Priscilla: a woman in the forefront
· Paul and women ·
Among the women present in Paul’s circle, Priscilla is not only the one most often mentioned but is also a figure who takes a leading position. She is mentioned by the name of Prisca (Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19), a name in all likelihood of Phrygian origin, and by the diminutive, Priscilla (Acts 18:2, 18:26). Unlike the other women in the Apostle’s circle, such as Phoebe or Apphia, Prisca is always linked to her husband, Aquila, both of them originally from Pontus, an eastern province of the Empire on the southern shores of the Black Sea. We might therefore think that she existed only in relation to her husband, who is never mentioned alone except in the Acts of Paul (ix, 2, 10), and in a list of apostles and disciples, which is called Greek/Syriac Anonymous ii (i, 55-59). Although it is true that in this fourth-century text Aquila features on his own between Gaius and Phlegon (also mentioned in Rom 16:14, 23), nonetheless no woman is mentioned in it.
A surprising fact in the New Testament is that whenever this couple is referred to Priscilla is always mentioned first (Acts 18:18, 26), (Rom 16:3; 2 Tim 4:19), placed before her husband, something that was contrary to the customs of the time. This fact, moreover, was disturbing to copyists who sometimes inverted the order of their names (see Codex Bezae, certain manuscripts of the Syrian and Byzantine traditions and even of the Vulgate). Their discomfort highlights the unusual role which Paul recognizes that Priscilla played.
It is legitimate to wonder whether such a role stemmed from her riches or from her social status. Might it be possible that Priscilla came from the great family of the Acilii, in which her name is common, especially since the Roman catacomb known as “of Priscilla” is found in the sector which belonged to this family?. If so, Priscilla might have been a freedwoman of the gens Acilia.
Whatever her family origin may have been, this close couple did not necessarily live in continence in order to proclaim the Word as the Acts of Paul supposed (ix, 10). She was actively committed to following Christ in the Pauline movement. The couple arrived in Corinth in the year 49, following Claudius’ edict which expelled the Jews from Rome because of a certain Chrestos, in whom historians today almost unanimously recognize the name of Christ. Priscilla and her husband, of Jewish origin but assimilated into the Graeco-Roman culture, were probably already Christians (Acts 18:2-3). If they had been converted through contact with Paul, the texts would not have omitted to emphasize it. In the city of Corinth, which brought them close to native land, they managed to integrate themselves thanks to their craft. As artisans, Priscilla and Aquila enjoyed a rather comfortable social condition, given that they were able to move from one great city to another and to settle there (Rome, Corinth, Ephesus). They practised the “same trade” (Acts 18:3) as Paul; people have wondered whether they belonged to the same tribe: indeed they were “tentmakers (skenopoiòi), an itinerant trade which, moreover, included working in leather. Although some have thought that they made masks for the theatre, they in fact made tents for the Isthmian Games and shelters for sailors, used either on land or on ships, a very busy trade in towns.
The couple welcomed Paul when he arrived in Corinth in the autumn of 49. It was in the milieu of the synagogue that the Apostle first of all made Aquila’s acquaintance, which explains why, the first time that he is mentioned, he is placed before his wife (Acts 18:2), unless this is due to the fact that he was the owner of the business. In the following events, however, Priscilla always takes precedence.
Paul decided to work with them but he did not do so as an associate. He offered them his skilled assistance in a period when work was very busy because of the Isthmian Games that were held in 49 and in 51. It was a question of providing tents for the numerous pilgrims and spectators who flocked there from all sides during these sports contests and who had to camp near the sanctuaries since the buildings designated to accommodate them were too few.
Priscilla’s and Aquila’s workshop was probably located in the town, in the district of the northern market which had about 40 such workshops. They followed the model of the workshops in Ostia: they measured 4 x 4 metres, on the ground floor they included work tables, at the back was a space for storing raw materials and the owners’ apartments were on the upper floor. During his stay, which lasted for a year and a half (Acts 18:11), Paul lived for a while with Priscilla and Aquila and then in the dwelling next to the synagogue before moving to the home of Gaius, a Romanized Jew who became his host, namely one who could guarantee him legal protection and material help.
Thanks to the couple Priscilla and Aquila, for some time Paul was able to provide for his own sustenance, as is right and proper for every traveller and also for a preacher. In addition, Priscilla and Aquila, by making their workshop available to him, contributed with him to proclaiming the Gospel. Priscilla, who after their first meeting is always mentioned first, carried out apostolic activities beside Paul. The couple’s house enabled him to welcome Christians (1 Cor 16:19), in order to share the word and the Eucharist. Was their house big enough or did they own one of those relatively spacious houses which came to light in the archaeological excavations of Corinth?
