by Mary Ann Rossi -- credits
Containing a translation from the Italian of "Notes on the Female Priesthood in Antiquity," by Giorgio Otranto (1)
This text has been put on this website with permission of the author, the translator and the editors of the Journal. A more concise form of the contents can be found in George Otranto's lecture.
Introduction to the Translation
The "vexed question" of the admission of women to the priesthood has been brought sharply to public attention by the continuing efforts in Great Britain and the United States to restore full participation in Catholic and Anglican priesthood to women. Those in favor of the ordination of women point to the disparagement and hatred of women throughout the history of the church. The persistence of sexist bias among church officials from the first through the fourth centuries C. E. has been treated by feminist scholars. (2)
I wish to express my appreciation to the National Endowment for the Humanties for three grants that made possible my study of women in religion and society: "Pagan and Christian in Late Antiquity" with John G. Gager of Princeton University; "Religion and Society in Ancient Greece ;1 with Michael Jameson of Stanford University; and "Medieval Local History: Rome and its Neighborhood, 12th-14th Centuries" at the American Academy in Rome with Robert Brentano of the University of California-Berkeley. In Rome I worked at the Vatican Library, where Otrantos article in Vetera Christianorum came to my attention. I am indebted to Professor Giuseppe Giangrande of the University of London for his invaluable suggestions and comments on the translation. My thanks are also due to Dr. Letizia Panizza of the University of London for her assistance. (A list of abbreviations used in the footnotes follows the text.) Those against the ordination of women rely on the pretext of a lack of precedent.
In recent years several journals have offered articles addressing the ongoing debate. (3) Among the most prestigious journals is Vetera Christianorum , whose editor, Giorgio Otranto, is director of the Istituto di studi classici e christiani (Institute of Classical and Christian Studies) in the Universita degli studi-Bari. A notable scholar of classical and Christian studies, Otranto has been concerned with the question of women's priesthood for several years, and, according to a recent private communication from him (March 21, 1990), he has continued to research this topic and has come upon other documentation of notable historic interest. I offer here a full translation from the Italian of a key work by Otranto. Elsewhere, recent reviews of feminist religious thought have amplified the dialogue.(4) In the other camp, those opposing the ordination of women deny any historical precedent. The presence of women in the sacerdotal ministry of the early church has been ignored or denied: "There has never been any mention of women filling strictly sacerdotal offices.(5) "This is a plain fact . . . the argument from Scripture and Tradition has an impressive solidity about it. "(6) Otrantos article calls for another look at this supposed monolithic solidity.
In confirming the presence of women in sacerdotal roles, Otranto refers to the influence of the Gnostic and Montanist sects in the formative period of Christianity. It will be helpful to review briefly the source of antagonism between orthodox and Gnostic Christians, especially during the third and fourth centuries C.E.
The Gnostic movement arose at a time when pagan beliefs were breaking up, a process that was accompanied by syncretism, or the amalgamation of different religious beliefs.(7) As Ramsay McMullen comments: "It was the general instinct, as it is generally everybody's instinct, to make the least possible tear in the fabric of already held beliefs, when obliged to admit some urgent novelty."(8) Samaria, with its mixed population, was a center of Gnosticism. The discovery in 1947 of the Nag Hammadi texts in Egypt has given rise to prolific research on the ancient religion of Gnosticism. From these texts we have impressive evidence of Gnostic communities that stood on the fringe and took a critical view of the orthodox church.
One divergence between Gnostic and orthodox Christians was the difference in their sexual attitudes; Gnostic theologians describe God in both masculine and feminine terms with a complementary description of human nature. They teach the androgynous creation of humankind of Genesis I. "This conception carries the principle of equality between men and women into the practical social and political structures of Gnostic communities."(9) Irenaeus, an orthodox bishop, is dismayed that women are attracted to such groups, in which prayers are offered to the Mother as Silence, Grace, and Wisdom; women priests serve the eucharist together with men; and women also speak as prophets, uttering to the whole community what "the Spirit" reveals to them. (10) The orthodox theologians, on the other hand, describe God in masculine terms exclusively and point to Genesis 2 to describe how Eve was created from Adam and for his fulfillment. This view also shapes the social order, and by the late second century, orthodox Christians came to accept the domination of men over women as the natural order for human society and for the Christian churches. (11)
Orthodox bishops battled not only with the Christian Gnostics but with the followers of the Montanist movement. The distinctive features of Montanism are the enthusiasm of the prophets (Montanus and the two prophetesses, Maximilla and Priscilla), the ministry of women, and the expectation of the immediate Parousia (return of Jesus). Women held high office in the church, and Maximilla and Priscilla seem to have made contributions to Montanist teaching.(12) There is evidence that other women followed their example or even outdid it, for we read of a prophetess in Cappadocia, Asia Minor, in the third century, perhaps a Montanist, who baptized and celebrated the Eucharist; of female bishops and priests, and of virgins who regularly officiated in the congregation at Pepuza, the home of Montanus, where he expected the return of the Lord.(13) Such pluralism in the second and third centuries C.E. reflected the ongoing dispute about the role of women in the life and teaching of the Christian communities.
One outstanding example of this dispute in the second century is the attitude of the church father Tertullian, whom Frend calls "one of the formative minds of European civilization. (14) Tertullian professed Montanism, although late in his career, and yet at the same time he continued to prohibit women from teaching and preaching in the church.(15) He demanded an abasement of women and the covering of her shameful female nature because she reflected the guilty nature of Eve: "You are the gateway of the devil."(16)
At the end of the fifth century, however, the dominant struggle was between the pope and emperor. Pope Gelasius I, whose epistle is the source of the evidence that there were indeed women priests being ordained in the fifth century, was determined to restore power to Rome and the papacy. The papacy came into collision with the empire during the reign of Zeno (474-91) over the doctrinal matter of the nature of Christ. The controversy produced correspondence between the pope and emperor which altered the balance of power in Christendom by asserting the superiority of the papacy to the empire.(17) Gelasius is held to be the key figure in this development. He was a fierce opponent of heresy and schism wherever it appeared, and in his writings he strikes out against variations in the faith. His letters are filled with references to tradition, and he looks not for innovation, but for a return to the status quo. Hence Gelasius's letters and decretals resound with a deep and pervasive conservatism, and his letter discussed by Otranto reflects this preoccupation. (18)
In the section dealing with the ordination of deaconesses, Otranto refers to Martimort's Deaconesses: An Historical Study, which came to his attention during the final revision of his article.(19) Martimort cites two basic sources for the study of the role of deaconesses in the early church: Roger Gryson's Le Ministère des Femmes dans léglise ancienne, cited by Otranto in the Italian translation, and Adolf Kalsbach, Die Altkirchliche Einrichtung der Diakonisse bis zu ihrem Erloschen.(20) Both authors provide a complete bibliography of earlier works on the subject of deaconesses in early Christianity.
According to Martimort, the Didaskalia alone presented the institution of deaconesses to us as a ministry with both a pastoral and liturgical function, responding to a need that existed only in the Eastern regions (Mesopotamia, Chaldea, Persia), and it rapidly became obsolete. Everywhere else the blessing or ordination of deaconesses had a radically different significance. From the end of the fourth century on, there is evidence in the Greek-language churches of "deaconess" as an honorific title for the wife of a deacon or priest, a widow of distinction, or the superior of a convent.(21)
Martimort further states that "it is difficult to know exactly how the institution actually came to be created. And contrary to what has been asserted on this subject, the Apostolic Constitutions do not really throw any light on the problem, for the institution of deaconesses that emerges from that document simply does not correspond. to the evidence of what the actual institution of deaconesses was like in both Antioch and Constantinople, and the formulary proposed for the ordination of deaconesses in the Apostolic Constitutions had no antecedents and was not retained in the liturgy." He concludes, "The fact is that the Byzantine tradition . . . did not assign any liturgical role to deaconesses at all."(22)
Otranto provides ample grounds for reconsidering the role of women in the priesthood of early Christianity, and he challenges scholars dealing with the problem to question the omission of such evidence, and to search for the reasons for its omission. The two camps polarized today over the question of admitting women to the priesthood have a long history.
The problem of the admission of women to the priesthood is certain to arouse renewed interest in such times as these, when we are reconsidering and profoundly reevaluating the role and presence of women in the family, work, and society. One of the most debated ecclesiastical issues of the past fifteen years, this problem has provoked strong currents of opinion among scholars of diverse backgrounds and persuasions, and a lively battle has been engaged.
In 1976 a Congress of the Sacred Congregation for the doctrine of the faith was held. In their declaration Inter insigniores ["among the more important matters"], the congress once again officially reiterated the official position of the Catholic church against the admission of women to the priesthood and to the episcopate.(23) After this declaration, the research increased, and the battle became even more heated, but the positions remain essentially unchanged. I would say rather that they have crystallized and polarized.
In their search for solutions to doctrinal and disciplinary problems, scholars, as usual, have turned to the ancient world with various motives and with disparate results. Here too the Magisterium [the official teaching of the church] has once more found reasons for its traditional opposition to conferring Orders on women: Christ did not call any woman to be one of the twelve. The entire tradition of the church has kept faith in this fact and has interpreted it as the explicit will of the Savior to confer upon man alone the sacerdotal power of governing, teaching, and sanctifying. Only man, through his natural resemblance to Christ, can express sacramentally the role of Christ himself in the Eucharist. On the other hand, those of opposing views also point to ancient Christianity. They argue cogently that the official position of the church is the consequence of a view of society completely founded upon ancient culture and difficult for modern scholars to accept. Such a cultural perception reflects the inferior status of women obvious in the Greek and Roman world, especially in the area where Christianity arose.
These basic views contain various arguments that need not be mentioned here, since, far from entering into the merits of the "vexed question," I offer only further clues for the reconstruction of a fragmented historical picture. On the other hand, whenever either camp offers a clear-cut solution to the question, it is natural for some themes to be emphasized and others to be prejudicially neglected.
Among many scholarly works dealing with this subject, outstanding are those of Van der Meer, Gryson, and Galot, which state lucidly that women in the ancient church never exercised sacerdotal ministry, and the only agreed function of women from the end of the third century in the context of the community, was the diaconate in the Orient, except in Egypt.(24) The duties assigned to such a function were the care of women invalids and assistance in the baptism of women. The institution of the female diaconate did not go beyond the confines of the Orient [i.e., the East, comprising Syria, Palestine, frontier regions on either side of the Euphrates, Mesopotamia, Roman Armenia, and Cilicia-Isauria], and the attempts made in the fourth and fifth centuries to introduce it to the Occident had not practically succeeded. (25) Although this conclusion is without doubt correct, it does not take serious account of some incidents and phenomena that throw light on the question of the admission of women to the priesthood, a problem that has remained quite a lively one from the early Christian centuries.
Of particular value among this evidence is something found in an epistle of Gelasius I (492-96), which has been inadequately evaluated by scholars until now.(26) Van der Meer merely mentions it, while Gryson and Galot, although elaborating a bit more broadly on the Gelasian testimony, do not draw any conclusions, and they complain about the lack of precise details in the epistle. (27) I am not in complete agreement with this latter complaint, but let us see what it is about.
Gelasius in 494 sent a long and interesting epistle... "to all episcopates established in Lucania [modern Basilicata], Bruttium [modern Calabria]-- ankle and toe of Italy--and Sicilia [modern Sicily]."(28) This epistle contained twenty-seven decrees, in which the Bishop of Rome confronts these relevant questions:(29) the internal organization of the community; the conditions required to be admitted to the dignity of the clerical state; the relations among bishop, presbyter, and deacon; the "ordinations" and "affairs" of the clerics; the dedication of new basilicas; and the discipline of the clerics. Four of the decrees were concerned with the presence of,,vomen in the context of the Christian communities: 12 concerns the consecration of virgins; 13 and 21 concern the prohibition against the veiling of widows; and 26, the most interesting one to us, explicitly confronts the problem of the priesthood of women: Nihilominus impatienter audivimus, tantum divinarum rerum subisse despectum, ut feminae sacris altaribus ministrare firmentur, cunctaque non nisi virorum famulatui deputata sexum, cui non competunt, exhibere.(30)
["Nevertheless we have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they do not belong."]
