[updated Nov/2005—added material on Junia/Joanna, the Apostle; Mar 04 – added the pushback to the section on women apostles]
This period of time stretches from the birth of the Church in Acts 2, until the end of the 5th century or so.
The data of this period comes from three sources: the NT writings, extra-biblical literature, and archeological data (largely inscriptional).
We have a lot of data here, so I plan to "cut it" three ways--by title, by geography, by role.
So, first I will go through the various titles used of church workers (esp. 'official titles') and see what data we have on female workers in those 'titles'. Then I will look at data by church location. Finally, I will group some of the roles together and look at representatives of those functions in church history.
The "title" data
We have one woman in scripture that is actually called an "apostle"--Junia in Rom 16.7: Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles....
Now, one can see that "Junias" (rendered by the NIV above) appears masculine and not feminine. But the male and female forms of the word do not differ in the spelling--but only in the presence of an apostrophe-like character above one of the letters (which typically did not show up in the mss.).
So, why do I think the word is feminine?
One of the earliest commentators on the passage, John Chrysostom, took the name as feminine: "how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle." (cited in WS:EWEC:185).
So did Origen.
So did every church father until the 1200's! (WS:EWEC:186, n.56)
One of the earliest minuscule mss (which DO preserve the accents, unlike the uncials) has it so.
Lampe in Anchor Bible Dictionary can summarize the data/implications thus:
"JUNIAS (PERSON) [Gk Iounia]. The only woman who is called an “apostle” in the NT (Rom 16:7). She was born a Jew, and is closely associated to Andronicus. Her name was the Lat name of the gens Junia. Women were often called by the name of their gens without cognomen (similar examples are Mary [Rom 16:6] and Julia [Rom 16:15]). Two groups carried the name of the gens Junia: the noble members of the famous gens, and the freed(wo)men of the gens with their descendants. The second group outnumbered the first. The chances therefore are that the Christian Junia was a freed slave of the gens. Either way, she probably had Roman citizenship: slave masters with famous gens names like “Junius/ia” possessed Roman citizenship and in most cases passed it on to their slaves on the occasion of their emancipation; the freed slaves bequeathed the gens name and the citizenship to their freeborn children. Without exception, the Church Fathers in late antiquity identified Andronicus’ partner in Rom 16:7 as a woman, as did minuscule 33 in the 9th century which records iounia with an acute accent. Only later medieval copyists of Rom 16:7 could not imagine a woman being an apostle and wrote the masculine name “Junias.” This latter name did not exist in antiquity; its explanation as a Greek abbreviation of the Latin name “Junianus” is unlikely."
The earliest commentators all took this form as feminine:
"It was not always this way.
John Chrysostom was not alone in the ancient church in taking the
name to be feminine. The earliest commentator on Romans 16:7,
Origen of Alexandria (e. 185-253/54), took the name to be feminine
(Junta or Julia, which is a textual variant), as did Jerome
(340/50-419/20), Hatto of Vercelli (924-961), Theophylact
(c.1050-c.1108), and Peter Abelard (1079-1142). In fact, to the
best of my knowledge, no commentator on the text until Aegidius of
Rome (1245-1316) took the name to be masculine. Without commenting
on his departure from previous commentators, Aegidius simply
referred to the two persons mentioned in Romans 16:7 as “these
honorable men” (viri). Aegidius noted that there were two
variant readings for the second name: Juniam and Juliam (accusative
in the verse). He preferred the reading Juliam and took it to be
masculine. Thus we see that even Juliam, which modern scholars
would take to be clearly feminine, has been considered masculine in
the context of the title “apostle.” "
[originally from www.womenpriests.org/classic/brooten.htm, but page has been taken down.]
To these early commentators who understood it to refer to a woman, we can add Ambrosiaster, Theodoret, pseudo-Primasius, and John of Damascus [Fitzmeyer, referred to by Bauckham in [WS:GW:166]].
[Some have argued that Origen's reference is a masculine form, but that is due to the emendation made by Migne--the mss themselves have either the feminine Junia or Julia.]
Some try to make the form into a contraction of a masculine word, but there is simply no data to support this:
"Iounivan has usually been taken in the modern period as Iounia`n = Junias, a contraction of Junianus (so rsv, neb, niv, njb). But the simple fact is that the masculine form has been found nowhere else, and the name is more naturally taken as Iounivan = Junia (Lampe 139–40, 147 indicates over 250 examples of “Junia,” none of Junias), as was taken for granted by the patristic commentators, and indeed up to the Middle Ages. The assumption that it must be male is a striking indictment of male presumption regarding the character and structure of earliest Christianity...We may firmly conclude, however, that one of the foundation apostles of Christianity was a woman and wife." [James G.D. Dunn, WBC, in loc.]
And BBC(NT) summarizes it the same way, arguing that Junia was part of a husband-wife team:
"Against attempts to make “Junia” a contraction of the masculine “Junianus,” this form is not attested in Rome; ancient Christian readers recognized that Junia was a woman. Because she and Andronicus traveled together without scandal, and singleness was unusual, they were undoubtedly a husband-wife team; husband-wife teams were known in some professions, like doctors and lower-class merchants. The most natural way to read the Greek phrase is that both were apostles; some modern interpreters have rejected this reading mainly because they presuppose that women could never fill this office."
[Tanknote: Epiphanius (4-5th centuries), in his list of bishops, either (a) seemed to understand the term as masculine; or (b) wanted to understand the term as masculine; but the extremely anti-women bias in Epi (and his polemic against women leadership) makes his testimony very, very unreliable as evidence IMO. (Discussions of his reliability on his bishop lists are beyond the scope of this article.) E.g., "Who are there that teach such things apart from women? In very truth, women are a feeble race, untrustworthy and of mediocre intelligence.", Panarion 79]
Bauckham [WS:GW:166] notes that:
“The case for reading the female name Junia rather than the male name Junias in Romans 16:7 has been made adequately in scholarship since the 1970's and has been widely accepted, while the REB and NRSV are, I believe, the first English translations to place 'Junia' in the text and to relegate 'Junias' to a footnote. The history of the matter is a sad story of prejudice making bad translation.”
Recent argumentation by Bauckham [WS:GW, p.109ff] makes a strong case that not only is this word-noun-name feminine, but also that it is the Latin-ized version of Joanna (one of Jesus' traveling companions/disciples—cf Luke 8.3 and 24.10)! Joanna was the wife of Herod's steward, and would have had a Latin/Roman name for purposes of administration. This identification would make the most sense of the name, her relation to Rome, her being 'in Christ' before Paul, and of her apostolic status (as a witness of Jesus' deeds and resurrection—Acts 1).The best recent and thorough investigation of this is by Eldon Jay Epp, in Junia--The First Woman Apostle [Fortress:2005]. He deals in detail and specifically with the various linguistic arguments about the issue, and concludes:
The majority of the 'hard' data supports a feminine reading of the word--and hence, a female 'apostle' (in the wider sense of apostle--not the Eleven, of course.)...But still the HIGHEST term available.
Pushback: “I enjoy reading your ideas on the topics. However, I read your article on the role of women in the church and was a bit surprised. Being a protestant ( I go to a Vineyard Church) I enjoy church history and find it interesting, however, I do not establish doctrine based on simply historical text outside of scripture. But your idea of women as apostles was based primarily on Church history. Yes, I read the article, and I am aware of your argument of the feminine form of the name, but I find it difficult to establish doctrine on the ambiguity of the gender reference. Don't get me wrong; I wanted you to be right, but I found your argument a bit problematic. Sorry, I hope I don't sound to negative; I have enjoyed many of your articles, but to create a gender doctrine based on what doesn't seem to me to be a scripture addressing that issue is somewhat sketchy. I still am a frequent visitor and will continue to be. “
(Boy, I wish all pushbacks were worded as sweetly as this one...sigh)
Couple of things here:
First, strictly speaking, my argument is NOT really from Church History, but from Historical data about the biblical text. (If it were a real argument from Church History, there would be no discussion of the form of this work/phrase in Romans—it would be about Historical tradition, without any basis in the biblical text per se.). Using (a) the lexical data from the ancient world about a word, its forms, and its distribution in history/usage; and (b) the history of interpretation of that biblical phrase by those closer in time/mindset than us is standard praxis in biblical exegesis. We use the Church Fathers to help us with textual criticism, biblical background, and lexical issues constantly, and these are used to clarify the biblical text itself—and not to establish some doctrine separately/independently from the text. Big, important difference there. I am using the lexical (non-Christian usage) data and the literary (Christian interpretation) data to help remove the ambiguity of the specific phrase (much as we do for phrases/concepts of 'headship', 'sacrifice', 'reconciliation', or even 'became a curse for us'. This is still an argument about the text, and NOT an argument about 'church history'.
Secondly, I am not sure that I am really trying to establish a 'doctrine' with this. I am examining all the data about the text to see which side of the issue is BEST SUPPORTED by the LARGER amount of data. In the historical (not doctrinal) question of “was there a woman apostle?”, the data is significantly heavier in favor of “YES” (as also seen from the many commentator assessments cited above—this is not just MY opinion on the subject). The doctrinal question of “Could a woman be an apostle, as recognized by other apostles?” could be established by either an overt rule-type statement to that effect (“apostles can be female or male”) or by an overt biblical reference to such a case (“Female X (is) an apostle”). Of course, we don't have ANY statement about gender/sex relative to apostles (i.e., there is no statement that apostles have to be male or female—only the requirement that they had seen the Risen Lord), so we are limited to the latter cases—of which the Romans passage is our text. To see this another way, there are no instructions that prophets have to be male (or that they can be female), but we know of women legitimately prophesying in the New Testament (e.g., Stephen's daughters, and 1 Cor 11). So the issue is a historical one—does the Romans passage refer to a woman apostle, and EVERY SCRAP OF DATA we have indicates that the answer to this is “YES”.
Thirdly, the very fact that the biblical texts present women as legitimate prophets creates a prima facie argument that they were as important as apostles (and therefore “superior” in the church to elders/pastors]. The scriptures which illustrate this linkage and priority are:
Luke 11.49: “I will send them prophets and apostles...”
Eph 2.20: “...God's household, built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Jesus Christ being the cornerstone.”
Eph 3.25: “...which in other generations was not made known to the children of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets...”
1 Cor 12.28: “And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers...”
So, given these three points, I still believe that
(a) my argument is from the biblical text itself (as illuminated by secular and ecclesiastical history) and not from just the position of the sub-apostolic leaders on the question “should women be allowed to be apostles?” and;
(b) the biblical data is still strongly in favor of the historical position that woman were accorded apostolic status since:
they are accorded the equal, closely-related, and superior-to-pastors position of prophets;
there are no qualifications for an apostle involving gender at all
This word renders the Greek words episkopos or presbyteros.
We have no examples of women in the NT being titled by these; however, we have no MEN labeled that either, except Peter and the self-designation of the author of 2 & 3rd John!
But the archeological data is significant here.
An early mosaic in a Roman basilica portrays a living figure titled "Bishop Theodora" (WS:WWWP:9-10) [Latin: episcopa]
At a burial site on the Greek island of Thera there is an epitaph for a women Epiktas, named as an presbytis in the 3rd or 4th century. [WS:WWWP:10]
A Christian inscription from 2nd or 3rd century Egypt reads: "Artemidoras...fell asleep in the Lord, her mother Paniskianes being an elder [presbytera]" (WS:WWWP:20)
The bishop Diogenes in the 3rd century set up a memorial for Ammion the elder (presbytera, feminine form). (WS:WWWP:20)
A 4th or 5th century epitaph in Sicily refers to Kale the elder (presbytis, also feminine). (WS:WWWP:20).
Although this word (lit. "servant") has a wide range of meaning in NT times, there is some data that can be used for our study.
In Rom 16.1-2, the female Phoebe is called by the MASCULINE form of 'deacon'--strongly suggesting that it is the technical term of the office of deacon. [WS:WIC:88f]
Clement of Alexandria wrote about women deacons (Misc., 3.6.53)
The Council of Chalcedon specified that "henceforth a deaconess must be at least forty and unmarried" (ROC:108)
Pliny the Younger, in his correspondence to Trajan, reported that he had tortured two young Christian women "who were called deacons" (Epistle 10.96.8).
Origen argued on the basis of Rom 16 that the EXISTING institution of women deacons should be continued. (commentary on Romans).
Paul's "co-workers" and "hard-workers"
These terms are semi-official titles among the Pauline work-force. His terms are synergos ("co-worker") and kopion ("hard worker"). The functions ascribed to these terms in the NT is summarized in WS:WIC:84:
They assisted in composing letters (Rom 16:22; I Thess 1:1), carried apostolic messages to local churches (1 Cor 4.17; 16:10-11), sought to encourage the believers on Paul's behalf (1 Thess 3:2), reported to Paul the status of congregations under his care (1 Thess 3:6) and even occasionally hosted house churches (1 Cor 16:19)...In view of this wide range of ministry, it would be ludicrous to deny that Paul's coworkers possessed authority in the churches (1 Cor 16:17-18)...a role which included the task of admonition (1 Thess 5:12)...Paul spoke readily of women, as well as men, as his coworkers.
(See also I Cor 16.16: "submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work (synergounti), and labors (kopionti) at it."!)
These semi-titles are used of:
Euodia (Phil 4.3)
Syntyche (Phil 4.3)
Priscilla (Rom 16.3)
Mary (Rom 16.6)
Tryphena (Rom 16.12)
Tryphosa (Rom 16.12)
Persis (Rom 16.12)
It should be noted that there is not a single title of leadership mentioned in the NT that is not ascribed to a female sometime within the first 3 centuries of the Church's life--as evidenced by literary and/or archeological data.
The Geographical Data
Here we want to simply note the location of the female workers/leaders.
The Jerusalem Church--Mary, mother of John Mark, hosted a Hellenistic church at her home (Acts 12.12f)
The Church at Rome--of the 28 people addressed by Paul in the letter, some 10 of them are women, and several are called by official and semi-official titles! Plus, this all-important letter was officially carried by the women Phoebe.