When Paul concluded his stay in Corinth he sailed to Syria, or rather, to the Roman Province of Syria, from Cenchreae. Paul took Priscilla and Aquila with him (Acts 18:18). “Then they came to Ephesus”, and “he left them there” (Acts 18: 24-28). Priscilla and her husband settled in the city while Paul continued his voyage. To them the Apostle entrusted the mission of looking after the Christian community of Ephesus, of Johannine origin. Ephesus was an ideal city because of its port and the continuous trade exchanges which it assured between the coasts of Anatolia and of Europe, and also with the southern Mediterranean. Furthermore, it was located at the crossroads of the routes used by wool traders; it was here that Priscilla and Aquila met Apollos (Acts 18:24-28), the Alexandrian of well-known eloquence who had become a Christian; Priscilla and her husband realized that he needed to deepen the faith he had acquired, even though he had already been instructed in it. They took him aside or “took him” (Acts 18:26) with them. The couple, who were not cultured people, became the teachers of this brilliant man, well versed in the Scriptures. They expounded Christianity to him “more accurately”. It was Priscilla and Aquila who introduced Apollos into the depths of the Christian faith. We understand why Paul spoke of them in terms of “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (Rom 16:3). Priscilla is once again mentioned first here, which is surprising, given that teaching was reserved to men. Did Paul not say that women should keep silent in the gatherings and if necessary ask their husbands at home in order to learn something? (1 Cor 14:35). In Priscilla’s case Paul makes no distinctions between man and woman; not only does he treat her on the same level as her husband but he also grants her a unique place, recognizing the quality of her teaching in the case of Apollos.
In addition to Priscilla’s knowledge of faith and of the Gospel her courage should also be underscored. She lived, of course, with her husband but was not afraid to travel in any circumstances, when the dangers and difficulties of travelling by land or by sea were well known. It is enough to recall the tribulations recounted by Cicero or Ovid in these same regions. It takes courage to leave Rome under the threat of persecution, to settle for a few months in Corinth, subsequently to reach Ephesus for a slightly longer stay in a context unfavourable to Christians, then to return at last to Rome, before going back to Ephesus (2 Tim 4:19). It demanded even greater courage and great freedom of thought to speak of that new Way to men better educated than she was, to receive in her home her new converts of Jewish origin like herself or of pagan origin, who came from the most diverse backgrounds (slaves, freemen, families, celibates, merchants, artisans, the heads of synagogues, those in charge of the town’s affairs...). In Ephesus as in Corinth, the community met in their house, the “church in their house” (Rom 16:5), which once again presupposes a place spacious enough to accommodate a group. It is unlikely that Priscilla received Christian women separately from men in a room at the back of the house reserved for them (gynaikòn or gunaikonìtis) for Paul, in speaking of women at the assemblies, implies that they were present together with men (1 Cor 14, 33-35).
The couple prepared for Paul’s stay in Ephesus. This city was an excellent point of contact in order to watch over the development of the community towards Europe. Many Christians came and went between Corinth and Ephesus, making the most of the commercial infrastructure: so it was that Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus went to Ephesus (1 Cor 16:17) and that Timothy was sent to Corinth (1 Cor 4:17). At the end of his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul conveys to Priscilla and Aquila the greetings of “all the [Christian] brethren”, proof that they knew the Corinthians well (1 Cor 16:19). Ephesus was a crossroads and Priscilla and her husband played an important role there, even more important than the role they had played in Corinth.
Paul describes Priscilla as a “collaborator” just like her husband, Titus, Timothy and Apollos. She is considered as belonging to that first small circle of people whom the Apostle calls “fellow workers”, namely sharing in his own authority. Among the Christians were some who contributed more specifically to proclaiming the Gospel with him. And Paul dared to bestow this title on a woman. This means that she deserved his trust, given that he let her work autonomously and entrusted to her various groups of Christians. She committed herself to her work, her service, her hospitality and her dedication to spreading the Good News. She took on a true role of leadership in the community.
Priscilla did not hesitate to expose herself, together with her husband, to dangers of every kind. Paul expressed his gratitude to the couple (more specifically his thanksgiving), not only for the work they had done but also for the position they took in his trials (Rom 16:4), it was they “who risked their necks for my life” (literally “exposed their necks”). The Apostle is certainly alluding to the persecution he suffered in Ephesus in the time of Balbillus (1 Cor 15:32). Then, on the instigation of the corporations, uprisings with an anti-Semitic colouring broke out which had Paul as their target (Acts 19;23-40). Some Jewish families had to flee. For this reason Priscilla and Aquila returned to Rome. Paul expresses gratitude to the couple not only on his own behalf but also on behalf of “all the churches”, that is, the Christian communities who lived “among the nations” and who were indebted to them.
Priscilla illustrates to perfection the way in which Christianity spread with very great mobility in the first century, using commercial networks, the practice of hospitality and welcoming, education and reciprocal help, as well as assuming commitments in the city which implied taking risks in the Lord’s name. Together with Phoebe, Priscilla is an exceptional figure in the first group of people who gathered round Paul.
Currently an external collaborator of the Department of Biblical Studies of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, from 1900 to 2014 Chantal Reynier taught biblical exegesis at the Jesuits’ Faculty in Paris (Centre Sèvres). She was concerned with Pauline and maritime literature, from antiquity to our day.
Her works, published by Cerf, include: Pour lire saint Paul, Paris, 2008 [to interpret St Paul], Saint Paul sur les routes du monde romain [St Paul on the routes of the Roman world], Infrastructures, logistique, Itinéraires, Paris, 2009 [infrastructures, logistics, itineraries] and Vie et mort de Paul à Rome, Paris, 2016 [Paul’s life and death in Rome].
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