Trajectories beyond the New Testament Era
Women in the Earliest Churches by Ben
Witherington III, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 183-210.
for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 59.
Republished on our website
with the necessary permissions
The study of women and their roles in the earliest churches would not be complete without some attempt to glimpse how things proceeded after the period when the NT documents were written.(1)This is especially important not least because there probably was no canon of twenty-seven books recognized before the time of Athanasius famous Festal Epistle of AD 367. This means that many documents, both orthodox and heterodox, being written until well into the fourth century, were considered to be of great authority and even had the possibility of being recognized as canonical and so of final authority.(2) It also means that documents later labeled orthodox and heterodox may reflect conditions not only in the Church during the period that led up to canonization, but also in groups on the fringe of or outside the Church. Thus, it will be important to examine the references to women and their roles not only in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, but also in the apocryphal material.
Since our study is about the earliest churches, we will examine material that can be dated with reasonable certainty to a time before AD 325. This means that we will not be dealing with the period when monasticism and Mariology were perhaps the two main forces dominating what roles and images the Church saw as appropriate and exemplary for Christian women.
We have already noted the anti-feminist bias of various readings in the so called Western Text of Acts.3 This suggests that there might be some justification for W. M. Ramsays judgment that there was a growing dislike for women assuming prominent roles in the Church during the post-NT era.(4) It will be important to see whether or not there is other evidence to suggest this was the case.
In the past half century there have been various surveys of relevant data about women in the period AD 80-325 by J. Leipoldt, F. Blanke, J. Daniélou, G.H. Tavard, R. Gryson, L. Swidler, and E. Schüssler Fiorenza to name but a few.(5) Thus, rather than follow the path others have trod, I will divide up the discussion topically and pursue the trajectories of various relevant issues.(6)
A. Asceticism and views of human sexuality
There is little question that various of the writers in the Ante-Nicene period had a deficient view of human sexuality usually coupled with an exaltation of celibacy, singleness, or even continence in marriage. This deficiency is not merely exhibited by Gnostic writers, or those associated with Montanism (including Tertullian), but even amongst Christian writers whose orthodoxy or orthopraxy was not in question. In the Gnostic literature we hear repeatedly that matter itself, and therefore human flesh and the deeds of the flesh, are evil,(7) but even in non-Gnostic writers, the original sin is sometimes assumed to be pleasure. Sexual intercourse is thought of as tainted if not fully sinful, and Christian marriage is seen as second best as a state of being for Christians. To the degree that an author thought women were defined and delimited by their sexuality, to that degree they fell under suspicion of being temptresses or sources of sin.
In the earliest part of the Ante-Nicene period we find little evidence of these stereotypes. Thus, in the Epistle of Barnabas 20.1 (c. AD 70-110), we hear the usual condemnation of sexual sin in the form of adultery, but this is no more than what we find in the canonical literature. In 1 Clement 33.5-6 (c. AD 96) we find a repetition of Gen 1.26-28 which is followed by the words: ίδωμεν, ότι όιι 'εν έργοις αγαθοις πάντες εκοσμήθησαν οι δίκαιοι (33.7).(8)
The Shepherd of Hermas (c. mid second century) was probably written in Rome.9 This tract, in the form of an apocalypse, is about sins committed after conversion and baptism, and the remedy for them. In Mand. 4.1 .3 -11 the discussion centers on the subject of the wife who commits adultery. Because of the one-flesh union, the husband, if he knows of her sin or she does not repent, becomes a partaker in that sin. The remedy for an unrepentant wife is: Απολυσάτω, φησίν, αυτην και ο ανηρ εφ εαυτω λενέτω. (10) In view of what follows, the author obviously holds to the idea that the oneflesh union remains even after the putting away so that the man is not free to remarry. To do so would violate that first and ongoing marital union. Lake is right that here we see an example where the Christian precept against divorce is superseded by the Christian precept against having intercourse with immoral persons. (11) In other words, sexual purity is more crucial than the marital bond. Notice too, on the question of remarriage after the death of the Christian partner we read in Mand. 4.4.2 that while remarriage is not a sin, δε εθ εαυτω μείνη τις, περισσοτέραν εαυτω τιμην και μεγάλην δόξαν. While the author may see fleshly desires as always tainted, the flesh itself is not inherently evil. It can be kept pure and undefiled and, in contradiction to some Gnostic teaching, the author insists that flesh and spirit are in communion (κοιυά) and neither can be defiled without the other (Sim. 5.7.4). This seems to go against later tendencies toward a body/soul dualism even among orthodox thinkers, and may suggest the earliness of this document.
In another Similitude (9.11.3) we hear of a practice that seems to have been extant in some Christian communities in the second century, namely, sleeping with a or several women, ως αδελφός και ουχ ως ανήρ.This apparently entailed some sort of spiritual marriage but without sexual sharing. In the Shepherd of Hermas, however, an actual relationship is not being described but it appears clear that the author is familiar with such practices, and it reveals his own ascetical tendencies. This tendency is also in evidence at Sim. 9.15.1 ff., where women are seen as types of the extremes of good and evil, holiness and unholiness. This siren/saint stereotype was to become a familiar one, and it seems likely that it made life difficult for ordinary Christian women, especially married women who were looking for examples that fit neither of these extremes.
Sometimes second-century material moves from suspicion to outright declaration that women are evil due to their sexual natures. Thus, in T. Reuben 1.5ff. we hear, For evil are women, my children; and since they have no power of strength over man, they use wiles by outward attractions, that they may draw him to themselves ... the angel of the Lord told me and taught me that women are overcome by the spirit of fornication more than men ...(12) Here and elsewhere in T.Reuben, fear of fornication leads to fear of women, and a projection of their sin on the woman to such a degree that she becomes synonymous with it. In Gnosticism there are often these sorts of associations of flesh/sin/women, but it is surprising to find it so clearly in a Jewish-Christian document.
Tertullian (AD 160-225), even before his Montanist period (c. AD 213), usually has a rather negative view of human sexuality in general, and women in particular. Besides holding Eve responsible for the original sin and identifying all women with Eve (You, O woman, are Eve ... the gate of the devil, the traitor of the tree. You are the one who enticed the one whom the devil did not dare approach [De Cultu Feminarum I.1]), Tertullian adds, ... you broke ... the image of God, man (hominem); because of the death you deserved the Son of God had to die. Yet despite this, at least in his pre-Montanist period, he does not categorize material intercourse as evil (cf. De Monogamia 9), indeed he speaks of the happiness of marriage which the Church unites and says of the married couple, ... they are companions; there is no separation of spirit and flesh (Ad Uxorem II.9). There is no separation of husband and wife even when one dies, and so there can be no question of remarriage. There is then some evidence of a positive view of Christian marriage in Tertullians works but there is as much or more evidence of a negative view of womens sexuality as well as a tendency to blame all women for Eves error, and an indication that only man is fully created in the image of God.
Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), whose writings not surprisingly sometimes breathe the same sort of atmosphere as Philo, also manifests a deficient view of human sexuality as well as some dubious exegesis to back it up. Thus, for instance, in his exegesis of Genesis 3, Clement sees the original sin as υποπίπτων ηδονη,, the serpent being an allegory for pleasure (Exhortation to the Greeks, ch.11).(13) In chapter 12 of the same work, pleasure is seen to be embodied in woman and quoting Hesiod, Works and Days 373-4, he says, Let not thy heart be deceived by a woman with trailing garment, coaxing with wily words to find the place of thy dwelling. Nevertheless, in the very same chapter, Clement draws an analogy between the Bacchic rites and especially the procession, and Christian activities, and says of Christian women, αλλ αι του θεου θυγατέρες ... αι καλαί, τα σεμνα του λόγου θεσπίξουσαι όργια ... ψάλλουσιν αι κόραι.(14) It is hard to know how much should be made of this, but it does appear to indicate that women played a vocal role in Christian worship at least in so far as singing was concerned. In the exhortation to the newly baptized (1.20-21), there is an exhortation to modesty when meeting and greeting women. Ones eyes should be cast to the ground.(15) Looking at anothers physical beauty or form is apparently suspect. All in all, Clement seems to fall short of having a satisfactory and fully biblical idea about human sexuality, but in this shortcoming he differs little from other authors also influenced by Hellenistic ideas (e.g., Musonius Rufus).
In the Stromata 2.23 and 3.1, Clement is concerned to reject certain Gnostic ideas but in the process he manifests some of their same tendencies. Thus, for instance, he says in chapter 23, Since pleasure and lust seem to fall under [the same category as] marriage, it must also be treated of. Marriage is said to be sacred but ... it is the diseases of the body that principally show marriage to be necessary.(16) In Paed 3. he associates men with action, maturity, and noncastration; women with passivity, immaturity, and castration.
