Priscilla (fl. 1st c.)

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Priscilla (fl. 1st c.)

Early Christian evangelist, missionary and teacher, designated by St. Paul as being one of his "fellow workers" (Romans 16:3–5). Name variations: St. Prisca; St. Priscilla. Flourished in the 1st century, around 54 ce; date and place of death unknown; married Aquila (a Jewish-Christian tentmaker). Her feast day is January 18.

Priscilla and her husband Aquila, Christians at the time of Emperor Claudius (r. 41–54 CE), were forced to flee Rome in 49–50 ce when the imperial city's Jews were expelled (Acts of the Apostles 18:2). It is unclear whether Priscilla was born Gentile (her name was in fact that of an old Roman family) or Jewish, but her husband Aquila is described in scripture as being a Jewish leather worker or tentmaker of Pontus. As a couple, they played an important role in the early growth of Christianity, and although Aquila was both devout and active in spreading the new doctrine, it was Priscilla who clearly displayed more energy and determination in missionary activities.

They first went to Corinth, probably in 51 CE, where they entertained Paul; they then traveled with him to Ephesus, a large city on the west coast of Asia Minor. Priscilla and Aquila remained in Ephesus while Paul continued his travels to Caesarea. When Paul returned to Ephesus about a year later in the course of his third missionary journey, he was pleased to discover that the couple had been able to establish a Christian congregation "in their house" (I Corinthians 16:19).

After the death of Claudius in 54 CE, Priscilla and Aquila were able to return to Rome, at which point all mention of them in the historical record vanishes. Some scholars argue that they most likely died in Asia Minor, but Christian tradition has often had them dying in Rome as martyrs. Priscilla has frequently been confused with another woman named Priscilla, who founded a cemetery on Rome's Via Salaria and was a noblewoman of the Roman senatorial family of Acilii Glabriones.

St. Paul writes from Corinth to the Romans in 58 CE: "Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom I not only give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Likewise greet the church that is in their house" (Romans 16:3–5). He not only praises the couple for "the church that is in their house," he mentions them as being his "fellow workers," a term Paul reserved to identify such leaders of the early church as Mark, Luke, Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Apollos, a disciple of John the Baptist.

In Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila's many-faceted missionary activities had included their painstaking instruction of Apollos, a learned man and a Jewish convert to the new doctrines of Christianity, who had some serious gaps in his understanding of the Christian message. Priscilla's teaching of Apollos is important in view of the fact that some years later Paul was to write Timothy that he did not permit women to teach or to arrogate authority to themselves over men (1 Timothy 2:12). To this day, theological conservatives argue that according to scripture (Titus 2:3–5), the teaching ministry of women in the Christian church is restricted to teaching young women and children. Those challenging this view have been able to discover strong evidence to the contrary, particularly in the case of Priscilla's teaching of an adult man, Apollos, not informally at their home, but in the synagogue, and in a detailed and systematic fashion.

In Acts 18:24–26, Paul mentions Priscilla's name before that of Aquila. In the six references to Priscilla and Aquila in scripture, her name is mentioned four times before his, strongly suggesting that she is the more distinguished of the two. Furthermore, both Luke and Paul honor her in this way. She was never thought to be a coworker; in Roman society, women were not generally called coworkers, a term of equality, rather, in this case, she comes before him. Scholars are generally in agreement about this fact, which points to Priscilla playing the more active role in teaching Apollos the finer points of Christian doctrine.

The eminent scholar Adolf von Harnack's assertion in an article published in 1900 in the Zeitschrift für neutestamentische Wissenschaft that Priscilla may have been the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews remains in dispute, but has been accepted as a reasonable hypothesis by a number of eminent experts in the field, including Thomas B. Allworthy, J. Rendel Harris, and Arthur S. Peake. As missionaries, von Harnack places Priscilla and Aquila as standing "independently alongside of Paul," working with him but spreading the message of the new faith by virtue of their own authority. With the passage of time, Priscilla became known as an apostle, with her reputation and influence being so great that by the 4th century ce St. John Chrysostom compared it to that of the sun as it looks over the entire earth.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia