Women of Philippi, Acts 16:11-15

(Today’s the day!)

Paul’s pattern was to bring the gospel “to the Jew first, and then the Gentile.” But, when Paul and his companions arrived In Philippi, they discovered the Jewish community was so small, there was no synagogue in town. Ever resourceful, Paul knew the Jewish custom was often to locate synagogues outside the walls of Gentile cities, and somewhere near water, for ritual purification. So, Paul led his team through the city gate along the banks of the Gangites River, about a mile and a half outside of town.

Team Four. It’s around 50 AD, and Paul was 47. I’m guessing Timothy was probably 20, at the most, but I’d put him more at 18. Hard to say how old Silas and Luke were, but considering their interest in this sort of “on spec” missionary journey, the risks and dangers involved, the open-ended feel of it, knowing they’d most likely be on the road for at least a couple of years, I’d say they were, max, in their forties, too. I want to say Silas was about 35, and Luke maybe 43.

They’re all walking together, in my mind’s eye, Paul up ahead, with Timothy right next to him, engaged in deep and weighty conversation. Silas and Luke are a little farther back, taking in the countryside, enjoying the warm sunshine, the rustling trees, the singing birds, praying silently, looking forward to the Sabbath worship.

As they follow the Gangites river bank, they see, in the distance a sizable group of people gathered, and they feel a frisson of elation, knowing soon they will be with God-fearers. How exciting to finally meet the Man of Macedonia! What a joy it was going to be, to tell him how Paul had seen him in a vision, and had not stopped traveling till he could come to him, and give him the help he had so convincingly pled for that eerie night.

Imagine their growing bewilderment as they began to discern these were women gathered together. All women.

Now, there’s some disagreement about this set up, here. Post first century, the Midrash began to include instructions about how a synagogue could only be formed if there were ten eligible Jewish men present. The Midrash even indicated women were not to gather in public for religious purposes, or read the scriptures out loud. But in Paul’s day, it’s not so clear.

I did a little teensy bit of research on this, and found a great blog by “Rabbi Joshua” on Patheos that claimed women were able to participate in just about all aspects of religious life, and were considered equals with men on that score. He said archaeological evidence supports women

  • Served as leaders in the synagogues
  • Participated in ritual services
  • Studied in the “beit midrash” (study hall)
  • Learned and taught Jewish law
  • Were counted in a minyan, a quorum of ten people over the age of 13 required for traditional Jewish public worship
  • Were not physically separated from men during the prayer times, even though first century synagogues had balconies, and upper rooms
  • Said “Amen” with the men in response to the priestly blessing.

Early inscriptions describe women as having served as heads of synagogues, leaders, and elders.

Yes, you did read that right.

In first century Judaism, apparently, according to ancient inscriptions,

Women served as elders.

Women served as leaders.

Women even served as head of the synagogue.

It’s a lot to digest, isn’t it.

I’ve looked around, and this is basically what the newest scholarship is uncovering.

The synagogue in Philippi was all-female, most likely the wives and daughters of the retired Roman military who had settled there. My guess, Jewish girls who fell in love with those dashing men in uniform, Centurions and whatnot; and, over the cries and hand-wringing of their families, married and moved away. There may very well have been at least a few Roman and Greek women there, too, who had converted to Judaism. There was, of course, also, Lydia. More on her next time.

So Paul and his companions had to have been bewildered, because the person who begged Paul for help in the vision had definitely been a man. But the people the Lord led Team Four to, were definitely all women. Why did God do it that way? I mean, at first glance, it seems sort of capricious and random. Why not just send a vision of a Macedonian woman? Why not that? No clue! But, if I were a betting person, I’d bet God knew enough about Paul’s personality and general makeup, that sending a vision of a man would be galvanizing in exactly the right way, whereas sending a vision of a woman might have actually been more puzzling and unnerving.

But ya gotta hand it to Paul and his crew. They did not skip a beat. Puzzled looks changed to pleased smiles instantly, and they sat right down to worship with these God-fearing women. The women, apparently, didn’t skip a beat, either. They welcomed these four guys into their gathering, and even arranged themselves to hear what Paul clearly was burning to say.

In telling this story, I pretty much had my breath taken away by what I discovered about the dignity, honor, and respect first century women enjoyed in their religious community. I really had no idea. I’d been taught a very different version of first century Judaism; but, here’s the stick point: Pharisees had a particular view, yet they were in the minority. Mostly, in real life, people were generally in between the liberal Sadducees on one side, and the conservative Pharisees on the other.

And, by the way, there were way more than just these two denominations. There were also Kairite Jews, who only subscribed to the Tanakh (in other words, the Bible alone—Torah, first five books of Moses, also called the Pentateuch; Nevi’im, the Prophets; Ketuvim, the Writings, and that's it. Where the Bible spoke, they spoke. Where the Bible was silent, they, too, were silent). They had nothing to do with the other writings, such as the oral traditions and laws of the rabbis (Mishnah), the Midrash and the Talmud.

There were also the ascetic Essenes, who were very much enthralled with endtimes theology. There were the Zionists, a fiercely patriotic sect, and the Zealots, fierce to the point of terrorism. All religious Jews, but very different ways of seeing things.

But, most generally, the people saw women and men equally as God’s chosen people, equal in serving the Lord, equal as teachers, elders, shepherds, and leaders.

Knowing this kind of transforms how I read the New Testament, now, and especially how I see Paul writing about, and working with, women.

All passages taken from the New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.