This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The prominence of women in the early church

I have argued before that the historical Paul treated men and women equally and that he has been misrepresented by copyists and by the disputed letters. See my posts here and here. But why, then, do Paul's letters mention far more men than women? I will argue here that it is largely because women were not able to travel independently of male relatives in the ancient world.

Paul's undisputed letters

Below are listed all the Christians mentioned in the undisputed letters of Paul. Women are given in red font. Prisca, Junia and the mother of Rufus had travelled, but had done so with their male relatives (Aquila, Andronicus and Rufus). Phoebe probably travelled with servants or male relatives since she was wealthy and was probably returning to Rome following the expulsion by Claudius. It can be seen that we know of no women who travelled independently of male members of their households. The role of church envoy was taken exclusively by men.

In Rom 16:21-23 Paul sends greetings from Tertius and 7 others. These 7 were probably people who, through travel, had come to know many of those who were currently in Rome. This explains why all 7 are men. Similarly, Philemon 23-24 is probably a list of those who had visited Philemon's town. In my next post I will discuss the implications for the identity of the author of Acts.

Those mentioned in non-traveling contexts and those who traveled with family members of the other sex: ~28 men, 14 women
Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2); Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3-4); Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7); Epaenetus, Mary, Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, Apelles, Aristobulus, Herodion, Narcissus, TryphaenaTryphosaPersis, Rufus, his mother, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, Philologus, Julia, Nereus, his sister, Olympas (Rom 16:1-15); Tertius (Rom 16:22); Crispus-Sosthenes (1 Cor 1:1,14); Gaius (1 Cor 1:14); Chloe (1 Cor 1:12); James (1 Cor 15:7); EuodiaSyntyche, and Clement (Phil 4:2-3); Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus (Philemon 1-2); Cephas and the Lord's brothers (1 Cor 9:5-6).

Other travelers: ~23 men
Paul; Titus (Gal 2:1); Apollos (1 Cor 1:12); Barnabas (1 Cor 9:5-6; Gal 2:1); Silvanus (2 Cor 1:19); Stephanas, Fortunatus, Achaicus (1 Cor 16:17); 2 anonymous brothers (2 Cor 8:18-23); An anonymous brother (2 Cor 12:18); Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25-30);  Onesimus (Philemon 10); Timothy, Lucius, Jason, Sosipater, Gaius, Erastus, Quartus (Rom 16:21-23); Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke (Philemon 23-24)

The same picture emerges when we repeat the exercise for Acts and the disputed Pauline letters: women did not travel (except Priscilla with her husband).


Those mentioned in non-traveling contexts and those who traveled with family members of the other sex
Theophilus (Acts 1:1); 
Certain women including Mary, mother of Jesus (Acts 1:14); 
Jesus' brothers (Acts 1:14); 
Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1); 
Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolaus (Acts 6:5); 
Simon (Acts 8:9); 
Ananias (Acts 9:10); Aeneas (Acts 10:32); 
Tabitha (Acts 10:36); 
Cornelius (Acts 10:1); 
Simon (Acts 10:6); 
Mary (Acts 12:12); 
Rhoda (Acts 12:13); 
James (Acts 12:17); 
Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, Paul (Acts 13:1); 
Bar-Jesus (Acts 13:6); 
Timothy's mother (Acts 16:1); 
Lydia (Acts 16:14); Jailer (Acts 16:23); Jason (Acts 17:5); Dionysius and Damaris (Acts 17:34); Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:2); Titius-Justus (Acts 18:7); Crispus-Sosthenes (Acts 18:8, 17); Eutychus (Acts 20:9); 
Four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9); 
Mnason (Acts 21:16).

Other travelers
Peter, John, James, Andrew, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas of James (Acts 1:13); Joseph Barsabbas, Matthias (Acts 1:23); Agabus (Acts 11:27); John-Mark (Acts 12:12); Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:13); Judas-Barsabbas, Silas-Silvanus (Acts 15:22); Silas (Acts 15:40); Timothy (Acts 16:1); Apollos (Acts 18:24); Erastus (Acts 19:22); Gaius (Acts 19:29); Sopater, Secundus, Gaius, Tychicus, Trophimus(Acts 20:4).

Disputed letters attributed to Paul

Those mentioned in non-traveling contexts and those who traveled with family members of the other sex: 14 men, 5 women
Nympha (Col 4:15); Archippus (Col 4:17); Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim 1:20); LoisEunice (2 Tim 1:5); Phygelus and Hermogenes (2 Tim 1:15); Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Tim 2:17); Carpus (2 Tim 4:13); Onesiphorus (2 Tim 4:19); Prisca and Aquila (2 Tim 4:19); Trophimus (2 Tim 4:20); Eubulus, Pudens, Linus (2 Tim 4:21); Claudia (2 Tim 4:21).

Other travelers: 14 men
Tychicus (Eph 6:21; Col 4:7); Mark (Col 4:10); Aristarchus, Jesus called Justus (Col 4:11); Ephaphras (Col 4:12); Luke and Demas (Col 4:14); Demas and Crescens and Titus and Mark and Tychicus (2 Tim 4:9-12); Erastus (2 Tim 4:20); Artemas, Tychicus, Zenas and Apollos (Tit 2:12-13); Onesiphorus household (2 Tim 1:16).

Women and travel in the ancient world
It is difficult to find examples of women travelers in the ancient world. Travel was physically demanding and dangerous for women. This is illustrated by a boast of Ramses III in an inscription at Medinet Habu, "I caused the woman of Egypt to walk freely wheresoever she would unmolested by others upon the road." (Thanks to Jack Kilmon for pointing this out to me). There was more equality between the sexes in Egypt than in any other part of the ancient world, and safe travel from women was clearly not the norm, even there.

The history of the expansion of the church is inevitably the history of those who could travel. This goes a long way to explaining why we have far more men than women in Paul's letters and Acts. We have seen that, when those with exclusively traveling roles are excluded, about a third of those mentioned by Paul are women. This is a higher ratio than we find in other sources. Only 22% of Diaspora Jews known to us were female (Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity Part III The Western Diaspora 330 BCE-650 CE, p61.). In the 6 volumes of the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names only 11% of persons are female.


  1. very helpful!! Isn't it great that we live in a time where women can go out on their own and spread the good news! = More missionaries

  2. It's interesting that despite the difficulties, Christian women like Phoebe did travel.

    You mentioned "Cephas and the Lord's brothers" but not the sister-women (unless I missed it).
    "Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife (or, sister-woman), even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?" (1 Cor. 9:5).

    Stilll, this verse further illustrates your point that women were accompanied by men when they travelled for ministry. Crescens and his sister is another example of this (Pol. Phil. 14). However, I imagine very few people, ministers or otherwise, travelled alone.

    In case you're interested, V.K. McCarty notes that we have extant letters from the fourth century which are letters of recommendation, written to churches, that introduce women travellers.

    For example, P.Oxy. 36.2785 recommends a Christian woman named Taion leading a small band of travellers in Egypt.

    P.Oxy. 56.3857 introduces a woman traveller named Germania.

    See V.K. McCarty, Phoebe as an Example of Female Authority Exercised in the Early Church, presented at The Sofia Institute, Third Annual Conference, Union Theological Seminary Campus, New York City, 2010.

  3. Thanks very much for the detailed response, Marg. I hope that someone, one day, will be able to find a way to do a thorough, statistical, assessment of the frequency of travel by women in the ancient world.