This is the companion and review for week 2 on women’s roles in the church.
In week 1 we covered discipleship, and discussed female patronage, hospitality, and education as disciples of Jesus. This week we will look at another important episode of female discipleship. Keep in mind that our study is not exhaustive and there are many more scriptures in the gospels about women.
In Mark 15:33-41 we read about the last moments of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Some of Jesus’ followers are present, including, many women who followed him to Jerusalem. Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James the younger, and Salome are specifically mentioned. Here is the text:
“There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.” (Mark 15:40-41)
In this scene, these followers stand at a distance as helpless witnesses to Jesus’ death. There are a few things we can say about the presence of women in this scene at the cross. These women are the witnesses to Jesus life, crucifixion, death, burial, and the heralds of the empty tomb. They are present for Jesus’ final hours. When Christian’s speak about Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, it is the account of these women that they must rely on. Their presence stands in contrast to the Twelve who are absent from this scene. Only the beloved disciple, commonly thought to be John, is present for this event (John 19:26)
Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of Joses saw where Jesus’ body was laid. After the Sabbath Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to Jesus’ tomb to anoint Jesus and finish the burial preparations. When they arrive, they see an angel who tells them of Jesus’ resurrection. They are given the task of sharing the resurrection and Jesus’ whereabouts to the disciples. In the gospel of Mark, we are told that they were afraid and didn’t tell anyone, but we know they did eventually share what they saw because Luke 24:1-12 finishes the story for us. When the go to the apostles, they don’t believe them. Peter however goes to the tomb to see for himself. When he arrives, he finds the linens but not the body. This account is important because it puts these women in the position of becoming the first messengers of the resurrection. They are the apostles (ambassadors, delegates, or One’s sent forth with orders) to the apostles. We should not be surprised that these witnesses who walked with Jesus through his ministry, crucifixion, and death, would also be tasked to spread the good news.
According to Paul, apostles were not just the office of the Twelve, but also included believers commissioned by God to establish churches and serve congregations. Paul believes that apostles have areas of influence assigned to them by God. Apostles were leaders and church founders.
“And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:28)
How does the role of apostle relate to our discussion? Well, we have a biblical example of a female apostle that for many years has gone unnoticed. Her name is Junia. Here is the scripture:
“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.” (Romans 16:7)
If you have never heard of Junia before, there is a reason. Towards the end of the 13th century a man named Aegidius of Rome changed Junia into a man’s name. While he was reading the bible, he read the Latin version of Junia’s name and saw that a variant on the name was masculine. So Aegidius decided to go with the masculine form of the name against the natural reading of the Latin text. Aegidius made a translating error. The Latin did not support this change and the earlier Greek manuscripts destroy any idea that Junia is a man’s name. Just looking at Roman inscriptions Junia appears 250 times. There is no reliable supporting evidence for the masculine form of the name. Furthermore, the church fathers believed that Junia was a woman. Here is what John of Chrysostom from the 4th century writes:
“Oh, how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be counted worthy even to be called an apostle.”
Some scholars refuse to accept that Junia was an apostle based on their belief women can’t be apostles and their “evidence” is no evidence at all but rather an attempt to confirm what they already believe. Forced to concede that Junia is a woman’s name, some scholars have tried to change what Paul said about them. Instead of the more natural reading, “They are outstanding among the apostles” some have argued for, “They are well known to the apostles.” So instead of Junia being an apostle, she is a person known by the apostles.
The difference is based on the issue of Greek grammar which is too much for this Basic Bible study. It is enough for us to show that there is grammatical precedence for the reading that Junia was an apostle. In Matthew 2:6 the same grammar is used to talk about the rule of Bethlehem. We can see this in the English translations as we read them side by side. Here they are below:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Matthew 2:6)
“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.”
What we learn from all of this is that, Junia was a female apostle. The evidence against Junia being a woman is unreliable and the argument that she wasn’t an apostle is not the natural reading of the text.