Gelasius, that is, declares that he has learned with distress that the contempt for religion in the church had arrived at such a point that women were being admitted to officiating at sacred altars [sacris altaribus ministrare] an expression that indicates indubitably the involvement of a liturgical service at the altars. In such a sense the term "officiate" [ministrare] corresponds to the Greek leitourgein, which was adopted from the beginnings of Christian literature, as we see from its attestation in Acts (13.2) and in the Epistle to the Hebrews (10.11).(31)
In Julianus Pomerius, an author contemporary with Gelasius, the same expression, "to officiate at altars," recurs to designate involvement in a cultic, sacerdotal service.(32) The same term, or the substantive minister-ministra, became adopted also to refer to the liturgical procedures of deacons and deaconesses. We might well recall here the famous letter of Pliny the Younger to Trajan, in which the two deaconesses are mentioned (two servants, two ministers, they were called).(33) In canon 2 of the Council of Tours of 461, there was a prohibition against priests and deacons ministering to people in specific circumstances. (34)
To establish whether the expression ut feminae sacris altaribiis ministrare firmentur refers to the liturgical service of deaconesses or female presbyters is probably of secondary importance, since Gelasius immediately adds that he has also known that women were performing all the functions that had been assigned to the ministry of men only, and not to the female sex: cunctaque . . . exhibere. Galot considers famulatui a general term to designate the service of the cult, and on this basis, like Gryson, he is uncertain whether it is a matter of diaconal or sacerdotal service.(35)
As I see it, the entire expression has its precise meaning only in the light of certain considerations. Above all, it is clear that Gelasius--in another passage of the same epistle--adopts "ecclesiastical service" as a synonym of "clerical ministry." (36) In this view virorum famulatui indicates not the clerical ministry of the diaconate, but the more comprehensive one of the presbyter, as is clear from cuncta, which comprises all the attributes of the male services: liturgical, juridical, and magisterial. The functions exercised by women at the altars, therefore, can refer only to the administration of the sacraments, to the liturgical service, and to the public and official announcement of the evangelical message, all of which comprise the duties of ministerial priesthood.
Hence I hold that Gelasius in his definition intended to stigmatize and condemn not the exercise of a feminine liturgical service, but an abuse that appeared to him a great deal more serious: that of true and proper presbyters who were performing all the duties traditionally reserved for men alone.
This reading clarifies not only the tantum divinarum rerum despectum ["such disrespect for divine affairs"], but also the harsh, insistent wording of the decree, in which Gelasius condemns the action of those bishops who either commit such abuses, or appear to be favoring them by not denouncing them publicly.
The pope goes on to deride those bishops who debase their ministry by disrespect for the rules of the church. What are we to think of these men who, for whatever reasons, have committed a great aberration, which seems to threaten not only their own downfall, but also the tragic downfall of the whole church, if they do not come to their senses. These bishops and others who have failed to denounce the situation have risked losing their proper episcopal dignity, according to Gelasius. There can be no excuse, the Pope concludes, either for those who have wittingly ignored the canons, or for those who have unwittingly failed to learn the proper conduct.(37)
Gelasius refers to the question of the priesthood of women only in the initial part of the decree. He limits himself thereafter to denouncing harshly the gravity of the error and the destructive consequences that can redound to the church from that abuse. He does all of this without ever entering into the merit of the question, that is, without specifying the scriptural or theological foundations for rejecting the admission of women to the priesthood. He refers only to the regula cristiana, to the regulae ecclesiasticae, and to the canones that some bishops had either violated or ignored. Evidently the pope regarded the insistent call back to tradition to be sufficient to reveal the gravity of the condemned abuse.
The insistent reference to the grave responsibilities of the bishops qui ista committunt ["who commit these errors"] and qui haec ausi sunt exercere ["who dared to carry out these acts"] probably has a precise meaning which indicates the extent and consistency of the phenomenon in question. The verbs committere and exercere presuppose an active and factual participation of some bishops in the perpetration of the abuse; and this participation cannot be confined to a simple consent or indifference to the phenomenon; it must necessarily involve the bishops directly in the exercising of their power. It is my conviction that with these expressions Gelasius intended to refer to a mandate specifically conferred by some bishops on women for the exercise of sacerdotal ministry; since bishops are referred to, Gelasius's reference can only concern the sacerdotal ordination, which enabled some women to exercise the sacrament of full priesthood. It would not concern simple abuses perpetrated by some women, but more substantial initiatives, which involved bishops personally. One confirmation of such a hypothesis can be seen in the words stating that these bishops have brought great destruction upon the church multimodis impulsionibus ["with various motives"]; the gravest of these is the conferring of the sacrament of priesthood on women. Gelasius holds the bishops responsible, as we see in his harsh condemnation of their actions. For others his accusation is more general and is limited to the complicity of tacit and culpable assent by bishops to behavior that contravenes the canons.
The canons to which Gelasius was probably referring were 19 of the Council of Nicaea,(38); 11 and 44 of the Council of Laodicea (second half of the fourth century),(39); 2 of the Council of Nimes (394 or 396),(40); and 25 of the First Council of Orange (441),(41) which prohibit women from participating in the liturgical service in any way, or from being a member of the clergy. It is unnecessary to examine such canons here, since they have already been treated by Van de Meer, Gryson, and Galot.(42)
How widespread was this phenomenon of admitting women to the priesthood? We should recall that Pope Gelasius includes this matter in a letter dealing with numerous organizational, doctrinal, and disciplinary questions, and that the letter was sent to all the bishops of Lucania, Bruttium, and Sicily. Moreover, Gelasius probably intended to address problems that were not exclusive to the regions mentioned. In the beginning of the epistle, Gelasius mentions a report that John, Bishop of Ravenna (477-494), had sent him to request the restoration of order in churches in various regions of Italy, where there was upheaval caused by famine and by the war between Odoacre and Teodericus.(43) Francesco Lanzoni has conjectured that the initiative of Bishop John must have been in accord with the court of Ravenna:(44) that is, Teodericus, faced with the difficult task of political reconstruction and the mutual animosities of Catholics and Arians living together, tried to obviate the confrontations inherent in such a society.
Even if the phenomenon of the female priesthood were not widespread in all three regions as well as other parts of Italy, it is probable that the incidents condemned by the pope were not isolated phenomena. On the one hand, the peremptory intervention of Gelasius, involving several bishops, proves rather that the situation had developed so far as to worry Rome seriously. On the other hand, if it had been an isolated case, it would not have been prudent for the pope to treat it in an epistle that was to be sent not only into Lucania, Bruttium, and Sicily, but into other regions interested in the questions treated in the document. Such epistles were bound to circulate in all the communities and constituted for the hierarchy a kind of handbook for dealing with internal problems of disciplinary, doctrinal, or organizational matters. We must also remember that Gelasius had sent the same epistle to other churches concerned with the same problems.(45)
In sum, we may infer from an analysis of Gelasius's epistle that at the end of the fifth century, some women, having been ordained by bishops, were exercising a true and proper ministerial priesthood in a vast area of southern Italy, as well as perhaps in other unnamed regions of Italy.
It is difficult at this stage of research, to pinpoint the genesis of such a phenomenon. As I have emphasized, the area in which women priests are attested,(46) southern Italy, was culturally connected with Greek and Byzantine areas where, from the third century women exercised the diaconate; at the end of the fourth century, women were equated with male clerics, since, like the male clerics, women received ordination by the laying on of hands, according to a precise ritual, with precise obligations and juridical conditions.(47) Moreover, we must recall that in the Orient, in Asia Minor, in Gnostic and Montanist settings in particular, records of women with the functions of presbyters or of bishops, which the church had condemned, have been found up to the second century.
