Biblical Views: Priscilla—An Extraordinary Early Christian Life

More than 40 years ago, my wife and I moved to Durham, England, for me to do my doctoral thesis on women in the New Testament. Usually doctoral theses get someone a degree and then are quickly buried in some back room of a library. In my case, the opposite happened, and it led to three books on women in the New Testament for Cambridge University Press, one of which became their best-selling scholarly New Testament monograph ever.1 A significant portion of those books was devoted to Paul’s female coworkers—Phoebe, Junia, Mary, and others, but clearly the most frequently mentioned one in the New Testament is Priscilla. We find her in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome working for and with Paul and with her husband, Aquila.

Why? Why such prominence?

Let’s start with her name: Priscilla, or the shortened form, Prisca. This is a famous Roman name, after which a catacomb in Rome is even named. I suspect the Priscilla in the New Testament had some connection with the Priscilla gens (“clan”), but we also know she was a Jewess who had a trade with her husband. They were expelled from Rome in the 40s C.E. presumably because of their witnessing about Jesus in Jewish circles and causing some turmoil (see Acts 18).

Let us also consider an oddity about Priscilla. In a male-dominated world, it is unusual to mention a wife before her husband. But that seems to have been the regular practice of Paul and of Luke (see Romans 16:3; Acts 18:26). Some scholars have suggested that this is because Priscilla was of higher social status than her husband, Aquila, but those sorts of considerations hardly seem likely to have motivated the verbiage of Paul, who said that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, and no male and female, for all are one in him” (Galatians 3:28, author’s translation). Nor does it seem likely to explain Acts 18:26, for Luke provides us with numerous cameos of women playing a variety of roles in early Christianity.

The likely reason is that Priscilla took the lead in her family in doing ministry work. In Acts 18:26, we are told she and Aquila took Apollos aside and instructed him more accurately in the way of the Lord. Now Apollos was not just any preacher. He was a notable early Christian evangelist as both Acts and Paul’s letters make clear (see 1 Corinthians 3; Acts 18). Priscilla was a teacher of Apollos, and some later readers of Acts didn’t like that notion. The Western text of Acts gets out a big eraser and eliminates Priscilla’s teaching role in that verse.2

According to Paul himself in Romans 16:3, Priscilla and Aquila are both considered his vital coworkers who “risked their lives for me, and not only I, but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.” This is because they had helped start and nurture many of those churches, as 1 Corinthians 16:19 makes clear, referring to the “church which meets in their house.” Priscilla was not a mere patroness or supporter of men in ministry. She was a coworker and minister alongside Paul, including teaching both men and women.

They had gotten to know each other apparently because they shared a trade—leather-working. Paul worked with them in Corinth to support himself (see Acts 18:1-4). Notice how we find this couple in Corinth with Paul, in Ephesus with Paul (1 Corinthians 16), and in Rome (Romans 16). They were missionaries—just like Paul—who worked both with and without Paul for the spreading of the good news about Jesus of Nazareth. Paul’s itinerant ministry mainly transpired during the 50s C.E., and, if you look closely, it is no coincidence that the places where he had the most success and stayed the longest were in Corinth (a year and a half, producing several letters back to that church) and in Ephesus (more than two years)—the cities in which Paul worked with Priscilla and Aquila over a long period of time.

In Romans 16, writing c. 57 C.E., Paul is hoping to come to Rome for the first time, the hometown of Priscilla and Aquila (see Acts 18:1-4), and he says that “all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.” They had returned to Rome after the exile edict of Claudius had expired when Claudius died in 54 C.E., and they were working away for the gospel there, preparing for the coming of the “apostle to the Gentiles.”

In my novel, Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian,3 I tell the story of the Jesus movement from 30 to 95 C.E., through the eyes of Priscilla, who seems to have been a Christian even before she met Paul. Christianity did not come to Rome in the first place because of Peter or Paul, but probably because pilgrims from Rome at Pentecost in Jerusalem carried the message back to the Eternal City (see Acts 2:10-11). Perhaps Priscilla had even been one of those present at Pentecost, for the woman for whom she is named, a Roman matron also named Priscilla, seems to have been a God-fearer who might have made such a pilgrimage with young Priscilla in tow.

On the Via Salaria in Rome, there is a catacomb called the Catacomb of Priscilla. It seems to have been named for the wife of a very high-status Roman—the consul Manius Acilius Galabrio. He became a Christian and was executed on the orders of Emperor Domitian in the late 80s or early 90s C.E. Perhaps it was this family from which the Priscilla of the New Testament came. Possibly she had started life as a slave, been freed by her master, and taken the name of her owner, Priscilla, as former slaves often did.

This is only a conjecture, but what is not a conjecture is that Priscilla played an important ministerial role in the Pauline outreach to Gentiles. Not just Paul, or even just the Gentile Churches of the first century, but all of early Christianity owes her a great debt. Her story needs to be known.

Biblical Views: Multicultural Moses

The story of the burning bush is one of the most familiar biblical narratives, but it contains often-overlooked nuances. Certain assumptions on the part of readers lead them to flatten the character of Moses and obscure the way in which his hybrid identity shapes both his reluctant response to God’s call and his eventual leadership.

Stereotypes about those who perform great acts and a cultural bias elevating natural endowments over hard-won wisdom fuel the perception that figures like Moses were simply born heroes, possessed of qualities that made their accomplishments inevitable. However, foregrounding the layers of Moses’s identity leads to a different perspective on Moses and what makes him stand out in a crowd. In this view, he emerges not as an exemplar of rugged individualism rising to his destined greatness, but as someone shaped by multiple communities, one who sometimes struggled to navigate those layers of belonging—and who grew into leadership by embracing that struggle rather than by overcoming it.

In the burning bush dialogue, God says to Moses, “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). This seemingly mundane introduction already emphasizes the complexity of Moses’s background: born to Hebrews but raised by an Egyptian princess.

