The Acts of the Apostles and their letters sometimes mention the names of the earliest Christian converts. One might wish to know more about these pioneer Christians, but the writers of the New Testament did not have the time to indulge our curiosity.
There was, however, one praiseworthy husband and wife who were especially active in promoting the Church. Because of their total dedication, enough is said about them by St. Luke and St.Paul to give us a fair acquaintance with their lives as converts. Today the Church venerates them on July 8 as SS. Aquila and Priscilla.
Paul met Aquila and Priscilla when he landed in Corinth, Greece, on his first missionary journey (AD 50-52): “a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla because Claudius had ordered the Jews to leave Rome” (Acts, 18:1-3). (The expulsion took place in AD 49 or 50. The pagan biographer of Claudius says that this Roman emperor exiled the Jews in Rome because they were fighting among themselves, and that a man named “Chrestos” had started the fight. It seems quite likely, however, from the garbled report, that the name of the “troublemaker” should have been “Christos”, that is, Christ, and that the Jews were quarreling because Jewish converts to Christianity were arguing that Jesus was the Messiah.)
There is a legend in Rome that St. Peter baptized Aquila and Priscilla before they were driven out of Rome. Like many Jews who lived outside Palestine, they had adopted non-Jewish names. Thus “Aquila” is Latin for “eagle.” (Many Jews who immigrated into Germany centuries later, took this same name in German as “Adler”. “Priscilla” is a diminutive form of the Roman name “Prisca”, as Paul always called her. It means “steadfast” or, in a good sense, “old-fashioned”.) When Paul met the couple and learned that they were by profession tentmakers like himself, he decided to live in their home/shop and work with them part-time (as he did wherever he went) to earn his keep.
St. Paul remained 18 months in Corinth, preaching first to Jews and then to Gentiles. At length the Jews who rejected his teaching tried to silence him by bringing him before the Roman magistrate.
The magistrate refused to listen to the charges, so Paul set out for Antioch to complete his missionary journey. Aquila and Priscilla went with him as far as Ephesus. There they opened their home to the Ephesian Christians.
One day Apollos, a Jewish convert from Alexandria, arrived in town and began to preach powerfully to the Jews about Jesus as Messiah. Aquila and Priscilla noticed, however, that his Christian knowledge was limited. He did not know, for example, about the sacrament of baptism. So they took him aside and filled in the gaps of his knowledge.
When Paul returned to Ephesus on his third journey, he stayed with Aquila. From Ephesus, he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, in which he said, “Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you many greetings in the Lord.” (I Cor. 16-19).
Later on, these two “coworkers” of St. Paul (as he called them) returned to Rome. There, too, their home became a Christian center or a “house-church” as Paul indicates in Rom. 16:3,5. Subsequently they went back to Ephesus, for St. Paul greets them in his second letter to Timothy, written from Rome around AD 67, not long before his death (2 Tim. 4:19).
This letter from Rome is the last scriptural reference to Prisca and Aquila. It is not certain what happened to them later after Paul died. In the Roman tradition they were martyred at Rome. St. Paul had all but canonized them during his lifetime for their holy labors. They “risked their lives for my life, to whom not only I am grateful but also the churches of the Gentiles.” (Rom. 16:3).
Today, too, there are Catholic married couples who serve the faithful heroically in word and example. Married “coworkers” with the successors of the apostles have in SS. Aquila and Priscilla admirable models to follow and sympathetic intercessors to invoke.
–Father Robert F. McNamara
Another Version of their Story
Pope John Paul II has become noted for the number of holy people he has either canonized or beatified. Obviously, his notice has been to remind us that there have been saints in every nation and in every state of life.
It was rumored recently that the Holy Father hoped to be able to canonize soon a representative married couple. There have been such couples in the past, but he evidently wanted a modern couple to serve as an object lesson in an age too often inclined to forget that marriage is God’s invention, and husband and wife are His special associates.
No matter what era they live in, saintly couples will always resemble each other in basic traits. The New Testament itself presents us with such a pair, Ss. Aquila and Prisca. They are not referred to many times, but often enough for us to see them operating and admire them.
We first meet them at Corinth, Greece. When St. Paul arrived there on his second missionary journey, intent on preaching the Gospel to the Corinthians, he was cordially greeted by Aquila. He and his wife had only lately arrived from Rome (AD 49 or 50), which they had left because the Roman emperor Claudius had ordered all Jews out of the city. Aquila was a native of Pontus in Asia Minor. Both he and his wife had replaced their Hebrew names with Roman names, even as St. Paul had done with his Hebrew name Saul. Aquila means “eagle.” Prisca (and its diminutive form, Priscilla) means “venerable.” They were most likely Christians already, however, for Claudius certainly did not know the difference between non-Christian and Christian Jews. St. Paul found them eager to spread the Faith and well equipped to do so. Furthermore, they were tent makers by craft as was he; so he accepted their invitation to live in their home and support himself by weaving tent cloth in his “business time.” Aquila’s house also became the first Christian chapel in Corinth.
Paul remained in Corinth for some time. Then he and Priscilla and Aquila went to Ephesus in Asia Minor. Subsequently he left them there to carry on the work while he revisited some of his earlier foundations.
The tent weaving couple also made their home the Christian center in Ephesus. Their knowledge of the Faith is evidenced by the instruction they gave to Apollos. Apollos was a Jew from Alexandria, Egypt. He was an orator and an expert in the Old Testament scriptures; but he also was attracted to the New Way, and did not hesitate to visit synagogues and there preach Christ as the Messiah. Oddly enough, he knew of the baptisms of St. John the Baptist, but not of Christ’s sacramental baptism. So, after they had heard him speak in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and filled in what was missing in his instruction (Acts, 18:19-28). The pair were still living in Ephesus when St. Paul wrote his first epistle to the Corinthians (16:19), but were back in Rome by AD 57, again leaders in the Christian community which they had earlier helped to found. What became of them afterwards is not known, although a tradition in Asia Minor says that Aquila became bishop of Heraclea.
There, then was a Christian couple “for all seasons” truly devoted to each other. They worked as a team to spread the Good News — she, apparently, as the planner; he as the executive. They served not only God but neighbor. They welcomed Paul and all other new Christians into their home to become members of the “household of the Faith.” On one occasion they “risked their lives for the sake of Paul” (Rom. 16:4). For all this charity, the Apostle and their gentile fellow Christians voiced their thanks.
Priscilla and Aquila, were, in other words, an ideal Christian couple. Let us not forget that among us today there are also many other ideal Christian couples.
May their number increase!
–Father Robert F. McNamara