Tag Archives: Widows

Food for widows

The following passage appears in Traditio apostolica:

If anyone wishes that widows, who should have attained seniority in age, should have a supper, he should send them home before evening. If, however, he is unable because of the lot which has fallen to him, he should give them food and wine and send them away so that they can partake of the gifts at home when it suits them. TA 30

This is straightforward enough. Support for widows is widespread enough, as is the practice of providing a sportula.

This paragraph does not survive in Testamentum Domini, but is reworked in Canones Hippolyti.

If anyone wishes to feed widows, he should feed them and dismiss them before the sun sets. And if they are numerous, so that they should not become restive and unable to leave before evening, he should give them enough to eat and drink, and they should depart before the onset of the night. CH35

I have long, however, been puzzled by the appearance of the following passage in the Didascalia:

Those who wish to give an agapē, and to invite the widows, should send more frequently for her whom he knows to be in distress. And if anyone gives gifts to widows he should especially send to her whom he knows to be in need. And the portion which is to be set apart for the pastor should be set aside in accordance with the rule, even though he be not present at the agapē or the supper, in honour of Almighty God. DA 2.28.1-2

This is reworked lightly in Constitutiones apostolorum, the main change being that the deacons, rather than the individual patron, are those who ensure that those who in particular need should be invited.

The reason for the puzzle regarding the Didascalia is that it cuts across the fundamental aim of so much of the document to restrict the charity of the church to that provide through the agency of the bishop. I can therefore only assume that it derives from an independent source.

The question which then arises is whether this is the same source as Traditio apostolica. After much consideration I begin to think that it does not (although I do suggest, only suggest mind, that it might in my forthcoming Breaking bread.) There is nothing in Didascalia about dismissing the widows before nightfall, and nothing in Traditio apostolica about a sportula for the absent bishop.

But the very observation that these are probably independent is itself a point of interest. It demonstrates the widespread occurrence of agapic meals for widows provided by private patrons in the third century.


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Wandering widows in the Didascalia (and the Talmud)

In making a start on a new project, an article for RAC on widows, I immediately stumbled across this gem:

Our Rabbis have taught: A maiden who gives herself up to prayer, a wandering (שׁוֹבָבִית) widow, and a minor whose months are not completed– these bring destruction upon the world.

TB Sotah 22a

Inevitably this brought to mind:

Thus the widow should know that she is the altar of God, and she should sit constantly at home, not wandering or going to the houses of the faithful to receive, for the altar of God does not wander or go anywhere, but is fixed in a single place. A widow, therefore, should not wander or go from house to house. Those who roam and who have no shame cannot be still even within their own houses.

DA 3.6.3-4

I am not suggesting a literary parallel, but perhaps some common cultural ground.

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Ramelli on presbytides

I recently reviewed Joan Taylor and Ilaria Ramelli, Patterns of Women’s Leadership in Early Christianity, for Reading Religion.

Ilaria Ramelli has responded on Researchgate.

I have tried to contact her, to clear what follows with her. I understand she has been gravely ill of late and is in poor health, and so is probably not circumstanced to respond. I am therefore posting this response with an apology that I have not done so with her consent and foreknowledge. However, I do feel that Ramelli’s response to my review requires a response in return.

I really don’t have an ecclesial dog in this fight, but do believe, as I have stated previously elsewhere, that historians need to be very careful when the history we write might affect our present ecclesial realities, and church leaders (in whatever guise they may be) need to be careful in listening to us historians (that is to say, they should listen to us, but listen with a hermeneutic of suspicion!) Moreover, I have always studiously stepped back from engaging in discussions in other parts of the catholic church than my own whilst seeking to provide such historical guidance as I can.

Ramelli offers some clarifications of her statements where she suggests I have misunderstood her; the context, as may be seen from the review, was that I made some minor criticisms of some statements, particularly in her own essay, suggesting that some further nuancing was necessary. I was brief because, in a review, I did not want to become sidetracked or turn it into something other than a review of a book!

My suggestion of nuancing was made with regard to two issues.

