Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Atto of Vercelli, Hatto of Vercelli, women elders

In my previous blog post, I showed that Chrysostom (Bishop of Constantinople from 398 to 405) believed that some women were leaders, teachers, apostles, and deacons in New Testament churches. In this post, I quote from a letter written by Atto of Vercelli (885-961) who had similar views.

Atto was Bishop of Vercelli (in northern Italy) from 924 until his death in 961. He also served as Grand Chancellor to two kings of Italy. Like Chrysostom, Atto was not an obscure priest ministering in a backwater. Rather, these two men were influential bishops, responsible for large churches. As well as mixing with the highest echelons of society, both bishops genuinely cared for the welfare of poorer people and they spoke out against corruption among the wealthy and the clergy. These were, overall, good men.

Several of Atto’s written works survive, including several letters. One surviving letter was written to a priest named Ambrose who had asked about the terms presbytera (female presbyter/ priest/ elder)[1] and diacona (female deacon) that appear in early church canons (rules).

Ambrose wanted to know if these women with titles were wives of presbyters and of deacons, or if they were presbyters and deacons themselves. Atto believed that these women were ministers in their own right. He believed that women, as well as men, supervised churches in the first few centuries of the common era.

The following excerpt from Atto’s letter is about female presbyters. It is translated from the Latin by Mary Ann Rossi. (I’ve made a few minor edits for clarity and added the Latin of keywords and key phrases.)

Therefore since your discretion has prompted you to ask how we ought to understand the terms presbytera or diacona in the canons, it seems to me that in the primitive church [i.e. the early church], according to the Lord’s word: “many are the crops and few the laborers” [Luke 10:2], even religious women were ordained caretakers in the holy church (etiam religiosae mulieres in sancta ecclesia cultrices ordinabantur) for the helping of men. This is something that blessed Paul points out in his epistle to the Romans when he says, “I commend to you my sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the church that is in Cenchraea.”

One understands this because then, not only men, but also women were in charge of churches (praeerant ecclesiis), to be sure, for the sake of great efficiency. For women, long accustomed to the rites of pagans, instructed as well in philosophical doctrines, were converted more readily for these reasons, and were more easily instructed thoroughly in the worship of religion. Canon 11 of the Laodicean Council later prohibits this practice when it says that it is not allowed for those women who are called “priests‚” or “those presiding,” to be ordained in the Churches. (PL 134. 114)[2]

In these paragraphs, Atto refers to Canon 11 of the Laodicean Council (circa 360). This canon states,

It is not allowed for those women who are called ‘presbyters/ priests/ elders’ (presbytides) or ‘women presidents’ (prokathēmenai) to be appointed (kathistasthai) in the churches.
Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea[3]

This canon acknowledges that in the fourth century there were women called presbyters and that some presided in congregations. Other councils and canons, as well as a telling letter written by Pope Gelasius I, also banned women presbyters.[4] The fact that these women ministers were banned assumes their existence: why ban something that does not exist?

Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek comment on Atto’s letter.

Atto clearly believes that before the fourth century, women had been ordained leaders of the churches, had presided over, preached in and led them. They were ordained, he thinks, because of their fitness for ministry and also because of the paucity of other male presbyters; only the Council of Laodicea in the second half of the fourth century put an end to this practice. [Atto’s] letter is a rare witness from the early Middle Ages to belief among some male clergy (including, in this case, a bishop) that women once exercised the presbyteral office in the ancient church. Partly because the document was written some six centuries after the events it purports to describe, it does not, however, constitute unambiguous witness to the existence of female presbyters in the early church. Yet it does certainly demolish the notion that “the tradition” is unanimous in denying the existence of female priests. [5]

Neither Chrysostom in the early 400s or Atto in the 900s were feminists swayed by an egalitarian culture, and neither were known for being politically correct. Yet Chrysostom saw in the New Testament that women were church leaders, and Atto saw in church tradition that women had been church leaders. And both seemed to have thought women leaders were a good thing even though women were rarely caretakers or leaders of churches in their own times.

Sadly, the church lost much of its efficiency when it increasingly discouraged gifted women from various ministries and then formally banned them from being leaders. Many churches are still missing out on the gifts, talents, perspectives, and empathy that women bring to leadership and decision making.


Footnotes

[1] “Presbyter” is derived from the Greek word presbyteros (“older person/ elder”), a term used in the New Testament for both Jewish and church elders. The Greek word for “priest” (hiereus) is not used in the New Testament for church leaders.

