Buried Talents: The Archaeological Evidence

Recently, a number of scholars have noted that archaeological and other evidence supports the idea that the early church had women elders and bishops. While the existence of the evidence is undeniable, some argue that such women were part of heretical sects.

However, others argue that women had these roles early on but the church later came to reject this practice. As a result, references to women have been deleted in the ancient writings that have been preserved, but the archaeological evidence continues to testify to women having had leadership roles.

The WIkipedia offers a helpful summary of the evidence in “Ordination of women,”

Some supporters of women’s ordination have claimed that there have been ordained priests and bishops in antiquity. The official [Catholic] Church position on this is that “a few heretical sects in the first centuries, especially Gnostic ones, entrusted the exercise of the priestly ministry to women: this innovation was immediately noted and condemned by the Fathers who considered it as unacceptable in the Church.” In response to that position, some supporters of women’s ordination take the position that those sects weren’t heretical, but, rather, orthodox.

Some arguable evidence that not all ordinations in the Catholic tradition have been those of males exists. For example, the Pope Gelasius I apparently condemned the practice of women officiating at altars; inscriptions near Tropea in Calabria refer to “presbytera,” which could be interpreted as a woman priest or as a wife of a male priest. Furthermore, a sarcophagus from Dalmatia is inscribed with the date 425 and records that a grave in the Salona burial-ground was bought from presbytera Flavia Vitalia: selling burial plots was at one time a duty of presbyters. There have been some 15 records so far found of women being ordained in antiquity by Christians; while the Vatican insists those are ordinations by heretical groups, the Women’s Ordination Conference contends that those were orthodox Christian groups. There is also the church of Santa Praxedis, where Theodora Episcopa — Bishop Theodora, with the word for “bishop” in feminine form — appears in an image with two female saints and Mary. That church’s pastor alleges that the church was built in honor of Pope Pascal I’s mother by her son, who graced her with the title “Episcopa” due to her being the mother of a Pope. However, Theodora wears a coif in the image, suggesting that she is an unmarried woman.

Part of the difficulty is the fact that some heretical sects, the Montanists in particular, ordained women. It’s just hard to tell whether a tomb or even a church building was orthodox or heretical. Also making the analysis difficult is the uncertainty as to whether feminized forms of church office titles — episcopa, presbytera — refer to female bishops or elders or to their wives. The evidence goes both ways, although the idea that these are titles of wives seems to be losing ground.

It’s unquestionably true that the roles of women shifted in the early Christian years, with the cults of virginity and martyrdom coming to define the ideal woman, whereas we clearly see in the New Testament a much more robust participation by women in the Christian community. Women are honored for their spiritual gifts, as prophets, as witnesses, as missionaries, and even apostles.

The early church unquestionably did appoint women as deacons (later referred to as deaconesses). They were especially involved in the baptism of women, due to concerns of modesty. We’ll consider the Biblical evidence in a later post on deacons. The early Christian evidence is summarized here.

Moreover, there’s evidence that women took on priestly duties in areas where there was a shortage of men — such as due to warfare. But this hardly proves that women were treated as equal to men.

Of course, I’ve long held that historical evidence is unpersuasive, as our conclusions must be built on scripture only. And so, ultimately, it’s interesting but hardly persuasive. But it is interesting.

For the Catholic Church, which builds so much of its teaching on the traditions of the Fathers (uninspired early Christian writers), the question of early practice is nearly central. For us in the Protestant tradition of sola scriptura (scriptures only), it’s a fascinating study but not determinative.

Here’s a short bibliography for those interested:

Nicola Denzy, Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Christian Women (2007)

Eisen, Ute E. Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (2000)

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Buried Talents: The Archaeological Evidence

  1. Alan says:

    Historical evidence that suddenly appears in the late 20th or early 21st century is inherently suspect IMO — especially when it contradicts most of preceding history, but agrees with our modern secular culture.

  2. Nick Gill says:

    Stop the digging, you historians and archaeologists! We already know everything!

    If you find anything that contradicts what we already know, you're clearly wrong and your funding must be stopped!

  3. Joe Baggett says:

    I agree Alan on the evidence appearing late and so forth. But remember that the codices Vitancus and Sitcanus which most of the Bibles are now translated from were not widely known until the mid part of the twentieth century. The NIV was the first translation that was made from these manuscripts. So it was highly suspected as being wrong. But there are few scholars today that disagree or have a good case that the manuscripts are not older and more reliable than the six 12th century Byzantine text that the Bible was translated from until 1973. So be objective on this but I would urge you to remember that we will always be discovering more about the Bible and History. Sometimes we may have to back up and change our thinking sometimes we won't.

  4. Alan says:

    Interesting that you brought up the NIV regarding manuscripts.

    Consider the following note in the NIV regarding the ending of Mark:

    [The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.]

    Now consider how they revised that claim when they updated the NIV to create the TNIV:

    [The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.]

    Note that they dropped the claim that those manuscripts are the most reliable. And it is good that they did, because those early manuscripts have many reliability issues.

    Nobody is denying that they are earlier than the KJV manuscripts. But interestingly, the Diatessaran, a harmony of the gospels written in the second century, has the long ending to Mark — and it predates those "earliest manuscripts" by two centuries.

  5. Jay Guin says:


    There are, of course, numerous changes in the accepted Greek text that the Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus brought about that clearly improve over the KJV text. Sometimes older evidence is better. Sometimes it's not.

    But always, the more evidence, the better.

  6. Alan says:


    The archaeologists can keep digging. I just don't think their next discovery should automatically be deemed more reliable than all the previous ones.

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