When God addresses Moses from the burning bush, the reference to “your ancestors” is not obvious, especially since the modern preoccupation with genetic ancestry does not apply in Moses’s world. Rather than trying to account for precise biological relationships, the biblical context prioritizes the social function of ancestry as a way of mapping the individual’s place in society. As an adoptee and an émigré living with his wife’s family, Moses has ties to multiple social networks and may not know which ancestors are meant without further clarification.

Moses’s very presence at that bush results from a series of conflicts in which his navigation of his layered identity features prominently. The text reports that “Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brothers” (Exodus 2:11).

While brothers are typically those with whom we share daily life in the most intimate way, Moses had to go out to see his brothers and the conditions in which they live. This episode illustrates both the dynamics of his layered identity and the way in which they fuel his famous passion for justice: Royal Egyptian privilege leads him to expect justice, but Hebrew marginality leads him to witness injustice.

Moses intervenes on behalf of the Hebrew man but does not thereby endear himself to the Hebrew people. When he subsequently intervenes in a dispute among Hebrews, one of them responds: “Who made you a chief and a judge over us? Do you mean to murder me like you murdered the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14).

This rebuttal positions Moses as an outsider to Hebrews and Egyptians alike, a status confirmed by Pharaoh’s response to his action. Pharaoh seeks to kill Moses—either be-cause Moses has killed a man or because his expression of solidarity with the oppressed Hebrews has called into question his loyalty, revoking the privilege of his adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter and reinstating the death sentence he escaped at birth.

Fleeing Pharaoh, Moses arrives in Midian, where the locals immediately recognize him as … an Egyptian (Exodus 2:19). People see the distinctions that have social significance and fail to see those that do not. Thus, while the distinction Pharaoh makes between “his people” and the Children of Israel plays an outsize role in daily life in Egypt, it proves meaningless beyond that territory. Leaving Egypt takes Moses away from familiar ways of framing his identity and presents yet another set of social conventions to navigate.

In their encounter at the bush, God points out to Moses the holiness of the place where he is standing and instructs him on appropriate behavior. This could be read as God guiding Moses in relating to a lineage that he may not know how to embody. Like a person participating in an unfamiliar tradition, Moses needs to be briefed on the protocol.

Accordingly, when God announces the plan to free the Israelites from Egypt, Moses’s first response is to proclaim his own inadequacy. His response to God echoes the question posed to him in his unsuccessful mediation attempt. Just as one of the Hebrew combatants had questioned Moses’s legitimacy, now Moses questions it himself, asking, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring the Children of Israel out from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11).

Moses then points out that he is unprepared to answer even the most basic question about the Israelites’ God, whose name he doesn’t even know. The reader may recognize God’s response as a special moment of revelation, but to Moses it may be an embarrassing admission of ignorance. For all he knows, this information about God is common knowledge among the people with whom he shares an identity, but not a life experience. Moses struggles with racial impostor syndrome: a set of insecurities that arises among those whose bodies, families, or predilections don’t correspond to their normative sense of what it means to be a member of a group to which they putatively belong.

Furthermore, rather than resolving the ambiguities of Moses’s identity, God calls Moses to live against the grain of his experience and operate in a self that is not a natural fit. The very background that prompts Moses to question his fitness turns out to equip him in a special way for the leadership to which God calls him. Brokering the exodus is just the beginning. The larger task is to bring the people to a new land and a new way of life rooted in covenant with God.

Moses’s lack of cultural competence (his self-description in 4:10 encompasses more than just words) provides a good foundation for his role as lawgiver precisely because the typical patterns of thought and behavior of the people don’t come naturally to him. In his hybridity, he occupies a kind of cultural wilderness adjacent to many social territories, but not fully contained within any of them. Lacking “words” of his own, he is well positioned to bring the Children of Israel into the physical wilderness to receive new words from God, a point powerfully made when he gives voice to the Book of Deuteronomy, whose Hebrew name is literally “Words.”

Biblical Views: Paul, the Python Girl, and Human Trafficking

For some Bible readers, passages describing slavery sound like ancient history. The practice of kidnapping, selling, and exploiting human beings echo a bygone era. But, although no longer sanctioned by governments, slavery still exists. Today slaves are not identifiable by their skin color and ethnic origin. In this new era of slavery, the oppressed and exploited are all around us, only more hidden. We may pass them on the street and not even know who they are—much less that they are victims of human trafficking.

With much needed attention being given to human trafficking, I began to wonder how the Bible, although bound by time and culture, might speak to us on this subject. Since modern-day slavery disproportionately affects women and children, I decided to study stories of slave-girls in the Bible, in particular the slave-girl in Philippi (Acts 16:16–24).1 As I read the story, I sought to learn what might be relevant to the topic of human trafficking. The results are both enlightening and disturbing.

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) identifies the woman as a “slave-girl” (paidiske).2 This translation is correct, but the term used is somewhat ambiguous, since it can also mean “young woman” or “maiden” without any hint of slavery.3 But this is one of the sinister aspects of slavery language. At times it hides the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. The same term could also refer to prostitutes, since slaves were sometimes forced to sell their bodies so that the master could profit.4 The appearance of the term here suggests she was young, perhaps a teenager. There is no evidence she was working in the sex trade, but in antiquity this was always an option. Furthermore, we often think of slavery as one or more slaves owned by an individual or a family. But this young girl is owned by multiple people with the plural noun (kurioi), suggesting two or more masters. Having multiple masters acerbates her situation and makes her more vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse by any of her owners.

The NRSV attributes the girl’s fortune-telling to a “spirit of divination,” but the Greek says a “spirit of python” (πύθων). Python was the name of the legendry snake killed by Apollo at Delphi. Later at Delphi a priestess named “Pythia” would fall into an intoxicated trance and speak for Apollo.5 There seems to be a connection between the Delphi oracle and the slave-girl’s clairvoyance. Whatever the source of her unusual gift, it is clear that her owners exploited her abilities, which is the basis of all slavery: one group exploiting the bodies of others for personal gain without concern or thought for the victims.

We are never told the slave-girl’s name, only that she has a gift for fortune-telling. But this is not unusual, since enslaved human beings often lose the dignity of their name. In antiquity slaves were identified by their servile name and their inability to record their family name or tribe.6 Without a name to identify this girl, it’s possible she was better known by her unusual gift. Some may have called her “python-girl,” since what was important to clients was not her name, but the unusual gift attributed to a “spirit of python.” The slave-girl’s situation is not all that different from those trapped in the modern slave trade, exploited by what they have, quite often their bodies. No name, no personal identity, no dignity. Like the python-girl in Philippi, they are viewed as less than people: commodities to be bought, sold, and traded.

There is still more we can learn here, not only about the slave-girl, but about how we might perceive and react to the enslaved.

Although slavery affects women and children disproportionally, it does not do so equally. Prior to the story of the python-girl, we read the story of Lydia, a successful business-woman who sells purple cloth. Women were usually considered the property of husbands or male guardians. But Lydia doesn’t seem to be married or under guardianship, suggesting a substantial degree of personal freedom. Acts 16:15 says, “she and her household were baptized,” indicating she was probably wealthy. Her house was big enough to host Paul, Silas, Timothy, and other unnamed individuals, which probably included spaces for sleeping, food, and other comforts of life. It also suggests she probably owned slaves who helped run her household.

Observe the contrast. Lydia is a named, successful woman in a class altogether different from the python-girl. Slavery creates walls between us and the enslaved to the point that they become less important and less noticeable whether to the author of Acts or to us.

Notice too how we meet this slave-girl. She follows Paul and his companions to the “place of prayer” over the course of “many days,” declaring, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (Acts 16:16–18). It appears everyone, including Paul, ignored her multiple times, though she made it difficult to do so. But it is when Paul does respond and why he responds that is all the more troubling. In the narrative, there’s no hint that the python-girl was speaking untruthfully and needed to be silenced. Rather, Paul simply got annoyed and cast the spirit out of her (Acts 16:18). Nothing is said about leading her to the Christian faith or rescuing her from slavery, only that Paul had had enough and finally dealt with her.

How many are like Paul in this story, able to see a Lydia who represents one aspect of society that can do much for him, but blind to the less fortunate? We see them every day on the way to work, the grocery store, or—as with Paul—on the way to worship. Is the only reason we notice them because they annoy us or get in our way on the sidewalk? Do we question what brought them to this place in their lives? When we see prostitutes, do we assume they have freely chosen that lifestyle? Do we ever think that they, like the slave-girl, may be forced to do this?

This leads to a final thought: What happened to the python-girl? Did she join the church? Did her owners, realizing they could no longer make money one way, exploit her another way, perhaps sexually? Many commentators view Lydia, the python-girl, and the Philippian jailer as a three-part conversion story. But while Acts is clear that Lydia and the jailer became Christians, we are told nothing about the python-girl. What happened to her is a mystery. But perhaps the gaps in her story can invite us to consider what we might do should we encounter someone like her.

Biblical Views: As in the Days of Noah: The Apocalyptic World of 1 Peter

One of the most perplexing passages in the New Testament occurs in 1 Peter 3:19. This verse describes how Christ “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” Nearly every part of this verse has been debated by scholars. However, the keys to unlocking this mysterious passage may lie in the next verse in which the author describes “the days of Noah, during the building of the ark.” What does the story of the flood have to do with a proclamation to “spirits in prison”?

The first step begins with recognizing that many of the strange elements in this passage, such as the references to spirits in prison and an otherworldly journey, are telltale clues pointing in the direction of apocalyptic literature, a genre of Jewish and early Christian writings that reveals hidden knowledge of heavenly realities. After the New Testament Book of Revelation, the most famous apocalypse is a collection of writings known as 1 Enoch, which tells the remarkable adventures of Enoch, a man who walked with God (Genesis 5:22) and toured the heavenly realms. First Enoch, or its traditions, seems to have influenced 1 Peter 3:18–20, in which Christ, like Enoch, makes an other-worldly journey and delivers a message to heavenly beings. Interestingly, only one other person in Scripture besides Enoch is described as walking with God: Noah (Genesis 6:9).

These types of intriguing statements prompted later interpreters to ask questions and write texts to fill in the gaps. Indeed, these Biblical facts work as pegs upon which later interpreters hung expansive narratives, not unlike fan fiction today, in which enthusiasts write new stories for their favorite literary characters. Modern scholars are fortunate that many of these writings have survived and, in the case of 1 Peter, shed vital light on otherwise obscure references. Early Jewish and Christian literature, including apocalyptic texts, therefore provides a window into the interpretive world of 1 Peter.

Some interpretive trajectories are already visible in Scripture. For example, in Ezekiel 7 and Ezekiel 14, Noah’s flood becomes a model for future judgment. This motif continues in 1 Enoch and in the Book of Jubilees. The end will be patterned on the beginning. Just as the world was destroyed in the days of Noah, so will it be destroyed again at the end. These interpretive traditions permeated the air of the New Testament authors’ world, influencing their understanding of how Biblical texts ought to be interpreted. The author of 1 Peter used these traditions to draw a comparison between the events of Noah’s lifetime and the lives of early Christians.

Genesis states that Noah’s world was entrenched in evil (Genesis 6:5). Later interpreters extrapolated the specifics of what made that generation so depraved. That generation was indicted for injustice, idolatry, bloodshed, illicit sexual unions, and the acquisition of forbidden knowledge, to name a few (e.g., 1 Enoch 6.1–7.6; Jubilees 7.20–25). Philo, a Jewish philosopher of the first century C.E., wrote that the flood generation “left nothing undone which could lead to a guilty and accursed life” (On Abraham 40). With this in mind, the vice list in 1 Peter 4:3–4 takes on new meaning; many of the sins in this list overlap with the sins of the flood generation. The wickedness of the world correlates the flood generation with the contemporaries of early Christians. The world was exceedingly wicked then, and now the world is wicked again, and “the end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7).

