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This article is one in a series entitled “Influential Women in Early Church History” written by my friend Rev. Dr. Jackie Roese. Jackie is the founder and president of The Marcella Project. Her article on Melania the Elder (died 410) first appeared on the Mission Nexus website and is published here with Jackie’s permission.

Melania the Elder

I was three seminary degrees in before I heard of Melania the Elder.[1] I suspect many of you have no clue who she is, either. So, let’s get to know her. She is one of the women who left us a legacy of powerful, wealthy, educated women who influenced and shaped early Christianity.

She was born in Spain in the 3rd century. She married at around fourteen or sixteen and moved with her husband to the suburbs of Rome. By age twenty-two, her husband and two out of three sons passed away. She converted to Christianity in Rome and shortly left her only living son, Valerius Publicola, with a guardian as she set off to visit the monks of Nitria.[2]

Melania stayed with the monks for six months and continued to use her wealth to support them financially even through a time of persecution. Her reputation among the monks was as a woman who excelled in virtue and was dubbed a “female man of God.”[3] Later, she moved to Jerusalem, founded a monastery, and died in old age in the Holy Land.

How do we help posture ourselves to hear and receive from women’s stories like Melania, the Elder? First, we need to draw a picture (context) of what the early Church was like. The Church was in its infancy, in process, developing, messy, fluid, in liminality. The picture isn’t a formalized religion or mega-church world, but small bands of people scattered throughout Palestine and the Greco-Roman world. It was composed of different people groups (Jew/ gentile, slave/ free, male/ female, literate/ illiterate) trying to figure out how to live out a new way of living as individuals (2 Cor. 5:17, 3:18) in community (Gal. 3:28) and in society at large (Mk. 1:1-14).

Although these groups might have had some Gospel writings, they also relied on others not included in our canon. Different groups had different collections that carried different weights within different communities. They didn’t have the Bible as we know it today. In 395, Emperor Theodosius legalized Christianity. The church shifted from small bands in homes to buildings in the public square. Structure and systems were established. Saint Jerome was commissioned to produce an acceptable Latin version of the Bible from the various translations.

And now, instead of asceticism being defined by martyrdom (think of Perpetua’s story), it was marked by powerful patrons.

“Patronage was the backbone of the informal social system of cohesion among men, providing means for political and social advancement as well as economic benefits … elite women were actively, though indirectly, involved in politics.”[4]

Patrons were the financial, intellectual, and social power that shaped the early Church doctrines and practices.

Melania the Elder was a powerful patron who had authority and was formative in shaping the early Church’s doctrine and practices. She was from the top aristocratic society and one of the wealthiest citizens in the Empire. She put her wealth to work funding intellectual projects, building monasteries, and civic building projects that benefitted the Christian movement.

Today, that might look like a woman who decides what Christian books get published, who is elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention, who is the Provost at a Seminary, or what Churches or para churches receive resources for ministry life. Knowledge is intrinsically tied to power and whoever controls the knowledge controls the power.

Melania significantly invested in the work of scholars such as Rufinus, a contemporary of Jerome. It was said that Jerome envied the resources afforded to Rufinus because of Melania’s deep pockets. Her wealth gave him time and resources to study and become a prolific writer. He and Jerome became the loudest voices in the acrimonious and long-lasting Origenist controversy. Consider what intellectual body of works from our church fathers we might not have if not for women like Melania the Elder.

But her contribution to the intellectual landscape was not solely through the minds of scholars she was also highly educated. Her biblical and theological knowledge was legendary with early Christians. Dr. Lynn Cohick, in her book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, states that,

“Palladius records that she read three million lines of Origen, two and a half million lines of others such as Basil of Caesarea and Gregory, and enough commentaries on Scripture to dwarf Homer’s Iliad by three hundred times.”[5]

It is thought that Melania the Elder used her family connections, finances, and intellectual acumen to tip the scale in the early doctrinal debate between pro-Nicene and the Arian party. In other words, we could argue she is one of the reasons we have the Nicene Creed.

The word “power” can make us uncomfortable, particularly when applied to women. But Andy Crouch is correct, power is in Creation, and it was used for flourishing.

