Early Evidence of Women Officers in the Church | CBE International

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Early Evidence of Women Officers in the Church

People sometimes write us to ask where they can find evidence that actual women held official positions of church officership. Professor Greg Horsley of Macquarie University, Australia, has kindly supplied us with the following partial list of references to  women in church leadership. Although we do not usually follow this practice, in this instance we are supplying the bibliographic citations so that our readers may check the material for themselves if they so desire.

Evidence for Women as Elders (presbutera or presbutis)

  1. A mummy label from second or third century Egypt: Artemidoras, daughter of Mikkalos, fell asleep in the Lord, her mother Paniskiaines being an elder (presbytera).Cahiers de Recherches de L’Institut de Papyrologie et d’Egyptologie de Lille 5 (1974) 264 no. 1115.

  2. Diogas the bishop [set this up] as a memorial for Ammio the elder (presbytera feminine). Found near Usak in modern Turkey (ancient Phrygia), before the time of Constantine. Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 16 (1975) 437-38.

  3. St. Cyprian writes (in Epistle 75.10.5) of a female presbyter (elder) in Cappadocia (also part of modern Turkey) in the mid-230s.

  4. From Thera, a Greek island, an epitaph for Epiktas the elder (presbutis. feminine). Third or fourth century. Bulletin de Correspondence Hellenique 101 (1977) 210, 212.

  5. An epitaph for Kale, the elder (presbutis) from Centuripae in Sicily. Fourth or Fifth Century. L’Annee Epigraphique (1975) 454.

Evidence for a Woman as Official Teacher

A papyrus from Egypt from the fourth Century speaks twice of Kyria the teacher (didaskalos).  ZPE 18 [1975] 317-23.

Evidence for Women as Deacons or Deaconnesses

The word “deaconness” did not develop until after the period of the New Testament, and a number of women including Phoebe (Romans 16:1) are simply called “deacon,” the same title which is given to men.

This inscription contains a reference to the first Phoebe, mentioned by the Apostle Paul. Helen Barrett Montgomery translates Romans 16:1-2 as follows:

  1. Pliny (in Epistle 10.96.6) wrote of slave women who were called deacons or ministrae. The letter dates from about 108 A.D. and was written to the Emperor Trajan about the Christians of Cappadocia.

  2. From the early Christian period in Patrai of Achaia: The deacon (diakonos) Agrippiane, most beloved of God, provided the mosaic in fulfillment of a vow. Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 29, (1978), 425.

  3. A tombstone from melos, inscribed at the beginning of the fourth century, mentions a mother and her children. All the children held offices in the Church, and their titles are given in descending order of importance. Asklepis (perhaps a woman), Elpizon and Asklepiodotos were presbyteroi (elders); Agliasis (a woman) is a deacon, (diakonos), and Eutylchia and Klaudiana are each specified as belonging to the order of virgins. The mother is mentioned last of all asshe apparently held no church office. M. Guarducci, Epigrafia greca, IV, Rome: 1978, 368-70.

  4. Matrona the deacon (diakonos). From Stobi, Macedonia, fourth or fifth century. She had been ordained by the bishop. Dr. G. H. R. Horsley, ed., New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Sydney, 1977, 109.

  5. Epitaph at Delphi, from the first part of the fifth century, for the deaconness (diakonissa) Athanasia. Guarducci, IV. 345-47 (Delphi, V; fig. 99).

  6. Gravestone on Mt. Hymettos from the late Imperial period. “I Nekagore the deaconness lie here.” IG, III 2, x.3527.

  7. From Kirazli in Bithynia in the later Imperial period. Eugenia the deacon (diakonos). Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 18 (1975) 46 (Kirazli late Imperial).

  8. Maria the deacon (diakonos). From Cappadocia in the sixth century. (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 27 (1978) 948a).

  9. Dr. Horsely offers the following translation of an inscription which was discovered in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives. It comes from the second half of the Fourth Century: "Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia the deacon (diakonos) the second Phoebe, who fell asleep in peace on the 21st of the month of March during the indiction…[here there is a break in the stone]. The Lord God…" (Guarducci IV. 445. fig. 132)

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a minister (diakonos) of the church at Cenchraae. I beg you to give her a Christian welcome, as the saints should and to assist her in any matter in which she may have need of you. For she herself has been made an overseer (prostatis) to many people, including myself.”

Mrs. Montgomery provided the following footnote on diakonos. “The word used is diakonos, a masculine noun, meaning “minister” or “servant.” See I Cor. 3:5; I Tim. 4:6; Eph. 3:7; I Thes. 3:2.” Of prostatis she wrote: “The Greek word prostatis is a very strong one. It is the noun corresponding to the verb used in I Timothy 3:4, 5, 12. It is variously translated champion, leader, protector, patron.” The New Testament in modern English, translated by Helen Barrett Montgomery, Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1963, p. 434.

Those desiring a subscription to Greg Horsely’s ongoing work may send inquiries to:

Ancient History Documentary Research Centre

Macquarie University, N.S.W. 2109, Australia.

 

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