Second Temple Jewish texts are replete with references to Noah’s righteousness, which was magnified by the degenerate state of the world around him. Interestingly, Second Temple Jewish and early Christian literature depicts Noah as a herald of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5; Hebrews 11:7; First Epistle of Clement 7.6). Genesis says nothing about this, but later texts elaborate that Noah urged his contemporaries to repent, sometimes endangering his family in the process (e.g., Josephus, Antiquities 1.74). The Sibylline Oracles even record two of Noah’s orations to his countrymen. For his efforts, Noah was derided and mocked.

This sequence of witness and derision would have resonated deeply with the Christian addressees of 1 Peter, who were also facing social prejudice and marginalization for their faith. Just as Noah and his family maintained their integrity by living an upright life, so too were Christians called to a life of exemplary character in the face of opposition.

The author of 1 Peter used contemporary traditions of Noah and the flood to weave together a sophisticated pattern of correspondences.1 Just as the evil of the former generation was purged with the flood, a judgment of another kind is imminent. Noah upheld his righteousness, and Christians are called to do likewise. Just as Noah and his family were saved through water, so are Christians saved through the water of baptism (1 Peter 3:21). An apocryphal aphorism, often attributed to Mark Twain, states, “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” The author of 1 Peter would certainly agree.

Biblical Views: Safeguarding Abraham

After Abraham enters Canaan in Genesis 12, God informs him, “To your offspring I will give this land” (12:7). Shockingly, just one chapter later, Abraham offers to share this very land with his nephew Lot!

One of the hallmarks of ancient Biblical interpretation was the safeguarding of Biblical heroes. At times, interpreters would go to great lengths to ensure that the righteousness of the hero is no longer in question. One finds, for example, this particular practice evident in the interpretation of Abraham’s offer.

In Genesis 13:7–9 we learn of a quarrel between Abraham’s and Lot’s herders and Abraham’s call for a peaceful resolution to the conflict: separation between him and Lot. In the proposal, Abraham tells Lot that they need to separate and offers to share the land with his nephew. Lot looks around, we are told, sees the “well-watered” Jordan plain (possibly north of the Dead Sea), and chooses it “for himself,” and thus the family members “separated from each other” (Genesis 13:10–11).a

What makes the offer problematic is that Lot is not part of God’s promise to Abraham. This is further complicated by the statement in Deuteronomy 23:3 prohibiting Lot’s descendants (the Ammonites and Moabites) from entering the assembly of the Lord (cf. Nehemiah 13:1).

It seems that ancient interpreters were keenly aware of the dilemma. Some early Biblical retellings, such as Jubilees (written c. 150 B.C.E.) and Genesis Apocryphon (written in the second or first century B.C.E.), totally remove both Abraham’s offer and the call for separation and subtly shift the focus of the account from Abraham’s offer to Lot’s choice to separate from Abraham and dwell in Sodom. Others made the shift far more explicit and, in turn, transform Lot from an ambiguous character to a full-fledged wicked individual.

I want to highlight two of the phrases which seem to have provided the necessary space interpreters needed to step in and shift the focus to Lot. The first deals with Lot’s “look” and the second with his “choice.” Genesis 13:10 states that “Lot looked about him.” One could more literally translate this as “And Lot lifted his eyes.” The language of “lifting the eyes” is a common phrase in Genesis for examining one’s surroundings, often with reference to people. It is used when Abraham sees the ram (Genesis 22:13), when Isaac and Rebecca see one another (Genesis 24:63–4), when Jacob sees Esau (Genesis 33:1), and when Joseph sees Benjamin (Genesis 43:29). The phrase is also used of Potiphar’s wife when she “lifted her eyes” to Joseph (Genesis 39:7). The range of usage for this particular phrase is quite broad, being used in contexts of both general observation and more nuanced “looking.”

In Genesis 13:11, we are told that “Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan.” Does the fact that Lot “chose for himself” imply a selfish motive on his part? In 1 Samuel 13:2, Saul “chose for himself” 3,000 Israelite soldiers, and, in 1 Samuel 17:40, David “chose for himself” five stones prior to his encounter with Goliath. The phrase itself, therefore, seems to illustrate the fact that he made a reasoned decision. Both of these phrases are, therefore, quite neutral.

With regard to Lot, however, there is no neutrality for many ancient interpreters. The Early Church Father Chrysostom (c. 349–407 C.E.), for example, comments that Lot’s choice of the plain indicates his selfishness and greed: “[O]n account of his youth and being a prey to waxing greed he usurped what he thought to be the best parts and made his choice on that basis.”1

For others, Lot’s look goes beyond greed and becomes akin to that of Potiphar’s wife. One reads in the Talmud, “The whole of the following verse indicates [Lot’s] lustful character. ‘And Lot lifted up’ is paralleled by, ‘And his master’s wife lifted up her eyes upon.’?”2 Pesikta Rabbati follows the same tradition but elaborates further, “And the verse goes on to say of Lot that he beheld all the round plain of the Jordan (Gen. 13:10), its roundness conveying a suggestion to him ‘of a whorish woman, of rounded buttocks’ (Proverbs 6:26).”3 Likewise, one reads in Midrash Tanḥuma (Yelammedenu) that Lot “chose Sodom so that he might behave as they did.”4 Some interpreters have noted that it did not bother Lot that Sodom was the home of wicked sinners (though the text provides no indication that he, or Abraham, knew of the moral well-being of its inhabitants). For the above ancient readers, Lot actually wanted to take part in their wickedness.

