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Introduction

In my previous post, I quoted a story from Theodoret of Cyrrhus’s Church History. That story mentioned an unnamed female deacon and teacher who lived in Syrian Antioch when Julian the Apostate was emperor and was staying there (July 362 to March 363). In this post, I quote another story from Theodoret about a different female deacon who also lived in Antioch at that time. This time, Theodoret tells us her name: Publia (sometimes rendered as Poplia).

I was pleased to read this account because I had previously come across a reference to a “choir of virgins” in a letter written by Gregory of Nyssa and I wanted to know more about the role of these choirs.[1] In the following story, there is a choir of singing virgins. Note that these virgins are women who had chosen not to marry in order to dedicate their whole lives to serving the church.

Publia the Teacher and Deacon

Publia was the leader of this all-female choir and is called a teacher by Theodoret. Furthermore, in the heading of the chapter where her story appears, she is called a deacon.[2] It is her strength of character, however, rather than her titles, that is featured in the story.

Of Publia the Deacon and Her Divine Boldness

In those days there was a woman named Publia, of high reputation, and illustrious for deeds of virtue. For a short time she wore the yoke of marriage and had offered its most goodly fruit to God. For from this fair soil sprang John, who for a long time was chief presbyter at Antioch, and was often elected to the apostolic see, but from time to time declined the dignity. Publia maintained a company of virgins vowed to virginity for life, and she spent her time in praising God who had made and saved her.

One day the emperor Julian was passing by, and as the virgins esteemed the Destroyer an object of contempt and derision, they struck up all the louder music, chiefly chanting those Psalms which mock the helplessness of idols, and saying in the words of David, “The idols of the nations are of silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.” And after describing their insensibility, they added, “Like them be they that make them and all those that trust in them.” [Psalm 135:15, 18.]

Julian heard them, and was very angry, and told them to hold their peace while he was passing by. Publia did not however pay the least attention to his orders, but put still greater energy into their chant. And when the emperor passed by again, she told her choir to strike up, “Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered.” [Psalm 68:1 cf. Psa. 68:11!]

On this Julian angrily ordered that ‘the choir mistress’ (τού χορού τήν διδάσκαλον) be brought before him; and, though he saw that respect was due to her old age, he neither had compassion for her grey hairs nor respected her high character. Rather, told some of his escort to box both her ears, and by their violence to make her cheeks red.

Publia however took the outrage for honour, and returned home, where, as was her custom, she kept up her attack upon Julian with her spiritual songs, just as [David], the composer and teacher (διδάσκαλοs) of the song, laid the wicked spirit that vexed Saul.
Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Church History 3.14 (Slightly edited, for the sake of clarity, from the English translation at New Advent; Greek: PG 83, columns 1109–1112 on Internet Archive.)

The Orthodox Church remembers Publia on the 9th of October.

Female Choirs and the Battle for Orthodoxy

Susan Ashbrook Harvey writes about the advent of choirs of Christian women, particularly in the Syrian Church, and she highlights the teaching role these choirs had.

Late antiquity was an era of expansion for Christian liturgical life across the Mediterranean. A major feature of this development was the emergence during the fourth century of trained choirs for liturgical service, along with new forms of hymnography crafted to highlight their participation. In Syriac churches, these changes included the distinctive establishment of women’s liturgical choirs. Generally comprised of consecrated virgins known as daughters of the covenant, Syriac women’s choirs performed hymns that engaged and instructed the congregation on Bible, theology, and the life of the Christian community. Attested across a variety of late ancient sources, both West and East Syriac, these choirs exercised a significant teaching ministry over some centuries.[3]

However, despite the fact that the Bible mentions women who performed songs publicly in Israelite communities, having women singers was controversial in some early churches.[4]

Johannes Quasten has written an interesting paper where he discusses women’s choirs in the early church and their demise. Quasten states that “women commonly and universally took part in the liturgical singing in earliest Christian times.” And, “… so far as can be judged from existing documents, … no complaints are heard against women choirs in the first two centuries.”[5] However, there are very few Christian documents that mention singing women from this period.

It is in the late 200s that female choirs began to become an issue. Quasten writes,

The struggle for or against the liturgical singing of women began when the heretics, from the time of Paul of Samosata [heretical Bishop of Antioch from 260 to 268], established women choirs separated from the rest of the congregation to conduct the singing at the functions of divine worship. The example of these heretical circles was the reason why certain of the Fathers, among whom the chief example is Ephraem [the Syrian], imitated the heretics for tactical reasons and likewise established choirs of women in order to deprive their opponents of this weapon of attack.[6] Other Fathers however sharply opposed this practice of the heretics.[7]

Singing Women and Modesty

Female choirs, and the power of music, played an important part in the battle for orthodoxy in Syria. Elsewhere, however, some Church Fathers questioned the modesty of female singers. Jerome, for example, indicated that there was something immodest about women singing both as members of the congregation and as members of a choir. In 417, he stated that women should only sing in the privacy of their own rooms and he criticised Pelagius for allowing women to be singers.

