The more I read about women in the early church, the more transfixed I am by their stories. Phoebe. Priscilla. Junia. Lydia. And more. I also look forward to meeting them in heaven someday and hearing them fill in the missing pieces of their lives—lives dedicated to furthering God’s redemptive work on this earth.
That’s why I loved the new book Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church (IVP), by New Testament scholar and professor Nijay Gupta. By painting an in-depth and realistic portrait of life in the first-century world, Gupta is able to fill in some of the blanks as he explores the lives of these courageous women who engaged in the earliest churches.
Those churches were hosted in homes, or households, with believers gathering to pray and break bread together. They had no main pastor; instead there were leaders including Paul, Timothy, Silas, and “householders” such as Lydia and Nympha, who hosted a church in her house (Col. 4:15) and was the only Christian from first-century Laodicea named in Scripture. Gupta says that in some areas of the Roman world, “women may have comprised up to 25% of total householders.”
Because my daughter’s name is Phoebe, I relished reading an entire chapter about this early church leader whose status as a ministry provider has been greatly diminished over the centuries. She was a big deal. The word for “benefactor,” which Paul uses to commend Phoebe to the Roman church, was prostatis, which, in the first-century Roman context, Gupta says, was “terminology used for someone of power and status serving as a guardian or protector of a person or group.” The common translation “helper” makes it sound as if she was making sandwiches for people (not that there is anything wrong with that; it’s just not what Phoebe’s role was).
Another woman who fascinated me was Priscilla. As a name enthusiast, I was intrigued to learn that Priscilla’s real name was actually Prisca, and that Priscilla was simply an affectionate nickname meaning “little Prisca.” Prisca and her husband, Aquila, were tentmakers alongside Paul, crafting “sun awnings of linen” to protect customers from the hot Roman sun.
For more than 600 years, Bible translators referred to Junia (Rom. 16:7), as Junius, an unheard-of male name in those days. Junia, meanwhile, was as common as Amy or Michelle; it was everywhere. Now most scholars believe that Junia and Andronicus were husband and wife, an intrepid ministry pair who wound up in prison shackles at least once. It was so rare for a woman to be imprisoned, says Gupta, that Junia must have been thought of as “a threat to public order.”
By excavating such rich, historical detail from two millennia ago, Gupta reveals these heroines as expert, strategic, and dauntless. Women who used to be merely names on a list to me are now so much more. Yet I know their stories—once untold and even hidden—only partly; someday I will hear their whole stories for myself—no details missing, no translations broken.