Further Evidence of Women Christian Priests
Irenaeus states that the Valentinian Gnostic Marcus surrounded himself with women whom he allowed in his presence to consecrate chalices containing wine.(48)
Firmilian of Cesarea, [in Asia Minor] in an epistle to Cyprian around 235, harshly condemns the activity of a woman who was attracting a large number of believers and who was baptizing and celebrating the Eucharist according to the ritual of the church.(49)
Epiphanius of Salamis similarly condemns seven other Montanists of Phrygia who permitted women access to the priesthood and to the episcopate.(50)
From such testimonies we can hypothesize a Greek and Byzantine influence that would have been conducive to the rise of the status of women presbyters in southern Italy.
Naturally it is not surprising to find in such regions as Bruttium and Sicily, within their Christian ambiance, cultural elements that reflect the Byzantine world before the Greco-Gothic War (535-53). It is enough to recall that in 447 Leo the Great exhorted the bishops of Sicily not to administer baptism, in the Greek custom, on the day of Epiphany, but only on Easter and Pentecost.(51) Gelasius, moreover, probably intends to confirm this prohibition in decree 10 of the epistle, when he invites the bishops of Lucania, Bruttium, and Sicily to administer baptism only on Easter and Pentecost and not passim quocumque tempore ["here and there at any time whatsoever"]. (52)
The phenomenon of the priesthood for women in southern Italy, then, must be seen in its Byzantine context. Here, and especially in Sicily and Bruttium between the seventh and eighth centuries, there developed in the church a process of Hellenization which becomes more and more evident with the passage of time.(53) But even granting a Greek and Byzantine matrix to the phenomenon of women in the priesthood, the bishops of Lucania, Bruttium, and Sicily, went well beyond their Greek and Byzantine model in conferring Sacred Orders on women and permitting them to participate at the altars "in everything up to now imputed to the service of men."
Presbytera as Priest, Not Wife
The presence of women presbyters in Bruttium at the end of the fifth century recalls an inscription that takes on renewed interest and significance as an historic documentation of women in the priesthood: B(onae) m(emoriae) s(acrum). Leta presbitera/vixit annos XL, menses VIII, dies VIIII/ quei (scil. cui) bene fecit maritus/ Precessit in pace pridie/idus Maias ("Sacred to her good memory Leta the Presbyter lived 40 years, 8 months, 9 days, for whom her husband set up this tomb. She preceded him in peace on the day before the Ides of May"). (see image below) (54) The epitaph refers to a presbyter Leta, having died at just over forty, for whom her husband had set up a tomb; this inscription comes from the catacomb of Tropea, a small town that has offered the most consistent epigraphical and monumental documentation of Paleochristian Bruttium.(55)
Up to now all scholars, from De Rossi, to Crispo, to Ferrua, on the basis of Catholic historiographic tradition that has never made any concession to the female priesthood, have always construed the term presytera as the wife of the presbyter.(56) In light of what has appeared in the Gelasian epistle, I think it is reasonable to hypothesize that the Leta of the epigraph of Tropea was a true and proper presbytera: that is, a woman who was practicing the sacerdotal ministry in the Christian community of Tropea. Even the dating of the epitaph, which Ferrua gives as the mid-fifth century, gives weight to this hypothesis.(57) These two testimonies, then, the Gelasian reference and the Tropean epitaph, attest to the existence of a female priesthood in Bruttium between the middle and end of the fifth century.
Beyond the significant parallel of Leta's epitaph with the Gelasian epistle, another reason prompts me to see in Leta a true and proper presbyter. If Leta had been the wife of a presbyter, we would have to infer that the husband, who had built the tomb, had declined to designate himself as a presbyter in order to confer this designation upon his wife. There is no valid reason for such an action, to my knowledge, and certainly no epigraphical parallel. According to the evidence that I have collected, every time a presbyter prepares a tomb for his wife, he always refers to her by the term coniux ("wife"), and sometimes amantissima ("most loving").(58) Moreover, also on the literary level there recurs the coupling of words presbyter- presbytera to identify presbytera as the wife of the presbyter(59) but there is no attestation, to my knowledge, of the coupling maritus (or coniux or vir)-presbytera.
Another presbytera is recorded in an inscription on a sarcophagus from Salona in Dalmatia; this stone coffin bears the consular date of 425:(60) D(ominis) n(ostris) Thaeodosio co(n)s(ule) XI et Valentiniano/viro nobelissimo (sic) Caes(are). Ego Thaeodo(sius) emi a Fl(avia) Vitalia pr(es)b(ytera) sanc(ta) matro/na auri sol(idis) III. Sub d(ie) . . . (61) The inscription records the allocation and sale of plots in the Christian communal cemeteries. Such transactions at Rome, a city we know more about, were first carried on by the diggers, and later by overseers and presbyters.(62)The inscription reads that Theodosius had acquired for three golden solids a plot in the cemetery of Salona from the presbytera Flavia Vitalia.(63) Here indeed, then, a presbytera has been invested with an official duty, which from a certain period on was appropriate to a presbyter.(64) AIthough we are dealing here not with evidence for the sacerdotal ministry of women, nevertheless this type of documentation, to my thinking, testifies to a womans official role or function in the Christian community, since contracts of this kind were made directly with such an official: the fossor ("digger"), the "overseer," or the "presbyter" (in this case the presbytera), and not with the uxor presbyteri ("wife of the presbyter").
Yet another attestation comes from Salona [The ecclesiastical center of Dalmatia, now a ruined city north of Split, ancient Spalato, where Diocletian had a palace in the early fourth century-Trans. ], on the fragment of a sarcophagus cover, probably from the fifth-sixth century, which bears the inscription (sace)rdotae.(65) Such an appellation may well refer to a woman invested, like her countrywoman Flavia Vitalia, with sacerdotal functions.
At the beginning of the sixth century, not long after the Gelasian epistle, we hear again of women who were actively participating in the liturgy. The case is mentioned in 511 by three bishops of Gaul: Licinius of Tours, Melanius of Rennes, and Eustochius of Angers. These bishops sent an epistle to the Breton priests Lovocatus and Catihernus to criticize them for allowing women during eucharistic services to take the chalice in their hands and to distribute the blood of Christ to the people. Severely condemning the actions of these priests, the bishops order them to remember tradition; they further threaten them with banishment from the ecclesiastical community if they continue to be assisted by those women [conhospitae],(66) with whom they were living as well. (67)
From this epistle we infer that these conhospitae were participating in a liturgical service proper not to a presbyter, but rather to a deacon, to whom it was permitted to administer communion. In any event the attributions went beyond the traditional duties reserved in the Orient for deaconesses.