The Philippian church was obviously founded by Lydia (Acts 16), and two of the main leaders were the women (and Paul's "co-workers") Euodia and Syntyche.
The Church at Corinth obviously had authoritative women prophets (I Cor 11.4), as well as start-up assistance from the wife-husband pair Priscilla/Aquilla (Acts 18.1-3).
The Church at Caesarea was ministered to by the 4 prophetess daughters of Philip (Acts 21.8-9).
The Church at Laodicea was apparently a house-church run by Nympha (Col 4.15).
The Church at Cenchrea enjoyed Phoebe as a deacon (Rom 16.1-2).
The Church at Ephesus was ministered to by the wife-husband
pair Priscilla/Aquilla (Acts 18.19).
This is interesting data, especially since it indicates female 'leadership roles' in most of the major cities of the early church!
A Listing of Some of the Roles/Functions Women Provided
Women as Martyrs
Perpetua (d. 202)
Perpetua, a newly married woman from a prominent family, was among the catechumens arrested and imprisoned for being a Christian in Carthage, North Africa, in 202. In prison, Perpetua had powerful dreams and visions in which she fought the power of evil and won. Perpetua described her dream-vision of triumph over the Devil in the following passage:
The day before we were to fight with the beast I saw the following vision. Pomponius, the deacon, came to the prison gates and began to knock violently. I went out and opened the gate for him. He was dressed in an unbelted white tunic, wearing elaborate sandals. And he said to me: Perpetua, come; we are waiting for you. Then he took my hand and we began to walk through rough and broken country. At last we came to the amphitheater out of breath, and he led me into the centre of the arena. Then he told me: "Do not be afraid. I am here struggling with you." Then he left. I looked at the enormous crowd who watched in astonishment. I was surprised that no beasts were let loose on me; for I knew that I was condemned to die by the beasts. Then out came an Egyptian against me, of vicious appearance, together with his seconds, to fight with me. There also came up to me some handsome young men to be my seconds and assistants.... We drew close to one another and began to let our fists fly. My opponent tried to get hold of my feet. Then I was raised up into the air and I began to pummel him without as it were touching the ground. Then when I noticed there was a lull, I put my two hands together linking the fingers of one hand with those of the other and thus I got hold of his head. He fell flat on his face and I stepped on his head. The crowd began to shout and my assistants started to sing psalms. Then I walked up to the trainer and took the branch. He kissed me and said to me: "Peace be with you, my daughter!" I began to walk in triumph towards the Gate of Life. Then I awoke. I realized that it was not with wild animals that I would fight but with the Devil, but I knew that I would win the victory.
Perpetua demonstrated remarkable courage throughout her imprisonment and up to the day of her martyrdom, when she was killed by the sword. (ws:ppw:25)
Irene (d. April 1, 304)
Irene and her companions Agape and Chione were from Thessalonica. Attempting to flee the persecution of Diocletian and Maximian, they were captured and condemned to die. One of Irene's crimes was concealing Christian books (probably the Scriptures) in defiance of the emperor's order to turn them over for burning. Scholars believe that this may indicate that she held a position of leadership in the church. When the persecution was raging under the Emperor Maximian, these women, who had adorned themselves with virtue, following the precepts of the gospel, abandoned their native city, their family, property, and possessions because of their love of God and their expectation of heavenly things, performing deeds worthy of their father Abraham. They fled the persecutors, according to the commandment, and took refuge on a high mountain. There they gave themselves to prayer; though their bodies resided on a mountain top, their souls lived in heaven. Irene was questioned by authorities and was sentenced to be placed naked in a brothel. After those who were put in charge had taken the girl off to the public brothel in accordance with the prefect's order, by the grace of the Holy Spirit which preserved and guarded her pure and inviolate for the God who is the lord of all things, no man dared to approach her or so much as tried to insult her in her speech. Hence the prefect Dulcitius called back this most saintly girl, had her stand before the tribunal, and said to her, "Do you still persist in the same folly?" But Irene said to him, "It is not folly, but piety." He then asked for a sheet of papyrus and wrote the sentence against her as follows, "Whereas Irene has refused to obey the command of the emperors and to offer sacrifice, and still adheres to a sect called Christians, I therefore sentence her to be burned alive, as I did her two sisters before her." After this sentence had been pronounced by the prefect, the soldiers took the girl and brought her to a high place, where her sisters had been martyred before her. They ignited a huge pyre and ordered her to climb up on it. And the holy woman Irene, singing and praising God, threw her self upon it and so died. It was in the ninth consulship of Diocletian Augustus, in the eighth of Maximian Augustus [304 C.E.], on the first day of April, in the reign of our Lord Christ Jesus, who reigns forever, with whom there is glory to God with the Holy Spirit for ever. Amen.
