We are studying three short New Testament texts that mention the gift of prophecy given to “daughters” specifically – Acts 2:16-21, Luke 2:36-38, and Acts 21:8-9 – for Sunday, January 31. This is the first in a series of five weeks we will be spending on New Testament texts that feature women in some specifically positive ways. Since the unifying thread this whole quarter has been “call,” these texts are presented to us as instances of women called to specific tasks in the early days of the community of faith. [Some study/discussion questions on these texts are here.] Here are a very few notes on these texts:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: I admit, this approach to the text feels a little strange to me. Collecting a verse here, a couple of verses there, all seemingly taken out of context, feels to me like an odd way to make the case that women have an important role in the New Testament, or the New Testament community.
This selection of texts may simply remind us that contemporary readers are a lot more interested in reading stories about gospel women than the authors of the text were interested in telling them. It does not seem obvious to me at all what we can, or need to, make of that.
Except this: some of our concerns are very different from those of the first century Christians; one cause of that is the influence on our society and culture of the religion those Christians pioneered. Many of us have the idea that women are as much “the real people” as men. We think that, as people, women are equally liable to be gifted by God. We think that, as gifted people, women have the permission and the obligation to be good stewards of those gifts. We have gotten all those ideas from the Bible and from Christian proclamation. This is one of the ways the Bible has made a difference in human life over time. Personally, and speaking as an unregenerate second-wave feminist, I think that’s been a good thing.
All our texts this week are from Luke-Acts, the work of a single author. They are embedded in a work of great literary sophistication, that uses excellent Greek, and seems to have been addressed largely to an audience of Gentiles. Thematically, Luke pays explicit attention to issues of social and economic inequality. The role of the Holy Spirit in empowering people for Christian ministry is clear and emphatic throughout Luke-Acts, too.
Luke is sometimes said to pay particular attention to women. The evidence cited for that includes his doubling of parables and stories, including stories that feature women characters (e.g., the parable of the lost sheep, doubled by the parable of the lost coin Luke 15:1-10; the healing of the bent woman Luke 13:10-17 and the healing of the man with dropsy Luke 14:1-6); and the inclusion of stories about women that are unique to Luke (e.g., the stories that feature Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1; the story of Mary and Martha, Luke 10:38-42). We are looking at three places in Luke-Acts where women are mentioned in connection with prophecy, specifically and explicitly.
Luke 2:36-38 is embedded in the story of Jesus’s presentation in the Temple, Luke 2:21-40. This is the lectionary’s gospel text for the First Sunday after Christmas, Year B (e.g., 2020-21).
Acts 2:16-21 is the first part of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. That sermon is itself embedded in the longer story of the first Pentecost after Jesus’s ascension, which is told in Acts 2. Acts 2:1-21, which includes our verses, is the lectionary reading for Pentecost every year – no surprise there. So we have likely heard these verses a few times. They are the proclamation that follows the dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the disciples “all together in one place.” The arrival itself takes the form of the sound of the rush of a mighty wind, the appearance of divided tongues, as of fire, and then some brilliantly intelligible proclamation. The lectionary divides up the rest of the chapter, verses 22-47, across the second, third, and fourth Sundays after Easter in Year A.
Acts 21:8-9 seems to be embedded in an episode that takes place on Paul’s final journey to Jerusalem, Acts 21:7-14. No part of this text is in the lectionary, making it one of those things you’d never know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. [Bible Content Exam-inees be warned.]
CLOSER READING: For reasons mostly unrelated to our class, there already exists a one-page exegesis of Luke 2:21-40, as well as a recent sermon on that text if anyone feels inclined to listen to that who hasn’t already, so I won’t repeat all that here.
Astonishingly, it looks like we haven’t already studied Acts 2 in much detail.
By beginning with verse 16, we miss one of the best lines in all of scripture: “These men aren’t drunk! It’s only 9 in the morning!” LOL, as if that proved anything.
Verses 16-21 are the Greek text of Joel 2:28-32. In v18, for future reference, the Greek word for female slave (or, servant) is doulē.
It seems likely that the purpose of mentioning Philip’s daughters who are prophets in Acts 21:9 is to take Luke’s readers back to Peter’s sermonic quotation of Joel in Acts 2. Peter said the meaning of the dramatic event of that Pentecost was the outpouring of the Spirt. That these daughters are prophesying is one confirmation of that.
More importantly, when we look back this way, we’ll see that in this episode (Acts 21:8-14) the story is coming full circle. Back to Paul’s first missionary journey, which was motivated by the prophetic activity of Agabus (Acts 11:27-30). Back to Philip, who first took the gospel past the city limits of Jerusalem, all the way to Caesarea, in Acts 8. Back to Jerusalem, where Paul’s life-transforming encounter with this Way of Jesus Christ first began, when he held people’s coats while Stephen was becoming the first Christian martyr (Acts 8:1).
Back to the beginning of these “last days,” which God announced by pouring out the Holy Spirit on all flesh, so “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17), as Peter proclaimed.
And from that vantage point, the vantage point of that day of Pentecost, we might look even further back: to the very beginning of this story of Luke-Acts, as old man Simeon is led by the Spirit, dreamlike, to sing his song over Jesus in the Temple, and as a bunch of young men, shepherds, have a vision of angels. (Luke 2)
Back to the very very beginning of Luke’s gospel, when the Spirit is poured out on the “handmaiden (Greek doulē) of the Lord,” and we hear her magnificent prophetic speech (Luke 1:46-55).
See what Luke is doing here?!
Setting up the structure of this text to produce an awesome reverberation of deepening meaning.
There’s a word for awesomely meaningful reverberatingly structured literary texts like this: “inspired.”
Image: “St. Luke mosaic, All Hallows, Allerton,” by Rodhullandemu, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons