Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Theosebia and Gregory of Nyssa

Theosebia: Partner and Companion of Gregory of Nyssa

In this article I look at a woman who was described as “the glory of the church,” “the adornment of Christ,” and as having “equal honour” as a priest. Her name was Theosebia, and she lived in Nyssa, a city in Cappadocia, in the late fourth century.

It is commonly accepted that Theosebia was a deaconess of the church in Nyssa before she died, middle-aged, sometime around 380-385. But what is more interesting is her close association with Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory and his elder brother Basil of Caesarea (also known as Basil the Great), as well as their friend Gregory of Nazianzus, are known as the Cappadocian Fathers. They are famous for their intellect, their rhetorical skill, and their contributions to Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity.

Theosebia was a biological sister of Gregory of Nyssa (which means she was also the sister of Basil of Caesarea and of Macrina a remarkable woman in her own right.)[1]  The evidence for Theosebia being the sister of Gregory comes from two epigrams written by Gregory of Nazianzus.

Epigram 164 indicates that Theosebia was a child of Emmelia who we know was the mother of Gregory of Nyssa.[2]

“And you, Theosebia,
Child of noble Emmelia
And, in truth, partner/ companion (syzygos) of great Gregory,
Lie here in holy soil.
Support of pious women,
In due season, you departed this life.”
Gregory of Nazianzus, Epigram 164

Epigram 161 on the death of Emmelia provides another clue.

Emmelia is dead. Who could believe it?
For such a brood of impressive young she gave over to the light of life,
Sons and daughters, both married and unmarried;
Both noble and many, to which she alone gave voice.
Not one, but three became famous priests,
and one the partner/ companion (syzygos) of a priest,
and the rest as a holy army.
Gregory of Nazianzus, Epigram 161

To spell it out, one of these three “famous priests” was Gregory of Nyssa, and the “companion of a priest” was Theosebia.[3]

Theosebia is referred to as a syzygos three times in surviving documents: in the two epigrams and in a letter which I quote below. The etymology of the word gives the sense of being “yoked together.” Syzygos was often used of a spouse but could be used in the context of different kinds of partnerships, not just marriage. (The word occurs once in the New Testament where Paul uses it for a ministry associate. See Philippians 4:3.) As well as being his biological sister, Theosebia was the lifelong partner, companion, and colleague of Gregory of Nyssa.

Theosebia seems to have been Gregory of Nyssa’s subintroducta. Such a woman lived with a man, usually a clergyman, in a celibate relationship. The Council of Nicea in 325 had put limits on this arrangement because of abuses. Canon 3 of the Council of Nicaea states: “The great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion.”

Theosebia was most likely a consecrated virgin. And, because she is described as a “support of pious women,” it makes sense that she was also a deaconess who ministered primarily to women. Some also suggest she was the leader of a choir of virgins who are mentioned in a letter written by Gregory of Nyssa (Letter to Ablabius). Theosebia was not Gregory’s housemaid. She was his partner and colleague in service to the church.

Gregory of Nazianzus’s Letter to Gregory of Nyssa

As well as the epigram, Gregory of Nazianzus wrote a letter to condole his grieving friend Gregory of Nyssa when Theosebia died. Gregory of Nazianzus begins his letter by saying that he started travelling to condole his friend in person but had to turn back because of ill health. Here is almost all of the letter.

I had started in all haste to go to you … I had started partly for the sake of seeing you after so long, and partly that I might admire your patience and philosophy (for I had heard of it) at the departure of your holy and blessed sister, as a good and perfect man, a minister of God, who knows better than any the things both of God and man; and who regards as a very light thing that which to others would be most heavy, namely to have lived with such a soul, and to send her away and store her up in the safe garners, like a shock of the threshing floor gathered in due season, to use the words of Holy Scripture [Job 5:26]; and that in such time that she, having tasted the joys of life, escaped its sorrows through the shortness of her life; and before she had to wear mourning for you, was honoured by you with that fair funeral honour which is due to such as she. I too, believe me, long to depart, if not as you do, which were much to say, yet only less than you.

But what must we feel in presence of a long prevailing law of God which has now taken my Theosebia (for I call her mine because she lived a godly life; for spiritual kindred is better than bodily), Theosebia, the glory of the church, the adornment of Christ, the helper of our generation, the hope of woman; Theosebia, the most beautiful and glorious among all the beauty of the Brethren; Theosebia, truly sacred, truly a partner/ companion (syzygos) of a priest, and of equal honour and worthy of the Great Sacraments, Theosebia, whom all future time shall receive, resting on immortal pillars, that is, on the souls of all who have known her now, and of all who shall be hereafter.

And do not wonder that I often invoke her name. For I rejoice even in the remembrance of the blessed one. Let this, a great deal in few words, be her epitaph from me, and my word of condolence for you, though you yourself are quite able to console others in this way through your philosophy in all things. Our meeting (which I greatly long for) is prevented by the reason I mentioned. But we pray with one another as long as we are in the world, until the common end, to which we are drawing near, overtake us. Wherefore we must bear all things, since we shall not for long have either to rejoice or to suffer.
Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 197.

“The most beautiful and glorious among all the beauty of the Brethren”

What I find astonishing about the letter is the level of esteem the men had for Theosebia. She was clearly a prominent woman in the life of the church and well-loved by the bishops. The Cappadocian Fathers, in general, seemed to have held women in higher regard than some other church fathers.[4] However, I have noticed that many of the church fathers used exuberant rhetoric whether they were eulogising or deprecating or simply persuading. So I suspect that at least some of the praise of Theosebia is overblown.

