The Place of Women in the Congregational Hierarchy

The tantalizing question of a woman's status in the hierarchies of the Roman Jewish and Christian communities is raised by the following inscription from the Monteverde catacomb (fig. ??) which translates as: "Here lies Gaudentia, the priestess [ierisa], aged twentyfour years. In peace her sleep." 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, for one, 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)." 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.

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. It was 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.
In the Old Testament (Ex. 38:8), there were "serving women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle of meeting." However, aside from contributing their bronze mirrors to be turned into a laver, 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, played some role in the liturgical service. The position equivalent to archisynagogos, perhaps the most prestigious office, was held by “the Jewess Rufina of Smyrna.” 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. 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, 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." In inscriptions from other Jewish communities, however, the term "presbytera" appears.

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. 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.

Three inscriptions found in Venosa, dedicated to Beronike, Mannine, and Faustina, indicate that they were presbyteres. 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, where Sophia of Gortyn was a presbytera as well as an archisynagoga of the synagogue of Cisamus. In Thrace, the title was held by Rebeka and in Tripolitania (Libya), by Makaria Mazauzala.

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." 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.

Women probably did have an official role in the early Church, since in Rom. 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."