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Penelope and Rhoda

Two More Cases of Luke's Suppression of Women

By Robert M. Price


In The Widow Traditions in Luke-Acts: A Feminist-Critical Scrutiny,1 I tried to show how the second-century author of that double document had rewritten a number of Jesus-traditions and apostolic stories stemming from communities of celibate, charismatic women, in order to put women in the place assigned to them by the strictures of, e.g., the Pastoral Epistles. Now I propose to reinforce my characterization of Luke's agenda by outlining two more instances, these involving the suppression of important women characters (or their deeds) in his sources, but these two do not involve consecrated widows. If Luke's agenda was as I described it in The Widow Traditions in Luke-Acts, there is no obvious reason he should have restricted his efforts to the widows' materials. Presumably he would have manifested the same biases in other cases where women received a bit too much prominence for his tastes. The first of the cases occurs in the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the Prodigal Son. The second comes from the Acts of the Apostles, the story of Peter's miraculous escape from martyrdom at the hands of Herod Agrippa I. In the course of the analysis I hope to show that while the suppression of women is by no means the most striking or important feature of the Lukan redaction, recognizing it will nonetheless help us recognize other, equally suggestive features (and vice versa).

Penelope and the Prodigal

Dennis R. MacDonald has recently drawn attention to the great interest taken by early Christians in Homer's epics.2 This may surprise those who prefer to see the New Testament writers taking their inspiration only from the Jewish Scriptures, but after all it is only natural in view of the status in the Hellenistic world of both Iliad and Odyssey as canonical scriptures themselves. The exegetical method of allegory seems to have begun as a Stoic device for decoding the embarrassing literalism of the Homeric texts.á Jewish and Christian familiarity with the allegorical method presupposes the same familiarity with the texts thus allegorized. Early Christians could hardly have avoided the Iliad and the Odyssey. MacDonald shows, in Christianizing Homer, how the Acts of Andrew essentially rewrote the Odyssey along Christian lines. And in a work now delayed some time in publication, MacDonald also argues that Mark's gospel is similarly a Christianized Odyssey. One can only anticipate with keen hunger the serving of this latter exegetical feast by the master chef MacDonald. But in the meantime, I would suggest, contra MacDonald, that Mark is not the only New Testament writer to draw upon the Odyssey. Luke, too, has done it. This makes perfect sense, not only in view of Luke's well-known penchant for garnishing his own writings with quoted snippets from Diodorus Siculus, Plato, Euripides, Epimenides and Arratus, but also from Luke-Acts' notable similarity and probable kinship (see Richard I. Pervo, Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles3) with the ancient novels and the Apocryphal Acts which were in some measure based upon them. Once we see that the Acts of Andrew could use the Odyssey, it should not seem far-fetched to suggest that a kindred writer like Luke could use it, too. If he is making the same general sort of sandwich, he might as well use the same meat.

ááááááááááá Specifically, my suggestion is that Luke has modeled his parable of the Prodigal Son upon the Odyssey episode of Penelope's Suitors. That the parable is Luke's work and does not go back to the historical Jesus is evident not least from its length, but also from its signature feature of character introspection: "What shall I do? I shall..." Compare other Lukan creations such as the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:4-5, "He said to himself, I will..."), the Dishonest Steward (16:3-4, "What shall I do? I will..."), and the Rich Fool (1:16-21, "What shall I do? I will..."). How did Luke go about composing his parable? Here I take a leaf from the book of Thomas L. Brodie, who shows how Luke frequently deconstructed stories from the Deuteronomic Histories and reshuffled their elements into new tales, a technique widespread, as he shows, in ancient literature.4 We will see what Luke has derived from Homer and what he has left out, as well as the permutations he has wrought. Luke has combined traits from different characters in some cases, while dividing single characters into multiple ones in others.

