Cameos of the Women of the New Testament
Ann N. Madsen
If we truly search the scriptures we are rewarded with the discovery of tiny cameos—likenesses of real people adorning the more prominent characters. Although they may be painted with only a few strokes, they are often delicate, colorful, and instructive.
The New Testament from Acts to Revelation is predominately the account of a fledgling church, founded by Christ, witnessed abroad by his apostles, and accepted by the honest in heart, both Jew and gentile. It is a missionary epoch, full of conversion accounts, miracles, sermons, and the persecutions of both missionaries and converts.
Peter and Paul loom large on these pages, and from them we absorb the doctrines of the kingdom. What a glorious experience it must have been to gather in an upper room or by a river's side and listen to their preaching. Just as women had sat at the Savior's feet, many women also sat at the feet of his apostles and accepted the truth as they heard it taught. As we look closely at these accounts we find lovely cameos, portraits of the women who answered the call of truth and became an important part of the early church.
In Acts 9 we read of Saul's astounding vision on the road to Damascus and his miraculous conversion. Chapter 10 recounts Peter's dream-vision directing him to proselyte the gentiles. Tucked between these two climactic moments is the first cameo, the story of a gentle woman named Dorcas. Seven verses outline her story; one of these described her as a woman "full of good works and almsdeeds which she did."
In the same verse she is called a "disciple," (Acts 9:36.) This is the only New Testament occurrence of that word with a feminine ending, and scholars suggest that this identifies her as an original follower of Christ. It may well be, although the record concerning that is silent. Surely her actions demonstrate that she was a true Christian, full of compassion and charity.
We are not told whether Dorcas was rich or poor, but the text makes it clear that she used her means and her time most generously for the relief of the needy around her. Since the scripture calls her "full of good works" we may conclude that she was not just an occasional giver, but one whose whole life-style reflected her conversion to Christ's teachings.
Her home was 34 miles northwest of Jerusalem on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea at the port of Joppa. This city was an important seaport of the time and its commerce and trade produced both rich and poor.
At Lydda, about ten miles southeast of Joppa, Peter was engaged in his missionary labors when word came to him that Dorcas "was sick, and died." (Acts 9:37.) The mourners, who doubtless included many to whom Dorcas had ministered in life, sent word, asking Peter to come without delay. Possibly they hoped for a miracle. In Lydda he had healed Aeneas, sick of the palsy for eight years (see Acts 9:32—34), and word of that miracle may have prompted the people's summons.
He arrived and was taken to the upper chamber where Dorcas had been laid after having been washed and prepared for burial. "All the widows stood by him weeping, and shewing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them." (Acts 9:39.)
Then. in a pattern set by Christ himself, and in a situation similar to that involving the daughter of Jairus, (see Mark 5:40—41), Peter sent the people from the room and knelt alone in prayer. Then he turned to the body laid before him and, using the Aramaic form of her name, said to her in power, "Tabitha, arise." The account continues, "And she opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up.
"And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive.
"And it was known throughout all Joppa; and many believed in the Lord." (Acts 9:40—43.)
The woman who had extended her hands to the needy now had the hand of the priesthood extended to her to recall her from death itself. She had sought in life to bring souls to Christ and through the miracle of being raised from the dead brought still more to ponder and believe.
Peter, after raising Dorcas from the dead, stayed in Joppa with one Simon, a tanner, and it was during his stay there that he received his remarkable vision directing him to proselyte to the gentiles. It was surely that vision that led him to accept the invitation of Cornelius, a centurion and a gentile, to come to Caesarea, where he converted Cornelius and all his household.
About this time Herod was persecuting the church. He had killed James (the brother of John) and after seeing how it pleased the Jews, he imprisoned Peter also "intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.
"Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him." (Acts 12:4—5.)
In the midst of Peter's dramatic release from this imprisonment, it would be easy to miss the tiny detail in only one verse that affords us a glimpse of another woman who contributed to the growth of the early church. In response to the fervent prayers of the saints, an angel rescued Peter and conducted him past the guards and out through the outer gate. "And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying." (Acts 12:12.)
It seems unlikely that the house of Mary was the only place Peter might have gone. Doubtless other homes in the city would have welcomed him. But "when he had considered," hers was the home he chose.