Irene's courageous testimony reflects the independent spirit of the Christian women martyrs of the early church, their strong resistance to political oppression, and their willingness to embrace martyrdom for the sake of the gospel. (ws:ppw:30)
AGAPE (c. 272-304), one of three sisters martyred for her Christian stand. All three sisters lived in Thessalonica. They were instructed in the Christian faith and doctrines but were warned to remain unknown and to live in seclusion and prayer. Agape, along with her sisters, were discovered and examined before the governor, Dulcatius. During the questioning her Christian testimony was firm, indicating that she could not comply with laws that enforced the worship of idols and devils. This angered the governor, and he condemned her to death. She was martyred on March 25, 304. (WS:DWCH:2)
AGATHA (c. 225-251), a Christian woman of Sicily with unusual beauty. Quintain, the pagan governor of Sicily, was greatly attracted to her and attempted to seduce her. She tried to relocate so as not to be seen by him, but she was discovered and brought to Catana. Realizing her circumstances, she prayed for death. In a further attempt to gratify his desires, the governor assigned Agatha to a licentious woman, Aphrodica, who tried to persuade Agatha to give in to prostitution. All such efforts were wasted, and Agatha's Christian testimony remained firm. This caused Quintain great resentment, especially when Agatha spoke so clearly of her Christian faith. The governor was determined to have his revenge and had Agatha scourged, burned with red-hot irons, torn with sharp hooks, and finally laid naked on live coals intermingled with glass. She died as a result of that torture on February 5, 251. (WS:DWCH:2)
AGNES (Fourth Century), considered a Christian martyr of Rome; especially recognized for her defense of chastity. The daughter of the Emperor Constantine is said to have built a basilica over her grave near Via Nomentana. Exact dates and details of her life are uncertain. (WS:DWCH:2)
ANASTASIA (c. 25-c. 70), believed to have become a Christian after hearing one of Christ's disciples preach. She was martyred for her faith, probably about 70 A.D., during Emperor Nero's persecution. Although details of her life are obscure, her name has come down in history as a martyr because of her testimony and witness. (WS:DWCH:5)
ANASTASIA (c. 230-c. 259), believed to have been the daughter of Constantius Chlorus. Her Christian influence in the home was accredited as a major contribution to Constantine. Details of her life are obscure. (WS:DWCH:5)
ANASTASIA (c. 279-c. 304), born into a Roman family and under the teaching of Chrysogonus. Her father opposed her acceptance of Christianity, and her husband, Publius, betrayed her faith to authorities. She was martyred by the request of Florus, an official in Illyricum, because of her Christian faith. (WS:DWCH:5)
BARBARA (c. 259-c. 306), became a Christian without her parents' knowledge. Her testimony became evident in her living habits, and she was criticized by her father. It is believed that he even turned against her for her faith and contributed to her martyrdom. She was killed for her faith in Christ likely at either of two locations: Heliopolis in Egypt or at Nicomedia. Details about her life are lacking. (WS:DWCH:11)
BLANDINA (d. 177), a slave girl of Lyons martyred for her Christian faith and testimony. Little is known about her except that she was greatly tortured for publicly proclaiming her faith and then martyred. (WS:DWCH:18)
CECILIA (c. 141-177), a Christian martyr honored by musicians and artists. Incomplete records refer to her as a virgin who resisted marriage, but her parents planned to force her to marry a Roman of high birth. Only hours before the marriage, the groom, Valerianus, and his brother, Tibertius, were converted to Christianity. Both were beheaded for their profession of Christ, and Cecilia's life was threatened. She was martyred later in Sicily, and these three Christian martyrs were buried in the catacombs of St. Callister. About 821 Pope Paschal had her remains taken to the church of St. Cecilia at Trastevere at Rome. A church in Rome was dedicated to her, and artists have portrayed her as a patron of music. She is portrayed in "The Second Nun's Tale" of Canterbury Tales. Raphael painted her sitting at an organ. (WS:DWCH:33)
Domitilla, Flavia (First Century) Christian niece of Domitian (Titus Flavius Domitianus Augustus), Roman emperor between A.D. 81 and 91. She and members of her household, including her husband, Titus Flavius Clemens, fled because they refused to worship the emperor. She went to Pandateria in the Tyrrhenian Sea area. Her husband was be headed for refusing to persecute Christians. Her life was spared for a time, but she was forced to live a martyrdom kind of existence on an island. She witnessed of her Christian faith, read her Bible, helped others, and assisted in burying martyrs. It is believed she was buried among the catacombs near Terracina, on the Via Ardeatine, where a cemetery bears her name. (WS:DWCH:48)
FELICITAS (c. 107-164), a brave martyr, described as an illustrious but devout Christian Roman woman of great virtues. She had seven sons, all of whom upheld their mother and their own personal Christian testimony. She was interrogated by Publius, then threatened, but she and all her family stood firm in their Christian faith and thus were all martyred. (WS:DWCH:57)
FELICITAS (d. 203), a Christian martyr from Carthage, North Africa. She was a slave girl martyred along with Perpetua. They were both arrested and imprisoned because Septimus Severus had forbidden conversions to Christianity. She had a child born in prison and placed in care of a Christian relative. Felicitas and Perpetua were tried and then taken to be martyred for refusing to denounce their Christian faith. They were led into an arena, gored by a mad cow, and later put to death by the sword. (WS:DWCH:57)
SERAPHIA (?-125), a slave girl of Antioch and servant in the household of Sambine, to whom she witnessed. Later Sambine was converted to Christianity. Both she and Sambine were martyred for their faith. (WS:DWCH:132)
ZOE (c. 255-286), a Christian martyr of Rome. Her husband
was the jailer who had charge of the Christians facing death
because of their faith. Details of her early life and even her full
name are lacking, but it is recorded that she became a Christian
after observing and hearing discussions by Christians facing
martyrdom. She had a physical disability that would not permit her
to express herself except in gestures. The Christians instructed
her in the faith and when she responded in belief, they told her to
pray for freedom from her disability. She did so and was healed and
able to speak. Her husband witnessed this miracle and accepted the
Lord as his Savior. This situation enraged the enemy, and she was
greatly tortured and then killed for her faith (WS:DWCH:164)
Women as monastics and ascetics.
