Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Women Elders in Ancient Christian Texts (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a three-part series on ancient evidence for women elders in the early church.
Part 1, which looks at women elders in early heterodox groups and in church canons, is here.
Part 2, which looks at women elders in early church manuals is here.

In part 3 I look at individual women who are identified as “elders” in inscriptions, and I quote from Atto of Vercelli who accepted that women were elders in the first century.

INSCRIPTIONS THAT IDENTIFY WOMEN ELDERS

Some female elders (presbyteresses) are named in ancient documents such as inscriptions.

I’ve relied on secondary sources for most of the following information, and I’ve copied the word “presbyters.” However, the original word underlying “presbyters” is feminine and refers to female presbyters/ elders.

Ammion
A funerary door stele (IMont 4) mentions the Montanist female elder named Ammion:
“Diogas, bishop, for Ammion, presbyter, in memory. Grace.” (Διογᾶς ἐβίσκοπος ̓Αμμίῳ πρεσβυτέρᾳ μνήμης χάριν)[1]
Ute Eisen states, however, that there are “no clear indications that Ammion’s inscription should be classified as Montanist.”[2]

Artemidora
From a mummy label, 2nd or 3rd century, Egypt:
“[Mummy] of Artemidora, daughter of Mikkalos and mother Paniskiainē, presbyter, slept in the Lord.”

Epikto
This inscription was found on the island of Thera in the Aegean Sea, 2nd-3rd centuries:
“Angel of Epiktō presbyter.”
It is not absolutely clear that this is an inscription referring to a Christian woman.

Kale
An inscription from Centuripae, Sicily, circa 4th-5th centuries:
“Here lies Kalē, presbyter, who lived fifty years blamelessly. She died on the nineteenth kalends of October.”

Leta
An inscription from Bruttium, Southern Italy, late 5th century:
“Sacred to her good memory. Leta the presbyter[ess] lived forty years, eight months, and nine days. Her husband made [this tombstone.] She preceded him in peace before the ides of May. (CIL 10.8079; ILCV 1.1192)

There is evidence that at least some presbyteresses in the 5th and 6th centuries may have had the title simply because their husband was a presbyter, but there is no mention here that Leta’s husband held a church office, and most people, men or women, who held church offices were single.

Martia
A graffito found near Poitiers in Gaul (unknown date):
“Martia the presbyteress made the offering together with Olybrios and Nepos.”
Martia appears to be performing a sacred Christian rite with two male elders.

Falvia Vitalia
An inscription from Solin in modern-day Croatia, dated 425:
“Under our Lord Theodosius, consul for the eleventh time, and Valentinian, most noble man of Caesar, I Theodosius, bought [a burial tomb] from the matron Flavia Vitalia, the holy presbyter, for three golden solids.

Guilia Runa
A mosaic medallion in the church of St Augustine in Hippo, North Africa, sometime after 431.
“Guilia Runa the presbyteress, rest in peace, lived for fifty years.”

The information in this section was taken mainly from Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, translators and editors, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); and Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders In Early Christianity, Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press-Michael Glazier, 2000), 116-142. (Google Books)
See also, Christine Schenk, Crispina and her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 141-147. (Google Books)

ATTO OF VERCELLI ON WOMEN ELDERS IN THE FIRST CENTURY

A survey of female elders in the early church is not complete without mentioning Atto. Atto was Bishop of Vercelli (in northern Italy) from 924 until his death in 961. He was not writing in ancient times, but a letter of his survives that is pertinent. Atto wrote to a priest who had asked about the ministry terms presbytera (female presbyter) and diacona (female deacon) that appear in early church canons. (See Part 1 for more on these canons.)

The following excerpt from Atto’s letter is about female presbyters. It is translated from Latin by Mary Ann Rossi. (I’ve made a few minor edits for clarity and added the Latin of keywords and key phrases.)

Therefore since your discretion has prompted you to ask how we ought to understand the terms presbytera or diacona in the canons, it seems to me that in the primitive church [i.e. the 1st-century church], according to the Lord’s word: “many are the crops and few the laborers” [Luke 10:2], even religious women were ordained caretakers in the holy church (etiam religiosae mulieres in sancta ecclesia cultrices ordinabantur) for the helping of men. This is something that blessed Paul points out in his epistle to the Romans when he says, “I commend to you my sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the church that is in Cenchraea.”

One understands this because then, not only men, but also women were in charge of churches (praeerant ecclesiis), to be sure, for the sake of great efficiency. For women, long accustomed to the rites of pagans, instructed as well in philosophical doctrines, were converted more readily for these reasons, and were more easily instructed thoroughly in the worship of religion. Canon 11 of the Laodicean Council later prohibits this practice when it says that it is not allowed for those women who are called “priests” or “those presiding,” to be ordained in the Churches. (PL 134. 114)

The complete letter can be read in English at womenpriests.org. The letter can be read in the original Latin in Patrologiae Latina volume 134, columns 113-115, at Google Books.

