Tag Archives: female deacons

Testamentum Domini 1.37

A point of discussion has arisen between myself and Grant White with regard to Testamentum Domini 1.37. Here the translation following Cooper and McLean:

If any woman whatsoever suffer violence from a man, let the deacon accurately investigate if she be faithful and have truly suffered violence; if he who treated her with violence was not her lover. And if she be accurately thus, and if she that suffered mourn about the violence that happened to her, let him take it up to the hearing of the bishop, that she may be shewn to be in all things in communion with the Church. If he who treated her with violence be faithful, let not the deacon bring him into the church for partaking, even if he repent. But if he be a catechumen and repent, let him be baptized and partake.

The key term here is that translated “suffer violence”. The Syriac root is ܩܛܪ.

For White the passage concerns spousal violence. Thus he refers to Norman Russell Underwood, The Professionalization of the Clergy in Late Antiquity (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. Berkeley: University of California, 2018), 106, who suggests that the deacon is here adopting the role of medical examiner.

In my own version I translated as “suffer compulsion”, and understood this to refer to an allegation of rape, which may prove not to be rape but consensual sex. Thus I understood that the deacon, on establishing that it is not consensual, reports this to the bishop so that no blame attaches to the woman. Then the deacon does not allow the perpetrator into the church, as he is doorkeeper, but the woman, who is a victim and not a fornicator, is permitted to communicate. The deacon’s investigation is not, therefore, the investigation of injuries to the woman but of the circumstances.

This uncertainty was a good enough excuse to pay a visit to Fr Darrell Hannah, and to consult regarding the Ethiopic text. He informs me that the Ethiopic root is ḥyl, which like the Arabic cognate حيل is suitably vague. Alas we are none the wiser as a result, though I did enjoy my trip to Ascot!

One piece of evidence which might offer support to White (and Underwood) is a brief statement of Epiphanius De fide 21.10 in which he states that deaconesses are appointed only to assist women “for modesty’s sake… if there is a need because of baptism or an inspection of their bodies.” The nature and purpose of this investigation is not stated. However, I have a recollection that the bodies of catechumens might be inspected for signs of demonic infestation, which would link in with the role of female deacons in baptism.

Here I have to ask the help of my readers as I cannot remember where I came across this! Can anyone help?



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The disappearing deaconess

A comment on the post below about the disappearing deacon has led me to read Brian Patrick Mitchell, The disappearing deaconess (Alexandra VA: Eremia, 2021).

Although there is some historical material here (some of which is outside the period of my competence), the book is also a contribution to the ongoing debate in Orthodox circles about the restoration of a female diaconate. As a matter of policy I never comment on internal issues relating to another part of Christ’s vineyard (DA1) which restricts me somewhat. Beyond that, Mitchell’s book is largely a work of theology, a field in which I can claim a complete lack of distinction.

I therefore limit myself to a few observations on the first chapter, which is concerned with history. Two points emerge from my reading.

The first is that Mitchell states that the first evidence for female deacons is found in Didascalia apostolorum which derives, he says, from the third century (“around 230”, p11). Sadly he appears to have overlooked more recent work on the Didascalia, which tends to date it somewhat later. As such we cannot be so sure that this is the first evidence. With due recognition of the uncertainties of interpretation of the 19th canon of Nicaea, I still often think that this is the first certain evidence of such an order. However, Mitchell believes that the female diaconate was a new institution in the church of the fourth century. Here I agree, and suggest that a later dating for the Didascalia material might strengthen his case.

My second major observation is that the attempt to deny any female diaconate or office in the first century or so of Christ-confession (pp5-10) misses the mark. In Original bishops I suggest that there may well have been female episkopoi and diakonoi in the first century, but that female leadership rapidly disappears with the re-institutionalization of the church as associational (whilst clinging on in separated communities). To accept this would do no harm to Mitchell’s thesis since, as he states in his preface, “History is not tradition. History becomes tradition only when it is handed down.” (pxi)

The book is a light reworking of a dissertation dating from 2017; it thus inevitable that the treatment of deaconesses in Testamentum Domini does not deal with my own (2020) contribution, though what it has to say (pp16-17) is largely fair. He notes Martimort’s suggestion that the Testamentum knew only of deaconesses from his sources (unlikely I think) and also suggests that there is a reaction against the presence of deaconesses. I don’t think either is correct; I think the Testamentum is just puzzled at this new order and doesn’t really know what to do with them!