"Second-century apologists in contrasting Christian sexual morality with paganism took note of the number of Christians, male and female, who chose to live continent lives. The phenomenon was noted by the pagan Galen." (WS:EWEC:502)
"Communities of celibate women did apparently precede those of men." (WS:EWEC:502).
Desert Mother Sarah (Fifth Century)
Amma (Mother) Sarah was one of the desert mothers who probably lived in the fifth century. She may have been a member of one of the new communities of ascetics that emerged at this time. It is not possible to assign dates to the sayings of Sarah or the other desert mothers because they began as oral tradition, were then carefully preserved by disciples, and later put into collections that became known in the West through the scholarship of John Cassian, Jerome, and Palladius (ws:ppw:35)
Desert Mother Theodora (Fifth Century)
Amma (Mother) Theodora was one of the hermits or nuns presumed to have lived in the fifth-century Egyptian desert. Little is known of her life. All we have are sayings that were preserved by her disciples and eventually became part of the collections of sayings from the desert. Desert mother Theodora's sayings reflect a keen insight into the process of spiritual development. ... the person is addressed in his or her wholeness of body, mind, and spirit. For the Christian, prayer and discipline involve a life-long journey toward growth in holiness and wholeness. (ws:ppw:38)
Desert Mother Syncletica (Fifth Century)
Amma (Mother) Syncletica was a desert monastic woman who lived in fifth-century Egypt. Since many of her sayings employ nautical images, scholars believed that Syncletica may have come from the seaport of Alexandria. The desert mothers are believed to have lived in the fifth century, at which time the eremitical life was developing into new, small ascetical communities. However, there were some women who lived alone in the desert before this time. Amma Syncletica's sayings use images that are provocative and clear, emphasizing the importance of balance and stability in the spiritual life: "Just as one cannot build a ship unless one has nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility"; "You were iron, but fire has the rust off you"; "If you find yourself in a monastery do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching so the monk or the nun grows cold and their faith dies, when they go from one place to another.'' (ws:ppw:41)
MACRINA (327-379), founder of one of the earliest religious
communities of women in the East. Macrina was born in Neocaesarea,
Cappadocia, and reared in Pontus, the area to which Paul addressed
his first letter. Her family was Christian; her grandmother was
Macrina, the elder; her father a distinguished attorney and
professor; her mother, Emmelia, a godly woman; and her brothers
were Basil the Great, Gregory (Bishop of Nyssa), a younger brother,
Peter, who became Bishop of Sebaste; and an older brother who
became a jurist. Her family traveled to Pontus to escape the
persecutions of Christians by Galerius and Maximianus. It was on
their family estate that she founded two religious communities; one
for women and one for men. She taught the Scriptures and devoted
much time to prayer and meditation. She established a large
hospital where healings and miracles were recorded. These
communities, were at Tabennisi, on the bank of the Nile River.
Basil especially praised his sister for the progress of her
religious communities, which she founded and administered. He and
Macrina decided to establish monasteries using a similar plan to
the brother-sister community. (WS:DWCH:110)
Women as Missionaries
Clement of Alexandria (Misc, 3.6.53) refers to the wives of the apostles assisting in missionary work as the means through which the gospel reached the women's quarters of households. (WS:EWEC:506)
Thecla (First Century), visited by Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. She was a native of Iconium in Asia Minor and became a Christian. Details of her life are obscure, but she is mentioned in the writings of Augustine and other church fathers. Two churches were dedicated to her, and some believe she may have founded a convent near Seleucia. There is some indication that she was the first martyr in Greece. It is known that she taught the teachings of Paul and was a devout Christian of her day. (WS:DWCH:145; WS:EWEC:506-507).
"The most successful woman missionary of the ancient church was Nino, "the apostle of Georgia." She was a slave from Cappadocia whose miraculous healing abilities brought her to the attention of the queen of Georgia. Nino healed her in the name of Christ. Eventually the king was converted and built a church. Nino's influence brought about the conversion of the country of Georgia to Orthodox Christianity from the top down." (WS:EWEC:507).
Women in benevolence/retreat ministry
FABIOLA (c. 143-199), a Christian mentioned in the writings of Jerome as being a student of the Bible and believed to have founded the first hospital in Europe. She was from a prominent family, and her compassion for the sick along with her personal care for some of them left an impression on the Christians and pagans of Rome. (WS:DWCH:56)
MARCELLA (325-410), a Christian widow of a Roman family of nobility. She turned her palace into a place of retreat for Bible study, teaching, and Christian activities. She used her wealth and energies for benevolent work, ascetic practices, including prayer and teaching the Scriptures to other women of nobility in Rome. Jerome stayed in her palace three years, taught and translated Hebrew and Greek texts into Latin, for Pope Damasus had commissioned him to do a revision of the Latin gospels in 382. Jerome referred to Marcella's palace as an "Ecclesia Domestica," or church of the household, for not only were Bible classes held there, but it was a house of meditation, prayer, and worship. It was here that Paula and her daughter decided to help Jerome in his translation work and where Fabiola was inspired to establish the first hospital in Rome. Many other projects resulted from the fellowship and seclusion of Marcella's palace. When Rome was besieged by the Goths in 410, Marcella was treated harshly, resulting in her death at age eighty-five. (WS:DWCH:97)
[All of the above references to "deacons" included
this care-giving work.]
Women as mentors/scholars
Paula was born into an old Roman aristocratic family on May 5, 347. Her mother, Blaesilla, was descended from the Scipio and Gracchi families. Her father, Rogatus, was said to be a descendant of Agamemnon. Paula married Toxotius, a relative of the renowned noble family Aeneas and Julii. Jerome, in the Life of Paula, 3, described Paula's marriage, children, and widowhood:
Thus nobly born, Paula through her fruitfulness and her chastity won approval from all, from her husband first, then from her relatives, and lastly from the whole city. She bore five children; Blaesilla, for whose death I consoled her while at Rome; Paulina, who has left the reverend and admirable Pammachius to inherit both her vows and property, to whom also I addressed a little book on her death; Eustochium, who is now in the holy places, a precious necklace of virginity and of the church; Rufina, whose untimely end overcame the affectionate heart of her mother; and Toxotius, after whom she had no more children.
According to Jerome's memories of her life, when Toxotius died, Paula's grief over her husband's death was so deep that she nearly died herself. Then, as soon as her mourning ended, she chose to dedicate her life fully to the service of God. Paula, one of the richest women of her day, was known for her simplicity, poverty, and humility. She gave all her earthly goods to the poor and, according to Jerome's account of her life, died leaving nothing behind but a debt, which "Eustochium still owes and indeed cannot hope to pay off by her own exertions; only the mercy of Christ can free her from it."
A close companion to Jerome for twenty years, Paula shared his devotion to the Scriptures, often challenging him with questions and providing insights into the meaning of different verses. Recalling Paula's intelligence and clarity, Jerome recalled, "When ever I stuck fast and honestly confessed myself at fault, she would by no means rest content but would force me by fresh questions to point out to her which of many different solutions seemed to me the most probable."