“As image bearers, God has given us the power ‘to fill the earth’ and make and create civilizations such that all of Creation flourishes. Power is the ability to make something of the world.”[6]

We could say that Melania the Elder held power by controlling the seminaries (monasteries) as well as the churches (civic building projects) and the intellectual works of theologians (such as Jerome and Rufinus) that were recorded and published. Put in that light; we can see how Christian women who are highly skilled (who have power, wealth, and connections) don’t need to recant their station in life or try to be smaller or live within a less-than framework of biblical womanhood.

Melania the Elder permits women (and men) to be “large.” She challenges those with power to use it as God intended in Creation: to be devoted to Christ by using all they have right where they are for the cause of Christ and the flourishing of all of his Creation.


[1] She is called Melania “the Elder” to distinguish her from her impressive granddaughter who had the same name and who is known as Melania “the Younger.” (A short article on Melania the Younger is on the New Advent website here.)

[2] Nitria, in the Nitrian Desert of northwestern Egypt, attracted thousands of Christian monks in the 300s.

[3] Palladius mentions Melania the Elder many times in The Lausiac History (written 419–420) which is about the desert fathers and mothers. In chapter 9 he describes her as ἡ ἄνθρωπος τοῦ θεοῦ (hē anthrōpos tou theou), a Greek phrase that is often translated as “the man of God” except here it occurs with a feminine article. (Anthrōpos can simply mean “person.”)
Paulinus of Nola (d. 431), likewise, mentions Melania many times in his letters. In Letter 45 he describes her “manly” (andreia) spirit on the occasion of her son’s death: “a woman perfect in Christ yet retaining unaffected the courage of her manly spirit” (Letter 45.2, p. 246).

[4] Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald, A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Fortress Press, 2006), 11. (Google Books)

[5] Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (Baker Academic, 2009), 207.
Here is an English translation of Palladius’s remark.

Being very learned and loving literature she turned night into day by perusing every writing of the ancient commentators, including 3,000,000 (lines) of Origen 327 and 2,500,000 (lines) of Gregory, Stephen, Pierius, Basil, and other standard writers. Nor did she read them once only and casually, but she laboriously went through each book seven or eight times. Wherefore also she was enabled to be freed from knowledge falsely so called and to fly on wings, thanks to the grace of these books; elevated by kindly hopes she made herself a spiritual bird and journeyed to Christ.
Palladius, The Lausiac History, chapter 40, section 3.

[6] Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP, 2013), 4.

Image Credit

A depiction of Synclectica of Alexandria, a desert mother, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD).  Source: Wikimedia (cropped)

Explore more

An Overview of Women Ministers in the Early Church
Female Martyrs and their Ministry in the Early Church
Revisiting Eshet Chayil (mentions valiant early church women)
My articles on various Early Church Women
Phoebe of Cenchrea and Patronage

Influential Women in Early Church History by Dr Jackie Roese

Perpetua: A Woman of Faith and Courage Who Defied Cultural Expectations
The Inspiring Legacy of Thecla: A Modest Apostle and Martyr
Marcella of Rome: A Patron of Faith and Scholarship in Early Christianity
Mary, the Mother of Jesus and a First-Century Leader in the Church

Podcast: In May, I was a guest on Jackie Roese’s podcast. We mostly spoke about Genesis 1-3. Here’s a link to the podcast on the Marcella Project website. Here’s a link to the podcast on Spotify. I met Jackie in Amsterdam earlier this year and we hit it off instantly. I love that a shy Sydney-sider, me, and a confident New Yorker can be instant friends. Jackie and I hope to do more work together.

2 thoughts on “Melania the Elder’s Powerful Influence on Early Christianity

  1. A new podcast, five segments totaling one hour, features Dr. Lynn Cohick, teaching about women and men martyrs in the early church. “This week on Discover the Word, New Testament scholar Dr. Lynn Cohick joins the group to talk about how martyrdom shaped the early church. Learn the names of some of those early followers of Jesus who were willing to sacrifice their life for the cause of Christ. And discover that it was an equal opportunity thing for men and women. Because often, faithfulness requires boldness and a willingness to offer grace-filled forgiveness when the stakes are the highest.”

    1. Thanks for this, Robert.

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