The Christian title presbyter (elder), meaning an older person entitled to respect, was borrowed from the synagogue, which was governed by a group of elders. . . . Catholic historians translate presbyter as “priest.” Protestant scholars simply retain the word presbyter. In either case, a fully ordained clergyperson is meant.
Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women were Priests (New York: HarperOne, 1995), 5.

[2] The complete letter can be read in English at womenpriests.org. The letter can be read in the original Latin in Patrologiae Latina volume 134, columns 113-115, at Google Books.

[3] A later rendering of the canon by Dionysius Exiguus (497-545) makes the idea of ordination more explicit: Quod non oporteat eas, quae dicuntur presbyterae vel praesidentes, in Ecclesiis ordinari: “That those who are presbyteras or presidents ought not to be ordained in the churches.”

[4] Gelasius I was supreme pontiff from 492 to 496. In his Epistle 14, dated March 11 494, he addressed “all episcopates established in Lucania, Bruttium, and Sicilia” (episcopates in southern Italy and Sicily). Gelasius gives 27 decrees in his letter and he speaks disapprovingly about women performing liturgical functions at the altar. He does not indicate whether these women were presbyters or deacons, and he does not give scriptural reasons for his disapproval. Rather, he expresses his annoyance that some bishops were allowing women to minister in areas that he believed are reserved for men:

… 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 (ministrare sacris altaribus), and to take part in all matters (cunctaque) imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they [the women] do not belong.

[5] Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek (eds), Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 192.

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Related Articles

Were there women elders in the New Testament churches?
The First-Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Phoebe: Deacon of the Church at Cenchrea
Chrysostom on 5 Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
Misogynistic Quotations from Church Fathers and Reformers
Shepherds and Harvesters, Men and Women, in the Harvest Field

Here are links to articles on whether women were pastorseldersbishops/overseers, or deacons or whether they preached in New Testament churches.

Further Reading

Ally Kateusz, “Women Leaders at the Table in Early Churches,” Priscilla Papers 34.2 (Spring 2020):14-22. (Online at cbeinternational.org)


An online launch of Graham Hill’s new book Holding up Half the Sky was held July 1st/ 2nd, 2020.  Here’s a link to the video of the launch where we discuss women in the church: YouTube.

 

12 thoughts on “Atto of Vercelli on Female Priests in the Early Church

  1. I recently read Dr. Ally Kateusz’s provocative book Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership. there were some excellent things about her book particularly learning about the (mostly unbridged) stories of Christianity’s early female apostles Thecla and Irene. The author had to reconstruct these stories from many different manuscripts because of later editing that tried to remove women preaching and baptizing. I appreciated these reconstructed stories but did not buy into all the author’s claims including that the female apostles were female ministerial priests. Otherwise, it seemed like an excellent chapter explaining about women preaching baptizing and generally doing the same things that the missionary preacher Phillip did in the Acts of the Apostles. However, I did not see evidence that these women apostles were able to carry out all the same functions as the male apostles including the laying of hands in Acts chapter 8:14-17.

    I was also very interested in the passages the author cited from the “Six Books” about Mary. Dr. Ally Kateusz claimed that the “Six Books” were written down in the 2nd century based on oral Apostolic Tradition. Have you ever studied the origin of the “Six Books” collection? Could they be actual Apostolic Tradition or were they written primarily by Gnostics or some other questionable group?

    I personally believe that women were given the same ability to be apostles, prophets, and teachers that the men were, but they were not allowed to have the same sacramental responsibilities as the male apostles and prophets who were ministerial priests. Is there any other evidence of female presbyters in the first century of Christianity besides the aforementioned written stories, the written remarks of Atto and John Chrysostom, and a few grave markers?

    “I commend to you my sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the church that is in Cenchraea.”
    That sounds exactly like the translation in the Dewey Rheims Bible available on Bible Gateway. In the modern commentaries it says that Phoebe was a minister or Deacon “diakonos” of the church but some have “in the ministry of the church”.

    The NABRA, and, RSV, NRSV no longer view her as “in the ministry” but rather as a Minister, Deaconess, or Deacon. Are these modern ones based on different original manuscripts then the older ones like the Dewey Rheims or just different interpretations?

    Are they based on different foundational Greek manuscripts?

    Are different interlinear bibles based on different Greek manuscripts?

