Women in Acts (An Acts Seminar Perspective)

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by Neil Godfrey

I very much doubt that it is possible to tell the gender of an author simply from reading the author’s works. (Surely there are too many times women authors have fooled reading publics with male pen-names and male authors of romance are also on record as having fooled even literary judges with female pseudonyms.) But the women in Luke-Acts are sometimes singled out as indicators that the author at least had a special interest and affection for women.

Shelly Matthews
Shelly Matthews

So while we still have the Acts Seminar Report fresh in mind let’s see what Shelly Matthews, one of the Seminar Fellows, has to say about the women in Acts. She has a “cameo essay” addressing this topic in Acts and Christian Beginnings (the main title of the report).

Matthews writes:

[C]areful consideration of how women characters function in this narrative [Acts] suggests that the overarching rhetorical aim of this author is not to demonstrate friendliness toward women, but rather to circumscribe women within limited social and ecclesiastical roles. (p. 193)

Certainly there are more misogynist ideas extant in the second century than we find in Acts, Matthews continues:

  • The Pastoral Epistles insists women have no teaching authority and offer them salvation only through child-rearing.
  • The Gospel of Thomas has Peter declare that women are not worthy of eternal life.

Contrast women in Acts:

  • Lydia is a female head of a household who hosts Paul in Philippi
  • Priscilla is acknowledged (along with her husband) as a coworker of Paul
  • Priscilla (along with her husband) instructs Apollos more correctly in the Way
  • There are four daughters of Philip who are prophetesses

But none of this dents the “text’s overarching androcentrism.” Shelly Matthews shows that on closer inspection even these examples are not particularly favourable to women.

The vanishing of Mary Magdalene

Recall how in the Gospels of Mark, John and Mary that Mary Magdalene is clearly a more faithful disciple than Peter at the time of the fiery trial of the crucifixion. But the author of Acts has Peter add a “male only” requirement to be eligible for the job of apostle. See Acts 1:21

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men (ἀνδρῶν) who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us . . .

Thus the primary witness of the crucifixion and the resurrection is excluded on gender grounds!

Moreover, Mary Magdalene is removed entirely from the historical record of the post-ascension church. Women are mentioned

only as unnamed companions to the men in the upper room (1:14).

No prophetic speech of a woman (or male slave) is recorded

In his Pentecost speech Peter quotes a passage from Joel that points momentarily to a utopian vision of women, both free and slave, being among those who share the outpouring of God’s prophetic spirit (Acts 2:17-18).

But this glimpse of a relatively utopian prophetic movement is framed by an emphasis on the masculine space in which Peter speaks. Peter addresses his audience with gender specific references to “men” and “brothers” and, aside from the reference to Joel, gives no indication of women either among those speaking in tongues or those receiving the speech. In spite of the promise of Acts 2:17-18, no prophetic speech of a female Jesus follower (or a male slave) is recorded in subsequent narratives. (p. 194)

Other passages

Shelly Matthews looks at some of the other references to women in Acts:

The widows in Acts

In some church traditions such women are said to be leaders, but not in Acts. Rather, widows are a source of dissension in Acts 6:1.


Yes, Lydia hosts Paul in Acts 16, as a good hostess should. But “she does not spar with him over theological issues, as Euodia and Syntyche apparently do in Philippians (cf. Phil. 4:2).”

Philip’s seven daughters

Yes, Philip has prophesying daughters, but what they prophesy is of no interest to the author.


Pisca or Priscilla is the only one from the list of female co-workers Paul lists in Romans 16 who makes it into Acts. The epistle tells us that Priscilla risked her very life for Paul’s sake (16:4) but the author of Acts tells us nothing of her heroism. We have no idea how she risked her life for Paul.

The same epistle singles out as noteworthy for their deeds other women, too — Phoebe, Mary, Junia, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Julia, the mother of Rufus — but the author of Acts has no interest in any of these.

So . . .

It would appear that the author of Acts would have had plenty of information about women prominent for their supportive role to Paul, some performing outstanding works. The author had well-known women who held fast as pillars of faith and loyalty to Jesus whom he ignored in his account of the post-ascension church. Women’s role in church affairs is a modest one and consistently overshadowed by the male-dominated functions.

Shelly Matthews does not mention it in this essay, but I would not be surprised if the frequent mention of women in Acts had more to do with the author’s “catholicizing” agenda. Given the wide diversity of Christianity at the time, and the fact that women did have prominent roles in several widespread Christian factions that the author appears to have viewed as somewhat on the side of “heresy” (cf. Marcionism; Acts of Paul and Thecla), we may be right to read Acts as being in part an effort to subdue and circumscribe the place of women in the “correct/catholic” church.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Women in Acts (An Acts Seminar Perspective)”

  1. “I very much doubt that it is possible to tell the gender of an author simply from reading the author’s works.” This may be the case. A few distinctions are worth making, though.

