Rhoda (Pronounced: ROH-duh) is a household slave in Acts 12 who finds the recently freed apostle Peter at the gate of her master’s house after Peter escapes prison.
Just before this story in Acts 12:12–16, Luke tells the story of James’s death and Peter’s imprisonment at Herod’s hands (Acts 12:1–5). In the middle of the night, an angel visits Peter in prison and helps him escape (Acts 12:6–10). Peter then goes to Mary’s house where Rhoda, a joyful household slave, guards the gate (Acts 12:11–12). Peter knocks on the gate, greets Rhoda through it, and upon recognizing Peter’s voice Rhoda runs to tell the household that Peter has come. She could have opened the gate for him. Instead she runs to tell the rest of the Jesus-followers who were gathered in the house that Peter was free. They did not believe her news.
When confined to this four verse story, Rhoda can seem somewhat silly. However, evidence suggests that the silly part of the story is just that, a story. Scholar, Albert Harrill, acknowledges that Rhoda’s actions closely follow the servus currens, a comedy routine commonly found in ancient Roman theater. This comedy routine uses common stereotypes about slaves—that they were bumbly, lacking common sense, and forgetful—that only reinforce the stereotypes and persuade the audience to understand real slaves in this light.
It can be startling to consider a biblical character as fictional and disheartening to imagine a biblical writer belittling another’s life for comic relief. Nonetheless, Luke’s mention of Rhoda reminds us that there were, in fact, slaves present in the households of early Jesus followers. Household slaves guarded gates and maintained spaces in which the Jesus story emerged. Slaves were surrounded by the danger and tension of the movement—in addition to the dangers of enslavement. They witnessed prayers and heard the emerging narrative of the “least of these” while actively living as “the least of these.”
Facts you need to know:
- The author of Acts is unknown but is likely the same Luke who wrote the gospel
- Luke was writing to Jewish and Roman elites, familiar with the social structure of ancient Rome and therefore familiar with literary culture and theatre
- Slaves were considered part of the household and functioned quite intimately in the lives of their master’s household, sharing in everything from raising the children to practicing the household’s religion.
- This story takes place at Mary the Mother of John’s house where many people, enslaved and free, lived. The fact that an enslaved woman is stationed at a gate suggests a certain degree of wealth.
In Acts 12 we hear Luke’s account of Rhoda, the household slave who forgets to open the gate for Peter. By acknowledging that Rhoda was written for comedic effect, we release her from a single, short narrative and instead wonder what life may have been like for Rhoda. What does she know from her life a space where the Jesus story was swirling all around her? Listen and find out:
Questions for Reflection:
- While the people sleep, Rhoda feels a sense of goodness, grace, and freedom that she can’t quite name. As the story progresses we hear her begin to combine her personal experience of God with the Jesus narrative that is in the air at Mary’s house. How does Rhoda’s experience speak to the experience of faith? What does God’s presence feel like to you?
- Luke’s portrait of Rhoda helps advance Peter’s story, but leaves Rhoda’s personhood unacknowledged. How and when do we use one another today for the advancement of ourselves and our stories? When does humor hurt rather than help? How can we learn from both the wisdom and the faults of foundational figures?
- What ideas, understandings, and/or images swirl in our world that might whisper God’s goodness, grace, and freedom into our lives?
Resources for Further Study:
About the writer:
Taylor Romeo is a second year at Wake Forest University School of Divinity and an alumna of Luther College and Lutheran Volunteer Corps. Taylor believes curious theology inspires healthy religion. In her free time she enjoys creating beautiful spaces through sustainable means.