Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Brief History of Women in Christianity

Women were the last disciples at the cross and the first at the empty tomb. they remained integral to the work of the church in its early centuries. But, one of the best-kept secrets in Christianity is the enormous role that women played in the early church. Though they leave much unsaid, still, both Christian and secular writers of the time attest many times to the significant involvement of women in the early growth of Christianity.
Celsus, a 2nd-century detractor of the faith, once taunted that the church attracted only “the silly and the mean and the stupid, with women and children.” His contemporary, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, acknowledged in his Testimonia that “Christian maidens were very numerous” and that it was difficult to find Christian husbands for all of them. These comments give us a picture of a church disproportionately populated by women.

Cyprian of Carthage

Why? One reason might have been the practice of exposing unwanted female infants - abandoning them to certain death. Christians, of course, repudiated this practice, and thus had more living females. Also, in the upper echelons of society, women often converted to Christianity while their male relatives remained pagans, lest they lose their senatorial status. This too contributed to the inordinate number of women in the church, particularly upper-class women. Callistus, bishop of Rome c. 220, attempted to resolve the marriage problem by giving women of the senatorial class an ecclesiastical sanction to marry slaves or freedmen - even though Roman law prohibited this.
Bishop (Saint) Callistus

These high-born Christian women seized upon the study of the Bible and of Hebrew and Greek. The circle of Roman women who studied with Jerome in the late 300s showed such scholarship that he thought nothing of referring some church elders to Marcella for the resolution of a hermeneutical problem. By the early 400s, Augustine could declare that “any old Christian woman” was better educated in spiritual matters than many a philosopher.
Saint Augustine

The women’s spiritual zeal exploded into social service. Fabiola founded the first Christian hospital in Europe. Many other church women encountered severe opposition from their families for spending their wealth so generously in helping the poor. Such selfless ministry became a trademark of Christian women. In a letter to his wife, Tertullian gives us a glimpse into some of the ministries of church women in his time. He charges her, in case of his own death, to not marry a pagan.
"Who would be willing to let his wife go through one street after another to other men’s houses, and indeed to the poorer cottages, in order to visit the brethren? Who would like to see her being taken from his side by some duty of attending a nocturnal gathering? At Easter time who will quietly tolerate her absence all the night? Who will unsuspiciously let her go to the Lord’s Supper, that feast upon which they heap such calumnies? Who will let her creep into jail to kiss the martyr’s chains? Or bring water for the saints’ feet?"
It is no surprise that women were active in the early church. From the very start - the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus - women were significantly involved. In fact, women were the major witnesses of his crucifixion and resurrection. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record that a significant group of women had followed Jesus in his Galilean ministry, and that they were present at his execution when the male disciples were conspicuously absent.

Women at the Death of Jesus
Women at the Resurretion
All three describe the women’s presence at Jesus’ burial. Luke declares that the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee still followed along as Christ was carried to the tomb. Mark details the care with which Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses noted where He was laid, while Matthew tells how they kept watch over the sepulcher after the men had left. John tells of the group immediately beneath the cross, three women and one man. John alone preserves the garden interview between Mary Magdalene and the Risen Christ.
                                                   Mary Magdalene and the Risen Christ.
The proclamation of the astounding Easter event was entrusted to these women. The angel reminded them that they had already been instructed by Jesus about His death, burial and resurrection. The women remembered and hurried off to tell the men. Their witness remains an integral part of the gospel to this day. The early church considered Mary Magdalene an “apostle to the apostles,” and Luke relied heavily on the testimony of women as he wrote both Luke and Acts.
The involvement of women continued in the first few decades of the church, attested by both biblical and extra-biblical sources. A number of women served as leaders of the house churches that sprang up in the cities of the Roman Empire - the list includes Priscilla, Chloe, Lydia, Apphia, Nympha, the mother of John Mark, and possibly the “elect lady” of John’s second epistle.
In the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria wrote that the apostles were accompanied on their missionary journeys by women who were not marriage partners, but colleagues, “that they might be their fellow ministers in dealing with housewives. It was through them that the Jesus’ teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused. We also know the directions about women deacons which are given by the noble Paul in his letter to Timothy."

Saint Clement of Alexandria
Was that perhaps the role of Junia? She was mentioned by Paul in Romans 16 as “of note among the apostles.” Some have debated the meaning of this verse, but early tradition holds that Junia was a woman and was considered an apostle. John Chrysostom wrote: “Indeed, to be an apostle at all is a great thing; but to be even amongst those of note; just consider what a great encomium that is...Oh, how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should even be counted worthy of the appellation of apostle."
Saint John Chrysostom

Until the Middle Ages, the identity of Junia as a female apostle was unquestioned. Later translators attempted to change the gender by changing the name to the masculine Junias. But such a name is unknown in antiquity; and there is absolutely no literary, epigraphical or papyrological evidence for it.
Saint Junia
Paul also mentions Phoebe in Romans 16, “a deacon of the church at Cenchreae.” He calls her a prostatis or overseer. This term in its masculine form, prostates, was used later by the Apostolic Fathers to designate the one presiding over the Eucharist. And Paul uses the same verb, the passive of ginomai (to be or become), as he uses in Colossians 1:23: “I was made a minister.” In the passive, the verb sometimes indicated ordination or appointment to an office. Thus one might legitimately translate Paul’s statement about Phoebe: “For she has been appointed, actually by my own action, an officer presiding over many.” The church in Rome is asked to welcome her and assist her in the church’s business.
Saint Phoebe

