Carolyn Osiek, and Kevin Madigan, Ordained women in the early church: a documentary history (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 70, note an inscription dedicated to “Alexandra, subdeacon.” They comment: “The office of subdeacon is known for men, but is otherwise unknown for women.” This intrigued me sufficiently to check the reference, which is given as BE (1963): 152. Sure enough the name of the subdeacon is given there as “Alexandra”. However, a full reference is given to Georgi Mihailov, “Epigraphica”, Bulletin de l’Institut archéologique bulgare 25 (1962), 205-209, here at 208-209. There Mihailov reads ὑποδιακάνον Ἀλέξαν[δ]ρος. Jeanne and Louis Robert in BE appear to have subjected him to gender re-assignment!
Tag Archives: subdeacons
A subdeacon’s sex-change
Filed under Anything else
A bit of fun with Canones Hippolyti 7
Can. Hipp. 7 reads: The subdeacon (ὑποδιάκων, transliterated) and the reader (ἀναγνώστης, transliterated), when (اذا) they pray by themselves (وحدهما ), are stationed to the rear, and the subdeacon (ὑποδιάκων) serves to the rear of the deacon.
This provision seems to apply to liturgical arrangements, but why should it be said that they pray by themselves? It dawns on me that μόνον, an adverb in the Greek referring to praying, might be rendered into Coptic as ⲙⲟⲛⲟⲛ, and then taken as referring to the deacon and subdeacon (the Coptic being indeclinable.) Thus it is possible that the statement regarding these officials praying “by themselves” originally intended that their sole ministry was prayer, an adaptation of the statement in Trad. ap. 10.5 that the widow is not ordained as she is appointed for prayer alone, one of a series of provisions (including the statement at Trad. ap. 13 that the subdeacon follows the deacon) denying ordination by handlaying to a number of roles. One also wonders whether idha, “when” or “if”, here represents ⲉⲣϣⲁⲛ- intended to mean “since” and taken in its conditional sense by the Arabic translator. Thus, “The subdeacon and the reader, since they only pray, are stationed to the rear…”
Unfortunately, I’m really still no clearer about what this actually means!
PS (October 17th 2021): I’ve just read Ewa Wipsczycka “Les ordres mineurs dans l’eglise d’Egypte du IVe au VIIIe siecle” Journal of Juristic papyrology 23 (1993), 181-215, who on 192 suggests that subdeacons rather fancied being deacons, and that the limitation of their role is what leads to the provision that they “go behind.” I do not find this very likely.
Filed under Canons of Hippolytus
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.”
Filed under Testamentum Domini