This week we are focusing on four of the six places in the Bible that mention Priscilla, or Prisca: Acts 18:1-3, 18-21, 24-26, and Romans 16:3-4. [The other texts are 1 Corinthians 16:19 and 2 Timothy 4:19.] In keeping with the theme of this five-week series of lessons on New Testament women called to specific tasks, the emphasis this week is on Priscilla’s evident importance in the life of the early Christian church. [Some questions on the texts are here.] Here are a few notes on the text(s):
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Three of the texts that mention Prisca/Priscilla come at the end of letters. Paul typically closes his letters with a list of greetings. If Paul didn’t write 2 Timothy, whoever did has followed the same procedure. Three of those lists of greetings mention the married team of Prisca and Aquila.
Romans 16:3-5 specifically refers to them as “workers together with me in Christ Jesus,” mentions that they have “risked their necks” on Paul’s behalf, and refers to “the church in/at their house.”All this will remind us that Paul and the other early Christians were often in peril, and typically gathered for worship and fellowship in people’s homes.
There is a little more narrative material relating to Priscilla and Aquila in the texts from Acts 18, which mainly tells the story of the last leg or so of Paul’s second missionary journey. That story begins at the end of Acts 15, and relates Paul’s split with Barnabas, his trip through Syria accompanied by Silas, during which they pick up Timothy as another traveling companion, and then head over to Macedonia – Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea – before before heading off to Athens without Silas and Timothy, and then moving on to Corinth.
There is a great interactive map of all this at Understanding Christianity.
Paul meets Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth, where they have settled after being expelled from Rome. I’ve seen a couple of different dates for this (42 CE; 49 CE). The expulsion seems to have been directed at Jews involved in the “Chrestus” movement, and wouldn’t have affected actual Roman citizens. [Bible Odyssey has more about the expulsion here, and more on Priscilla and Aquila here.]
In my mostly vain efforts to find out more about tent-making in the first century, I ran across a long chapter, “The Missionary Artisan Priscilla and the Universal Praise that is Her Due,” in a book on women in the apostolic era by Ivoni Richter Reimer. The entire book is online at “Interpreting Scripture Correctly,” a daunting-sounding title for a website. Or a political-sounding one. Or both.
The chapter itself is a “long read.” It discusses some text-critical issues with Acts 18, and develops a detailed exegesis of the passage with respect to Priscilla. That discussion goes into the questions of what “tent-making” would have meant, what Priscilla’s involvement in the tent-making enterprise seems likely to have been, and what the tent-making occupation would probably have meant about Priscilla-and-Aquila’s socio-economic status. Also, why it might have taken some decades of feminist Biblical scholarship to retrieve some of what first century readers would have assumed from living in that context, which is also interesting. So, I’ll commend that long article to people’s attention.
Here’s the gist:
- This tent-making probably involved working in leather;
- We can assume Priscilla worked alongside her husband in this artisanal work [some more on that here];
- Although modern commentators think Priscilla and Aquila would have been reasonably well-off financially, we might need to qualify that; at a minimum, they don’t seem to have had spacious quarters in Corinth, because Paul is making use of space at the home of another believer for at least some of his preaching activity (see Acts 18:7)
CLOSER READING: In Acts 18:3, an actual exegetical issue has been the interpretation of “they” in “they were tentmakers.” Namely, who does that “they” include: all three of the named characters here, or only Paul and Aquila? Grown adults have argued about this, in print.
The “them” in the earlier clause doesn’t seem to cause difficulties – it’s clear it refers to husband and wife together. That “them” follows the explanatory comment that Paul is staying with Priscilla-and-Aquila due to being in the same trade. Nevertheless, it has sometimes been impossible for commentators on this chapter of the Bible to imagine Priscilla working in that tent-making shop.
Most of the story of Acts 18 concerns Paul’s ministry in Corinth, including his declaration “From now on I will go to the Gentiles!” and the eruption of some violence related to that ministry. But we’re skipping all that to focus on Paul’s departure for Syria “with Priscilla and Aquila.”
Grown adults have also spent a lot of time trying to make something out of the order of the names “Priscilla and Aquila.” Or, denying there is anything to be made out of that.
[Here, I consult my own experience: whose name do I put first on an envelope or in a list? Well … it depends. On how the names sound, and what I’m used to, and who I think of first, for whatever reason. “Whatever reason” might be who I’m more closely related to and spend more time with, or what we’re specifically talking about, or why we’re making the list, or might be something else I’m not fully aware of. Does that tell us anything about what we ought to infer about what the order of these names MEANS about Priscilla’s and Aquila’s significance in the early Christian movement? You tell me.]
Priscilla and Aquila stay in Ephesus (remember the book of Ephesians). So we skip ahead to a brief narrative in verses 24-26 that mentions how “Priscilla and Aquila heard [Apollos]” and “took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.”
Many grown adults have argued at length and bitterly about the precise meaning of the verb translated “explained” in that sentence. The burning question is: does “explaining” here mean, or does it not mean, the equivalent of “teaching.”
Because, you know, 1 Timothy 2:12. Along with everything that depends on that verse, according to a lot of grown adults for a very long time. Some grown adults have spent a lot of time and energy insisting, on the strength of that verse, on the Absolute Necessity, just in order to be Faithful to God, of some specific ways of doing things in the institutional life of the Church.
The same church of which Jesus Christ is the actual head, or so we all also say.
As if the most important question to answer here, finally, is the range of meaning of ektithēmi.
A COMMENT: You probably know where I come out on this.
Priscilla seems to have been a well-known figure in the Christianity of her own day. After her own day, she has often been a public figure in Christianity, and a contentious one, because of Acts 18:26. I wish I could say “historic Christianity” there.
But the argument between “egalitarians” and “complementarians” is a contemporary one in some neighborhoods of the Church Universal. Even in some neighborhoods of the Presbyterian / Reformed Church. There are the folks behind the Priscilla Papers, for instance, the Christians for Biblical Equality. And there are the folks behind the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. [I’ll just let you google that yourself.]
It took me a long time to see this: the argument here is not really about exegesis, or the Bible, or its “authority.”
The argument is really about the spirit in which we conduct that exegesis, and read that Bible, and attempt to honor its authority.
Because as we may have heard, the commandment of God and the traditions of men are two different things.
Including the traditions about how to read the Bible.