Prophetic Women in Corinth. Marilyn A. Hudson

Prophetic Women:
 Corinth, Carthage and California - a Continuum of Presence

Marilyn A. Hudson

The place of women as “prophets” is an underexplored aspect within both Biblical studies and Pentecostal historicity. Pentecostalism was firmly rooted in an egalitarian holiness movement that recognized the leadership of women such as Catherine Booth, Phoebe Palmer and many others[1]. Modern Pentecostalism (which here will include the traditional Pentecostals, Charismatics, and more recent forms) can be conflicted as they wrestle with their heritage, their faith, and their cultural influences.  The results are often ambiguous and inconsistent in the face of women who identify themselves as ‘prophetic’.        As a result, one ambiguous subject is compounded by another ambiguous subject to the general detriment of both.  An examination of some notable prophetic woman of the Bible and in history may help to clarify the discussion California, can provide some valuable insight revealing an internal consistency in how women have functioned as true prophets under the direction and blessing of the Holy Spirit.

Women Prophets in the Bible

In Biblical studies, the prophet is a messenger between God and humanity. As a visionary, seer, messenger, covenant mediator, teacher, speaker, singer, or in some way specially gifted, the prophet was given information to be conveyed to the people. The Spirit of God descended, anointed, guided, impressed, or revealed in some means messages to be used to achieve specific goals.  The prophets warned of the consequences of abandoning the faith, of forgetting to whom they belonged as people of God, and foretold events[2]. The fundamental test of a prophet, moreover, was always that their words proved true.[3] 
Sources often reveal frequent attempts to distance women from a role as prophet. In many sources their prophetic presence is absent. In a similar fashion arguments are developed to establish artificial linguistics barriers between “prophet" and a "prophetess."   Further research, however, indicates there is no major difference between the two terms. Just as modern society uses the terms "actor" and "actress” to describe the same function [4]the terms "prophet" and "prophetess" were used to do little more than identify gender. More recent scholarship has even identified prophetic guilds of women prophets who may have served in warrior, funerary, or scribal capacities.[5] The major female prophets of the Bible, however, provide very adequate portrayals of the function and role of such women.


In Exodus 15:20-21 the departing people of Israel were led in praises for being  brought them out of Egypt. Miriam “the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all of the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances”. She led them in a responsive song and dance of praise she urged, “Sing ye to the Lord..."  Miriam was most definitely seen as a spiritual leader and her one failure, along with her brother Aaron, was to question God's choice of Moses.  Although she was struck with leprosy as a result of her actions the people held her in such regard they waited on her healing before moving forward. Nowhere is there any indication her correction was a comment or judgment on her role as a spiritual leaders. Indeed, as an indicator of her status in Jewish history it must be noted that she was called one of the prophets sent by God in Micah 6:4. These all indicate that she was a prophetess, a leader, and a woman of God.


            "And Deborah, a prophetess...she judged Israel at that time. And she dealt under the palm tree ...and the children of Israel come up to her for judgment....And she sent and called Barak...and said to him...."  Deborah was a prophet and judge in the Ephraim hill country of ancient Israel, between Ramah and Bethel. Israel had been living in a tense time the previous twenty years under the oppression of a Canaanite named Sisera. Judges 4:3 says the people "cried unto the Lord". She is presented in Judges as prophetically directing a battle to drive out opposing Canaanite forces. Note several things about this Judges story which convey some picture of her role and status in ancient Israel. Deborah was accessible, respected, acted with authority, and was spiritual in her role as prophet-judge.
 The prophet sent for Barack, who was far away in the northern reaches of Israel in Nephtali.   His response to the prophet’s words was to call soldiers from other regions and this indicates Deborah was a major judge perhaps because of her multiple offices. 
 A capable woman of many talents able to lead, plan, supervise, direct, and adjure, Deborah was also the spiritual link between God and the people. Like the future king David there was a touch of the creative as well.  The "Song of Deborah" is a haunting and powerful victory song poem thought to be one of the earliest writings of ancient Israel.


