The Women in the Acts of the Apostles

This post has been proofread only lightly.

Women of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles

By Fr. Timothy Naples

The women in the Acts of the Apostles are depicted as truly active personages. They are sometimes presented to us by Saint Luke as if being introduced to us like a person already known by many other people; we are being invited to make their acquaintance for the first time.

A few times the women are present and involved in the very center of pivotal events (viz. Pentecost, and the intercessory prayer meeting at the house of Mary, John Mark’s mother). Their activity does not prove in any place to be the sole, necessary catalyst for moving the story forward, save only in the reference to Mary, the Mother of God, as a Gospel starting reference point for absolutely everything. Recall that the Acts of the Apostles was written by the evangelist Saint Luke. Therefore the Gospel of Luke is always a reference point. 

We should also remember that Acts is highly selective in giving the chronology of the Church’s evangelical movement. The book is primarily dominated by the actions of Peter and Paul. Even the other Apostles seem to have quite minor roles in comparison, and hardly any key agency for any of the necessary events. So also for the women in the Acts, their deeds are not the key selections for the narrative, but they are noticeable.

There are hints that some of the women are very active, and of notable importance. Those women with whom no specific action is associated are assumed to be just as valuable to the Church, often by the insistence that we know their names despite our relative ignorance of their deeds. When their activity is not chronicled in any detail, we can draw from many other examples of the saints in Church history to contemplate their virtue. Above all, we recall that it is not the actions of any mere human actors that are ultimately praised and admired in the Acts. It is the action of Jesus and the Holy Spirit working through the whole Church.

First women in Acts, the women of the Gospel, Acts 1:13-14

13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. 14 All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

Set as counterparts to, or rather complimentary members with, the 12 Apostles are the Mother of Jesus, and the women of the Church. The Apostles clearly constitute the leadership, we may even say the patriarchs, of the Church. But the unity of the Church is expressed in this summary of the men and women, together devoted to prayer.

These are the women from the Gospel of Luke. When Saint Luke mentions Mary, “the mother of Jesus,” he expects the reader to recall all the events of the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Visitation in Luke Chapters 1 and 2. (It is most certain that Elizabeth would have gone to be with the Lord at this point, but her model of holiness as a woman filled with the Holy Spirit is implied)

Some translations say that there were “some women” with Mary. But the actual text says that, with the Apostles and Mary, were “the” women. This means all the women disciples in the Gospel! Quite specifically, we read in Luke Chapter 8:1-3.

1 Afterward he journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve 2 and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.

While Mary Magdalene was more-or-less expected to be named, in keeping with the Gospel tradition, it is Saint Luke who also “gives names” for other women disciples of Jesus. Joanna and Suzanna were representative figures in a way, but they were certainly also personalities of their own, here joining Mary Magdalene, drawing close to the Lord in his ministry. 

The next woman of Acts is Tabitha a.k.a. Dorcas, Acts 9:36-43

36 Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. 37 In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 38 … the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, urging him, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter rose and went … All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them. 40 But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. 41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then, calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner.

Tabitha is also introduced by her Greek Name, Dorcas, a word meaning a gazelle. (For the record, I think it would be more elegant to translate this by saying she was simply called “Gazelle,” but that might have been very awkward in that day despite the ring it has now).

The description of her life and activity could also be stated as “full of good deeds and almsgiving.” Her character is clear enough, and here the narrative rather speaks for itself. She is one of those women who does absolutely everything for others, tirelessly, and with hardly the least thought of herself. We see how “all the widows” had benefited from her sewing and garment making!

The next women of Acts are Mary, the mother of John Mark, and Rhoda her servant girl, Acts 12:6-19

12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. 

Mary, mother of John-Mark (AKA Mark the Evangelist) had a household of prominence and reputation in the Jerusalem Church. Upon a miraculous release from prison, Peter himself seeks out her house, and numerous well known Christians there are praying for him.

Perhaps Mary is widowed, and hence she is presented as the owner of the household and its property. The Acts certainly does not endorse a Christian culture in which women cannot hold property, or inherit it. St. Luke could have said that Peter “went to the house of John, whose other name was Mark.” But John-Mark’s mother is clearly the owner, with some bit of property, for she is the master of the servants, including the servant girl Rhoda. 

Rhoda must have been known as a devout believer, even though she was a servant. Her small adventure, that of realizing Peter had miraculously showed up, but forgetting her own job to open the passage of the house to such a friend, could have been retold without using her name at all. But her name was known to Christians. She was not a nobody. St. Luke knew her name. He wanted the reader of Acts to know her name.

