Priscilla: The Teacher of Teachers
Apollos is described in the New Testament as a remarkable and influential teacher. He came from Alexandria—the great center of learning and philosophy in Egypt, and he was an eloquent speaker and a powerful teacher of Scripture. Apollos employed his impressive intellectual and rhetorical skills to teach boldly about Jesus Christ and debate those in the synagogue who opposed the gospel. He proved to be such a dynamic teacher that believers in Corinth later became divided over who was the more important leader—Paul or Apollos? Simply put, Apollos was a rock star in the early church.
When Apollos came to Ephesus, however, it became evident that there were some gaps in his understanding. Two Christians, Priscilla and her husband Aquila, who were close companions of Paul, invited Apollos to their home where they taught him more fully about the way of Christ (Acts 18:26). Although Apollos was the more visible and celebrated teacher, his knowledge came from an unexpected and surprising source—two tentmakers from Rome one of whom was a woman.
Not much is known about Priscilla and Aquila, except that they were from Rom, Aquila was Jewish, and they both became devoted followers of Jesus. They partnered very closely with Paul and shared his trade as tentmakers. They moved their business to Ephesus when Paul’s mission took him there and used their home as a base for the church in that city. Later, they returned to Rome and again opened their home to the church. They developed a very close relationship with Paul who reported that Priscilla and Aquila “risked their lives for me” (Romans 16:4).
It’s worth noting that Priscilla and Aquila are always mentioned together in the New Testament, emphasizing their shared ministry as husband and wife. But surprisingly, in almost every instance, Priscilla is named first which was not the custom in the patriarchal world of ancient Rome. Scholars have long debated why. Some speculate that Priscilla was from a higher social class than her husband, or that she came to faith before Aquila, and some think it’s because she had a more public and prominent ministry role than her husband in the church. Of course, we can’t know for certain. What we do know, however, is that the New Testament writers felt no need to hide or diminish Priscilla’s significant leadership in the early church—including her role as an instructor to Apollos. And Paul elevated her importance by calling her his “co-worker” in Christ Jesus (Romans 16:4).
This brings us to an interesting bit of Bible history. In Acts 18, where we read about Apollos being taught, it’s Priscilla’s name that’s listed before her husband’s—unless you’re reading the King James Version. That translation puts Aquila first. The earliest Greek manuscripts clearly show Priscilla’s name first, and for 1,000 years the Vulgate—the Latin translation of the Bible—also listed Priscilla first. So, why did the English translators of the King James Version change the order in 1611? Again, we can’t know for certain, but the English translators may have been uncomfortable with a woman’s name being given prominence as a teacher over a man. By changing the order and listing Aquila first, the King James Version implies Priscilla had a less significant role teaching Apollos than her husband and therefore reinforced the gender norms of seventeenth-century England.
A plain reading of Scripture, however, shows that the earliest Christians and the writers of the New Testament had much less interest in protecting strict gender roles. Instead, they recognized the significant contribution of Priscilla as a co-worker with Paul in the mission of the gospel, a woman willing to risk her life for her faith, and as a teacher of teachers in the early church.