The Place of Women in the Congregational Hierarchy

Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017.

The tantalizing question of a woman's status within the hierarchies of Je\]wish and Christian communities in Rome is raised by the following inscription from the Monteverde catacomb, which translates as: "Here lies Gaudentia, the priestess [ierisa], aged twenty-four years. In peace her sleep"(CIJ 1.315, JIWE 2.11, p. 18). Even though the literal translation of "iérisa," her title in Greek, is "priestess," the role usually assigned to Gaudentia by historians has been that described by Leon, who commented that her title is "apparently the equivalent of the Hebrew cohenet and probably designated the wife (or daughter) of a iereus (cohen or priest)" (Frey, CIJ 1, p. 248; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 193; B. Lifshitz, Prolegomenon to CIJ 1, p. 34; Noy, JIWE 2, p. 18, considered it "likely"). A similar verdict was passed on the lady Maria, who lay in catacomb I at Beth She'arim. Maria's inscription, engraved on her mother's tombstone, described her as a priestess, but Schwabe and Lifshitz concluded, in traditional fashion, that she must have been a cohenet. Aware that priests were held in very high esteem by the Jews here, the epigraphers assumed that Maria's being the wife of a cohen was a distinction worthy to be emblazoned on her mother Sarah's tombstone (Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth Shearim 2, p. 43, n. 66).

In their commentaries on the term, cited above, Frey and Leon believed that the designation of priestess did not imply that women participated in religious functions, but there is no evidence to suggest that they did not. In Exodus 15:20-21, Miriam leads women in cultic dancing and singing, inspiring devotion to the Lord; certainly these can be considered to be ritual acts led and performed by women.

"Priestess" is not a totally improbable designation, judging from the titles held by women in other Jewish congregations of the Roman Empire. An early mention of a priestess, Marin, was inscribed on a Jewish tombstone dating from 28 B.C.E (CIJ. 2.1514; SEG 1.574). It was recorded in a Jewish cemetery in Tell el-Yahudiyeh (ancient Leontopolis in Lower or Northern Egypt), where a Jewish temple had been established about 160 B.C.E.(The temple at Leontopolis was founded by Onias IV, who was a candidate for the high priesthood in the Jerusalem Temple: B. Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, pp. 135-138, note 7. The temple was destroyed in 73 CE by Romans acting on orders from the Emperor Vespasian; see M. Grant, The Roman World, pp. 30, 59, 204) In the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 38:8), there were "serving women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle of meeting." Aside from contributing their bronze mirrors to be turned into a laver, however, the nature of the service of these women is unknown.

It is possible that Jewish women of around the first century B.C.E., and after, had a role in the liturgical service. The position equivalent to archisynagogos, perhaps the most prestigious office, was held by “the Jewess Rufina of Smyrna” (Brooten, Women Leaders, pp. 5-6, citing CIJ 2.741 and IGR 4.1452). Another woman [Th]eopempte, was recorded as holding that office in a dedicatory epigraph of the fourth to sixth century, perhaps from a synagogue, in Mindos in Caria (Brooten, Women Leaders, pp. 18-21, citing CIJ 2.756, and Th. Reinach, "La pierre de Myndos," Revue des Etudes Juives 41 (1901), pp. 1-6). Female archisynagogoi, who may have performed the same duties as their male counterparts, were also drawn from the ranks of eminent families.

In Rome, in an inscription in the Monteverde catacomb, now on display in the Vatican Museums, a woman named Sara Oura(?) is described by the adjective "presbytis," which, in this grammatical form and the spelling, is generally accepted as meaning "old woman" (CIJ 1.400; JIWE 2.24, pp. 27-28), according to Leon's transcription. There have been several versions of the word written in Greek characters as Oura or oura. Frey and Muller described it as a name - Ursa and "Oursa (?) respectively: Frey, CIJ 1, p. 309, Muller, Il cimitero, p. 209. Leon, on his part, saw it as "ura": Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 325).

At Nocera, in 1988, Dr. Marisa de Spagnolis unearthed two marble architectonic fragments bearing the names and titles of a husband and wife who were officials of a congregation: Pedoneius, the husband, was titled "Grammateus," and his wife, Myrina, "Presbytera". The find was the first proof of a synagogue in that locale and is notable testimony that a woman probably held an office there, apparently in the fourth century (Communicated by M. de Spagnolis in letter to Estelle Brettman of May 2, 1989). Since the husband's own title is mentioned, it can hardly be claimed, as has been done in previous cases, that the woman's title was merely a reflection of her husband's position (As theorized by Frey, CIJ 1, p. 309 and Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 191, n. 2).

Three inscriptions found in Venosa, dedicated to Beronike, Mannine, and Faustina, indicate that they were presbyteres (CIJ 1.581; JIWE 1.59, pp. 79-81 (Beronike); CIJ 1.590; JIWE 1.62, pp. 82-84 (Mannine); CIJ 1.597; JIWE 1.71, pp. 94-95 (Faustina)). Because Mannine's inscription indicates that she was 38 years old at the time of her death, it would tend to discount the theory that the term "elder" when applied to a woman meant always that the woman was very old.

There are other examples throughout the Mediterranean regions from such localities as Crete, at Cisamus, where Sophia of Gortyn was a presbytera as well as an archisynagoga of a synagogue (Inscription 731c in Lifshitz's Prolegomenon to CIJ 1, p. 88, dated to the fourth or fifth century, but A. C. Bandy, in "Early Christian Inscriptions of Crete," Hesperia. Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 32.3 (1963), pp. 227-229, dates the artifact to the first or second century CE. Bandy theorized it might refer to a Judeo-Christian, but Lifshitz maintained that "the title... and the final formula leave no doubt about (Sophia's) Jewish origin".). In Thrace, the title was held by Rebeka and in Tripolitania (Libya), by Makaria Mazauzala (Rebeka is transcribed in CIJ 1.692, p. 503. The word Makaria could be a name or could be an adjective meaning "blessed" or "blissful". Romanelli theorizes that the name Mazauzala could be a Libyan name instead of a Hebrew version of Makaria as proposed by S. Moscati and therefore the departed could have been "a Libyan converted to Judaism": P. Romaneli, "Una piccola catacomba giudaica di Tripoli," Quaderni di Archeologia della Libia 9 (1977), pp. 111-118. In her notes on the piece, Estelle Brettman adds: "Joseph Horn has been kind enough to provide me with information that since Mazauzala means fortunate in Hebrew, Moscati's premise is apparently correct").

Inscriptions have given evidence of a number of Christian women who held the title. A Christian inscription from Calabria referred to a "presbytera," but Testini declared her to be "the wife of a priest"(P. Testini, Archeologia cristiana, 2d. ed., Bari, 1981, p. 388). A similar judgment was made in the case of a Jewish couple in Malta, a gerousiarch, "lover of the commandments," and Eulogia, his wife, a presbytera. Father Ferrua, who noted the late fourth century inscription, claimed that Eulogia bore the title as the wife of a gerousiarch (JIWE 1.59, p. 80).

Women probably did have an official role in the early Church, since in Romans 16.1. there is mention of a certain Phoebe, who was a "servant of the church” (a deaconess?). We have seen that Priscilla, with her husband Aquila, who were close to St. Paul, were among the most important workers for the early Church.

Women taking an active role in the church was a situation which did not please all the hierarchy of the early Church. Noy cites a letter of the fifth century from Pope Gelasius to bishops in southern Italy complaining about women being allowed to "minister at the sacred altars" (citation in JIWE 1, p. 80).

Next: Named Jewish Congregations in Rome