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Women in the New Testament and Early Church

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August 8, 2012

Male history has forgotten how central women were in the New Testament. This paper redresses that uninformed, acquiescent version of history.

Priscilla – as recorded in the Catacombs

In memory of her: Women in the New Testament and Early Church

‘God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers…’ writes Paul (1 Cor 12:27, NRSV). Women were included among all three groups: apostles, prophets and teachers. They participated as leaders of congregations, interpreters and teachers of the Scriptures. In some cases they baptised and celebrated the Eucharist. Then as now there were arguments about the appropriateness of such things. At such a time as this, it is good to remember the rich diversity of experience that has been part of the Church from the beginning; the many women who have gone before.

Euodia and Syntyche: leaders of the church at Philippi

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Phil 4:2-3, NRSV)

At the end of the letter to the Philippians, Paul urges two women, Euodia and Syntyche, ‘to be of the same mind’; ‘to agree’. He also comments that these women ‘have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers.’ Euodia and Syntyche, Clement and Paul appear as a group who work together in the gospel. Paul calls them ‘co-workers’ along with his other co-workers, which included such figures as Timothy and Barnabas.

Why does Paul address these words to the women in a public letter addressed to the whole congregation? The text suggests there is a disagreement—though it is not certain whether the disagreement is between the two women, or between the women and Paul, whether Paul is urging them to be ‘of the same mind’ as each other, or ‘of the same mind’ as himself. Clearly, however, the disagreement is significant. The fact that it is addressed in such a public letter to the entire congregation suggests that the women are key leaders in the congregation and that this disagreement—whatever its nature—therefore affects the life of the congregation and warrants being addressed in such a public way. This recognition of Euodia and Syntyche as leaders of the congregation is by no means new: no less a scholar and authority than the fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, recognised the women as heads of the church in Philippi (he did not think, however, that women of his day could fulfil such a function).[1]

While it may surprise that the congregation at Philippi should be led by women, it is worth recalling that when Paul first travelled to Philippi he sought out a ‘place of prayer’ and encountered a group of women gathered there; that the first convert at Philippi is Lydia, and that Paul stayed in her house (Acts 16:11-15). It would appear from this account in Acts that women played a central role in the mission in Philippi from the outset.

It has often been asked to what extent Jesus and Paul were following or breaking social conventions in the way they related to women and included women in the community. Generalisations must be avoided: Judaism was not homogeneous and there are also significant differences between Greek and Roman attitudes and culture. Many of the cities in which the Pauline communities were located (Corinth, Philippi) were highly Romanised. Roman wives were freer to move in public, joined their husbands for dinners and retained greater financial independence than their Greek counterparts. Wendy Cotter suggests that the evidence for women’s involvement from the Pauline literature is entirely conventional for Roman customs. At the same time the Pauline use of the word ekklesia (assembly) rather than oikos (house) for the gathered community implies a counter-cultural role for the women, since Roman women, like Greek women, were not permitted to hold civic office.[2]

The women leaders of the congregation at Philippi are, incidentally, not the only ones who encounter conflict in the context of their ministry: we know of the very public disputes of Paul with other leaders, including Peter (Gal 2:11), Barnabas (Acts 15:36-39) and various leaders at Corinth (1 Cor 1, 3). It might also be noted here in passing that Paul names many women using terms that suggest they play a role within these early missions. In his analysis of the women and men greeted in Romans 16, Richardson concludes that women are named more frequently and in more significant roles than men.[3]

Junia, prominent apostle, and other women apostles

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. (Rom 16:7, NRSV)

Within a long list of greetings sent by Paul to the church in Rome there appears Junia, ‘prominent among the apostles’. This nonchalant reference to a woman apostle has so surprised some scholars, that they have suggested ‘Junia’ must be a male name, a shortened form of the male name ‘Junias’. This proposal has been shown to be unsubstantiated: there is extensive evidence of Junia as a common women’s name, but no evidence at all of Junias as a male name, and the ancient manuscripts of Romans all read Junia or Julia, both feminine names. Both commentaries and liturgical texts/traditions unquestioningly accept Junia or Julia.[4]