I hope that the author and his readers and supporters will take these comments in the constructive spirit with which they are offered.

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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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The disappearing deacon

This week has seen another three online seminars as part of the “What did deacons do?” project. When the recorded versions are available I will post the link.

At the conclusion of the discussion questions were raised about what might be included in a summary chapter to conclude the book based on the project. Discussion had indicated that the pattern was one of decline in the significance and role of the deacon in the fourth century, and thought was given that this might need some explanation.

My own suggestion is that this is the result of change in the nature of episkopoi, who gain bigger dioceses (note the legislation against chorepiskopoi) and a result of this, in turn, the increase in the number of presbyters. As the aboriginal episcopal function of charity disappears the role of the deacon as administrator of this episcopal charity also disappears. Moreover, as presbyters grow in importance and numbers, assistantship turns into assistance not to the bishop but to the presbyter. Of course there are exceptions; Rome is distinct as a relatively small urban diocese with a large extra-diocesan responsibility, and the community of the Testamentum Domini has a bishop (and presbyters) who fasts and prays and doesn’t do anything else, so it’s all left to the deacons! But in other sources, such as Ephrem and Chrysostom (discussed this week), we observe the diminution of the role in the fourth century and beyond. The evidence that might indicate a more active role is in the church orders, but as is often remarked, these are archaeological, and tend to repeat material which is traditional, but no longer reflects real conditions, and therefore have to be used with great care. Thus when Canones Hippolyti states that the deacon accompanies the bishop this is actually from Traditio apostolica, and is in any case a mistranslation by the Arabic translator due to misunderstanding the Coptic translation from which he was working. I am sure that the original Greek verb was προσκαρτερέω.

Rather unfashionably, might I also suggest that the development of woman deacons in the latter part of the fourth century might in turn result from this diminution? In other words, if a role is not that important, then it might be entrusted to a woman!


Filed under Anything else, Apostolic Tradition, Church orders in genera(l), Didascalia Apostolorum, Testamentum Domini

Agents in liturgy, charity, and communication

Pauliina Pylvänäinen informs me that her book, Agents in liturgy, charity and communication: the tasks of female deacons in the Apostolic Constitutions (STT 37; Turnhout: Brepols, 2020) is now out.

I look forward to my copy(!)

Congratulations to Dr Pylvänäinen!

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Deaconesses in Testamentum Domini

I was recently intrigued to notice that in the Church of England’s lectionary Macrina was kept alongside Gregory of Nyssa on 19th July, and described as a deaconess.
As I prepared for mass I wondered what the evidence was for this characterization, and how this might fit with the role and function of deaconesses in Testamentum Domini, which I believe to derive from fourth century Cappadocia, and thus to try and see Macrina in this light.
The only study I can find (though I am open to correction) is Sister Teresa CSA, “The development and eclipse of the deacon abbess” in E.A. Livingstone (ed.), Studia patristica 19 (Leuven: Peeters, 1989), 111-116; although Sr Teresa makes no use of Testamentum Domini, she does concern herself with the Cappadocians and with Macrina. She charts a process of development within forming monasticism in which deaconesses might be given charge of groups of consecrated virgins. As to Macrina, she is rightly cautious, whilst open to the possibility that she was a deaconess. In my opinion the evidence is thin to the point of non-existence.
Deaconesses make occasional appearance in the Testamentum. They stand within the veil, and receive communion before other women but after all others (1.23), and are classed with the readers and subdeacons in the deacon’s litany (1.35). They are to be trained by the widows (1.40). They have a residence near the gates of the church (1.19). Interestingly it is considered possible that they may be among latecomers to church (1.36). Finally we should note that the only liturgical duty attributed to them is to carry communion to women who are sick (2.20), by contrast to their role in baptism in the Didascalia, which in the Testamentum is the task of the widows (Testamentum Domini 2.8, in an addition to the Hippolytean original).
However, although the deaconesses appear occasionally and intermittently it does not appear that they are intrusions from another source, like the reader in Didascalia apostolorum 2.28.5 or the subdeacon in 2.34.3. Rather a coherent pattern emerges in which deaconesses are clearly junior in the hierarchy, and are ranked behind widows, who are the leading female ascetics in this community.
Rather speculatively, and in line with the evidence provided by Sr Teresa of Cappadocian deaconesses having charge of groups of virgins, I suggest the possibility that these deaconesses are the younger female ascetics, or those in charge of them. Hence they are trained by the widows, and rank behind them, on the basis of age, whilst having a recognized place in the ascetic hierarchy. Somehow one doubts that Macrina fits this mould, giving further support to my suspicion of those who compiled the Church of England’s calendar.