    (1) The author of Luke-Acts does not self-present as a man or a woman.
    (2) Your own examples involve conscious imitation to fool an audience. While I think you could make a stronger argument than this, it’s worth mentioning that if this is the strongest type of objection, then the evidence would lead to a conclusion that the author either was of a certain gender or was imitating the probably writing style of someone of that gender.
    (3) Very few conclusions are absolute anyway. Anything with a substantial probability of being accurate is still interesting. Which is to say, a method that can separate authorship with any real kind of accuracy (say 80/20) is still interesting. There is research already into such stylometry in English; I think the biggest problem for our subject is the scanty available training material for a method in ancient Greek from women.
    (4) I agree that the subjective points of argument used so far to argue for female authorship are wanting and controverted by similarly subjective points of argument against it.
    (5) The evidence for a male author needs to be set against the evidence for a female author, as well as the background probability. The background probability for a male authorship of any ancient Greek text preserved to us is rather substantial itself, so despite my quarrels here, it is already a very reasonable null hypothesis.

    1. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a gender-type writing style. Maybe there is, but the references I made to people using pen-names of opposite genders don’t suggest that they were writing according to a gender-style. The name alone is sufficient to lead readers (and judges) to presume a certain style, perhaps? But I’m only speaking off the top of my head. I don’t know if there are any studies to demonstrate styles can be characterized by gender.

      1. There is work being done on gender prediction from stylometry, with the enviable situation of having extensive corpora from which to extract statistically significant variations between writing from males and writing from females. Google reveals some of it on the first page:

        As mentioned, it’s rather doubtful that the same success can be found when working in ancient Greek, given the limited evidence that survives for ancient Greek writing from women (most of it may be nonliterary as well, papyri from Egypt, resulting in a significant mismatch of genre). Nor has any such method yet been attempted (just the subjective kind of stuff already mentioned).

  2. I agree that Acts is not as pro-feminist as Luke’s gospel. It might be the anonymous author of the gospel heard that writing was thought to be written by a woman and was more careful when writing Acts.
    However I noticed that in Acts:

    Ac 16:13-15 “… We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.”

    Influential women are indicated in ‘Acts’. Let’s notice that the women are mentioned before the men:
    Ac13:50a “But the Jews incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city”
    Ac17:4 “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.”
    Ac17:12 “Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.”

    Cordially, Bernard

    1. Your first example (Acts 13:50s) shows the women to be viragos. They are the shrill persecutors. Not a compliment being mentioned first in that context.

      Your second example (Acts 17:4) mentions the women last.

      Your third (Acts 17:12) has an alternative possible explanation that deserves consideration — that is, the Bacchic allusions in the Athenian scene. Women, of course, were prominent in the Dionysiac rituals and we find many allusions — foils — to the Bacchic/Dionysiac mysteries in Acts 17.

      1. For the first example, viragos or not, these women are mentioned first.
        For the second example, the gender of these God-fearing Greeks is not specified (I suppose that includes both genders), no men are mentioned in front of these prominent women. In other words, only women are mentioned here, but not specifically men. But you are right in the sense I should not claim that example shows “the women are mentioned before the men”. I made a correction in my website.
        For the third example, I let you imagine Bacchic/Dionysiac women in Acts 17:12.
        Cordially, Bernard

        1. 1. It is a simple matter of observation to see that sometimes women are mentioned before men. No-one argues whether or not the kitchen is found inside or outside the house. It is a matter of interpretation whether each such case is honouring them or gender-stereotyping them for scandalous behaviour. And if the argument is that by mentioning women first the author is somehow bestowing extra honour upon them then this particular example clearly contradicts the point of that argument.

          2. I think you are straining at a gnat if you are now suggesting that women are somehow automatically honoured above the norm merely by their gender being mentioned in a narrative. Have you read any other literature of the day?

          3. Well, it’s not just my imagination. It is the peer-reviewed findings of scholarly research and analysis, as I have discussed in some depth here.

  3. What do you make of the Magnificat? It presents itself as a hymn of vindication and encouragement for the poor, the silenced and the marginalised. It is obviously based on the Song of Hannah in the Book of Samuel and like that song is used as a part of the machinery by which God will intervene in the world to overturn the old hierarchy and set up a new one.
    Are we dealing with political ideology? The Hellenistic kings who called themselves Soter, the Persian kings prophesied as messiah, the so-called judges also known as saviors, and before that Mesopotamian kings on their stelas, Egyptian kings in their writings, all promise one of two things: either, in tea-party terms, that they will restore the old religion, the old hierarchy, a lost imagined way of life, or, more often, that they will make all things new and care for the poor, the widows and the orphans, Thomas Thompson points out how ancient is the song of the poor man – and that we hear it not from the voice of the poor but refracted through the proclamations of those who would have power. Historically kings and aristocrats have made much more effective use of the Christian message, than for example rebellious peasants wanting actual justice.

    1. Luckily I noticed your comment caught up in the spam and rescued it.

      I used to think the Magnificat and Luke’s beatitudes speaking of the physically poor (as opposed to the poor in spirit in Matthew) pointed to a religion for the poor, or with the poor genuinely at the heart of its concern. But recent readings on Acts have shown me that after those nice words about the poor in the Gospel Luke has no interest in them at all. In fact his views of the poor are typically those of an upper class. The masses are mere mobs who take to violence on a whim and are easily duped by their betters. The noteworthy conversions come from the upper class.

      Yes, as Thompson points out, the “song of the poor man” was part of the anthem of royal power and propaganda. It allowed the poor to worship and revere their betters and naively trust that they were now in the gentle, loving care of the good shepherd.

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