ááááááááááá The character of the Prodigal himself has been suggested by both the long-absent Odysseus and his son Telemachus who returns from a long quest in search of his missing father. Both the parable's elements of wandering far from home and of the father-son reunion stem from here. The cavorting of the Prodigal with loose women in far lands was suggested by Odysseus' dalliance with Calypso. But the motif of the Prodigal's having "devoured [his father's] estate with loose living" is based on the similar judgment passed more than once by Telemachus and Eumaeus on the "gang of profligates" infesting Odysseus' estate during his absence, the Suitors.

ááááááááááá The Prodigal taking a job as a swineherd, a galling "transformation" for a Jew, might reflect the transformation of Odysseus' men into swine by Circe, especially since the hungry Prodigal would like to fill his aching stomach with the pods on which his porcine charges feed. This is but another way of saying he envies their lot and would like to turn into one of them. Is Luke also thinking of Augustus' joke, "I would rather be Herod's swine, uigoV, than his son, uioV"? It is the same implicit pun in any case.

ááááááááááá Then again, the Prodigal's job as a swineherd might stem from Eumaeus' occupation as a swineherd. The latter's oft characterization as a "righteous swineherd" may be linked with the characterization of the Prodigal as a repentant swineherd. (Eumaeus, remember, is the faithful servant of Odysseus who befriends both the returning Odysseus, whom he does not first recognize, and the returning Telemachus, whom he does.)

ááááááááááá The return of the Prodigal is of course suggested by the late return of Odysseus, but no less of Telemachus, who together share the same actantial role anyway. The Prodigal returns hoping to enter the company of his father's household slaves, while Odysseus returns in disguise and does find shelter among Eumaeus and the household slaves. The glad reception afforded the Prodigal by his father recalls the reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus, also father and son, but even more the reunion of Telemachus and Eumaeus:

The last words were not out of his mouth when his [Odysseus'] own son appeared in the gateway. Eumaeus jumped up in amazement, and the bowls in which he had been busy mixing the sparkling wine tumbled out of his grasp. He ran forward to meet his young master, he kissed his lovely eyes, and then kissed his right hand and his left, while the tears streamed down his cheeks. Like a fond father welcoming back his son after nine years abroad, his only son, the apple of his eye and the centre of all his anxious cares, the admirable swineherd threw his arms around Prince Telemachus and showered kisses on him as though he had just escaped from death. (E.V. Rieu translation5)

       Next Luke splits Odysseus into two characters, the two brothers. The elder son also returns from being away, albeit only out in the field (the scene of conflict between two other famous brothers, Cain and Abel). But he does return, and is dismayed, like Odysseus, to discover a feast in progress. (Neither can we miss the echo of the disgust of the returned Moses: "It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of ... singing that I hear!" Exodus 32:18). It is a feast in honor of a profligate, as the elder brother is quick to point out, like that of the Suitors. And just as their feast is predicated on their supposition of Odysseus' death, the Prodigal's father explains to the elder son that they must feast since the Prodigal was dead and has now returned alive, as Odysseus is about to do.

