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Webster's Timeline History (40-2007)

by Professor Philip M. Parker, ICON 2009

This is probably the most amazingly ignorant book I have read in my entire academic career. It would be laughable if it did not contain the misleading disinformation it presents as facts. Unless this book is updated or withdrawn from circulation, it will continue to distort the true history of Christian deaconesses.

I have respect for Philip Parker as the brain behind Websters Online Dictionary. That is truly a worthwhile project. But, with all the wealth of data available in his large online collections, surely a more thorough check could have been done regarding 'Deaconess'.

Let us study the three items (and three items alone!) mentioned in the 'Deaconess' timeline history before the date 1503.

Item 1. 40 AD
The deaconess Phoebe of Cenchreae whom the author calls 'the bearer of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans'. Scholars have recognised for the last century that Phoebe must have held a public office in her community.

See H. Schlier, ‘’Der Römerbrief’’, Freiburg 1977, pp. 440-441 (full discussion); same view in the commentaries by Th. Zahn, ‘’Der Brief des Paulus an die Römer’’, Leipzig 1925; E. Kühl, ‘’Der Brief des Paulus an die Römer’’, Leipzig 1913; M.J. Lagrange, ‘’Saint Paul, Épître aux Romains’’, Paris 1950; F. J. Leenhardt, ‘’ L’Épître de saint Paul aux Romains’’, Neuchâtel 1957; H.W.Schmidt, ‘’Der Brief des Paulus an die Römer’’, Berlin 1962; O. Michel, ‘’Der Brief an die Römer’’, Göttingen 1963; E. Käsemann, ‘’An die Römer’’, Tübingen 1974. Major article: G. Lohfink, ‘Weibliche Diakone im Neuen Testament’, in ‘’Die Frau im Urchristentum’’, ed. G. Dautzenberg, Freiburg 1983, pp. 320-338.

If this is so, why did the compiler of the booklet not wake up to the fact that there must have been many more deaconesses in the early Church?

Item 2. 315 AD

To quote the booklet: "In the Roman Catholic Church women are not ordained to the diaconate. There were deaconesses in the Early Church . . . but there is no conclusive evidence that they were ordained."

Assessment: This is wrong. At present no women are ordained deacons in the Catholic Church, but in the past they were. And we have abundant evidence of their ordination. The ordination rites for the 1st millennium have been preserved in ancient manuscripts. See, for instance:

Then, to quote the booklet again: "The First Council of Nicea, in 315, declared that deaconesses were to be counted among the laity."

Assessment: Also this is wrong. The deaconesses whom the Council of Nicea refused to recognise were converts from the sect of Paul of Samosata. See the full explanation here. Moreover, the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, sanctioned the ordination (!) of deaconesses provided they were 40 years old. See here.


Item 3. 4th Century: Theosebia.

Assessment: The Webster timeline only mentions one deaconess. However, we know of more than 110. We have their names and details, all now published online.

During the first millennium tens of thousands of deaconesses served in parishes throughout Europe. For a spoken slide presentation on this, see here.


I urge Websters Timeline Histories to update the information they provide on Deaconesses!

John Wijngaards

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

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