Clement is not against marriage and sexual union per se, but his ideal is not to feel sexual desire, and let sexual union be determined wholly by will.(17) Clement is not of the opinion that continence in marriage is a good thing; rather, he says of those who practise this that they conjugii divisores. Yet, at the same time, he takes the allusion in 1 Cor 9.5 about the other apostles who had a right to take their Christian wives to mean that they treated their wives non ut uxores, sed ut sorores circumducebant mulieres (Paed 3.6.).He goes on to speak of those wives ministering where the husbands could not - in womens quarters, in discussions with other wives. Clement rejects the idea that marital relations are a result of the Fall; indeed, he calls this blasphemy against creation. Clements ideal is απαθεία - marriage and relations controlled by will, not desire. Thus, a Greek ideal is imported into Christian marital teaching.
Clements teaching reflects ambivalence about marriage and sexual relationships. Clearly, he is willing to use stereotypes of women as temptresses and to urge continence and celibacy as a good thing, but just as clearly he wishes to refute the Gnostics. Thus, he cannot allow that human sexuality, marriage, or intercourse is inherently evil. The result is a rather lukewarm, but necessary, endorsement of marriage. Here we see the attempt to confine women (or at least wives) to the home and familial roles. To the extent that such roles are seen as second best to celibacy, to that extent the importance of women who engage in such roles is attenuated. Nonetheless, here too we seem to see the first inkling of a gender-specific ministry of women to other women.
Origen (AD 185 -254) was a student of Clement and probably his successor as head of the catechetical school in Alexandria. His selfcastration is a literal fulfilment of Matt 19.12, and there are other clear indications of his deficient view of human sexuality and his ascetical tendencies. Origen, like his mentor, is exercised to repudiate Gnostic false teaching .(18) In Origen, virginity is clearly exalted as the ideal state for the Christian, the only state of absolute purity. We are told clearly that marriage is allowed under the new covenant due to human weakness (Comm. Mt.14.23) , but everyone who asks could be given the gift of celibacy, for there is perfect purity in celibacy and chastity (Comm. Mt.14.25). This did not necessarily lead to single women having more viable roles in the Church, for Origen also asserts, It is not proper for a woman to speak at the assembly, however admirably or holy what she says may be, merely because it comes from female lips.(19) H. Crouzel has demonstrated in his exposition on Origens teachings that Origen takes a rather Gnostic view of creation. First there was a spiritual creation of human souls in Gods image, but then there was a necessity of a second creation after the Fall which involved the human body and sexuality. The soul is made impure by being clothed in a human body, and sexual activity is seen as a source of spiritual impurity, not least perhaps because it results in producing more fallen human beings with impure bodies.(20) When human sexuality is a result of the Fall, sexual intercourse can only be at best a remedium concupiscentiae. In Origen, marriage is not seen primarily as a lesser good than celibacy; rather, it is seen as a lesser evil than being profligate. It is not surprising then to learn that women, who were chiefly identified with certain roles that were a product of their sexuality (wife, mother, homemaker), were seen by Origen as inferior beings to men.(21) Sexuality is not something to be transformed, but transcended, if one is to be pure - especially was this seen to be the case with women. Instead of mortification of the sinful nature, mortification of the flesh itself was seen to be necessary for being truly pure.
In some regards, the beginnings of the monastic movement seem to be grounded not only in this deficient view of human sexuality, but also in a transformed vision of how the Kingdom comes. Instead of a horizontal eschatology that looked forward to Christs return and the redemption of the believer in the body, we have a vertical, other-wordly eschatology gaining momentum in the second and third centuries AD. In this view, the Kingdom came and thus redemption is to be found by withdrawal from the world; by mortification and denial of the flesh (fasting, sexual abstinence, and finally flagellation); and by purely spiritual communion with the Godhead above (either individually or as a group). This seems to have been a product of several elements: (1) the adoption of a Greek body/soul dualism; (2) the waning of eschatological fervor; (3) as a result of (1) and (2), a deficient view of creation and of human sexuality and its place in the order of recreation. It must be borne in mind, however, as Everett Ferguson pointed out to me, The early Churchs statements must be understood in the context of pagan licentiousness on one hand, and on the other the strong current of asceticism (a reaction?) which was flowing in non-Christian circles in the second century. In an atmosphere where asceticism was equated with spirituality, the Church could not afford to appear less spiritual than its rivals.(22)
It is not without importance then that when we examine the life of St Anthony of Egypt (AD 251?-356), thought to be the founder of the monastic movement, we hear that when he decided to give up all his possessions and retreat into the desert, he placed his sister in a house of virgins which was already in existence.(23) This suggests that monasticism of some sort was being practised by women (the order of virgins?) in the middle of the third century or earlier. Consistent with this is the report that Pachomius (AD 290-346), the writer of the first monastic rule, built a convent for his sister at which she became the Abbess.(24) The record is also clear that by the end of the fourth century there were various monasteries and convents especially in Egypt, but apparently also in Syria. What this may suggest is that women with spiritual gifts sought refuge in a setting where they could practise their piety. Perhaps they did not wish to be confined to the home or minimal roles in the Church. When we examine the matter of Church orders, we will see the furtherance of this sort of genderspecific grouping of Christians between AD 80-325. Monasticism may have arisen as a solution by and for women, but in any case this sort of separation was not in the end going to effect their equality.
One of the more interesting developments in early Church history is the hermeneutical move in which OT institutions and ideas are used to describe, reorient, or even replace NT teachings and practices. This phenomenon is in evidence in the writings of Dionysius the Great (AD 190-264), Origens second successor at the catechetical school in Alexandria. It seems clear from Mark 7 and elsewhere that at least as early as AD 68-70 it was assumed that Jesus taught that all the OT regulations about clean and unclean were either fulfilled or no longer applicable to His own disciples. Yet, Dionysius in his Epistle to Bishop Basilides Canon II says that women, during their menstrual period, should be prohibited from approaching the Table of the Lord and partaking of His body and blood when they are not perfectly pure both in soul and body. In this Canon, the Table of the Lord is equated with the Holy of Holies, and so on OT grounds women are expected to refrain from entering the house of God during their menstrual period. This can only be seen as a step backward, and a contradiction of Jesus teaching about the new situation since His coming. It appears likely that, as the Church became increasingly viewed as a temple, and ministers became increasingly viewed as priests, and the Lords Supper became increasingly viewed as a sacrifice, Christian worship and ministry reverted to the OT order of things in which males assumed all the priestly functions.
The study of Gnosticisms bearing on women and their roles has been brought to the fore by the works of E. H. Pagels and others.(25) What has become apparent is that one cannot always generalize about Gnostic practices that seem to vary from group to group. Nevertheless, despite various diversities, certain constants seem to be reflected in Gnostic thought about women. First, the doctrine of the syzygy always seems to involve the union and unity of an eon with its female counterpart. Second, dualism with either the denigration of the material world and so human flesh, or the view that things of this world are adiaphora, is characteristic. Thus, for instance, Severus argues, those who consort in marriage fulfil the work of Satan.(26) In the Gospel of the Egyptians (a second-century document of which we have only fragments in various Church Fathers) we hear, When Salome asked How long will death have power? the Lord answered, So long as you women bear children ...(27) Elsewhere in the same document we hear that the Kingdom will come, when you have trampled on the garment of shame and when the two become one, and the male and female is neither male nor female.(28) Again, in this same document Jesus is reported to have said, I have come to destroy the works of the female, by the female meaning lust, by the works, birth and decay.(29)
Now, it is not surprising to discover that with such a view, salvation for all involves liberation from bodily passions, if not from the body and the world itself. In various expressions of the Gnostic system, the female represents all that is earthly, worldly, subject to change and decay; while the male principle is associated with eternal life, the Holy Spirit and the world to come. Thus, in a sense, the unsaved (men or women) are all female. Clement (Theodotus 68) cites the following Gnostic saying: As long as we were children of the female only as of shameful copulation, imperfect, reasonless ... we were children of woman; but once we were formed by the Savior, we have become children of man (30). Salvation, then, is discussed in terms of andronization (cf. Gnostic Gospel of Thomas log. 112). We must bear in mind that principles, not persons, are involved in the terminology used, but when femaleness is equated with mortality, decay, weakness, and corruption, this could not but reflect back on ones image of women.(31) Here and elsewhere Gnosticism partakes of the patriarchal orientation of the dominant civilization, even when women were allowed significant roles in certain Gnostic communities.
The Carpocratians stand at the other end of the scale from Marcion, Severus, and the author of the Gospel of the Egyptians. Libertinism, not asceticism, can lead to liberation from the body, though the body itself is not evil, but only adiaphora. Perhaps then, it is not surprising that the Carpocratians did not hesitate to see women, especially Salome, Martha, and Mary Magdalene, as the sources and guarantors of their secret teachings. Further, Epiphanes, the child of Carpocrates, sounds a clearly egalitarian note insisting, ... no distinction should be made between female and male.(32) One is never quite sure whether this is because the sexes are considered equal, or if femaleness is equally unimportant as maleness.
