Gupta, Nijay K. Foreword by Beth Allison Barr. Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church. IVP Academic, 2023. xi+209 pp. Pb. $24.00 Link to IVP Academic
Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, Nijay K. Gupta is a well-known Pauline scholar. He contributed commentaries on 10-2 Thessalonians and Philippians, the Zondervan Critical Introduction to 1-2 Thessalonians (2019), Paul and the Language of Faith (Eerdmans, 2020), A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Studies: Understanding Key Debates (Baker Academic, 2022; reviewed here) and served as Associate Editor of the second edition of the Dictionary of Paul and his Letters (IVP Academic, 2023; reviewed here). In this
As Gupta explains in the introduction, this book is “not an attempt at some form of revisionist history.” But it does challenge what he calls “the little house on the Prairie perspective” on the early church: the idea that women were at home doing women’s work while the men were outside hunting or doing manly work (3). The book is also not a comprehensive handbook dealing with all the women in the New Testament nor everything we can possibly know about women in ancient Judaism or the Greco-Roman world. His goal is to present to readers some of the evidence for the New Testament supporting the idea that women were, in fact, leaders and teachers in the early church.
The first two chapters deal with the Old Testament. He begins with the judge Deborah (chapter 1) before examing the relationship between man and woman in Genesis 1-3 (chapter 2). Why begin with Deborah? As a judge and prophet, she defies stereotypes (10). But was she a spiritual leader for Israel? Gupta argues that she was indeed a spiritual leader, having the same basic role as Joshua 16. He collects comments from pseudo-Philo, Josephus, rabbinic literature, Theodoret, and Calvin (who was left speechless by Deborah). With respect to questions like, “Can a woman…?” Or “Is a woman allowed…?” Deborah could and did, and God was behind her leadership over Israel (19). Looking at Genesis 1-3, Gupta observes that these chapters do not teach “men lead, and women follow.” A faithful reading of the creation story sees Adam and Eve’s relationship as “a harmonious partnership unraveled by sin” (29). The way back to this relationship is through Jesus, not hierarchy.
Chapter 3 summarizes what we know about women’s role in the New Testament world. He challenges the idea that the Roman world limited opportunities for women. The Roman Empire was neither feminist nor egalitarian, but it was not the harsh patriarchy it is sometimes described as in popular literature on women in leadership. Gupta argues that social class was more important. Women at higher levels of society had important roles in society. A woman could become a powerful patron and have an influential role in society. In the first century, Roman women were not under the authority of their husbands. They could own property and did not live private lives in hidden away in their home. In fact, homes were far more public space than in the modern world. He offers a few examples from the Jewish world (Tobit, Sirach, Susanna, Judith) and some inscriptional evidence indicating that women could serve in the role of leader of a synagogue.
Chapter 4 briefly surveys the role of women in Jesus’s life and ministry, beginning with his mother, Mary. He discusses the roles women played in Jesus’s ministry and asks, “did Jesus have women disciples?” Certainly, there were no women in the Twelve Apostles. But Mary Magdalene acts as an apostle (John 20:8). The Eastern Church calls Mary Magdalene equal to the apostles (63). If a disciple is a learner, then obviously, Jesus’s disciples included women.
The book’s second part focuses on women leaders in the early church. Chapter 5 describes what early churches were like. Although there are some similarities to synagogues or other voluntary associations in the Greco-Roman world, there are many differences. For example, he points out that the early church lacked a “pyramid-like organization” with a single leader at the top (78). He briefly surveys the leaders mentioned in Paul’s letters (deacons, episkopos, and presbuteros). Gupta argues that there is no explicit prohibition on women in these roles (92).
Gupta includes two appendices on the passages which appear to prohibit women from certain roles in the church. For most readers, these appendices will be the most controversial parts of the book. Gupta suggests we avoid judging New Testament household codes by our twenty-first-century ideas and ideals. Early Christians were not in a position to make public statements that directly challenged Roman social order. Paul’s interest was in transforming relationships through Jesus Christ Rather than transforming Roman culture. For this reason, we ought to use caution when applying mutual submission in the Pauline letters to contemporary marriage and leadership roles.
Chapters 6-9 discuss the women who worked shoulder to shoulder with men in the hard work of the ministry 93. Chapter 6 covers Paul’s co-laborers mentioned in Romans 16: 3-16; Philippi (Lydia, Acts 16:11-40; Eudoia and Syntyche, Phail 4:2-3), and other women in the Lycus valley (Apphia, Philemon 2; Nympha, Col 4:15). Chapter 7 describes Phoebe as Paul’s trusted proxy. She is a deacon (not a deaconess), although Gupta prefers the titles “ministry provider” (116) and benefactor (118). Paul chose Phoebe to deliver the Letter of Romans to the church in Rome. She publicly read the letter to the congregation and interpreted Romans for the church. This implies Phoebe was specifically trained for her role representing Paul.
Chapter 8 focuses on Prisca, a strategic church leader and expert teacher. Gupta argues that she was a prominent teacher, citing Chrysostom (135). For example, she invited Apollos into her home and instructed him there. Gupta thinks this invitation into their home implies the home was their church (138). It is certainly not the case that Aquilla instructed Apollos while Prisca was making refreshments in the kitchen!
Chapter 9 discusses the controversial role of Junia, mentioned in Romans 16:7. Gupta describes her as a “venerated apostle and imprisoned hero.” Until the twentieth century, scholarship considered Junia to be a man (and Andronicus was his brother) to avoid the implication that there was a female apostle. However, several recent studies have proven beyond a doubt that Junia is a female name, and she is called an apostle along with her husband, Andronicus. Paul calls Junia a “fellow prisoner,” implying she had been arrested and imprisoned (like Paul) for preaching Jesus.
Based on his study, Gupta makes several conclusions. First, God’s people have always needed wise, faithful, and brave women. Women of all kinds encouraged Jesus and his people. Paul preached harmony between man and woman in both the home and the church and he relied on numerous women as leaders as co-workers in his gospel mission. Independently powerful women existed in the Greco-Roman world, and they existed in the early church as well. Paul did not see any deficiency of intellect, skill, or morality in women.
Conclusion: Gupta’s Tell Her Story is an engaging study of women in the early church. The style is personal and not overly technical, so the layperson will be comfortable with the book. Given the modest goals of this book, some readers may be left wanting more details. Footnotes point to more detailed studies, but there is no recommended reading section or bibliography. Gupta avoids the language of “women in ministry” (egalitarian and complementarian). Because he focuses on the biblical text, he generally tries to stay out of the often-explosive arguments on the ordination of women. Yet the point is clear: God has always used women as leaders and continues to do so today.
NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. I purchased the Logos edition. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.