book review

Twelve Apostolic Women
(St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2004, 97 pages)

By: Joanne Turpin
Review By: Rita Houlihan

What a gift to read Twelve Apostolic Women.  As a novice explorer of the history of the earliest followers of Jesus, I have learned about some of these women, but not all of them and not in this way.  Ms. Turpin applies her extensive knowledge of scripture, biblical scholarship, and recent archeological findings to give us a wonderful introduction, eleven essays, prayer poems and faith sharing topics. (Mary and Martha of Bethany are covered in one essay which is how you get twelve women in eleven essays).

The introduction outlines Ms. Turpin’s sources in general terms using New Testament passages as the primary source. She also cites for context non-biblical sources of information, such as early Christian writings, the findings of biblical scholars and archeologists, and traditions which are generally accepted as fact-based.  Don't miss the insightful quotes in side panels. Their references to recent scholarship lead you to additional interesting books.

The details about some of the women were so new to me—such as Peter’s wife; Joanna, wife of Chuza; Salome, mother of James and John; and Tabitha of Joppa—that I read their stories a few times first to get the facts and then again to appreciate the depth of their commitment and the reality of what they did.  Many of them broke through or ignored the 1st century Mediterranean’s ‘patriarchal ceiling’ to fully live their apostolic roles. This doesn’t appear to be a ‘feminist’ movement, if there was such a thing in A.D. 30-100; it was simply people deeply touched by and acting on Jesus’ command to love one another and to spread the good news of salvation through his Resurrection.

Ms. Turpin’s clear language and historical references paint wonderful pictures of the towns such as Capernaum in Galilee, Joppa, the road to Emmaus and Philippi, Paul’s first stop in Europe.  She invites you into the women’s homes and into the context of the laws and customs they dealt with and in some cases bent.  It was like being introduced to  long lost ancestral grandmothers and aunts who can now be wonderful role models (for women and for men) of what it meant to be a disciple, to actively evangelize and care for their communities as Jesus asked. 

For example, we meet Peter’s wife, who is never named in the Gospels but was often present. Whenever Jesus ‘went home’ during his Galilean ministry it was to her house.  Turpin considers her “one of the most overlooked women of the New Testament….known only by inference.”  She traveled as a missionary with Peter outside of Palestine (1 Corinthians 9:5) and was martyred with Peter in Rome as described in Eusebius’ 4th century The History of the Church.   What a faithful and brave woman.  

Another is Tabitha of Joppa. “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha … She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” (Acts 9:36)  Acts further tells us when she died the community was so distressed that two men went to get Peter.  When he arrived at her house, the widows who worked with Tabitha show him clothing they made for distribution to the needy. Peter goes to Tabitha, prays, and commands her to get up (Acts 9:40).  She rises!  There is great rejoicing and as the news spreads, more are converted to follow Jesus. Turpin tells us that Tabitha’s group presents “… the earliest known evidence of women organized in a ministry of their own devising….Her memory further survives in organizations that bear the Greek form of her name, Dorcas.” One example is Dorcas Aid International founded in the Netherlands in 1980.

A few other favorites are Lydia, Prisca and Phoebe, three of the many women who founded and led communities with Paul, and one (Prisca) who even ‘risked [her] neck’ for him (Romans 16:3).  In this jubilee year of Paul, their stories provide rich reflections on faithful disciples moved by the Spirit to open their homes to new converts and even leave those homes themselves to preach the Good News. If you wish to add to your reflections on Women in the Ministry of Paul, download the excellent essay and prayer service on FutureChurch’s website.  The essay is by Carolyn Osiek, rscj, and the reflection guide by Christine Schenk, csj.

Rita Houlihan is the Vice Chair of the FutureChurch Board.

Focus on FutureChurch

Winter 2009


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