Genesis 13 states Abraham’s desire for him and Lot to separate but says nothing about Lot’s desire to separate. Some modern readers have noted that Lot’s lack of a counterproposal or deferment to Abraham might indicate his cunning manipulation. Maybe, however, Lot’s response demonstrates his submission to his uncle’s wishes. Perhaps he wants to journey a safe distance from Abraham’s herds to avoid further strife. Or perhaps Lot really has no interest in Abraham or the God that he serves. As we read in Genesis Rabbah, “He betook himself from the Ancient (ḳadmon) of the world, saying, I want neither Abraham nor his God.”5

The choice to focus on Lot’s unrighteousness also provides a means to exalt Abraham. He is the selfless antithesis to his selfish nephew. The Early Church Father Ambrose (c. 339–397 C.E.), for example, comments, “[L]ike Abraham, who offered the choice humbly, and like Lot, who claimed the choice presumptuously—virtue abases itself, but wickedness extols itself.”6

As I have briefly discussed above, Abraham’s offer of land appears to have proven problematic for ancient interpreters. The solution was to shift the focus of the narrative by making Lot into a selfish, lustful, God-rejecting character and highlighting Abraham’s generosity, which, in the end, provides further proof of Abraham’s righteousness. Problem solved!

Biblical Views: Did Abraham Ride a Camel?

Many children (and adults) know the stories in Genesis involving Abraham and his descendants owning and riding camels. Abraham’s servant drove 10 camels to upper Mesopotamia and took great pains to water them there (Genesis 24:10–11). Even Rachel, wife of Jacob, rode a camel while in Upper Mesopotamia (Genesis 31:34). The events in these accounts have been traditionally dated c. 2000–1600 B.C.E.

However, Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef in a recent study in the Israeli journal Tel Aviv claim that the camel was not domesticated in the southern Levant (i.e., Israel) until the late 10th century B.C.E.1 While Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef do not discuss the Bible, Mairav Zonszein concluded in a 2014 piece for National Geographic News that the accounts in Genesis concerning camels are anachronistic. The camel had not yet been domesticated.

This, of course, is not a new idea. More than 70 years ago, William Foxwell Albright, the greatest Biblical scholar of the 20th century, proclaimed on many occasions that the narratives concerning camels in the period of Abraham were a blatant anachronism, as they were not domesticated until centuries later. Albright’s strong statements have, over the years, become accepted dogma and have rarely been critiqued.

While I find no fault with the findings of Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef, it is not the whole story. A close inspection of Genesis 11–12 leads to the conclusion that Abraham was not from Israel, but Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and inland Syria). Scholars studying this area know of textual, artistic, and archaeological evidence for camels long before the supposed time of Abraham and his family. Moreover, the sporadic accounts in Genesis concerning camels usually occur outside Israel in northern Mesopotamia (and occasionally when they travel to Egypt), precisely where much of our external evidence comes from.

As early as the fourth millennium B.C.E., a Bactrian (two-humped) camel is depicted on a sherd from Tepe Sialk in eastern Iran. Furthermore, we find additional archaeological evidence of camels at Shahr-i Sokhta, a Bronze Age settlement in southeastern Iran: There skeletal remains of camels (probably Bactrian) have been found dating to the mid-third millennium B.C.E. These pieces of information simply provide evidence that the Bactrian camel, most likely indigenous to Central Asia, had expanded into Iran at this time. It is impossible, however, to say to what extent the camel had been domesticated by this period.

Lexical evidence for the camel (; roughly translated in Sumerian as “humped quadruped that goes by the road [i.e., caravan]”) exists by the Sumerian Early Dynastic Period (c. 2400 B.C.E.) in a list of animals from the Sumerian city of Shuruppak. The same term is found in the 18th-century B.C.E. lexical series Urra=hubullu (a group of Old Babylonian texts roughly equivalent to our concept of a bilingual dictionary), along with two other terms that are translated into Akkadian as ibilu (generic word for camel).2 Once again, the evidence is not conclusive as to the type of camel or whether it was fully domesticated.

The are found in a Sumerian love song from Nippur, also dated to the 18th century B.C.E. (from an Old Babylonian copy of a third millennium B.C.E. original), which states “the milk of the camel is sweet.”3 Though in a mythical context, myths often depict normal social reality. There is nothing mythical (or even magical) about drinking camel’s milk. Having walked in many surveys through camel herds in Syria along the Middle Euphrates River, I believe that this text is describing a domesticated camel; who would want to milk a “wild camel”? At the very least, the Bactrian camel was being used for dairy needs at this time.

A mid-third-millennium B.C.E. plaque from the Sumerian city of Eshnunna along the Diyala River in Iraq depicts a rider on a Dromedary camel.4 A Sumerian Ur III (c. 2100–2000 B.C.E.) text from Puzrish-Dagan records deliveries of an animal that Steinkeller posits is a Bactrian camel.5 These deliveries (perhaps gifts for King Shulgi of Ur) came from Anshan, a major state in southwestern Iran.

A grain distribution list concerning a royal journey from 17th-century Alalakh, a Mesopotamian town along the Orontes River in present-day Turkey (not far from Harran, where Abram relocated), lists camels among other domesticated animals requiring food resources.6 Moreover, the late Edith Porada of Columbia University found a depiction of a two-humped (Bactrian) camel with two riders on a cylinder seal she dates to about the 18th century B.C.E.. The seal, presently in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland, looks much like seals found at the aforementioned city of Alalakh of about the same period.7

The evidence for camels in Egypt is not as compelling, but it does exist. The Bible mentions Abraham bringing camels to Egypt; they were certainly not indigenous to the area (Genesis 12:14–16). It is probable that the camels mentioned in Genesis are the Bactrian variety. The fact that they are mentioned in Mesopotamian lexical lists and ration reports is interesting; it was a beast of burden for travel and probably not used extensively in urban environments.