It has also been suggested that ‘prominent among the apostles’ simply means ‘well-known to the apostles’, which, again, allows the exclusion of Junia as a woman apostle. Against this suggestion it can be noted that both Greek and Latin commentators and the liturgical tradition of the church accept Junia as a woman apostle. In the liturgy of the Orthodox church Junia is honoured to this day as an apostle. John Chrysostom writes, ‘It is certainly a great thing to be an apostle; but to be outstanding among the apostles—think what praise that is! She was outstanding in her works, in her good deeds; oh and how great is the philosophy of this woman, that she was regarded as worthy to be counted among the apostles!’ (Homilies on the letter to the Romans, 31,2).[5] Besides the well-known circle of the Twelve (called the Twelve Apostles by Luke) there was a wider circle of apostles which included Paul, Barnabas and others—including this woman apostle.

The early Church also recognised the women at the tomb of Jesus as apostles, and used the designation ‘apostle to the apostles’ of such New Testament women, including Mary Magdalene and Martha. Origen calls the woman at the well in John 4 an apostle, commenting that ‘Christ sends the woman as an apostle to the inhabitants of the city … here the woman proclaims Christ to the Samaritans’ (Origen, Commentary on John, 4,26-27). Other women in early Christian tradition also receive this designation, including Thecla and Nino.

Thecla, who is known from the second-century Acts of Paul as a disciple of Paul, is designated apostle in a fifth-century text.[6] At that time she was a popular role-model for ascetics and there were several pilgrim sites dedicated to her. Yet already in the second century Tertullian famously fumed that ‘if they claim writings which are wrongly inscribed with Paul’s name—I mean the example of Thecla—in support of women’s freedom to teach and baptize, let them know that a presbyter in Asia, who put together that book, heaping up a narrative as it were from his own materials under Paul’s name, when after conviction he confessed that he had done it from love of Paul, resigned his position’ (On Baptism 1, 17). The Acts of Paul, as we have them, speak of Thecla as a disciple of Paul commissioned by him to ‘Go, and teach the word of God.’[7] They do not recount her baptising (apart from baptising herself). Since we only have fragmentary copies of the Acts, it may be the case that longer editions of the Acts included such stories. In any case, what makes the comment from Tertullian interesting is that it suggests that the example of Thecla was used in the second century to support women’s roles of teaching and baptising. While Tertullian rejects the Acts of Paul on theological grounds, some of his contemporaries (Hippolytus and Origen) use it without hesitation and in some places it was included among the canonical writings.[8] The popularity particularly of the stories of Thecla is evident: these stories circulated also independently as The Acts of Paul and Thecla.

Dennis MacDonald has argued convincingly that oral traditions about Paul and Thecla already circulated at the time of the writing of 1 and 2 Timothy and that the author of 1 and 2 Timothy is responding to the image of Paul presented in these traditions.[9] (It is generally acknowledged that 1 and 2 Timothy were not written by Paul but by a later disciple in Paul’s name.) The writer of these letters and the tellers and writers of the story of Thecla preserved in the Acts of Paul each claim the example of Paul for their own position. One writes in the name of Paul that women are not to teach or have authority in the church (1 Tim 2:11-15), the other recounts Paul explicitly authorising a woman to go and teach the word of God. Only later is Thecla explicitly called an apostle; but the traditions surrounding this woman were clearly significant from their beginnings, particularly for the apostolic role attributed to her in teaching the gospel and the role-model she provided for women’s ministry in baptising.

Nino is known as ‘apostle and evangelist’ to Georgia (Iberia). Tradition places her in the time of the emperor Constantine.  An early church history by Rufinus written around 403 CE attests the conversion of Georgia by an anonymous woman prisoner of war, who preached Christ, taught Christian forms of prayer and worship and converted the royal household. Rufinus comments that she did so ‘insofar as a woman had the right to do so’, demonstrating concern over the extent to which Nino’s activity might conflict with current ecclesiastical prohibitions against such activities. The Georgian tradition preserved in the Life of Nino, by contrast, describes her activity quite freely, including preaching, teaching and baptising.[10] It is this history which gives the woman the name Nino, which may simply mean “nun”.[11]

