Friday, July 10, 2015

The Place and Priority of Single Women in Pauline Theology

A post I recently wrote for the Junia Project (you can read that here) has me thinking more about a claim I made therein:
Indeed, the marital status of most of the women and men who assisted in Paul’s extensive missionary activities (Rom. 16; Phil. 4:2-3) is rarely mentioned.
Now I fully stand by my statement (because I think it is largely correct), but it begs for more explanation and data, which I aim to provide.

It is quite common to see married couples within Paul doing missionary work. The famous couple Prisca and Aquila is most probably a married couple because they are mentioned together in multiple epistles and in various other writings in the New Testament. The fact that both Paul[1] and Luke[2] place Prisca’s name before Aquila is most often thought to be because of her status. 2 out of 3 references in Paul concerning Prisca place her before her husband (Rom. 16:3; 2 Tim. 4:19) – a fairly uncommon practice as many have pointed out.[3]

Andronicus and Junia are thought to be a married couple, but I think it is somewhat ambiguous. We have no record of them outside of this one reference, though if Bauckham and others are correct, we do have multiple references to her in Luke (8:3; 24:10).[4] The references in Luke specify she was married to “Herod’s steward.” If they are married, they were still missionaries together: same as Prisca and Aquila.

Paul, however, was unmarried for what seems to be most of his epistles. We see this most clearly in 1 Cor. 7: “I wish that everyone was as I am” (θέλω δὲ πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἶναι ὡς καὶ ἐμαυτόν). The most likely implication is that Paul is single and probably celibate. He did not consider it to be a problem for an unmarried man or woman: most likely, it was due to the call of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 12). One’s status was not a problem for participation and fellowship within the body (Gal. 3:26-29), and Paul did not want even slaves to fear their exclusion, and encouraged them to gain their freedom (1 Cor. 7:21).[5]

In Romans 16:1-2 we have Phoebe (Φοίβην), who is “our sister” (τὴν ἀδελφὴν ἡμῶν).[6] It would be common for a husband to be named, but none are in this text. Paul specifies that Phoebe herself was “a patroness of many, and especially to me” (αὐτὴ προστάτις πολλῶν ἐγενήθη καὶ ἐμοῦ αὐτοῦ). Her status as διάκονον was no hindrance to her as a single sister in Christ.

The text in Romans 16:6 speaks of this “Mary, who has worked very hard (ἐκοπίασεν) among you.” The same aorist active verb is applied also in Romans 16:12 to three other women who exercised work ἐν Κυρίῳ: Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis. Persis is even called “the beloved” (τὴν ἀγαπητήν), illustrating Paul’s awareness and love for her. These women worked within a world that did not value them nearly to the extent that Paul did. It is likely that Tryphaena and Tryphosa were still working at the time Paul was writing, as he uses a present active participle (κοπιώσας) to indicate their continued involvement in the church at Rome. All of these women mentioned in Romans 16 are not mentioned as married except for someone’s mother (16:13) and Paul even mentions this unnamed mother! A strong showing of active women in the church of God, and others send their love because Paul writes “All the churches of Christ greet you” (αἱ ἐκκλησίαι πᾶσαι τοῦ Χριστοῦ): it is possible that other men in these churches would have been aware of these women and their activity.

I mentioned in the Junia Project post that Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3) were not married. They labored (συνήθλησάν) together with Paul (μοι), and along with all of the other “co-workers” (συνεργῶν). Their status in Christ is assured, and they are not mentioned as being married, though an oblique reference to Clement could point to one of them being his wife or brother or fellow-worker. We simply do not know of their marital status.

Three other women deserve mentioning. Apphia (Philemon 1:2) is called “the sister” (τῇ ἀδελφῇ). Some translations believe that this is meant to convey “our sister” and some commentators believe that Apphia was Philemon’s wife. However, Paul does not refer to Apphia as γυναικὸς but as ἀδελφῇ. This likely means she was not his wife, but rather involved within the household in some form. She is not called a wife, a slave, or anything: ἀδελφῇ is the noun Paul uses and he leaves it at that. It is certainly likely that she is single and it is not uncommon for single women to live with their family, so maybe Philemon is her brother.

In Col. 4:15, Paul greets Nympha and also “the church that meets in her house” (καὶ τὴν κατ᾿ οἶκον αὐτῆς ἐκκλησίαν). It is curious that Paul does not mention her husband at all, either as “head” of the home, or as a “mutual partner.” It is possible that a wealthy single woman could own a home, so her singleness included facilitating a Christian atmosphere and the sharing of resources within the early community of Christians.

In 1 Cor. 1:11, Paul refers to a woman named Chloe, who is written in the genitive form (Χλόης), indicating a possessive genitive that indicates her oversight over these people who gave Paul some information. Again, her marital status is not mentioned or stated. It is ambiguous, but we can rest in the belief that Paul saw no reason to mention her husband, should she have had one.

Of course, all of my arguments do not hinge on new discoveries. It is certainly possible that these women were married, but is equally likely (more likely in my opinion) that their marital status was not an issue. The mere fact that Paul does not emphasize their status as married means that it was likely not largely relevant to him. Much more could be added, but in summation single and married women have a place in our churches and we ought not exclude single women from ministry.

Paul certainly didn't. 


[1] Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19, if by Paul.
[2] Luke specifies that Aquila and Prisca are together (Acts 18:2) by the use of γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ. All of Luke’s reference to this couple is found in ch18. 2 out of 3 references place her first, the same ratio as in Paul.
[3] Sandra Hack Polaski, A Feminist Introduction to Paul (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2005), 45: “It is unusual to see the woman’s name listed first. This practice implies that Prisca is the more prominent member of the couple, possibly because she is of higher social class but perhaps more likely because she is the more important church leader.”
[4] Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 165-185.
[5] Philip Payne, “Twelve Reasons to Understand 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 as a Call to Gain Freedom,” manuscript. link  

[6] The use of the article τὴν specifies who Phoebe is: our sister.

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