From Poitiers, near the area where the three priests officiated, there is a graffito of unknown date,(68) which attests to the participation of a woman in liturgical service: Martia presbyteria/ferit obblata Olebri/o par(iter) et Nepote. Contrary to Mommsen69 and to Diehl70 who connect presbyteria to obblata (taking the words to mean oblationes presbyterales), I hold that presbyteria stands for presbytera exactly as in canon 20 of the Council of Tours of 567 (71) and in canon 21 of the Council of Auxerre in the second half of the sixth century. 72 It is difficult to determine the nature of the service performed by Martia. Is she the uxor presbyteri who carries the bread and wine for the celebration of the eucharist like a simple member of the faith, or is she a presbytera with more specific duties in the eucharistic liturgy? Olybrius and Nepos are almost certainly two presbyters who were officiating in the community to which Martia also belonged; and it is probable that this woman collaborated with them during the eucharistic celebration. The fact that there had been a desire to record an action performed by Martia during a liturgical celebration would seem to signify not the usual service of the faithful at the moment of the offertory, but rather an act habitually performed by a deacon or by another member of the clergy. It might actually signify a liturgical service analogous to that of the conhospitae who were collaborating with the presbyteri Lovocatus and Catihernus.
Such a convergence of literary and epigraphical documentation attesting, in the same or in neighboring areas of Gaul, to a specific and unusual function of women in the eucharistic celebration strikes me as remarkable. Of course, this convergence may be accidental, but we must remember that we have found the same convergence in Bruttium as well.
The data gathered on the priesthood of women in antiquity are few and meager. Some need further elucidation on the basis of iconographical documentation, and such research may call for a more intensive investigation of the problem, just as the epigraphical sources have done.
Monolithic Church Tradition?
Although specific attestations of women priests are few, the frequent and always polemical treatment of the question of the admission of women to the priesthood, both in Christian authors and in the Acta of the councils, leads us to conclude that the cases of women participating in liturgical service must have been more numerous than those attested in the literary and epigraphical testimonies. The writings of Van der Meer, Gryson, and Galot attest to the continuity with which the church hierarchy, the church fathers, and the church councils have confronted the problem of the admission of women to the sacrament of the priesthood.
All this, despite the lamentable paucity of evidence, and notwithstanding the habitual tirades uttered by those opposed to women priests, points to the following conclusion. Clearly we cannot imagine as monolithic, clearly defined, and universally accepted the tradition assumed by the ancient church--I mean the whole church, including all the faithful, and not merely the church authorities. On the contrary, the position as defined above was one of continuous development, as a question urgently brought to attention,(73) disputed, and diversely resolved. The tradition became monolithic the moment they condemned all the solutions that in the past were contrary to the ones officially accepted and defended by the Catholic church. Perhaps one possible influence on the attitude of the church could be the fact that from the second century some groups, condemned as heretics, admitted women to the priesthood and the episcopate. But the presence of a presbytera does not necessarily connote her heterodoxy or that of the church in which she lived and performed her ministry.
The Writings of Atto
Specific attestation of the reality of women priests is further provided by Atto, bishop of Vercelli, who lived between the ninth and tenth centuries, and who was notable for his reforming activities and for his vow against the corruption of the clergy. Among his writings are a canonical tract and a collection of conciliar dispositions pertaining to ecclesiastical organization, sacramental life, and liturgical expression.
A priest named Ambrose came to Atto to ask how the terms presbytera and diacona of the ancient canon ought to be understood. His response leaves no room for doubt. He begins by underlining that since in the ancient church "Many were the crops and few the laborers" (Mt. 9,37; Lk 10,2), women too received the Sacred Orders for the helping of men, as is attested in Rom. 16:1: Commendo vobis Phaebem sororem meam, quae est in ministerio Ecclesiae, quae est Cenchris[" I commend to you my sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the Church which is in Cenchrae"]. For Atto, it was the Council of Laodicea (second half of the fourth century),that prohibited the presbyteral ordination of women: Quod Laodicense postmodum prohibet concilium cap. 11, cum dicitur: quod non oportet eas quae dicuntur presbyterae vel praesidentes in Ecclesiis ordinari .(74) Much has been written on canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea: "It is not allowed for those called presbytidas to be appointed to preside in the church. "(75) Much has been written as well on the significance of the term presbytidas, which has been diversely explained, and it has been systematically argued that it cannot mean true and proper presbyterae. But this argument reflects a viewpoint that has strongly conditioned many scholars. Suffice it to consult Galot on this point: "Canon XI of the Council of Laodicea embarrasses the commentators. . . . The uncertainties concern the significance of the terms presbitidi and presidenti as well as of the verb stabilire or ordinare. If one should trust the title of the Canon, It is not allowed to appoint women-priests in the' church, one could understand the presbitidi in the sense of 'priestesses.' But such a definition seems unthinkable in the Catholic Church, and there has been an attempt to identify these presbitidi either as higher deaconesses, or as deaconesses, or as elderly women responsible for the overseeing of the women of the church."(76) In the light of what I have noted above, why can we not accept the most obvious interpretation of canon 11 of Laodicea? Why not recognize, as Atto does, that this canon prohibits the presbyteral ordination of women? Galot himself admits that it deals with the prohibition of female priesthood, even though he limits its significance by relating it to the anti-Montanist polemic.(77)
But let us return to Bishop Atto of Vercelli. After having expanded on the status of the deaconess, he stresses that in the ancient Christian church not only men, but also women were ordained (ordinabantur) and were the leaders of communities (praeerant ecclesiis); they were called presbyterae and they assumed the duty of preaching, directing, and teaching (Hae quae presbyterae dicebantur, praedicandi, iubendi, vel edocendi . . . officium sumpserant);(78) these three duties define the role of the sacrament of priesthood.
Steeped in the knowledge of the canons and of ecclesiastical institutions, Bishop Atto of Vercelli explains further that the term presbytera could also mean in the ancient world the wife of the presbyter. Of the two meanings, Atto declares that he prefers the first, or "priest. (79) But this affirmation must be seen in the context of the polemic that Atto and other medieval authors conducted against the so-called Nicolaitic heresy and in favor of sacerdotal celibacy. (80)
Atto's statement is a striking and significant testimony of female priesthood in antiquity. Strangely, not one of the authors concerned with the question has mentioned it, from Van der Meer, who, to be sure, gathers a rich collection of ancient and medieval sources, to Gryson, to Galot. Only Martimort, in his recent essay, has considered it and expresses surprise at Attos explanation of the term presbytera.(81) In other cases the same testimony has been purposely ignored, (82) evidently because it was not in line with what seemed the unanimous tradition; such testimony might at least have provoked some doubt. It seems to me that through the centuries, by accident or out of prudence or conformity, there has been a predetermined interpretation of the paucity of testimonies regarding the exercise of sacerdotal ministry of women. In light of the testimony of Atto, we must attempt to recover other testimonies that at first sight appear only as splinters or fragments of history, so that we may be able to reconstruct the most integrated picture possible. Perhaps when scholars have become more dispassionate, this picture will provide fuller documentary support for the question of the admission of women to the priesthood.
