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, rev. ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017 (rev. 2024).

At upper left is inscription from the Catacomb of Monteverde, Rome (Frey #315, Noy # 11). In Greek, "Here lies Gaudentia, the priestess, aged 24 years. In peace her sleep." Menorah and ark on right side. Vatican Museums (DAPICS 1464).

The tantalizing question of a woman's status within the hierarchies of Jewish and Christian communities in Rome is raised by the following inscription in Greek from the Monteverde catacomb, which translates as: "Here lies Gaudentia, the priestess [ierisa], aged twenty-four years. In peace her sleep".[i] 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)".[ii] 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.[iii]

In their commentaries on the term, 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. Also in Exodus, 38:8, there is mention of "ministering women... at the door of the tent of meeting", but the nature of their ministrations is not disclosed.

"Priestess", then, 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.[iv] 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.[v] 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 this period 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”.[vi] 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.[vii] Female archisynagogoi, who may have performed the same duties as their male counterparts, were also drawn from the ranks of eminent families.

Inscription naming Myrina "Presbytera" from Nocera Superiore (DAPICS n. 1265).

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".[viii] Yet the term "Presbytera" appears in other sites. At Nocera, in 1988, Dr. Marisa de Spagnolis unearthed two marble architectonic fragments bearing the names and titles of a husband and wife who held offices in 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.[ix] 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.[x]

Three inscriptions found in Venosa, dedicated to Beronike, Mannine, and Faustina, indicate that they were presbyteres.[xi] 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.[xii] In Thrace, the title was held by Rebeka and, in Tripolitania (Libya), by Makaria Mazauzala. [xiii]

Inscriptions have given evidence of a number of Christian women who held the title. A Christian inscription from Calabria referred to a "presbytera," but P. Testini declared her to be "the wife of a priest".[xiv] 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, argued that Eulogia bore the title as the wife of a gerousiarch, in the sense of an "elder" (presbyter) of the community.[xv]

Women probably did have an official role in the early Church while it was still largely a Jewish sect: In Romans 16.1. St. Paul himself mentions a certain Phoebe as 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. But in later centuries, the hierarchy of the early Church seems to adopt a more resistant attitude toward women playing an active role in church functions, as seen in 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".[xvi]

[i] CIJ 1.315, JIWE 2.11, p. 18: Now in the Vatican Museums. Decorating the right side of the stone is a disproportionately oversized menorah towering over a Torah shrine and another menorah.
[ii] Frey, CIJ 1, p. 248; H. J. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome (Philadelphia, 1960), p. 193; B. Lifshitz, Prolegomenon to CIJ 1 (New York: Ktav, 1975), p. 34; Noy, JIWE 2, p. 18, also considered it "likely".
[iii] M. Schwabe & B. Lifshitz, Beth Sheʿarim 2: The Greek Inscriptions (Jerusalem: Massada Press and New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1974), p. 43, n. 66.
[iv] CIJ. 2.1514; Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (SEG) 1.574.
[v] 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: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1982), 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 Jews in the Roman World (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973), pp. 30, 59, 204.
[vi] Brooten, Women Leaders, pp. 5-6, citing CIJ 2.741 and IGR 4.1452.
[vii] Brooten, Women Leaders, pp. 18-21, citing CIJ 2.756, and Th. Reinach, "La pierre de Myndos," in Revue des Etudes Juives 41 (1901), pp. 1-6.
[viii] CIJ 1.400; JIWE 2.24, pp. 27-28. There have been several versions of the word written in Greek characters as Oura or oura. Frey and Muller describe it as a name - Ursa and "Oursa (?), respectively: Frey, CIJ 1, p. 309, Muller, “Il cimitero degli antichi Ebrei posto sulla Via Portuense,” in  Dissertazioni della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia 2.12 (1915), p. 209. Leon, on his part, saw it as "ura": Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 325.
[ix] Communicated by M. de Spagnolis in letter to Estelle Brettman of May 2, 1989.
[x] As theorized by Frey, CIJ 1, p. 309 and Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 191, n. 2.
[xi] 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).
[xii] Inscription 731c. in B. 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," in 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".
[xiii] 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". P. 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," in 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, so Moscati's premise is apparently correct".
[xiv] P. Testini, Archeologia cristiana, 2d. ed. (Bari: Edipuglia, 1980), p. 388.
[xv] JIWE 1.59, p. 80.
[xvi] Citation in JIWE 1, p. 80.

Next: Named Jewish Congregations in Rome