The letter gives the general information that Theosebia was Gregory of Nyssa’s companion and a supporter of women, but it does not give specific information of anything she did. However, we can safely assume she would have shared in Gregory’s ministry to some extent. Perhaps like other women of the time, she was involved in pushing for orthodoxy in the face of the Arian controversy. She may have taught women and offered spiritual guidance. Perhaps she helped train virgins and deaconesses. Some interpret the line “worthy of the Great Sacraments” as meaning she participated in celebrating the Eucharist. Ilaria Ramelli argues that Theosebia was a presbyter.[5] However, we don’t know if Theosebia had any official ecclesial title.

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.) Whatever she did, Theosebia was clearly appreciated and admired. And there were more women like her in the early church. The Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates Theosebia with Gregory of Nyssa on January 10.


Footnotes

[1]  We know much more about Macrina than about Theosebia. She is eulogised in a work written by her brother Gregory of Nyssa known as Life of Macrina. Interestingly, Gregory uses her as an interlocutor, called “the Teacher,” in his work On the Soul and Resurrection which is styled as a Socratic Dialogue. The Church of England remembers Gregory of Nyssa with his sister Macrina on July 19.

[2] Leanne M. Dzubinski and Anneke H. Stasson include a few paragraphs about Emmelina in their new book. Here is an excerpt.

Emmelina (d. 375) was born into a deeply Christian family. Her father had died as a martyr during the Diocletian persecution. … She gave birth to ten children, five of whom became saints. Emmelina’s son Basil, looking back on his childhood, said “I received the knowledge (ennoia) of God from my blessed mother from my early childhood.” … Three of Emmelina’s children became bishops (Basil of Caesarea. Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sabaste), and son Naucratis became a monk.
Dzubinski and Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 62-63,

[3] Despite the evidence in the epigrams, some say Theosebia was not Gregory’s sister but his wife, and that when Gregory became bishop in 371, she continued living with him but without having sex.  (By the fourth century, celibacy was a requirement for clergy in many parts of the church.)

[4] Ilaria Ramelli makes these comments about Basil of Caesarea.

In Homilia in martyrem Julittam 241A, Basil stresses the complete equality of both genders, deriving from the same human ‘lump’ (φύραμα), with the same honour (ὁμοτίμως) and dignity (ἐξ ἴσου). Men even risk being inferior in piety (241B). Likewise, in Homiliae in Psalmos 1 PG 29.216-16, he insists that man and woman have ‘one and the same virtue’ and ‘one and the nature’, and their creation was of equal honour and dignity (ὁμοτίμος); they have the same capacity and activity (ἐνέργεια) and will receive the same reward.
Page 42 of “Colleagues of Apostles, Presbyters, and Bishops.” See reference in the next footnote.

[5] See the section entitled “Theosebia, Σύζυγος of a Presbyter and Bishop: Thecla’s Heritage and Other Examples” in her chapter, “Colleagues of Apostles, Presbyters, and Bishops: Women Syzygoi in Ancient Christian Communities” in Patterns of Women’s Leadership in Early Christianity, Joan E. Taylor and Ilaria L.E. Ramelli (eds) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 39-48. (Google Books)

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Image Credit

This pyx, which dates from the 500s, shows three women standing in the prayer pose and two women swinging centres as they approach an altar. (A pyx is a container in which the consecrated bread of the Eucharist is kept.) The pyx is held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Open Access) More information here.

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4 thoughts on “Remembering Theosebia of Nyssa (d. 380-385)

  1. In footnote 3, you write parenthetically:
    “By the fourth century, celibacy was a requirement for clergy in many parts of the church.”
    I’m responding, based on memories of things I’ve read over the past decades; I’m NOT going back to do the reading again. Therefore, what I’m about to say is perhaps only the mutterings of a grumpy old man.
    A justification for a celibate clergy was that it would prevent church leadership from being inherited, in the same way that monarchs transmitted governance to their children. There was also the argument that a celibate clergy wouldn’t become involved with worldly matters, as is stated explicitly in I Cor 7:32-35. However, I think this is PERMISSIVE language, not PRESCRIPTIVE language. So, how do we go from “you CAN remain celibate” to “you MUST remain celibate?”
    I think that position is irretrievably intermingled with other truly repressive organizational positions, such as: the primacy of the clergy, as the only TRUE means whereby the sacraments can be obtained by the common man; the formalized second-class nature of women in the formal positions of the church; even the conflation of religious and political beliefs.
    I don’t blame the concept of a celibate clergy for EVERYTHING, however; for example, I deny that poor dental hygiene is caused by celibacy.
    Lord, set us free from every chain of slavery, that would set YOUR truth aside, in favor of some worldly practice. Open my eyes, Father, that I can see how I have embraced lies, and rejected freedom.

    1. It’s disturbing to me how quickly virginity and abstinence came to be seen as significant virtues in the church. And sexual renunciation quickly came to be seen as a necessary requirement for all kinds of ordained ministry from men and from women. As Stefan Heid has pointed out, there is no record of a clergyman in the early church ever marrying after ordination. And most ordained people were single (never married or widowed) to start with. I write a bit about this here. https://margmowczko.com/chastity-salvation-1-timothy-215/

      I haven’t heard that inheritance was a factor. That’s interesting.

  2. my Theosebia (for I call her mine because she lived a godly life; for spiritual kindred is better than bodily), Theosebia, the glory of the church, the adornment of Christ, the helper of our generation, the hope of woman; Theosebia, the most beautiful and glorious among all the beauty of the Brethren; Theosebia, truly sacred, truly a partner/ companion (syzygos) of a priest, and of equal honour and worthy of the Great Sacraments,

    Such beautiful admiration. That first line struck me especially, as I am just divorced from a user of my body, no interest in my spirit unfortunately or real intimacy. So nice to hear that it can and did happen.

    1. It seems the Cappadocian Fathers had more respect and admiration for women than even many men today.

      Blessings, Catherine.

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