Otranto has demonstrated the clash of views between the opponents and the supporters of women's ordination in the Roman Catholic Church. The former see an "impressive solidity" of church tradition in support of their view; the latter see in the history of Christianity a continuous debate, an ongoing search and questioning of the roles and functions of men and women. The polarity and antipathy generated by this clash of views often result in a misreading of the testimony of earlier times, or, more often, in passing over evidence that is dissonant, or not in accord with expectations.
Otranto's breakthrough in this article is his recognition of the testimony to women priests in literary and epigraphical sources. Only with the removal of patriarchal blinders can we hope to recover and reweave the sacerdotal participation of women in early Christianity into the historical fabric of our Christian past.
Clifford Geertz, who provides keen insights into the importance of religion, states: "Religion is sociologically interesting not because it describes the social order, but because, like environment, political power, wealth, jural obligation, personal affection, and a sense of beauty, it shapes it. " (83)
A recovery of women's full participation in early Christianity may be one means of confronting the persistent perception of women as subordinate in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches today, "Images of the past that we carry within us do help to shape both our present and our future. A new set of images may have a liberating effect not only on scholars, with their specialized concerns, but also on the culture of which they are a part."(84)
1. I have provided a full translation from the Italian of Giorgio Otranto's "Note sul sacerdozio femminile nell'antichita in margine a una testimonianza di Gelasio I, Vetera Christianorum 19 (1982): 341-60.
2. See, for example, Rosemary Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York, 1974), esp. R. Ruether, "Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church," 150-83, in which Ruether documents the roots of woman-hating in the writings of the fathers of the church. The patristic writings are collected in Patrologia Graeca (Lutetia Parisiorum, apud J. P. Migne, 1857-86) and Patrologia Latina (Lutetia Parisiorum, apud J. P. Migne, 1844-64).
3. For example, Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration, ed. Leonard Swidler and Arlene Swidler (New York, 1977); and Patricia Chambers and H. Paul Chalfant, "A Changing Role or the Same Old Handmaidens: Women's Roles in Today's Church," Review of Religious Research 19 (Winter 1978): 192-97. Also noted are biographies of women centering on their ordination experience: e.g., Carter Heyward, A Priest Forever (New York, 1976); and Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Womanpriest: A Personal Odyssey (New York, 1978).
4. June O'Connor, review of In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction Of Christian Origins, by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Religious Studies Review 12, no. 314 (1986); Mary Catherine Hilkert, "Women Preaching the Gospel," Theology Digest 33:4 (Winter 1986); "Women and Priestly Ministry: The New Testament Evidence. A Report by the Task Force on the Role of Women in Early Christianity," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 4 (October 1979), 610.
5. Fr. jean Danielou, S.J., The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, trans. Rt. Revd Glyn Simon, D.D., from Les Origines du Christianisme Latin: Histoire des Doctrines Chretiennes avant Nicee, vol. 3 (Paris, 1978), 16, 24ff.
6. Ibid., 25. This monolithic view is mirrored in Kurt Aland, A History of Christianity, vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Threshold of the Reformation, trans. J. L. Schaaf (Philadelphia, 1985). The book was reviewed briefly by W.H.C. Frend in Journal of Ecclesiastical History 37, no. 2, (1986): 349-50, and rightly criticized for the statement 11 that equating women with men in the ministerial office became a characteristic of those movements outside the church and opposed to it." The reviewer calls this statement incomplete and misleading; women had an acknowledged role as prophetesses in the Old and New Testaments, and it was this role that Montanism continued to the embarrassment of the bishops of the day who saw their own claims to charismatic authority threatened. Frend adds that the church opposed women in Gnostic sects for the same reason. Pluralistic Christian sects were vying equally for acceptance in late antiquity.
7. The following works reflect the renewal of scholarly interest in Gnosticism: B. Aland, ed., Gnosis: Festschrift fur Hans Jonas (Gottingen, 1978); J. Ries, ed., Gnosticisme et monde hellenistique, Institut Orientaliste, Universite Catholique de Louvain (Louvain, 1982); Charles Hedrick and Robert Hodgson, eds., Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity (Peabody, Mass., 1986); Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston, 1970); Karen King, ed., Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism (Philadelphia, 1988); Klaus Koschorke, Die Polemik der Gnostiker gegen das Kirchliche Christentum (Leiden, 1978); Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York, 1979); Pheme Perkins, The Gnostic Dialogue: The Early Church and Crisis of Gnosticism (New York, 1980); James M. Robinson, et al., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco, 1977); Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of an Ancient Religion (New York, 1987), trans. R. Wilson from Die Gnosis: Wesen und Geschichte einer spatantiken Religion (Leipzig: 1977); Arnold Toynbee, ed., The Crucible of Christianity: Judaism, Hellenism, and the Historical Background to the Christian Faith (New York/London, 1969); T. Klausner, et al., eds., Reallexikon fur Antike und Christentum, 10 + vols. (Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1950- ) s.v. "Gnosis I," "Gnosis 11;" and David Scholer, "Bibliographia Gnostica: Supplementum 17" in Novum Testamentum 30:4 (1988), 339-72.
8 . Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400) (New Haven, 1984), 21-22.
9. Pagels, "What Became of God the Mother?,"301.
10. Adversos Haereses, 1. 13.7, cited by Pagels, 300.
11. Pagels, 302.
12. Hippolytus, Phil. 8. 19, in Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, s.v. "Montanism."
14. W.H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution (Oxford, 1956), 366.
15. Tertullian, De Virginibus Velandis ("On the Veiling of Virgins"), 9.
16. Tertullian, De Cultu Feminarum ("On the Adornment of Women"), 1, 1.
17. Jeffrey Richards, The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages 476-752 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 19.
18. Ibid., 20-21. Cf. also F. Gregorovius, History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, trans. Mrs. G.W. Hamilton (1906; reprint, New York, 1967); and J. J. Taylor, "The Early Papacy at Work: Gelasius I" Journal of Religious History 8 (1974-75): 317-32.
19. Aimé Georges Martimort, Les Diaconesses. Essai Historique (Rome, 1982), now in English, Deaconesses: An Historical Study, trans. K. D. Whitehead (San Francisco, 1985).
