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Women Elders in Ancient Christian Texts (Part 2)


This is part 2 of a three-part series on ancient evidence for women elders in the early church. Part 1 looks at women elders in early heterodox groups and in church canons, and it also contains an introduction with a note on the significance of the evidence in this series, here.

Part 2 is the most technical of the three articles in this series, and the evidence is vague and possibly limited to Syria, but I include the following information because women elders are mentioned.

The Apostolic Constitutions

The Apostolic Constitutions (AC) was compiled in the late 300s, probably in Syria. In book 2 of AC, there are instructions for seating arrangements during church meetings. These instructions effectively rank people according to sex, marital status, and age. The AC includes the line, “… let the virgins, and the widows, and the presbyteresses (presbytides), stand or sit before all the rest …” (AC 2:57). (You can read this in context here. Note that this translation renders presbytides as “elder women” in AC 2:57. The Greek text is here, p. 165.)

The AC has a section on the criteria for choosing enrolled widows here. I’ve included this link because it is referred to in a comment in the section on The Testament of our Lord, namely that “the ‘presbyteress’ of AC 3.5 replaces ‘widow’ of the earlier Didascalia.” (The translation in this link has “aged women” rather than “presbyteresses.”)

Enrolled or official widows usually performed some kind of service to the church. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (c. 200) states that widows are “appointed for prayer” (11:3) and that they, and enrolled virgins, should fast frequently and pray for the church” (25:2).  (A PDF is here.)

We see the beginning of an order of enrolled widows in the New Testament.

No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds. (1 Timothy 5:9–10 NIV; cf. Acts 9:41).

The Didascalia Apostolorum

The Didascalia dates from the 3rd century, perhaps as early as 230, and was probably written in Syria.  Chapter 12 has the same seating instructions as in AC 2:57. It seems to have been copied exactly from the Didascalia into the Apostolic Constitutions, including the mention of presbytides.

Chapter 15 of the Didascalia contains unflattering instructions about the conduct of widows. Much of it gives no indication that these widows ministered in some way, and it clearly dissuades them from baptising women and from teaching.

In one paragraph (3.10) of chapter 15, presbytides are mentioned three times along with the adjective “fellow.” This paragraph addresses jealousy among some widows towards “fellow presbytides.” It is clear that the fellow presbytides are part of the group of widows, but they may be a subset of the widows, perhaps leading widows. The Didascalia can be read here. More information about the Didascalia is here.

The Testament of Our Lord

Female elders (presbyteresses), official widows, and other ecclesial roles for women are mentioned with approval in The Testament of Our Lord (Testamentum Domini). This work on church orders was written in the 4th-5th centuries. It’s not known where the document was originally written, but some suggest Syria.

Ute Eisen quotes from Testament: “For the presbyteresses let us beseech, that the Lord may hear their supplications and keep their hearts perfectly in the grace of the Spirit and help their work” (TD 1.35).[1] And, “Let the presbyteresses stay with the bishop till dawn, praying and resting” (TD 2.19).[2] These quotations show that prayer was one of the ministries of these female elders; it does not tell us about the nature of their other work.

Here is a note on the section in Testament entitled, “Presbyteresses and Widows who sit in Front [at church services]” and it asks the question, Are presbyteresses and widows the same? This note also refers to the Apostolic Constitutions and the Didascalia, and Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea which I looked at in Part 1. It is worth pointing out that in Testament 1.35, presbyteresses (female elders) are mentioned between, that is, ranked between, deacons (one of the three major orders in the Catholic Church) and subdeacons (a minor order in the Catholic Church).[3]

I acknowledge that the following isn’t the easiest to understand.

Presbyteresses (1.35, 2.19) and Widows who sit in Front.
Are these the same? We may almost certainly assert the affirmative in Test[ament]. In 1.35, in the litany, presbyteresses are mentioned between deacons and subdeacons, as in these chapters (living confessors are apparently not mentioned by name as a class in the litany).[4] In 2.19 widows and presbyteresses are indeed mentioned separately, but probably there the “widows” mentioned first are ordinary widows, as they follow the married women; the presbyteresses mentioned afterwards would be the “widows who sit in front.”

