Would it not be great to read a scholarly book with such accessibility, written in such a conversational tone, that it is almost like being in comfy chairs, talking with the author? What if such a book had the same enjoyability factor as curling up with a novel?
What if, right?
Except, that is exactly what reading Tell Her Story: How Women, Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church, by Nijay K. Gupta, was like for me.
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have read almost all of Dr. Gupta’s books. They are probably some of the best creative nonfiction books out there on Greek scholarship and Biblical exegesis, very accessible and conversational, definitely erudite and carefully researched, and so enjoyably written a person hardly realizes they have just received an excellent education when they finish that last page and close the book with happy satisfaction.
(Man, that sentence is four lines long! Must be I have been reading apostle Paul stuff recently).
Tell Her Story begins with Deborah’s narrative, and the extraordinary, unique example she provides at very nearly the beginning of the Bible of women in political and religious leadership. From there, Gupta returns to the foundational passage in Genesis 1-3 to explore the synoptic accounts of earth’s and humankind’s beginnings. Gupta points out God’s intention that men and women partner together.
“The sum is greater than the parts, and together they have the potential to unlock the full vitality of God’s creation on earth.”
“One human ruling the other—that is not an ideal of the garden but an intrusion and an undoing.”
“The way back is uniformity and harmony through Jesus Christ, not hierarchy.”Nijay K. Gupta, Tell Her Story, pp. 26, 27, 29
Life in the Greco-Roman First-Century World
In the next chapter, Gupta describes what life was like for women in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, and how women navigated in both domestic and civic spheres. Gupta tells it like it was, without romanticizing. He begins, “the ancient world was a man’s world” (p. 30). There it is.
Taking the reader through a review of patriarchy, social class, and status in that world, we begin to understand how complex, actually, it really was. Being a man or a woman (or an enslaved person, or a eunuch, for that matter) was not the sum total of one’s identity. Wealth, connections, intelligence, skills and talents, education, assets, nobility, you get the picture. There were plenty of occasions when a particular woman might outclass a particular man in a given situation.
Though there were certain broad areas of life where women were barred, women had ways to operate in those spaces as well. I was fascinated to learn how! Gupta also did a little myth-busting:
- Wives were not always under the authority of their husbands (p. 38).
- Women often could and did own property (p. 39).
- A woman’s life may have centered in the home, but it was anything but private (p. 40).
With ample citations and archaeological evidence, Gupta shows Greek and Roman women were engaged in business, politics and civic benefaction, social associations, and leadership in cultic activities. Jewish women also enjoyed opportunities to be engaged in social life, including a number of high-profile leaders such as Queen Alexandra Salome of Judea (76 to 67 BC) (p. 46).
Just knowing what Gupta outlined in this chapter changes the lens through which you and I would read the stories of women in Jesus’s life and ministry, the next chapter of the book. He begins with Mary, mother of Jesus, depicting her as the courageous and biblically literate person she was. From there, Gupta shows how women “paved the way” for Jesus (p. 56) and how Jesus mindfully and respectfully engaged with women.
Of the many insights Gupta offers, here is one of my favorites:
“… there may be a clever thematic link between Acts 1-2 and the beginning of the gospel of Luke. In Luke 1, when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, she is told that ‘the Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ (Lk 1:35). In Luke 3:22, when Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove and rests on him. And in Acts 2 the empowering presence of the Spirit comes down from heaven and fills up the room (Acts 2:2-3). Mary can be seen to be a living link from the incarnation, through the life and ministry of Jesus, and into the ministry of the Spirit-empowered apostles. In these Pentecost paintings, then, she symbolizes the church, the guardian and agent of Christ’s gospel, and the work of God from age to age, era to era, testified and confirmed by God’s Spirit.”Nijay K. Gupta, Tell Her Story, p. 67
Then we get to the women leaders in the early church.
Gupta again lays the groundwork for understanding how the early church gathered, explaining the structure and habits of synagogues and the early assemblies of believers. He spells out the various New Testament terminology for these gatherings and the people who worked alongside Paul as well as served and ministered in the church.
Again, understanding all these things gives a much better template for understanding how women were engaged in Christ’s call as portrayed in scripture.
Reading the texts containing women takes care. Words matter, context matters. Here are two quotes that illustrate what I mean.
The first example concerns a single sentence from Paul’s letter to Rome:
“Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.”Romans 16:6
What could a person possibly get from that!?
“The prominence of her being named in the early part of the list, combined with the amplifier very (‘Mary … worked very hard’), suggests that she was a prominent church leader. Saint John Chrysostom comments on this verse that women carried out many different ministries in the apostolic age—not just Word ministry (teaching, like Priscilla) but also doing ministry in dangerous places, risking poverty, and enduring harsh travel conditions: ‘For the women of those days were more spirited than lions, sharing with the apostles their labors for the Gospel’s sake.’”Nijay K. Gupta, Tell Her Story, p. 101
The second example, several pages later, keys in on a significant fact about the text and context of Paul’s mention of a woman in his letter to Colossae.
“Greet the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and Nympha and the church down in her house.”Colossians 4:15
We can read that sentence over and over and miss its magnitude. Until it sinks in, remembering Paul’s greetings in other letters.
“Again, it should reshape how we think about first-century Christianity when we consider that the only named person we know from the Laodicean community is a woman, Nympha. This offers yet another reminder that ministry leadership in the apostolic period was not a man’s job. People, both women and men, of skill and gifting, with resources and experience at their disposal, were called on to care for the people of God in Jesus Christ—people like Apphia and Nympha.”Nijay K. Gupta, Tell Her Story, p. 111
Separate chapters are given to Prisca and Junia, strong leaders in the Lord, followed by a summary of Paul’s support and enthusiastic partnering with women throughout his ministry career.
What About …?
Yes, what about those biblical passages that seem to indicate just about the opposite of everything Dr. Gupta has just finished telling us about? With his inimical winsome and conversational style, Gupta takes us through 1 Timothy 2 and the so-called household codes scattered throughout the epistles that discuss submission. Throughout, Gupta reminds us of the redemptive trajectory of the apostles’ teaching. Their work has gotten us here, honoring the dignity and worth of all human beings, and the equally loved and respected status of God’s beloved in the Kingdom of Heaven.
This book is so worth it!
Bonuses, by the way:
- For as packed as it is with information and insight, the whole thing is only 200 pages long.
- Gupta’s bibliography alone is worth the price of admission.
- Every chapter comes with a summary conclusion—if you need to cut to the chase, you can.
(Do it! You know you want to. Buy this book, your brain, heart, spirit, and library will thank you.)