Female Prophets in the New Testament

Those mentioned here follow the likes of Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, and Isaiah’s wife as female prophets mentioned in Scripture. These women of faith had God’s Spirit as so promised in Acts 2:17–18, a quotation from Joel being fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost somewhere between AD 28–33. In the twenty-first century, a priority has been placed on subjecting women as we best understand Scripture, but we can ascertain from New Testament prophetesses just how women who had miraculous knowledge and wisdom disclosed such within the confines of God’s will. Hence the subject of this post. This is not an effort to state anything new, but to give an as honest as possible evaluation of Scripture and how these great women of faith served God and the church.

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The earliest mentioned prophetess in the New Testament—if one approaches the matter chronologically—is Anna, who appears in Luke 2:36–38. Her father’s name, Phanuel, in Hebrew means “face-to-face with God,” thus indicating that she was from a pious family of Asher—a tribe among the northern ten tribes that made up the Kingdom of Israel when the kingdom was divided. That her identity is linked here to a tribe swept up in Assyrian conquest indicates that even after such some were able to maintain their heritage and preserve it for posterity. We mustn’t, therefore, think of the northern ten tribes as lost in history because of the conquest. Rather, even those tribes who were the worst-of-the-worst of idolaters still had pious people within them who maintained their Israelite, now Jewish, identity.

Anna, given the mention of her seven-year marriage and eighty-four-year widowhood, is likely over 100 years old. This elderly woman never left the temple (hieron), but served (latreuo) God with prayers and fasting for what we can imagine was some sixty-plus years. Interesting, though it is, that many often view worship services as something meant to benefit the worshipper rather than something done to focus on God. Her prayers and fasting were not Anna-centric, but theocentric. The name “Anna” was the Grecian form of the Hebrew “Hannah,” so this scene likely reminded the audience of Luke acquainted with the Tanakh of the mother of Samuel and her own pleading at the temple for a son. Therefore, Jesus, the son born for the “redemption in Jerusalem” is presented to the elderly prophetess and so allays she who’d been anticipating this very moment and, perhaps, even prayed for such. There on the compounds and courtyards of the temple, she began speaking of Christ to all who’d looked for the redemption. She speaks of such openly, without being silenced.   

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We are, next, introduced to Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, an itinerant preacher who had settled in Caesarea and had four virgin daughters at home (Acts 21:8–9). Philip himself took the gospel to the Samaritans, and after he baptized the Ethiopian Eunuch, he preached at Azotus until he came to Caesarea where he settled, so it would seem. He has four daughters at home who were virgins, this information likely points to their age more than anything. Therefore, in looking back to Acts 2:17–18 we see that young girls, daughters, are here presented to the audience as having the Spirit of the Lord.

The mention of their virginity, for a Jewish listener, would have spoken more to the fact that they were young and unmarried. However, for Roman or Greek listeners, they might have read something else into the mention of virginity. Antiquity is noted for sexual abstinence being linked with revelations. The Delphic pythoness was a virgin (cf. Acts 16:16–17) as were the priestesses of Artemis, the Muses, and Sybil. Notable among the Roman cult was the Vestals who were also virgins—to have defiled a Vestal virgin was a capital punishment, and for one to have consorted with a man was punishable by death. One ancient account noted that a particular Vestal virgin was able to give testimony in court because she was so esteemed, and women’s testimonies were inadmissible in Roman courts for the most part, but a Vestal was revered.

Rabbinical writings attest to the belief that biblical prophets had abstained from intercourse at least temporarily to receive their revelations (cf. Abot R. Nat. 2A; 2, 10B). Other Jewish writers mention similar beliefs (cf. Philo, Moses 2.68). The prophetess, Anna had long been abstinent since her widowhood, and Jesus, John the Baptist, and Paul were unmarried. Nevertheless, abstinence wasn’t the only way one could obtain revelations, because fasting seems to have accompanied such too (Acts 13:2).

When the Text reads of Philip’s daughters that they “prophesied” (Acts 21:9; NKJV), the term is present and active denoting that they were prophesying at that moment in the house of their father so it would appear. They did this in the presence of their father, Paul, Luke, and their other companions. Unlike Anna, they are shown ministering in this manner while Anna was simply known for having done so. Therefore, this wasn’t at all out of line for these women to exercise their spiritual gift in the presence of men in what seems to be an informal meeting of Christians and not a liturgical service. What’s unknown to me is what day of the week Paul arrived in Caesarea, but he actually is said to have stayed many days until Agabus the prophet came and gave him a revelation too.

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Finally, we turn to the Corinthian prophetesses wherein they were clearly praying and prophesying in the liturgical meeting of the church (1 Cor. 11:5). Despite the term “liturgical meeting” being nonexistent in either the Greek or English text, a noted distinction of the assembly is pointed out in 1 Corinthians 11:17–18. Scholars don’t agree at which point Paul is speaking of such an assembly. Some assume that 11:2 and onward entails the assembly while others suggest that it doesn’t begin until 11:17–18. Regardless, when Paul began establishing a more orderly manner of worship, he forbade tongue speakers who lacked an interpreter from speaking (1 Cor. 14:28), multiple prophets from giving revelations at the same time (1 Cor. 14:30), and the women from speaking (1 Cor. 14:33–35). He justified the latter of these by citing the law—a reference to creation order—which is also cited as a point for women not teaching in assemblies in 1 Timothy 2:11–15. The creation relationship and order is cited as the justification in each of these passages.

In conclusion, women could prophesy in public and openly, but not, it would appear, in the assembly. Such assemblies as what is provided in 1 Corinthians entailed the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist), prayers, revelations (preaching), giving, and singing. We might also note that the limitation of women here is only relative to the didactic function of an assembly. This is not at all to suggest that these prophetesses didn’t have legitimate revelations or something worth saying, but in 1 Corinthians Paul cites order and peace as exemplifying the Kingdom of God, and in such a manner women would be silent. Their silence was limited so it would appear, to instruction and also (likely?) to the congregational “amen” (1 Cor. 14:16), but not to singing praise. Of course, what designates a formal assembly versus an informal gathering of Christians would be the next area of exploration, and in those informal gatherings the same restrictions, as best as I can understand it, didn’t apply.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.