Recovering the Female Clerics of the Early Church

January 17, 2022   •   By Sarah E. Bond, Shaily Patel

PASTS IMPERFECT IS a column that explores the impact of ancient pasts on the present. Begun by Sarah E. Bond, Joel Christensen, and Nandini Pandey, Pasts Imperfect is a space for addressing forgotten, manipulated, or misunderstood histories of the ancient world from South America to the Indus Valley and the ancient Mediterranean. We will also highlight how narratives about the past influence the world we live in today, from books and movies to executive orders.

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In November 2021, Pope Francis appointed Raffaella Petrini, a Franciscan sister, as secretary general of the Vatican governorate. Press coverage dwelled on the fact that she is the first woman ever to hold the post; she now sits as the highest-ranking woman within Vatican City. Petrini oversees the Vatican’s administration of its vast museums, its post office, and its police force, all within a role normally filled by a male bishop. Although Francis has worked throughout his tenure to appoint women like Petrini to higher offices, a fierce debate over whether women can serve ordained roles as deacons still rages within the Catholic Church.

Amid the ongoing argument over women as clerics and historical precedent, new mosaics from the site of Ashdod in Israel have added to the evidence for female deacons in antiquity. The mosaic inscriptions reiterate that while most have viewed Francis’s appointments of women as a progressive and novel move, there is broad historical precedent for female clerics that goes later into the period of Late Antiquity than most realize. The mounting evidence from Ashdod and other sites across the Mediterranean together demonstrate that the origins of the early Christian church included women, even if not every church agreed upon their ordination.

Figure 1: Mosaic of the lamb on the mountain of Paradise in Santa Prassede, Chapel of Saint Zeno (ninth century CE), Rome, Italy, with women depicted below (left to right): Episcopa Theodora, then Saint Praxedes, Mary, and Saint Pudentiana. (Image via Wikimedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, author: Livioandronico2013.)

Within many early Christian churches, women served clerical roles as ordained ministers called deacons and presbyters, both subordinate to the higher-ranking bishops. By the second century CE, deacons functioned as liturgical assistants in the giving of the Eucharist and at baptisms, and could also be used to carry official letters and visit those in prison. The early Christian author Tertullian attests to women presbyters as well, clerics who directly taught, healed, offered the Eucharist, and gave baptisms. The image of solely men populating the clerical orders that stretch back to the time of Jesus and his disciples is an oft-repeated origin story, but one that should be questioned.

Women’s leadership in early churches has been a topic of discussion over two millennia of Christian history, but has become particularly pressing in the past six years. In 2016, Pope Francis set up a commission for the study of women in the diaconate which met over a week in Rome. The commission studied the history of women deacons in the Roman Catholic Church and considered whether women might serve as deacons now. According to the Vatican, the commission was to focus “above all regarding the times of the early Church.” The commission’s conclusions, it seems, were inconclusive. A new commission was established in 2019, its work still pending. In the meantime, Pope Francis changed Catholic law to allow women to serve in the positions of lector and acolyte. This declaration has reignited controversies about women’s leadership in the Church. But can new material evidence help us address the centuries-old question?

Figure 2: Dedicatory inscription in Greek to Gaianos the priest and Severa the deaconess, Ashdod Yam Basilica, Israel. (Image Credit: Sasha Flit.)

Scholars of Early Christianity and Late Antiquity have long studied women who served as deacons and presbyters within nascent Christian congregations dotting the Mediterranean in places like ancient Palestine, Asia Minor, North Africa, and Northern Greece. In addition to the numerous literary mentions and the celebration of 22 female deacons within the liturgical calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church, a strong — and growing — body of physical evidence lies in inscriptions found on stone or in mosaic. About 100 tombstones for female deacons survive today, leading experts such as John Wijngaards to estimate their total number in the thousands. These inscriptional testaments demonstrate the patronage, power, and unequivocal status of female deacons and presbyters within an emerging Christianity in the first centuries CE, well into the early Medieval period.

The new excavation of an early Christian basilica at Ashdod in ancient Palestine (modern Israel) has now provided even more evidence for their regularized use of women bearing an identical clerical title with men. Inscriptions and Roman laws, such as that of Justinian in 535 CE, often used the same masculine title, διάκονος (diakonos) without differentiating between men and women. Other times, the feminine title diakonissa is given to female deacons and occasionally to the wives of deacons. There is no evidence that being a woman diminished the meaning or status of the title. The basilica inscriptions are exciting in large part because they not only cite unknown female deacons, but also push the date of women’s leadership in the early churches later, challenging a long-held argument that female clergy were excluded after the first centuries CE.