Finally, a second-century commentary on the Song of Songs by Hippolytus names Martha and Mary as ‘apostles to the apostles’, naming these two women as the women who went to the tomb at Easter. This is the earliest extant text which uses the term ‘apostle to the apostles’ of the women who announce the Easter news:

Those who were made apostles to the apostles, having been sent by Christ, show to us a good witness; to whom first the angels said: ‘Go and announce to the disciples: “He has gone before you into Galilee. There you shall see him.”’ That, therefore, the apostles might not doubt that they (i.e. the women) were sent by the angels, Christ himself met [with] the apostles, that the women might be [recognized as] the apostles of Christ. (Hippolytus, Commentary on the Song of Songs, 25.6)[12]

What all of these texts show is that Junia is by no means unique in appearing as a woman apostle in early Christianity. This ‘prominent woman apostle’ takes her place alongside Paul and Barnabas in our memory of the early Christian mission and is followed by other women who receive this designation.

Phoebe: Sister, deacon, benefactor, emissary of Paul

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. (Romans 16:1-2, NRSV)

Paul’s list of greetings to the church in Rome begins with a commendation of Phoebe, ‘sister’, ‘deacon (Greek: diakonos) of the church at Cenchreae’ and ‘benefactor’ (Greek: prostatis) of Paul. Paul regularly uses the word ‘brother’ to designate his co-workers. Many of his letters are sent ‘from Paul the apostle and [name] the brother’ (e.g. 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Col 1:1; Phlm 1). The term ‘sister’, particularly appearing here in combination with diakonos, can be read in the same way, though it often has not been.

Although Phoebe (Rom 16:1ff) is the only person in the Pauline literature to receive an official letter of recommendation and although she is given three substantive titles—sister, diakonos, and prostatis—her significance for the early Christian mission is far from acknowledged. …. Whenever Paul uses the title diakonos to refer to himself or another male leader, exegetes translate it ‘minister’, ‘missionary’, or ‘servant’. In the case of Phoebe they usually translate it ‘deaconess’. After characterizing Phoebe as an “obviously well-to-do and philanthropic lady,” Lietzman goes on to say: ‘Even at that time there had long been women deacons in the Christian church who, when their sex made them especially suitable, came forward and gave significant help in caring for the poor and sick, and at the baptism of women’. Similarly Michel notes: ‘It is possible that Phoebe ‘served’ women, the sick, or friends and perhaps gave also assistance at baptism of women’. Unconsciously these exegetes are projecting back into the first century the duties of deaconesses in later centuries.[13]

Roles and offices emerged over time in the early Christian communities. It is difficult, therefore, to know exactly what the role of diakonos might have entailed at this point, as opposed to the later roles of deacons as they are described for example in 1 Timothy or in later church documents.[14] However, to make a distinction that assumes that this role must have differed for Phoebe because she is a woman is not supported in the text. Phoebe is identified as a benefactor to many, including Paul. This suggests that she is a person of financial means and social standing who has used her wealth and her influence to support the work of the gospel.

It is now generally accepted that Phoebe was the bearer of the letter to the Romans to Rome and, therefore, would have been the one who read the letter to the congregation and who could be expected to amplify, clarify or explain it.[15] While it has been suggested that Paul is here simply drawing on convenience and happenstance of Phoebe travelling to Rome on other business, Allan Chapple argues cogently that the production of the letter is far too expensive and its reception by the Roman churches far too significant to Paul to be left to circumstance.[16] ‘It is because Romans was critical in laying the groundwork for the partnership Paul hoped to forge with the church in Rome that it is both the lengthiest and the most systematic of his letters’, he writes.[17]

In view of all that Romans was designed to achieve—both for Paul and his mission-plans, and for the church itself—Paul was undoubtedly investing a great deal in Phoebe when he entrusted the letter to her. … With so much riding on the positive reception of Romans, there is thus little doubt that Paul would have gone through it carefully with Phoebe so that she was able to communicate its contents as he wanted. Her reading of the letter can thus be seen as an authorised interpretation of its contents.[18]