Though not exhaustive, these examples provide evidence that at the very least, the Bactrian camel was already known and domesticated in Mesopotamia by the time of Abraham. The relatively poor representation of camels in these texts does not imply their relative rarity; they may have been prestigious. So the Biblical writers may have been highlighting Abraham’s great wealth by mentioning camels. I think this evidence is more than enough to discount the idea that the Genesis source superimposed camels in the patriarchal narratives. The writer of Genesis wrote about camels anecdotally; they add little to the narrative, except for implying Abraham’s wealth.

In fact, anecdotal statements are the stuff of history; they provide information that betrays bits of social and cultural information that are essential for understanding the context of the writing and perhaps the time period that is written about.

So did Abraham ride a camel? Not only did he likely ride a camel, perhaps he drank from one, too!

Biblical Views: Motherhood and the Early Christian Community

Should all women become mothers? In today’s society, many assume that they should—either out of their own desires or because of social norms (or a combination thereof). Ancient Romans would certainly agree, as does 1 Timothy 2:15, which reads, “Yet, she [woman] will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”

But, for the early Christian Church, this was not the whole picture of motherhood, as demonstrated by Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7:26, 1 Corinthians 7:31: “I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. … For the present form of the world is passing away.” Paul’s response has traditionally been interpreted as suggesting that if Jesus were returning soon, why should anyone marry and have children? Raising children requires a lot of time and effort, which could be better spent working solely on behalf of the kingdom of God rather than building up individual kingdoms—or households. This view is also supported by the apocryphal Christian work the Acts of Thecla: “Blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they will be well-pleasing to God, and they will not lose the reward of their chastity” (3.6).

The question of motherhood among early Christians was one with huge implications, not just for the Christian women (and men) whose lives were immediately affected, but also for Christianity in the larger Roman world. Rejecting the “blessedness” of motherhood for the kingdom come was threatening to an empire that prided itself on establishing peace for the whole world (the Pax Romana). The Romans certainly weren’t looking for another kingdom to replace their own, and, for their empire to survive and thrive, it needed children. Thus, in the Acts of Thecla when the Roman citizen and new Christian Thecla disavows marriage—and, therefore, motherhood—to follow Christ, she is violently persecuted, twice.

In the Roman world, good girls became mothers. Of course, to be able to wed and become a “woman” (the Greek word gyne means both “woman” and “wife”), one needed to be free and of enough means. Becoming a mother, bearing living children (ideally, sons) for her husband and for the stability of his household was essential to being a good wife. In fact, many ancient philosophers and medical authors believed that motherhood was a woman’s sole purpose in creation.

Among the blunter ancient commentators was the second-century physician, Galen, who wrote: “Indeed, you ought not to think that our Creator would make half of the whole race imperfect and, as it were, mutilated, unless there was to be some great advantage in such a mutilation” (Usefulness of Parts 1.300). Throughout the Roman world, it was assumed that men were more perfect than women. Rather than debating this opinion, Galen explains it by tying female worth to motherhood. When women submit fully to their husbands, they become useful by conceiving, gestating, birthing, and (ideally) nursing children. This was as close as they could come to being more perfect, that is, more like men.

If women and girls suddenly stopped becoming mothers, the purpose for women and, more important, the means for human propagation (a sort of “immortality” for humankind) disappear! That, as Thecla well knew, is certainly threatening.

However, looking back at the quotations above, New Testament Christians do not seem to agree about the importance of motherhood. While 1 Timothy restates the Roman ideal, baptizing it in Christian language, 1 Corinthians and some of Jesus’s sayings in the Gospels openly push against it.

How are we to understand these conflicting opinions? First, we need to recognize that New Testament writings all have contexts. And these contexts are quite different from our own and even from each other, as early Christian communities each lived in a unique environment and had different backgrounds. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes to the church that he had founded at Corinth in Greece, while in 1 Timothy he addresses a later community, possibly at Ephesus, the capital city of the Roman province of Asia. Finally, the Acts of Thecla testifies to a Christian community beyond the Bible with a story about a saint of the early Church.

We should not expect these various writings to say the same things any more than we would expect one another to speak the same words or hold the same views at all times.

Yet, even in this mix of scriptural perspectives, there is agreement, even if not on the issue of motherhood. The consensus among early Christians is on the primary importance of God’s kingdom—his “household”—over human kingdoms and households, including imperial Rome. All of the above writings, for example, reflect Jesus’s teaching captured in Luke 11:27–28. There, a woman from the crowd cries to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed,” to which he replies, “Blessed, rather, are the ones who hear the word of God and keep it.” In other words, blessed are those—all of those—who submit to God. For some, that might mean becoming parents. For others, like Paul and Thecla, that might not.

Thecla’s reported choice came with a much higher cost because of the cultural emphasis on motherhood in the Roman world. She was viewed as a serious threat to a society that expected women to bear children. Yet, ultimately, her devotion to a countercultural conviction inspired many and helped challenge the attitude of an empire.

Biblical Views: Where Are the Scribes in the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The caves near Khirbet Qumran revealed almost a thousand Dead Sea Scrolls as well as large numbers of tabs for fastening scrolls. At least four inkwells were discovered in the nearby settlement of Qumran. Altogether we have access to material evidence for scribal activity more ample than anywhere else in the ancient world. While it has become clear that not all the scrolls were composed or copied in the vicinity of Qumran, some scribal activity was clearly taking place there—something that has recently been confirmed by materials science.

In light of this, it is all the more striking to find very few references to scribes in the non-Biblical Dead Sea Scrolls and none at all in the amply preserved accounts of the sectarian community’s affairs. When we do read about scribes, they are without exception figures of the past. The term occurs most frequently in the non-Biblical Aramaic scrolls often to identify individuals of the past who distinguished themselves in this role. In the Aramaic Levi Document, Levi depicts his brother Joseph as a teacher of wisdom and scribal crafts before instructing his own sons to pass this heritage to their children. Inspired by the intriguing account in Genesis 5:21–24, the portrayal of the heavenly traveler and apocalyptic seer Enoch in the ancient Jewish collection known as 1 Enoch also refers to his role as a writer and skilled, righteous scribe. The second century B.C.E. Book of Jubilees even credits Enoch with being the first among men to learn to write. Most scholars agree that while the Aramaic material unearthed at Qumran was an exceedingly influential part of the community’s literary heritage, it is unlikely that it was composed by the group who deposited the scrolls at and near Qumran.

While preserved in a Hebrew text rather than in Aramaic, the portrayal of David in the Qumran Psalms Scrolls is reminiscent of this model. David’s elevated status is the subject of “David’s Compositions,” a previously unknown Hebrew prose text that is part of the large Qumran Psalms Scroll from Cave 11. A luminous David is depicted as a wise and blameless scribe who shone like the light of the sun and was endowed with gifts of prophecy. David is portrayed as having achieved a level of elevation that the group called “the wise” (maskilim)—known from the closing chapters of the Book of Daniel—are promised in the afterlife. While David had undoubtedly passed away by the time this extraordinary endorsement of his achievements was composed, this new text speaks of his lifetime’s work rather than promising posthumous bliss.

It is clear that the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect a great deal of scribal activity that took place at the site of Qumran and elsewhere. Here, I will discuss several clues about the kinds of people who were engaged with such literary tasks.

The closest we come to an administrative office akin to a bookkeeper in the scrolls is the Overseer (Mebaqqer), who records misdemeanors reported to him, according to the Damascus Document—a text found in the form of two medieval codices in the Cairo Genizah and subsequently attested in ancient fragments from Qumran. One such list has been preserved at Qumran; in it, for instance, a certain Yohanan is in trouble for being intemperate and conceited. The overseer was also responsible for keeping a log of members’ possessions and the collection of monthly donations for those in need. The Community Rule refers to written registers of community members who are enrolled in writing by rank. The penal code in the same text also spells out sanctions against anyone who speaks in anger against one of the priests written down in the book.

The scrolls also clearly show that people in antiquity were able to multitask. An impressive multitasker is the Maskil, often rendered in English as “the sage.” Most references to the figure of the Maskil refer to a particular office-holder. We get some rare glimpses of some of his (less likely her) job description as a spiritual leader in the Community Rule, where he is tasked with teaching the children of light about the children of humanity with regard to all the varieties of their spirits. Several compositions employ Maskil in headings, suggesting an affiliation of this office with the final editing or performance of compositions. Such headings occur in liturgical scrolls such as the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Rule of Blessings, and in the apotropaic Songs of the Maskil. The latter composition describes his duties as causing fright in demons and other harmful spirits and creatures by enunciating God’s splendid glory. The text “The Words of the Maskil to All Sons of Dawn” continues—after the unencrypted title—in cryptic script admonishing those addressed to reflect on God’s past deeds for the benefit of gaining insights into the end time. The profile of the Maskil resembles and surpasses that of David in the scrolls, something perhaps underestimated because of the exceedingly evocative language with which David’s achievements are narrated and because the full picture of the Maskil has only come to light in piecemeal fashion with the full publication of the scrolls. The Qumran Psalms Scroll also credits David with having composed 4,050 psalms and songs, including four songs over the stricken, a reference to demonic possession. The term recurs in the Songs of the Maskil, the composition mentioned above that tasks the Maskil with keeping demonic forces at bay. This cumulative evidence paints a picture of the Maskil as a present-day David in the scrolls. The skillset of this enlightened figure and those responsible for the literature from Qumran reflects a broad spectrum of knowledge and scholarship.

What conclusions can be drawn from this? We get a sense that the skill of writing is admired as something remarkable among notable figures from generations past and perhaps taken for granted in the present. Though I would add that it is taken for granted for notable and leading figures, I have suggested recently that the majority of members of the movement based at Qumran were probably illiterate and took care of a myriad of relentless tasks that went undocumented in the daily life of even the most studious communities.1 Those who transmitted the extensive literature unearthed at Qumran may not have drawn attention to their scribal efforts. However, by composing and copying their own literature to the same standards as works of the past—and by modeling on David leading figures like the Maskil—they send subtle yet powerful signals of their own place, and that of the movement to which they belonged, in the long line of worthies of the past.

Biblical Views: Neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male and Female

How would we live together in an ideal society? In his letters, the apostle Paul formulated something of an answer to this question. Paul expected an imminent cosmic change, a new creation ushered in by the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Prominent in his vision of this new creation was the fact that all the nations of the world would worship the one true God, together with Israel. Consequently, the apostle called upon gentiles to abandon their gods, to accept God’s Messiah, and to live “in Christ,” in expectation of what was about to happen. “In Christ,” Paul writes, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor male and female” (Galatians 3:28).

This verse seems to strike an almost modern note about human equality. Contemporary interpreters have updated Paul’s statement and added pairs to the three original ones: “neither gay nor straight,” “neither healthy nor disabled,” and “neither black nor white.” While these creative rewritings make Paul’s statement speak to new situations, they also highlight something about the original: These three pairs must have been as relevant in the first century, as the additional categories are today.

So why does Paul put exactly these categories together? The three pairs that Paul includes in this verse all played a role in first-century conceptions of what an ideal world would look like. When imagining ideal or utopian communities, Paul’s contemporaries picture different peoples living together in one homogeneous group under one law—without ethnic distinction. They also imagine societies where people are not divided into households and families, but all live as “brothers,” as equals. Such communities could reject property, slavery, and marriage, since in the minds of first-century philosophers, doing away with possessions, slaves, and wives meant removing the major causes of social conflict. When Paul sums up the community of those who live “in Christ,” he uses categories that reflect such first-century ideals.