The next woman of Acts is Lydia of Thyatira, Acts 16:11-40

We remained in this city [of Philippi] some days. 13 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. 14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

Lydia is a rich woman, as proved by her trade in “purple goods.” Purple was the color of kings, the most expensive color to dye garments. She accepted Paul’s proclamation of Jesus as Lord, crucified and resurrected. She becomes a true believer, and despite the fact that her new religious zeal could potentially cost her a presumably luxurious lifestyle, we see that she goes “all in” for the mission of the Church. Not only is she willing to host Paul, certainly knowing that persecutions and troubles sometimes follow him about, she emphatically insists upon taking this risk by lodging Paul and his companions at her home.

Lydia’s household allows us to reflect on the whole household setting. Several households in Acts, as a whole it is presumed, received baptism. In addition to Lydia’s household, also that of Paul’s jailor in Acts 16:29-34. Household members would only have included children, even infants, but also the servants, who had about the same status as children except for family lineage and right to inheritance. In Church history the presumption has prevailed in all the major writings that all the above would receive baptism. Just as family loyalty, and solicitude for the family, are very natural tendencies in any house of strong family Character, it seems that the family character of the whole household was transformed by Christianity in these scenes.

We should not read into these depictions any detailed visions of how the household functioned or what the exact specifications were on each member. But we may in a general way speak of the essential roles of parents and children, of brothers and sisters, of husband and wife. Christianity has always delt with broken families, with stepfamilies, with bereft families. But we know there is something missing when there is not a loving relationship to the dad or the mom, when grandparents are unknown, etc. The grace of God seeks to heal these defects by reuniting us all in the family of God.

The next woman of Acts is Damaris the Areopagite, Acts 17:16-34

32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

We know nothing of Demaris except that she heard, at least second hand, Paul’s famous sermon in Athens. As with other women named in Acts, we may presume her name is passed on in writing simply because of her faithful membership in the Church. Having no indication whether Demaris accomplished any evangelical or societal work, her only noticeable work in the Church may have been a life of faith, fervent prayer, and the most obscure of good works. Still, there is the possibility that she might have held some standing in Athens, at least by association with members of the Areopagus. There is speculation that she might have been well educated, and accustomed to discourse with the men in the Areopagus, perhaps even a regular or “mistress.” It is the desire of every convert to Christianity to place their intellectual gifts and their natural abilities at the service of the Gospel. Nonetheless, we also know that plans according to our own lights of reason and natural abilities are often leagues away from the plans that God ultimately accomplishes through us. 

The next woman of Acts is Priscilla, Acts 18:1-28

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3 and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. 

Priscilla is introduced as the wife of Aquila, and we are immediately told they own a family business. “The [together] were tentmakers by trade.” Being Jewish they were forced out of Rome, but divine providence paired them up with St. Paul. They had a natural connection, we might even say “bonded” in friendship, as a married couple with St. Paul, due in part to their common trade. We might learn that natural household settings (or domestic settings) and normal relationships or friendships growing around trades and hobbies can be part of God’s plan. In the case of Priscilla and Aquila, we are led to believe however that they had a deeper communality with Paul in their relationship, namely that they had all shared the Christian faith in the Trinity prior to their meeting. This supernatural basis it seems also helped foster a true friendship. 

One other addition to the story is this. We see Priscilla and Aquila acting as a husband-and-wife “team” to aid the proclamation of Christ. Their faith and the Gospel must have been of the greatest importance to their married life, obviously, with this teamwork. “Apollos began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took [together] him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (18:26 ). From the context it seems Priscilla and Aquila literally explained the Trinitarian formula of baptism to Apollos, so that he might know and teach baptism with the full power of Christ’s presence. 

The final women of Acts are the Daughters of Philip the Deacon, Acts 21:8-9

8 On the next day 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. 9 He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.

A handful of women in Church History have spoken prophetically, supernaturally even.

The four daughters of Philip the Deacon are listed among his household, and each daughter is said to possess the Holy Spirit’s charism of prophecy. The charism of prophecy is different from prophecy as part of Scripture. Scriptural prophecy is always pointing to the divinity of Christ and is cosmic effects. The charism of prophecy highlights the Holy Spirit’s active and immediate role with the people in the Church on earth, in an ongoing basis. Thus each age may have its own prophets called by God. In line with this household of prophecy, i.e. the daughters of Philip, we may list St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Joan of Arc, St. Catherine of Siena, and the children of Fatima, Saint Jacinta with Saint Francisco.

By definition, the charism of prophecy brings a message from God that applies to the immediate situation or the immediate times of the Church. This charism never rises to the level of universal revelation, which is why it is not on par with prophecies of Christ in the Old Testament or any prophetic parts of the New Testament. Still, this work of the Holy Spirit obviously has great impact when it is accomplished. In the Acts, we are given no detail whatsoever about the specific words of prophecy the Holy Spirit gave to the daughters of Philip. We are simply asked to affirm that such charisms were at work in that time, can still can be at work in our time. 

*Article for Notable Mention, 2017 Web post written by Subby Szterszky, Women in the Book of Acts: Real, Diverse and Essential

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