Book Review by Maura Fitzgerald
Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History. Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek. The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2005
This book is “intended as a comprehensive resource of all textual evidence -literary, canonical, and epigraphical” for the women in church office in the early church (pg 1). The authors provide references, text, and commentary. The texts explored include the New Testament, literary and canonical text from the eastern and western church and inscriptions.
There are difficulties in textual interpretation. Women had titles such as deacon, widow and presbyter, but level of authority in the clerical order was not well defined and varied by region and time period. Women were referred to as deacon (diakonos) with a female article or as deaconess (diakonissa) but it is not clear whether these terms were synonymous.
Most evidence for women deacons comes from the eastern church where women were serving in liturgical roles, supervising women in their faith formation and caring for female baptizands. The female diaconate does not occur in the western church until the 5th century and most Episcopal councils did not accept the practice. Although women in clerical office continue into the middle ages it was in significant decline by the sixth century. Concerns about menstruation and purity rites and the conversion to infant baptism are factors in this decline.
References to female deacons in the New Testament are found in Romans 16:1-2, and 1Timothy 3:8-11. The text from Timothy has been challenged as referring to the wives of deacons rather than female deacons, however the authors cite many commentators that interpret it to mean female deacons. Timothy 5:3-13 also refers to widows as members of the clergy.
The extensive textual evidence on female deacons in the eastern church includes inscriptions, dedications, letters and histories. Named are: Graptē, a teacher, in The Shepherd of Hermas; two female slaves cited by Pliny the Younger in Epistle to Trajan; Amproukla cited by John Chrysostom in Letters 191,96 and 103; Anastasia cited by Severus of Antioch in Letters 69, 70, 71,72; Axia by Theodoret of Cyrrhus in Letter Patmos 48; Basilina by Cyril of Scythopolis in Life of John the Hesychast 218.21-219 et al; Casiana by Theodoret of Cyrrhus Letter 17; Celerina of Constantinople by Theodoret of Cyrrhus in Letter 101; Dionysia, mother of Saint Euthymius by Cyril of Scythopolis in Life of Saint Euthymius 8.20-9.9 et al; Elisanthia, Martyria, and Palladia in Life of Olympias; Eugenia by Severus of Antioch in Letter 110; Eusebia of Constantinople d by Sozomen in Ecclesiastical History 9.2; Euesbia or Xenē of Mylasa by Caria in Vita Sanctae Eusebiae; Jannia by Severus of Antioch in Letter 7.2; Justina in Lives of Saints Cyprian and Justina; Lampadion of Annesi by Gregory of Nyssa in Life of Macrina 29; Magna of Ancytra by Nilus of Ancrya in Letter and in Palladius Lausiac History 67; Manaris of Gaza by Mark the Deacon in Life of Porphyry Bishop of Gaza 102; Marthana by Egeria in Pilgrimage to the Holy Places 23.3; Sozomen cites (Ecclesiastical History) Matrona of Cosila (7.21), Nektaria (4.24) and Nicarete (8.23); Olympias is cited in Life of Olympias 6, and by Palladius in Dialogue on the Life of John Chrysostom (10.50-67, et al) and in Sozomen Ecclesiatical History (8.9, 8.24); Pentadia cited by John Chrysostom in Letters 94, 104, 185; Publia cited by Theodoret of Cyrrhus in Ecclesiastical History 3.14; Romana in The Life of St. Pelagia, the Harlot; Sabiniana by John Chrysostom in Letter 13 and by Palladius in Lausiac History 41; Severa of Jerusalem cited by Evagrius Ponticus in Letters 7.2, et al; Susanna cited in Acta Sanctorum; Theodula cited in Life of St. Euphrasia or Eupraxia; Theophila of Chersonesus cited in Life of St. Parthenius; Valeriana cited by Severus of Antioch in Letter 7.1. Unnamed female deacons are cited in six texts and 61 inscriptions that name women as deacons or deaconesses are listed.
Another source of evidence is the canons and comments of church practice. From the Didascalia Apostolorum (church order text. early third century) and Apostolic Constitiutions (compilation of several church orders, late fourth century) to the Novellae (codification of Roman law under Justinian), there are multiple references to the regulation of female deacons.
The literary evidence of female deacons in the western church is limited to two sixth century texts that refer to monastic women. Pope Gregory (letter to Abbess Respecta, Nov.15, 596) calls the process of selection and installation of abbesses an ordination and Deacon Venantius Radegunda writes of the consecration of a deaconess (Life of St.Radeguna ). The epigraphical evidence is also slim in the western church. The authors cite four inscriptions for women deacons, Accepta, Anna, Ausonia, and Theodora of Ticini (539). As in the eastern church, canons and comments on church practice address female deacons in the western church. The texts acknowledge and oppose the existence of female deacons. However the practice seems to have continued until at least 1017 as confirmed in a letter by Pope Benedict VIII to Benedict, Bishop of Porto (Portugal) in which he confirms that the rite of initiation for a deaconess is an ordination.
There is also textual and epigraphical evidence for female presbyters. References include: Council of Laodicea Canon 11, Medicine Box 49.2.1-3, 78.23.2, 79.3.6-79.4.1(Epiphanius), Acts , Auxerre Canon 21, Synod of Rome and the writings of Tertullian. Most texts state opposition to this practice.