When Paul sends someone to act on his behalf, to introduce himself to the churches in Rome, to secure what he seems to consider one of his most significant missions and to deliver and interpret his longest and most significant letter, he sends Phoebe. Clearly Paul expects that Phoebe will be accepted as an emissary in his name and that she will be able to act with authority within the congregations in Rome, including as reader and interpreter of his letter. Given the significance of this letter and the extensive financial cost involved in its production and delivery to Rome, if Paul had any doubts about Phoebe’s capacity to carry out this role, or the reception she might receive as a woman, it can surely be expected that he would have sent a male leader instead, or at least sent a male along with her to ensure that this important letter does not fail to reach its audience and achieve its effect.[19]

Prisca/Priscilla, Marcella and others: Teachers

3Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, 4and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5Greet also the church in their house. (Rom 16:3-5, NRSV)

… When Priscilla and Aquila heard [Apollos], they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately. (Acts 18:26, NRSV)

Acts recounts that Paul met Aquila and Priscilla (Prisca) in Corinth, where they had come after being ordered to leave Rome (Acts 18:1-3). As fellow tentmakers, Paul stayed and worked with them and eventually took the couple with him when he left for Syria, leaving them along the way in Ephesus (18:18-19). There the couple served as teachers for Apollos, who became another significant leader in the early Christian movement (18:24-26). Prisca and Aquila appear as leaders of communities of Christians meeting in their house (1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:5). The fact that Priscilla/Prisca is mentioned ahead of her husband on five of the seven occasions in which the couple are named (Acts 18:18, 19, 26; Rom 16:3; 2 Tim 4:19)[20] has led some scholars to conclude that she must have been the more significant person of the pair.

Women involved in teaching include of course other women described thus far: Euodia and Syntyche, in their work in the Gospel in Philippi; Thecla and Nino and Phoebe. Again, a search through wider Christian literature, letters and inscriptions reveals other women called teachers: the teacher Kyria in a fourth-century letter from Egypt, the desert mother Synkletica, and the philosopher Hypatia in Alexandria whom the bishop Synesius of Cyrene addresses as ‘mother and sister and teacher’.[21] Marcella was an important teacher in Rome in the fourth century. The church father Jerome had great respect for her and wrote to her often. He writes of her:

If, after my departure [from Rome], there was a difference of opinion about any scriptural text the decision was left to her. And because she was very wise and had the gift that philosophers call to prepon, that is, the ability to decide what is appropriate, she answered when she was asked in such a way that she did not call her opinion her own, but gave it as mine or that of another, so that even when she taught she did so as if she herself was only a learner. For she knew the word of the apostle: ‘But I do not permit a woman to teach’. She did not wish the male sex, sometimes including priests who asked advice about obscure and doubtful passages, to feel any insult. (Jerome, Epistle 127,7).[22]

Once again the prohibition against women teaching rubs against the reality of women recognised as teachers—even as teachers of priests. Jerome feels a need (and finds a way) of resolving the obvious discrepancy between Marcella’s teaching activity and the prohibition against such activity in 1 Timothy 2:12. It appears from this, and another of Jerome’s letters (Ep. 53,7), that Marcella was the leading interpreter of Scripture in Rome at the time. She participated in public debates over Origenism, defending the orthodox view (so Jerome in Ep. 127, 9-10), and ‘was in dialogue with other theologians of her time’.[23]

Another Roman woman of the time, Faltonia Betitia Proba wrote a Cento, ‘a recasting of the biblical stories of creation and redemption in Virgillian verse … [that] was widely used for educational purposes in late antiquity and the Middle Ages’.[24] Marcella’s contemporary Melania the Elder also participated in theological controversies—but supported Origenism, earning the wrath of Jerome. She was the first of a series of aristocratic Roman women who left to found monasteries in Palestine. Others include Paula and her daughter Eustochium and Melania the Younger, the granddaughter of Melania the elder. The Life of Melania (the Younger) reports that she regularly taught both women and men and was called Teacher by the women living in her monastery. Another teacher, Theodora, is known only from her tomb epigraph in Rome at this time.[25] Women teachers have been part of the life of the church, including as teachers of men, all prohibitions against such a practice notwithstanding.