20. Roger Gryson, Le Ministère des Femmes dans 1'église ancienne in Recherches et synthèses, Section d'histoire, IV (Gembloux, 1972); now in English, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, trans.Jean Laporte and Mary Louise Hall (Collegeville, Minn., 1976). Adolf Kalsbach, Die Altkirchliche Einrichtung der Diakonisse bis zu ihrem Erlöschen in Romische Quartelschrift 22, Supplementheft (Freiburg, 1926). In 1957 the author wrote a summary of his book for the Reallexikon fur Antike und Christentum, under the entry "Diakonisse."
21. Martimort, 242; cf. chap. 6, 3A.
22. Ibid., 243.
23. The Declaration, signed by Paul VI on October 15, 1976, was made public January 27, 1977, in the Osservatore Romano, AAS [Acta Apostolicae Sedis, Citta del Vaticano] 69, 1977, n.2 (98-116).
24. H. Van der Meer, Sacerdozio delle donne? Saggio di Storia della teologia (Brescia, 1971). This is an Italian translation of the original German edition (Basel, 1969); R. Gryson, Il ministero della donna nella chiesa antica (Rome, 1974). [This is an Italian translation of the original French edition, see n. 20 above.-Trans.]; J. Galot, La Donna e I ministeri nella Chiesa (Assisi, 1973). On the question see the contributions of P. H. Lafontaine, "Le sexe masculin, condition de I'accession aux ordres aux IVe et Ve siecles, "Revue de Universite d'Ottawa 31 (1961): 137-82; Les conditions positives de laccession aux ordres dans la premiere legislation ecclesiastique (300-492) (Ottawa, 1963).
25. While Van der Meer treats only fleetingly the problem of deaconesses (119-122), Gryson (passim and 201-202) and Galot (passim and 24-46) analyze this subject at greater length. [See n.39 below and translator's introduction-Trans.]
26. Ep. 14, in A. Thiel, Epistulae Romanorum pontificum genuinae (New York: 1974, first ed., 1867), 360-79.
27. Van der Meer, 128; Gryson, 194-95; Galot, 86-87.
28. The epistle was dated the 11th of March (Ep. 14, 28 [Thiel, 379]).
29. Francesco Lanzoni defines it the "encyclical-epistle" because of the significance and substance of the questions discussed in Le diocesi d'Italia dalle origini al principio del secolo VII (Faenza, 1927), vol.I, p. 329.
30. Ep. 14, 26 (Thiel 376-77).
31. Cf A. M. P. Ellebracht, Remarks on the vocabulary of the ancient orations in the Missale Romanum (Nijmegen-Utrecht, 1963), 104; A. Blaise, Le vocabulaire latin des principaux themes liturgiques (Turnhout, 1966), 502-3.
32. Vita cont. 2,7,3 (PL 59, 452). 33 Ep. 10,96,8.
34. In Concilia Galliae A. 314--A.506 (C.Munier) (CCL 148,144).
35. Gryson, 195; Galot, 86, n. 56.
36. Ep. 14, 14 (Thiel, 370).
37. Ep. 14, 26 (Thiel 377-78) [Latin text is omitted here-Trans.]
38. See text and discussion in Gryson, 98-100.
39. See discussion below.
40. In CCL 148, 150. For the dating of this council, which oscillates between 394 and 396, see CCL 148, 149.
41. In CCL 148, 84.
42. Van der Meer, 126-28; Gryson devotes a chapter to the Greek canonical sources from the fourth-fifth centuries (90-147), and another to the Latin sources of the same period (187-99); Galot, 80-83, for canons 11 and 44 of Laodicea.
43. Ep. 14, 1 (Thiel 362) [Latin text is omitted here-Trans.]
44. Le diocesi .... . 2: 754.
45. Cf. for the observations of G. Minasi, Le Chiese di Calabria dal quinto al duodecimo secolo (Naples, 1896), 79-80. The Gelasian decree on the prohibition of female priesthood is recalled in a document of 829 (cf. PL 97. 821-822; Van der Meer, Sacerdozio, 131).
46. Gryson, 195; Galot, 87.
47. The bibliography on the argument is vast. Besides the studies of Gryson (passim) and Galot (passim, esp. 24-46), compare those of Vagaggini, "L'ordinazione delle diaconesse nella tradizione greca e bizantina," Orientalia Christiana Periodica 4 (1974): 145-89, and G. Ferrari, "Le diaconesse nella tradizione orientale," Oriente cristiano 14 (1974): 28-50. Only in the final stage of revision of the present article was I able to see a recent documented essay by A. G. Martimort, Les Diaconesses. Essai historique (Rome, 1982), which undertakes to redefine the presence and role of deaconesses in the ancient church. [See n. 19. Martimort also cites P. Delhaye, "Retrospective et prospective des ministeres feminins dans I'Eglise," in Revue theologique de Louvain 3 (1972): 55-75; also cf. Martimort, chap. 3, n.66-Trans.]
48. Adv. haer. 1, 13, 2 (A. Rousseau-L. Doutreleau) (SC 263, 190-92); cf. Gryson, 44, and Galot, 67-69.
49. The epistle is handed down, translated into Latin, in the Corpus ciprianeo (Ep. 75. 10 [CSEL 3/11, 816-18]); cf. Galot, 77-80.
50. Panarion 49, 2, 2-6 (K. Holl.) (GCS 31. 242). For a fuller treatment of the ancient documentation on attributions of priesthood to women in Montanist settings, see Van der Meer, 66-70; Gryson, 152-156; Galot, 72-80. [See also my introduction to the translation-Trans. ]
51. Ep. 16. 1-6 (PL 54: 695-702). The oriental custom, in any event, was being spread also into other regions of the West. Cf. M. Righetti, Storia liturgica IV(Milan, 1959), 91-93. 52 Ep. 14, 10 (Thiel, 368). Baptism could naturally be administered at any time when a life was in danger.
53. Cf G. Gay, L'Italia meridionale e l'impero bizantino dall'avento di Basilio I alla resa di Bari ai Normanni (867-1071) (Florence, 1917), 5-16; F. Burgarella, La Chiesa greca di Calabria in eta bizantina (V-VII secolo), in (Various Authors), Testimonianze cristiane antiche ed altomedievali nella Sybaritide (Bari, 1980), 89-120; Q. Cataudella, La Cultura bizantina in Sicilia, vol. 4 (Palermo, 1980), 1-56.
54. CIL 10. 8079; G. B. De Rossi in Bollettino di Archeologia cristiana (1877): 88, tav. 7, 4; E. Diehl, Inscriptiones Latinae Christianae Veteres 1192 (Dublin-Zurich, 1970).