Valentinian Gnosticism is the most familiar form of Gnosticism. Here there is no antithesis of male and female principles; rather, they are seen as complementary, making the universe a whole. The two principles were united originally, and indeed were part of the Godhead. They will be reunited when the female spirit is andronized or absorbed back into the male. Now, it appears that the female eons have names associated with the union of male and female, but the male eons are named for Christian virtues. R. Baer also points out, The Valentinians did not identify the female with any absolute principle of evil, but rather with the fallible part of God... (33) This in itself suggests a patriarchal orientation.
It is in the teachings and practices of Marcus, a follower of Valentinian, that we hear of an androgynous Adam and of salvation amounting to the removal of separation between male and female. As Fiorenza indicates, this is close to the teaching of the Gospel of Philip. (34) It is not certain that androgyny is, in fact, the salvific goal even in the teaching of Marcus or the Gospel of Philip, as in some respects, reunion sounds rather like reabsorption of the female principle by the male one.
In any event, Gnosticism in any of its forms cannot be seen as a heretical theology that was anti-patriarchal in orientation. As Fiorenza rightly concludes:
Salvation in the radically dualistic gnostic systems requires the annihilation and destruction of the female or the feminine principle. In the moderately dualistic systems, salvation means the reunification of the male and female principles in an androgynous or asexual unity.... The female principle is secondary, since it stands for the part of the divine that became involved in the created world and history. Gnostic dualism shares in the patriarchal paradigm of Western culture.(35)
Women may have had some new roles in Gnostic communities and in some Gnostic communities there may have been more sexual freedom, but there is insufficient evidence to suggest that the prominence of women in Gnostic circles was the key factor which caused the Church to turn to a more patriarchal orientation and in particular, to a more patriarchal ministry. It is quite believable that it was an important factor that could have nudged the Church in that direction, especially when some Gnostic communities claimed to base their theology on the traditions passed on by Christian women of the apostolic age.
C. Prophecy, prophetesses, and Montanism
Without question, the prophet was a major figure in the early Church well into the second century. The role of prophet raised in an acute way the question of whether the Churchs leadership should be raised up purely by the Spirit or by some institutional procedure. This problem was magnified by the fact that there is evidence from the early second century that leadership roles and structures differed somewhat from region to region.
One of the earliest extra-canonical sources of information about Christian prophecy is the Didache (chapters 11-13). In the Didache prophets are grouped with apostles and teachers, all of whom seem to be itinerants. They are distinguished from επισκόπους και διακόνους; (15.1), whom the local church are exhorted to χειρτονήσατε εαυτοις Second, a prophet is not to be tested in regard to his utterance, lest blasphemy of the Holy Spirit be committed (11.7). This implies that what a prophet says, he says as the vox Dei, and it is not to be questioned much less judged. The test for discerning the true from the false prophet involves examining their behavior: (1) if one asks, εν πνεύματι, for money or food, then this is a sign of the false prophet; (2) if one does not practise what one teaches, then this is also a sign. Nobody has satisfactorily explained what ποιων εις μυστήριον κοσμικον εκκλησίας (11.11) means, but it seems to involve more than mere prophesying, perhaps some sort of miracle or symbolic prophetic act like the OT prophets performed. Though the prophet might be an itinerant, he was to be permitted to settle in a Christian community (13.1) and was entitled to be given the first fruits of the harvest, for εισιν οι αρχιερεις υμων (13.3). This implies that they did not have to do manual labor, but a true prophet should be supported by the community. However, 13.4 makes clear that the author does not think there are prophets in every Christian community.
The provenance of the Didache is unknown, but it seems to be addressing a community away from any large city or center of the faith. Thus, it is interesting to find evidence of prophecy, or at least the interpretation of prophecy, in 2 Clement 2 which is usually assigned a provenance of Rome or Corinth.(36) What this suggests is that prophecy was by no means a purely urban or local phenomenon in the Church, but rather a widespread one.
The Shepherd of Hermas, like the Didache, is also concerned about false prophets (Mand. 11). A true prophet is distinguished by the fact that he does not spend his time answering peoples questions about their future, but instead simply proclaims the truth under the impetus of the Holy Spirit (11.5). Again, the way to test a prophet is by his life and character (cf. 11.7-12), by the company he keeps (11.13), and by his deeds (11.16). The authors view of inspiration is that Gods words come to the prophet when God wills, not upon human request, and it comes in the assembly after prayer has been made (presumably for a word from God). The Shepherd of Hermas speaks of the moment when ο άγγελος του προφητικου πνεύματος (l l.9) comes upon the prophet.(37) It is noteworthy that the author seems to see prophecy as a function of worship and something which is addressed to the congregation. By contrast, the false prophet tends to shun such an assembly and prefers to speak in a context other than worship. The Shepherd suggests that prophecy was a very live issue in the middle of the second century, perhaps particularly in Rome.
The importance of such material should be obvious in view of our earlier discussions of prophetesses in Corinth and Caesarea.(38) Before the close of the first century, however, there appear to have been some problems with, and some serious misgivings about, some prophetesses. Thus, in Rev 2.20-23 we hear of a prophetess in Thyatira leading some to eat food offered to idols. Apparently, she was a valued member of the congregation in Thyatira, allowed to teach, and allowed to repent of her errors. For our purposes, what is especially important is that Thyatira is in the region where the Montanist movement arose or was at least located. Here we see another area of the Church involved in prophecy, and in this case we are specifically told that at least one woman was involved.
One of the most intriguing documents of the second century is the Acts of Paul. This document was known by Tertullian, apparently as early as AD 200 which means it must have been written earlier. There is no reason to doubt Tertullians assertion that the document comes from an elder in Asia Minor, as it appears to be familiar with activities in that area.
Incorporated into the Acts of Paul is a still earlier document, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which comes from the second half of the second century but probably before AD 190 when the Acts of Paul seems to have been put together. The motive for making this collection seems to have been to combat, not promote, heresy. It is difficult to say how much historical truth is preserved in these legends, but the document does reflect the fact that women in the churches in Asia Minor had a certain amount of freedom and ability to exercise the gift of leadership,(39) as was true in the Montanist movement in the same region. Tertullian says the author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla was condemned and relieved of his office for circulating this document and misrepresenting Pauls view of women. How credible would it seem, that he who has not permitted mulieri even to learn ... should give femininae the power of teaching and baptizing! Let them be silent he says ... (On Baptism 17).
Despite Tertullians reaction, the Acts of Paul and Thecla was apparently a popular document in the third century and later, for it exists not only in the original Greek, but also in Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Slavonic, and Arabic.(40) Precisely because of the popular character of the document it may well have had an ongoing impact on the Church as a favorable testimony for women assuming important church roles. Even if this is so, it promoted the view that women must renounce or abandon their femaleness or at least their gender-specific functions of wife or mother to assume such a role. In Pauls first major speech in this document (a sort of Pauline beatitudes) he says,
Blessed are they who have kept the flesh pure for they shall become a temple of God.
Blessed are the continent, for to them God will speak ...
Blessed are they who have wives as if they had them not, for they shall inherit God.
Blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they shall be well pleasing to God, and shall not lose the reward of their purity ...(41)
The virgin Thecla is captivated by this speech. Paul goes on to announce that he preaches a Gospel of salvation from all pleasure (Paul and Thecla 17). Thecla eventually follows Paul around Asia Minor but not without a trial by fire and another by lions. In Antioch she baptizes herself in extremis while in a seal pit in the arena (Paul and Thecla 34). When she is rescued from this ordeal she goes forth and instructs a woman and her maid servants. Again, she joins Paul who commissions her: Go and teach the Word of God (Paul and Thecla 41), which she does in the region of Seleucia.
Thecla gives up marriage in order to take on a life of virginity, prayer, and teaching. Here we see evidence that for a woman to exercise the ministry of the Word she had to give up or even renounce her sexuality. Thecla is not said to be a prophetess, but other women in the Acts of Paul (Myrta, in Paul in Corinth 1.33ff.), are portrayed as prophetesses. The final editor of this material may not have strongly differentiated between the two functions.(42)
The Acts of Paul is not the only example from the apocryphal Acts that indicates women had prominent roles in the early Church. The Acts of John, Peter, Andrew, Thomas, Xanthippe are generally from the same time period (AD 160-225) and from the same area with the exception of the Acts of Thomas which comes from Syria and is in Syriac. All these apocryphal Acts exalt Christian celibacy and virginity, manifest various ascetical tendencies and attitudes, and show spiritually gifted women in significant church roles though at the expense of their traditional female roles in the family.(43)
That prophetesses were considered a threat or problem in certain Christian churches in the second century is probably demonstrated by the Kerygma of Peter. Though incorporated into the later Pseudo-Clementine material, it appears that the Kerygma goes back at least to the second half of the second century. Its Encratite and Docetic cast may indicate Gnostic influence or reaction to Gnostic influence which favors a late second-century date.(44)
The Kerygma of Peter focuses on the true prophet who brings divine revelation to the world through men such as Adam, Moses, and Jesus.
