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The prophecy of Philip’s daughters

· ​Paul and women ·

In the Acts of the Apostles in recounting Paul’s return from Miletus to Jerusalem (cf. 21:1-14) at the end of the missionary voyage (cf. 18:23-21, 14) before his arrest in the Holy City (cf. 21:27, 30-33; 22:24; 23:10-11), Luke gives information, as it were in passing, about the capacity for prophecy of four women: “On the morrow 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. And he had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied” (21:9). Thus they were the daughters of Philip: not the Apostle of this name who was a member of the group of the Twelve (cf. 1:13), but the second of the Seven established for the deaconry of the Greek-speaking Church of Jerusalem (cf. 6:1-7) and later portrayed by Luke as an authentic and effective proclaimer of the Gospel, who worked signs, exorcisms and healings (cf. 8:5-8.12-13, 26-40). The last mention of Philip and his work of evangelization (cf. 8:40) sees him having arrived at Caesarea Maritima where (cf. 21:9) we find him in his “house”, a reference point for the local Church, as the father of four daughters and the welcoming host of the Apostle Paul and his travelling companions.

Acts of the Apostles 21:9 is one of the few passages in the Jewish-Christian Scriptures in which the ability for or exercise of a prophetic function is positively and explicitly attributed to female figures, although exceptions are made for Miriam, “sister of Aaron” (Ex 15:20), for Deborah, “wife of Lappidoth” (Judg 4:4), for Huldah, “wife of Shallum” (2 Kings 22:14, 2; 2 Chron 34:22) and for Anna, “daughter of Phanuel” (Lk 2:36); other cases of female prophecy are mentioned either in neutral terms (as in the case of the Christian women in the assembly in 1 Corinthians 11:5) or in strongly polemic and negative terms (as in the case of the Prophetess Noadiah in Nehemiah 6:14, of the “daughters of Israel” who prophesy “out of their own minds” in Ezekiel 13:17 and of a self-styled prophetess, stigmatized by the evocative name of Jezebel in Revelations 2:20). In itself, the fleeting reference of Acts of the Apostles 21:9 appears to be marginal and lacking in consequence in the narrative thread of the account: indeed the prophetic capacity of Philip’s daughters in no way affects the development of the events that bring Paul to Jerusalem. The information that concerns them could easily have been omitted. Nevertheless it establishes more firmly in the reader’s mind a perception of the dignity and the active and aware presence of women in salvation history, to which the entire Lucan opus has accustomed us by insisting on a constant parallelism between exemplary male and female figures from the beginning to the end of the narrative. It is above all from the account of Pentecost then that Luke recognizes in the prophetic capacity of women and men, without any kind of discrimination, a special sign of the fulfilment of the divine promise:

“The word of the Lord that came to Joel”:

“And it shall come to pass afterward”, God says, “that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;

Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy...,

Your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions.

Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28-29, Acts2:16-18).

Vittore Carpaccio, “St Paul the Apostle” (1520)

The capacity for “speaking with tongues” and for “prophesying” is a fruit of the coming of the Spirit upon those who have themselves baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (cf. Acts 19:5-6) and his gift is conferred equally upon both men and women. Acts of the Apostles 21:9, however, raises various questions: does the use of the verb “to prophesy” in the present participle (prophetèuousai) refer precisely to the prophetic ability of all the baptized, to a stable and specific ecclesial office (cf. Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32) or to a sporadic charismatic gift? Why is it that Luke does not report the content of the prophecy of Philip’s daughters and limits himself solely to recording the fact of it? Where did he find the specific information concerning them and why did he have an interest in reporting it while omitting to describe the content of their prophecy? What relationship is there between their prophetic ability and the prophetic action of other figures who appear in the same account and of whose prophecy Luke also mentions the content (cf. 21:10-11)? What is the relationship between the unmarried condition of Philip’s daughters and their prophetic ability? And, further, what relationship could there have been between the prophecy of Philip’s daughters and the portrayal of their father as an evangelist?

