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Women Leaders in the New Testament by J. Massynberde Ford from 'Women Priests'

Women Leaders in the New Testament

by J. Massynberde Ford

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist press 1977, pp. 132-134.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

(J. Massyngberde Ford received her B.A. from the University of Nottingham, a B.D. from King's College, London, and her Ph.D. from Nottingham. She has taught at Makere University College in East Africa and was at the time on leave from Notre Dame, teaching at the University of Santa Clara. She has written on Neo-Pentecostalism in the Catholic Church and on Death and Sickness as well as her special field of scripture.)

The Declaration comments on the service of women during Jesus’ itinerant ministry, but it overlooks the progressive early Church towards women.

One cannot emphasize sufficiently the role which women played in the early Church, a role which would not always be accepted by their contemporary culture. We find Phoebe, a deacon (not a deaconess), described in Rom 16:1-2 as an “authoritative leader.” The Greek word (prostatis) is the feminine form of prostates which is found frequently in the LXX, e.g., 1 Chr 27.31, 29:6, 2 Chr 8:10; 24:11; 1 Esdras 2:12; Sir 45:24; and 2 Macc 3:4. These passages refer to stewards of the king’s property, chief officers over the people and to priests. Most translations of Rom 16:1-2 are very weak, presenting Phoebe as a mere helper or friend of many, including Paul. Yet we know that Jewish sources(1) refer to women who were mothers of synagogues and rulers of synagogues and one woman who was given the privilege of proedria, that is, sitting on the foremost bench. We also find references to women Jewish elders.(2) Thus Jewish women who were prominent in the synagogue may well have retained that authority when they became Christians. Further, in Rom 16:7 we find the woman Junia who is an apostle.

Women deacons are mentioned several times in the New Tcstament (Rom 16:1-2; I Tim 3:11; and perhaps Phil 1:1); presumably they performed work similar to that of the male deacons but perhaps only with women and children. Gerhardsson (3) has found a linguistic parallel between Acts 6 (the choosing of the male deacons) and the pericope about Mary and Martha (Luke 10.38-42). He thinks that behind both texts lies the Jewish concept of one’s lot, either a lot for the Torah or a lot for business. To Mary is assigned the lot of the Torah—to learn, pray and to teach—while Martha receives the lot of serving tables like the seven male deacons. Mary’s lot is like that of the apostles for prayer and the Word (Acts 6).

Although women, minors and slaves were not permitted to be witnesses according to Jewish law (even witnesses concerning the new moon), the Gospel makes it quite clear that women were witnesses from the time of the ministry in Galilee (Luke 8:1-3) to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. As Conzelmann says: “Women have their share in the anabasis of Jesus, and later they witness the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.” Even though Luke has a narrow interpretation of the concept of witness and apostles (the strict definition of Luke 6:13 is in fact adhered to in Acts 1:22), the “Galilean women and Mary seem to stand in a similar relation to one another as the Twelve and the Lord’s Brethren.”(4)

It is also appropriate to draw the readers’ attention to the fact that in his Prologue Luke mentions “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” and then continues by describing the functions of Elizabeth and Zachary, Mary and Elizabeth, Simeon and Annah. We notice the dual witness which is important for Luke, whose pairs often include both men and women. Moreover, the reference to the seventy or seventy-two sent out on their mission (Luke 10:1-12) does not, in contrast to the pericope about the lepers (Luke 17:11), tell us that all seventy disciples were men; they probably included husbands and wives like Priscilla and Aquila. Women are truly the disciples of the Lord because they follow him (sunakoleutheo—a technical word for a disciple following a master; cf. also Tabitha in Acts 9:36 who is described as a disciple) Even if Jesus did not choose women among the Twelve (and modern scholarship is beginning to question whether there were precisely twelve) perhaps if there originally were more than the symbolic number needed for the twelve tribes of Israel, they might have included women. At least we know they did not include Gentiles or Blacks. Moreover, women were permitted to read the Torah:

Our Rabbis taught: All are qualified to be among the seven (we read), even a minor and a woman, only the Sages said that a woman should not read in the Torah out of respect for the congregation (Meg. 23a).

Swidler (5) finds a woman in Smyrna and one in Myndos who were called presidents of the synagogue and a woman proselyte who was named the mother of two synagogues. Swidler (6) also expounds on a famous woman scholar, Beruria, who was the wife of R. Meir, although she seems to be the exception to the general rule that women did not learn the Torah. In the light of this information one is able to understand why Priscilla and Aquila could teach even the famous biblical scholar, Apollos (Acts 18) and the prominence of such women as Lydia, Chloe and Phoebe and the other many women whom Paul greets as laborers in the vineyard of the Lord (in Rom 16 about eight women are mentioned, and in Phil 4:2-3 four women’s names occur) I Tim 2:12 is no hindrance either to a woman teaching (because this is merely the opinion of the author, not of the Lord) or to having an authoritative position (because the word authentein which is usually translated “have authority” really means “play the tyrant” or “have supreme authority”).

Whereas St. Paul may seem a misogynist, he is ahead of his times in many ways. For example, he sees marriage as mutual responsibility and authority (e.g., 1 Cor 7:4 and the whole of 1 Cor 7, where he deals first with the male side of the problems under discussion and then with the female). He certainly expects women to pray and prophesy in public (1 Cor 11) and never states that any of the spiritual gifts are for males only. 1 Cor 14:34-35 seems to be an interpolation, as it is found after v. 40 in some manuscripts. 1 Cor 14:36 is addressed to the entire Christian community. The “headship” of husbands over wives is difficult (1 Cor 11 and Eph 5) but kephelë is rarely used for headship in the New Testament or the Old, in which the references are mainly in Judges (where Deborah is leader, judge and war conductor) and in some manuscripts of Isaiah. In the Gospels there is absolutely no teaching about the headship of the male or the subordination of woman. Therefore the teaching and praxis is not dominical. On the whole the prominent women in the Bible are ones who use their own initiative and authority to fulfill God’s will, e.g., Sarah, Rebecca, Tamar, Deborah, Huldah, Judith, Ruth and Esther, Priscilla, Lydia, Phoebe et cetera These are the women held up for our example.(7)

The Declaration asserts that Mary was not entrusted with the apostolic charge. Yet in fact when Jesus places Mary over the beloved disciple (and the Church) on the cross (John 19:26-27) he places her in a superior position over the apostle. Thus she should be regarded as Mother of the apostles, and in Judaism mothers received equal honor with father. Mary may be the Elect Lady addressed in 1 or 2 John 1. (8)


1. See Jewish Encyclopaedia under “diaspora.”

2. Harry J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, p. 181, n. 2.

3. B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript.Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup, pp. 234-245.

4. Hans Conzelmann, The Theology of Luke. New York: Harper & Row, pp. 46ff.

5. Leonard Swidler, “Women and Torah in Talmudic Judaism,” Conservative Judaism, Vol. 30, No. I (Fall, 1975), p. 28.

6. Ibid.,p.33.

7. For further details see my article “Biblical Material Relevant to the Ordination of Women,” Journal of Ecumenica/ Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Fall, 1973), pp. 669-699.

8. See the author’s article “Our Lady and the Ministry of Women,” Marian Studies, Vol. 23 (1972), pp. 69-112.

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