ááááááááááá A puzzling feature of the Lukan parable now approaches solution, for is it not evident that the Prodigal's planned hand-wringing confession of unworthiness is a mere tactic aimed at mollifying his father enough to be accepted as a slave? The Prodigal, knee-deep in hog-slop, "comes to himself," but his realization has nothing to do with his having sinned. It is merely the realization that a better menu than he presently enjoys is available in the slave quarters of his father. He seems to intend genuine remorse as little as he expects the extravagant forgiveness of his father. Thus his forgiveness seems in the long run to be doubly undeserved. It is not surprising that Luke might have sought to depict God as doubly forgiving, the point of the parable on any reading, but it may seem strange for Luke so to reward an unrepentant schemer. Or does it? Luke is happy enough to use the obviously Machievellian Unjust Steward as a lesson in repentance over in Luke 16, so why not here? But that just pushes the problem back a step. Why there? Because Luke was thinking of Odysseus as much as Jacob, both scheming rogues whose guile was considered a singular virtue by ancient readers who envied it. Malherbe reviews the ancient debate over Odysseus.6 He was a favorite model for resourcefulness among the Cynic and Stoic preachers, and recall how Luke associates resourcefulness with repentance. Theognis praised Odysseus for his chameleon-like character (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:19-22). On the other hand, Pindar, Sophocles, and Euripides condemned the very same trait in Odysseus. Yes, Odysseus was ambivalent, a good example in the eyes of some, a bad one in the eyes of others. But then how natural for Luke to split the character up, as I have suggested, into a good Odysseus (the elder brother) and a bad one (the Prodigal), who must finally be reconciled! Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment,7 observes how many "two brother" fairy tales involve the separation of the two brothers, one leaving home and falling into danger or even death, the other, bound to the apron strings, finally leaving the safety of home to rescue him. In these tales, Bettelheim suggests, the siblings stand for two aspects of every individual, the desire to stay in the nest and the desire to sow one's wild oats. The story helps hearers integrate both tendencies within themselves. I think Luke has something of the same aim as he splits up Odysseus into the two returning brothers and anticipates their reconciliation.

ááááááááááá When the elder brother grouses about never having been given so much as a goat to share with his poker buddies, do we not see a reflection of Eumaeus' apology to the disguised Odysseus that all he can scrape together as victuals are a couple of pigs left over from the Suitors' feast? Plus the obvious parallel that the Suitors (= the Prodigal) have been consuming the fare that rightly belongs to Odysseus himself (= the elder brother).

ááááááááááá Finally, let me suggest that a good deal of the reshuffling Luke has put the Homeric original through was necessitated by one aim: eliminating Penelope. In the original, Penelope was a loving parent welcoming home two beloved family members. She had tolerated the presence of the Suitors but given in to none of them, demonstrating a degree of marital faithfulness unmatched by her absent husband. And her faith was rewarded by his return. Had Penelope retained her place in the parable of the Prodigal Son, as she might have, in the role of a widowed mother dependent upon the labors of her sons (cf. Luke 7:12), what would we have had? Luke would have provided us a sterling use of a woman standing for the forgiving God, a compassionate Heavenly Mother. But no. And it is no accident that Luke has replaced her with a father.

 Peter and his Passion

I have already made glancing reference to Richard I. Pervo's comparative study of the Apocryphal and canonical Acts, in which he shows that the supposedly unbridgable gulf separating the two genres is largely an illusion generated by scholars zealous to fortify the boundaries of the canon of scripture. One striking feature of several major Apocryphal Acts is the manner in which the martyrdoms of their eponymous heroes precisely parallel that of Jesus in the gospels, in some cases even issuing in empty tombs and postmortem appearances to disciples! But does Luke's Acts feature any such parallel? Of course it does: Paul's recapitulation of Jesus' own journey to Jerusalem, passion predictions, tumult at the Temple, taking into Roman custody, trial before the Sanhedrin, getting slapped for sassing the high priest, trial before both Herodian kings and Roman procurators, and final journey to (an implicit) execution at the hands of Rome. Luke is just a bit more subtle than the Acts of Paul in this regard, where the beheaded Paul appears to Nero, warning him of divine vengeance, and later ascends from an empty tomb.

ááááááááááá But there is a second passion parallel, a second apostolic passion narrative in Acts, that has never to my knowledge been adequately explored. Given the tendency (with Knox, I make it anti-Marcionite8) of Acts to parallel Paul with Peter, we ought to expect at least as detailed if not as long, passion narrative for Peter as Luke provides for Paul. And we find it in chapter 12. It is a commonplace to note a few basic similarities between this episode and the passion narrative of Jesus, especially the Passover setting. But the parallels are much more extensive. Peter languishes in a prison; Jesus didn't. Or did he? Peter's time in the jail cell matches Jesus' three days in the tomb. As angels greeted the women at the empty tomb of Jesus, an angel greets Peter and "empties" his cell of him. The angel's command to "wrap your mantle around you" (verse 8) recalls Luke's references to Joseph of Arimathea, who "wrapped" the body of Jesus "in a linen shroud" (Luke 23:53). The chains which fell from Peter's hands recall Peter's own earlier preachment about the resurrection of Jesus: "But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it" (Acts 2:24).