… Who does not know that women should sing in the privacy of their own rooms, away from the company of men and the crowded congregation? But you allow what is not lawful, and the consequence is, that, with the support of their ‘master’ (magistri auctoritate), they make an open show of that which should be done with modesty, and with no eye to witness.
Jerome, Against the Pelagians 1.25 (English translation on New Advent; Latin: PL 23, column 542 on Internet Archive)

In many(?) churches, congregational singing was gradually replaced by professional singers and chanters who increasingly became all male.

From what I can gather, female singers were eventually banned from choirs who sang in churches.[8] To compensate for the missing higher-pitched voices, young boys were used as singers, and some boys with exceptional voices were castrated before puberty so they could permanently sing high notes. The church apparently had less of a problem castrating boys than allowing women to be choir members. Go figure. Thankfully, female singers are no longer a contentious issue in most churches.


Footnotes

[1] Gregory of Nyssa (in Cappadocia) recounts,

And when we were near the inside of the portico, we see a stream of fire flowing into the church; for the choir of virgins, carrying their wax torches in their hands, were just marching in file along the entrance of the church, kindling the whole into splendour with their blaze. And when I was within and had rejoiced and wept with my people—for I experienced both emotions from witnessing both in the multitude—as soon as I had finished the prayers, I wrote off this letter to your Holiness as fast as possible …
Gregory of Nyssa, Letter to Ablabius

[2] Publia is called “the deacon” (Greek: τής διακόνου) in the heading of chapter 14. This is translated into Latin as diaconissa. I’m not sure if Theodotus wrote the Greek heading or if it, as well as the Latin, was added later. However, since διάκονος (including the genitive διακόνου) is what both male and female deacons were called before the Greek word diakonissa (“deaconess”) was coined in the fourth century, it may be original with Theodoret who was still user the older term.

[3] Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Training the Women’s Choir: Ascetic Practice and Liturgical Education in Late Antique Syriac Christianity” in Wisdom on the Move: Late Antique Traditions in Multicultural Conversation Essays in Honor of Samuel Rubenson. Vigiliae Christianae, Supplements, Volume: 161. (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 203–223, 204.
On page 206, Harvey writes, “From ecclesiastical canons in both the East Syriac (dyophysite) and West Syriac (miaphysite) traditions and from other attestations, we know that these women’s choirs sang in civic churches in villages, towns, and cities.”

[4] Wailing women composed and sang laments, and they led their communities in mourning for losses and defeats. Other women composed and sang songs of victory and celebration. Miriam and Deborah, for example, composed and sang victory songs (Exod. 15:21–22; Judg. 5:1–31). I have more on these lamenting and celebrating Israelite women, as well as the women mentioned in Psalm 68:11, in an article here. Psalm 68 is one of the Psalms Publia and her choir sang.

[5] Johannes Quasten, “The Liturgical Singing of Women in Christian Antiquity,” The Catholic Historical Review 27.2 (July 1941): 149–165, 163. Available on JSTOR: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25014016

[6] Chapter 31 in Life of Ephrem speaks about the female choirs and their female teachers.

[Ephrem] prepared troops for battle against those heresies … He appointed [female] teachers [malphanyatha] among all the Daughters of the Covenant who regularly came to the holy, catholic church, and taught them hymns. Evenings and mornings they would gather in church before the liturgy on the feasts of martyrs, and for funeral processions, and they would sing.
Life of Ephrem 31 (transl. Amar CSCO 630 / Syr. 243, pp. 77–78, following D). Quoted in Harvey, “Training the Women’s Choir,” 207–208.

Harvey notes,

Both Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373) and Jacob of Sarug urged their congregations to pay close heed to the women’s choirs, which, Jacob admonished, were nothing less than a gift from God for the church’s benefit. The more one heard these choirs, Jacob assured his listeners, the more one would become oneself “pure, modest, and full of hope and discernment.”
Harvey, “Training the Women’s Choir,” 216.

[7] Johannes Quasten, “The Liturgical Singing of Women in Christian Antiquity,” 163.

[8] Disclaimer: I’m still exploring the topic of choirs in the early church and am happy to be corrected on what I’ve presented so far.

© Margaret Mowczko 2023
All Rights Reserved

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Image Credit

Part of the frieze from the Acropolis in Athens showing women singers in procession. (Source: Wikimedia)
Photograph by Gary Todd. CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (I’ve cropped and slightly enhanced the photo.)

A picture depicting Publia from the Miniature Minology of Vasily II (AD 985)  is on Wikimedia here and on the Vatican website here.