This ideal of unity that Paul shared with his contemporaries was influenced by cosmopolitanism, a popular philosophical idea in the early Roman Empire. Cosmopolitanism’s main component was the conviction that all people are first and foremost citizens of the cosmos, rather than of their local communities. This shared cosmic origin was thought to connect all people with each other and with the divine, and it suggested that all people could live in a unified society, rather than divided into different ethnic and geographic communities. Cosmopolitanism had implications not only for contemporary ideas about ethnic difference, but also for ideas about the positions of slave and free and about marriage and the relationship between husband and wife. It therefore affected all three of the pairs mentioned by Paul. We can see how this works if we take a closer look at each of the pairs.

Like other first-century Jews, Paul expected that in the end time, people from the nations would turn to the God of Israel. In Paul’s letters, this expectation is expressed specifically in terms that have a cosmopolitan ring to them, in that they appeal to this ideal of ethnic unity. When he writes that both Jews and non-Jews can be sons of Abraham together (Romans 4:9–12), or that there is no difference between Jew and gentile (Romans 10:12), Paul denies the relevance of ethnic distinctions, as was characteristic of cosmopolitanism. In these statements, the cosmopolitan mood of the time shines through and takes on a clearly Jewish color.

Attitudes toward slaves were also influenced by the cosmopolitan notion that all people are fundamentally connected. Seen in a cosmopolitan light, slavery constituted a challenge to the brotherhood of all human beings. Even though conventional society was thought to require slavery, and cosmopolitan thought did not challenge this, it could imagine a utopian society as one without slaves, where people either shared tasks equally or simply had no need of labor. Paul’s statements about slaves and free people draw on such ideals, most clearly when he writes that there is “neither slave nor free.”

When it comes to the third pair, male-female, things get a little more complicated. Although it may seem obvious to contemporary readers that this pair refers to gender difference, or gender equality, from an ancient perspective it more likely points to the pairing off of men and women in marriage and procreation.

The distinctive formulation of the third pair, “male and female,” suggests a citation from Genesis 1:27. This passage describes the creation of male and female and God’s instruction to them to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the world. It is exactly this world—with its focus of men and women, and on procreation—that Paul expects to end. Marriage will end along with it, as he writes in the well-known passage about living “as if not.” Here Paul instructs men who have wives to live as if they do not have wives “because the forms of this world are passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29–31). Paul’s own advice—highly unusual at the time—that both men and women should not marry if they could avoid it, confirms how he thought about the practice of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:7–9, 1 Corinthians 32–40).

The cosmopolitan worldview understood marriage as a fundamental tie that formed the primary connection between a man and the rest of humanity. From that first and most intimate bond, all other social relationships extended. Given its important role in ensuring legitimate offspring, the handing down of property, and the continuation of society, it is no wonder that the breakdown of the current world—and the arrival of a new and ideal creation—was thought to encompass the end of marriage.

Seen in the light of first-century cosmopolitan ideals, Paul’s declaration of unity thus takes on a distinctly ancient form. It does not proclaim the equality of all people, regardless of their social positions, as is sometimes assumed by readers today. Rather, it envisages a social ideal of harmony and connection, where those factors in society that create division and conflict have been removed.

Paul’s conviction that he was called at this crucial moment to participate in God’s ultimate plan for the world caused him to imagine what a new and ideal creation would be like and how people would live in such a new creation. His summary of this ideal as “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor male and female” resonated with the concerns expressed by his contemporaries.

Biblical Views: The Turn of the Christian Era: The Tale of Dionysius Exiguus

We are all familiar with the terms B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini—in the year of our Lord) as a way of distinguishing the eras before and after the coming of Jesus Christ. We may also be familiar with the non-Christian terminology of B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (the Common Era). What those two ways of referring to the same thing share in common is that they presume the same calendar—by which I mean they presume the same way of dating Jesus’ birth.

But as any New Testament scholar will tell you, this presumption doesn’t stand on very solid ground because we know something about the timing of the death of Herod of Great, and clearly Jesus had to be born before Herod died, or those Christmas stories in Matthew 1-2 are wide of the mark. Scholars will tell you, based on evidence from Josephus and other contemporary sources, that Herod died somewhere around 4 B.C. It may have been a little before then, or it may have been a little after then, but in any case, it was well before what we now call “the beginning of the Christian era.” This in turn means that Jesus was born in B.C., which of course sounds very odd. How could Jesus be born “Before Christ,” inquiring minds want to know. As it happens, it’s all because of a monk known as Dionysius Exiguus (the latter Latin word meaning “the humble”).

Dionysius was born in Scythia Minor, which means somewhere in Romania or Bulgaria, and he lived from about 470 to 544 A.D. He was a learned monk who moved to Rome and became well known for translating many ecclesiastical canons from Greek into Latin, including the famous decrees from the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. Ironically, he also wrote a treatise on elementary mathematics. I say ironically because what he is most famous for is the “Anno Domini” calculations that were used to number the years of both the Gregorian and the adjusted Julian calendars. The crucial point is that he dated the current consulship of Probius Junior as 525 years after “the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” To be honest, we have no idea how he made this calculation, but it was a momentous one. It became the basis for our modern calendar separating B.C. or B.C.E. from A.D. or C.E. Interestingly, there may have been a theological reason for Dionysius arguing for this computation; namely he wanted to silence those who were suggesting that Jesus would return exactly 500 years after the birth of Jesus. Wrong, said Dionysius, that ship has already sailed.

It was not, however, until the famous Venerable Bede of Durham, England, adopted Dionysius’s “Anno Domini” calculations to date the events in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, that the calendar of Dionysius became the standard one that we follow even until today.

One final note: Dionysius did not calculate for a 0 year between B.C. and A.D., and so every century in our era begins with the year 1. For instance, the 21st century did not begin with the year 2000 but rather with the year 2001. What this shows is that moderns can become just as confused as ancients when it comes to reckoning times and eras. We shouldn’t be too hard on Dionysius. You’re only as good as your sources of information, and, in any case, what really matters for Christians at Christmas is not so much when Jesus came but that he came and changed the world.