Female Clergy in Early Church

From: atlbc@ix.netcom.com (Aaron Wells)
Newsgroups: tor.general,alt.christnet,alt.religion.christian
Subject: Re: Unscriptural Nature of Female Clergy
Date: 29 Nov 1995 01:30:41 GMT

Please forgive my jumping in like this, but I can provide you the
information you requested. From a book titled _When Women Were Priests:
Women's Leadership in the Early Church & the Scandal of their
Subordination in the Rise of Christianity_ by Karen Jo Torjesen
(HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) p. 9, 10:

"Under a high arch in a Roman basilica dedicated to two women saints,
Prudentiana and Praxedis, is a mosaic portraying four female figures:
the two saints, Mary, and a fourth woman whose hair is veiled and whose
head is surrounded by a square halo - an artistic technique indicating
that the person was still living at the time the mosaic was made." ...
"A carefully lettered inscription identifies the face on the far left
as Theodora Episcopa, which means Bishop Theodora. The masculine form
for bishop in Latin is _episcopus_; the feminine form is _episcopa_.
The mosaic's visual evidence and the inscription's grammatical evidence
point out unmistakably that Bishop Theodora was a woman. But the _a_
on Theodora has been partially effaced by scratches across the glass
tiles of the mosaic, leading to the disturbing conclusion that attempts
were made to deface the feminine ending, perhaps even in antiquity."

The footnote citation for the above is Dorothy Irvin, "The Ministry
of Women in the Early Church: The Archaeological Evidence," _Duke
Divinity School Review_ no. 2 (1980): 76-86. See also Joan
Morris, _The Lady Was a Bishop: The Hidden History of Women With
Clerical Ordination and the Jurisdiction of Bishops_ (New York,
Macmillan, 1973).

Ms. Torjesen continues:

"At a burial site on the Greek island Thera there is an epitaph for
an Epiktas named as priest or presbyter (_presbytis_). Epiktas is a
woman's name; she was a woman priest sometime in the third or fourth

Citation in footnote: _Bulletin de Correspondence Hellenique_ no. 101
(1977): 210, 212.

A later page (p. 52) includes a photograph with this caption:

"A woman breaks bread at an early Christian eucharist. The clothing
and hairstyles worn by the participants suggest that most of them
are women. Early third-century fresco. Greek Chapel, Priscilla
Catacomb, Rome. (Courtesy of Benedictine Sisters.)"

Based upon this I would assume that the church in Rome is aware
of the past of women in Christianity. At least some of the
evidence is available nearby.

Of course the Bible itself should be sufficient for the task.

"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess
of the church at Cenchreae. Give her, in union with the Lord,
a welcome worthy of saints, and help her with anything she needs:
she has looked after a great many people, myself included."
(Romans 16:1, The Jerusalem Bible, Doubleday & Company, 1966)

If deacons offer the sacraments, presumably Phoebe did. If they
do not always do so, why ask about deacons (as you did) - unless
you desire specific evidence from history that a specific individual
who was a female "bishop, priest or deacon" actually carried out
a sacramental function on some specific occasion.

As I understand Catholic teaching, a priest can conduct sacraments
because that _role_ endows a person with the necessary authority. If
Paul described Phoebe as a deacon, and that role is endowed with the
authority to conduct sacraments, what does it matter if she can
not be proven ever to have done so? Paul considered she had
the necessary authority.

In any case, _The Catholic Encyclopedia_, (The Encyclopedia Press,
New York, 1913 printing [original _Nihil Obstat_ in 1908] volume
four, article on "Deaconesses", third column, states that:

"...in one particular, viz. the instruction and baptism of
catachumens, their duties involved service of a more spiritual kind.
The universal prevalence of baptism by immersion and the anointing of
the whole body which preceded it, rendered it a matter of propriety
that in this ceremony the functions of the deacons should be
discharged by women. The Didascalia Apostolorum (III, 12; see Funk,
Didascalia, etc., i, 208) explicitly direct that the deaconesses
are to perform this function."

That passage goes on to relate that "extravagances permitted
in some places, especially in the churches of Syria and Asia, were
in contravention of the canons generally accepted", and that some
things women did as service to God had been "abuses". But if it was
not only accepted but decreed that they perform baptism, the case
is made right there - for baptism is one of the two sacraments which
are virtually universally accepted by Catholics, Protestants, and
other Christian groups.

INTERLOCUTOR: But are there female clergy in Scriptures? 

As I have just noted, there at least _seems_ to have been at least
one female clergy member in the Bible. Whether there was a female
_apostle_ or not depends upon your treatment of Romans 16:7.
I like the way the Jerusalem Bible puts it:

"Greetings . . . to those outstanding apostles Andronicus and
Junias, my compatriots and fellow prisoners who became Christians
before me . . . "

Junias is a female name. Those who wish to argue with this generally
contend that the use of Junias here is actually a shortened form
of "Junianus", which is a male name. But if that is the case, it
would be the _only_ example in all known Greek literature where
Junianus was shortened to Junias. The second most commonly used
argument (as far as I am aware) is to say that Andronicus and
Junias were outstanding "among" the apostles; that is to say that
they were with the apostles but not actually apostles. That route
was not chosen by the Jerusalem Bible, 1966 edition.

I believe that I have now responded to the original request from
the Bible and historical texts. You are, of course, free to
continue believing that women should not perform sacramental
functions. But do please acknowledge that in the past they were
permitted to do so by the church.

As far as the argument that the twelve apostles being male
indicates a requirement for future ordained ministry . . .
well, in absence of further information maybe you could go with
that, and maybe you should not. But further information is available.
For myself I wonder why the Catholic church does not make use of
1 Timothy 2 to defend its position. But that is their decision to
make. Anyway, it saves me from further typing for the arguments
to be so basic and straightforward.

God bless you,

Daniel Smead

p.s. BTW, for any non-Catholics reading this, I don't consider
1 Timothy 2 to be sufficient justification either. But I don't
know if any of you are interested in joining the discussion
on that side of the point, so I await further responses.