Women prophets

Women prophets appear both in the New Testament and the early Church. Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians reveals women who pray and prophesy (1 Cor 11:4,5), ‘though there seems to be a vigorous debate on the dress requirements for women and men when engaged in these charismatic activities (1 Cor 11:2-16)’.[26] In Luke’s account of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, a number of women prophesy: Mary, Elizabeth and Anna (Luke 1:25, 41-56; 2:36-38). Acts also notes the four daughters of Philip who prophesy (Acts 21:9). These daughters of Philip are the role models of ‘true prophets’ against the ‘false’ prophesying of the heretics for the church historian Eusebius and are known to other early Christian writers. Eusebius also mentions another ‘true’ prophet, Ammia of Philadelphia, about whom nothing else is known.[27]

Women prophets played a leading role in a later Christian movement known as the ‘New Prophecy’ or Montanism (after one of its leaders), which flourished around 170 CE in Phrygia. It was denounced as heretical. Another woman prophet is known from the correspondence of Firmillian, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia with Cyprian. In a letter written to Cyprian in 255-6 CE (Cyprian epistle 74.10-11), Firmillian recounts the story of this woman who had been active in the area twenty years earlier, had prophesied, baptised and even celebrated the Eucharist. Firmillian recounts that she did so under the influence of the demonic and was eventually exorcised. He is keen to emphasise, however, that she celebrated the sacraments using all of the appropriate rubrics. The story is recounted in the context of arguments over baptism and, specifically, whether baptisms conducted by those deemed heretical could be accepted. In this context, the woman, because she is shown to be demon-possessed, serves as a case in point:  ‘What, then, shall we say about the baptism of this woman, by which a most wicked demon baptized through means of a woman? … Can it be believed that either remission of sins was given, or the regeneration of the saving laver duly completed, when all things, although after the image of truth, yet were done by a demon?’ asks Firmillian (Ep. 74.11). The key issue at stake is the demon-possession of the one baptising, not her gender.[28] None-the-less, one wonders whether it might be precisely the fact that it is a woman who is prophesying, baptising and celebrating the Eucharist that leads some to charge her with demon-possession, and to prove their case with the help of an exorcist. It may be recalled here that even Jesus was accused of being possessed by a demon (Luke 11:15-20). The accusation of demon-possession is one weapon in arguments over orthodoxy and heresy.

In the Didache (‘Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’), a document generally thought to date around 100 CE, prophets appear as itinerant preachers and teachers who also celebrate the Eucharist (Didache 10.7). The concern this document shows about discerning true prophets from false prophets highlights the complexity that prophecy as a gift and prophets as a group of leaders presented to the early Christian communities. In the case of women prophets, this one contentious issue is further overlaid with a second issue that became contentious among the early Christian communities, the question of what leadership/authority roles (if any) women might exercise in the communities. Perhaps it becomes all-too-easy to use the one issue to argue about the other. It would certainly seem to be all the more important to attend to the two issues separately. The New Testament texts certainly show concern over false prophecy, including false prophecy of women (Matt 7:15; Acts 16:16-19; Rev 2:18-23). It also seems that New Testament writers are not immune from injecting their own perspectives on women’s roles in the church into their writings, either intentionally and unintentionally. Recognising this issue is important in the reading of Acts in particular, since it holds such a significant place in our image of the history of the earliest Church. The author of Acts, who also wrote the Gospel of Luke, is not simply “tape-recording” history, but brings his own perspective to his work, including his perspective on appropriate roles for women.[29]

Women celebrating the sacraments

Having mentioned Firmillian and the woman who baptised and celebrated the Eucharist, a number of other texts can be noted that attest such practice of women. The Apostolic Church Order, a text that probably dates to the early third century, presents a detailed argument against women’s right to celebrate the Eucharist. On this topic the Apostolic Church Order presents more arguments to shore up its own position than on any other topic covered in this text. The amount of space and energy devoted to this matter suggests that it is an issue that must be argued strenuously and, as such, gives an indication both of the presence and the strength of the counterarguments. If no women were celebrating the Eucharist, and nobody was arguing in favour of their right to do so, the Apostolic Church Order would not need to argue its own position so vigorously.[30]

