Paul’s pattern was to bring the gospel “to the Jew first, and then the Gentile.” But, when Paul and his companions arrived In Philippi, they discovered the Jewish community was so small there was no synagogue.
Ever resourceful, Paul knew the Jewish custom was to locate synagogues outside the walls of Gentile cities, and somewhere near water, for ritual purification. So, Paul led his team through the city gate to the bank of the Gangites River, about a mile and a half outside of town.
It’s around 50 AD, and Paul is 47. I’m guessing Timothy is probably 20, at the most, but I’d put him more at 18. Hard to say how old Silas and Luke were, but considering their interest in this sort of “on spec” missionary journey, the risks and dangers involved, the open-ended feel of it, knowing they’d most likely be on the road for at least a couple of years, I’d say they were, max, in their forties, too. I want to say Silas was about 35, and Luke maybe 43.
They’re all walking together, in my mind’s eye, Paul up ahead with Timothy right next to him, engaged in deep and weighty conversation. Silas and Luke are a little farther back, taking in the countryside, enjoying the warm sunshine, the rustling trees, the singing birds, praying silently, looking forward to the Sabbath worship.
As they follow the river bank, they see a sizable group of people gathered, and they feel a frisson of elation, knowing soon they will be with God fearers.
How exciting to finally meet the Man of Macedonia!
What fun it will be to tell him how Paul had seen him in a vision, and had not stopped traveling till he could come to him, and give him the help he had so passionately implored for that eerie night.
Imagine their growing bewilderment as they began to discern these were women gathered together. All women.
Now, there’s some disagreement about this set up, here. Post first century, the Mishnah began to include instructions about how a synagogue could only be formed if there were ten eligible Jewish men present. But in Paul’s day, it’s not so clear.
I did a little teensy bit of research on this, and found a great blog by “Rabbi Joshua” on Patheos that claimed women were able to participate in just about all aspects of religious life, and were considered equals with men on that score. He said archaeological evidence supports:
- Women served as leaders in the synagogues
- Participated in ritual services
- Studied in the “beit midrash” (study hall)
- Learned and taught Jewish law
- Were counted in a minyan [a quorum of ten men (or in some synagogues, men and women) over the age of 13 required for traditional Jewish public worship.]
Even though first century synagogues had balconies, and upper rooms, there is no—to date—archaeological evidence that supports the contention women were physically separated from men during the prayer times.
Women said “amen” with the men in response to the priestly blessing.
Early inscriptions describe women having served as heads of synagogues, leaders, and elders.
Yes, you did read that right.
In first century Judaism, apparently, according to ancient inscriptions, women served as elders. Women served as leaders. Women even served as head of the synagogue.
It’s a lot to digest, isn’t it.
I’ve looked around, and this is basically what the newest scholarship is uncovering.
The synagogue in Philippi was all-female, most likely the wives and daughters of the retired Roman military who had settled there. My guess, Jewish girls who fell in love with those dashing men in uniform, Centurions and the like, and, over the cries and hand-wringing of their families, married and moved away. Or, maybe, impoverished Jewish families who had to indenture their daughters to wealthy Roman families only to see them manumitted as wives to Roman sons. There may very well have been at least a few Roman and Greek women there who had converted to Judaism. There was, of course, also, Lydia. More on her next time.
So Paul and his companions were bewildered, because the person who begged Paul for help in the vision had definitely been a man. But the people the Lord led them to, were definitely all women.
Why did God do it that way? I mean, at first glance, it seems sort of capricious and random. Why not just send a vision of a Macedonian woman? Why not that? No clue! But, if I were a betting person, I’d bet God knew enough of Paul’s personality and general makeup, that sending a vision of a man would be galvanizing in exactly the right way, whereas sending a vision of a woman might have actually been more puzzling and unnerving.
But ya gotta hand it to Paul and his crew. They did not skip a bit. Puzzled looks changed to pleased smiles instantly, and they sat right down to worship with these God-fearing women. The women, apparently, didn’t skip a beat, either. They welcome these four men into their gathering, and even arranged themselves to hear what Paul clearly was burning to say.
In telling this story, I pretty much had my breath taken away by what I discovered about the dignity, honor, and respect first century women enjoyed in their religious community. I really had had no idea. I’d been taught a very different version of first century Judaism, but here’s the stick point: Pharisees had a particular and vocal view, yet in actuality they were in the minority. Mostly, in real life, people fell in between the Sadducees on one side, and the Pharisees on the other.
And, there were way more than just these two denominations.
- There were also Kairite Jews, who only subscribed to the Tanakh alone (in other words, the Bible alone—Torah, first five books of Moses, also called the Pentateuch; Nevi’im, the Prophets; Ketuvim, the Writings) and had nothing to do with the other writings, such as the oral traditions and laws of the rabbis (Mishnah), the Midrash and the Talmud.
- There were the very ascetic Essenes, who were very much enthralled with endtimes theology.
- There were the Zionists, a fiercely patriotic sect.
- and the Zealots, who were fierce to the point of terrorism.
All religious Jews, but with very different ways of seeing things.
Most generally, ordinary people accepted women as teachers, shepherds, and leaders.
Knowing this kind of transforms how I read the New Testament, now, and especially how I see Paul writing about, and working with, women.
Babtistry on the River Gangites outside of Philippi | Ian W. Scott [CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]