1 Corinthians 16:19 The churches of Asia send greetings to you. Aquila and Prisca greet you warmly in the Lord, with the church that meets in their house. —NET Bible
“Aquila and Prisca greet you.” Innocuous enough—at least on first impression. But this text is actually somewhat unusual in that Aquila is mentioned before his wife. Only here in the Pauline corpus does the apostle speak in this way. This may be significant, for it is often alleged that Priscilla (the spelling of her name in Acts; in Paul it is always ‘Prisca’) is usually listed first because she must have “played an even more prominent part in the life of the Church than Aquila had…”1 One author makes several astounding claims based on the order of their names:
The New Testament references to Priscilla and Aquila make it clear that, despite the male-dominant culture, Aquila was not the leader and Priscilla his assistant. In fact, of the seven times the two names are mentioned together, Priscilla is listed first five of those times (Acts 18:18-19, 26; Rom. 16:3; 2 Tim. 4:19). Because it was the custom to list the husband’s name first, this reversal indicates Priscilla’s importance in the minds of the New Testament writers Luke and Paul. It also indicates that Priscilla was not teaching as a secondary partner under the ‘covering’ of her husband’s spiritual authority. If there were a universal spiritual principle requiring a woman to be subordinate to the teaching authority of the man, Priscilla would not have been referred to in terms indicating either her equality or her prominence in the Priscilla-Aquila teaching team.2
The problem with this interpretation is that the data are simply insufficient to support its weight. To argue that Priscilla was more prominent, the better teacher, or even the head of the house on the basis of the order of the names is exegetically irresponsible—especially since both Luke and Paul (the only NT writers to mention Aquila and Priscilla) each mentions Aquila first on one occasion (Acts 18:2; 1 Cor 16:19). Further, this interpretation proves too much: to say that “Priscilla and Aquila” indicat[es] either her equality or her prominence in the Priscilla-Aquila teaching team” suggests that Priscilla might have even been the leader in the marriage. Do evangelical egalitarians who argue against male headship want not just equality, but a role reversal?
Is it really possible to read all this into these passages? Instead, there may be some evidence that Aquila was more prominent. In 1 Cor 16:19, not only is Aquila mentioned first, but the verb itself may indicate his prominence. At issue is a textual problem.
The plural form of the verb, ajspavzontai (ajspazontai), is found in several good manuscripts (B F G 075 0121 0243 33 1739 1881) as well as the Byzantine cursives. But the singular is read by an equally impressive group ( C D K P Y 104 2464 et alii). This part of the verse is lacking in codex A. Deciding on the basis of external evidence is quite difficult. Internally, however, the singular appears to have given rise to the plural: (1) the rest of the greetings in this verse are in the plural; this one was probably made plural by some scribes for purposes of assimilation; and, more significantly, (2) since both Aquila and Prisca are mentioned as the ones who send the greeting, the plural is more natural. The singular is, of course, not impossible Greek; indeed, a singular verb with a compound subject is used with some frequency in the NT (cf. Matt 13:55; Mark 8:27; 14:1; John 2:2; 3:22; 4:36, 53; Acts 5:29; 16:31; 1 Tim 6:4). This is especially common when “Jesus and his disciples” is the subject. The focus is largely on the first-named person; he is often considered the leader of, or more prominent, than the other(s) in such constructions. In the six passages listing “Aquila and Priscilla” or “Priscilla and Aquila,” only this one involves the use of the singular verb.3 The emphasis seems to be placed on Aquila. Textually, the singular looks to be original.
What does all this suggest? Let us summarize the evidence: First, in four out of six instances, when these two are mentioned in the NT, Priscilla is mentioned first (Acts 18:18, 26; Rom 16:3; 2 Tim 4:19). Second, in one of those passages the couple is the subject of the verb—and the verb is also plural.4 Third, only here and in Acts 18:2 (the first mention of them) is Aquila mentioned before Priscilla. Fourth, to suggest that Priscilla is given prominence because of word order in four out of six instances is a possible inference; but what kind of prominence is suggested is far from certain.5 Fifth, in one of the passages—1 Cor 16:19—the singular verb is used with the compound subject, with Aquila standing first. The syntactical evidence for the combination of a compound subject with a singular verb is a much stronger indicator for Aquila’s prominence than word order alone is for Priscilla’s. But we do not want to make too much out of this, either. We simply are working with insufficient data to make dogmatic statements either way.6 That so much is often built upon such a slender thread may betray an over-eager exegesis—one that wants to see things a certain way, whether the evidence truly supports it or not.
As a concluding note, permit me a pastoral reflection. Any advance in the discussion over the role of women in the church ought to be conducted with the greatest of charity and dignity. One’s theological position does not need to impact one’s personal attitude. Further, at all times we must pursue truth and bow to it. No one is truly objective, but at least we should try to wrestle with the data in an honest manner. I am speaking not only about ad hominem arguments, but also about dogma in the face of ambiguous data. The cause of Christ and his kingdom is never really served when truth takes a backseat to our presuppositions.
2 Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997) 194. One correction should be made of Groothuis’ facts: Priscilla/Prisca and Aquila are mentioned only six times in the Greek text (Acts 18:19 simply has kajkeivnou").
4 Acts 18:26 actually has three verbs with this compound subject, all of them plural: ajkouvsante" deV aujtou' Privskilla kaiV jAkuvla" proselavbonto aujtoVn kaiV ajkribevsteron aujtw'/ ejxevqento thVn oJdoVn tou' qeou'.
5 Cf. Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, Equal To Serve: Women and Men in the Church and Home (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1987); Letha D. Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992); and many others, for repeated assumptions about Priscilla’s prominent role as a teacher in the early church.
6 To my knowledge, no extensive treatment has been done on compound subjects with singular verbs. For some preliminary suggestions, see D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 401-2.