The Didascalia Apostolorum, or ‘Teaching of the Apostles’ is another church order from the third century. Its inclusion of a prohibition against women baptising ‘presupposes that they were doing so publicly and with enough frequency to warrant attention’, observes Francine Cardman.[31] This church order is also concerned with women teaching, specifically with what ‘widows’ (a recognised office of women in the church) were teaching. They were permitted to teach certain topics, but prohibited from teaching others.[32] The Apostolic Constitutions is a later compilation of church orders from the fourth century. Here women’s baptising is also prohibited, but in a wording that appears almost tentative: ‘Concerning the baptising of women we want you to know that there is no small danger to those [women] who attempt it. Therefore we do not advise it; for it is unsafe, or rather against the law and ungodly’ (Apostolic Constitutions 3.9.1).

The Canons of Laodicea (c.343-381 CE) prohibit women from approaching the altar (canon 44), but also include a curious reference to presbytides or ‘female presidents’ who ‘are not to be appointed in the church’ (canon 11 NPNF II 14.129). Ute Eisen analyses this text at length, concluding that ‘the presbytides belonged to the higher clergy, which performed the service at the altar. If the presbytides had had only a marginal significance in the Church hierarchy it would scarcely have been necessary to forbid their installation. Instead, here an end was to be set to this general authority of women in Church offices.’[33] Eisen provides a number of other inscriptions attesting women presbyters in both East and West.[34]

Perhaps most surprising of all is evidence for women bishops from the early Church. From Umbria, Italy, derives an inscription dated to around 500 AD that reads, “If you will, traveller, note this inscription: here lies the venerable lady, bishop Q–, laid to rest in peace…”.[35] The name of the woman has been destroyed. Scholarship has regularly interpreted her as the wife of a bishop, though there is no evidence of a husband in the inscription. There is evidence, however, that women were officiating at the Eucharist in Italy at the time. Pope Gelasius I wrote in 494 AD to all episcopates in southern Italy and Cicely that ‘nevertheless we have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they do not belong’.[36]

A second inscription is found in a mosaic in the Chapel of St. Zeno at Santa Prassede in Rome. It is dated to the ninth century and depicts ‘Theodora episcopa’. A tablet found in the same chapel names Theodora episcopa in the same way and identifies her as the mother of Paschal I. The suggestion that this woman could actually have been a bishop is not generally countenanced in interpretations of these inscriptions; it appears unthinkable, particularly for the church in Rome, at the centre of the Church’s hierarchical structure. Ute Eisen suggests that the possibility should nevertheless not be altogether excluded, ‘especially if we consider the kinds of feuds the bishops and popes of Rome pursued against one another, and the means they employed against each other especially in the ninth century’.[37]

An inscription from Salona dated to the fifth or sixth century attests a sacerdotae, a title usually applied to bishops, occasionally also to presbyters. Again, the suggestion that she may have been the bishop of the community cannot be ruled out, particularly as another inscription from there attests the woman presbyterFlavia Vitalia.[38]

What all of these texts indicate that the issue of women celebrating the sacraments was known and discussed in various parts of the church throughout the second to fourth century. It is clear, concludes Church historian Charlotte Methuen, that

patterns of ministry and patterns of involvement of men and women in leadership and oversight, were not fixed throughout the history of the Church, but have developed and changed. Many decisions of the early Church about its leadership structures were mission driven, and some were intended to prevent the institution of the Church from becoming a stumbling block or an embarrassment to those to whom the folly of the Gospel was to be preached. … There are scriptural precedents for women who spread the faith as apostles and evangelists, or who had oversight over house churches and other Christian communities. The tradition of the Church shows that the exclusion of women from those offices came about for reasons of mission, for fear that pagans would ‘mock and scoff’ to hear women teach. Today this is no longer the context in which we preach the gospel. Indeed, in our context one might argue that the situation is reversed, and that the refusal to reconsider this decision is rather a reason for people to ‘mock and scoff’ at preachers of the gospel, seeing the Church as ‘anachronistic and odd’.[39]

Remembering the women

‘God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers’ writes Paul (1 Cor 12:27, NRSV). The New Testament reveals that women were included among all three groups: apostles, prophets and teachers. A survey of early Christian literature and inscriptions more widely indicates, moreover, that women continued to exercise these ministries in various parts of the church across subsequent centuries, contested and perhaps rare though these cases may have been.