ááááááááááá Peter is guarded by two Roman soldiers in the cell, with at least another pair stationed between the cell and the outer door. He escapes despite their presence, apparently invisible to their eyes, as the angel has, like the Shadow, "clouded men's minds." In light of the extensive parallels to the passion of Jesus, a striking new possibility emerges just at this point. What if Peter's guards reflect the presence of Matthew's Roman guards at Jesus' tomb? Luke's tendency to save this or that gospel element for later use in Acts (e.g., the slapping of Jesus omitted from the gospel, where we find it in John 18:22, and used for Paul's trial instead (Acts 23:2-4), or the accusation that Jesus will destroy the Temple, removed from the trial scene of Jesus and transferred to Stephen's trial in Acts 6) is well known. What if this is another instance of the same tendency? It would imply that the tomb guards, though a subsequent development to Mark's account, was not quite so late an embellishment as generally thought. Perhaps Matthew and Luke both knew it but made different uses of it.

ááááááááááá As the jail gate opens miraculously of itself, by angelic telekinesis, we are inevitably reminded of the stone door of Jesus' tomb being rolled back by angelic sinews. As the Risen Christ came to his assembled disciples on Easter, so the newly sprung Peter arrives at the house of Mary where the church is gathered, praying for him. His appearance calls forth the very same reaction: utter skepticism (a riotously funny piece of Lukan irony!). Just as the eleven disciples in Luke 24 jumped to the conclusion that they were seeing a spirit, the assembled Christians first believe Peter must be dead, and it is merely his ghost, his guardian angel, who has appeared to say good-bye. And as it was women who first brought the news of Jesus' escape from the tomb, only to meet with incredulity, so does Rhoda the maidservant (cf. Luke 1:38, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.") encounter stubborn disbelief.

ááááááááááá As it takes the appearance of Jesus himself to banish the doubts of the eleven, so does the entrance of Peter himself have the same effect. Just as the Risen Christ was caught up to heaven to be seen no more (save for occasional emergency visions vouchsafed to Stephen and Paul), so does Peter vanish mysteriously "to another place," effectively quitting Acts' narrative (again, except for a strategic appearance at the Apostolic Council in chapter 15, which is just Luke's way of reminding the reader of the events of chapter 10). Peter's parting words, "Tell this to James and the brethren" (12:17), recall those of the young man in the tomb in Mark 16:7, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter..."

ááááááááááá Now how does any of the preceding bear on Luke's redactional suppression of women's roles in early Christianity? It is simple, really. Luke has transparently derived the passion of Peter sequence from Jesus' passion in his sources. Aside from the fact that, for obvious narrative reasons, Peter does not literally die and rise, the single important departure from the Jesus version, as we can see by comparing Luke's Peter passion with his Jesus passion, is that while, for Luke, Mary Magdalene and her sisters did not see the Risen Christ at the empty tomb (and are not said to have been present with the eleven when Jesus subsequently appeared to them), Rhoda does see the "risen" Peter and bears not merely the tidings of angels but of the man himself to the skeptical disciples. Of course what this implies is that Luke knew good and well that the female disciples of Jesus were supposed to have seen the Risen Christ himself, such an account underlying his story of Rhoda and Peter, but when he wrote his Jesus version, he eliminated this element, purposely excising any possible basis for women's appeal to the empty tomb story as a precedent for their own apostolic ministry. Rhoda (whether under this or some other name like Mary, Joanna, or Salome) did originally (in Luke's sources) behold the Risen Christ and was commissioned to take his message to the eleven, but Luke has changed all that. If she saw someone, it was not Jesus, only Peter. If she bore tidings of the resurrection to the eleven, they were secondhand, from two men at the tomb, not from the Risen One himself. That such a distinction was no minor one can be seen in Galatians 1:11-12, "For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man [or, one might say, two men!], nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ himself." In Luke's redaction, I maintain, we are witnessing the other side of an analogous and equally urgent dispute.

