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Harnack’s positive descriptions of NT women ministers

Harnack’s positive descriptions of New Testament women leaders.

Some Christians think that the acceptance of women as leaders and teachers in churches is a recent phenomenon backed by innovative, faulty interpretations of the Bible. So I was interested to read that Adolf Harnack, a staunch Lutheran and respected church historian, was honest and approving in his appraisal of the ministry of New Testament women in his work Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten.[1] Especially as this work was published more than a century ago, in 1902.

Harnack (pictured right) begins his section on women in ministry with, “It is quite clear that women appeared in the local assemblies with the consent of the apostle [Paul] and that they prayed and prophesied in public” (1 Cor 11:5f). (p.217) He then mentions several women by name with a few lines describing each of their ministries.

Here are brief excerpts about some of the women mentioned.

Phoebe: It is “probable that she was a woman of property and a patroness (not an employee) of the church at Cenchrea.” (p.219)

Prisca: “She was a fellow-labourer of Paul i.e. a missionary and at the same time the leader of a small church, and both of these injunctions imply that she taught.” (p.219) Harnack has quite a few things to say about Prisca (or Priscilla). He even has her name in a footnote on page 223 as possible author of the letter to the Hebrews. (More on this here.)

Nympha: “From Colossians 4:15 we learn that there was a conventicle in Colosse presided over by a woman called Nympha, for it was in her house that the meetings took place.” (p.220) (‘Conventicle’ means a small religious meeting, often covert or illegal; however there is no indication that the word is being used pejoratively here.)

Jezebel: “From the Apocalypse we hear of a Christian, though heretical, prophetess at Thyatira called Jezebel who seduced the church. Which tacitly presupposes that women could be, and actually were, prophetesses.” (p.223)

Alke and Gavia: Harnack mentions these two women from the church at Smyrna, who he associates with the ‘chosen lady’ in 2 John. (p.223-224) Alke and Gavia were prominent women in the Smyrnean church, and were probably house church leaders. They are mentioned in the collection of writings known as the Apostolic Fathers.

The Chosen Lady: Harnack notes that this woman, who was a recipient of John’s second letter, held “a prominent position in an unknown church in Asia.” He adds, “She appears to have been distinguished for exceptional hospitality, and the author therefore warns her in a friendly way against receiving heretical itinerant teachers into her house.” (p.224)

Junia: Unfortunately Junia is absent from Harnack’s discussion. Ever since Luther’s German translation of Junia’s name as  “den Juniam” (which is masculine), many Germans, including Harnack, have wrongly supposed that Junia was a man. Nevertheless, Harnack acknowledges in a footnote that Chrysostom took Junia to be a woman with the feminine name “Junia”. (More on this here.) Not including Junia, Harnack counts fifteen women and eighteen men who were greeted by Paul in his letter to the Romans (p.220).[2]

Despite recognising that women were ministers, and even claiming that Prisca could qualify for the title “apostle” (p.219), Harnack is conflicted about a few of Paul’s instructions concerning women and ministry. He offers the suggestion that Paul allowed women to pray and prophesy in an ecstatic state “over which no one could exercise control”, but that they were forbidden from public instruction. (p.218) I don’t buy this explanation, as Paul did not allow uncontrolled charismatic ministry in church meetings (cf. 1 Cor. ch. 14).

I do, however, appreciate what Harnack says about the Christian gnostics (even though I reject their heretical beliefs): “Among the gnostics especially, the women played a great role, for the gnostic looked not to the sex but to the Spirit.” (p.229) The source of their spiritual inspiration is dubious, but their principle is sound: it is gifting, especially spiritual gifting, and not gender, that qualifies a person for Christian ministry. With gifting in mind, Harnack correctly notes that Prisca could not have taken part “in missionary and in teaching unless she had been inspired and set apart by the Holy Spirit.” (p.219) This holds true for men as well as women ministers.

I don’t know a lot about Harnack,[3] but I have shared these quotations here because they demonstrate that the understanding that women were leaders and teachers in New Testament churches is neither new nor novel. Over one hundred years ago, well before equality was accepted as a social ideal in Germany and other parts of the western world, Adolf Harnack acknowledged that the New Testament presents certain women as the leaders and teachers of their churches.