The stories we tell and the way we tell the stories is important. The book of Acts does not tell us the stories of Prisca, Lydia, Phoebe, Euodia and Syntyche and the daughters of Philip who prophesy in the same detail in which it records the stories of Stephen, Peter, Paul and Barnabas. A similar silence on the women is apparent in the Gospels. While the Gospels attest that Jesus had a group of women disciples who followed him from early on in his ministry  and travelled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, these women only appear at the crucifixion (Mark 15:40-41; Matt 27:55-56). There, at the end, we are informed that the women had been there all along. A notable exception to this is the Gospel of Luke which reveals these women disciples of Jesus already in 8:1-3. Like the other Gospels, however, Luke does not recount stories of Mary Magdalene and Salome; does not show them at the Last Supper or among the disciples engaged in dialogue with Jesus or witnessing his miracles. Consequently the women tend to slip from view and it becomes all too easy to picture the disciples, apostles, missionaries and leaders only as men. We know differently: we know Junia the apostle, Phoebe the deacon, Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche, the Samaritan woman at the well. We know Lydia, Thecla, Nino, Marcella, Synkletica, Melania, Paula. We know the daughters of Philip, Mary, Elizabeth, Anna, Ammia, Theodora episcopa, Flavia Vitalia. We know these, and the many other women, who have been part of the mission. We know and we remember.

[1] See Veronica Koperski, ‘Women and Discipleship in Luke 10.38-42 and Acts 6.1-7: The literary context of Luke-Acts,’ in A feminist companion to Luke, edited A. J. Levine with M. Blickenstaff (London; New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), pp. 161-196. See also Margaret Y. MacDonald, ‘Reading real women through the undisputed letters of Paul,’ in Women and Christian Origins, edited R. S. Kraemer and M. R. D’Angelo. (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp.199-220.

[2] Wendy Cotter demonstrates Wendy Cotter, ‘Women’s Authority Roles in Paul’s Churches: countercultural or conventional?’ Novum Testamentum 36/4 (1994): 350-372.

[3] Peter Richardson. ‘From Apostles to Virgins: Romans 16 and the roles of women in the early church.’ Toronto Journal of Theology 2/2 (1986): 232-261.

[4] See Ute Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity, translated by Linda M. Maloney (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2000), p.47.

[5] Ibid., p.48.

[6] Eisen, Women Officeholders, p.52.

[7] Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, rev. ed., vol 2. English translation by R. McL. Wilson. (Cambridge: James Clarke; Louisville KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), p.246.

[8] Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, vol 2, p.215. Once ancient list of books of the Bible (from the fourth century includes the Acts of Paul in its list, suggesting that it was accepted as part of the Bible by some, though it was considered apocryphal by others, such as Eusebius and Jerome. See Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, vol 1, p.37 and vol 2, p.215-216.

[9] Dennis R. MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983).

[10] Eisen, Women Officeholders, p.52-53

[11] See Anne Jensen, God’s self-confident daughters, translated O.C. Dean, Jr. (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1996), p.75.

[12] J. A. Cerrato, Hippolytus between East and West: The Commentaries and the Provenance of the Corpus. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.191. On the interesting question why Martha here appears in the Easter narrative, see J. A. Cerrato, ‘Martha and Mary in the Commentaries of Hippolytus.’ Studia Patristica 34(2001): 294-297; Allie Ernst, Martha from the Margins: The authority of Martha in early Christian tradition. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 98(Leiden: Brill, 2009).

[13] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A feminist theological reconstruction of Christian Origins, (London: SCM Press, 1983), p.170.

[14] In a letter to Emperor Trajan written by the Roman governor Pliny in 111-113 AD, Pliny notes that he has interrogated two women ministrae (deacons) about the Christian religion. Again, what role, precisely, these women held is not specified further in the text. Ute Eisen lists a number of inscriptions that name women deacons or deaconesses in Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and the West. See Eisen, Women Officeholders, pp.158-198.

