In a patriarchal society, some women rise above the patriarch. A handful of women in the history of Christianity surpassed all societal expectations of Biblical times. Women in history had their own spheres of influence despite male dominance. To rise above a culture where their sexuality was not acknowledged was miraculous. A culture whose inheritance and marital laws favored men and ostracized women made it difficult for any female breakthrough. Despite the male dominance factor, the ascendancy of these six women was noteworthy enough to be Biblically recorded in the history of Christianity.
1. Miriam, the First Female Prophetess in the History of Christianity
Miriam is the first woman in the history of Christianity to be a prophetess. She is acknowledged both in the Talmud, which is the source from which the code of Jewish law is derived, and the Torah, which means “instructions” and is made up of the first five books of the Old Testament.
Her bravery shaped the course of history. She was instrumental in saving her brother Moses’ life. Moses went on to become the most important Jewish prophet, writing the first five books of the Old Testament and giving the Ten Commandments handwritten by God to the Israelites. Moses was born during a time when the current pharaoh had ordered the death of all newborn Hebrew boys in order to reduce the population of the Israelites.
Miriam helped her mother Jochebed hide Moses for three months [Hebrews 11:23]. When they could no longer hide him, Jochebed put Moses in a basket and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. When the pharaoh’s daughter discovered Moses, Miriam asked her if she could fetch a Hebrew woman to nurse the child.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
She went and fetched Jochebed. Miriam orchestrated for Moses to be nursed and raised by his own mother until it was time to be handed over to the pharaoh’s daughter. Moses became Israel’s deliverer, foreshadowing Jesus Christ’s deliverance.
Her status as a prophetess was first mentioned in Exodus 15:20:
“Then Miriam the prophetess; Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her with their tambourines and danced.“
She undoubtedly was a force to reckon with. She went down in history as someone who led all the women in Israel into acknowledging the unlimited power of the God of Israel.
2. Deborah, the Prophetess and Only Female Judge in the History of Christianity
Out of all the Biblical women in history, Deborah emerged as an exceptional military leader. Fearless and obedient to God, She led the Israelites to victory and out of bondage. She was a prophetess and the fourth judge of pre-monarchic Israel. The only other person referred to as both a prophet and a judge in the Bible is Samuel. That places Deborah amongst the great people mentioned in the Bible.
A powerful woman in history with a similar position to Deborah’s was queen Zenobia of Palmyra c.a240-274A.D. She was a powerful woman, like Deborah. An intellectual who was fluent in Aramaic, Egyptian, Greek, and Latin, she took over the reins after her husband’s death. Robert C.L. Holmes (2020) portrays her as a figure who promoted and encouraged intellectualism.
Traditional Jewish chronology tells us Deborah lived in the 12th century. Robin Gallaher (2021) estimates Deborah’s leadership as lasting 60 years; quite a long time to hold onto power. Her leadership was accepted and appreciated both by men of all ranks and women. A female ruler such as Deborah was groundbreaking at the time.
Deborah’s story is described by Andrew Curry 2008 as, “…a radical departure from the standard biblical themes which rarely place women in roles as warriors and generals.” She is an oddity whom the Israelites trusted to lead and judge.
After suffering brutal oppression under King Jabin of Canaan for 20 years, the Israelites’ prayers for freedom were heard by the Lord. Deborah summoned Barak, the Israel army commander, and urged him to do as the Lord had instructed him, summoning 10 000 soldiers to fight against king Jabin’s general Sisera.
Knowing that he would not be credited for the victory, Barak insisted that Deborah go with him to war. They won the battle and Deborah was credited for this success. Because of this, Deborah is one woman in history acclaimed as a Christian military leader. Throughout Christianity, she is an example of bravery, strength, and the epitome of female power.
Coming from a history that has been associated with the origins of female subordination [Katie Brown 2021], Deborah broke all barriers set against women. As they were linked to Eve’s sin that brought a curse on humanity, women had been regarded as holding secondary status. It takes extraordinary will, power, strength, and God’s favor to defy the odds.
3. Queen Esther, the Israeli Liberator
An example of beauty, humility, brains, and courage, Esther is portrayed as the Jewish queen of the Persian king Ahasuerus (Xerxes I). She used her powerful position for good. When her people were on the verge of being annihilated, Esther selflessly risked her life to save them.
The king’s chief minister Haman plotted the massacre of Jews. Because Mordecai refused to bow before him, he decided to destroy all the Jews. Mordecai refused to bow because according to Jewish law, Jews do not bow to anyone but God Yahweh [Exodus 20:5]. Haman did not know that Queen Esther was a Jew as she had not disclosed this information to anyone. Neither did anyone know that Mordecai, the man Haman despised, was Queen Esther’s uncle.