Female prophecy appears as the opponent of the true prophet ...; she accompanies him as a negative, left-hand syzygy-partner in his passage through time. Her first representative is Eve, the mother of mankind, who was created at the same time as Adam .... What she proclaims suits the taste of the transitory cosmos ...; she pretends to possess knowledge, but leads all who follow her into error and to death ...(45)
It is important to remember that the speaker is supposed to be Peter, the representative of the Church, and that apparently this document was very popular in the early Church.(46) It may be of some relevance that there is also an anti-Pauline cast to some of this material in so far as Paul is seen as the representative of female prophecy (H. 2.17.3), and a rival of Peter who stands with and for male or true prophecy. Several excerpts are worth repeating here:
Along with the true prophet there has been created as a companion a female being who is as far inferior to him as metousia is to ousia, as the moon is to the sun, as fire is to light. As a female she rules over the present world, which is like to her, and counts as the first prophetess; she proclaims her prophecy with all amongst those born of women ... (H. 3.22).
For whilst the present world is female and as a mother brings forth the life of her children, the aeon to come is male and as a father expects his children ... (H. 2.15).(47)
Whether or not this document is orthodox in origins, it received a sympathetic hearing at least in the Egyptian part of the Church, and may well have been used to put a stop to women prophetesses or at least to curtail their activities. It may be no accident that this document seems to have been in circulation during the period when Montanism had its greatest influence.
Depending on whether one believes Eusebius or Epiphanius, Montanus began to prophesy in Phrygia either in AD 172 or 156-57. He led an apocalyptic movement expecting the Heavenly Jerusalem to appear soon, by descending on Phrygia during Montanus lifetime. The sign that the end was coming was the outpouring of the Paraclete on Montanus and two prominent women involved in the movement Prisca and Maximilla. The Montanists were decidedly ascetical and rigoristic. The movement was sufficiently powerful to spread to Roman Africa and win an important convert in Tertullian (c. AD 206-213). In its African incarnation, the movement became even more rigorous in its discipline, fasting, and condemnation of second marriages. Before it ever reached Africa, however, it had been condemned by synods in Asia Minor and reluctantly by Pope Zephyrinus of Rome (AD 200).
Now, it must be noted that unlike Gnosticism, Montanism was fundamentally orthodox in its theology. To be sure, it erred in regard to an imminent parousia in Asia Minor, and it also had a deficient view of human sexuality, but these same traits were characteristic of other orthodox groups and writers. Hippolytus maintained some of the Montanists were guilty of Binitarianism, but his basic argument against them pertained to their fasts and feasts.(48) In short, the objection Hippolytus is able to prove involves heteropraxy, not heterodoxy. He is particularly concerned about their claims to authority based on direct inspiration, not church tradition.
But this initial clash between the authority of Church officials who mediate the message of God from the past with the free spirit of new ongoing, and uncontrolled revelations was an instance of a fundamental type of conflict. The Montanist controversy illustrates one type of basic disagreement that has remained with us throughout history. The hierarchically controlled Church is faced with the accusation that it has maintained order and continuity at the price of suppressing or at least restraining the spontaneity and effervescence of the Spirit.(49)
One thing that especially galled the Church Fathers about the Montanist movement was that women were allowed leadership roles. This objection no doubt intensified once Montanus died and Maximilla became the de facto leader. Besides Hippolytus, who speaks of victims of error being ... captivated by wretched women named Priscilla and Maximilla whom they supposed to be priestesses (Refutation 12, 1.4-6), there were other Fathers who objected on similar grounds. Origen objected, but apparently because he had some sympathy with the ascetical tendencies of the movement he simply insisted that their women prophets only speak in private, not in the assemblies (cf. to Tertullian, De anima 9).(50) Irenaeus (AD 130-200), Bishop of Lyons, was fearful that the spirit of prophecy would be rejected by and in the Church because separatist groups such as the Montanists wish to be pseudo-prophets ... but ... set aside the gift of prophecy from the Church (Against Heresies 3.11.9). In some regards Irenaeus was prophetic in his anxiety, for both women and prophecy in the Church were affected negatively when the Montanist movement was condemned. All Montanist books were burned by imperial decree in AD 298 which meant that thereafter the Church could read of Montanism only through approved, polemical sources.
It would be wrong to assume that prophecy died out with the Montanist movement. For one thing, there were approved orthodox men and women who continued to be revered as prophets and prophetesses. Thus, in the Acts of the Martyrs we hear of Perpetua and Felicitas being martyred during the Severian persecution of AD 202 or 203. Perpetua was a married woman and a prophetess (or at least one who received visions). If one examines the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis 1.3-6.3, one discovers the idea that through a vision Perpetua was andronized. Clearly, her femaleness was seen as an obstacle to her becoming a true martyr, and so it had to be transcended or transformed into maleness. Nevertheless, here we have ongoing evidence of prophetesses who could even be celebrated as Christian martyrs and saints of the Church.(51) This evidence is important because it appears in a document from the third century that the Church seems to have embraced. Eusebius apparently collected many acts of the martyrs documents for general church use in the fourth century.
It has been conjectured that the episcopal hierarchy ... replaced early Christian prophecy.(52) Whether or not this can be demonstrated, there was an attempt to see orthodox male church leaders as prophets as early as the second century. This is the case with Polycarp (Martyrdom of Polycarp 16, an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop), and Melito of Sardis (Eusebius, H.E. 5.24.5). The importance of this should not be under-estimated, for these sources were from the third and fourth centuries (though the original form of the Martyrdom of Polycarp probably appeared in the latter part of the second century) and may be attempts to claim the prophetic function for the institutional Church and for approved men in particular. The evidence from the third and fourth centuries, however, is not sufficient to warrant the conclusion either that charismatic prophecy died out in this period, or that women were forbidden from prophesying in the Church. In fact, it appears that Didymus the Blind (late fourth century) was still battling against women prophetesses assuming important roles in the Church.(53) The evidence is sufficient, however, to suggest an attenuation of recognition of the legitimacy of such a function unless it was associated with a church official. This could not but constrict and restrict orthodox women of Spirit(54) during the century leading up to the Council of Nicea. A similar attenuation will now be demonstrated in regard to other church functions.
D. Church order
In a limited space it is impossible to delve into all the varieties of church polity found between AD 80 and 325. Without question there will be continuing debate over such matters as the nature and viability of apostolic succession, and whether the Ignatian picture of the monarchical bishop represents a regional concept or one that was more widespread. It is impossible to say how directly the development of these ideas affected womens attempts to minister for Christ, for women are not mentioned in relationship to these struggles in any full or revealing way. It is possible, however, to chronicle gender-specific orders in the Church and their development.(55)
We have already traced the origins of this order of ministry in the NT period.(56) But perhaps our first piece of extra-biblical evidence is found in non-Christian literature - a letter of Pliny to Trajan (who reigned AD 98-117) where he speaks of the torture of two ancillis who were called ministrae (10.96-97).(57) Tertullian may also be referring to deaconesses in his On Exhortation to Chastity 13 end, when he refers to men and women in ecclesiasticis ordinibus who owed their position to their chastity. It is possible, however, that this is a reference to the order of widows or virgins.
More clearly, Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 184.108.40.206-4) speaks of feminis diaconis but the context is a discussion between Paul and Timothy (1 Tim 3. 11). Clements student, Origen, refers to feminas in ministeris Ecclesiae constitu (Commentary on Romans 16.1, 2) which seems unambiguous about there being deaconesses. The question in all these cases is: how are their roles understood? In the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to Hippolytus (c. 170-235) we are told of a ceremony of laying on of hands for deaconesses that is an exact duplicate of the ceremony for deacons.(58)
More important is the material from the Didascalia (of Syrian provenance) from the earlier half of the third century. At 3.12 deaconesses are said to have the responsibility of instructing new female converts on how to live a Christian life. At 2.26.5-8 we have an exhortation to honor church officers including deaconesses who are a type of the Holy Spirit. In the Apostolic Constitutions (c. AD 350-400), also of Syrian provenance, we hear again that the deaconess is to receive the newly baptized female (3.16). The bishop is to ordain also a deaconess who is faithful and holy, for ministering to the women (3.15.2). In the same section she is allowed to anoint women with oil after the deacon has done so in preparation for baptism. The ordination ceremony for the deaconess is described briefly (7.3.19-20) and includes the following prayer the bishop is to repeat after laying hands on the deaconess:
O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman, who didst replenish with the Spirit Miriam, and Deborah, and Anna, and Huldah; who didst not disdain that Thy only begotten Son should be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle of the testimony, and in the temple, didst ordain women to be keepers of Thy holy gates, - do Thou now also look down upon this Thy servant, who is to be ordained to the office of a deaconess, and grant her Thy Holy Spirit, and cleanse her from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her to Thy glory, and the praise of Thy Christ, with whom glory and adoration to be Thee and the Holy Spirit for ever. Amen.(59)
All of this should be compared to Canon 19 from the Council of Nicea (AD 325) which numbers deaconesses among the Kanoni.(60) The evidence thus far reviewed suggests a viable order fully endorsed by the Church. Yet, in the fifth and sixth centuries at least three Councils, one at Orange (441), one at Epaon (517), and one at Orleans (533), mandated the ordination of deaconesses be stopped entirely and the Council of Orleans seemed to suggest that there should be no more deaconesses at all - not even unordained ones.(61) It is difficult to say what the factors were which led to these decisions, but the effect was to prevent various women, especially older women, from being officially recognized and in some cases even functioning in the capacity of deaconesses. The order had probably begun as a means of practical service, but eventually had involved sacral functions at baptism (possibly to prevent scandal since often baptism was in the nude). Thereafter, it involved the teaching of new female converts, again as a matter of decorum. In due course, principles drawn from the (mis)interpretation of such texts as 1 Cor 14.33b-36, 1 Tim 2.1ff., appear to have won the day over other considerations, thus impoverishing the Church of vital female workers from the fourth century onwards.