Figure 3: Parts of the mosaics still covered by the collapsed tiles of the church’s roof. (Image Credit: Sasha Flit.)

The Holy Mother Sophronia, Gregoria the deaconess, and Theodosia are all recorded in the inscriptions from Ashdod. Sophronia is likely a mother superior and the other two are deacons, each within a church dating to the fifth or sixth century CE. The first translations and interpretation of the inscriptions were made by Leah Di Segni, an epigrapher at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In remarks to the authors, Alexander Fantalkin, a professor in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University and the director of the Ashdod excavations, spoke about the new evidence excavators unearthed in the 2019 and 2021 campaigns, and the discovery of another female deacon named Severa.

[The campaigns] have focused on further exposure of the remains of a church and associated structures. The remains of a big three-aisled basilica style church with decorated mosaic floors were found, together with elaborated chapels and additional structures by its northern and western side. An unusual number of dated inscriptions, incorporated into the mosaic floors and coins, suggest that the complex was used between ca. 400–600 CE. The earliest inscription (415/6 CE), found in the southern aisle, mentions a bishop, Heraclius, together with Gainus, a priest, and Severa the deaconess.

Perhaps it is fitting that the pope’s first commission couldn’t find a definitive answer to the question of women deacons in the early Church. The historical evidence itself is split and indicative of a lack of uniformity across Christendom at the time. At Ashdod, the deacons Theodosia and Gregoria are memorialized alongside other women leaders. And yet, around the same time that women held leadership at the church in Ashdod, Church Fathers like Augustine claimed women “[were] of small intelligence and perhaps still [live] according to the workings of the inferior flesh than of the spirit of the mind. Is this why the apostle Paul does not attribute the image of God [to women]” (in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 11.42).

We can accuse Augustine of being wrong about many things, including women’s intelligence. But he might be wrong about Paul, too. In contrast to Augustine’s rigid claims about Paul’s view of women, Paul himself seems to find women of more than “small intelligence.” His letters are filled with mentions of women who ministered alongside him: Prisca, his “coworker” (Rom. 16:3–4) and Tryphanaea, Tryphosa, and Persis, “workers” in the church at Rome (Rom. 16:12). He mentions a woman named Junia as “prominent among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7). And then there’s Phoebe, whom Paul calls a “deacon” (Rom. 16:1-2). Inscriptional evidence and commemorations of these women within the early Christian liturgical calendar corroborate the New Testament texts that underscore the role of ordained women.

Scholars and activists have often appealed to Paul to establish women’s history of leadership within the church; however, he is a contradictory source. The evidence does not suggest Paul was anything like a first-century CE feminist. He insists that women ought to wear veils over their hair, that women came from men and were made for men, and that, while men are the image and glory of God, women are the image and glory of men (1 Cor. 11:2–16). But Paul does acknowledge women in leadership positions at the congregation at Rome and simultaneously writes to the Corinthians that women were the image of men, not God. Augustine is right that Paul doesn’t say women are the image of God, but the bishop certainly and rather conveniently overlooked Paul’s recognition of several women leaders.

Others appeal to the ministry of Jesus to highlight the importance of women in earliest Christianity. They bring up the story of Mary and Martha, the fact that women were the ones who remained at the foot of the cross, or that women were the first to witness Christ’s empty tomb. Without the witness of these women, there might be no Christianity, since they were the ones who told Jesus’s apostles about the empty tomb.

These stories lend weight to the argument that women were part of the ministries of Jesus. But as with Paul, we should note the contradictory nature of the evidence. Jesus’s inner circle was all male, for example. And his conversations with the Syrophoenician woman or the Samaritan woman at the well might leave modern feminists disappointed. In neither of these stories does Jesus explicitly champion women’s equality or make a case for women’s leadership within the movement he started. The more we dig into the question of women’s leadership in earliest Church circles, the more difficult it becomes to find clear answers.

Figure 4: A ca. fourth-century CE stele for a female deacon named Agathe and a public treasurer and linen weaver named Ioannis (likely her husband), from Philippi (Greece), a site visited by Paul and one with a strong early Christian community. (Image Credit: Sarah E. Bond.)

These difficulties are further compounded when we think about how Church titles have shifted in meaning over 2,000 years. Our earliest texts, like the New Testament, describe churches trying to find their footing, but not a singular Church — with a capital “C” — that’s established or unified. Titles like “deacon” and “apostle” had not been formalized and did not carry the same meaning as these titles do now. Paul himself did not minister with Jesus, meaning even he would be out of the running for the title of “apostle” according to Acts 1:12–26. But even so, the book of Acts elevates Paul to the level of Peter, in essence making Paul an “apostle” as well. We might consider Paul an apostle today, but his status was not a given in earliest Christianity. Understandings of apostleship and the diaconate shifted over time. Would the well-known Phoebe recognize her own title in 2021?

