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Women Elders in Ancient Christian Texts (Part 1)

INTRODUCTION

In this resource, I provide references from ancient documents about female church elders. My aim in compiling this resource is not primarily to provide support for the idea that there were female elders in the early church. Clearly, there were such women in that period, but many of the following sources speak ambiguously and even negatively about them. Furthermore, the references give us little hard evidence about their function; they simply show that women could and did hold the position of female elder in some churches.

In the following few paragraphs is information that may help readers to better understand the evidence I’ve provided in this series.

Most of the quotations in these articles come from primary sources (from ancient documents), but there are also quotations from secondary sources (comments from scholars about the primary sources). All but two of the primary sources on this page use a feminine form of the word “presbyter” which is derived from the Greek words presbyteros/presbytera (“older person, male/ female elder”) or presbytis (“old woman, female elder”).

In the New Testament, presbyteros is often used for Jewish elders and church elders. However, this word in both its masculine and feminine forms can simply refer to older people.

In the context of male officeholders in the post-apostolic and early church, Roman Catholic scholars typically translate presbyteros as “priest.” Protestants usually render the word as “presbyter” or less often as “elder.” When it comes to women, however, it can sometimes be difficult to determine if a presbytera or presbytis refers simply to an older woman or to a woman with an official church position.[1]

This is further complicated by the fact that some churches had an order of enrolled widows but others called these widow women “presbyteresses.” (“Widows” does not necessarily mean that the women had been married and their husbands had died; the Greek word for “widow,” chēra, referred to a woman who lives independently of a father or husband.)

Note that I will use the terms “women elders,” “women presbyters,” and “presbyteresses” interchangeably. And some quotations from secondary sources refer to women elders as “women priests” or “priestesses.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that, in Western society, the words “old woman” can be understood as implying frailty, diminished intelligence, and even foolishness. In the ancient world, however, a presbytera or presbytis was often a wise and venerated woman.[2] Most of the primary evidence for presbyteresses in this three-part series comes from the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.

WOMEN ELDERS IN HETERODOX CHRISTIAN GROUPS

The Apocryphal Acts of Philip

The Apocryphal Acts of Philip, possibly written in the 300s, is a work of fiction but reflects the ideology of a community of Christians in Asia Minor.

Within the community [depicted in the Acts of Philip], women as well as men served at all levels. One list mentions “presbytides” (female elders, or priestesses) alongside “presbyters” (male elders, or priests). Deaconesses are paired with deacons, as are virgins with eunuchs. (It is unknown whether the latter rank required surgery or merely celibacy.)[3]

Unfortunately, the Xenophontos version of the Acts of Philip which contains this list is not freely available online.[4] However, the versions that are online portray the female protagonist Mariamne as a heroic minister. (One online source is at New Advent.) All of the Apocryphal Acts depict women actively participating in ministry with a few outshining the male apostles.[5]

The Apocryphal Acts of Matthew

Like the Acts of Philip, this work, also known as the Martyrdom of Matthew, is fiction but reflects the ideology of some Christians. The word presbytis occurs in section 28, in a scene where one of the characters, a king, has a vision after Matthew’s death.

And in that same hour Matthew appointed the king a presbyter, and he was thirty-seven years old; and the king’s son he appointed deacon, being seventeen years old; and the king’s wife he appointed a presbyteress (presbytis); and his son’s wife he appointed a deaconess, and she also was seventeen years old. … Then the king, having awakened out of sleep, and rejoiced with all his house at the vision of the holy Apostle Matthew, praised God.  (Source)

The translation by M.R. James can be read on the Internet Archive website. James translates presbytis as “priestess.”

I’ve included the “evidence” from the Acts of Philip and Acts of Matthew for the sake of completeness.

Epiphanius’s Panarion

Epiphanius of Salamis (circa 375) spoke disparagingly about a group he calls the Pepuzians or Quintillianists. He distinguished this group from the Montanists while acknowledging a close association between them. However, these groups may actually be one and the same.

Epiphanius wrote that the Pepuzians “allow women to rule and to act as priests” (Panarion Summary 49.1; Frank William’s 2009 translation, p. 23). Furthermore, “They have woman bishops, presbyters and the rest; they say that none of this makes any difference because ‘In Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female’” (Panarion 49.2.5). “And as scriptural support for their ordination of women as clergy, they say that Moses’ sister was a prophetess” (Panarion 49.2.6).

