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Women with the Priesthood in Ancient Christianity

I attended Sunstone back in August.  Bridget Jack Jeffries (who runs a blog called Clobberblog), gave a fascinating presentation on female priesthood holders in the ancient Christian church.  Bridget is a “never Mormon” that attended BYU, graduating in 2005.  She “seduced” (her words, not mine) and married a BYU priesthood holder while there, and she is currently studying the History of Christianity in America at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago.  She has done some fascinating research on women and the priesthood in early Christianity that I wanted to share.

Following her presentation, I asked her if she would share her PowerPoint presentation, which she graciously did.  I have intended to post this much sooner, but have had a backlog of posts on Mormon Schismatic groups (see my Introduction, and details about Fundamentalist Mormons, the Bickertonitesthe Strangites) and the David O McKay Biography (first and second posts), to go along with the Mormon Matters implosion.  I’m finally getting around to Jack’s presentation.  (Better late than never, right?)  If you’d like a copy of her PowerPoint slides, she has made them available on this link to her website.

In her presentation, she said that “female priesthood” is a somewhat anachronistic term, but it is clear that women participated in ordinances that we would consider priesthood ordinances.  She noted that in the New Testament period and onward, there is evidence for

  • Women as apostles, bishops, elders, priests and deacons
  • Women performing baptisms and administering the Eucharist

She references several types of evidence to support this position

  • New Testament data
  • Canonical commentary
  • Early Christian texts
  • Inscriptions on monuments
  • Artistic depictions of women
  • Polemical evidence (church fathers condemning the already existing practice of ordaining women.)

She references Romans 16:7, which references Andronicus and Junia.  Some translators changed the name Junia (female) to Junis (male.)  Clearly Junia was an apostle.  Early Christian Father John Chrysostum (who lived from 347-405 AD) is quoted as saying,

Greet Andronicus and Junia…who are among the apostles':  To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles— just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.” (In ep. ad Romanos 31.2)

Jack refers to female Deacons in Romans 16:1-2 and 1 Tim 3:8-11.

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”

“Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money;  they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.”

Ancient Church Father Origen (185-253) also discussed Phoebe.

“‘I commend to you Phoebe . . .’ This passage teaches by apostolic authority that women also are appointed in the ministry of the church, in which office Phoebe was placed at the church that is in Cenchreae. Paul with great praise and commendation even enumerates her splendid deeds . . . And therefore this passage teaches two things equally and is to be interpreted, as we have said, to mean that women are to be considered ministers in the church, and that such ought to be received into the ministry who have assisted many; they have earned the right through their good deeds to receive apostolic praise.” (Commentary on Romans 10.17)

John Chrysostum discussed 1 Tim 3:11,

“‘Likewise women must be modest, not slanderers, sober, faithful in everything.’ Some say that he is talking about women in general. But that cannot be. Why would he want to insert in the middle of what he is saying something about women? But rather, he is speaking of those women who hold the rank of deacon. ‘Deacons should be husbands of one wife.’ This is also appropriate for women deacons, for it is necessary, good, and right, most especially in the church.” (Homily 11)

Theodoret of Cyrrus (lived 393-460 AD) said,

“‘In the same way, women’ that is, the deacons, ‘are to be serious, not irresponsible talkers, sober, faithful in everything.’ What he directed for the men, he did similarly for the women. Just as he told the male deacons to be serious, he said the same for the women. As he commanded the men not to be two-faced, so he commanded the women not to talk irresponsibly. And as he commanded the men not to drink much wine, so he ordered the women should be temperate.” (Commentary on 1 Timothy)

Jack refers other women mentioned in the New Testament.  The following are definite or probable church house leaders.

  1. Lydia (Acts 16:14-15; 40),
  2. Nympha (Col. 4:15),
  3. Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11),
  4. Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:15-16),
  5. Priscilla (Rom. 16:3-5),
  6. and possibly the “elect lady” and her “chosen sister” in 2 John.
  7. Euodia & Synteche are mentioned in Philippians 4:2-3.  Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350 – 428) read this as a struggle between the two women for leadership.

Some may wonder if a deaconess is simply the wife of a deacon.  However, Jack says that wives of male deacons were generally not given the title of “deaconess”.  She says that descriptions of their function don’t start appearing until the late second and early third centuries.  She also shows a painting possibly depicting women administering the Eucharist (LDS refer to this as the Sacrament.)  Archaeologists are split as to whether this truly represents the Sacrament.

In the 5th century, Testamentum Domini 2:20 states that if pregnant women could not attend church on Sunday, deaconesses could take the Eucharist to their home.  She also notes that in 511 AD, 3 Gallic bishops were chastised for allowing women to assist with the Eucharist.  This obviously indicates that women were involved in the practice.  Canonical Resolutions 24 (6th century) states that deaconesses could distribute the Eucharist to their female companions who lived in convents in Edessa.

Jack describes the practice of baptisms by women.  Acts of Paul and Thecla (2nd century) depicts Thecla performing a self-baptism similar to the story of Alma in Mosiah 18:13-14.  She also notes that early church Father Justinian said it was acceptable for women to baptize as long as they met certain requirements.  In several texts as early as the first half of the third century, female deacons are described as assisting with baptisms and anointing the bodies of the female converts with oil before or after baptism.  In others, it is the women themselves performing the baptisms.

