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Published Date: January 31, 1993

Published Date: January 31, 1993

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Early Church Heroines: Rulers, Prophets, and Martyrs

In recent years many writers have been reminding the church of the exemplary women who have held positions of authority and power in the Bible as rulers, prophets and martyrs. Deborah certainly has been often mentioned as a faithful ruler, a judge, prophet, and a military strategist. Under this “mother of Israel,” the Hebrews had rest for 40 years (Judges 4-5). Wisdom was personified as a woman elder in Proverbs 8. The wise woman of Abel speaking for her people saved her city, “a mother in Israel” (2 Samuel 20:16).

The queen mothers were often senior counselors to the kings, and in some cases mediators between the kings and the people. Miriam, Huldah, the wife of Isaiah, and Anna were prophets, people who received and spoke forth God’s message to their people. Priscilla and Aquila, Paul’s co-workers, risked their lives to save Paul. The early church after the New Testament also lauds women as rulers, prophets and martyrs. We need to be reminded of them, even as we need to be reminded of the biblical heroines, so that we can keep producing and celebrating heroines today.

Women Praised as Rulers

Eusebius, who is known as our earliest church historian, in his History of the Church, refers to three queens. Queen Helena of Adiabene (North Mesopotamia) and her son Izates were converts to Judaism. When Helena came to visit the temple in Jerusalem, she found the city in famine and, with her own money, bought expensive grain in Alexandria and dried figs in Cyprus. Josephus said, “She has thus left a very great name that will be famous forever among our whole people for her benefaction,” The Christians in Israel also benefited from her generosity (Acts 11:29-30). Eusebius also mentions the queen of Ethiopia, and says the Roman Emperor’s mother, Mammaea, was “one of the most religious and high-principled women.” She fetched Origen to Antioch to teach her about Christianity (VI.21).

Marthana, called a deaconess, in fact was herself a ruler over a Christian monastic order of men and women at the shrine of St. Thecia, the reputed female teacher and martyr who was rated with the apostles. In her Pilgrimage, Egeria calls Marthana “my very dear friend … to whose life everyone in the East bears testimony” (23).

Women Praised as Prophets

Among Eusebius’s repeatedly praised heroines are the daughters of Philip. Luke tells us in Acts 21:8-9 that at Caesarea, Philip the evangelist lived with four unmarried “prophesying” daughters. Polycrates, the bishop of Ephesus, told Victor, the bishop of Rome, that these daughters were “great luminaries,’ buried in Asia. Proclus also remembers these “prophetesses.” They became models for the church of genuine prophets. When Miltiades declared that two female followers of Montanus were heretics, he explained that their problem was not that they were women prophets, but rather that they were false prophets. He contrasts them with Philip’s daughters, who did not speak “in ecstasy” and who had successors (another sign of a genuine prophet) (III.31,37; V.14,18).

Philip’s daughters were models for both women and men. Eusebius mentions one Quadratus, a man famous in the 2nd century, who “shared with the daughters of Philip the distinction of a prophetic gift” (III.37). However, in manuscripts written after the wide dissemination of the Didache, it seems apostles no longer appear. Yet the great apostolic succession seems to be continued, though with prophets and bishops. The daughters of Philip then, as prophets, are included by Eusebius in the first rank of the apostolic succession. Papias, as well, mentions a “wonderful story” he heard “from the lips of Philip’s daughters,” implying that they were “hearers and eyewitnesses of the sacred Apostles,” along with Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John and Aristion (III.39).

Mary was also sometimes called a prophet because she foretold the future and received and delivered a revelation from God, “henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48, “Dialogue Between a Montanist and an Orthodox”).

Women Praised as Martyrs

Eusebius begins his multi-volume work by explaining his dual purpose: to describe the lines of succession from the holy Apostles and the outstanding leaders and heroes of the history of the church. If Philip’s four daughters as prophets were part of the lines of succession, certainly the martyrs were considered “outstanding leaders and heroes” of the church. Many women excelled as leaders who persevered in their witness for Christ.

In the 1st century: Pomponia Graecina was accused in A.D. 57 of “foreign superstition,” and was handed over to her husband for trial. She was pronounced innocent. Pomponia was commemorated even into the 3rd century, through the Pomponian order (Bettenson, Documents of the Early Church, p.l). It was said that the marriage of Peter and his wife was “exemplary of the marriage of the blessed.” When Peter’s wife went off to be killed, Peter encouraged her, “My dear, remember the Lord” (Eusebius HI.30). Though Peter refers to wives as “the weaker vessel,” he certainly did not mean that women could not be as devout or persistent as men. In fact, we see in the martyred Peter and his wife “joint heirs of the grace of [eternal] life” (1 Peter 3:7).

