Romans 16: Who Was Prisca?

Romans 16: Who Was Prisca?

This post is part three of a four part series. To read part one, click here. To read part two, click here.

Our next stop in chapter 16 of Paul’s letter to the Romans is verses 3-5.

3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, 4 and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5 Greet also the church in their house. (NRSV)

Prisca and Aquila were a married couple engaged in ministry together in the early church. Unlike Phoebe, the subject of my previous post, Prisca and Aquila are also mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, so we have a few more sources to use in learning about them. More on that in a minute, but first…

What a name tells us

Before we investigate what the different books in the New Testament tell us about Prisca, there are two things about her name that are important to note. The first thing is that some New Testament authors call her Priscilla. So if you read about a Prisca in one place, and a Priscilla in another place, this is the same person! The “illa” ending is a diminutive suffix; that is, an ending added to convey a sense of smallness. This is not meant to be insulting to Prisca, but is a way in Greek of forming a nickname, similar to the way we often add a “y” or “ie” to form nicknames in English (Billy, Jackie, Jenny, etc.). In this post I will always refer to her as Prisca.

The second interesting thing about Prisca’s name is that it is almost always mentioned before her husband’s name. It is extremely rare in ancient documents to find examples in which a wife’s name appears before her husband’s. The man is nearly always mentioned first. Yet in four out of five times that the New Testament lists these two names side by side, Prisca is mentioned first. This probably means that Prisca played a more prominent role in early church ministry and leadership than her husband did. She was the better known of the two.

Other places we learn about Prisca

 Prisca is also mentioned in the book Acts of the Apostles, a book that tells the story of the earliest church. Acts tells us that when Paul first came to the city of Corinth in Greece, he met Prisca and Aquila there.

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3 and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together– by trade they were tentmakers. (Acts 18:1-3 NRSV)

We find out several things from this passage. First, Prisca and Aquila were Jewish believers. We also find out that Prisca and Aquila had been in Rome, but they had to leave that city because Emperor Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. A little historical research sheds light on this situation. Several Roman historians mention trouble with Jews in Rome in the mid-first century. One of these, the historian Suetonius, indicates that the Jews were expelled for “disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.” It is not certain what this means, but many scholars think that Seutonius got the word Christos (Greek for Christ) a little wrong, and that the disputes between Jews and Jewish Christians in Rome over the identity of Jesus as the messiah were causing sufficient disturbance to get the attention of government officials. This is uncertain, but whatever the reason, as Jews Prisca and Aquila had been forced to leave Rome.

Another thing we learn about Prisca from this passage is that she (along with her husband and Paul) was a tentmaker (or a leather-worker more generally; there is some debate about the meaning of the word). The three of them set up shop together, and become not only co-workers in the leather business, but co-workers in the mission to establish a Christian community in Corinth. Much of their evangelism likely happened in their shop, as they built relationships with customers and others in the community.

Later in the same chapter, we find out that, after a ministry of significant length, Paul leaves Corinth, and Prisca and Aquila go along with him to continue their joint ministry in the city of Ephesus. Acts reports that Paul leaves Ephesus fairly quickly, but Prisca and Aquila stay in the city doing their missionary work without him. Acts also reports an incident from Prisca and Aquila’s time in Ephesus:

24 Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately. (Acts 18:24-26 NRSV)

When another Jewish missionary comes to town who is only partly informed about the gospel of Jesus, Prisca and Aquila instruct him more fully. Notice again that Prisca is mentioned first, most likely indicating that she took the greater role in this kind of work.

Paul eventually returns to Ephesus, and at some point Prisca and Aquila return to Rome. The edict expelling Jews from Rome was lifted at the death of Emperor Claudius in the year 54. We don’t know exactly when Prisca and Aquila returned to Rome, but we know they were there by the time Paul writes his letter to the Romans from Corinth and sends them greetings. Perhaps they all left Ephesus at the same time, Paul to revisit his churches in Greece, and Prisca and Aquila to return to Rome.

Prisca and Aquila are also mentioned in 1 Corinthians 16:19 and 1 Timothy 4:19, in which greetings are sent either to or from them.

What else Paul says about Prisca in Romans 16

 Paul says several interesting things about Prisca and her husband when he greets them in his letter to the Romans. Let’s review the passage:

3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, 4 and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5 Greet also the church in their house.

He greets them as his co-workers in Christ Jesus, and he also says that they “risked their necks” for his life. I would love to hear that whole story! Unfortunately we can’t know for sure in what way they did this, but it seems likely that they used their money and/or status to protect Paul or get him out of trouble at some point. Perhaps they helped him get out of prison in Ephesus.

Paul also says that they had a church that met in their house. This early in church history Christians did not build church buildings, but met in the homes of believers. This was one way that more wealthy Christians served the church: by providing space in which to meet. Only those of above average means would have had homes large enough to host church gatherings. Apparently Prisca and Aquila were among these. In addition to indicating that their leather-working business was probably a fairly successful one, it also indicates their level of commitment to the mission of the early church.

Prisca’s work and dedication

Prisca and her husband were travelling missionaries like Paul. At minimum we know that they were active missionaries in three different ancient cities: Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. We know that they hosted churches within their homes in at least two out of these three cities. Paul refers to the church in their home in Rome in Romans 16:5 and to the church in their home in Ephesus in 1 Corinthians 16:19. Although a church in their home in Corinth is never mentioned explicitly, it seems likely that they also hosted a church gathering there, since we know that they were active with Paul in establishing the Christian community in Corinth.

All of this indicates Prisca’s prominence as a leader in the early church. The nature of the Bible is that it tends to focus more on the activities and words of men than on the activities and words of women (the fancy term for this is that the Bible is androcentric).  We can generally assume that the women were doing more than the text lets on. Considering this, a woman whose name is mentioned six times in the New Testament (in four different books) must have been a very beloved and prominent leader in the communities in which she worked.

Picture at the top of this post: Roman era stitching awl such as Prisca might have used to pierce leather. Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr

One thought on “Romans 16: Who Was Prisca?

  1. Thanks for sharing your study of Priscilla. Since the ordination of women is still not accepted by the entire Christian church, we have a responsibility to put forward this information.
    And I too, would like to know “the rest of the story” behind so many of the stories in the New Testament. Apparently they wrote assuming their readers knew the details, never imaging how many readers would follow in different cultures in the centuries to come.

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