The NT, like the OT, manifests a clear concern for widows (Acts 6.1-3, 9.36-43). It may also reveal the beginnings of an order of widows (1 Tim 5.3-16). It is not clear whether the list of approved widows, who were known for their good character, is simply a list of those being supported by the Church (which seems to be the main burden of the passage), or is a list of those commissioned by the Church for specific religious functions. Nevertheless, at least by the second century there was a viable order of widows with religious functions.
In the correspondence of Ignatius with Polycarp (4.1-3), Ignatius exhorts that the widows (χήραι) should not be neglected and that Polycarp should personally consider himself their protector (Hermas Man. 8.10, Sim. 9.28.3). It appears from Polycarps letter to the Philippians (6.1) that he took this advice, and here we find that widows and orphans are grouped together (possibly because they appear together in the Bible, cf. Deut 14.29, 16.14). At the end of another letter, Ignatius greets τας παρϑένους τάς λεγομένας χήρας (Smyr. 13.1). Now, if Ignatius had said the reverse of this, we might deduce that he was referring to real widows who had committed themselves to a life of chastity and church service henceforth. Since, however, it is the virgins who are called widows, this may suggest that xTiPa5 is a terminus technicus for all unmarried women dedicated to chastity and the Lords work, including those who have never been married (which seems to be the thrust of this passage).
Tertullian, in his essay on the veiling of virgins (ch. 9), speaks of a virgin less than twenty years old being enrolled with the widows, but it is clear he is not in favor of virgins becoming widows. He also mentions that apparently married women and even mothers and teachers of children were being elected to the order of widows (or virgins?) so that they might be trained to aid not only their own family but also other church members. Obviously, Tertullian is displeased with all this, for at the beginning of this same section he repeats 1 Cor 14.34, 35 and says women are not allowed to teach, baptize, or exercise any male functions, much less hold a sacred office. Nevertheless, he does bear witness to the reality of an order of widows/virgins, or widows that included virgins, and even married women in his day.
In the early third century the Didascalia (3.8.3) exhorts widows to fast, to visit the sick, and to pray over and even lay hands on them. It is difficult to know how much of this reflects a regional practice in view of some of the unique features of this and other Syrian documents. Hippolytus (AD 170-236) says widows were appointed by word, but not ordained by the laying on of hands, because a widow does not offer a sacrifice or have a ministry (Apostolic Tradition 10, cf. 30).(62)
Certainly one of the most interesting aspects of the passages dealing with widows is the image used of the widow as an altar. C. Osiek has provided a detailed study of the relevant passages that allude to the widow (sometimes in conjunction with orphans) as a ϐυσιαστήριον.(63) After examining passages from Polycarp (Phil. 4.3), Tertullian (To His Wife, 1.7.4), Methodius (Symposium Disc. 5.6, 8), the Didascalia (2.26.8, 3.63, 3.14.1, 4.5.1, cf. 3.7.2, 4.3.3), and the Apostolic Constitutions (8.74.4) as well as texts that go beyond the parameters of this inquiry, she concludes:
Since the majority of the references that give any explanation or elaboration at all do so in terms of offerings, it can be stated with certainty that the original basis for associating widow and altar, at least in the Christian texts, is the depositing of the gifts of the faithful upon the altar and their distribution to widows as recipients of charity ... Prayer as the special ministry of widows may have further encouraged the association of widows with an altar ... Prayer was an act of spiritual sacrifice, and righteous persons were an altar.(64)
She is also able to demonstrate that in the fourth and fifth centuries there was an attempt to restrict the activities of widows, even to the point of using the altar symbolism to indicate that widows should stay in one place, at home, to do their praying. She conjectures that:
The more hierarchically structured Christian churches of the second and third centuries often felt themselves to be in a state of siege because of the threat posed by the more charismatic or loosely structured communities that more often than not seem to have allowed a great deal of freedom and responsibility to women.... Gnostic, Montanist, and Marcionite communities existed down the street from orthodox communities in eastern cities. Though the churches that produced the Didascalia and Apostolic Constitutions had deaconesses, their role was carefully restricted to certain functions with women that it would have been socially improper for a man to perform; going into homes to visit the sick and instruct women, keeping order among women in the assembly, assisting in the disrobing process and anointing of a womans body at baptism.(65)
We now turn to an order which, though perhaps not formally recognized until after the peace brought about by Constantine (c. AD 320)(66) between State and Church, nonetheless existed de facto before that - the order of virgins. The emphasis on virginity in the early Church did not begin in the fourth century but much earlier. The growing emphasis can be traced by examining references to Mary as a virgin in the period AD 80-325.(67) It may be that the traditions about Marys virginity at the time of conception of Jesus gave impetus to the stress on virginity in the second and following centuries, but the Church already had ascetical tendencies as early as the time when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 7 and when Luke took note of Philips virgin daughters.(68)
By the time the Shepherd of Hermas was written, we already appear to have indications of the strange practice of the virgines subintroductae. As Tavard points out, there were unmarried deacons, priests, monks, and apparently bishops, who were sharing homes and even beds chastely with these virgins. Paul of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch in AD 260, apparently lived with several such women, and Cyprian in Africa also knew of this practice (Epistle 61  to Pomponius). Paul, however, was deposed for aberrant Christology in AD 268, whereas Cyprian seems to be writing to orthodox Christians. This practice was considered suspect and was condemned not only by Cyprian, but also by Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan, and the Council of Antioch (AD 268).(69)
The Council of Antioch also deposed Paul of Samosata because, according to Eusebius account of the decree, Even if we grant ... [he] does nothing licentious, he should have taken care to avoid the suspicion to which such practices give rise ... (H.E. 7.30).70 What is remarkable about this is that the condemnation is purely on pragmatic grounds. The Council did not argue that such chaste marriages were utopian ideals which could not be realized. Apparently, the Church so much believed in the grace that accompanied chastity and virginity and they did not think even the practice of virgines subintroductae was objectionable on grounds of theological or ethical feasibility. The Council of Nicea (AD 325) seems to have left the door open for clergy to continue this practice providing it was a relative or person beyond suspicion.
The degree to which virginity was held in high esteem in the Church is shown in a fascinating work called the Banquet by Methodius of Lycia (d. 311?), written apparently in the last thirty years of the third century. In it are eleven speeches on virginity set in the framework of a fictional all-female banquet. In Discourse 1.1 we hear:
Virginity is something supernaturally great, wonderful, and glorious; and, to speak plainly and in accordance with the Holy Scriptures, this best and noblest manner of life alone is the root of immortality, and also its flower and first-fruits; and for this reason the Lord promises that those shall enter into the Kingdom of heaven who have made themselves eunuchs, in that passage of the Gospels in which He lays down the various reasons for which men have made themselves eunuchs. Chastity with men is a very rare thing, and difficult of attainment, and in proportion to its supreme excellence and magnificence is the greatness of its dangers.(71)
As the work progresses it becomes apparent that the author thinks the soul is the image of God in humanity and thus the body is a mere hindrance to true sanctification and spirituality (cf. 6.1). On the basis of a schema of Christological interpretation, the author interprets Ps 45.15, 16 to mean that the Spirit praises virginity next to the Kings spouse (i.e., the Church), and that virgins have a place second only to the corporate Bride in the Kingdom of heaven (7.4, cf. 4.5). Similarly, virgins are called a golden altar in the holy of holies (5.8), while widows are only compared to brazen altars. At several points we seem to have excerpts from the ritual procedure that was apparently used when someone became a part of the order of virgins (cf. 11.2) as well as a discussion of their vows being compared to various sacred OT vows (e.g., Nazaritic, cf. 5.4, 5). In a heilsgeschichtliche argument, Methodius argues that the age of virginity has now dawned, superseding even the age of marital continence.