    1. Hi Dana, A correct translation of Romans 16:1 from the Greek does not include the phrase “in the ministry.” This is not what the Greek texts say. Diakonos is a concrete noun meaning “minister/ deacon.” “In the ministry” would need the abstract noun diakonia and a preposition, etc.

      The Douay-Rheims Bible translates from the Latin rather than the Greek: commendo autem vobis Phoebem sororem nostram quae est in ministerio (“in ministry”) ecclesiae quae est Cenchris. The Douay-Rheims Bible is a translation of a translation.

      All surviving ancient Greek manuscripts of Romans 16:1-2 have diakonos, precise form, diakonon (“minister/ decacon”), but there is a textual variant for the word prostatis (“patron/ benefactor”).

      In the ninth-century uncial manuscripts F and G, the word prostatis (“patron”) is replaced by parastatis, a word that can be translated as “helper” or “assistant.” Parastatis is related to the verb paristēmi which Paul uses when he tells the Romans to assist Phoebe (Rom. 16:2). The overwhelming textual evidence indicates that prostatis (“patron”), not parastatis (“helper”), is the original word Paul used to describe Phoebe.

      _____

      Diakonos is Paul’s word for an agent with a sacred commission, a minister. No other New Testament author uses this word when speaking about individuals in the church.

      Not once does Paul use any diakon– word for ordinary servants. Rather, he typically used the term diakonos for Christian ministers. As well as Phoebe, these diakonoi include Paul himself (Rom. 15:25; 1 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, etc), Timothy (1 Tim. 4:6), Epaphras (Col. 1:7), Tychicus (Eph. 6:21-22; Col. 4:7-9), Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5), and even Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:8).

      An exception is in Romans 13:4 where Paul refers to a government minister as a diakonos. A government minister is not a Christian minister, and yet is described by Paul as having a sacred commission: “For the one in authority is God’s servant (diakonos) for your good” (Rom. 13:4 NIV). Another exception is Paul’s description of false apostles as agents (diakonoi) of Satan with a diabolic commission (2 Cor. 11:13-15). See also Galatians 2:17 where Paul asks the rhetorical question of whether Jesus is a diakonos, acting as an agent, of sin.

      (I’ve referred to every instance where Paul uses the word diakonos in these comments.)

      I did my master’s thesis on deacons and Phoebe in the apostolic and post-apostolic church. Most of the chapters of my thesis have been added to my website and can be accessed here:
      https://margmowczko.com/bibliography-for-deacon-articles/

      _____

      Various interlinears are based on different Greek critical (“edited”) texts. They are not based on ancient Greek manuscripts, as such.

      _____

      I’ve read a few ancient works, other than the New Testament, that mention Mary Magdalene. Apart from the Gospel of Thomas, I don’t know any that can be dated to the first two centuries of the common era. The Gospel of Philip probably dates to the third century, the 400s.

      _____

      The other evidence that some women functioned as church leaders comes from the writings of those who disagree with women leaders. I’ve mentioned two above (Canon 11 in the Laodicean Canon and Gelasius’s letter). See also footnote 20 here: https://margmowczko.com/the-first-century-church-and-the-ministry-of-women/ Furthermore, there are also stone engravings depicting women ministering at altars; however, these and other artefacts need to be interpreted carefully and cautiously.

      I recommend Sr Christine Schenk’s book Crispina and Her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity (Fortress, 2017).
      Here is a recent article Sr Christine has written: https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/simply-spirit/women-believers-changed-roman-empire-now-we-must-change-roman-church

      1. Dr Kateusz’s book is actually about Mary the Mother of God (Jesus) and other early Christian women not Mary Magdalene.
        Yes, I agree that the Canon laws forbidding female Presbyters prove that there were a group of female religious leaders called Presbyters early on. Unfortunately, this this raises more questions than answers.
        Thank you for your reply. I will look into Sr Christine Schenk’s book. I am glad you explained to me about the translation of the translation in the Douay-Rheims Bible. I knew that there was something wrong with the translation in Douay-Rheims but did not know how to fully explain why it is less accurate than the modern translations like the NABRA and RSV. In another discussion you mentioned evidence that women and men both played an important role in communion and were liturgical leaders in the first century AD. Do you have any details on these women liturgical leaders in the first century or women who performed the laying of hands per Acts 8:14-17, Acts 13:3 and Acts 14:23-26?

        1. I have a kindle version of Ally’s book and it’s been a while since I read it, but I recall she does refer to Mary Magdalene a few times. I believe Mariamne in the Acts of Philip is probably Mary Magdalene, not Mary the Mother of Jesus. But that’s neither here nor there. I love the Apocryphal Acts, but I take them as fan fiction.

