Tell Her Story, Nijay K. Gupta, Foreword Beth Allison Barr. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2023.
Summary: The often overlooked stories of women in the New Testament and how they led, taught, and ministered in the early church.
Not unlike the “hidden figures,” Black women engineers at NASA, Nijay Gupta contends that there are a number of women who played vital roles during the New Testament era but whose stories have been overlooked. They taught, led, and ministered in the church. For example, in Romans 16, ten of the twenty-six people commended by Paul are women. Gupta shares his own journey of moving from overlooking these stories to growing awareness and appreciation of them.
Before considering women in the early church, Gupta looks back. He begins with Deborah, a woman who led Israel during the time of the judges, perhaps the most exemplary of the lot. We know she has a husband because he is mentioned–once. He plays no part in Israel’s deliverance. She speaks prophetically, exhorting her military commander, Barak, and because of his reticence, prophesying that Sisera’s death would come at the hand of a woman.
Then Gupta turns to Genesis 1-3, portraying a unified species in two types with man needing a helper and woman helping (a word often used of God’s help). There are no roles of gender superiority or inferiority, but only role distortions in the fall. Following this, Gupta discusses the New Testament era. To be sure, patriarchy existed in the Roman world, but there were many women, often wealthy widows who exerted power, ran households and businesses, owned property under certain circumstances, and even rose to political office.
Likewise, women played a significant part in the ministry of Jesus, beginning with Mary, the mother of Jesus as caregiver, teacher, companion, disciple, mourner, and eventually church leader, mentioned in the Pentecost accounts. Women like Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna prepared the way for Jesus. Jesus, in turn, cared for women including the woman caught in adultery. He talked with and taught them. They ministered to him, supporting his itinerant ministry. These and others, including Mary Magdalene, may have been among the larger group of disciples, sent out at points to minister. Of course, Mary Magdalene is the first to give testimony to the risen Lord.
The second part of the book focuses on the early church. He begins with looking at the leadership of the early church and the language of overseer (episcopos), elder (presbyteros), and ministers or servants (diakonos). He notes women specifically designated as the latter and argues that women householders who headed house churches would have been considered episcopos and that no prohibition existed against women as elders and that Junia, also called an apostle, would certainly have fallen in this category. While most leaders would have been men, he notes there were a number of women who were exceptions. He discusses how women co-labored as ministry leaders with Paul.
Gupta then considers in consecutive chapters three of them: Phoebe, Prisca, and Junia. Phoebe is Paul’s trusted proxy in Rome, not only carrying the letter to the Romans but, as letter carriers did, reading and interpreting the intent of the letter. Prisca, almost always named first, is a strategic leader whose business enables her to set up house churches and to give instruction at crucial points, as with Apollos, correcting an incomplete message. Junia is also named apostolos. Gupta not only offers evidence that Junia was a female but holds her up as one so bold in testimony that she endured imprisonment.
The book concludes with a “what about?” section concerning the prohibition of women teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and the instructions to women to submit in the household code passages. Gupta concludes that the unusual language of the prohibition in 1 Timothy focuses on a special situation where a kind of “lockdown” was necessary that should not be universalized. He notes that the household codes were reflective of Greco-Roman rather than Hebrew culture, that for the church to contravene these would incite unnecessary opposition, and yet in how they are framed (for example, the preface to mutual submission), Paul gestures toward redeemed relationships reflecting mutual love, respect, and service rather than power/subservience defined relationships. We should no more universalize wifely submission than Paul’s instructions to slaves.
What distinguishes this work is that it clothes scholarship in storytelling. Gupta brings women like Phoebe, Prisca, and Junia to life, while offering biblical warrants for his account. This results in a highly readable work that serves as a good introduction to more technical studies of women in the Bible. It makes the case that while patriarchy, both in the New Testament and subsequent eras, meant that men dominated the narrative, women were not confined to being good housewives. Women did exercise significant influence both in Greco-Roman culture in many instances, and in spiritual leadership in the New Testament. They supported the work and were disciples of Jesus, and co-labored with Paul, who never speaks critically of, but only commends women by name.
This work is probably best-suited for the student of scripture with questions about women in the church but open to considering a biblically grounded argument for women leading along with men in the church. It is a book that will be a great encouragement to women. It really should be to all of us, particularly as we glimpse the courage of Junia, the missional heart of Prisca, and the confidence Paul places in Phoebe to interpret his most challenging letter.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.
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