After mastering the Hebrew language, Paula would chant the psalms in Hebrew without a hint of Latin pronunciation. Jerome tells us that Paula loved her family dearly: "I must not pass over in silence the joy which Paula felt when she heard her little granddaughter and namesake, the child of Laeta and Toxotius, in her cradle sing 'alleluia' and falter out the words 'grandmother' and 'aunt.' Likewise, Paula and her daughter shared a very close relationship. Jerome describes Eustochium's compassionate care of her mother when Paula was ill: "She sat by Paula's bedside, she fanned her, she supported her head, she arranged her pillows, she chafed her feet, she rubbed her stomach, she smoothed down the bedclothes, she heated hot water, she brought towels." Jerome's words reveal the intense grief he felt when his dear friend Paula died on January 26, 404: "Who could tell the tale of Paula's dying with dry eyes?" She fell into a most serious illness and thus gained what she most desired, power to leave us and to be joined more fully to the Lord.... If we mourn, it is for ourselves and not for her; yet even so, if we persist in weeping for one who reigns with Christ, we shall seem to envy her her glory." (ws:ppw:44-45)
Jerome's account of her death is most moving (Life of Paula, 28-29):
Paula's intelligence showed her that her death was near. Her body and limbs grew cold and only in her holy breast did the warm beat of the living soul continue. Yet, as though she were leaving strangers to go home to her own people, she whispered the verses of the psalmist, "Lord, I have loved the habitation of your house and the place where your honour dwells" (Ps 25.8), and "How amiable are your tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs and faints for the courts of the Lord" (Ps 84.2-3), and "I had rather be an outcast in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness" (Ps 84.11). When I asked her why she remained silent, refusing to answer my call, and whether she was in pain, she replied in Greek that she had no suffering and that all things were to her eyes calm and tranquil. After this she said no more but closed her eyes and kept repeating the verses just quoted, down to the moment in which she breathed out her soul, but in a tone so low that we could scarcely hear what she said. Raising her finger also to her mouth, she made the sign of the cross upon her lips. Then her breath failed her, and she gasped for death; yet even when her soul was eager to break free, she turned the death-rattle (which comes at last to all) into the praise of the Lord. The bishop of Jerusalem and some from other cities were present, also a great number of the lower clergy, both priests and Levites. The entire monastery was filled with virgins and monks. As soon as Paula heard the bridegroom saying, "Rise up, my love, my fair one, my dove, and come away: for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone," she answered joyfully, "The flowers appear on the earth; the time to cut them has come" (Song 2.10-12) and "I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living" (Ps 27.13).
EUDOCIA (c. 401-460), wife of Theodosius and daughter of Leontius, a philosopher in Athens. Her name was Athenais, but when she became a Christian she changed it to Eudocia. Pulcheria, the sister of Theodosius, had arranged for their marriage, but they differed in views on religious matters. She is credited with having paraphrased in poetry the first eight books of the Old Testament, prophecies of Daniel, and other Old Testament books. She wrote The Life of Christ, believed to be taken from Homer's writings and translated into Latin. (WS:DWCH:54)
MARCELLINA (c. 330-c. 398), born in to the Christian family of Aurelius Ambrosius in Rome, and the sister of Satyrus and Ambrose of Milan. After her mother was left a widow, Marcellina helped her with Ambrose's education. Pope Liberius consecrated her in 353. In later years she lived with Ambrose at Milan. He dedicated his De Virginbus to her, for her influence of prayer was significant. (WS:DWCH:97)
Gorgonia, sister of Gregory of Nazianzus (WS:EWEC:512).
At her funeral, Gregory said this about his sister (Oration 8 11,13):
What could be keener than the intellect of her who was recognized as a common advisor not only by those of her family...but even by all men round about, who treated her counsels and advice as a law not to be broken? What more sagacious than her words? What more prudent than her silence?...Who had a fuller knowledge of the things of God, both from the Divine oracles, and from her own understanding?
Women as important witnesses and influencers
HELENA (c. 250-c.330), mother of Constantine. She was born at Drepanum in Bithynia, Asia Minor. Details of her early life are obscure, but records show that she was converted to Christianity in 313. She married Constantius Chlorus, who later divorced her for political reasons. After Constantine came into power, he recalled his mother to court in 306 and honored her, including giving her the title of Augusta. Her Christian influence was very evident in her son, the first Christian emperor of Rome. She visited the Holy Land in her later years (WS:DWCH:72)
MONICA (c. 331-387), the devout Christian mother of Augustine. She was born in a Christian family at Tagaste, North Africa. Her faith, prayers, and Christlike life influenced her entire family to become Christians. She married Patricius, a man of limited means and known for his difficult temperament before he became a Christian, shortly before his death. Although she had other children, Augustine was the best known because he became Bishop of Hippo and was considered the greatest of the Latin Fathers. He was converted in Milan in 384 at age thirty, only three years before Monica died. They were moving to Rome when Monica died on the way, at Ostia. Her life has inspired many works of literature and art; a painting of her and Augustine hangs in the National Gallery of Art in London. (WS:DWCH:103)
NONNA (c. 329-374), devout Christian teacher and mother of
Gregory of Nazianzus. Reared in a Christian home, she was largely
responsible for the conversion of her husband, Gregory the Elder.
He had been in a sect but was converted and consecrated as the
bishop of Nazianzus, a position he held for many years. Details of
her early life are not available. She had two grandsons who became
bishops, and she is remembered largely for her testimony and
Christian influence. (WS:DWCH:113)
One can see from this wide survey of data that women played powerful, pervasive, and precious roles in the life of the early church. From their fortitude and beauty in the face of horrible martyrdom, to their power and thoroughness in scholarship and teaching, they honored the Lord.
They did it all--led the church, served the church, birthed the church, fed the church. The truly played their part in proclaiming the gospel to all nations.
And their Father wrote all their labor, all their tears, and every drop of their blood, down in His private books...and one day, He will visit them with His reward...