          The New Testament book of Acts focuses first on Peter’s and then on Paul’s ministries. The author of Acts doesn’t go into much detail about ministries of others such as those of Timothy or Priscilla and whether they did or didn’t lay hands on people. The New Testament doesn’t give guidelines about why or when to lay on hands and by whom.

          I can’t imagine that I said women (or men) were important liturgical leaders. “Liturgy” or “liturgical” are not words I normally use. And where do I say that women or men played an important role in communion?

          I think we have a different view of ministry in the first century. Paul encouraged participation in ministry from gifted people (1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16). https://margmowczko.com/paul-romans-16-women-coworkers/

          1. Yes, you phrased it differently. I believe you said something to the effect that women as well as men presided at the communion meal, the Eucharist. This was in the context of our first online discussion about the differences between my Catholic understanding of the Eucharist and ordained ministry and yours.

          2. Men and women facilitated communion. A woman like Nympha would have provided the venue (her home), the meal, and organised proceedings. But others in Nympha’s house church may have also contributed prayers, songs, teachings, words of encouragement, recitations of Bible passages, etc, during various church gatherings (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16).

            In the first century, communion was primarily a full meal shared in community in remembrance of the Lord Jesus. Some aspects surrounding the meal, such as prayers, may have been done in a formulaic manner (cf. Didache 9-10). However, from my reading, I have seen little evidence of a liturgy or priestly role or altars associated the Lord’s Supper in the first century. These were later developments.

            Men and women, such as Nympha, were not priests who performed sacred rituals at altars. Rather, they organised gatherings and meals.

          3. Hi Marg
            Can you please summarize the reasoning in Pope Clement of Rome’s letter forbidding female presbyters? Did he provide scriptural or theological grounds or was it primarily in that same vein of thinking where women are thought to be unqualified?
            Dana

          4. I don’t recall female presbyters being mentioned at all in First Clement.

          5. Not in the First Epistle of Clement but once in all my research into female ministry a scholar mentioned that one of our first popes Clement of Rome had forbidden female priests’ way back in the 1st century AD. I was under the impression that there was a written letter to this effect because the author of this article which I believe was on the Smithsonian website said that there was a letter.

          6. Many people believe First Clement was written by Clement of Rome. The whole letter was written because some young men in Corinth had ousted the presbyters. I’m fairly certain First Clement is the letter the Smithsonian author was referring to. (Second Clement is certainly not written by Clement of Rome.)

            I’ve written a bit about First Clement and note its patriarchal flavour. The letter assumes that all presbyters will be men. But as I said, I don’t recall that it says anything at all about women presbyters. https://margmowczko.com/mutual-submission-first-clement/

          7. OK Thanks

  2. Alright thank you for this post. I have to say that contrary to what I once believed so strongly. I think that the Church should investigate more thoroughly the idea of female priests and female deacons. This information that you presented here is enough to prove that the consensus in the Tradition is not unanimously against women receiving priestly ordination. Regardless of what I thought before I now think that we need a respectful dialogue about including women in the hierarchy modeled after Romans 16. Unfortunately, I don’t see very much opportunity for this in the near future as every time this subject comes up Rome tries to close it again and they are now starting to threaten people who hold a certain view with excommunication/and very serious spiritual and temporal penalties (Pope Francis recently strengthened cannon laws against women’s ordination). Nevertheless, prayer changes things and as long as we remain on the side of the truth by deciding to present history and scripture as they are I think God looks mercifully on us. I think this situation is really sad because it will separate us from the Eastern Orthodox churches which are increasingly ordaining women deacons, and it need not be this way. Some of our holiest and most thoughtful women like Saint Therese of the Child Jesus very much wanted to be ordained. Nevertheless, I don’t think that the fact that the Church excludes women from ordination should take away from all the good that Popes Francis and John Paul II have done by overcoming a lot of the discrimination and unwillingness to focus on the central Gospel message of Christ mercy.
    The other side of the main problem with the respectful dialogue that I see is that I see women’s ordination groups involved in many types of wicked things that God has already condemned in his Word/ other teachings including abortion/homosexual relationships. Nevertheless, the fact that N. T. Wright supports ordaining women to all three degrees while still acting very aggressively against those who promote abortion, same sex marriage, and the whole culture of death keeps the discussion alive for me.

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