God no longer allowed man to remain in the same ways, considering how they might now proceed from one point to another, and advance nearer to heaven, until, having attained to the very greatest and most exalted lesson of virginity, they should reach to perfection; that first they should abandon the intermarriage of brothers and sisters, and marry wives from other families; and then that they should no longer have many wives, like brute beasts, as though born for the mere propagation of the species; and then that they should not be adulterers; and then again that they should go on to continence, and from continence to virginity, when, having trained themselves to despise the flesh, they sail fearlessly into the peaceful haven of immortality.(72)
As we have seen in our earlier examination of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian, Methodius is by no means alone in his exaltation of virginity. Tavard, by arguing for the fourth century, may be too conservative and late in the time when he sees virginity having become the Christian ideal.(73) The fact is, in Greece, Egypt, Africa, and elsewhere in the third century, virginity was considered the highest possible state of the Christian, literally a form of heaven or angelic purity on earth. Rather than the Kingdom coming at the end of time, it had come down from above, like the heavenly Jerusalem, in the state of virginity. The impact of this ascetical piety on women must have been that women were given two basic choices in the Church of the late third, early fourth century - to pursue some sort of celibate ministry for the Church as a virgin, widow, or deaconess, or to marry and be restricted to the roles that ones sexual identity dictated - those of wife and mother. Nowhere do we hear of a healthy balance where both ones human sexuality and spiritual gifts are affirmed, where both marriage and ministry are pursued. Certainly by the fourth century, life in the Church had become a clear either/or proposition with women in ministry being linked to a transcending or abandoning of any affirmation of their sexual identity. In our last section we will examine some examples, types, and images that further inculcated this development.
E. Types, examples, and images
To do a detailed study of Mariology and its early development would warrant another book. Here we intend to highlight the image of Mary inculcated by several authors in the second through fourth centuries. We have already seen that the image of Mary was not unreservedly positive during the NT era (cf. Mark 3.21ff.; Luke 2.41-52)74 There is, however, apparently no comparable criticism of Mary in the extra-canonical literature between AD 80-325. Instead, there is an exaltation of Mary and especially of her virginity.
Even as early as Ignatius, we see a fixation on Marys role in Jesus birth and her virginity to the exclusion of her other roles in the Gospel story (cf. Eph. 7.2, 19.1; Smyrn. 1.1). It is not surprising that a pseudepigraphal letter later appeared involving Ignatius and Mary. Indeed, a measure of her growing importance to the Church is the amount of apocryphal material highlighting Mary written during the second to fourth centuries. For some reason, the Gnostics tended to focus on Mary Magdalene (cf. the Gospel of Mary, the Questions of Mary), though their interest in Jesus mother seems indicated in the document, Cenna Marias.75
Among orthodox apocryphal documents, the Protoevangelium of James deserves pride of place, being from the middle of the second century and written for the glorification of Mary. The work also manifests an early attempt to see Mary as semper virgo 76 and attributes to her the same qualities her son had.77 Thus, we hear of Marys miraculous birth, her Davidic descent (10.1), and her presentation in the Temple (7.1). In most of these details, the other infancy gospels followed suit and embellished the stories further, as did many Church Fathers including Clement of Alexandria, Epiphanius, Ephraem Syrus.78 Tertullian possibly took issue with the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary (cf. Tert. de Monog. 8), but this view became dominant even as early as the end of the second century. This set off various attempts in the latter part of the fourth century to explain the brothers and sisters of Jesus as cousins or step-brothers and step-sisters.
Various gaps in Marys biography also generated insistence on her Davidic descent which had to be demonstrated in view of a virginal conception (ruling out descent through Joseph, cf. Ignatius, Eph. 18.2, Tral. 9.1, Smyrn. 1 .1; Origen, Contra Celsum 1.39, 2. 32). The gaps also led to pious speculation about a resurrection appearance to Mary which seems to go back to Tatians time (c. AD 160).79
Great interest also developed in how Mary passed from this world, even to the point of trying to locate the very house in which she died (the Dormitio Mariae).80
As far as images of Mary or the viewing of Mary as a type, we see early evidence of her being seen as an anti-type of Eve. In Justin (d. 160), we hear, For Eve who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived (by) the word of the serpent brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy when the angel Gabriel announced the good news ... (Dialogue with Trypho 100) 81This sort of comparison and contrast is also seen in Irenaeus (Against HeresiesS.19.1, 1.30.7-11). A developed Church/Mary typology or Mary as the Churchs Mother we do not seem to find between AD 80-325, though there are various opportunities for it. For instance, in Methodius (Banquet 7.4), in the exposition of Revelation 12 about the woman clothed with the sun, we are told this is the Church, not Mary. Again, in Cyprian (Dress of the Virgins, ch. 3, c. AD 249) we hear of Mother Church who produces virgins as her fairest flower, but not Mary as Mother to or of the Church. Interestingly, Rahab is seen as a prefigurement of the Church in the treatise on the Unity of the Church 8.
Thus, we may sum up this discussion by saying that Mariology was certainly not in full flower before AD 325, but it was well on its way in that direction. The presentation of Mary in an exclusively positive light could only further this image and, from the time of the Protoevangelium of James, the stress on Mary as semper virgo is a major theme. This would only further the general trend towards the exaltation of virginity and celibacy for women.
We have noted at some length the importance of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel traditions.82 If the tradition of the Church spent a good deal of time exalting Mary, the same may be said of the Gnostic traditions in regard to Mary Magdalene. Indeed, so much was this the case that apologetes in the Church (cf. Epistula Apostolorum) used the more traditional figure of Martha to counter the image of a somewhat liberated Mary Magdalene in the Gnostic literature.83
In the Cospel of Thomas we find Mary Magdalene as an interlocutor of Jesus (log. 21). In the Gospel of Mary (second century), she is not only a proclaimer of Gods revelation, but also an encourager of the male disciples. The hostility of Peter toward Mary Magdalene may reflect the tension in the Church about women assuming important roles.84 In the Pistis Sophia from Egypt (mid third century?), Mary Magdalene asks Jesus a series of questions; in fact,
thirty-five of the forty-six questions asked are from her. At one point, Mary Magdalene and John are given the choice seats in the Kingdom, on the right and left of Jesus. In the Gospel of Philip (early or mid third century at the latest),85 Mary Magdalene appears as the companion of Jesus whom he loved more than the other disciples and whom he kissed often.86 In view of this sort of material from the Gnostic corpus, it is not surprising to find a harsh reaction in the Epistula Apostolorum. As F. Bovon says, this literature:
... insiste tour a tour 1° sur la vertu et la pureté de MarieMadeleine; 2° sur laffection de Jesus pour cette femme; 3 ° sur le contact premier, immediat et privilégié quelle entretint avec le Ressuscité, source de revelation; 4° sur la jalousie des disciples face à ce privilège pascal; 5° sur la responsabilité dent elle fart chargée, de regrouper les disciples et de les envoyer en mission; 6° sur le caractere viril, enfin, au sens spiritual, de cette femme choisie et choyée.87
Various interesting female figures are used in the literature between AD 80-325 as positive examples for a Christian audience. For instance, Clement (I Cor 12.1-8) sees Rahab as a notable example of faith and hospitality and indeed öτι ού μόνόν πίστις καί προϕητεί? Εν τή γυναικί γέγονεν (12.8). In general, early extra-canonical writers seem to have less difficulty with the idea of women being examples and playing leading roles in the church community perhaps because some of them, like Clement, were able to partake of the ethos we noted during the NT period.88 Clement goes out of his way to present notable women of faith as examples for his audience, referring to Judith and Esther and arguing πολλαί γυναίκες ένδυναμωϑεσαι δία τής χάριτος τού ϑεού έπτελέσαντο πολλά άνδρεία (55.3).
Finally, a few words should be said about the image of the Church. The language of bride or bride-to-be in Eph 5.22-33 is a notable theme in the literature and probably led in various directions, e.g., the Church being called a woman or a mother. The latter we have seen in our discussion of Mary, but an even more basic use of the general imagery is found in 2 Clem 14.2 where we have an exegesis of Gen 1.27: God made humanity male and female, followed by the male is Christ, the female is the Church (τό ϐήλν ή έκκλησία).
ln the Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 1. 1-2.4 opens this work with images of two women. The second woman is clearly the Church seen as an older lady (Kupia). Tavard suggests, however, that Rhoda (Vision 1) is also a symbol, in particular of the Church at Rome.89
Whether or not this conjecture is correct, we do have an interesting image of the Church as a woman looking young or old depending on whether or not the faithful repent of their sins. It is thus not a static image but it used interchangeably with the image of the Church as a tower (Vision 3). All of this suggests that biblical images were taken to be touchstones, not exhaustive representations, of how the Church could be depicted. It is this same flexibility we have already noticed in the mentioning of women in the earliest period.
Our study suggests that the crisis of the latter part of the second century over Gnosticism and Montanism took more of a toll on women in ministry with (and not just apart from) men than we may have imagined. This, combined with the increasing stress on asceticism, and coupled with a deficient view of human sexuality, led to a significant attenuation of womens roles in the churches by AD 325. We cannot say that women in ministry had been eliminated by that time, but we can say that forces within and without the Church contributed to a decline of womens possibilities for ministry, and to a shunting of women into a separatist track. This led women either to withdraw into the desert or convent and devote themselves to prayer and being examples of chastity, or to restrict themselves, in the case of deaconesses, to working with women or children. Their work would involve ministry of the Word or the sacrament of Baptism, and providing prayer and practical help for women and children.
