Marcella of Rome (325–410) is one of many remarkable women of early church history. She was an aristocratic, wealthy, educated, and intelligent woman from a Christian family, and she was personally acquainted with some of the most notable Christians of the period. The famous theologian Athanasius, for example, stayed at her family home in Rome during the years 338 to 340.
Marcella married young. After her husband’s early death, she vowed not to marry again. Instead, she began a community (like a nunnery) in her palatial home on the Aventine Hill in Rome. This community was for Christian women who had similarly vowed to stay single and celibate in order to dedicate themselves to prayer, charity, and Bible study. They became known as the Brown Dress Society because of their coarse brown clothing. Marcella also opened her home to travelling Christians and to the poor.
In 382, Jerome stayed in her home and the two became firm friends. Jerome spent three years with Marcella translating the Bible into Latin and she offered critiques. Marcella was a serious student of the scriptures and knew Greek and Hebrew. She held Bible studies in her home for women, some of whom went on to become prominent figures in the Christian community. During his stay in Rome, Jerome taught at her Bible studies.
Marcella strongly challenged people she regarded as heretics, particularly those who were teaching Origen’s theology which she and Jerome rejected. Her Bible knowledge was well-known and when Jerome left for the Holy Land, people, including priests, turned to Marcella to discuss and settle interpretations of scripture. In a letter, Jerome makes a point of explaining that Marcella taught in a manner so as not to violate his understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12.
“… after my departure from Rome, in case of a dispute arising as to the testimony of scripture on any subject, recourse was made to her [Marcella] to settle it. And so wise was she and so well did she understand what philosophers call τό πρέπον, that is, “the becoming” [or, appropriate behaviour], in what she did, that when she answered questions she gave her own opinion not as her own but as from me or someone else [male], thus admitting that what she taught she had herself learned from others. For she knew that the apostle had said: “I suffer not a woman to teach,” and she would not seem to inflict a wrong upon the male sex many of whom, including sometimes priests, questioned her concerning obscure and doubtful points.” Letter 127.7 (my italics)
Marcella clearly taught men, including clergy, on matters of scripture and theology, but she devised a manner of doing so without causing offence. It’s a shame that traditional understandings of 1 Timothy 2:12 have caused gifted women to be unnecessarily cautious in their manner of teaching, and that many more women have been silenced entirely. [My understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12 is here.]
Image: Jerome with Marcella, Paula and Eustochium (Paula’s daughter), painted by Jan Hovaert. (Wikimedia)
Marcella lived a monastic life until her death at the age of 85. She had renounced all luxuries and comforts, and followed ascetic practices. But she did not go as far as her friend Paula, another aristocratic Roman woman, who injured her health with severe fasts and harsh living. (Jerome and Paula had met in Marcella’s home. Paula also helped Jerome with his Latin translation of the Bible, and she would be a huge help to him when they both lived in Bethlehem.)
The contents of seventeen letters that Jerome wrote to Marcella still survive, as do two letters he wrote to Marcella’s student and spiritual daughter Principia. In Letter 127 to Principia, Jerome consoled the younger woman and spoke glowingly of Marcella who had died from injuries after being beaten by Goth soldiers during the sack of Rome in 410. The brutes were looking for her gold that had long ago been exchanged for food that was given to the poor.
Marcella used all her talents and resources to serve her Christian community including the poor. Some believe her Brown Dress Society was the first monastery for women. Marcella is regarded as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and her feast day is January 31.
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An English translation of Jerome’s letter (127) to Principia, which is mostly a memoir of Marcella, can be read here.
An English translation of Jerome’s letter (425) to Principia where he speaks warmly about women in the Bible and where he defends his right to teach women, can be read here.
“Marcella and Women in Monasticism” in Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church, p. 82–84, by Ruth A. Tucker (Google Books)
Amma Marcella of Rome by Joshua Hoffert
The Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers … by Alex Mar
The Wikipedia article on Paula is here.
Female Martyrs and their Ministry in the Early Church
Three Legendary Ladies: Judith, Thecla, and Catherine of Alexandria
Nino of Georgia: A Woman Evangelist “Equal to the Apostles”
Olympias of Constantinople: Deaconess and Friend of Chrysostom
Remembering Theosebia of Nyssa (d. circa 380–385)
Catherine of Siena: Lessons from her Life and Ministry
Wealthy Women in the Roman World and in the Church
2 thoughts on “Marcella of Rome: Academic and Ascetic”
This is an excellent article concerning Marcella of Rome. I hadn’t heard of her, but I know there were women in the early Christian church who served their Lord, using their God-given talents. I’ve copied it for further research into women’s ministry in the early Christian church.
I am an 81-year old woman who has been a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod member since my baptism at the age of one month. I have a progressive pastor, but unfortunately our church has elders who have a narrow view of women’s activities in our church, & this is frustrating. They will listen to the grumblings of 2 elderly, ill men, one of whom is now dealing with dementia, who tried to ‘limit’ the women’s activities until there was a backlash that caused the elders to back off & reinstate the activities. During certain Bible class discussions, I like to point out the early women’s service.
Some people hold on tightly to their belief that only men can do certain things in the church. They have little idea their belief does not have a strong biblical basis. The restriction of women has a stronger basis in tradition and history, and yet there are many historical examples of women who were ministering in ways that are denied to their sisters today.
It’s sad Jerome felt he had to explain that even though Marcella was in fact teaching and advising men on matters of biblical theology and doctrine, she wasn’t supposedly going against what it says in 1 Timothy 2:12. I doubt the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 was ever intended to restrict the ministry of godly and capable women teachers and leaders.
I’m also thankful for the many examples of women who ministered in the early church.