Firstly that we should be wary of assuming that “presbyter” and its female form necessarily refers to an order of ministry like bishop and deacon. Even in the fourth century, in some communities, such as that of Testamentum Domini, I suspect that this was not the case. Hence my questioning of Bill Tabbernee’s use of the term “presbyteral” to describe the eucharistic activity of the prophet reported by Firmilian; I would have suggested that she was acting episcopally.

My second concern is to note that the eucharistic meal had developed considerably between the first and fourth centuries; I have a book in the final stages of preparation on precisely this subject, and suggest that the movement was from a variety of meals, which are generically eucharistic, to a single meal, “the” Eucharist. Thus, for instance, whereas I appreciated Teresa Berger’s suggestion that the virgins’ meal in ps-Athanasius Virg. was eucharistic in a domestic setting, my suspicion is that it had once been so, but by the time ps-Athanasius wrote it was no longer so, but had become something else, since what might have been recognizable as eucharistic in a broad sense in an earlier period is not eucharistic in a fourth-century context, as “eucharist” has by now a narrower definition. To give another example: on p32 of Ramelli’s essay she notes that Prisca is mentioned before Aquila and goes on to say: “This suggests that Prisca, not Aquila, was the leading member, and key host, who can be considered to have presided over a house church and to have celebrated the Eucharist there.” Certainly it is plausible that Prisca was the host, but to use the language of eucharistic celebration to describe what happens in the first century is, I believe, to impose a greater degree of liturgical order on the household gatherings of the earliest generation than they actually possessed and to paint a rather anachronistic picture of what a eucharistic gathering in this period might have looked like.

In this light I turn to what she says about Origen and presbytides. She states, correctly, that Origen both in the catena to I Cor. and in the Comm. in Joh. proposes that women might teach other women. My objection, however, is not to this but to the equation of presbyteroi as an office and presbytides. My point was that, in the fourth century, we have presbytides (Conc. Laodic.) who have particular seats and status in church, but that these are not the same as female presbyters. I think they are like the widows in Testamentum Domini who are certainly the female equivalent of the (male) presbyters, but that the male presbyters in this community, whilst ordained (as are the widows) are actually aged male ascetics rather than people holding ecclesiastical ministerial office as we would understand it. These widows teach younger women; I think that is exactly the picture Origen also gives us, but this in no way makes them female presbyters. Indeed, in Comm. in Joh. 32.132 I do not even think that Origen is referring to male presbyteroi as an office.

In this context I was surprised to read of presbytides in the Didascalia and even to hear that they were female presbyters (55-56). Where in the Didascalia? The only presbytides (assuming that the retroversion from Latin aniculas is correct, and I think I more likely that it is presbuteras, on the basis of Apostolic Constitutions) are those who are fed charitably (DA 2.28). In sum, I think there is some confusion here.

Ramelli also states, with further reference to my review:

On p. 45 I do not “conflate” the Eucharistic bread with other Eucharistic meals. Rather, after pointing to Theosebia, called by Nazianzen homotimos of a hiereus (“having the same dignity” as a presbyter and bishop, her brother Gregory) and involved in the Eucharistic celebration, I adduce a passage in Gregory Nyssen’s Life of Macrina in which Macrina herself is said to “lend her hands in service to the liturgies” and then “prepare bread with her own hands” for her mother, but I do not conflate the two: Gregory’s emphasis lies on the same hands which prepared the bread, in humility and service (a cypher of Macrina’s lifestyle:) and were used at the Eucharistic liturgy. What I say, based on Gregory, is that Macrina “used her hands to celebrate the Liturgy” (p. 45), not that the bread she prepared for her mother was Eucharistic in any sense.

Here I apologize if there is some misunderstanding; however, my objection was to her acceptance of Teresa Berger’s interpretation of the ps-Athanasian meal as though it were fact (as I suggest above, I think it supposition, albeit interesting supposition) and the subsequent conflation with the liturgical activity of Theosebia. I am sorry if this was unclear.

And again, I do not think that Theosebia was a presbyter, in the sense of holding an order of ministry. And so the two concerns mentioned above converge. She may have been homotimos with a hiereus, but this does not mean that she was one (and, in any case, a hiereus is a bishop rather than a presbyter…) Again I think her status was comparable to that of the widows of Testamentum Domini, as was the nature of her liturgical participation. I do not follow the point here in as much detail, because I think that the fundamental point, that we should see these statements in the light of contemporary Asian evidence, such as Testamentum Domini and the canons of Laodicea, has been made already.

