Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies

Article excerpt

Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies. By Ute E. Eisen. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000. viii + 322 pp. $49.95 (paper).

While feminist reconstruction of early Christian history is now well established, Ute Eisen's work on women holders of ecclesiastical office gathers more data on this topic than any previous single source, and breaks new ground in its emphasis on epigraphy-evidence from inscriptions.

This is not the first case where evidence from non-literary sources has provided surprising alternatives to conventional views of antiquity. It is nonetheless among the more surprising and important. While literary sources often seem to deal with the "genus `woman"' (p. 2), epigraphy reveals something of individual women; where treatises deny the possibility of women as presbyters, etc., inscriptions refer to them as facts. This is not to say that Eisen treats epigraphical evidence as a direct reflection of reality, but its references to concrete persons are invaluable.

Most of Eisen's book is arranged in terms of the offices or roles themselves. There are chapters on apostles, prophets, teachers of theology, presbyters, widows, deacons, bishops, and stewards, framed by a useful critical introduction to the issues and a brief conclusion. An extended bibliography and indices (including one of women's names) add to the value of this book as a reference.

Women were present in all Church offices. Some of the discussions and characters will be familiar to those who have dabbled in these issues before: from the New Testament the apostle Junia and deacon Phoebe, from early narratives Thecla, Macrina, Syncletica and so forth. The individuals from inscriptions (and occasionally papyri) are new, however: the visionary prophet Nanas, the teacher Kyria, the presbyter Ammion, the mysterious Umbrian bishop "Q. . . ." In each case Eisen raises critical questions concerning the individual inscriptions or other evidence. She also engages existing scholarly discussions, e.g., concerning the relationship between the offices of "deaconess" (the one relatively uncontroversial instance of ancient women's ordination) and enrolled widow, or concerning the use of titles such as "bishop" in honorific terms.

Eisen also points to the various legislative and literary protests against forms of women's leadership as good evidence that at least some of the things mentioned were happening-else why the need to complain? …

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