Krankenpflege and the ministry of deaconesses in the Didascalia

A correspondence with Esko Ryökäs has emerged from the diakonia webinar, which may be of more general interest. It is presented here as a dialogue:

ER: On 9th December, we discussed “taking care of the sick in Didascalia 3,12: “You too have need of the ministry of a deaconess in many things, so that they may go into the homes of pagans, where you may not go, where there are believing women, that they may minister as necessary to those who are sick and bathe those beginning to recover from sickness.”. I think there is the verb ܫܡܫ in the Syriac text. Do you believe that “sitting by” is a possible translation? “Krankenpflege” is possible, but it has a particular meaning in our languages.

ACS: It’s an interesting passage. First up we are certainly talking about the sick (infirmes, ܠܐܝܠܢ).
Latin (an ancient translation) simply has ministrent, which is surely derived from a διακ-·stem in Greek. I have a high opinion of this Latin version, as in general it is extremely literal, and when it is clearly mistaken it is usually possible to see what the error was; for this reason, where possible, I always use this as my base version in reconstructing the lost Greek originals which it renders. Syriac rather confuses the matter by doubling up the statement, “visiting” the sick (a word with the root ܣܥܪ which I would tend to translate with stems from ἐπισκοπ-… this is the word used in Peshitta Luke 1:68 to render ἐπεσκέψατο) and then to minister (ܡܫܡܫܐ) (διακ-) to those in need. I thus think that Krankenpflege is quite a good translation here. I do not think “sitting by” does the word(s) justice. We have episkopē and diakonia. Probably the Greek had a διακ- verb.
Also note the interesting textual variant in some Syriac MSS which have her “anoint”, rather than wash, those who are recovering.

ER: This with anointing is very interesting. It is very logical, too. This could mean that some deaconesses did anointing, which (later, of course) was understood as an mysterion/sacrament.

ACS: And note that this variant reading is found only in MSS of a much later recension of the Didascalia.

ER: I will have to think more about Krankenpflege I am writing on this, and have to be clear about the direction of my argument. What do we know about Krankenpflege in Syriac area during those years (2nd-4th c.). At least they don’t have any vaccinations. Or did they?

ACS: The Didascalia itself describes a number of medical treatments… none of them alas vaccination.
As to what we know of Krankenpflege in the area and period of the production of DA… what can we know unless we know a) the area and b) the period at which this part was produced! I am fairly sure that this is one of the later layers, and would date it to a period around Nicaea. I am also fairly sure that it derives from a more easterly and bilingual area of Syria. Cappadocia and Antioch had organized Krankenpflege, or at least poor relief to which the care of the sick was allied, and the widows in Apostolic church order are charged with this… there’s a lot about this in my book on the Canons of Hippolytus… but further east there seems to be little. Note the story at Sozomen HE 3.16 when Ephrem has to sort out poor relief in Edessa as there is nobody else who can be trusted… and the Krankenpflege ceases when the plague is over.

ER: The role of deaconesses in comparison with that of widows gives rise to a question. Pauliina Pylvänäinen’s book about deaconesses has the title: Agents in Liturgy, Charity and Communication. Could it be that deaconesses were more for liturgy/common celebrations – and the widows more for taking care? This is one of the questions I have in editing our books. I don’t have an answer, mostly due the fact that in our book we analyse only the one side. What did widows do in those texts?

ACS: In my book on the Didascalia I argue that deaconesses were instituted to bring ministering women under episcopal control… thus replacing the widows and taking over their historic functions. In my essay on deaconesses in the Testamentum Domini I see more of this. Wendy Mayer (Chrysostom expert) agrees with me that the same was true of Chrysostom’s ordination of female deacons.

ER: I think this could be another way of saying what I did. Also perhaps the tasks were more of a liturgical character. It could be some other, too. But perhaps those for the common meeting was more important.

ACS: Or more prominent in the contemporary literature because more obvious. If people are asked what I do they will talk about liturgy and preaching, but not about editing church magazines, checking accounts, chairing meetings…
So to come back to Krankenpflege, all in all the passage is a bit of a mystery! Woman deacons are doing a job that is otherwise not mentioned of male deacons… although the bishop in Traditio apostolica visits the sick I would not call it Krankenpflege.

ER: The logic of Krankenpflege was not at all so technical as we have it. It is not easy to read the old texts; you use your own time as a reference without knowing it.

ACS: With this I must agree.

Post script on 22nd January 2022
Thinking further about this passage it dawned on me that the reference to the female deacons washing might mean that they washed the bodies of the women when they died. It brought to mind Lampadia washing the body of Macrina (Vita Macrinae in PG 46 988-90). I ran this past Esko who replied that he had asked Serafim Seppälä, according to whom, in Greek culture, it was an everyday praxis that women washed the bodies of the dead. This seems to me to be what the text means.

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