"Mary," the most common woman's name in the New Testament, appears in 51 passages. Who is this Mary? And what can we learn of her from this one verse? She is mentioned only once more in the New Testament, in Colossians 4:10, as the mother of John whose surname was Mark. Her son, Mark, wrote the second gospel and labored as a missionary with Paul and Barnabas, who was Mary's brother. Peter refers to Mark as "Marcus, my son." (1 Pet. 5:13.)
The fact that saints were gathered for prayer in her home suggests that it was one of their early meeting places. The church was, at that time, under persecution, and Mary must have been a woman of courage to open her home in this way. Since the house is called her house she was likely a widow.
A maid, Rhoda, is mentioned; she went to the gate when Peter arrived and in her excitement at seeing him, neglected to admit him before she ran back to the gathering of saints who were praying in his behalf. The assembly chided her, calling her mad, but she insisted he had come. Then they said, "it is his angel," but finally chose investigation over debate as "Peter continued knocking: and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished." (See Acts 12:13—16.)
He gestured them to silence, told them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison, told them to inform the other apostles, and went to another place, possibly into hiding. Surely he chose the home of Mary, assured of her faith and knowing he would find trustworthy disciples gathered there. Once again, in the larger picture of Peter, we have discovered a tiny portrait of a faithful, courageous mother and sister whose calling included heroic hospitality. There are sisters in the Church today whose hospitality requires similar courage.
Hundreds of miles away in Philippi, an important city in Macedonia, another stalwart woman, Lydia, offered her home as a refuge to Paul and Silas after their imprisonment. A seller of purple, she may have been named Lydia because she came from Thyatira, a city in the district of Lydia in Asia Minor that was famous for its exports of purple dye, a highly prized item during this period. An inscription discovered in the ruins in Thyatira commemorates the Dyers' Guild. Perhaps Lydia had learned the proper use of purple dye as a member of that very guild.
In any case, she left Thyatira and made her home in Philippi, which was a lively trading market between Asia and Europe. The scriptures report that a vision directed Paul to Macedonia and ultimately to Philippi. (See Acts 16:9—12.)
On the Sabbath he met a group of women by a riverside where they had gone to pray. There on the banks of the river Gangites (the modern Angista) he taught the people in a peaceful place away from the bustling city. Perhaps it was to this small group that the angel had directed Paul, for here Lydia heard, opened her heart, and "attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul." (Acts 16:14.) She was baptized along with her "household" (see Acts 16:15), thus becoming the first European convert mentioned in the New Testament, and urged Paul and Silas to take lodging in her house, which they did. The scriptures do not mention whether or not Lydia was married, but we may speculate that she, like Mary, was a widow. She is mentioned only once more in the scriptures: Paul and Silas stop at her home after they miraculously convert the jailer and are released from prison. We again see a home opened hospitably to the early Christian cause and likely used as a meeting place. Since Lydia's household respected her good judgement and were willing to follow her in baptism, this likely gave impetus to others who later joined the little branch that Lydia pioneered. Perhaps when Paul wrote to the Philippians, "I thank my God upon every remembrance of you. Always in every prayer of mine for you making request with joy, For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now" (Philip. 1:3—5) he had in mind, among others, Lydia, the first to be converted, the first to be baptized, the first to open her home as a meeting place for the saints in Philippi.
About the same time Paul began his missionary labors, Claudius, emperor of, Rome, issued an edict expelling all Jews and their converts from that city. Among the refugees were Aquila and his wife Priscilla, who fled to Corinth where Aquila earned their living as a tentmaker. Aquila came from Pontus on the Black Sea. Priscilla, whose name is Latin and means "the little old one," may have been a native of Rome.
Because Paul was also a tentmaker he came to live and work with Aquila when he first came to Corinth. While Paul plied his trade during the week the scriptures tell us that "he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks" (Acts 18:4.) It is not difficult to picture that reasoning extending into his weekday activities with Priscilla and Aquila. The record does not note the time and place of their baptism, but when Paul took his leave of Corinth, sailing for Syria, they were with him. They stopped first at Ephesus, where Paul left them to proselyte as he travelled on toward Jerusalem.