The order of widows appears to have been a gender-specific exercise, except possibly in matters of prayer or help to the sick and needy. Even these separate but unequal forms of ministry were to be curtailed, or eliminated, in the latter half of the fourth century.
When ascetics withdrew into a community or into the desert they in fact removed themselves from being a viable influence on the Church in any ongoing way (apart from their example and their prayer life). This meant that many of the most committed Christian women went into a form of Christian living that precluded them from outreach, evangelism, and other functions of the Body of Christ. The net result, whether due to the Churchs deliberate action or reaction to crises, was a considerable strengthening of
patriarchy in the leadership structure of the Church by the time of Nicea (AD 325). Unfortunately, this affirmation of patriarchy was not in the mould of the sort of reformed patriarchy we saw in the Pauline epistles. One can only call this a retreat or regression back to a more Old Testament image of the nature of Church and ministry, a regression toward greater conformity with the patterns of the dominant secular culture. The Church, as it moved forward into the early Middle Ages, moved backward in its social structures. Perhaps the group most adversely affected by this regression were the devout Christian women, many of whom would never get a chance to use the gifts God had granted them. It is a matter the whole Church still has not rectified fully.
1. Since I am not an expert in the post-NT, pre-Nicene period, I have relied more heavily on secondary sources in this chapter than in the other chapters. Like the first chapter, what is included here is intended to be a representative sample of material, not a definitive or exhaustive study. I am especially grateful for the assistance of Dr E. Ferguson of Abilene Christian University.
2. The example of the Acts of Paul and Thecla being included in a list of NT books, Codex Claromontanus (sixth century), may suggest that this list goes back to a time prior to the Gelasian Decree which may have originated in part in the time of Pope Damascus (AD 366-84). Alternatively, it may suggest that E. van Dobschütz was right that the Decree dates to the early sixth century. In any event, Codex Claromontanus is an insufficient warrant for the suggestion that the Acts of Paul and Thecla was widely accepted as a canonical document. Cf. E. Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad, 1983) 300ff. and notes.
3. Ben Witherington, Anti-feminist tendencies of the Western text in Acts, JBL 103:1 (1984) 82-4.
5. F. Blanke and F. J. Leenhardt, Die Stellung der Frau in Neuen Testament und der alten Kirche (Zurich: Zwingli, 1949). Blanke is responsible for the study of der alten Kirche. Cf. R. Gryson, The Ministry of Women in theEarly Church (trans. J. Laporte and M. L Hall; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1976); Leipoldt, DieFrau, Daniélou, Ministry of Women, Swidler, Biblical Affirmations 339ff., Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, 270ff., 285ff., G. H. Tavard Woman in Christian Tradition (South Bend: University of Notre Dame, 1973).
6. I say trajectories precisely because in some cases no one developing trend can be traced, but rather a variety of practices and views develop in various parts of the Empire simultaneously.
7. Cf. pp.190-2 below on Gnosticism.
8. 1 Clement 33.5-6, Apostolic Fathers, LCL I (1977 repr.) 64.
9. Whether or not Rhoda is a type of the church in Rome, the very first two verses locate the main character in Rome.
10. Shepherd of Hermas, Mand. 4.1.3-11, TheApostolicFathers, Loeb 2 (1970 repr.) 78.
11. Shepherd of Hermas, The Apostolic Fathers, Loeb 2 (1970 repr.) 79, n.1.
12. Whether or not this material was originally Jewish in origin, in its present form it seems to be a Christian document dating to the latter part of the second century or beginning of the third. Cf. M. de Jonge, Pseudepigrapha Veteris Testamentis Graece, vol. l (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1964).
13. Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 11, LCL (1939 repr.) 236, n.2 (Butterworth follows Schwartz in his translation).
14. Ibid., 254-55 (cf. Butterworths notes).
15. There is some real debate as to whether or not Clement of Alexandria was responsible for this work.
16. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 2.23, The Ante-Nicene Fathers 1 (trans. A. Robert and S. Donaldson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1975 repr.) 378.
17. J. Ferguson, Clement of Alexandria (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974) 131.
18. Cf. Tavards translation of Comm. Mt. 17.33 in Woman in Christian Tradition, 67.
19. H. Crouzel, Virginité etMariage selon Origene (Paris: Bruges, 1962) 142, n.1.
20. Ibid., 63ff., commenting on Origens Lukan Homily 24.
21. Cf. Tavard, Woman in Christian Tradition, 68.
22. Everett Ferguson (Abilene Christian University), personal letter dated 9 June 1986.
23. Cf. M. Smith, Studies in Early Mysticism in the Near and Middle East (London: Sheldon, 1931) 35-6.
24. Ibid.; cf. Swidler, BiblicalAffirmations, 340-1.
25. Cf. E. H. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), and her article, What became of God the Mother? Conflicting images of God in early Christianity, Signs 2 (1976) 293 - 303. Pagels seems intent on emphasizing the egalitarian views of some of the Gnostics, especially the Valentinians, despite her disclaimer not to advocate any side. R. E. Brown is surely right in his perceptive critique of her work when he says, But about nine-tenths of the discussion of each topic in the book consists of her sympathetic efforts to try and understand the gnostics side, which will leave the reader cheering for them and wishing that the narrow-minded orthodox had not won. R. E. Brown, The Christians who lost out, New York Times book review (20 January 1980) 3, 33, here 3. Cf. the heated responses of Pagels and Brown in the New York Times letter section (17 February 1980), 27. For a much more balanced view on the Gnostic data by a feminist scholar, cf. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, 270-4 and passim.
26. Cited in Epiphanius, Panarion 45.2.1. Cf. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, 274ff.
27. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.45. For another translation cf. J. E. L. Oulton and H. Chadwick, ads., Alexandrian Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954) 61.
28. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.92; cf. Oulton and Chadwick, ads., Alexandrian Christianity, 83. Cf. Gospel of Thomas log. 23; Martyrdom of Peter 9. There is some question whether the garment of shame refers to the human body or the act of sexual intercourse.
29. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.63; cf. Oulton and Chadwick, ads., Alexandrian Christianity, 69.
30. Cf. the translation in Tavard, Woman, 63-4.
31. Cf. the helpful survey of all the Gnostic texts dealing with andronization by M. W. Meyer, Making Mary male: the categories male and female in the Gospel of Thomas, NTS 37 (1985) 554-70.
32. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.6; cf. Oulton and Chadwick, ads., Alexandrian Christianity, 43.
33. R. A. Baer, Philo s Use of the Categories Male and Female (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970) 71.
34. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, 274.
35. Ibid.; here and elsewhere in this chapter I am indebted to Fiorena for her helpful analysis.
36. Cf. ODCC, 300; J. Quasten, Patrology 1 (Utrecht: Spectrum Pub., 1966) 53-4.
37. Could this be what Paul has in mind in 1 Cor 11.10? Women must have a head-covering for the angel of the prophetic spirit will be falling on and filling them; during such a time human glory must not be seen.
38. Cf. chapters 3 and 4.
39. Cf. R. R. Ruether and E. McLaughlin, ads., Women of Spirit Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979) 37ff.
40. ODCC, 1049.
41. Acts of Paul and Thecla 5-6, NTAp II, 354. On the relationship of this material to the Pastorals, cf. Dibelius/Conzelmann, Pastoral Epistles, 48-9 and nn.29-30.
42. On the didactic character of some Christian prophecy, cf. chapter 4.
43. Cf. the thesis of S. Davies, The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1978), and hisThe Revolt of the Widows (Carbondale, Il: S. Illinois University, 1980) which state that these documents were written by and for women, in particular, the Church's `widows'. This thesis has been ably refuted by D. R. MacDonald, `The role of women in the production of the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles', Iliff Review 40 (3, 1983) 21-38, who notes that the stress on virginity could be a result of the general interest in asceticism and the romance genre of this period. He also adds that women were involved in early Christian social conflicts over Church roles and functions, and would be written about in any case.
44. Kerygma of Peter, NTAp 11 (1965) 110-11; G. Strecker dates it c. AD 200 and suggests a Syrian audience.
45. Ibid., 107.
46. ODCC, 1070. One must be careful to distinguish between the Kerygma Petrou which Clement of Alexandria quotes, and Ebionite Kerygmata Petrou in the Pseudo-Clementines.
47. Kerygma of Peter H.2.15, NTAp II, 117-18.
48. Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 8.12; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers I, 123. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, 302, is wrong in saying, Hippolytus acknowledged that the doctrine of the Montanists and of the great Church were the same ...
49. R. B. Eno, Authority and conflict in the early Church, ETh7 (1967) 41-50, here 47-8.
50. Origen, frag. 74 on 1 Corinthians.
51. It is possible (cf. ODCC, 1064) that Tertullian edited the Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas,in which case it would be very early in origin, perhaps even an eye-witness testimony. For another female martyr, Blandina (Martyrs of Lyon), cf. Eusebius,Ecclesiastical History 5, LCL 1 (1926).
52. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her,302.