What Ramelli does present is a “gender divided” participation of women and men in the eucharistic liturgy in fourth century Cappadocia and elsewhere. I think we get some picture of this from Testamentum Domini, where the widows have a place by the altar comparable to that of the presbyters, and I suspect that this is what brings about the reworking of an older polemic by the redactor of Apostolic Church order. Thus fleshing out of the picture we may derive from these “church orders” is the contribution that Ramelli, Joan Taylor, and indeed others in this volume have made; this is a substantial contribution.

As I state in my review, this volume of essays sets the standard for discussion. But I also say that it is clearly not the last word on the material they discuss.

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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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Women at the last supper: the witness of the church orders


The fresco of Cerula restored

I have just read the chapter “The Life of the Virgin and Its Antecedents” in Ally Kateusz, Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden leadership (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). If I have done the hyperlink correctly, this should take you to the e-book on google play.

The chapter is largely concerned with the question of whether a (late) Life of the virgin extant in Georgian held that female disciples were present at the last supper. I cannot comment on this part of the chapter; not for the first time I admit to being Georgian-challenged. However, the author, at the end of the chapter, seeks traces of this tradition in the church order literature.

First she points to DA 2.26.4-8:

…but the bishop is high-priest and Levite. He it is who ministers the word to you and is your mediator, yourteacher, and, after God, is your father who has regenerated you through the water. He is your chief, he is your master, he your powerful king. He is to be honoured by you in the place of God, since the bishop sits among you as a type of God. The deacon, however, is present as a type of Christ, and is therefore to be loved by you. And the deaconess is to be honoured by you as a type of the Holy Spirit. The presbyters are also to be reckoned by you as a type of the apostles, and the widows and orphans are to be considered among you as a type of the altar.

This the author describes as a “kernel that survived the final redactor (which) preserves a stunning example of its original gender parity—a liturgical pair, a male deacon and a female deacon.”

I would love for this to be true, but fear that the point of the passage is to exalt the bishop, to keep presbyters in their place, and to introduce the image, perhaps borrowed from Polycarp, of the widow as an altar. Insofar as liturgical arrangements are concerned, we may note that the deaconess has probably supplanted the place of the widows as found in Testamentum Domini, and is probably the work of the uniting redactor.

I do, however, agree broadly (as she agrees with me (!) and with Allie Ernst) that the passage in Apostolic church order 24-28 regarding the propriety of women celebrating the sacraments with reference to Mary’s presence at the last supper does relate to the possibility that a version of this account had broadened the numbers present beyond the twelve to incorporate the presence of female disciples. Kateusz writes:

“This scribe’s focus on repeatedly undermining Mary’s authority suggests that the scribe considered Mary herself a threat. The text itself belies a raging ideological conflict over the role of women officiants. One faction was using Mary to justify women officiants, and the other faction, represented by this scribe, was going to great lengths to try to undermine Mary’s authority. This scribe, thus, was not only aware of a preexisting tradition that said women had been present at the last supper, and that Jesus had authorized them as ministers there—he also knew that the communities who followed this tradition considered Mary herself the model for these women clergy.”

I am not sure that I could go quite this far in reconstructing the situation behind the passage with such detail, but do not retract my earlier (2006) statements that the situation is broadly along these lines and that “The whole point of the discussion is to subordinate women’s participation in the celebration of the eucharist.” My suspicion, moreover, is that the “other faction” is outwith the community of the redactor. I do accept the possibility, however, that there was some literary text to which the redactor of Apostolic church order is making reference. Possibly, an observation which is less than friendly to Kateusz’s case, this is the source of the agraphon found here that the weak will be saved through the strong.

Kateusz is part of the Wijngaards Theological Institute. I am aware that this is not the first time that I have criticized the use of church order material by members of this Institute. I must re-iterate that I have no axe to grind here, and consider it inappropriate as an Anglican to intervene in a discussion in another part of the catholic church. My concern is solely that enthusiasm for a change within the Roman church (or any other Christian community come to that) should not blunt our historical acumen.

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