In the 2nd century: During the reign of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-179), persecution flared up in several cities. The Christians in Gaul kept a record of the believers who were witnesses for the faith. Blandina was a Christian of “great glory” because of “her love towards God shown in power.” She was a servant, and apparently quite homely. But while her Christian mistress was unsure that she could make a bold confession, Blandina was “filled with such power” that those who took turns torturing her morning and night were exhausted and finally gave up. They were amazed she could still breathe. But Blandina “grew in strength as she proclaimed her faith, saying, I am a Christian, we do nothing to be ashamed of.” Finally, Blandina was hung on a post, looking as “if she was hanging in the form of a cross, and through her ardent prayers she stimulated great enthusiasm in those undergoing their ordeal, who in their agony saw with their outward eyes in the person of their sister the One who was crucified for them.”

Then, on the last day of a sports event, Blandina was brought into the arena, along with a 15-year-old Christian boy named Pontius, who was encouraged by her example. Blandina did not show despair before the animals, according to Eusebius, but was “rejoicing and exulting at her departure as if invited to a wedding supper, not thrown to the beasts.” When finally Blandina was sacrificed, after she had not died from the whips, the griddle, or the bull, the onlookers admitted that “never yet had they known a woman suffer so much or so long.”

In the 3rd century: Many of the pupils that Origen taught were consequently killed for their faith, both the male students and the female. Herais was one of these. During the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211), the renowned Potamiaena and her mother Marcella were killed in the arena. Potamiaena’s praises were sung by her people in Alexandria for more than a century after that, and she was especially remembered for her great beauty as well as for her faith. She was led to her execution by Basilides, a member of the armed forces. Basilides treated her kindly, and kept the crowds away from her. She accepted his courtesy and told him that “when she had gone away she would ask her Lord for him, and it would not be long before she repaid him for all he had done for her” (VI.1,4,5). She died as boiling pitch was poured over different parts of her body.

Not long after, when Basilides was asked to swear as part of his official duties, he stoutly affirmed that swearing was forbidden in his case because he was a Christian. So he was imprisoned. When Christians went to visit him, they asked the reason for his sudden change of belief. He told them that “Three days after her martyrdom Potamiaena appeared to him by night, wreathing his head with a crown and saying that she had called upon the Lord for him and obtained what she requested, and that before long she would take him to herself.” Subsequently, Basilides was beheaded. Eusebius relates that many others at Alexandria accepted the teaching of Christ because “Potamiaena appeared to them in dreams and invited them.”

Perpetua, who was martyred c. 203, was the author of the earliest extant extra-biblical literature written by a Christian woman. The compiler of her martyrdom sees in her life proof that the same Holy Spirit who sent prophetic gifts and visions to the men and women of the past now sends prophetic gifts and visions to the contemporary martyrs. Perpetua is described as having prophetic gifts; i.e., direct communication with the Spirit. The story of her death is a moving account of her separation from her newborn child, the dismay of her non-Christian father, and her concern for the other believers. Even after Perpetua was tossed by a mad cow, she taught the catechumen, “Remain strong in your faith, and love one another. Do not le t our excruciating suffering become a stumbling block for you” (Martyrdom of Perpetua 18).

During Emperor Decius’s persecution (249-50), more women died for their faith, according to Eusebius, including Quinta, who was stoned to death; Apollonia, a “wonderful elderly lady;” Ammonarion, a “true champion;” Mercuria, “a very dignified old lady;” and Dionysia, “the mother of a large family who yet did not love them above the Lord” (Eusebius VI.41). Domnina, a woman “universally respected,” was killed in Antioch with her daughters Bernice and Prosdoce during Diocletian’s reign (284-305). All these godly Christian women, wrote Eusebius, “now sit by Christ’s side as partners in His kingdom, share His authority, and are His fellow-judges.”

In Memory of Christian Women

How often do we remember these women? Their contemporaries did not hesitate to follow them. They did not find it blasphemous to think of a woman dying with arms outstretched as an image of Christ.

Yes, early Christian women were discouraged from writing books in their own names, because then they would be “praying with uncovered heads” (1 Corinthians 11:10), or speaking on their own authority (“Dialogue Between a Montanist and an Orthodox,” Didymus’s On the Trinity 3.41.3).

Nevertheless, we can glean some information about some early church women in early writers’ praise of Helena, Mammaea, Marthana, Philip’s four daughters, and many others.

But what have we remembered about women? Rather than these accounts of their courage, generosity, wisdom and power, many modern Christians seem to have embraced instead Rabbi Jose’s remark, that “women are of unstable temperament,” and therefore easily succumb to torture (b. Sabb. 33b). Or we are like Josephus, who explained that women could not be good witnesses because of “the levity and temerity of their sex” (Ant. IV.815[219]).

How many times have Bible interpreters assumed that because Paul uses Eve as an example of someone who was deceived, that all women are thus more easily deceived than all men? The persevering women recorded in our scant documents remind us that we can find women of authority and power in church history.

The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, a 4th-century document, contains a prayer for the ordination of deaconesses that lists some of the great women in the Bible. It might serve as an example of how we today might acknowledge our sisters:

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 Thy 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 be to Thee and the Holy Spirit forever. Amen.