus she had learned about from missionaries and in her own studies. Ramabai’s translation no longer used Hindu terms, ideas, and names for God that symbolized oppression and racism to low caste men and women.

Second, she felt that women needed a safe place to recover and experience salvation. So, she founded the Mukti Mission, which means “Salvation Mission.” Her mission housed 800 abandoned babies, the blind, the handicapped, abandoned mothers, and the ill. Within the strictly separated caste system of India, this mission radically embodied the egalitarian stance of the gospel, by requiring all the women – whether from high or low caste – to work alongside one another according to their ability to help care for one another and the operation of the Mission. Just as Galatians 3:28 declares there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or freed, there is no longer male and female; for you all one in Christ, the women of Mukti Mission learned to work together, to serve and be served as a family. Her work was so impressive that secular and Hindu Indians replicated these homes to bring healing to women.

Ramabai’s intelligence, work, and studies were noted and appreciated by India. To honor her, her image was placed on a national postage stamp of India – a high honor for an amazing Christian mother of the faith who impacted thousands of lives through her writings and service to the poor and marginalized.

To learn more, see: “Pandita Ramabai’s Legacy: How Gender Conscious Bible Translation Impacts Ministry” by Boaz Johnson.

To learn more about women Bible translators, see: “Correcting Caricatures: Women and Bible Translation,” by Mimi Haddad.

Paulina Dlamini 

by Kimberly Dickson

Missiologists are beginning to understand that the spread of Christianity in Africa was largely due to Africans internalizing the gospel and spreading it in a culturally relevant and adept manner, often into regions where missionaries had not ventured.1 Women were critical to this work, as they converted to Christianity first and in much higher numbers than men.2 Paulina Dlamini provides one such example.

Born as the oldest daughter of a Zulu chieftain in mid-1858, Paulina Dlamini’s parents pledged her to be married to the ascending Zulu king, who successfully organized the tribes to resist British rule.3 Paulina joined his court and women’s house at age thirteen. Here she first became acquainted with Christian missionaries, whom she characterized as something like court clowns. But she also described the king’s enjoyment as he listened to the missionary’s stories, making it very likely that she heard the gospel while she was in the king’s court. While still a young teenager in the king’s house, the British instigated a civil war, forcing the king into exile and devastating Paulina’s status and her family fortune. To survive, Paulina’s family attached themselves to a Dutch farmer, where both Paulina and her sister worked as household servants.4

As a teenager in the Dutch household, Paulina saw a vision of a woman glowing in white who told her to claim the Bible and rebuild her Zulu people of South Africa.5 The vision was odd considering that Paulina was illiterate and not a Christian. Not understanding the dream, she asked the Dutch farmer what it meant. He met with religious leaders who were convinced she was having visions from God, and that she needed Bible training. In accordance with her vision, for two years they mentored and taught her the Bible.6

Convinced of Jesus’s good news within the Bible, Paulina became a powerful evangelist. By remaining true to the Holy Spirit’s original message to rebuild her Zulu people, she challenged a much-feared colonizer who was severely beating his Zulu workers. He listened to her challenge, stopped beating his workers, became a Christian and a key person in her mission. These types of incidences earned the respect of the Zulu people and their openness to hear the Bible’s message.7 The conversion of two wives of the new Zulu king brought Paulina particular pride.8 But she did not restrict her message to only the Zulu people, instead she worked in mutuality and partnership with Dutch missionaries throughout her lifetime. This partnership enabled her to successfully establish multiple congregations among the colonizers and the Zulu, who referred to her as the Apostle of Northern Zululand.9

Learn about African change makers like Paulina Dlamini from CBE’s International Conference in South Africa. “CBE Fights Gender Based Violence at ‘Truth Be Told Conference’” by Mimi Haddad.

Listen to the work that African women theologians are doing to empower their own communities in the Mutuality Matters podcast with Kenyan Bishop Emily Onyango.

Read about the ongoing transforming work women are doing in communities across Africa in “Women Transforming Communities” by Esme Bowers.

Notes

  1. Robert describes the new studies of the spread of Christianity in Africa, largely due to Africans rather than missionaries. Dana L. Robert, “Introduction to ‘African Initiatives in Christian Mission,’” Missionalia 31 no.1 (April 2003): 2,.
  2. Dana L. Robert, “Introduction to ‘African Initiatives in Christian Mission,’” Missionalia 31 no.1 (April 2003): 12-13.
  3. The historical political details of Paulina and the Zulu people is well summarized by Jonathan A. Draper, see Jonathan A. Draper, “The Bible as Poison Onion, Icon and Oracle: Reception of the Printed Sacred Text in Oral and Residual-Oral South Africa,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 112 (March 2002): 45. 
  4. Draper, “The Bible as Poison Onion,” 45.
  5. Draper, “The Bible as Poison Onion,” 46-48.
  6. Draper, “The Bible as Poison Onion,” 48.
  7. Draper, “The Bible as Poison Onion,” 49. 
  8. Leanne M. Dzubinski and Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History, (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 193. 
  9. Krige, WA. “Paulina Dlamini, Servant of Two Kings,” Missionalia 16 no. 2 (August 1988): 100.

The specialist, after making a thorough examination of the little girl’s eyes, realized there was nothing more her could do. Her parents were so poor that the doctor’s fee had been paid by neighbors and friends. Now, as she and her mother were leaving his office, she heard the doctor say, “Poor little blind girl!” What he could not know was that the small blind girl would turn her handicap into a great blessing for many people.

Francis Jane (Fanny) Crosby was born in New York on March 24, 1820. She caught a cold at the age of six weeks, and a doctor prescribed a mustard poultice for her inflamed eyes. Instead of healing them it damaged her eyes. By the age of five she was virtually blind, although she could distinguish between day and night.

Cheerful and positive about her blindness, Fanny enjoyed a happy childhood. Three years after that specialist’s diagnosis she wrote:

Oh, what a happy child I am,
Although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world,
Contented I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t.
To weep and sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot and I won’t.

Commenting on her childhood, she wrote, “I could climb a tree like a squirrel and ride a horse bareback.”

While still young she memorized large sections of the Bible including the entire Pentateuch, all four Gospels, many Psalms, all of Proverbs, Ruth and the Song of Solomon. “The Holy Book,” she said, “has nurtured my entire life.”

At fifteen she entered the New York School for the Blind where the teachers gently discouraged her inclination for rhyming. But when a traveling phrenologist proclaimed her a potential poet, she soon became a prodigy of the school. At the end of her training she stayed on, teaching English and history from 1847 to 1858.

One day the school’s superintendent found his male secretary, Grover Cleveland, writing verses while Fanny dictated. Displeased, the superintendent told them not to waste the school’s time. Believing they were not wasting time, they continued their project. Years later, when Grover Cleveland became President of the United States and Fanny was a noted poet, many times Cleveland set aside affairs of state to take dictation from his always welcome White House guest.

Fanny Crosby appeared frequently on the lecture platform and on several occasions addressed both houses of Congress. There she met many of the literary, political, military, and ecclesiastical notables of the day.

Her fame escalated when several collections of her poetry appeared in print and some popular verses such as “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower” and “There’s Music in the Air” were set to music, selling thousands of copies.

There is scant information about her marriage. We know that she fell in love with a blind music teacher and church organist, who had been one of her pupils. Alexander Van Alstyne and Fanny Crosby were married on March 5, 1858 and made their home in Brooklyn. They had one child, who died in infancy.

In 1864, at age forty-four, she set aside work on secular songs and began to compose hymns. After five years of hymn writing her fame extended around the world. Of her more than eight thousand hymns, her first ones were the best and most liked. Some were translated into other languages, and at least seventy became popular in England as well as America. Her favorite themes seem to have been heaven and Christ’s return.

Since her contract from one publisher called for three hymns a week, she was constantly searching for new material and ideas. Some publishers thought she was putting out too much, so they advised that she write under other names. Among her two hundred pen names were her married name, initials, and pseudonyms.

She felt that her blindness was an advantage rather than a hindrance. Undisturbed by happenings around her, she could more easily write her poetry. There were days, she confessed, when she could not write a hymn to save her soul. On other days she would compose six or seven, some in as little as fifteen minutes.

Though her popularity was enormous, some criticized her work. A judge wrote, “It is more to Mrs. Van Alstyne’s credit that she has occasionally found a pearl than that she brought to the surface so many oyster shells.” John Julian, an authority on hymnology, thinks her hymns are weak and poor, having only the redeeming features of simplicity and earnestness.

There are recorded stories behind several of her poems. One time she need five dollars and could not contact her publisher. After praying she heard a knock on the door. She talked for awhile with the man at the door who then shook her hand before leaving. She felt something in her hand which turned out to be exactly five dollars. Later she wrote, “My first thought was, it is so wonderful the way the Lord leads me.” From this experience came the inspiration for “All the Way My Savior Leads Me.”

“Many of my hymns,” she said, “were written after experiences in New York mission work.” One hot night in the summer of 1869 the blind woman called a cab to take her to a mission service. Word got around that the author of “Pass Me Not” was in the audience, and she was led to the platform. As she spoke she felt that a particular boy must be rescued on that night or maybe not at all. During the invitation to accept Christ the prayed with an eighteen-year old who had come to the platform.

Thirty-four years later, when she was speaking at a YMCA meeting, she related the story of the boy. A man came to her after the service and said, “I was the boy…That evening I sought and found peace. I have tried to live a consistent Christian life ever since. If we never meet again on earth, we will up yonder.” He kissed her hand and was gone. Not long afterward she wrote “Rescue the Perishing.”

Probably her most popular hymn is “Blessed Assurance,” having its tune also written by a woman. One of Fanny Crosby’s closest friends was Phoebe Knapp whose husband Joseph founded the Metropolitan Insurance Company. Mrs. Knapp was a musician who published more that five hundred gospel songs herself, and on one of her visits to Fanny she brought a melody she had composed. After playing it through she asked Fanny, “What does the tune say?” The blind poet leaned back in her rocking chair, listened to it a few more times, and responded, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,” then continued with the rest of the now familiar words. This method of composing verse to existing melodies became a technique which she used in writing many of her hymns.

From 1870 to her death in 1915 Fanny Crosby wrote more hymns than any other known writer. The majority of the lasting favorites came in the 1870’s, during her mid-life. “Life is not too long,” she said, “and therefore I determine that many people will read a song who would not read a sermon.” Her simple gravestone in a cemetery at Bridgeport, Connecticut is marked “Aunt Fanny.” On the side of the stone is etched the Biblical phrase, “She had done what she could,” which is what Jesus said to Mary when she anointed him with costly perfume.

George Stebbins, himself a hymnist, wrote in his 1924 autobiography, “There was probably no writer in her day who appealed more to the valued experiences of the Christian life or who expressed more sympathetically the deep longings of the heart that did Fanny Crosby.” The poor little blind girl had turned her handicap into a blessing for the world.

Saint Rafka of Lebanon (1832-1914)

by Kimberly Dickson

After Jesus’s death and resurrection, new believers spread across the Mediterranean region sharing their faith and birthing new faith in Christ. Over the centuries the churches blossomed, shaping lives and cultures in the Middle East region. But as Islam began to spread in the seventh century, and eventually came to dominate the religious landscape in this part of the world, most of the churches eventually disappeared. The Lebanese Maronite Church was one of the exceptions, quietly maintaining their small but powerful witness, continuing to worship Jesus Christ to this very day.

Rafka, born in the Lebanese hills in 1832, represents well the tenacious church that formed her. Like the strong beginnings of the Maronite church, Rafka enjoyed a happy start to life. But just as the church faced persecution and hardship, so too Rafka also experienced the devastating loss of her mother when she was only six or seven years old. She and her bereaved father quickly became impoverished. To survive, her father sent her to work as a domestic servant in Damascus. Returning home when she was fifteen years old, she found that her father had remarried. Meanwhile, her family was busy trying to arrange a marriage for her, with her stepmother pressuring her to marry her brother, and her aunt wanting her to marry a cousin. Rafka retreated to prayer to determine God’s will for her life. And just like the church that did not follow the nation’s majority religion, so too Rafka discerned that God did not want her to follow the usual path of marriage, but to instead devote her life to service in the church as a nun.

A Quiet Hero

Rafka was known for her quiet strength and devotion to children. Over her lifetime she founded several girls’ schools aimed at equipping the girls with an education to meet the changing future. But she is most beloved for her courage during the Syrian War of 1860 that targeted Christians. The tactics against Christians included breaking down the doors of homes, killing the men, looting the valuables, and then burning the homes to the ground. Simultaneously groups raped the women, destroyed churches, and looted the Christian shops and businesses. Those fleeing were often killed or forced to convert to Islam.[1] Amid this deadly chaos Rafka entered the town square where she encountered a boy who the Druze swordsmen intended to decapitate. A creative problem solver, she saved the child’s life by hiding him in her nunnery robes!

As she aged, severe pain led to eventual blindness and finally paralysis of everything but her hands. Still seeking to serve, she used her hands to knit garments for others. Rafka demonstrated an understanding of faith reminiscent of the early Christian martyrs, finding joy in the pain as it helped her identify with the pain Jesus suffered on our behalf.

Rafka’s quiet life of strength and love has earned her the deep devotion of the Lebanese Maronite Christians. Rafka provides the inspiration to carry on in their faith, despite the severe challenges they face as a minority community in Lebanon.

Learn more

Grace Al-Zoughbi talks about Christians women in the Middle East

Listen to Grace Al-Zoughbi interviewed on Mutuality Matters: Global Impact: One Body, One Kingdom: Encouraging Arab Women in the Church and the Academy with Grace Al-Zoughbi

Notes

  1. Details of the destruction can easily be found on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1860_civil_conflict_in_Mount_Lebanon_and_Damascus