[1] I’m quoting from the English translation by James Moffatt of Harnack’s The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Vol. 2 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998) p.217ff.  The quotations come from volume 2, book 4, chapter 2, section 4 of The Expansion. (Online source.)

[2] “. . . no fewer than fifteen women are saluted, alongside of eighteen men, and all these must have rendered important services to the church, or to the apostle, or to both . . .” (p.220). I can only count ten women, including Junia: Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Prisca (v.3-5a), Mary (v.6), Junia (v.7), Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis (v.12), Rufus’ mother (v.13), Julia, (v.15), and Nereus’ sister. Who are the other six that Harnack thought were women?

Are “Hermas” (v.14) and “Olympas” (v.15) actually the feminine names “Herma” and “Olympa”? (The more usual feminine forms are “Hermia” and “Olympia”.) I’ve seen it suggested that “Herodion” (v.11) is really the feminine name “Herodiana”, but I can’t see that this is possible. Many of the names in Romans 16, such as Herodion, are given with a description, and the grammatical gender of the description helps us to ascertain the actual gender of the person.

[3] Harnack was an excellent historian, but I know enough about him to say that I disagree with some of his theological views. Unlike Harnack, I believe in Jesus’ incarnation and miraculous ministry. I have a collection of statements from less liberal scholars about women in ministry here.

Related Articles

Prominent Biblical Scholars on Women in Ministry 
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women

Paul and Women, in a Nutshell
Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea
Did Priscilla Teach Apollos?
Jezebel of Thyatira: A Female False Prophet
Junia and the ESV
Gender Equality in Second Clement

Posted June 16th, 2015 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Women in Ministry, , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

5 comments on “Harnack’s positive descriptions of NT women ministers

  1. Emmy says:

    Thank you for this post, Marg.

    I don’t buy Harnack’s explanation of women only prophesying in an extatic state either, but I’ve noticed lately that some who oppose women in ministry apparently do.

    Whenever Miriam, Deborah, Abigail, Phoebe, Prisca or any other Bible woman is put forward as evidence of female leadership, those opposed will often belittle the role she played. But, failing that, her being inspired is instead used as a dismissive argument. It’s “Well, Miriam was inspired by the Spirit to sing, so it’s not strange that she did”, or “Well, Philip’s daughters aren’t called ‘prophets’, it just says that they prophesied – and how could they not if they were inspired?”

    On a good day, this reasoning amuses me in its absurdity; on a bad day it really annoys me. It suggests that God only chooses women as an exception, and that women, unlike men, have to be extraordinariliy, “uncontrollably”, gifted to be considered for leadership. Drawn to its extreme, this reasoning suggests that the Holy Spirit, who gives indiscriminately, still discriminates between men and women. Why we as humans would choose to uphold opressive hierarchies and in doing so effectively limit God’s use of and work among His people, rather than rejoice in the awesome and amazing grace and gifts that have been given to all believers to build up and strengthen the body of Christ is beyond me.

    • Marg says:

      Hi Emmy,

      I’ve noticed too that there are Christians who believe that prophetesses and female ministers in the Bible ministered in some kind of ad hoc, improvised, or ecstatic manner, but when we read the Bible carefully we see this just isn’t true. There was a recognised place for prophetesses in Israel. They had a respected role, and were free to exercise their ministry with the authority that comes with a God-ordained ministry. We know that Deborah and Huldah were relied upon and sought out by prominent, powerful men. These men recognised the authority and wisdom of these women prophetic leaders. No one seems to quibble over the fact that Anna was a known prophetess who was a “fixture” in the Temple, and told everyone – men and women – about the deliverance of Israel.

      Miriam’s song was most likely not ad hoc or ecstatic. I’ve written about the role of women in leading the Israelite community in mourning and celebrations here. And the idea that Philip’s daughters weren’t true prophetesses shows a lack of understanding of the Greek use of participles. It also shows an ignorance of Church history. Philip’s daughters were highly regarded as prophetesses by the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church. More on them here.

      Many of the complementarian arguments are annoying, ignorant, and just plain tiresome. 🙁

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