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Women Presbyters, 1st - 8th centuries

The term 'presbyter', from which our word 'priest' derives, was a distinctive Christian word. It derived from the Greek word πρεσβυτερος (elder) and denoted the leaders appointed by the Apostles in local Christian communities. The Christian presbyter was originally carefully distinguished from the sacerdos (temple priest) known to the Romans.

A woman sometimes carried the title of 'female presbyter' (presbytera, presbyteria, presbyterissa), but this could mean a variety of things.

1. A presbytera could be a full-fledged presbyter in some heretical Christian sects with a ministry equal to that of their other male presbyters.

Epiphanius, Tertullian, Firmilian and Augustine speak of such presbyterae among the Quintillians, Cataphrygians, Montanists, etc.

2. Usually the title presbytera denoted the wife of a presbyter who vowed celibacy when her husband received his priestly ordination.

Such a presbytera, the priest's wife, originally lived a life of sexual abstinence in her husband's home. It seems that she received some form of ordination and acquired ecclesiastical status with some distinct duties. These did not, however, include any liturgical functions. More information here.

3. Perhaps liturgically active presbyterae functioned for some centuries in dioceses of southern Italy.

Possible evidence for this is found in a letter by Pope Gelasius I of 494 AD. Tomb stones in roughly the same region may corroborate this hypothesis. More information here.

The evidence has been presented most forcefully by Professor Giorgio Otranto.

John Wijngaards

Ministries of women in the West

gaul, italy, germany
north africa, gaul, italy
england, wales, ireland
southern italy, sicily
basque area, gaul, spain
england, germany

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.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

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