To answer these questions it is necessary to start first of all with an analysis of the narrative context in which the information concerning them is provided. Acts of the Apostles 21:1-14 belongs to one of the “we” sections of the book (21:1-8), characterized precisely by the unexpected use of the first person plural and always coinciding with accounts of the voyage (cf. also 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 27:1-28, 16). Whether these were from sources used by Luke or whether they were from his personal record of the voyage, what counts is the historical memory, traces of which remain concerning places and protagonists of the ecclesial experience at its beginnings. In this section in particular the voyage that brought Paul and his companions from Miletus to Jerusalem entails several lengthy halts: one in Tyre of a week (cf. 21:3-6) and one in Caesarea Maritima for “some days” (21:8-15). In the case of the “disciples from Caesarea” (21:16), the Evangelist Philip’s home was the place in which Paul and his travelling companions were given hospitality. Paul was evidently already acquainted with him and the Church of Caesarea (cf. 18:22) and could count on his hospitality. In this context, having apparently been deprived of a specific function in the narrative development of the passage, the information concerning Philip’s daughters is first and foremost a piece of information of a historical kind about that Church, her vitality and the presence within her of female figures remembered precisely for their prophetic ability. The later ecclesiastical tradition, not by chance, was to continue to speak of their role as channels of transmission of early Christianity and, with obvious polemic intent, transmission of the gift of prophecy which had marked them as a model for those who “prophesied according to the New Testament” because, unlike “Montanus and his women” they had not accompanied their prophesying with “insolence and reckless boldness” (cf. Eusebius of Caesarea, History of the Church, III, 37, 1; III, 39, 9; v, 16.22; v, 17, 2-3).

For Philip’s daughters Luke avoids using the noun “prophet” in the feminine, which by contrast he uses for Anna in Luke 2:36 and, in the masculine, for the prophets of Israel, John the Baptist, Jesus and for individual believers such as Agabus, Judah and Silas, identified in the Church precisely by virtue of their exercise of a specific prophetic function (cf. Acts11:27; 13:1; 15:32). Rather, Luke prefers the present of the verb “to prophesy” which, used in a theological sense, always appears in his writings in relation to the powerful action of the Holy Spirit and, except in the case of Zechariah (Lk 1:67), in reference to the eschatological fulfilment experienced by believers in Jesus (cf. Acts 2: 17-18; 19:6). If we then consider that in the rest of the New Testament the verb is used almost always in reference to members of the Christian communities (cf. 1 Cor 11; 14 and Rev 10:11; 11:3), it is easy to think that here too Luke intends to refer to a specific exercise of the prophetic charism by these women believers. Of what did it consist? In what form was it exercised? How was it made use of in the local Church? It is impossible to say whether it included prophetic actions of an extemporaneous type, such as that attributed immediately afterwards to the “prophet” called Agabus (cf. 21:10-11 and, even earlier, 11:27-28), ecstatic and glossolalic phenomena, discourses inspired in a liturgical context (cf. 1 Cor 11:5) or, again, a form of preaching and guidance in the Church (as in the case of Judah and Silas). While testifying to it, Luke is nevertheless silent both about its content and about the forms in which it was exercised. Although in the case of the prophetic words and actions in the masculine by which the prophesying of these women is surrounded (cf. 21:4, 10-11) Luke also informs the reader of the content and concrete manner of prophecy, by contrast we are not granted to hear in detail the prophetic voices of Philip’s daughters, we are not granted to see their bodies in action, unlike that of Agabus (21:11), just as, moreover, we are not permitted to hear in detail the words of the Prophetess Anna, unlike those of the elderly Simeon (cf. Lk 2:25-35).