John of Damascus (d. 749) relied heavily on Epiphanius and makes a similar statement translated as “they permit women ‘to hold authority and to officiate as priests'” [magistrates et sacerdotia deferent]  in “49. The Pepuzians” in On Heresies translated by Frederic H. Chase Jr. (Fathers of the Church, A New Translation, Volume 37; Catholic University of America Press, 1958), 123.

The Montanists were a late second-century Christian group regarded by most as heterodox. The idea that Montanists held heterodox theological beliefs is currently being questioned and investigated by scholars. However, they did have some odd practices, and women were prominent in the group.

ANCIENT CHURCH CANONS THAT MENTION WOMEN ELDERS

Council of Laodicea (circa 360)

Canon 11 of the Council (or, Synod) of Laodicea, banned the formal ordination of women elders.

It is not allowed for those women who are called ‘elders/ presbyteresses’ (presbytides) or ‘women presidents’ (prokathēmenai) to be ordained (kathistasthai) in the churches.
Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea

This canon acknowledges that in the fourth century there were women called elders or presbyteresses and that some presided in congregations.[6]

Commenting on this canon, Ute Eisen notes,

… until some time in the fourth century there were women presbyters, also called presbytides, active in the Church in Asia Minor. They were not only to be found in schismatic groups, as Epiphanius tried to show, but also in the Great Church, as attested by Canon 11 of the Synod of Laodicea.[7]

Gerard Damsteegt believes that “Presbytidas were the head deaconesses and leaders of the orders of widows.” And adds, “It is important to notice that the Laodicean canons do not prohibit women from being called presbytidas or ‘presidentesses’ but only forbid these women from being officially ordained.”[8] I don’t discount Damsteegt’s interpretation; however, I’ve seen no clear evidence that presbytides was the title of women leaders of female groups within the church in the 4th–5th centuries. (More comments on this canon are on pp. 209–210 here.)

Council of Nimes (circa 396)

Canon 2 of the Council of Nimes does not contain the word “presbyteress” (presbytera or presbytis) but acknowledges that some women were ordained “in Levitical ministry,” that is, priestly ministry. This canon states that the ordination of these women ministers should be undone.

It has also been suggested by some that, contrary to the apostolic church order, and unheard of until this time, women have been admitted in Levitical ministry. I don’t know where. This, indeed, is something church order does not allow because it is unbecoming. And since such an ordination has been performed contrary to reason, it should be overturned. Take care, lest anyone will further presume to do such a thing. (My translation)
Canon 2 of the Council of Nimes[9]

The Council of Carthage in 398

Canon 12 of this council (which met in 398) does not use the word “presbyter.”  However, “widows” and women presbyters were often practically synonymous. (Fulgentius Ferrandus from Carthage, writing 150 years after the council met, stated that presbyteresses are called widows, and other terms, in Carthage.)

This canon gives insight into one of the ministries of women in the early church.

Widows and dedicated women (sanctimoniales) who are chosen to assist at the baptism of women, should be so well instructed in their office as to be able to teach aptly and properly unskilled and rustic women how to answer at the time of their baptism to the questions put to them, and also how to live godly after they have been baptized.
Canon 12 of the Council of Carthage (398)[10]

Canon of Fulgentius Ferrandus of Carthage (547)

Fulgentius Ferrandus, a deacon of the church in Carthage, compiled 232 canons in around 547. Writing in Latin, he included this canon about enrolled presbyteresses (a Greek term) who are also called by various terms in Latin. He disapproved of any kind of ordination for these women.

That it is not fitting for women who among the Greeks are called presbyteresses (presbyterae) and who among us are called widows, or elders (seniores), once-married (uniuirae), and enrolled (matriculae), to be appointed as if ordained (tanquam ordinatas) in the church.[11]

(Note that the Latin term univira is equivalent to the Greek idiom behind “wife of one husband” in 1 Timothy 5:9.)