Ephesus at this period was the home of the great temple of Diana, with its decadent fertility cult. Ephesus, with Syrian Antioch and Alexandria of Egypt, was one of the three great cities of the eastern Mediterranean. The Ephesian temple of Diana (Artemis) was one of the seven wonders of the world. It was one of the largest Hellenic temples in existence, at least 150 feet by 300 feet, and involved both priestesses and eunuch priests in its services.
Ephesus was indeed a melting pot of superstitions and religions. It must have been a difficult place to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. But this is exactly the task Priscilla and Aquila undertook. Paul remained but a short time, then left them. When Paul returned more than a year later he found a well-organized branch. But one small glimpse of their proselyting activity is recorded. A young eloquent Jew named Apollos came to Ephesus to preach. A recent convert, "knowing only the baptism of John," he began preaching "boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the word of God more perfectly.'' (Acts 18:25—26.) The success of their labors with the young man who was to become a great missionary is attested in the scripture when, after he had arrived in Achaia (Greece), he "helped them much which had believed through grace:
"For he mightily convinced the Jews, and that publickly, shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ." (Acts 18:27—28.)
Though Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned by Paul in some of his later epistles, little is known of their subsequent history. We find in Priscilla a thorough student of the gospel of Jesus Christ. She was a fearless teacher and willing to confront even the eloquent Apollos to share with him the truths that she had learned. Surely she made sacrifices to spread the gospel. She strengthened the branch in Corinth. She strengthened the branch in Ephesus. Those who have lived in tiny struggling branches on the fringes of the Church know the costs and courage of such fidelity. Priscilla's fame extends even beyond the biblical record, for one of the oldest catacombs in Rome was named in her honor. Her name appears on many monuments of Rome and we read in Tertullian, "by the holy Prisca the gospel is preached." Examining carefully this cameo of Priscilla we discover an early missionary.
The word "grandmother" appears in the Bible but once—in connection with Lois, the grandmother of Timothy. Paul addressed this same Timothy as "my dearly beloved son." (2 Tim. 1:2.) The one verse in the Bible that mentions Lois and her daughter Eunice, Timothy's mother, is surpassingly beautiful, illuminating not only the faith of Timothy but eloquently painting a picture of family fidelity for three generations. Paul writes, "When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice: and I am persuaded that in thee alsoâ€¦" (2 Tim. 1:5.)
The hope of every mother and grandmother is underscored in these few words. As a woman seeks to increase in faith and good works she does so not to her own glory, but to fashion a legacy for her children and her children's children to inherit. Lois and Eunice lived in a generation when the gospel was a fresh, bright gift, newly restored from God in the person of his son Jesus Christ. How they must have rejoiced as they received its truth into their lives. Their home was Lystra, a city in the Roman province of Galatia. Eunice was a Jewess married to a Greek, whose name is not given. We may infer that she was a widow much of her life. Ties of kinship strengthened the family in that day where a grandmother and mother joined forces and faith to train their choice son.
Paul gives evidence of the teachings of Timothy's youth when he says to him, "from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus." (2 Tim. 3:15.) He also suggests, "continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assurred of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them." (2 Tim. 3:14.)
Timothy was converted by Paul in Lystra at a young age and may have been as young as 15. How difficult it must have been for his mother and grandmother to send him away with Paul at such a tender age. His further training was completed by Paul, who loved him as his own son, and spoke of him always with great pride. Although only one verse tells of Timothy's grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice, we see their likenesses reflected in the man he became. His loyalty and devotion, his willingness to consecrate his all to the cause of Christ, his capacity for selflessness, gentleness, and love—all were qualities present in this youth who left his home to become a champion for Christ. These same qualities allowed his mother and grandmother to send him away with their confidence and trust. Paul planted gospel seeds in fertile ground that had been prepared by two loving women.
These are but a few of the many precious vignettes hidden in the larger history of the New Testament. It is not a book for speed-reading. As the women of today seek answers to life's perplexities and problems, the rush of life may hurry us past the very verse that offers an answer. The callings of women remain the same in the church and in the world. A woman can introduce virtue into any situation. We, in our age, can learn from the gentle women of the early Christian era by pausing to study the delicate cameos bequeathed to us.