A third challenge has been proposed claiming that her position as an apostle was simply to be a messenger, not a leader. This is also problematic because every occurrence of the word apostle in the NT points to someone with authority except for Philippians 2:25 where Epaphroditus is referred to as a messenger because he was the financial envoy for the church in Philippi.
Paul recognizes Junia as outstanding among “the” apostles. Adding this definite article, “the” seems to imply that Junia and Andronicus are Paul’s equals. He appears to refer to Junia in the same way he refers to himself. According to Paul, apostles are those who are commissioned by God to start churches and care for them. Here is what Paul says about himself:
“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? 2 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.” (1 Corinthians 9:1-2)
“We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you. We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in someone else’s territory.” (2 Corinthians 10:13-16)
What Paul is applying to himself must surely also apply to the other apostles. There is one additional note here that Paul specifically mentioned that they were in Christ before him. This is very interesting because Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:7 that Jesus appeared to the apostles before he appeared to Paul.
“Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:7)
It is unlikely that Paul is referring to the Twelve here because Paul already refers to the Twelve in his list of those to whom Jesus appeared. Instead, it is likely a reference to a larger group of people referred to as apostles that spread the gospel and established churches. Junia and Andronicus would be included in this group.
If we take seriously Junia’s position as an apostle that establishes churches and holds authority for those to whom she shares the gospel, we must accept that women, however rare, were leaders in the church.
In our study we also discussed women prophets in the NT. We looked at Anna a Jewish prophet in Luke 2:36 and Philip’s daughters in 21:9.
In Luke 2:36, Anna is described as a faithful woman who committed herself to the work of the Temple, to fasting, and to prayer. Fasting and prayer describe Anna as someone who is seeking God’s righteousness and the redemption God promised. When Jesus’ parents bring him to the temple, Anna gives thanks to God and connects Jesus to their hopes for Jerusalem’s redemption. Anna’s description as a prophet implies that people considered what she shared to be authoritative. In this way she functions as another witness besides Simeon who reveals Jesus’ identity.
While Anna is a Jewish prophetess, Philip’s daughters are an example of Christian prophetesses. Here is the passage:
“On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”
Very little is mentioned about Philip’s daughters except that they are unmarried and that they a are prophetesses. The form of the Greek word used to describe their gift implies that they used their gift regularly rather than on one single occasion. Prophecy functions to edify, strengthen, comfort, teach, convict, confront, and judge and bring revelation. For Paul there was no greater gift than prophecy. Prophecy was not a position in the church to whom someone was appointed. Instead Prophets were those who were inspired by God to bring prophecies to the congregation. They could be women or men. When a prophesy was given the congregation would evaluate the message and whether it was authoritative for their lives. Philips daughters would have been recognized as Prophets because of the affirmation of the congregation that they brought prophecies inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately, Philips daughters are overshadowed by Agabus a prophet from Judea. He comes to Philip’s house with a prophecy about Paul’s travels to Jerusalem. I have heard it implied that, if Philips daughters were prophets to the church why didn’t they bring this prophecy instead of Agabus. This theory tries to undermine the authority of Philip’s daughters and the legitimacy of their gift. The logic doesn’t bare weight however because there is a very good reason for God choosing Agabus to bring this prophecy. Agabus is from Judea, the exact place Paul is planning on going. It is understandable that the Holy Spirit would send someone from Judea to share a message about Jerusalem. The purpose of identifying Philip’s daughters in this story is not to contrast them with Agabus but rather to show that Paul was staying with a community of believers. Paul stays many days with Philip and Luke lets us know he is with a community of believers by emphasizing that Paul is staying in Philip’s house, that Philip is an evangelist, and that his daughters are prophetesses. It seems likely that while the community of believers were gathered together Agabus enters to perform his dramatic prophecy.
Female prophets were undeniably part of the New Testament church. Philip’s daughters are an example of this practice. Later when we examine 1 Corinthians 11, we will see that Paul addresses a situation where women are prophesying in the worship. For now, it seems appropriate to point to the prophecy of Joel fulfilled through Pentecost in Acts 2:17-18:
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”