Laodicea (situated in modern-day Turkey), Nimes (situated in modern-day France), and Carthage in northern Africa, are thousands of kilometres apart, but the orthodox churches in these areas were unanimous in their prohibition of women from being ordained as presbyters and from being involved in the same kinds of official ministries as men.


Footnotes

[1] Presbyterai (exact form, presbyteras) occurs in 1 Timothy 5:2 and presbytides (exact form, presbytidas) occurs in Titus 2:3. These Greek words are typically translated into English New Testaments as “older women.”

[2] For example, an “old woman” appears several times in visions to Hermas, the main character in the Shepherd of Hermas (circa 100–150 CE). This richly dressed, venerable woman, who is often described as carrying a book, is repeatedly referred to as a presbytera. Though in Hermas 2:8, she is called a gynē presbytis, which can be translated as “woman elder.” At one point the presbytera is identified as “the church” (Herm. 8:1). This woman was not a real person, and she was not a minister in a congregation, but Hermas speaks to the presbytera as to a real person and he addresses her with respect. He calls her “lady” (kyria).  A summary of The Shepherd of Hermas is here.

[3] Peter H. Desmond, “Fourth-Century Church Tales: Women Priests, Vegetarians, and Summer Dresses,” Harvard Magazine (May 1 2000).

[4] Here is the pertinent excerpt: “[they] blasphemed against male presbyters (presbyteroi, exact from, prebyterous) and female presbyters (presbytides, exact form, presbytidas), eunuchs, deacons, deaconesses, and virgins with lies about debauchery and adultery.” Acts of Philip (Xenophontos 32 recension), Act 1.

[5] In the version of Acts of Philip preserved in Vaticanus graecus 824, Mariamne is sometimes called an “apostle.” Thecla is a particularly well-known woman mentioned in the Apocryphal Acts of Paul.

[6] Ute Eisen states,” The interpretation of the presbytides as women presbyters who received the laying on of hands and thus priestly authority is strongly suggested by the Latin history of reception of this canon. Isidore (ca. 360/7–435) and Dionysius Exiguus (497–545) translated kathistasthai with a form of ordinare.”
Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity, Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press-Michael Glazier, 2000), 123.

[7] Eisen, Women Officeholders, 123.

[8] Damsteegt, “Women’s Status and Ordination as Elders or Bishops in the Early Church, Reformation, and Post-Reformation Eras,” Faculty Publications, Paper 70 (2013): 17. (Online source)

[9] The original Latin of Canon 2 of the Synod of Nimes: Illud aetiam a quibusdam suggestum est, ut contra apostolicam disciplinam incognito usque in hoc tempus in ministerium feminae nescio quo loco levviticum videantur adsumptae; quod quidem, quia indecens est, non admittit ecclesiastica disciplina; et contra rationem facta talis ordinatio distruatur: providendum, ne quis sibi hoc ultra praesumat.

[10] Philip Schaff, “Excursus on the Deaconess of the Early Church” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 14: The Seven Ecumenical Councils (1885) (Source: Bible Hub)
A few ancient sources state that female deacons baptised women for the sake of modesty. Chapter 16 of the Didascalia says that there are few circumstances that women are “necessary and obligatory.”  Baptism is one of these situations. This may have been because, at least in some churches, the people being baptised were naked (e.g., Catechetical Lecture 20 of Cyril of Jerusalem; Apostolic Tradition 21.11 [p.46] of Hippolytus).

[11] Quoted in Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, (eds) (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 190.

More Information

Firmillian’s letter to Cyprian (AD 256). In this letter, Firmillian, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, criticises an unnamed prophetess who celebrated the eucharist and baptised many people. Firmillian repeatedly says the woman was influenced by demons. He also says “one of the presbyters, a countryman, and another, a deacon” had sex with her. It’s difficult to know how much of Firmillian’s words are hyperbole and slander or if the woman was a powerful and influential deceiver.

© Margaret Mowczko 2022

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Women Elders in Ancient Christian Texts

Part 2: Women Elders in Ancient Church Manuals 
Part 3: Women Elders in Inscriptions and Atto of Vercelli

Explore more

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)
Remembering Theosebia of Nyssa (d. 380–385)
Cerula and Bitalia in Catacomb Art
More articles about women in the early church are here.

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