 Explore more

A Female Deacon and Teacher in Antioch (AD 360s)
Women Elders in Early Christian Texts (3-part series)
Marcella of Rome: Academic and Ascetic
Chrysostom on 5 Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
Remembering Theosebia of Nyssa
All my articles on women in the early church are here.
Bible Women Who Led Lamentations and Celebrations

Further Reading

The Life and Ministry of St Ephrem the Syrian

13 thoughts on “Publia and her Plucky Choir of Virgins (AD 360s)

  1. Very interesting as it seems that the demise of women singers parallels the demise of women deacons by relegating them to the convents & eliminating their outward church service.

    1. That’s a good point, Brian. The timing roughly coincides.

      Tucker and Liefeld write, “The office of deaconess was ‘wholly abolished’ in 533 when the [second] Synod of Orleans decreed that ‘no woman shall henceforth receive benedictio diaconalis on account of the weakness of this sex.’”
      Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan: 1987), 133.

      Justinian, however, was still writing regulations concerning the ordination of deaconesses around that time.

      John Wijngaards says, “The diaconate of women flourished, especially in the Eastern part of the Church, until the ninth century when it gradually declined.” And, “it was never formally abolished, neither in the West nor in the East.”
      Wijngaards, “Women Deacons in Ancient Christian Communities: Leadership and Ordination” in Patterns of Women’s Leadership in Early Christianity Joan E. Taylor and Ilaria L.E. Ramelli (eds) (Oxford University Press, 2021), 195–210.

  2. —-does reading extant books that record church history reinforce what the Bible says?
    —-how does one know they are actual history and not made up stories?
    —-can they be used to prove certain points or rules/ commands/ directives given in the scripture?
    —-does it shed light, or give more information, or extend the things Paul has written?

    1. Does reading extant books that record church history reinforce what the Bible says?

      I can’t see how it would do that. I don’t read ancient church histories and other ancient documents to see whether or not they reinforce what the Bible says. I read them to try and find out how the first Christians thought, operated, and how they understood the scriptures. And, in my opinion, they often got things wrong.

      How does one know they are actual history and not made up stories?

      Hagiographies and the Apocryphal Acts are largely made up. Some may be total fiction. Early church historians, however, made an effort to be accurate. Still, not every thing church historians have written is true. Eusebius, for example, relied on a poor source when he mentioned a letter written by Jesus. Theodoret of Cyrrhus wrote relatively soon after the events of the 360s. In the story I quoted in my last post, his source was an eye-witness.

      Can they be used to prove certain points or rules/ commands/ directives given in the scripture?

      That would be unwise, to say the least.

      Does it shed light, or give more information, or extend the things Paul has written?

      What happened in Syria in the 300s has next to no bearing on Paul’s letters written to various churches and people living in Greco-Roman cities in the 100s. However, the original language of some these documents may, or may not, help us to understand the orignal language of Paul’s letters.

      Susan, Theodoret’s Church History is part of our Christian legacy, and as such, it is valuable. However, I would not read later thoughts and practices of churches back into the New Testament as a way of informing our understanding of scripture. That would be foolish.

  3. The nerve of Jerome in criticising women for singing the psalms publicly. In other letters he praises Paula for being able to sing the psalms in Hebrew and for learning them all and for teaching her enclosed virgins to sing the psalms together at least once a day.

    1. Ooh, I don’t know that letter! Which one is it?

      But I do know this statement made by Jerome about 20-year-old Blaesilla, Paula’s daughter. Blaesilla died months after converting to Christianity, probably from severe fasting. 🙁

      He tells Paula, “For in a few months, or rather days, she so completely mastered the difficulties of Hebrew as to emulate her mother’s zeal in learning and singing the psalms.”
      Jerome, Letter 39, written from Rome in AD 389.
      https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001039.htm

      1. Letter 108 To Eustochium, Paula’s daughter after Paula’s death, giving Paula’s biography/obituary, paragraph no. 20.
        https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001108.htm

        1. Thanks, Linda!

          1. Wish I could remember where I read it, but I do remember someone spouting off in the early days of the church, or was it in OT times, that listening to a woman’s voice would lead a man to sin or to lose his mind? I think of the singing of the Sirens with that, too. Any old excuse to get to be quiet will do!!

          2. I quote a few of the worst things church fathers have said about women here:
            https://margmowczko.com/misogynist-quotes-from-church-fathers/

            Here are a couple that have a slight similarity with that what you’d read.

            “Men should not sit and listen to a woman … ‘For it is improper for a woman to speak in an assembly,’ no matter what she says, even if she says admirable things, or even saintly things, that is of little consequence, since they come from the mouth of a woman.”
            Origen, Fragments on 1 Corinthians (74)

            “What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman.”
            Augustine, Letter to Laetus (Letter 243.10)

  4. […] Publia and Her Plucky Choir of Virgins (AD 360s) […]

  5. […] Publia and Her Plucky Choir of Virgins (AD 360s) […]

  6. […] [18] More about the deaconess Publia and Syrian female choirs here. […]

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