To save the Jews from destruction, Esther ordered them to fast for three days and three nights. No man or woman was allowed to enter the inner courts to approach the king without being summoned by him. Any attempt to do so resulted in the death penalty. On the third day of the fast, risking death, Esther went into the inner court and found favor in the eyes of the king who summoned her.
An audience with the king allowed Esther to persuade him to retract the order to annihilate the Jews made by Haman. The king loved her to the extent of giving her half of his kingdom. Esther only asked for her people to be spared. Letters allowing the Jews to defend themselves were sent to all provinces. Haman, the anti-Semitic chief minister, was then hanged and his estate was given to Esther.
In the history of Christianity, Esther is not only a queen but a liberator. She did not force her power on anyone. Her sacrificial love for her people makes her stand out as someone who used her power for good. Her impressive wisdom and ingenuity gave her a seat beside all other great women in history.
4. Lydia, the Successful Businesswoman
In a male-dominated Roman empire, Lydia had a successful business selling purple cloth. Purple fabric was associated with affluence, royalty, and authority [Remy Melina 2011]. Lydia must have been well connected for her to be successful in this trade. She is the first documented convert to Christianity in Europe. The Bible records that Lydia led her entire household to Christianity. She hosted Paul and his company in her home which made it easy for them to spread the gospel.
As a powerful woman in history, her significance in the modern-day situation cannot be ignored. She is undoubtedly an example of a successful female entrepreneur. Lydia’s leadership qualities became apparent when she became the leader and host of the first Philippi church [Acts 16:40].
She was very brave: she hosted Paul and his company after they had been persecuted and imprisoned in Philippi. Foreign men like them were not good to be seen with, and she put her own life at risk by welcoming them.
5. Phoebe, the Helper and Deaconess
Phoebe was a trailblazer, paving the way for female ministerial work, an inspiration to those who want to go against societal oppressive constraints. To those who believe that women cannot be ministers, her work is proof that God uses women in all church positions. Phoebe is portrayed as a leader, a deaconess in the church of Cenchreae.
Although mentioned only briefly in the New Testament [Romans 16:1-2], her impact is great. Paul describes her as a benefactor. In its early stages, Christianity needed financial support and depended on the generosity of believers. Phoebe was likely a financial contributor to the early Christian movement.
She carried, delivered, and read Paul’s letter to the Romans, something that was crucial for the formation of Christian Theology. For many Christians, including Augustine and Martin Luther, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is almost of equivalent importance as the Gospels [Phillip J. Long 2019].
Forming the basis of Christian Theology, a woman was tasked to deliver the letter to the Romans. Phoebe takes a chair as part of the women in history who stand out, taking up supposedly manly positions.
6. Priscilla, the Multi-Talented Businesswoman
Mentioned alongside her husband Aquila at least six times in the New Testament, Priscilla was a leather tent maker. In Corinth, she and her husband collaborated with Paul in the business of tent-making. Together with her husband, she accompanied Paul on his missionary work to Ephesus, spreading Christianity to the world.
The tradition of the husband and wife team reaches as far as the Italian Renaissance. Women’s roles went further than childbearing and rearing. They worked alongside their husbands in the field and in business. Their intellect was recognized in art and politics. Anisia Lacob (2021) explains how women used their intellect as a weapon. Women in history, religious or non-religious, have always found ways to rise above what was expected of them.
A businesswoman [Acts 18:1-3], a wife [Acts 18:2], an evangelist [Paul’s ministry co-worker Romans 16:3], and a church leader [1 Corinthians 16:19]; Priscilla was a multi-talented woman. Her Christianity was solid, as demonstrated by the fact that she and her husband corrected and instructed the gifted preacher Apollos about the gospel, particularly about baptism [Romans 18:26].
In the history of Christianity, Priscilla foreshadows a future where women are equal to men. The Bible depicts her as an equal to Aquila. Priscilla not only worked with her husband, but had a mastery for tent making, hospitality, and Theology alike (Hope Bolinger).
Women in the History of Christianity: In Conclusion
The idea of setting boundaries for the sexes has been challenged by exceptional women since the early Old Testament times. Defying all odds, these women in Christian history left permanent footprints. Their bravery demolished all doctrines that are against female leadership. God has always placed women in leadership positions. Women throughout the history of Christianity have proved their capabilities by excelling in fields that used to be reserved for men. These women’s lives were an appeal to equality. A woman’s place is not only in the house looking after the children, as women are capable of so much more; from leading wars like Deborah to being missionaries like Priscilla.