55. Cf. A. Crispo. "Antichita cristiane della Calabria prebyzantina," Archivo storico per la Calabria e la Lucania 23 (1955): 9-29. On Paleochristian Bruzio [Bruttium], the contributions of F. Russo are fundamental (cf. bibliography in F. Russo, "Introduzione del cristianesimo nella Sibaritide," in (Various Authors), 5-21). Recent excavations carried out by the Superintendent of Antiquities of Reggio Calabria have brought new discoveries to light for this study.
56. De Rossi, Bollettino di Archeologia cristiana (1877): 88, tav. 7, 4; Crispo, Antichita cristiane ., 134; Ferrua, Note su Tropea, 11. For Ferrua, Leta was probably the wife of the Presbyter Monses, recorded in another Epitaph coming also from Tropea (Diehl 1150).
57. Note su Tropea, 25.
58. Coniux: Diehl 393.1130, 1139Aa, 1154; amantissima: Diehl 1163ab. 59 Cf c. 20 of the Council of Tours of 567.
60. For the dating see A. Degrassi, I fasti consolari dell'impero romano dal 30 avanti Cristo al 613 dopo Cristo (Rome, 1952), 89.
61. F. Bulic, "Iscrizione inedita," Bollettino di Archeologia e Storia Dalmata 37 (1914): 107-11.
62. Cf P Testini, Le catacombe e gli antichi cimiteri cristiani in Roma (Bologna, 1966), 221-26; J. Guyon, "La vente des tombes a travers 1'epigraphie de la Rome chretienne (III-VII siecles); les roles des fossores, mansionarii, praepositi, et pretres," MEFRA, [Me1anges. Ecole Francaise de Rome. Antiquite 86 (1974): 549-96.
63. Probably Theodosius had also acquired the sarcophagus from Flavia Vitalia. Bulic, 110, refers only to the acquisition of a sarcophagus; this naturally precludes the problem of the functions of the presbytera in question.
64. For the evolution of the phenomenon of the sale of plots in Christian communal cemeteries, see Guyon.
65. In Bollettino di Archeologia e Storia Dalmata 21 (1898): 147, n. 2428 (F. Bulic); CIL 3, 14, 900. A presbyteress (presbiterissa) is attested in an inscription from Ippona (Cf., L'Annee epigraphique (1953): 196-97, n.107.
66. The term conhospita indicated a woman who was living with a man under the bonds of continence (Gryson, 195; Galot, 90).
67. In P. DeLabriolle, Les sources de lHistoire du montanisme (Fribourg-Paris, 1913), 226-230. For separate treatments of the dioceses of the three bishops, cf. R. Gryson, Il ministero ...,195; J. Galot, La donna . . . , 88.
68. Quicherat dates it in the fifth or fourth century (CIL 13. 1183,n); to Mommsen (ibid.), it seems much more recent.
69. CIL 13. 1183.
70. Diehl, 1191.
71. In CIL 148A. 268 (v. in the apparatus at the passage).
73. A completely different point of view is that of Van der Meer, for whom "the problem of the priesthood of women up to a short time ago has not been intensely felt" (Sacerdozio, 141).
74. Ep. 8 (PL 134. 114). [Latin text is translated here: "Hence since your wisdom has determined that we ought to decide whether to understand 'priestess' or 'deaconness' in the canons, it seems to me that since in the primitive Church, according to the holy word, many are the crops and few the laborers,' for the helping of men even religious women were ordained caretakers in the holy Church. This is something that blessed Paul points out in his epistle to the Romans when he says, 'I commend to you my sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the church that is in Cenchrae.' One understands this because then not only men, but also women were in charge of the Churches, to be sure for the sake of great efficiency. For women, long accustomed to the rites of pagans, instructed as well in philosophical doctrines, were converted more readily for these reasons, and were more easily instructed thoroughly in the worship of religion. This practice c. 11 of the Laodicean Council later prohibits when it says that it is not allowed for those women who are called priests' or 'those presiding' to be ordained in the Churches"-Trans.]
75. In C. J. Hefele and H. Leclerque, Histoire des conciles d'apres les documents originaux, Vol. 1, pt. 2 (Paris, 1907), 1003. [Also cf. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, s.v. prokathemai ("preside"): C. Laod. Can. 11-Trans.]
76. Galot, 80; cf, Gryson, 105-8;Martimort, 102-3.
77. Galot, 82-83.
78. Ep. 8 (PL 134. 114 . [Latin text is translated here: "We believe that deacons were truly ministers of such duties. For we call a minister a deacon, from which we perceive the term deaconess is derived. Finally we read in c. 15 of the Chalcedonian council, that a deaconess must not be ordained before her fortieth year, and this with the greatest deliberation. We also believe the following: that the office of baptizing was enjoined upon women so that the bodies of other women might be treated by them without any deeply felt sense of shame. For just as these women who were called priests (presbyterae) had assumed the duty of preaching, ordering, and instructing, in the same way clearly the deaconesses had assumed the duty of ministering and baptizing, a practice which today is not at all in use"-Trans.]
79. Ep, 8 (PL 134. 115). [Latin text is translated here: "We can also consider as priests and deaconesses those women who were joined in marriage to priests and deacons before their ordination. But more willingly do I accept the terms that have been explicated according to the higher sense, most esteemed teacher, until I deserve to be more clearly informed by you"-Trans.] In the ancient church the term presbytera could also mean a widow or an old woman.
80. For this polemic, see G. Fornasari, Celibato sacerdotale e 'autocoscienza' ecclesiale. Per la storia della 'Nicolaitica haeresis' nell'Occidente medievale (Trieste, 1981).
81. Martimort, 209-10.
82. Such is the case in the Lexicon imperfectum, s.v. presbytera, which, referring to the epistle of Atto, strangely records only the second definition known by the Bishop of Vercelli (F. Arnaldi and M. Turriani, Latinitatis Italicae Medii Aevi inde ab a. CDLXXVI usque ad a. MXXII Lexicon imperfectum [Brussels, 1951-53], 573). Of the other lexica that I have consulted, only the Glossarium of Du Cange records the definition preferred by Atto.
83. Clifford Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," in The Interpretation of Culture: Selected Essays (New York, 1973), 119.
84. John Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (Oxford, 1983), 10.
CCL=CORPUS CHRISTIANORUM. SERIES LATINA
CIL=CORPUS INSCRIPTIONUM LATINARUM
CSEL=CORPUS SCRIPTORUM ECCLESIASTICORUM LATINORUM
GCS=DIE GRIECHISCHE CHRISTLICHE SCHRIFTSTELLER DER ERSTEN DREI JAHRHUNDERTE
SC=SOURCES CHRETIENNES, PARIS
Professor Giorgio Otranto
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