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In my previous blog post, I briefly mentioned that in Egypt, especially in the third century, there were Christian teachers who were not part of the clergy. And I looked at a papyrus letter that mentions a Christian “lady teacher” (kyrian tēn disaskalon) living in Egypt in the early 300s.

In this post, I quote from another early Christian document, the Church History written in the fifth century by Theodoret of Cyrrhus. As well as being a church historian, Theodoret was a theologian and became bishop of Cyrrhus, near Antioch, in 423.[1]

In Book 3 of Theodoret’s Church History, there is a story of a woman who lived in Antioch, the capital of ancient Syria, during the reign of Julian the Apostate.[2] This was a difficult time for Christians. The woman seems to have been well-connected and highly respected, and she helps a young man both theologically and practically. When he was older, the young man told Theodoret the story firsthand.

The Son of a Priest and a Remarkable Woman

The following is the whole account in Theodoret’s Church History about the young man and his teacher. Note that the woman is called “the teacher” (tēn disaskalon) twice.[3]

About the Son of a Priest

A young man who was a [pagan] priest’s son, and brought up in impiety, about this time went over to the true religion [i.e. Christianity]. For a lady, remarkable (episēmos) for her devotion and admitted to the order of deaconesses,[4] was a close friend of his mother. When he came to visit her with his mother, while yet a tiny lad, she used to welcome him with affection and urge him to the true religion.

On the death of his mother the young man used to visit her and enjoyed the advantage of her customary teaching (didaskalias). Deeply impressed by her counsels, he enquired of his teacher (tēn disaskalon) by what means he might both escape the superstition of his father and have part and lot in the truth which she preached (kēryttomenēs).

She replied that he must flee from his father, and honour rather the Creator both of his father and himself; that he must seek some other city where he might lie hidden and escape the violence of the impious emperor [Julian]. And she promised to manage this for him. “Then,” said the young man, “from now on I will come and commit my life to you.”

Not many days afterwards Julian came to Daphne, to celebrate a public feast. With him came the young man’s father, both as a priest and because he was accustomed to attend the emperor. And with their father came the young man and his brother, being appointed to the service of the temple and charged with the duty of ceremonially sprinkling the imperial viands. It is the custom for the festival of Daphne to last for seven days.

On the first day, the young man stood by the emperor’s couch and, according to the prescribed usage, aspersed the meats and thoroughly polluted them. Then at full speed, he ran to Antioch, and making his way to that admirable lady,[5] he said, “I have come to you and I have kept my promise. Do you look to the salvation of each and fulfil your pledge?”

At once she arose and conducted the young man to Meletius the man of God, who ordered him to remain for a while upstairs in the inn. His father after wandering about all over Daphne in search of the young man, then returned to the city and explored the streets and lanes, turning his eyes in all directions and longing to see his child. At length he arrived at the place where the divine Meletius had his hostel; and looking up he saw his son peeping through the lattice. He ran up, drew him along, got him down, and carried him off home. Then he first laid on him many stripes, then applied hot spits to his feet and hands and back, then shut him up in his bedroom, bolted the door on the outside, and returned to Daphne.

So I [Theodoret] myself have heard the man himself narrate in his old age, and he added further that he was inspired and filled with Divine Grace, and broke in pieces all his father’s idols, and made mockery of their helplessness. Afterwards, when he thought of what he had done, he feared his father’s return and sought his Master Christ to approve of his deeds, break the bolts, and open the doors. “For it is for your sake,” he said, “that I have suffered and acted this way.”

“Even as I said this,” he told me, “out fell the bolts and open flew the doors, and back I ran to my teacher (tēn disaskalon). She dressed me up in women’s clothes and took me with her in her covered carriage back to the divine Meletius. He handed me over to the bishop of Jerusalem, at that time Cyril, and we started by night for Palestine.”

After the death of Julian, this young man led his father also into the way of truth. This act he told me with the rest. So in this fashion these men were guided to the knowledge of God and were made partakers of Salvation.

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Church History, Book 3, chapter 10. (Slightly adapted from the English translation at New Advent; Greek: PG 83, column 1101 at Internet Archive.)

Because of the counsel and brave actions of a woman teacher, “these men were guided to the knowledge of God and were made partakers of Salvation.”

Theodoret of Cyrrhus on another Remarkable Woman: Junia

Theodoret’s opening description of the woman teacher uses the Greek adjective episēmos: “For a lady remarkable for her devotion.”[6] The apostle Paul used the same adjective when he described Andronicus and Junia as “outstanding/ prominent/ of note among the apostles” (Romans 16:7 NIV, NASB 1995, NRSV, KJV, etc).[7]

When Theodoret commented on the Romans 16:7 phrase, he stated that Andronicus and Junia were remarkable, or outstanding, among the teachers and among the apostles. Here is his note.

“… next [Paul] says that they are outstanding, not among the disciples, but among the teachers; nor among ordinary teachers, but among the apostles …”[8]
Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Commentary on Romans (My translation) [9]

Judging from the story of the young man and his teacher in his Church History, and from his commentary on Andronicus and Junia, it seems Theodoret did not have a problem with women teachers who guided men “to the knowledge of God.”[10] In my next article, I look at another brave female deacon mentioned in Theodoret’s Church History.


[1] Thirty-five of Theodoret’s written works (Bible commentaries, church histories, and essays on monasticism) survive.

[2] Julian, a nephew of Constantine I, was emperor of Rome from 361 to 363. Constantine had made Christianity a legal religion. His nephew, on the other hand, tried to revive traditional Roman religious practices and squash Christianity. Julian stayed in Antioch from July 362 to March 363.

[3] “The teacher” (tēn disaskalon) is translated into Latin both times as magistram in Migne’s PG 83.

[4] Original Greek: καί τού τής διακονίας ήξιωμένη χαρίσματος; Latin translation in Migne: et ordine diaconissa. PG 83, columns 1101, 1102 (Internet Archive)

[5] The Greek behind “and making his way to that admirable lady” is “καὶ πρὸς τήν θαυμασίαν έκείνην ἀφικόμενος ἄνθρωπον.”

[6] Or, “For a certain woman outstanding in piety” (Γυνή γάρ τις έπίσημος έν εύλαβείᾳ).

[7] The Romans 16:7 phrase in Greek is ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις.

[8] The Greek of Theodoret’s comment is, Έπειτα επισήμους είναι λέγει, ούκ έν τοις μαθηταῖς, ἀλλ’ έν τοίς διδασκάλοις, ούδέ έν τοϊς τυχούσι διδασκάλοις, ἀλλ’ έν τοις άποστόλοις. (Greek PG 83, column 220)

[9] A slightly different English translation is here (Google Sites).

[10] In his comment on Romans 16:5a, about Prisca and Aquila and their house church, Theodoret wrote,

The expression shows the greatness of their piety, for they instructed, it appears, all their household in the highest virtue, and gladly performed within their walls all the sacred rites of religion. And of this couple the holy Luke also takes notice, and shows how they led Apollos to the truth. (Acts 18:20). (Greek PG 83, column 220)

There is little doubt Priscilla and Aquila were teachers, but I’m not sure that the churches in the mid-50s AD were performing “all the sacred rites” that Theodoret had in mind. Sacerdotal rituals developed and became increasingly formalised after the 50s.

© Margaret Mowczko 2023
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Explore more

A Christian Lady Teacher in Egypt in the 300s AD
Publia and her Plucky Choir of Virgins (AD 360s)
Women Elders in Early Christian Texts (3-part series)
Marcella of Rome: Academic and Ascetic (who was a teacher)
Believing Wives and Female Co-workers of the Apostles (mentions Grapte, a woman teacher)
Chrysostom on 5 Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
All my articles on women in the early church are here.
All my articles on Junia are here.
At Home with Priscilla and Aquila
An Annotated List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1-16
Preaching Words in the NT and the Women Who Preached


Fresco of a Christian woman named Bitalia in the orans (praying) posture. This fresco is located above her place of burial in the Catacomb of San Gennaro on the outskirts of Naples.

4 thoughts on “A Female Teacher and Deacon in Antioch (AD 360s)

  1. How timely! Currently reading The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. I just started Letter 8 where Abelard lays out the importance of women during Jesus’ ministry and afterwards. Explaining it was women who anointed Jesus, never a man.
    Appreciate your good work providing insights & perspectives.

    1. Hi James, are the letters online? Can you post a link?

      1. I’m reading the Penguin Classics version translated by Betty Radice. A very good, readable translation. Would highly recommend. Can find this Penguin Classics on AMZ or local bookshop I’m sure. Here is a AMZ (Australia) listing: https://www.amazon.com.au/Letters-Abelard-Heloise-Peter/dp/0140448993/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?crid=1A6Z0F8DB9LFR&keywords=9780140448993&qid=1696697388&sprefix=9780140448993%2Caps%2C68&sr=8-1
        This version has the letter I referred to as #7. I did find an online version of the letters – not translated by Betty Radice – that lists the letter as #6 on page 162:

        1. Thank you for this, James!

          It’s nice to see Betty Radice’s name. She certainly qualifies as being episēmos. Here’s a blurb on her.

          “Betty Radice read classics at Oxford, then married and, in the intervals of bringing up a family, tutored in classics, philosophy and English. She became joint editor of the Penguin Classics in 1964. As well as editing the translation of Livy’s The War with Hannibal she translated Livy’s Rome and Italy, Pliny’s Letters, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise and Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, and also wrote the introduction to Horace’s Complete Odes and Epodes, all for the Penguin Classics.

          “She also edited Edward Gibbon’s Memoirs of My Life for the Penguin English Library, and edited and annotated her translation of the younger Pliny’s works for the Loeb Library of Classics and translated from Renaissance Latin, Greek and Italian for the Officina Bodoni of Verona. She collaborated as a translator in the Collected Works of Erasmus, and was the author of the Penguin Reference Book Who’s Who in the Ancient World. Betty Radice was an honorary fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and a vice-president of the Classical Association. Betty Radice died in 1985.”
          From https://penguinrandomhousehighereducation.com/author/?authorid=229038

          I own her translation of Pliny the Younger’s Letters (Penguin Edition).

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