Although the evidence can be contradictory, most scholars — like Ute E. Eisen in her book on Women Officeholders in Early Christianity and Valerie A. Karras, in her work on later female deacons in the Byzantine Church — agree that it collectively demonstrates that a number of ancient Christian communities had women leaders. Clearly, this would include communities like the Church at Rome in Paul’s day. Later Christian groups like the Montanists also had women who were not only leaders, but recognized as prophets who directly spoke the words of Jesus. Women could also attain religious authority through martyrdom or asceticism.

If the evidence is contradictory, it’s because no one coherent Christian movement existed in the ancient world. While some groups recognized women clerics, others — like those represented by the Church Fathers — did not. Dominant Christian groups who took the Fathers’ views as authoritative eventually won out the fight for Christian “orthodoxy,” and a number of the movements led by women were dismissed as “heresies.”

One of the reigning views of women’s leadership in the earliest Church claims that while women were prominent in the ministries of both Paul and Jesus, they were systematically excluded from leadership positions as Christianity morphed from a fringe movement to one with established spaces for worship. In her recent best seller, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr argues that there’s nothing “biblical” about the exclusion of women from the ministry; rather, this exclusion happened at specific historical moments at the hands of powerful men who wished to consolidate their own power. Another popular book by James F. McGrath discusses What Jesus Learned from Women. These projects suggest women were originally a valued part of the earliest Church. Women were only later ostracized, particularly in Medieval Europe, as Christianity developed rigid hierarchies and male-dominated authority structures.

This argument (knowingly or not) contrasts the patriarchal institutional hierarchies that elevated men like the Church Fathers with more grassroots-type charismatic movements where women continued to have meaningful roles, even after the apostolic age ended. Beginning in the second century CE, women were excluded from “official” Church leadership and found their authority on the margins of Christianity. Scholars and activists have found this a very attractive argument because if we can claim women occupied important roles in the ministries of Jesus and Paul, we can save Christianity’s founders from charges of misogyny. We can also reinsert women into their rightful places at the center of the Church.

But what does such conflicting evidence have to do with the Ashdod mosaics? As fifth- or sixth-century CE artifacts, they trouble the prevailing scholarly view that women’s inclusion in official Church settings began to ebb centuries earlier. Clearly, this is not the case at Ashdod, where women ministered and were celebrated as leaders within the formalized Church structure.

Figure 5: The ninth-century CE mosaic detail from the apse of the basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome of the female saint alongside Saint Paul, with his arm around her, and Pope Paschal I, who rebuilt the basilica, to her left. (Image Credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.)

Ashdod confirms that we cannot continue to tell neat stories about how women were once part of Church leadership, and then were then intentionally excluded as Church Fathers took up formal titles. These mosaics point to a messier, but more accurate version of Christian origins: women’s leadership has always depended on the context. Some groups lauded their women leaders while others demanded women dare not speak in Church.

Christianity has never been one thing, after all.

Ancient evidence is fragmentary and contradictory. History rarely yields the answers we want, unless we exclude the evidence we don’t want to see. Early churches were also fragmented, with many ordaining women while others chose not to. For now, Catholic women continue to gather and to push for their voices to be heard and recognized. Documentary filmmakers Pilar Timpane and Andrea Patiño Contreras have filmed a documentary, Called to Serve, to explain the campaign to include female deacons. And during the pandemic, Zoom prayer services united women hoping to pursue the diaconate and give them community.

While new and exciting discoveries such as the Ashdod mosaics can confirm that women served as deacons late into the period of early Christian development within some churches, these discoveries alone cannot force Pope Francis to reinstate female deacons within the Catholic Church. Rather than throwing up our hands, as the commission did, and rendering the issue “inconclusive,” we can instead accept a messy historical legacy that does not fit neatly into one box and instead put pressure on Francis to change what we can: the future. What evidence speaks to the equity we wish to build going forward: Ashdod or Augustine?

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Sarah E. Bond is an associate professor of History at the University of Iowa and the director of Undergraduate Studies.

Shaily Patel is assistant professor of early Christianity in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. Patel’s research explores the various, often contradictory ways in which so-called magic was used to advance a number of theological ends in early Christian texts. Her current book project is titled Peter the Magician: Discourses of Magic in Early Petrine Traditions.