Finding 'Herstory': Pilgrims in Rome Examine Women's Leadership Roles in the Early Christian Church

By Patterson, Margot | National Catholic Reporter, June 22, 2007 | Go to article overview

Finding 'Herstory': Pilgrims in Rome Examine Women's Leadership Roles in the Early Christian Church


Patterson, Margot, National Catholic Reporter


The second-century fresco in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome shows seven people dining, a chalice and seven baskets before them. The guidebook sold at the catacombs says of the fresco: "The scene represents the eucharistic banquet, as we can clearly see."

The text doesn't mention it, but the figures in the fresco appear to be women. If the scene shows the eucharistic banquet, were women presiding at Eucharist in the second century?

Feminist scholars increasingly seem to think so. Greater attention to the role of women in the early Christian church indicates that women played an important role in the growth of Christianity and sometimes acted as hosts or cohosts in the house churches where early Christians met for worship and a communal meal. Archaeological, epigraphic and textual evidence from the first centuries of Christianity suggest that women not only helped spread the Good News as missionaries, financial supporters and patrons but in some cases served in ministry, acting as deacons, presbyters and even, on occasion, episcopoi, or overseers, in the new religion.

For the Catholic church, which says the priesthood is reserved for men because Jesus chose only men as his apostles and only men can image Jesus, this is touchy material. For women wanting to become priests in the Catholic church or who want other women to have the opportunity to be ordained, it's heady stuff. Grist for their cause.

"Right there from the beginning, the early church was gender-balanced," says Christine Schenk, a Sister of St. Joseph who is executive director of FutureChurch, an organization that advocates the ordination of women and married men in the Catholic church.

In March, FutureChurch sponsored a pilgrimage to Rome to look at evidence of women's leadership roles in early Christianity. The 13 women and one man who attended were exposed to a crash course in the differences between "herstory" and history. They looked at depictions of women in funerary art; heard about the power of the blood taboo, which Jesus broke when he touched the hemorrhaging woman in the Gospels; toured Christian churches; built on the remains of early house churches; and learned about the influence wealthy women in the Roman Empire exercised in the adoption of Christianity.

Along the way, they were exposed to the ambiguities of history--both his and hers.

"When you get to the bottom of the well, it's muddy," says Janet Tulloch, a cultural historian at the University of Ottawa who accompanied the group and offered daily lectures on what was visited.

Scholarly evidence

Tulloch began her PowerPoint presentation on the Catacombs of Priscilla with "Fractio Panis," the name for the fresco of the seven women at banquet, now one of the most controversial images in early Christian art. From there, Tulloch flashes on the projection screen another fresco from the same catacombs--this one a picture of a woman, two men and a third male figure. The woman stands upright, her hands outstretched in prayer. Nothing marks the scene as a depiction of the biblical story of Susanna and the eiders, but that is how it's been interpreted. The guidebook notes that another aspect of the same scene is on the opposite wall; "on the right, the perfidious old men place their right hands on Susanna's head as if accusing her. On the left, Susanna is seen again, this time with another person, and both are in orant stance. This could be interpreted as the scene of Susanna and Daniel giving thanks to God, after her innocence has been proven."

All of this is conjectural, as Tulloch points out. There's nothing that proves or even particularly suggests that this is the story of Susanna and the elders, except that tradition has had it so. It could equally well be scenes from an actual woman's life. Scholar Nicola Denzey has suggested that the painting of a woman with two men's hands upon her head may show the ordination of a female deacon. …

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