Once upon a time, women danced at the center of the gospel story, back when it was wild and free back when the stories of Jesus burned in the hearts and minds of those gathered in his name, long before the conversation shifted towards order and structure and assembly.
We read across the shadows, the women of the early Jesus Movement, women who were of his own family and women whom he had healed and women who served him, like Joanna, wife of Herod’s steward and Susannah, who supported Jesus and his followers financially. We hear whispers of their lives, catch glimpses of their gifts and graces, see their forms bent and broken in grief at the foot of the cross, hands raised in victory at the empty tomb.
It was natural then, that Paul turned to women to aid in his gospel mission, the man known as the Apostle to the Gentiles truthfully went first to the community of Jews in most cities and partnered with women to establish gatherings of the baptized in homes across the Roman Empire. It was Lydia, the wealthy business woman who sold purple garments who was the first convert in Europe and the answer to Paul’s supernatural Macedonian call. He baptized her and all of her household by the river in Philippi and she and other women such as Euodia and Syntyche lead the church in the region. It is the church at Philippi who helps to underwrite Paul’s future missions and whom Paul calls his “joy and crown.” Polycarp records for history that the church at Philippi is the most steadfast of all Paul’s churches, still standing strong into the 2nd century.
It is compelling then, when Paul addresses his letter to Philippi in the 50’s AD to the επισκοπος, the bishops or overseers, that he is referring to Lydia and to the women who he will name in his letter who were likely leaders of house churches charged then with watching over the fledgling congregations that made up the Philippian church. After all, Lydia had been there since the beginning, had hosted Paul and likely welcomed friends into her home who received the gospel and became followers such that the church at Philippi was born.
The evidence is even more compelling when we consider Prisca who together with her husband is Paul’s co-laborer in Christ. Meeting Paul in Corinth, Prisca and Aquilla are then sent by Paul to represent him and begin the work in Ephesus prior to his arrival and later seemingly go to Rome to do the same thing. In the letter to Romans Paul thanks Prisca and Aquilla for “risking their necks for my sake” and says the whole Gentile church is grateful to them. Later fragments confirm their return to Ephesus. In Romans Paul also names Junia and refers to her as his fellow prisoner and relative who is prominent among the αποστολοις writing that she and Andronicus were in Christ before him.
These whispers haunt us and we want to know more, want to peel back the pages of history and hear the stories of our mothers. We dust off the ancient witness of 4th century Epiphanius, Bishop of Salmais and we read his own log, his record of the bishops who follow in the lineage of Paul. We scan the Greek, our eyes squint and we stare with wonder at two names scribbled out in the parchment, ΠΡΙΣΚΑΣ Bishop of Kolophon (outskirts of Ephesus), ΙΟΥΝΙΑΝ Bishop of Apamea, Syria (the Antiochene Episcopacy on the Orontes). Their names recorded here in male form, of course, by the 4th century no consideration is given to female leadership, no one is trying to hear what once was, so as Epiphanius wrote, as he recorded for posterity anyone who had served as bishop he recorded them as male. Only, these two names are shared by women, prominent women in the Pauline circle. Prisca and Junia are women whom Paul had entrusted with the gospel and with the leadership of the church, women who are named in the canon, women who were flesh and blood, who lived and breathed for Jesus and his church. And so we wonder, were we bishops…
Photo: 2nd century mural from Greek Chapel in Priscilla's Catacombs; Rome, Italy
For more information on Epiphanius' Indeces Apostolorum find my research at Academia.edu