In his classic study The Cities and Bishoprics of Phrygia, the great archaeologist William M. Ramsay noted that “women-prophets were a feature of the Christianity of Anatolia”—the ancient name for what is generally Turkey today, but which, in New Testament times, included so many of the churches we read about, including the seven churches of Revelation. In fact, so prominent were women with this gift that the name “Prophetilla” was found on an inscription from this region and may actually be a unique Christian term created to designate a female prophet. Since “there is nothing to mark this inscription as later than 200,” one wonders what happened to this flourishing and noted “feature” of early Christianity. Ramsay’s next observation explains that prophesying women were “in the Catholic church before the latter part of the second century, and in the Montanist Church even after that time.”1
Montanism—this is what silenced the Phrygian women. Somewhere between AD 156 and 172,2 “a fresh crop of heretical sects” suddenly appeared “to injure the church,” notes Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, writing in the early 300s the first extensive history of our faith, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine. As he put it, “some members of these crawled like poisonous reptiles over Asia and Phrygia, boasting of Montanus ‘the Paraclete’ and his female adherents Priscilla and Maximilla, alleged to have been his prophetesses.”3 A new convert, Montanus suddenly announced that he himself was the Holy Spirit. In ecstatic states, he and the women made all sorts of outrageous claims—that Christ was about to return to Pepuza in Phrygia (which Montanus now called “Jerusalem”), that everyone should look forward eagerly to be martyred (and until that time severe fasting would be in order), that second marriages were banned and marriage itself was frowned upon (Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld point out that Maximilla and Priscilla, who was by no means the Priscilla of the New Testament, who lived more than a century before, “were accused of leaving their husbands to follow Montanus”).4 Despite all this and more, the apocalyptic fervor of Montanism exerted its impact everywhere. With no streaming news or email or Facebook to check out Montanus and his colleagues’ actual message, many thought the movement was orthodox and simply insisting on an austerity they found a refreshing reform movement reacting against what they considered the worldliness that had been polluting the church. Even the great lawyer and apologist, the aged Tertullian, far away in North Africa, became an adherent late in his life. Few knew that Maximilla, the final surviving founder, was channeling revelations that were supposedly from God by claiming “I am word and spirit and power.” This was hardly orthodox, being a modalistic statement that seemed to deny the distinctions within the Trinity for a Unitarianism that was sub-Christian in doctrine.5 But the local bishops certainly knew what was going on, and the faithful among them opposed the movement as heretical.6
As early as the letters of John in the New Testament, the problem of itinerant preachers spreading heresies among the churches evoked warnings from faithful leaders (e.g., see 2 John 10–11). Out of Syria, somewhere around AD 150, came a manual for church discipline called the Didache, or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” This began to curtail Christian freedom and to order, and thereby ritualize, the practice of baptism, use of the Lord’s Prayer—even the ability to decide for oneself if eating food offered to idols was acceptable, being now subjected to a rule: “keep strictly away from what is offered to idols, for that implies worshipping dead gods” (6:3). A lone concession was to protect prophets when speaking or acting under the influence of the Holy Spirit, but, with the rise of Montanism and the issuing of more manuals, restrictions began to be placed on the exercise of spiritual gifts, the ministry of the laity, and the ministry of women.7
Meanwhile, Montanism had outlived its founders and become an organized church with a hierarchy of patriarch, bishops, presbyters, deacons, etc., keeping a firm hold on Phrygia while spreading its heresies around the Christian world for the next five hundred years and well into the seventh century. In reaction, each succeeding manual or council seemed to tighten the restrictions on women, the laity, and the exercise of gifts. In Phrygia in AD 343–381, the Synod of Laodicea ordered, “Women may not approach near the altar” in its Canon 44. The reputed Fourth Synod of Carthage in AD 398 ruled, “A layman may not teach in the presence of clergy, except at their command. A woman, however learned and holy, may not take upon herself to teach in an assembly of men” (Canons 98–100).8 Finally, in 441, the Council of Orange concluded, “Let no one proceed to the ordination of deaconesses anymore” (Canon 26). As one can see clearly from this quotation, that women led with authoritative positions in the church previous to this time was not up to question. Everyone knew they did. But times had changed.
Other reasons, of course, for the church’s restrictive institutionalization can be offered: an appeal to conservative Jews to whom the leadership of women appeared unseemly, to pagans to whom gifts made the church look like the lunatic fringe, to the ambitious who envisioned a proto-Vance Packer–style economic ascent, aimed at attracting adherents of wealth and status. But, the continuing fact during this formative period is that Montanism continued to rage on—a pernicious ambassador of ill will to the cause of orthodox women. After half a millennium had elapsed, restricting women’s leadership was now the “traditional” position. The memories of pre-heretical Anatolia were dim and confused.
But “dim” is not irreparably lost, especially when the Bible still testified to women in authoritative positions from Old Testament prophets like Miriam, Huldah, Deborah, right on through New Testament leaders like Junia, Phoebe, Prisca, and the prophesying daughters of Philip the Evangelist. What the women prophets of Anatolia testified to them and to us is that orthodox women in leadership remained after the close of the New Testament. The rise of heresy may have eclipsed their example for a time. But, like their inscriptions that weathered the onslaught of age and neglect, their testimony is there for each age to rediscover.
In this issue of Priscilla Papers, we want to rediscover and contemplate once more women who lead and minister in the New Testament and the early church. Carrie Bates starts us off with a thoughtful analysis of ontology and how notable women in the early church may have viewed themselves. Jeff Miller then offers us a rich and well-researched portrait of Phoebe and her part in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. Lisa Baumert reviews how scriptural interpretation affects our understanding of the epistle to the Ephesians, and Ruth Hoppin then follows with further evidence that Priscilla may have been the author of the book of Hebrews. Beth Stovell reviews The New Testament in Antiquity, and H. Edgar Hix concludes our issue with a vivid and powerful poem, “The Shepherd.”
May our spiritual ancestors from Christianity’s early centuries provide inspiration for today’s church leaders, women and men.
- W. M. Ramsay, The Cities and Bishoprics of Phrygia, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1895), 118.
- William Hugh Clifford Frend, “Montanism,” The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 699.
- Eusebius, History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G. A. Williamson (New York, NY: Penguin, 1965), 5.14 (159).
- Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, “Early-Church Women and Heresy,” Christian History, January 1, 1988, 10.
- G. A. Williamson, “Who’s Who in Eusebius,” in Eusebius, History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, 397.
- G. A. Williamson, “Who’s Who in Eusebius,” 396.
- For further thoughts on the triple curtailing by the church of the ministry of women, the laity, and the exercise of the spiritual gifts, see my article “The Chaining of the Church” in the magazine Christian History, vol. 17, no. 1 (1988), 25. This excellent issue includes the article cited earlier by Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld, as well as articles by Catherine Kroeger, Frank and Evelyn Stagg, Patricia Gundry, Aída Besançon Spencer, Karen Torjesen, and others.
- See a good discussion of these rulings and their implications in Aída Besançon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), ch. 2, “The Torn Curtain,” esp. 63.