Women priests and the early church

One of the hottest (and most uncivil) debates running around most christian denominations at the moment is the idea of women clergy (priests for the uninitiated), so it was with some interest that I watched a programme on TV the other night that looked at the evidence for women priests in the early church.

* In the 4th century AD the patriach of the orthodox church in Alexandria wrote in a document that a virgin woman could give mass and perform other priestly duties. Note that at this time there were four places that served as "centre's" of the church (much as rome is for the RC's today), they were Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch and (so some say) the most important, Alexandria (Egypt). This was an orthodox church and not some heretical cult, so at least in the Eastern Roman Empire women could serve as priests.

* Some of the early paintings in the catacombs of Rome show scenes of "mass" (or communion) dating to the first few centuries AD. Some of these paintings show what has been interpreted as having women offiating and others having all women. But the paintings are rather crude and in a poor state so it's pretty much guesswork - others have interpreted them as being all men. People see what they want to see. As always.

* Around the 5th century there were four church councils that made proclaimations banning the ordination of women priests. This would imply that there was something to be banned before then, ie: that there were women priests around. After all, it'd be pretty silly to go an have an expensive council just to ban something that didn't exist anyway. Then again, one shouldn't underestimate human stupidity.

* In the late 5th century Pope Gelasius I (reigned 492-96) wrote a letter condeming women priests who preformed mass .. the implication being that there were such people, though whether orthodox or heretical is another matter. Mind you, I think the label heretic has been greatly overused in the history of religion.

* A mid 5th century tombstone in sthn Italy appears to be of a female priest, from the inscription. Others disagree and say she was merely a priest's wife. Once again, people see what they want to see.

* The main counter arguement to women priests is that they did exist but were all members of heretical cults and not part of mainstream christianity (which, in the early centuries was a pretty meaningless statement). Nevertheless, the anti-women-priests historians mostly concede theat they did exist but since they were from heretical cults there existence bears no relevance for the church today. But there are so far 15 arch sites with evidence (of varying credibility) for women priests in areas that were orthodox at the time .. that is, they could not have been from cults.

* It has been suggested that in the 4/5th centuries when the church became offically sanctioned and then the state religion that, as with any religion that becomes a state religion, it's traditions and laws become compromised by those of the state. By roman tradition and law women were little better than slaves, if that, so for the church to be the state religion it would have to adopt that policy. Thus women priests would be eliminated from the church and declared heretics. Interestingly enuf, the 5th century was the latest for any evidence of women priests, and that evidence came in the form of decrees and letters condemning the idea. many church laws and traditions have been traced back to roman origins around this time. The idea of bishops wearing purple was, before the 4/5th century, considered a great no-no, but purple is the roman colour of nobility ... Basilica's were built based on roman law courts, from the outside architecture down to the arrangement of seats inside.

* Romans 16:7 makes reference to a person called "Junias" whom Paul calls an apostle (good enuf for a priest, eh?) Around the 4/5th century the name was changed from the female form to the male one. Pre-4th century copies of Romans clearly show a female name. In the early church "apostle" was one of the terms used instead of priest. Actually in Rom 16, where Paul is passing on greetings to church leaders, "priests" and the like, most of the people he greets are women.

* Finally, early church tradition (pre 4th cent) refers to Mary Magdalen as an apostle as well. Certainly she was the _first_ person JC appeared to after his resurection. Not to Peter or one of the 11 (Judas had obviously disqualified himself by then). Not to his mother or family, but to Mary Magdalen.

So, were women priests part of the early church and were then stamped out when christianity became legitimised and romanised because that was the roman way. Or were all suggestions of female priests in fact either just feminist wishful thinking or were they all members of "heretical" cults, such as ancient versions of the mormons (there were plenty of them back then).

It was an interesting programme. I liked the summary at the end too - they gave time to both views and were careful to support neither view over the other, that is, they left the matter completely open to the viewer. As it should be.

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