However, such things weren’t popular with everyone.  For example, Tertullian (c. 160 – 220) railed against women performing baptisms (On Baptism 17.4).  Jack gives several examples where baptisms performed by women were criticized.  Church councils in the 5th and 6th centuries condemned the practice, and as infant baptism became the norm, fewer adult female converts needed to be baptized, so the practice appears to have died out.

As far as female elders, Jack says there is less evidence; (there is more evidence in the Western Church than Eastern Church.)  She has noted 15 inscriptions referring to the feminine form of “elder”.  Jack says “Since the wives of elders were sometimes called by the term, we can’t be certain that every reference to a female presbyter is meant to denote an ecclesiastical office. However, usually when that was the case, the husband was titled and mentioned along with her.”  Jack showed several inscriptions referring to female elders.  For example, Guilia Runa is noted to have been “presbiterissa”, suggesting that she was a recognized leader of the Church of Saint Augustine in Hippo around the 5th century AD.  Leta of Tropea, Calabria is noted as “The Presbyter”, but her husband is not honored as an elder.  There are other examples.

Jack mentions that Episcopa Theodora, was the mother of Pope Paschal I.  A painting of her is found in the Church of St. Praxedis, AD 820.  Her husband is mentioned in other texts and is not a bishop.  It appears that vandals tried to scratch off the “a” in “episcopa” in an attempt to obscure her gender.  Other inscriptions include:

  1. “Here lies the venerable woman, bishop Q (uenerabilis fem[ina] episcopa Q), buried in peace for five [years] . . . +Olybrio.”  It is a damaged inscription at St. Paul’s Basilican Cemetary in Rome, 4th-6th century
  2. Canon 20 of the Council of Tours (6th century) mentions an “episcopa Terni”
  3. A 5th century fragmentary inscription is dedicated to a priestess in Solin. A cross on the inscription indicates that it was a Christian priestess, not a pagan one.

I have previously mentioned a heretical group called the Montanists.  Briefly, Montanus lived in the 2nd Century AD in Turkey, and was an early Christian leader that traveled with 2 prophetesses.  Jack quoted Epiphanius of Salamis (310-403) describing the Montanists: “They consider Quintilla together with Priscilla as founder, the same as Cataphrygians. They bring with them many useless testimonies, attributing special grace to Eve because she first ate of the tree of knowledge. They acknowledge the sister of Moses as a prophetess as support for their practice of appointing women to the clergy. Also, they say, Philip had four daughters who prophesied. Often in their assembly seven virgins dressed in white enter carrying lamps, having come in to prophesy to ecstasy;”

So, there does appear to be ample evidence for female priesthood in the ancient Christian Church.  I would love to hear more from Jack on why female priesthood is considered “anachronistic”, because I don’t fully understand what she means.  But I absolutely loved her presentation, and I loved how she ended her presentation.

  • Option 1 – We can Reject or Dismiss this information.  We can say things such as:

-        “We don’t care if apostate Christian groups were ordaining women”

  • Option 2 – We could offer a polemic attack against Joseph Smith.

-        We can look at this data and say, “Look what Joseph Smith neglected to restore.”

  • Option 3 – We can accept this information.

-        Yes, women did hold a priesthood in ancient times.

-        The 9th Article of Faith allows that God still has things to reveal; gives Latter-day Saints room to be accepting of this data

Since Jack went to BYU, she is quite familiar with the Mormon concept of an apostasy.  She said, “I think it shows very well how the idea that women had the priesthood and it was taken away can fit into a Mormon apostasy narrative.”

In a letter from Atto, Bishop of Vercelli, wrote to a priest named Ambrose in the 10th century:

“Because your prudence has moved you to inquire how we should understand “female priest” (presbyteram) or “female deacon” (diaconam) in the canons: it seems to me that in the primitive church, according to the word of the Lord, “the harvest was great and the laborers few”; religious women (religiosae mulieres) used also to be ordained as caretakers (cultrices ordinabantur) in the holy church, as Blessed Paul shows in the Letter to the Romans, when he says, “I commend to you my sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the church at Cenchrea.” Here it is understood that not only men but also women presided over the churches (sed etiam feminae praeerat ecclesiis) because of their great usefulness. For women, long accustomed to the rites of the pagan and instructed also in philosophical teachings, were, for these reasons, converted more easily and taught more liberally in the worship of religion. This the eleventh canon of the Council of Laodicea prohibits when it says it is not fitting for those women who are called female presbyters (presbyterae) or presiders (praesidentes) to be ordained in the churches. We believe female deacons truly to have been ministers of such things. For we say that a minister is a deacon (diaconum) from which we perceive female deacon (diaconam) to have been derived. Finally, we read in the fifteenth canon of the Council of Chalcedon that a female deacon is not to be ordained before her fortieth year— and this was the highest gravity. We believe women were enjoined to the office of baptizing so that the bodies of other women might be handled by them without any deeply felt sense of shame…as as those who were called female presbyters (presbyterae) assumed the office of preaching, leading, and teaching, so female deacons had taken up the office of ministry and of baptizing, a custom that is no longer expedient.”

Personally, I’ve studied a bit about women and the priesthood, and I have a post planned that will show that Mormon women washed, anointed, and blessed the sick by the laying on of hands right up until 1946.  I agree with Jack that women’s loss of the priesthood fits very well with the Apostasy.  Of the options she mentioned above, I like Option 3 best.

She let me know of a couple of other links you might find interesting.

So, what do you make of Jack’s presentation?

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