The four daughters of Philip appear in Acts 21:9 as prophetesses. Eusebius viewed these daughters as “belonging to the first stage of apostolic succession.” Another prophetess attested to by extra-biblical tradition is Ammia, who prophesied in Philadelphia during New Testament times, and was received with reverence throughout Asia Minor. The first preserved mention of her dates to about 160 A.D.
Just as the letters of Paul abound in references to his female associates in ministry, the Apostolic Fathers also mention women as stalwarts in the faith. Twice Ignatius sent greetings to Alce, whom he calls especially dear to him. He also greeted Tavia and her household; perhaps she was another house-church leader.
Polycarp mentioned the sister of Crescens, who deserved special commendation when she and her brother arrived in Philippi to deliver the letter. The Shepherd of Hermas, written about 148 A.D., gives instructions that two copies should be made of the work and one given to Grapte, “who shall exhort the widows and orphans.” The other copy was to be given to Bishop Clement to share with the elders. It appears that Grapte and Clement represented the female and male leaders respectively. But, Christians were not the only ones prompted to write about the female followers of Jesus. About 112 A.D., the Roman governor Pliny the Younger detailed his efforts to cope with the nascent church in Bithynia. He had found it necessary to interrogate the leaders, two slave women called ministrae, or deacons. These women apparently followed in the tradition of Phoebe.
Certain female leaders are described as fully historic personages, while others are embedded in legend. Catherine of Alexandria, for instance, reportedly lived in the 2nd century, though the earliest reference to her is in an 8th-century work. The patron saint of scholars and philosophers, she allegedly debated 50 philosophers and won them all to Christ. As a result, she was condemned to death and ultimately perished on the wheel (hence the name of the “Catherine wheel,” a rotating firework).
Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Her story may have been drawn from that of Hypatia, the noted pagan philosopher also of Alexandria, also of the 2nd century. Hypatia did in fact meet her death at the hands of an enraged Christian mob, and her historicity is beyond doubt. The Catherine story may well be drawn from that of Hypatia, but it demonstrates a willingness in the church to project a woman as a spiritual and intellectual leader.
Spurious works, even if their authorship is in doubt, can still have value in demonstrating certain attitudes. Two epistles erroneously attributed to Ignatius preserve an appeal from Mary of Cassobelae that three members of the clergy, Maris, Eulogius and Sobelus, be appointed to serve in her community so that it might not be devoid of those fit to preside over the Word of God. She begs Ignatius to not deny her request simply because the three are young and two of them newly ordained. Rather, she argues from the Scriptures that youth is no deterrent to a significant ministry for God. Pseudo-Ignatius replies: “Thy intelligence invites us, as by a word of command, to participate in those divine draughts which gush forth so abundantly in thy soul . . . Thy numerous quotations of Scripture passages exceedingly delighted me, which, when I had read, I had no longer a single doubtful thought respecting the matter . . . Thou art perfect in every good work and word, and able also to exhort others in Christ."
He promises to comply with her wishes, citing the fame which had accrued to her earnest dedication to Christ at the time of her visit to Rome during the bishopric of Linus (beginning of the 2nd century). The letter is probably no earlier than the 4th century, but it demonstrates an attitude that was able to gain currency in the early church. A woman of outstanding spiritual gifts purportedly gives direction in the appointment of clergy, and is applauded for the inspiration she affords. The personages may be fictitious, but the appreciation of feminine spirituality is real.
Saint Linus
As Clement of Alexandria made mention of Paul’s reference to deaconesses in 1 Timothy 3:11, so Origen commented on Phoebe, the deacon that Paul mentions in Romans 16:1-2: This text teaches with the authority of the Apostle that even women are instituted deacons in the Church. This is the function which was exercised in the church of Cenchreae by Phoebe, who was the object of high praise and recommendation by Paul . . . And thus this text teaches at the same time two things: that there are, as we have already said, women deacons in the Church, and that women, who by their good works deserve to be praised by the Apostle, ought to be accepted in the diaconate.
Women deacons appear to be under discussion in 1 Timothy 3:11, although the feminine form “deaconess” did not come into use until about 100 A.D. As late as the end of the 4th century, diaconos might designate a woman as well as a man. The order of deaconesses as distinct from that of widows appears clearly delineated in the first half of the 3rd century in the Didascalia, which declared that the deaconesses should be honored as figures of the Holy Spirit. They could visit believing women in pagan households where a male deacon would be unacceptable. To them belonged the duties of visiting the sick, bathing those recovering from illness, and ministering to the needy. Deaconesses also assisted in the baptism of women, anointing them with oil and giving them instruction in purity and holiness. They could give communion to women who were sick and unable to meet with the entire church. The Apostolic Constitutions even specified that both male and female deacons might be sent with messages outside the city limits. The ministry of the widow was largely that of prayer, fasting, and laying of hands on the sick, while the deaconess, usually a considerably younger woman, undertook the more physically arduous tasks.
Ancient documents show that deaconesses were ordained. The Council of Chalcedon set down requirements for the ordination of deaconesses, and the Apostolic Constitutions includes their ordination prayer.
There are even a few scattered references connecting women to the priesthood. Pseudo-Ignatius’s Letter to the Tarsians commands that those who continue in virginity be honored as priestesses of Christ. The eldresses of Titus 2:3 must be “hieroprepeis,” a term that inscriptional evidence suggests should be translated “like a priestess,” or “like those employed in sacred service.” The Cappadocian Gregory of Nazianzus wrote to Gregory of Nyssa about Theosebia, “the pride of the church, the ornament of Christ, the finest of our generation, the free speech of women, Theosebia, the most illustrious among the brethren, outstanding in beauty of soul. Theosebia, truly a priestly personage, the colleague of a priest, equally honored and worthy of the great sacraments."

Saint Theosebia and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus
The walls of the Roman catacombs bear pictures showing women in authoritative stances, with their hands raised in the posture of a bishop. Yet, The Ecclesiastical Canons of the Apostles specifically forbade women to stand in prayer (24:1-8). 

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