|Ancient Mosaic of Women of the Early Chruch|
Even during a cursory reading of the Gospels you’ll find yourself surrounded by women who, in one way or another, ministered to Jesus and his inner circle. Most famous of these is Mary and Martha of Bethany and, thanks to Dan Brown and his DaVinci Code nonsense, Mary of Magdala…usually called Mary Magdalene. One who is never mentioned, though she must have been a supporter, is Mary, wife of Aristopulus. It was in the upper room of their home that Jesus celebrated his Last Supper with his disciples.
There are others as well. The woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the woman with the hemorrhage who just wanted to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak, Peter’s mother-in-law, the woman who washed his feet with tears — some associate her with Mary Magdalene, though this seems doubtful. And, of course, his mother, Mary, who was no doubt always in the background.
But what of the early church? Once Christ handed the reins over to the apostles did they revert to the misogynistic, patriarchal ways that we’re told prevailed in First Century society? Did they banish women to the kitchen to be seen, but not heard? No, they did not.
|Ikon of Lydia|
The history of women taking an active role in the early church is well documented. A number of women are mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and the various Epistles. Some examples would be Timothy’s mother and grandmother; fellow tent-makers, Aquila and Priscilla, Lydia the seller of purple cloth, Dorcas, or Tabitha, whom Peter raised from the dead, and the four daughters of Phillip who were prophetesses. There are also numerous instances where women are mentioned without specifying their names…the distinguished widows of Asia, women among the 120 and so on. Paul and his companions frequently relied upon the charity and social standing of some of these women —many no doubt wealthy widows— to ease them into the local society so they could accomplish their mission.
Literary sources have left ample records of deaconesses in different parts of the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople’s main cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, counted among its clergy 6o priests, 100 male deacons and 40 deaconesses. (Justinian, Novella 3.1) The early church’s practice of baptizing converts by full immersion in the nude ―a symbolic rebirth into the life of Christ― made the presence of deaconesses a practical necessity. In addition to assisting with baptisms, they tended the sick, nurtured the waifs the ecclesia rescued, and cared for the crippled, mentally ill, and dying.
|A Wall Painting of Early Deaconesses|
Some of these women are known by name because of their association with other notable members of the early church. These few undoubtedly represent unnamed thousands whose contributions have been lost to history. Here is a short list of some of them:Olympias in Constantinople, ordained by Bishop Nektarios, friend of St. Gregory of Nazianze and later of St. John Chrysostom.
Anonyma who ministered in Antioch during the persecution of Julian the Apostate.
Procula and Pentadia, two deaconesses to whom St. Chrysostom wrote letters.
Salvina whom St. Jerome knew and who later became a deaconess in Constantinople.
The deaconess Anastasia whom Severus, Bishop of Antioch, mentions in his letters.
The deaconess Macrina, sister of St. Basil the Great, and her friend and deaconess Lampadia.
The deaconess Theosebia, wife of St. Gregory of Nissa.
The names of others have been preserved on their tombstones:
Sophia of Jerusalem, whose Greek inscription reads: “Here lies the servant and virgin of Christ, the deacon.”
Theodora of Gaul carried this Latin inscription on her tomb: “Here rests in peace and of good remembrance Theodora the deaconess who lived about 48 years.”
In Delphi, Greece, a tombstone dating to the 5th century remembers a certain Athanasia. “The most devout deaconess Athanasia, established deaconess by his holiness bishop Pantamianos after she had lived a blameless life.”
Another tombstone in Jerusalem remembers the deaconess Eneon who ministered to the sick.
Notice also that the ordination of deaconesses was not restricted to only the early church; it continued well into the later centuries. Another question inevitably arises when discussing the role of women in the early church. Were there also female priests…priestesses, if you will? All claims of radical feminists aside, the records indicate that, though a deaconess might head a congregation when no episkopos (Bishop) was available, they never exercised the full authority of the office.
Until next time, we wish you Peace and Blessings.
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