 Widows After All?

I have argued that Luke's redactional agenda to suppress the role of women in his sources was not restricted to the traditions he derived, and co-opted, from the circle of ministering celibate widows, but extended to other stories involving prominent women. One of these was Homer's Odyssey, in which Penelope played an important role, the other a version of the passion and resurrection in which a woman or women beheld the Risen Christ and reported these tidings to the eleven. In the first case, Luke replaced the female model of forgiving parental love with a male one, substituting the Prodigal's father for Penelope, in the second allowing the woman to have beheld only the escaped Peter, not the Risen Jesus.

ááááááááááá Finally, it is worth noting that even these two passages may rest ultimately upon widow community traditions, though the links are slender and speculative. First, I have already noted above how a female Penelope analog in the Prodigal Son parable would have formed a parallel with the widow of Nain; this might suggest that it was someone in the widow community who had borrowed from the Odyssey, already before Luke. As we would have read that version, the abandonment of the mother by one son, taking his share of the assets with him, would have been especially outrageous as well as poignant, and the ensuing forgiveness all the more miraculous. Perhaps it was a widow tradition that Luke took over and redacted. Then he would have been using Homer second-hand.

ááááááááááá Second, given the parallel between Rhoda and the Virgin Mary as "handmaids of the Lord," we might wonder if Rhoda was already understood as a young consecrated widow/virgin such as sex-shunning piety soon made of Mary. The link between spiritual virginity and susceptibility to visions, e.g., of the Risen Christ, is wide-spread in early Christian thinking, as was the case with Philip's daughters, "prophesying virgins," and the prophesying widow Anna, who like Mary in early Christian apocrypha, dwelt day and night in the Temple. But these are mere shadows of possibilities. I like to think that the forgoing analyses of the Prodigal Son parable and the passion of Peter rest upon a firmer foundation.


1. Robert M. Price, The Widow Traditions in Luke-Acts: A Feminist-Critical Scrutiny. SBL Dissertation Series 155 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997).

2. Dennis Ronald MacDonald, Christianizing Homer: The Odyssey, Plato, and The Acts of Andrew (NY: Oxford University Press, 1994).

3. Richard I. Pervo, Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), pp. 122-135.

4. Thomas L. Brodie, "Luke the Literary Interpreter: Luke-Acts as a Systematic Rewriting and Updating of the Elijah-Elisha Narrative in 1 and 2        Kings." Ph.D. dissertation: Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, 1981; "The Accusing and Stoning of Naboth (1 Kgs 21:8-13) as One Component of the Stephen Text (Acts 6:9-14; 7:58a)." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 45 (1983), pp. 417-443; "Luke-Acts as an Imitation and Emulation of the Elijah-Elisha Narrative." In New Views of Luke and Acts, ed. Earl Richard (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1990), pp. 78-85; "Luke 7, 36-50 as an Internalization of 2 Kings 4, 1-37: A Study in Luke's Use of Rhetorical Imitation." Biblica 64 (1983), pp. 457-485; "Reopening the Quest for Proto-Luke: The Systematic Use of Judges 6-12 in Luke 16:1-18:8." Journal of Higher Criticism 2:1 (Spring 1995), pp. 68-101.

5. Homer, The Odyssey. Trans. E.V. Rieu. The Penguin Classics (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 245.

6. Abraham J. Malherbe, Paul and the Popular Philosophers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 98-101.

7. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (NY: Random House Vintage Books, 1977), pp. 90-96.

8. John Knox, Marcion and the New Testament: An Essay in the Early History of the Canon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), pp. 119-121.



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