The silence on the content and manner of their prophecy is countered by the biographical detail which significantly precedes the attestation of their prophetic capacity: these are women who are not identified by their names but on the basis of their relationship with their father (they are “daughters” of Philip) who, as unmarried (“virgins”, parthènoi), still live in their father’s house. The text does not permit us to establish whether their virginal condition was a choice (cf. 1 Cor 7:8, 25-26), an expression of surprising freedom from the pre-established social and institutional roles (see also the groups of Christian virgins mentioned in the [apocryphal] Acts of Paul and Thecla, or whether it merely denotes their youth. The subsequent ecclesiastical tradition seems to tend towards the first hypothesis (according to Polycrates of Ephesus, to which Eusebius refers in his History of the Church iii, 31.4, Philip’s daughters “had grown old in virginity”). However, it is probable that with this biographical detail Luke intends to suggest some relationship between the virginal state and their prophetic charism (see too the presentation of the state of widowhood of the Prophetess Anna as a condition of free dedication to worship in the temple in Luke 2:36-37). The connection was not foreign to Hellenistic sensibility; the Pythia also had ideally to be a virgin: “Just as Xenophon believes that a bride should have seen and heard as little as possible before she proceeds to her husband’s house, so this girl, inexperienced and uninformed about practically everything, a pure, virgin soul, becomes the associate of the god” (Plutarch, Moralia 405c). Philip’s daughters, precisely as “daughters” rather than “wives”, remain bound to their father’s house and to the private space: as married women and, eventually, in a public ritual space would they have been allowed to prophesy or would they have had to assume an attitude that was submissive and dependent on their husbands (see the problem posed by 1 Cor 14:33b-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15)? If their virginity on the one hand recalls from the viewpoint of Hellenistic piety a condition suited to the oracular experience, on the other hand it might be the social and cultural condition for a freer exercise of it. Then the fact that only in this passage does Luke describe Philip as an “evangelist” – even though he has used the verbs “to proclaim” and “to preach” widely in describing his evangelizing mission in Samaria (Acts 8:5, 12, 35, 40) – and set beside him these female figures as a subject of prophecy may also call to mind a Pauline ecclesiological background (cf. Eph 4:11; 2 Tim 4:5) and imply that he wants to give a lofty dignity to these women whose prophetic charism would have placed them immediately after the Apostles. In fact, however, Luke does not allow us to learn of the concrete forms of expression of their prophecy and for this very reason, of their specific leadership. This is explained, in all likelihood, by his need to write a work of a public character, appreciable in accordance with the canons of imperial society in which the formal role of prophet remained reserved to men alone in order to guarantee the cultural and political reliability of the Gospel message.

A correct valuation of the information given by Luke is therefore indispensable for an interpretation in a perspective of gender. This means first of all recognizing that the prophetic capacity – in its most varied and contingent forms of manifestation and actuation in relation to the concrete life of the Churches – is attested at the origins of the Church in women as in men. Then too it means recognizing in Luke’s choice to remain silent as to the form and content of the exercise of female prophecy the result of a communicative and apologetic need which, since the space, the time and the culture of readers have changed, no longer has any raison d’être. Although Philip’s daughters are in fact the first explicit example recognized and attested of female prophecy in apostolic times, it is impossible for the reader to reconstruct from the text their corporeal gestures, intention and authoritativeness, almost as if the relationship between prophecy and the female body could not yet be socially and ecclesially explained without confusion at the religious, cultural and political levels. The reader, however, is invited to recognize a structural presence of male and female figures together when it is a question of the gift of prophecy at the dawn of the Church. Philip’s four daughters are distinguished, among and before other male disciples because they are able to speak according to the Spirit, they do so and are ecclesially recognized for this capacity of theirs. One might say that their ability to prophesy coincides with their existence itself, and that the latter, attested narratively for all time, remains a form open to every possible materialization.

Since the cultural context has changed, it will thus be a question of recognizing the gift of female prophecy and of leaving full space for new and differently matured expressions – at the anthropological-cultural level and, therefore, also at the institutional level – of the prophetic charism, for the construction of an ecclesial edifice the whole of which will be animated by it, in the masculine and in the feminine: passing, indeed, through a rigorous anthropological and cultural sifting those institutional forms which, being the transient fruit of other epochs, values and models, can no longer be either understood or shared, but can only lead to a terrible contempt for prophecy (cf. 1 Thess 5:20).

Marida Nicolaci

The author

Marida Nicolaci obtained a licence in Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and a doctorate in Theology at the Theological Facility of Sicily where she currently teaches New Testament Exegesis. Her research is focused above all on the Johannine literature and on the Catholic Letters, texts considered particularly representative of the Jewish origins of the Church and of the historical and theological traditions most closely linked to Judaism. 

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