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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. The four faces gaze out serenely from a glistening gold background. The faces of Mary and the two saints are easily recognizable. But the identity of the fourth is less apparent. 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.
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 century.
In the opening scene of the Gospel of Mary, a second-century gnostic Gospel, Mary Magdalene rallies the despondent disciples after the ascension of their Lord. By exhortation, encouragement, and finally a rousing sermon on the teachings of Jesus, she revivestheir flagging spirits and sends them off on their mission. Because of her strong leadership role, she appears in some texts with the title Apostle to the Apostles.
Historical evidence like this, from art, inscriptions, and literature, belongs to the hidden history of women's leadership, a history that has been suppressed by the selective memory of succeeding generations of male historians.
In his book The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, Roger Gryson exemplifies this consensus of his and preceding generations of scholars:
From the beginnings of Christianity, women assumed an important role and enjoyed a place of choice in the Christian community. Paul praised several women who assisted him in his apostolic works. Women also possessed the charism of prophecy. There is no evidence, however, that they exercised leadership roles in the community. Even though several women followed Jesus from the onset of his ministry in Galilee and figured among the privileged witnesses of his resurrection, no women appeared among the Twelve or even among the other apostles. As Epiphanius of Salamis pointed out, there have never been women presbyters.
Most Christians today, including clergy and scholars, presume that women played little or no role in the Jesus movement or in the early church as it spread throughout the Mediterranean. But women did in fact play crucial roles in the Jesus movement and were prominent leaders along with men in a wide variety of roles in the early church. The Christian church, of course, did not spring up suddenly into a well-defined organization with buildings, officials, and large congregations. In its earliest stages it is best understood as a social movement like any other. It was informal, often countercultural in tone, and was marked by a fluidity and flexibility that allowed women, slaves, and artisans to assume leadership roles.
Why, then, are we so unaware of the prominence of women in the birth of Christianity? Why does this powerful misperception continue to marginalize women in even the more enlightened branches of contemporary Christianity? The answers to these questions are complex, but they begin and end in cultural views about gender.
The societies to which early Christians belonged (like our society) held definite ideas about male and female roles. According to the gender stereotypes of the ancient Mediterranean, public speaking and public places were the sole prerogatives of males; private spaces, like the household, were the proper sphere for women's activities. Furthermore, society insisted that a respectable woman be concerned about her reputation for chastity and her seclusion in the household; modesty and reticence were accepted as testimony to her sexual restraint. Public activities and public roles seemed incompatible with modesty.
But the real women of that time led lives that were not as circumscribed as we might think. As householders they directed the men and women who lived and worked under their authority and supervised the production and distribution of the wealth. As businesswomen they traveled, bought, sold, and negotiated contracts. Women with sufficient wealth and social status acted as patrons of individuals and groups of lower social standing by providing financial assistance, recommendations to officials, and political protection.
In order to understand the role of women in the early church, it is necessary to understand what functions secular leaders performed and what kind of people they were. We know that leaders arbitrated disputes between members of communities, collected and distributed money, represented the interests of their community to city and imperial governments, financed communal feasts, made gifts of places of worship, taught, and arranged marriages. We also know that social status was the most important factor in the makeup of potential leaders.
For its part the church took its cue from society's leadership models. Mindful of their precarious status in Roman society, Christian communities looked to members with social status and wealth to be patrons and to function as their protectors. On a smaller scale, heads of households, who were accustomed to wielding authority and who had the stores of the household at their disposal, often became leaders of house churches.
In the ancient world, both men and women were patrons and householders. The social authority, economic power, and political influence associated with these roles were not restricted by gender. Even religious authority in Greek and Roman worship was not limited by gender. Women as well as men functioned as prophets and priests. Each of these social positions in Roman society-patron, householder, prophet, and priest-provided an individual with the kind of status, authority, and experience that could be translated into similar leadership roles in the Christian community.