Jill Marshall received her PhD in Religion from Emory University. Her research focuses on women’s religious activities in early Christianity and the ancient Mediterranean world, particularly inspired speech, prophecy, divination, prayer, and magic. She is currently working on a book on women’s prophecy in early Christian literature. She has taught at Emory, Wingate University, Memphis Theological Seminary, and Columbia Theological Seminary. In the summer, she travels to Greece, Turkey, and Israel so that she can dig in the dirt, walk around in the archaeological remains of ancient cities, and be just a little bit closer to the people that she studies. See her work online here.
When people familiar with the stories of the Hebrew Bible think about prophecy in the ancient world, they likely picture a man as the spokesperson for God—Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah are some of the names that may come to mind. Women called “prophets” make appearances—Miriam (Exodus 15), Deborah (Judges 4–5), Huldah (2 Kings 22; 2 Chron 24)—but they do not exert the same influence upon the biblical tradition (See Hamori 2015). But, if a Greek man or woman in the first century imagined a prophet, he or she would likely have pictured a woman. Women were prophets at prominent oracular temples at Delphi and Dodona, in Greece, and at Didyma, in western Turkey. In Greek culture, there was a conceptual connection between women and inspired prophecy and a collective affirmation that this religious role was vital to the well-being of society.
In many ways an inheritor of both biblical and Greek traditions, early Christianity likewise had traditions of women’s prophecy. The literature, however, is ambiguous about its benefits and dangers. The early Christian texts in the New Testament hint at the activities of these prophets and show the efforts of men to subdue such practices.
The earliest New Testament author, Paul, who wrote in the mid-first century CE, is the first in the canon to address women’s prophecy. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, he makes a convoluted argument about women’s head-coverings or hairstyles (1 Cor 11:2–16). Because of the difficult Greek vocabulary and obscure references, his ultimate conclusion or “takeaway” is not clear. What is clear, however, is that he is responding to men and women “praying or prophesying” in the communal meetings (11:4–5).
Women who pray or prophesy are dangerous in Paul’s eyes. As the letter continues, he works through a series of arguments about how the community should control prophecy and glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues.” At the end of these arguments, he makes a prohibitive statement for women: “Let women be silent in the assemblies, for it is not permitted for them to speak, but let them be subordinate, just as the law says” (14:34). Most interpreters have focused on this statement outside of its context, resulting in debates about whether Paul actually wrote it or whether it reflects his own chauvinistic attitude or that of his Corinthian audience (See Wire 1990 for discussion). My view, however, is that we cannot understand the prohibition of women’s speech without acknowledging that Paul opens and closes his discussion of praying in tongues and prophesying with references to women. Something was going on in Corinth to which Paul responds: in his letter and the community, the issues of gender and prophecy are intertwined. Women were prophesying and “speaking in the spirit,” and Paul considered it disorderly, even dangerous.
A similar treatment of women’s prophecy occurs in narrative form in the Acts of the Apostles, written by the Gospel author Luke about forty years after Paul’s literary activity. Acts opens with a dramatic event: the dispensation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–13). The Apostle Peter then responds to the questions of the people gathered in Jerusalem with a speech that quotes Hebrew scripture and explains God’s work in Jesus and his followers (2:14–36). He quotes the prophet Joel: “And it will be, in the last days, says God, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even on my male slaves and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17–18; see Joel 3:1–5). For Peter, a free-flowing, non-discriminating spirit of prophecy marks the “last days”: men and women, old and young, slave and free, prophesy in Peter’s time.
Women prophets, however, make few appearances in the rest of the narrative. Those who do, in fact, are silenced by the author and the central character Paul. In Philippi, a slave girl who has “a spirit of divination” followed Paul and his colleagues around and cried out, “These men are slaves of the Most High, and they proclaim to you a way of salvation” (Acts 16:16–17). The language used to describe the slave girl alludes to Greek practices of divination: the Greek term translated as “a spirit of divination,” pneuma pythona, alludes to the monster that Apollo slayed at Delphi, which led to the spirit of prophecy that emanated from that place. The Delphic Priestess was often called the Pythia, in connection to this foundation myth. The slave girl brings her owners fortune through “divining the future,” manteuein, a verb also used to describe the activity of the oracular prophets at Delphi, Dodona, and Didyma. Her statement about Paul is true: Paul is and does precisely what she says about him. This girl is the first character in Acts who fulfills the statement from Joel, “your daughters and your female slaves shall prophesy.”
Paul becomes annoyed with her and casts out her prophetic spirit (16:18). This is the end of her story. She no longer prophesies, and attention turns to her owners who are angry with Paul since he removed their source of income. One could read this as a story of liberation: Paul frees the girl from a spirit that possesses her and from exploitation by her masters. The problem with this interpretation is that she is not actually freed from slavery. Who knows what would become of a girl slave who no longer possessed her gift of prophecy? This story is the narrative counterpart to Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians, “Let women be silent.” The author Paul silences women who prophesy, and the character Paul likewise silences a slave girl who prophesies.
In Acts, four other women prophets make an appearance: Philip’s “four virgin daughters who prophesied” were in Caesarea with their father when Paul visits (Acts 21:9; For more on these women and others in Acts, see Levine 2005). Luke does not record anything they say; rather, immediately after their mention, Luke records the prophecy of another character, a man named Agabus who prophesies Paul’s death (21:10–11). Why would Luke record the existence of these female prophets since they do not play a role in the narrative, nor do they prophesy? Luke’s audience possibly knew of them and would have been surprised by their omission. This brief mention is the tip of the iceberg for early Christian women’s prophetic activity.
Perhaps the most dangerous prophet in the New Testament is “Jezebel” in Revelation. In the section of the book that records a letter to the church of Thyatira, John the Seer of Patmos speaks for God and censures the church: “But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman ‘Jezebel,’ who calls herself a prophet and teaches and leads my slaves astray to practice sexual immorality and to eat meat offered to idols” (Rev 2:20). In John’s eyes, this woman is dangerous, first and foremost, because she calls herself a prophet. John slanders her by calling her “Jezebel,” perhaps the most despised woman in Israelite history (1 Kings 16; 2 Kings 9), and by emphasizing her sexual immorality. It is hard to tell whether this woman actually did anything sexually immoral, since in the ancient world the accusation was often applied to women who had power and influence (See Knust 2006). John envisions the violent death of her and “her children,” those who follow her (Rev 2:21–23).
Perhaps there was a prophetic rivalry between “Jezebel” of Thyatira and John of Patmos, and this rivalry results in his caustic words against her. After all, John claims to have special access to the Spirit, which gives him the visions that he communicates to the churches of Asia Minor. Paul also employs apologetic rhetoric concerning his own prophetic abilities and access to the spirit.
These authors, who were eventually canonized as Christian scripture, engaged in arguments about how communities could best identify authentic messages from God. First Corinthians, Acts, and Revelation hint that women were active in this process and claimed the prophetic spirit. These texts also suggest that Paul, Luke, and John found these claims dangerous and sought to silence these women prophets.
Knust, Jennifer. 2006. Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press.
Hamori, Esther. 2015. Women’s Divination in Biblical Literature: Prophecy, Necromancy, and Other Arts of Knowledge. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Levine, Amy-Jill. 2005. A Feminist Companion to the Acts of the Apostles. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.
Wire, Antoinette Clark. 1990. The Corinthian Women Prophets: A Reconstruction through Paul’s Rhetoric. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.