Update (Dec. 2018): I am revisiting this subject for a conference paper and now seriously doubt much of what I have written above (though my doubts regarding Makrina’s diaconate and suspicion of the Church of England’s historial acumen continue.) I am leaving the post intact as a monument to error!

Update (April 2019): The final draft of the conference paper is now online at academia.edu. The abstract reads:

Deaconesses make occasional appearances in Testamentum Domini, though women’s ministry in this document is primarily that of widows. The appearance of deaconesses is thus enigmatic. This paper argues that this order is appearing in the circles of the redactor (to be placed in fourth century Asia), though is not yet prominent or widespread. This explains their occasional appearance; in time the order would supplant that of widows, but this has not happened in the circle of this “church order.”

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Please help: Papal Commission on Women in the Diaconate

My own opinion on this matter is unimportant. What is important is that the Commission be allowed to function unimpeded by the profit motive when it meets in Rome from 25th-27th November.

I have received a request for a pdf of The original bishops from a member of the Commission who wishes to have an electronic copy in Rome, the book being too big to transport. I do not have such a copy so I asked Baker to assist. They have refused.

I have never had a high opinion of publishers.

If anyone has an e-book version I would be grateful to receive it so that I can pass it on to this individual.

My address can be found in the profile, or you can message me through academia.edu

You can also remind the director of marketing at Baker, Jeremy Wells, of the vitue of generosity, especially within the household of faith. His address I am happy to publish for the consumption of as many robots as can find it:jwells@bakerpublishinggroup.com



Filed under Anything else, Didascalia Apostolorum

Church orders at the British patristic conference

The British patristic conference in Birmingham in September yields one paper of direct relevance to the study of the ancient church orders.

The abstract is as follows:

Pauliina Pylvänäinen

A Common Purpose for Paul and the Female Deacons?

The author writes in 1 Tim 1:12 that Christ has appointed Apostle Paul εἰς διακονίαν. The same enunciation has been used in four other verses in the Greek NT. About three hundred years after that, the Apostolic Constitutions, one of the most influential ancient church orders, was compiled. Among its various ecclesiastical instructions the author commands the special group of women in his midst: He gives several instructions and presents an ordination prayer for them. In the prayer the author uses an enunciation, which rings a bell. He writes that the female deacon has to be appointed – εἰς διακονίαν.

The noun διακονία has commonly been translated as “service”. However, the traditional understanding about the early Christian use of the verb διακονέω has lately been challenged. Especially John N. Collins and Anni Hentschel have re-interpreted its ancient usage. According to them, service is not the main meaning for διακονία. If anything, the term refers to the areas of agency and attendance. It connotes intermediary functions. Collins’ and Hentschel’s results form the background for my research.

In the presentation I will have a glance at the usage of εἰς διακονίαν in its contexts both in 1 Tim 1:12 and AC VIII, 20, 2. I will find out, to what kind of purposes Paul and the female deacons really are appointed. Are the enunciations parallel? Do they have the equivalence both of form and content?

This, and the other abstracts, may be viewed at

My quick answer to the concluding question is “probably not.”

For the convenience of readers the relevant prayer reads as follows:

O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman, who replenished with the Spirit Miriam, and Deborah, and Anna, and Huldah; who did not disdain that Your only begotten Son should be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle of the testimony, and in the temple, ordained women to be keepers of Your holy gates—do Thou now also look down upon this Your servant, who is to be ordained to the office of a deaconess, and grant her Your Holy Spirit, and cleanse her from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, (2 Corinthians 7:1) that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her to Your glory, and the praise of Your Christ, with whom glory and adoration be to You and the Holy Spirit for ever. Amen.

This is the ANF translation. The phrase εἰς διακονίαν is rendered “to the office of a deaconess.”

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The Bishop of Rome and the study of the church orders

It’s not often that the Didascalia (although not named) makes the news!




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