53. Didymus the Blind, On the Trinity 3.41.3, PG 30.988c-989a. The dating of the Dialogue Between a Montanist and an Orthodox, apparently cited by Didymus, is difficult, but appears to be from the fourth century (before Didymus). Cf. Gryson, Ministry of Women, 75-7.
54. To borrow the book title of R. R. Ruether and E. McLaughlin, Women of Spirit - Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979).
55. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, 285, rightly notes that studies of Church offices have been inconclusive. One does get the feeling from reading the primary sources, however, that as the structure of the Church became more universally fixed, they also became more gender-specific - with women allowed to be deaconesses, widows, ascetics, and teachers (of women), and perhaps even prophetesses in the Church (but not elders or bishops).
56. Cf. chapter 4.
57. Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97, LCL 2 (1969) 404-5.
58. Cf. ODCC, 653; Daniélou, Ministry of Women, 22ff.
59. This is the translation in Ante-Nicene Fathers 7 (1975) 492.
60. Cf. Tavard, Woman in Christian Tradition, 94, for a discussion of deaconesses among the Kanoni.
61. Cf. Swidler, Biblical Affirmations, 314-15.
62. Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 10 (cf. 30), (ed. B. Botte; Munster: Aschendorff, 1963) 30, cf. 60, which mentions widows fasting often and praying for the Church.
63. C. Osiek, The widow as altar: the rise and fall of a symbol, Second Century 3 (3, 1983) 159-69.
64. Ibid., 166-7.
65. Ibid., 168-9.
66. Cf. Tavard, Woman in Christian Tradition, 78-9.
67. Cf. pp. 134ff.
68. Cf. pp.151-2.
69. Tavard, Women in Christian Tradition, 92. On virgins and the Church Fathers of the late fourth century, cf. R. R. Ruether, Misogynism and virginal feminism in the Fathers of the Church, Religion and Sexism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974)150-83.
70. Cf. the different translation in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 7.30 LCL 2 (1932).
71. Methodius of Lycia, Banquet, Discourse 1.1, Ante-Nicene Fathers 6 (trans. W. R. Clark; 1975) 310.
72. Ibid., 311-12.
73. Tavard, Woman in Christian Tradition,81.
74. Witherington, Women, 85-100.
75. NTAp I, 344-5. This material seems to be from the late second century and adds little or no information as to how the Gnostics actually viewed Mary other than as a source of secret revelation.
76. The term αειπάρθενος however, comes from Athanasius, slightly later than our period.
77. Cf. J.-M. Salgado, La présentation de Marie au temple, PalCler 51 (1972) 469-74.
78. NTAp I, 425.
79. Ephraem Syrus (AD 306-373) at least seems to claim he found this idea in the Diatesseron. Cf. the discussion in NTAp I, 428-9.
80. Cf. E. Testa, Lo sviluppo della Dormitio Marie nella litteratura, nella teologia a nella archeologia, Marianum 44 (3-4, 1982) 316-89, available to me only in NTA 28 (1984) 72. The idea of Mary's assumption seems to develop sometime after AD 325.
81. Cf. the slightly different translation in Ante Nicene Fathers1(1975) 249.
82. Witherington, Women, 116ff.; pp.177-80.
83. This has been helpfully chronicled by F. Bovon, Le Privilège Pascal de Marie-Madeleine, NTS 30 (Jan.1984) 50-62, espec.52-3, to whom I am indebted for what follows.
84. Cf. E. Clark and H. Richardson, Women and Religion (New York: Harper and Row, 1977) 281, n.15.
85. NTA p 1, 278.
86. Gospel of Philip 2.63.30-35; cf. The Nag Hammadi Library (ed. J. M. Robinson; San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977) 138.
87. Bovon, Le Privilège Pascal, 56.
88. On Clement's exegesis of the Rahab traditions, Cf. A. T. Hanson, Rahab the harlot in the early Christian tradition, JTNT 1(1978) 53-60.
89. Tavard, Woman in Christian Tradition, 52-3.
|A-S||G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament.|
|BAG||W. Bauer, W. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament.|
|BDF||Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament.|
|CIG||A. Boeckh, et al., eds. Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum.|
|CIL||Academiae Litterarum Regiae Borussicae, Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum.|
|Danby||Herbert Danby, trans., The Mishnah.|
|DNTT||Colin Brown, ed., Dictionary of New Testament Theology.|
|IDB||G.A. Buttrick, ed.,Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible.|
|IDB Suppl.||Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplement.|
|IG||Academiae Litterarum Regiae Borussicae, Inscriptiones Graecae.|
|Lampe, PGL||G. W. H. Lampe, ed., A Patristic Greek Lexicon.|
|LSJ||H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, rev. H. S. Jones, A Greek English Lexicon.|
|Metzger, TC||Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament.|
|MHT||J. H. Moulton, W. F. Howard, and N. Turner, A Grammar of NewTestament Greek.|
|MM||James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament.|
|Moule, I-B||C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek.|
|NTAp||Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha.|
|NTGNA||E. Nestle and K. Aland, eds. Novum Testamentum Graece.|
|ODCC||Oxford Dictionary of the Christian church.|
|PGrenf.||B. P. Grenfell, ed., An Alexandrian Erotic Fragment and Other Greek Papyri, chiefly Ptolemaic.|
|POxy||B. Grenfell, A.Hunt, et al., eds., The Oxyrhynchus Papyri.|
|PTeb||B. Grenfell, et al., eds., The Tebtunis Papyri.|
|Robertson||A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research.|
|SIG||W. Dittenberger, ed., Sylloge lnscriptionum Graecarum.|
|Str-B||Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrasch.|
|TDNT||Gerhard Kittel and G. Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament|
|UBSGNT||Kurt Aland, et al., eds., The Greek New Testament (United Bible Society).|
|Wettstein||Jacobus Wettstein, Novum Testamentum Graecum.|
|Zerwick||Maximilian Zerwick, Biblical Greek.|
|Zerwick-Grosvenor||Maximilian Zerwick and M. Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament.|
|BNTC||Black's New Testament Commentary|
|BZNW||Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft and die Kunde der älteren Kirche|
|Budé||Paris: Société D'Éditions "Les Belles Lettres"|
|CGTC||Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary|
|FRLANT||Forschungen zur Religion and Literatur des Alten and Neuen Testaments|
|HGNT||Handbuch zum Griechen Neuen Testament|
|HNT||Handbuch zum Neuen Testament|
|HNTC||Harper's New Testament Commentary|
|HTKNT||Herder's Theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament|
|ICC||International Critical Commentary|
|KEK||Kritisch-exegetischer Kommentar über das Neue Testament|
|LCL||Loeb Classical Library|
|MNTC||Moffatt New Testament Commentary|
|NCB||New Century Bible|
|NICNT||New International Commentary on the New Testament|
|NIGTC||New International Greek Testament Commentary|
|NPNF||Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers|
|NTD||Das Neue Testament Deutsch|
|PNTC||Pelican New Testament Commentary|
|SBLDS||Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series|
|SBLMS||Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series|
|SNTSMS||Society of New Testament Studies Monograph Series|
|THKNT||Theologischer Handkommentar zum Neuen Testament|
|TNTC||Tyndale New Testament Commentary|
|UNT||Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament|
|AER||American Ecclesiastical Review|
|AJA||American Journal of Archaeology|
|AJP||American Journal of Philology|
|AJT||American Journal of Theology|
|BAR||Biblical Archaeology Review|
|Be0||Biblia a Oriente|
|BibLeb||Bibel and Leben|
|BJRL||Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester|
|BTB||Biblical Theology Bulletin|
|CBQ||Catholic Biblical Quarterly|
|CBR||Christian Brethren Review|
|CTJ||Calvin Theological Journal|
|CTM||Concordia Theological Monthly|
|EspV||Esprit et Vie|
||Eglise et Theologie|
|ETL||Ephemerides theologicae lovanienses|
|HR||History of Religions|
|HTR||Harvard Theological Review|
|JAAR||Journal of the American Academy of Religion|
|JBL||Journal of Biblical Literature|
|JJS||Journal of Jewish Studies|
|JHS||Journal of Hellenic Studies|
|JETS||Journal of Evangelical Theological Society|
|JTNT||Journal of the Theology of the New Testament|
|JTS||Journal of Theological Studies|
|JTSA||Journal of Theology for S. Africa|
|LTQ||Lexington Theological Quarterly|
|NTA||New Testament Abstracts|
|NRT||Nouvelle Revue Théologique|
|NTS||New Testament Studies|
Nova et Vetera
|PalCler||Palestra del Clero|
Review and Expositor
|RHE||Revue d 'Histoire Ecclésiastique|
Revue d'Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses
|RSPT||Revue des Sciences phlosophiques et théologiques|
Revue de l'Université d'Ottawa
|SBL||Society of Biblical Literature|
|SJT||Scottish Theological Journal|
Theologie and Glaube
Theologische Studien and Kritiken
|USQR||Union Seminary Quarterly Review|
|WTJ||Westminster Theological Journal|
|ZNW||Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft|
Please, credit this document
as published by www.womenpriests.org!
This 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.
You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.
Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.
The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.