Atto of Vercelli seems to have had no problem with the concept that women were elders (leaders) in the first churches.

OTHER SOURCES

There are comments made by early church fathers, such as Origen, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, that denounce women as leaders in churches. I haven’t included them so far because they don’t specifically mention women elders, that is, they don’t use the Greek words presbytera or presbytis or the Latin equivalent.

This quotation from Tertullian (ca 207) is representative: “It is not permissible for a woman to speak in church, nor may she teach, baptize, offer, or claim for herself any function proper to a man, and least of all the office of priest” (On the Veiling of Virgins, 9).[3]

Despite detractors such as Tertullian (who became a Montanist in later life), we have ancient Christian artefacts such as mosaics, frescoes, reliefs, reliquaries, and pyxes that appear to depict women performing, or assisting in, liturgical rites which became an important part of church services from the 2nd century onwards. (See here for one example.) And there is the inscription about Martia, the presbyter (mentioned above), who performed some kind of rite. (To write about the ancient pictorial evidence for women ministers is a whole other ball game.)

CONCLUSION

The scant surviving evidence that mentions women elders is patchy and comes from a wide geographical area surrounding and stretching out from the Mediterranean Sea.

The evidence shows:

  • Women were elders (leaders) in heterodox churches.
  • Women were elders (leaders) in orthodox churches, but this was not generally accepted.
  • Women were elders (presbyteresses), but their ministry was not comparable with the ministry or rank of male elders.
  • Some of these presbyteresses were one and the same with widows, and the terms were sometimes used interchangeably.
  • Some “elder women” mentioned in the sources may simply have been older women without a recognised position in their church.

Other evidence shows us that many women, usually single or widowed, were dedicated to ministry in the early church, and some were influential. Many of these women had no ecclesial title at all (or none that we know of). Others were set apart but with a lower-level ordination than men and they were restricted in ways that men weren’t.

The sharp distinction between male and female ministers in “orthodox churches,” the inflexible hierarchical ranking of ministries and church orders, and the clergy-laity division were features far removed from Paul’s vision of the body of Christ where all parts are honoured, necessary, and work together harmoniously.[4] And these features were far removed from Jesus’s teaching and example of ministry as humble service without hierarchies.[5]

Perhaps only a small number of women ministers were called elders in the early church. Many more women were official deacons or deaconesses. Nevertheless, it is apparent that women ministers, even those without any title or official position, were at least sometimes taken seriously and respected as leaders of Christian ministries even in orthodox churches . . . just as long as they didn’t speak during Sunday services.

On a personal note, it was deeply saddening to read these primary sources where women ministers are ranked lowly and restricted. It was frustrating to read some of the early church fathers, such as Origen, who confidently asserted that women cannot and must not be leaders. And it was tiring to see 1 Timothy 2:12 used in the same way it is often used today. The saddest thing was to see that the discussions and restrictions on women’s ministry bear no resemblance whatsoever to Jesus’s and Paul’s discussions on ministry.

Footnotes

[1] See William Tabbernee and Peter Lampe, Pepouza and Tymion: The Discovery and Archaeological Exploration of a Lost Ancient City and Imperial Estate (Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2008), 6. (Google Books)

[2] Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity, Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press-Michael Glazier, 2000), 117-118.

[3] I won’t repeat here Origen’s explanation for why women can’t be church leaders which sounds exactly like arguments I’ve heard in the complementarian tome Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. If you’re interested I discuss Origen’s explanation in a comment [to Taylor] on my website here.

[4] James D.G. Dunn remarks on the different experience of church life among the first generation of Christians than that of later generations when Christianity became institutionalized.

Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism—when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts. … Such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change.
Dunn, Unity & Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (Westminster Press, 1977), 351.

[5] While some ministers (men and women) genuinely cared for the poor and served humbly and sacrificially, others (usually men) became ministers because of the power and prestige. Some (perhaps many) women became ministers to escape domestic drudgery, obedience to husbands, and the real dangers of childbirth.

Women Elders in Ancient Christian Texts

Part 1: Women Elders in Heterodox Churches and Ancient Church Canons
Part 2: Women Elders in Ancient Church Manuals 

Related Articles

Atto of Vercelli on Female Priests in the Early Church
Were there women elders in New Testament churches? (Part 1)
Were there women elders in New Testament churches? (Part 2) looks at inscriptions of Jewish women elders and at the language of “elders” in the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers.
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Remembering Theosebia of Nyssa (d. 380-385)
Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders (1 Timothy 3)
More articles about women in the early church are here.
Jesus’s Teaching on Leadership and Community in Matthew

Kevin Madigan writes about women presbyters in later periods in his chapter “The Meaning of Presbytera in Byzantine and Early Medieval Christianity,” in Patterns of Women’s Leadership in Early Christianity, Joan E. Taylor and Ilaria L. E. Ramelli (eds) (Oxford University Press, 2021), 261-289. (Google Books)

Image Credit

This pyx, which dates from the 500s, shows three women standing in the prayer pose and two women swinging censers 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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