The Gospels record that among the disciples of Jesus women were a constant element, though none of the twelve apostles was female. The same presence of women appears in the Acts and in the personal greetings appended to Pauline letters. Rom. 16: 1 mentions with Andronicus a woman named Junias, 'distinguished among the apostles'. Women could be inspired prophets with charismatic gifts, like the daughters of Philip (Acts 21: 9). At Corinth they spoke with tongues as much as any (1 Cor. 11: 4). The injunction that 'women should keep silence in the assembly' (1 Cor. 14: 34) suggests that some Corinthian women had become a noisy presence which needed checking. A sharper suppression seemed necessary to the author of 1 Tim. 2: 11-14, for whom the role of women was to be quiet, to stay at home, and not to teach church members with official authority.
Widows as a class were vulnerable in ancient society, and special charitable action was needed to protect them, 1 Tim. 5: 3-16 shows that some widows were too merry for social comfort, while others were the heart and soul of the praying community. Ignatius (Sm. 13. 1) has a surprising greeting to 'the virgins who are called widows'. So there were groups of ascetic widows who included unmarried ladies in their society.
Tertullian regarded an excessively prominent and public role for women as a characteristic of heretical communities, where they were found to teach, exorcize, promise healings, and 'perhaps even give baptism' (Praescr. haer. 41. 5). In the romance of Paul and Thecla, Thecla baptizes herself, which for Tertullian was an additional ground for disparaging the story. His shift towards Montanist sympathies no doubt altered this perspective.
Admission to the order of widows was the kind of act for which the local bishop would be invited to bless and perhaps to lay on hands. Hippolytus' Apostolic Tradition (10) insists that this was an appointment but not an ordination to liturgical functions. In Syria feminine society was withdrawn. From Syria come the first certain prescriptions for an order of deaconesses
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Publication information: Book title: The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great. Contributors: Henry Chadwick - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: Oxford. Publication year: 2001. Page number: 53.
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