Priscilla and Aquila
Stories Seldom Heard
Acts of the Apostles 18:1-28, Romans 16:1-6,
I Corinthians 16:1-24 and 2 Timothy 4:19-22
By Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P.
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. I would especially like to welcome the members of the parishes in Fallon, Gold Run, Silver City, Virginia City, Virginia Highlands, Reno and Dayton, Nevada.
Since Easter we have been focusing on stories from the “Acts of the Apostles.” They help us understand the complex issues as the Jesus movement began to take hold and spread beyond Jerusalem and Rome. For sure there were joys and sorrow, revelations and growth pains.
As we continue to read the passages, we become aware that the stories in the “Acts” are less about the “Apostles” and more about the work of the Holy Spirit. Many people turned to God in a new way because of the preaching, teaching and actions of the many disciples of the Risen Christ. As the Spirit enlivened the church and it grew, some of the disciples were named more often than others. Their names not only appeared in the “Acts,” but also in the Letters of Paul. Priscilla and Aquila are two of these people. (1)
We first hear of Priscilla and Aquila in Acts: 18. Paul stays with them while he is in Corinth. After some time Paul sails to Antioch (Syria) accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. For a while we lose track of Priscilla and Aquila. In order to explore their identity and ministry, we need to read all six references that I mentioned above. It is also important to do this because the Letters were written earlier than the “Acts.” Therefore, they are more accurate.
Priscilla and Aquila were wife and husband. Together they preached and taught the Word of God, even before they met Paul in Corinth. However, it was in Corinth that they all became co-workers. Thus, it is no surprise that in the midst of their labors they became great friends and companions.
The story of Priscilla and Aquila began in Rome. They left Rome about 50CE because the Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews. It is clear that Aquila was a Jew “whose family came from Pontus.” (2) We do not know any background information about Priscilla. Her name comes from Latin origins. However, what is clear is that Priscilla and Aquila left Rome together. The scriptures do not elaborate on their feelings, but it must have been hard to leave everything behind: family, friends and associates. Yet, they listened to the promptings of the Spirit and journeyed to the very active port city of Corinth. It is not surprising that Paul found them there since all three of them had a lot in common. They were strangers in a port city, tent-makers by trade and, most importantly, all three preached and taught the Good News of the Risen Christ.
Paul lived with Priscilla and Aquila for a year and a half. He shared their life, food, home, occupation and ministry. For Paul this must have been an especially important time since so often we hear of him traveling by himself or living short periods of time with new acquaintances. We can only imagine their conversations, hopes, dreams and struggles. Their friendship must have been a great support as they planned their next preaching missions.
Their time in Corinth was limited. Nothing could hold them back from continuing their preaching mission: not hardship, inconvenience or fear of the unknown. They placed their lives in God’s hands and made the necessary arrangements as they headed off to Ephesus.
Ephesus was everything they expected, and more! It was the center of worship for the goddess Diana. It was not an easy city in which to preach the message of Jesus. The fertility cult that Diana represented had captured the hearts and souls of the many pilgrims who went there to worship her. Furthermore, the businessmen whose purses were overflowing from the profits they received from selling trinkets and idols that honored Diana were a difficult group to encounter. (See Acts 19:23-40) Yet, even in this city Priscilla and Aquila were successful in preaching and teaching.
There is no hint that Priscilla was considered a second class Christian or subordinate to Aquila or Paul. Even though Priscilla was a woman, Paul identified her as a coworker, preacher and teacher. We hear of his respect and love of her and Aquila especially in his Letter to the Romans where Paul boldly thanks them for their courage. “My greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ, who risked death to save my life.” (Rom 16:3-5)
Wherever Priscilla and Aquila went, they made friends. Priscilla and Aquila’s house church was well known. They hosted the community of believers in their home for meals and the breaking of the bread. As we know from the story of Lydia (see June, 2016 SSH) this was a common practice since there were no buildings designated for Christian prayer. In fact, large cities had many house churches where families, friends, coworkers, slaves and free people, all gathered together for prayer. These houses were considered safe places for the Christian community to gather for conversation, support and news of their friends living in other cities. We know that attending these gatherings could be dangerous since the civil authorities often viewed Christians as dissidents. But fear did not rule their lives nor deter them from their mission.
One of the characteristics of the followers of the “Way” was equality of membership. Everyone had the same privileges and responsibilities. Each person’s personal gifts were used to build up the community and the common good. It is clear in Paul’s writings and in the collective memory of the church that Priscilla was considered an equal in all aspects of life and ministry. This is an important point to notice since centuries later and even now women’s membership, participation and pastoral leadership responsibilities are limited. Priscilla was certainly a gifted disciple, as well as a highly respected woman like many women in our church today.
The Bible is not the only resource when it comes to the story of Priscilla and Aquila. There are secular writings from their day that give us reliable information. The facts that these secular scholars and historians provide give us another perspective. By speaking as “outsiders” they not only verify much of the information we have, but also provide information that might otherwise be lost.
When it comes to Priscilla, “Tertullian writes, ‘By the holy Prisca, the gospel is preached.’ One of the oldest catacombs in Rome, the Coemeterium Priscilla, is named in her honor. Another church in Rome is called ‘Titulus St. Prisca.’ A popular writing in the tenth century was called ‘Acts of St. Prisca.’…We cannot be certain these Roman titles honor the Priscilla in the New Testament, but quite possibly they do. One further note: the fresco of women celebrating the Eucharist,…was found in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome.” (3)
Priscilla and Aquila’s ministry is a great model of partnership. Both were loved and respected. Both were willing to risk their lives in order to preach the Good News. There is however, a genuine need to speak about Priscilla and her extensive ministry. As the Church developed it slowly began to reflect the social and political structures of its culture. Rather than continuing as a community of equals, which the early companions of Jesus were called, the new communities began to reflect the structures of their society. (4)
There are many other stories and early traditions that accompany the lives of Priscilla and Aquila. Some scholars believe that Priscilla was the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Also, some historians think that Priscilla and Aquila were martyred in Nero’s persecution of Christians in 64C.E. If so, I am sure they went to their deaths with the same kind of courage that marked their lives. (5) There is no conclusive evidence as to how and when Priscilla and Aquila died. Perhaps it isn’t recorded because their memory lives on and the gifts they left the church continue to serve us well. Their legacy of partnership and collaboration in preaching and teaching as well as their courage and wisdom remain prominent in the minds and hearts of the early Christians and ours as well.
- Pontus is on the southern coast of Black Sea.
- Priscilla is called Prisca in the other references. Priscilla is the diminutive form of Prisca.
- Foremothers: Women of the Bible, Janice Nunnally-Cox, The Seabury Press, New York, 1981. Page 131
- As you know Pope Francis has recently commissioned a study of women deacons in the Church. Priscilla does not fall into this category. It appears that she along with Aquila and Paul practiced a different and fuller ministry than that of the first deacons who were assigned to care for the widows whose needs were not being met. (Acts 6:1)
- Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice and Us, Joyce Hollyday, Westminster, John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1994. Page 160
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped edit this article. “Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection. If you would like “Stories Seldom Heard” sent to a friend, please send a note to “firstname.lastname@example.org.