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References to Women Christians in Acts

February 15, 2012

In the course of preparing a couple of essays on Acts over the last several months, I noticed something interesting:  Several times, the author specifically mentions “both men and women” in references to the early Christian circles that feature in his narratives.  (There are, of course, other interesting references in Acts, e.g., 1:14.)  Here are the instances that drew my attention:

  • 5:14.  Both men and women became believers in response to apostolic preaching and attendant “signs and wonders”.
  • 8:12.  Likewise, in response to Philip’s preaching, “men and women” were baptized.
  • 8:3; 9:2; 22:4.  In all these references to persecution of believers by Saul/Paul, the author mentions “men and women” as victims.

I can’t claim to have identified and canvassed all the  scholarly literature on women in Acts, but in the publications I have consulted these texts don’t feature.   In his commentary on Acts, C. K. Barrett notes the references, and rightly observes, e.g., “the concern for the role of women often noted in the gospel [Luke] continues in Acts” (A Crticial and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles,Volume 1, Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1994, p. 275).

He’s right, of course.  But is there more to be said?  Why in particular does the author underscore the “equal-opportunity” approach to persecution of believers?  If anyone can point us to some good treatment of this matter, do so.  Otherwise, maybe a topic for some student?

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  1. I would also like to point to the overall Lukan generosity. This is highlighted within Mark Allen Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (2009), pg. 205-206.

    Given the overall hostility toward women in the ancient world, in regard to social standing, Lukan generosity toward women by especially highlighting them amongst men, seems natural.

    • I’m not sure what you mean by “natural”.

      • By natural I mean where Lukan generosity would go to within the social setting of that time.
        I should also add, that Powells treatment on Lukan generosity doesn’t highlight his use of men AND women, but pulling from that overall treatment of the attitude of Luke, it seems probable that it is the cause of highlighting “men and women” in those texts you cited.

  2. Whereas nearly all synagogues benefactors were men, about half of the NT church benefactors were women, which is remarkable as men controlled most of the wealth in the ancient world. Women seem to have been prominent in the church in any role that did not require independent travel. However, the pseudo-Paulines hint that the church was becoming more patriarchal near the end of the first century when Acts was written. So Luke may have felt it necessary to remind his audience that the early church was more egalitarian.

    Further to Brian’s point, E.A. Judge has suggested that the poverty of the Judean churches resulted from the flight of its leaders.

    • Can you cite for us the source(s) of your statements about benefactors?

      • The data is given on my blog here.

      • Hmm. Well, you draw upon researched data on Jewish and pagan inscriptions, but the problem is that it requires an exercise of judgement to treat all the women you mention as benefactors. Moreover, you’re comparing people who contributed to the building of synagogues and other buildings with figures who may have given some sort of hospitality and/or financial support to early Christian figures such as Paul. Not quite the same thing, is it?

  3. In regard to specifically Acts 5:14. While I do think the multitude is swayed by “signs and wonders” that you point to Larry. There has to be something said for what I would, I guess, call rhetorical device by Luke. In regard to the immediate context of Ananias and Sapphira. Perhaps Luke is utilizing some type of rhetoric device, where by he highlights the individual man and woman who sin, to the multitudes of men and woman who come to faith.

    I am not sure how strong this is, but thought the immediate context has to say something about it and this where my mind led me.

  4. Nathan B. permalink

    Allen Black, “Women in the Gospel of Luke,” in Essay on Women in Earliest Christianity, vol 1, ed. Carroll D Osborn (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing). He gives the gist in his comment above, but his arguments in this paper extend to Acts. You cite this work in Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, pg. 344 n.212

  5. I did hear N.T. Wright mention as an aside that the whole group is not the persecuted, but the leadership only. He said no more unfortunately, but that is an interesting thought. If the author wants to show that men and women were being persecuted because they were the leaders of this new sect this says something about women’s roles in Luke-Acts.

  6. Allen Black permalink

    Luke’s interest in the pairing of men and women in both Luke and Acts might be rooted in his emphasis on the fulfillment of prophecies concerning the restoration of the people of God. In Acts 2 Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy that “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy . . . even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” Furthermore, Luke’s reliance on prophecies from Isaiah 40-66 is well known and Isa 43:6-7; 49:22; and 60:4 state that the return from exile will include both the sons and the daughters.

  7. Dirk Jongkind permalink

    Not dissimilar to what is happening in 2 Cor 6:18, and since that is a passage in Paul, one would expect a monograph or two on the topic.

  8. Hmm. It seems likely that these references have been overlooked because of cultural differences: It is not remarkable for us that “Both men and women became believers in response to apostolic preaching….”

    • But there are two phenomena: (1) that men and women became early Christians (which is not in dispute or particularly news), and (2) that the author Acts bothers to specify that converts of both sexes were involved. It’s the latter to which I point with some interest.

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