Tentmakers and Architects of the Early Church

Daily Office Readings for the feast of Priscilla and Aquila, Friday, July 8, 2022: Acts 18:1–4, 18–21, 24–28; Luke 24:28–35

Whenever I get “in a mood” over some of the misogynistic bits in Paul’s epistles, I take a deep breath and remember he treated his fellow tentmakers Priscilla and Aquila as a team–equal partners and co-creators in the early Church, even mentioning Priscilla first in all but one of the three times he mentions them in his letters.  “Mentioning the wife first” was not the custom in Paul’s day, and it is also notable that Paul always speaks of them as one unit–a team…and this dynamic duo is directly responsible for a lot of things we presently see in the collective lives of our churches today.

In our reading from Luke today, we hear about the Emmaus travelers talking about how their hearts were burning with desire for Jesus.  One can only imagine that the same held true for Priscilla and Aquila.  As with many of our earliest saints, we really do not know much about their lives or even when exactly they were born. We do know that they were originally Jewish Christian converts living in Rome and tentmakers by trade.  We know they were part of the Jewish diaspora when Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in the year 49 CE, and first ended up in Corinth, where they met fellow tentmaker Paul.  (It is unclear whether they were Christians prior to meeting Paul or converted by Paul.)  Paul lived with them for 18 months, and worked with them in their tentmaking operation.  One can only imagine the conversations they had over the tentmaking table!

Evidently, one of the conversations they had was, “Hey, let’s all hit the road and spread the word about Jesus,” because the three of them traveled together to Ephesus.  Paul eventually continued on to Syria, while Priscilla and Aquila remained in Ephesus.  We know from the book of Acts and from secular writings that they really did work as a team, and in particular, Priscilla was known as an excellent teacher of Scripture.  Paul clearly respected her with the same admiration he had for Aquila, and always mentioned them both together, never separately.  Although it can be difficult to decipher the truth when cultures are steeped in patriarchal ways and attitudes in their societies, it has been postulated that Priscilla may have even been a presbyter in the early church.  At the very least, she was as equal a leader as her husband.

Because of their ministry, we can attribute several things that are part and parcel of our lives as 21st century Episcopalians, including bivocational clergy, house churches, church plants, and possibly even female priests.  They embodied the notion that our secular work and our Christian ministry are not separate pursuits–they can and should interdigitate into the whole of the fabric of our lives.  They made tents to feed their bodies; they hosted Christian communities to feed their souls.  They teach us that religious life is not necessarily a vocation where one must be set apart; it can also be two facets of the whole of life.

Their lives also reveal that deep faith sometimes comes with risk.  Paul mentions that they “bared their throats” for him; at some point in their relationship, it sounds as if they had undertaken some degree of risk for Paul’s sake as their friend and Christian co-worker.

Although the exact details of their martyrdom are a little muddy, we do know that after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, they, like other Christians, were rounded up and martyred. (They had returned to Rome after Nero reversed Claudius’ expulsion orders.)  Killing them was not enough to slow the growth of Christianity by that point, partially because Priscilla and Aquila were successful church planters.

As tentmakers, the couple must have patched a lot of holes and sewn up a lot of tears.  It seems almost a natural extension that they patched a lot of holes and sewed a lot of rips in the lives of others as leaders of the church.  These roles are roles still desperately needed in the church today, and we can look to their example in our own communities.

Much has been written about the dynamic tension in the Epistles and how much of the material in it was actually written by Paul.  There are times, as a female, I can become totally annoyed with the misogynistic threads that run through the scriptures historically attributed to Paul.  But when I see Paul’s love and respect for this co-working couple, I am equally reminded that sometimes, what we do speaks louder than what we say–especially when we don’t always fully grasp the context of why it was said.  By that yardstick, Paul’s admiration for them overrides (at least for me) the more irritating parts of writings historically attributed to Paul.  I’m reminded that all of us, in the light of history, will eventually be depicted as out of step somewhere or another.  Thanks to them, I can at least remind myself Paul struggled as a person of his times, same as I struggle with being a person of my times, and that God can find ways to use us in spite of ourselves.

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