Jerusalem, after years of being ruled by leaders who raised idols, offered pagan sacrifices and committed great sins, finally one appeared who ”did that which was right" (2 Chronicles 33:22). He began a cleanup campaign to bring the land back to the way it had been under his ancestor, King David. He broke down the idol altars, the groves where the pagan rituals had taken place, and he sent his servants to take funds to the High Priest, Hilkiah, to repair the "house of the Lord his God."
During this repair the High Priest found a 'book of the law of the Lord given by Moses." The book was sent to the king who was greatly disturbed that the land had drifted from the words of the Lord. As a result, several ambassadors of the king went to Hulda.  Hulda was a prophet, the wife of the Shallum, keeper of the garments.  She lived in a region called the "Second Quarter", or what the KJV calls the "college." There were  one or more gates to the this woman and that the Midrash (Rabbinic commentaries on the Scriptures) clearly state this gate was "never destroyed. Rashi comments that this was the gate where she sat and taught; it is referred to as "Mishneh" in the verse (Melachim II 22:14). [6] Various sources suggest this was the likely location of a prophetic school or office.
Many sources have attempted to marginalize or excise Huldah as a respected prophet. Without evidence, some have suggested there was a library and Huldah a chief librarian.[7]   Other sources have denigrated role as prophet/teacher/leader by suggesting she was the only one available and thus the envoy from the king had to settle for second best, and still others suggest that Josiah sought to circumvent God's wrath, hoping a woman would temper the punishments. Over the decades, a combination of history, culture, and male dominion have buried Huldah.  
What the story says clearly is that, in the wake of purging of pagan influences, she was one of the group found to be true to God. The pagan priests, temples, groves, and idols were gone but not Huldah or her established place near the gate.  It is now being understood that the prophets had areas where they worked: some roamed, some were rural, and some lived in the city. Some, like Huldah, were part of the daily working of the temple and were no doubt involved in some type of formal training. At the Huldah gate may have been a place where the prophetic and the scholarly met. People would have come to her , just as King Josiah ordered his ambassadors,  and "Go, inquire of the Lord for me" (2 Chron. 34:21).

Anna - Acts

In Luke 2:36-38 the prophet Anna is used to validate the authenticity of Jesus as promised Messiah.[8] "..one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser; she was of a great age…, but served God "[9] (KJV).     In Acts 21:8-9 --"...and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist.....and the same man had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy." In both of these the term used refers to women who were inspired to foretell events, to act in the prophetic office, or be similarly inspired[10]. David Aune notes that the book of Acts lists more prophets than any other and it is significant that among those are these spiritually gifted women[11]. The New Testament continues the tradition of the prophetic ministry of women from the birth of Christ to the birth of the church. Moreover, it clear that from all the prophetic women seen to date functioned, regardless of age of marital status, within these ministries areas termed the “prophetic.”

The epistle to the church at Corinth was written around the year 55 C.E. by, most agree, the Apostle Paul.  Located on the isthmus connecting Greece to the mainland, the city was a hive of busy commerce and a landscape of diverse cultures.[12]
In 1 Corinthians 11: 5 it states that “every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head.” It is one part of an argument that limits woman’s participation. Paul’s attempts to address issues of disorder, bad behaviors, and other problems that were making the church at Corinth poor witnesses of Christ resulted in many faulty practices. [13] 
Many who interpret this chapter see a limitation and muzzling of women, because the emphasis is a question of “power.”  This revealing focus seeking to prove who is in control, who has authority, and who wields the influence reflects more  the same systemic issues of the troubled church at Corinth than efforts to find the truth of the words. Commentaries are frequently replete with words such as “control”, “rule”, “hierarchy”, and “authority.”   As Fee and Keener point out, however, translating “head” to mean “leader” is an uncommon use of the Greek term.[14]
Some sources attempt to equate these actions of praying and prophesying as too similar to the cultic rituals of the Corinthian community. Others argue out that such actions violated some Roman, Corinthian, or Jewish rules of decorum. There is adequate evidence in Paul’s’ writings that part of their problems stemmed from confusing actions or conflicting beliefs within the Christian community at Corinth.  The issue of the type and nature of this supposed ‘covering’ is beyond the scope of this discussion. Germaine to this discussion is that the actions of the woman (in praying or in prophesying) is not questioned or condemned. It is an apparent accepted fact that women will be praying and ‘prophesying’ just as men will and indeed both Christ and Paul’s wording supports this.[15]
The nature and function of this act of ‘prophesy’ is the focus here and although some do suggest that this “prophetic” speech was somehow less than authoritative, or of a different caliber, the argument appears forced and inconsistent with other examples in scripture.[16]   As noted earlier, there were numerous examples of prophetic women into the time of the New Testament, some among the close families of Jesus’ own disciples.  Why would he now want to prohibit the practice?   Conzelmann, and others, may be very correct in suggesting that here Paul is not making a pronouncement but merely citing remarks sent to him drawn from rabbinic sources, local comments, or Jewish custom.[17]

On a March morning in about the year 202, a twenty-two year old woman walked onto the warm sands of the arena in Carthage, North Africa.  There she and her companions were executed in a spectacle. Her killer missed the first time and she cried out from the sword shoved between her ribs but she guided the ‘wavering right hand of the youthful gladiator to her throat.”[18] 
Swept up in the purge of Septimus Severus and the edict outlawing conversion to Judaism or Christianity, it has been this woman who had sustained the prisoners, who had stood up to her captors, and whose deep faith manifested through visions which sustained them as they awaited their martyrdom.[19]  The source of this account is a unique and rare first person narrative of the events experienced by the woman until her death.[20]  Such accounts in early church history are very rare yet seldom noted in many works on the early church[21].  Several things, however, can be noted by examining The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas.
She is recognized has having the gift of prophetic dreams. Her fellow captives asked her to use her gift “…that it may be made known to you whether this is to result in a passion or an escape.”[22] She had apparently passed the test of a true prophet in that her visions had come true.
It is clear from the writing and the esteem of the early church that she was not an anomaly but a role model for spirituality. She was a woman of strong faith, determination, and character to whom others looked for leadership.  This is also seen in her responses to the repeated attempts of her pagan father to get her to recant and is clear in the way she alone appears to have confronted their jailor for better food and care.[23]

In 1907 a revival spread from a small mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California. From humble beginnings, the activities and spiritual dynamic of that place would make its mark on the world.  This event would become in essence a commissioning center for what would become one of the twentieth century’s most controversial movements and launch Pentecostalism. To this event people came to observe and took back to their churches both reports and the experience of speaking in other tongues, the experience of prophecy, the experience of signs and wonders not enjoyed in such an all encompassing a manner since the early church.
With strong roots in racial and sexual equality, the burgeoning Pentecostal movement grew as the result of its inclusion of both sexes as ministers and leaders. Cecil Robeck has astutely noted that Pentecostals justified their gender inclusivity based on Joel 2:22 and that most other Protestants did so only when forced by social pressures.[24]
In one of the services at the Azusa Street Mission, a Christian woman from Pasadena stood in a Pentecostal meeting, “I do not ask for tongues but I want to love God with all my heart and soul and my neighbor as myself,” and it was reported she “immediately began to speak with tongues.”[25]  Her attitude was common of many who merely came to find more of Christ and in the process found a new spiritual dimension.
These early Pentecostals were accused of being heretics, aligned with the devil, and other labels used to malign the participants. To be certain, there were occasional extremes and theologies developed that created many problems for the nascent revival movement.  One such episode occurred in Oklahoma City in 1906 and it was clearly understood that the people marching naked through the streets and into a hotel lobby were both crazed and ‘holy rollers.’ Similar events were reported with various levels of humor, chagrin, or distain in newspapers across the country.
“Enthusiasms”, as John Wesley called them, was one term used to define these exuberant manifestations of both spiritual contrition and joy. From shortly after the time of Perpetua, the early church and its ‘enthusiasms’ had been tamed, labeled primitive, and the church of the new 20th century saw itself as a place of culture, refinement and social order.
The impact of the Pentecostal outpouring was not merely in personal spiritual experiences but in the bestowal of various spiritual gifts and callings a challenge to the social order.[26] Men and women were active participants in all aspects of the Pentecostal revival.  Like Perpetua, many women experienced visions and became bold messengers of faith.  Florence Crawford in Oakland, California reported “one night as I was weary in body, I asked the Lord to give me sleep, and he gave me a vision.”[27]


What those early twentieth century Pentecostals experienced was similar to the experiences of ancient Israel, Christians in first century Corinth, and those striding into a second century arena.  The stories of the realities of prophetically gifted women in scriptures, and history demonstrate the reality of spiritual leadership. From ancient times in Perpetua of Carthage, to reports of visions among the early Pentecostals present one long line of women functioning as full participatory members in the prophetic role. To this day that heritage is being repeated in the strong leadership and spiritual gifting of women in more recent Pentecostal and Charismatic settings. 
Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below notes that Pentecostalism continued to look to the day of Upper Room and to Joel 2:22 for both defense and mandate for their actions.[28] For all of these women, the issue was never politics, power, or equality. From Paul’s day to the present the issue appears to have been a firm belief that, as Eseldra Alexander put, ‘women fully qualified by the Spirit, could function without restraint alongside their male colleagues.”[29]  From Old Testament to New Testament the precedent was in place revealing women serving God as led by the Spirit. From second century revival movement to twentieth century, women continued to respond to the message of God in fervent faith, willing service, and sacrificial actions.
The continuum of women as prophets and servants of God is long and honorable and integrally meshed with the history of Pentecostalism.

[1] Synan, Vinson, ed. The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 years of Pentecostal and Charismatic renewal. Nashville, Tennessee: Nelson, 2001, pg. 231f.
[2] Metzger, Bruce, ed. The Oxford Campion to the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, pg. 622.
[3][3] Several verses of the Bible speak directly to this testing: Deut. 18.22, Jer., 28,9, and Mt. 7.20.
[4][4] Newsom, Carole, ed. Women’s Bible Commentary. Pg. 477.
[5] Gadney, Wilda. Daughters of Miriam: Women prophets in ancient Israel. Fortress, 2008.
[6] There is a comment added to Rashi's commentary on that verse in Melachim, suggesting that Chuldah taught... to the sages by that gate. (http://ohave.tripod.com/chumash/chuldah.htm).

[7] “Huldah, Huldah, Prophetess or Librarian.” At  http://www.piney.com/Huldah.html. Accessed 11/5/2009.
[8] Aune, David E. Prophecy in early Christianity and the ancient Mediterranean world. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eermans, 1983, pg. 147.
[9] Holy Bible. King James Version
[10] Strong, James. The New Strong’s exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Nashville, Tennessee: Nelson, 1996, pg. 1081.
[11] Aune, pg. 191.
[12]  NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995, pg. 1734-1735.
[13] Hudson, Marilyn A. Those Pesky Verses of Paul. Norman, Oklahoma: Whorl Books, 2009. “Among the many questions raised in this section is to whom does Paul address his comments?  Due to a lack of clarity in the Greek terms it is unclear if Paul is speaking to only married people here or not. Contextually, however, it appears most likely he was addressing married couples. Despite this, some groups continue to interpret these words to mean that every woman, married or not, is under some man’s “authority.”

[14] Keener, Craig. S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Peabody, MAS: Hendrickson’s, 1992. pg. 32-33.
[15]Strong, pg. 1081, Strong notes the term is the same in 1 Cor. 11.5, 1 Cor. 14.5 and the same as Jesus used in Mt.11.13 (#4395).
[16] Grudem, Wayne. The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians. Landham, MD: University Press, 1982.
[17] Conzelemann, Hans. First Corinthians. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975, pg. 186-187;  The Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville; Abingdon, 1953, pg. 125-126.
[18] ‘The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas.” The Anti-Nicene Fathers, translation of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Volume 3, Latin Christianity. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976, pg. 699f.
[19] Jackson, Samuel Macauley., ed. The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Volume VIII. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1959, pg. 466.
[20] McKechnie, Paul. The First Christian centuries: perspectives on the early church. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2001, p.172.
[21] Many of the sources consulted agreed she was significant but merely mentioned in passing or as an introduction to dissect her alleged relationship with Montanism. No definitive proof appears to support the charge and may be related to writings aimed at minimizing women’s role in the fledging Roman Church.
[22] Passion, pg. 700.
[23] Passion, pg. 704.
[24] Robeck, Cecil. The Azusa street mission and revival: the birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement. Nashville, Tennessee: Nelson, 2006, pg.15.
[25] Corum, Fred T., ed. Like as of Fire, a reprint of the old Azusa Street papers, Wilmington, Mass.: Fred Corum, 1981, pg. 20 (The Apostolic Faith (November 1906): 2).
[26] Cox, Harvey. Fire from heaven. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 1995, pg. 121.
[27]  Corum, December 1906, pg. 4
[28] Wacker, Grant. Heaven belowCambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard, 2001, pg. 162-176.
[29] Aexander, Estrelda. The Women of Azusa Street. Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

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