Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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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.]

Saint Marcella

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.

© Margaret Mowczko 2019
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Further Reading

An English translation of Jerome’s letter (127) to Principia, which is mostly a memoir of Marcella, can be read online 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 online 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.

Explore more

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” (circa 300)
Olympias of Constantinople: Deaconess and Friend of Chrysostom (d. 408)
Women Elders in Ancient Christian Texts
Remembering Theosebia of Nyssa (d. circa 380–385)
The Church in Smyrna and Her Women (circa 100–150)
Catherine of Siena: Lessons from her Life and Ministry
Wealthy Women in the Roman World and in the Church

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

7 thoughts on “Marcella of Rome: Academic and Ascetic

  1. 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.

    1. Hello Iris,

      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.

  2. I read a letter today where Jerome gives advice to a young mother about educating her daughter named Paula. Paula’s parents had already decided that the young girl would grow up to be a consecrated virgin.

    Their plan succeeded. When she was older, Paula went to Bethlehem where she eventually succeeded Eustochium, her famous aunt, as head of the nunnery. The nunnery had been founded by her grandmother, the famous Paula (mentioned above) who was a close friend of Jerome.

    Here’s an excerpt of the letter.

    Get for her a set of letters made of boxwood or of ivory and called each by its proper name. Let her play with these, so that even her play may teach her something. And not only make her grasp the right order of the letters and see that she forms their names into a rhyme, but constantly disarrange their order and put the last letters in the middle and the middle ones at the beginning that she may know them all by sight as well as by sound.

    Moreover, so soon as she begins to use the stylus upon the wax, and her hand is still faltering, either guide her soft fingers by laying your hand upon hers, or else have simple copies cut upon a tablet; so that her efforts confined within these limits may keep to the lines traced out for her and not stray outside of these.

    Offer prizes for good spelling and draw her onwards with little gifts such as children of her age delight in. And let her have companions in her lessons to excite emulation in her, that she may be stimulated when she sees them praised.

    You must not scold her if she is slow to learn but must employ praise to excite her mind, so that she may be glad when she excels others and sorry when she is excelled by them. Above all you must take care not to make her lessons distasteful to her lest a dislike for them conceived in childhood may continue into her more mature years.

    The very words which she tries bit by bit to put together and to pronounce ought not to be random ones, but names specially fixed upon and heaped together for the purpose, those for example of the prophets or the apostles or the list of patriarchs from Adam downwards as it is given by Matthew and Luke. In this way while her tongue will be well-trained, her memory will be likewise developed. Again, you must choose for her a master of approved years, life, and learning.

    Jerome, Letter 107 written in 407 to Laeta. Laeta was the daughter-in-law of the famous Paula.
    The letter is on the New Advent site here: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001107.htm
    I’ve changed a few words for the sake of clarity.

  3. […] Jerome speaks glowingly of Mary the Magdalene in two letters to a woman named Principia, a disciple of Marcella. In the letters, he refers to Mary as a tower. […]

  4. […] Several high-ranking clergymen and well-known male theologians of the past had close female friends who helped them in ministry in significant ways. For example, Jerome had Marcella and Paula, and Chrysostom had Olympias who was an influential deaconess. Whatever she did, and whatever her position in the church, Theosebia was clearly appreciated and admired. And there were more women like her in the early church. […]

  5. […] Marcella of Rome: Academic and Ascetic (who was a teacher) […]

  6. […] The Gospels in Cerula’s and Bitalia’s frescoes may indicate that the women could read and they may have been teachers of the gospel like Marcella of Rome (325-410) or the unnamed deaconess (360s) mentioned by Theodoret of Cyrrhus’s in his Church History. Or is there something more to it? […]

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