[15] Brendan Byrne, Romans, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996), p.447; Roman Garrison, ‘Phoebe, the Servant-Benefactor and Gospel Traditions,’ in Text and Artifact in the Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity: Essays in honour of Peter Richardson. Edited S. G. Wilson and M. Desjardins. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000), pp.63-73; Allan Chapple, ‘Getting Romans to the right Romans: Phoebe and the delivery of Paul’s letter,’ Tyndale Bulletin 62/2 (2011), pp. 195-214.

[16] It has been estimated that making a copy of the letter would cost the equivalent of around six weeks’ wages for a day labourer or about US $2500 at today’s wages.See Chapple, ‘Getting Romans to the right Romans,’ p.211. Chapple further suggests that not only would these costs have had to be borne for the production of the letter, as well as the considerable costs for its delivery to Rome, but that Paul expects further copies of the letter to be made in Rome to ensure that each of the various house churches meeting in Rome had access to their own copy.

[17] Ibid., p. 209.

[18] Ibid., p. 198, 213.

[19] See further Chapple, ‘Getting Romans to the right Romans’. He refutes arguments that have been proposed that the scribe Tertius, who wrote the letter, accompanied Phoebe to Rome and could have played such a role. This makes no sense in view of the fact that Tertius sends greetings within the letter.

[20] Aquila is named first in Acts 18:2 and 1 Cor 16:19.

[21] Eisen, Women Officeholders, p.89-93.

[22] Quoted in Eisen, Women Officeholders, p.95.

[23] Ibid., p.96.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., p.93.

[26] Peter Richardson. ‘From Apostles to Virgins: Romans 16 and the roles of women in the early church.’ Toronto Journal of Theology 2/2(1986): 232-261. On the women prophets in Corinth see also Antoinette Clark Wire, The Corinthian Women Prophets: A reconstruction through Paul’s rhetoric (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990).

[27] On these women prophets see Eusebius, Church History, III.37.1 and V.17.3. Jensen, God’s self-confident daughters, p.16-18.

[28] Charlotte Methuen, ‘Widows, bishops and the struggle for authority in the Didascalia Apostolorum.’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History 46 (1995): 197-213.

[29] See, for example, Barbara Reid, Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996) and by the same author, ‘Luke’s Mixed Message for Women.’ Chicago Studies 38 (1999): 283-297; Turid Karlsen Seim, The Double Message: Patterns of gender in Luke-Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).

[30] Ernst, Martha from the Margins, pp.250-251.

[31] Francine Cardman, ‘Women, Ministry, and Church Order in Early Christianity.’ In Women and Christian Origins. Ed. R. S. Kraemer and M. R. D’Angelo. (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1999), pp. 300-329 (quote from p.311). See also Michael Penn, ‘“Bold and having no shame”: Ambiguous widows, controlling clergy, and early Syrian communities.’ Hugoye 4/2(2001).

[32] Charlotte Methuen, ‘Widows, bishops and the struggle for authority in the Didascalia Apostolorum.’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History 46 (1995): 197-213. Idem., ‘“For pagans laugh to hear women teach”: Gender stereotypes in the Didascalia Apostolorum.’ In Gender and Christian religion. Edited R. N. Swanson. (Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1999), pp.23-35. See also Michael Penn, ‘“Bold and having no shame”: Ambiguous widows, controlling clergy, and early Syrian communities.’ Hugoye 4/2(2001).

[33] Eisen, Women Officeholders, p.122.

[34] Eisen, Women Officeholders, p.116-142. See also Richard Horsley, New documents illustrating early Christianity. Vol 1 (North Ryde, N.S.W., Ancient History Documentary Research Centre Macquarie University, 1981), p.121.

[35] Charlotte Methuen, ‘Vidua – Presbytera – Episcopa: Women with oversight in the Early Church,’ Theology 108 (2005): 163-177, at p.163. See also Eisen, Women Officeholders, pp.199-200.

[36] Eisen, Women Officeholders, p.129.

[37] Idem., p.205.

[38] Idem., p.132-133.

[39] Charlotte Methuen, ‘Vidua – Presbytera – Episcopa’, p.172-173.

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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November 2012



On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory