Editor's Reflection: Autumn 2020

by Jeff Miller | November 01, 2020

The previous issue of Priscilla Papers was themed, “Conference Papers.” My editorial in that issue explained that much of what we publish has already been read—field tested, so to speak—at an academic or professional conference. I described such gatherings as seedbeds for journal articles. While my description was not wrong, conferences are not the only source for our material.

If we broaden our scope to a global and centuries-long view, it becomes clear that the church’s primary source of biblical interpretation and application has been preaching.

Priscilla Papers began publishing sermons six years ago, for the purpose of serving the church. Since then, we have published nine sermons and ninety-six articles. This ratio (about ten to one) will continue, with the exception of the current issue.

This issue of Priscilla Papers borrows its theme from Romans 10:14, “. . . how will they hear without a preacher?” In the pages that follow, we offer six sermons, three by women and three by men. Following these sermons are a response to Aimee Byrd’s book, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (a response that could indeed be used as a sermon), and a review of Ben Witherington’s book, Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian.

Because of this theme of preaching, especially women preaching, I am going to continue this editorial by borrowing from two CBE past publications.

The first is a blog entry I wrote for CBE in 2013.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. (Acts 8:1b-4 NIV)

The above paragraph from Acts includes six actions:

  • Persecution breaks out. Clearly this persecution is against men and women.
  • Believers are scattered. The text says, “all except the apostles” are scattered, which would of course include men and women.
  • Stephen is buried. The text clarifies that men do this, perhaps because all other actions in the passage pertain to both men and women.
  • Saul begins to destroy the church. Again, men and women.
  • Believers are dragged off to prison. Here the text specifies that both men and women are imprisoned.
  • Scattered believers preach the word. Given that “all except the apostles” are scattered in v. 1, when v. 4 refers to “those who had been scattered” we have no reason to infer that only men are meant.

This paragraph of Acts is one text that calls into question the oft-heard claim that the NT contains no record of women preaching. The verb here is euangelizo, which Luke uses numerous times. In the Gospel of Luke, for example, it describes the preaching of John the Baptist (3:18), of the Twelve (9:6), and of Jesus himself (4:18, 43; 7:22; 8:1; 20:1). In Acts the word describes the preaching of the apostles (5:42), Philip (8:12, 35, 40), Peter and John (8:25), Paul and Barnabas (13:32; 14:7, 15, 21; 15:35; 17:18), and others (11:20, 16:10). Indeed, Acts 8:4 testifies to women preachers in the earliest church!

The second is adapted from an article I wrote for Priscilla Papers in 2011.

Scholarly consensus affirms that Phoebe delivered Paul’s letter to the Christians of Rome. The apostle demonstrates that no discrimination or preference between male and female is to be tolerated, because he sends his letter to Rome by the hand of a woman and sends greetings to numerous other key women (Priscilla, Junia, etc.) in the same letter.

Phoebe’s role as deliverer of Paul’s letter to the Romans can be described in stages. First, she was chosen. Phoebe’s record of service and generosity as patron and deacon earned Paul’s respect and trust and made her a candidate for the important task of delivering his letter. Moreover, she presumably possessed other characteristics which influenced Paul’s choice, such as dependability, education, and, as we will see shortly, rhetorical skill.

Second, Phoebe would have undergone preparation for the task. She may have received advice from one of Paul’s other letter carriers; after all, Timothy was among Paul’s companions when he wrote to the Romans (Rom 16:21). Paul’s envoys were surrogates for Paul himself, so he certainly made his aims clear to Phoebe, including elucidating for her such a lengthy and substantive letter. He may have advised her about handling certain questions.

Third, the heart of Phoebe’s task was to present the letter to the house churches of Rome. This would involve reading the letter aloud to the gathered recipients, of whom many would have had limited reading skills. This reading has been described as “oral performance” because it summoned the rhetorical skills of the reader, such as voice inflection, facial expression, and gesticulation. Moreover, a well-prepared reader served also as interpreter of the letter, with authority to speak for the author in order to communicate with clarity both the letter’s content and the author’s tone.

Paul knew that oral performers would inevitably color the message with their own personality and speech habits. Separated from the recipients, Paul depended on a third party to present his written word and to translate his thought and intention when the messages were performed before an assembly.

In the modern church, we have a title for a person who stands before a gathered congregation and with rhetorical skill delivers a prepared message based on Scripture. That title is preacher.