Women of the Bible Series: Priscilla: A Pattern of Partnership
I want to introduce Priscilla by grouping together the scriptures that refer to her for easy reference. The bulk of information about her comes from Acts 18, but she is also mentioned in three other books. Note that Prisca (as she is referred to in 2 Timothy) was probably actually her name, Priscilla being a diminutive.
3 Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus:
4 Who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.
Acts 18: 1-3
1 After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth;
2 And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them.
3 And because he was of the same craft, he abode with them, and wrought: for by their occupation they were tentmakers.
And Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow.
24 ¶And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus.
25 This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John.
26 And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.
1 Corinthians 16:19
The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.
2 Timothy 4: 19
19 Salute Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus.
As I studied Priscilla for this post, what struck me above all things was how Priscilla is an example of partnership. While the contemporary church has improved greatly in placing nominal emphasis on partnership between husbands and wives, within ward councils and within organizations, the lived reality often falls short. A careful reading of Priscilla yields a scriptural precedent for greater equality in leadership and labor.
Priscilla and Aquila are always mentioned as a team, never separately. The order in which their names appear is also equally divided – half of the verses discuss Aquila and Priscilla, while the other half put Priscilla first. As we have often discussed on this blog, language matters. It matters in church that brothers always comes before sisters. It matters when a male pronoun is treated as if it were all-inclusive. I like Priscilla because she bucks that trend. She commanded enough respect to be mentioned first, yet the linguistic homage did not somehow diminish her husband or damage their relationship.
It seems wildly unlikely that early Christian authors were making a conscious effort at equality of emphasis in how they ordered the names. The fact that Priscilla was mentioned first multiple times suggests that she was very highly regarded in the Christian community as a leader. Changing the way we speak about members currently, giving equal emphasis to women, is not simply an exercise in pedantic nitpickery. If we claim to hold women in high esteem and value their contributions, then naturally we’ll find ourselves often mentioning them first. We as LDS people often say we value women, but our small linguistic tics undermine that message.
The Book of Acts tells us that Priscilla and Aquila were tentmakers by trade, and that Paul joined with them in that work. Priscilla was engaged in a skilled trade beyond whatever domestic duties she may have had. There is no suggestion that working alongside her husband was in some sense a less than ideal arrangement. We know little of their private life. Did they have children? What life stage were they in when they worked with Paul? It seems entirely possible that they did have children, and yet nowhere do any writers suggest that motherhood disqualified her from having a trade, or acting as a minister and teacher.
Additionally, Paul worked willingly with Priscilla and Aquila. They seemingly were not gripped by fear that a man working alongside a woman who was not his wife would inevitably lead to adultery, and Paul was in general very leery of fornication. If Paul could manage to make tents and preach the Gospel with a married woman, perhaps married women can do many things without entraping male leaders! Priscilla is a powerful precedent for women working outside the home, and also for men and women to work together in the church.
Stranger in a Strange Land
The few verses of scripture that we have about Priscilla show that she spent much of her adult life as an immigrant and a refugee. I will briefly sketch the chronology as I understand it:
- Aquila originally comes from Pontus, a region near the Black Sea. Priscilla may have also been from Pontus, or she may have been Roman.
- Priscilla and her husband convert to Christianity and are living in Rome. They are forcibly expelled by Emperor Claudius.
- From Rome they go to Corinth in Greece, where they meet Paul.
- They travel with Paul to Syria.
- They end up at Ephesus in present day Turkey, where Paul leaves them
- Paul sends them greetings in Rome, so clearly they returned there some time after having met Paul.
Priscilla and Aquila were migrants. More specifically, they were constantly strangers in a strange land. The Bible is full of people on the move, but significantly they were often moving about within their own territory. The ancient Israelites were nomadic, and indeed Priscilla and Aquila’s trade underlines this – they were tentmakers. However, Prisca and Aquila were not nomads in the sense of moving about within their own homeland. Instead, they were immigrants, again and again until even if they returned home they would likely be seen as strangers.
In this respect Priscilla is particularly relevant to our time. In many parts of the world, the issue of immigration is extremely tense. Many Europeans are concerned about an influx of refugees, while in America politicians use immigrants as scapegoats for terrorism, poverty and crime.
Priscilla knew what it was to be hated for being strangers. They were cast out of Rome for having converted to Christianity. Yet Paul thanks God for Priscilla, and for the risks she ran to share the Gospel. To those who are currently immigrants themselves, she is a heroine and an example. To those who fear that immigrants may bring negative things to a society, it is worth remembering that immigrants like Priscilla, Aquila, and Paul also made the growth of Christianity possible because they were willing to face discrimination to share the Gospel. A partnership between native daughters of a land and refugees has the potential to bring strength and salvation.
A Woman of Courage
Priscilla was a woman who was confident in her spiritual knowledge. Paul refers to her as a “helper in Jesus Christ” who had put her own life on the line for what she knew: Paul praised her and her husband for having “for my life laid down their own necks.” This was no idle statement. Priscilla and Aquila had been cast out of Rome for their beliefs. In their day persecution for being a Christian was a real mortal danger, rather than a hypothetical talking point. Furthermore, they traveled extensively through the Mediterranean to share the Gospel with Paul, a dangerous proposition in itself.
Additionally Priscilla and Aquila expounded “the way of God more perfectly” to Apollos, who only partially understood the Christian message. Apollos spoke boldly in the synagogue according to his knowledge, which was limited but heartfelt. It takes both courage and delicacy to approach someone you scarcely know to tell them they’re not entirely correct. Priscilla evidently did this in such a way that Apollos eagerly accepted the truths that she and her husband taught him privately.
Many people are frightened to speak their minds. Most people I know hate giving sacrament meeting talks or teaching lessons even though the audience will be sympathetic (or even somnolent) to the message. It takes still more courage to speak up in a lesson when someone expresses something that you know in your heart isn’t in line with what Christ would teach. Priscilla found a way to speak truth boldly without alienating her audience. She managed to turn a situation that had the potential to be adversarial into a teaching opportunity that brought the Christian community a powerful new convert. She didn’t apologize for her message, but she presented the Gospel in such a way that “the Churches of Asia” and the author of Timothy saluted her. I salute her too. Go Priscilla!