At Laodicea they clearly are the same (see above). But it does not follow that this nomenclature was universal. The very words “that are called” at Laodicea and in Test. 1.19 would imply perhaps the contrary. In Syria it would seem that there were other professed widows than the presbyteresses. In A.C. 2.57 (Lagarde, 86.20), the virgins, widows, and presbyteresses (πρεσβύτιδες) are to sit in front, in the congregation, however.

The Bishop of Salisbury points out (Ministry of Grace, 271, note 18) that the “presbyteress” of A.C. 3.5 (Lagarde, 100.20) replaces “widow” of the earlier Didascalia. The “widows” of A.C. 2.57 would be professed widows, but the “presbyteresses” a higher class of professed widows. Epiphanius, Haer. 79, 4 (quoted in Ministry of Grace, 275), distinguishes between πρεσβύτις and πρεσβυτερίς or ἵερισσα [female priests], allowing the former as an elder widow, but not tolerating the latter names or functions.
The Testament of Our Lord: Translated into English from the Syriac with Introduction and Notes, James Cooper and Arthur John Maclean (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902), 199. (Online Source: Internet Archive)
A.C. = Apostolic Constitutions

This comment suggests that the word “presbyteresses” was synonymous with “widows” in Testament, but that in the Apostolic Constitutions, presbyteresses, female presbyters, were a higher level of widow.

A word of caution: all three of these ancient texts may have originated from Syria and so reflect church customs from that area. Churches in different parts of the ancient world had different customs concerning church orders, especially orders of women.

The three church manuals also mention female church offices such as female deacons.[5] It’s important to bear in mind, however, that the ministries of elders and diakonoi (deacons) in New Testament churches do not readily correspond with the ministries of elders and deacons in churches in later centuries. And after the first century, there are typically distinctions in role and status between male deacons and female deacons.

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[1] Eisen, Women Officeholders, 126–127.

[2] Eisen, Women Officeholders, 127.

[3] Presbyteresses are mentioned after the bishop, male elders and male deacons, the three major orders, and before the subdeacons, lectores and deaconesses, minor orders. This list is given in the context of community prayers. Several ancient texts rank church offices in a hierarchical order. We see the first clear evidence of this in the letter of Ignatius of Antioch who ranked the bishops first, followed by a council of elders, followed by deacons. Ignatius does not identify any women with an ecclesial title in his letters, but he does acknowledge an order of widows, called “virgins,” in the church at Smyrna (IgnSm 13:1 cf. IgnPol 4:1), and he mentions two prominent women in Smyrna by name. I’ve written about these women and the virgin-widows in Smyrna here.

[4] “Confessors” can refer to a variety of roles. Originally, confessors were Christians who had been persecuted, who had not denied their faith under torture or imprisonment, and had survived. The term later came to be used for priests who heard confessions and became spiritual fathers. And it was a minor order in the Roman Catholic Church. More here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confessor and here: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04215a.htm

[5] Female deacons was a recognised order and some ancient sources indicate some kind of ordination.
Canon 19 of the Council of Nicea (325 CE) states, “We have mentioned the deaconesses, who are enrolled in this position, but since they have not received any imposition of hands at all, they are surely to be numbered among the laity.” This canon is given specifically in the context of deaconesses who belonged to a sect of Paul of Samosata (c. 260s), so it may be only these Paulianist deaconesses who were not ordained with the laying on of hands. (The canons of Nicea can be read here.)

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Women Elders in Ancient Christian Texts

Part 1: Women Elders in Heterodox Churches and Ancient Church Canons
Part 3: Women Elders in Inscriptions and  Atto of Vercelli

Explore more

Tabitha: An Exemplary Disciple
The Church at Smyrna and Her Women
Were there women elders in New Testament churches?
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
A Female Teacher and Deacon in Antioch (AD 360s)
Cerula and Bitalia in Catacomb Art
More articles about women in the early church are here.

Image Credit

Domnina of Syria, an ascetic woman who lived in the 400s (cropped). From the Menologion of Basil II  (Wikimedia)

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