This entry contains nine subentries: ANCIENT NEAR EAST; ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN PROPHECY; HEBREW BIBLE; GREEK WORLD; ROMAN WORLD; NEW TESTAMENT; EARLY JUDAISM; EARLY CHURCH; and LATE ANTIQUITY.

Ancient Near East

The discussion of religious leaders in the ancient Near East is based on the combined evidence of a vast variety of documents: lexical and administrative texts, which give us information concerning ancient understanding of categorization and classification and mention numerous cult officials; temple hymns and descriptions of cultic rites, which grant us a glance into the performative activities of the religious personnel; and mythological compositions, which supply us with a key into the elaborate etiological explanatory system that surrounded ancient Near Eastern religious institutions. All these texts are usually found in palatial or temple archives and rarely even in private archives that belonged to families of nobilities. Last, but not least, archaeological remains of iconographic and artistic depictions of religious personnel and cultic scenes occasionally fill the gaps of topics left unaddressed by textual records.

Gender and Religious Leadership Roles.

As a rule, the vast majority of high-ranking cultic personnel were men. On occasions, the king himself functioned as the highest religious authority, a situation that reflects an intertwining of the spheres of political administration and religion or cult. Two notable exceptions to this unbalanced androcentric division can nonetheless be noted: female high priestesses and gender ambiguous male cultic attendants. Together with male religious leaders, the two aforementioned categories are the focus of this article.

Male and Female Religious Leaders: High Priests and Priestesses.

Several terms for priests, priestesses, and other cultic personnel in ancient Near Eastern sources are mentioned throughout this article. For additional such terms, the reader is referred to the bibliographical items listed below and most conveniently to the index found in Henshaw (1994, pp. 351–364).

The en/ēnu: High priest.

One of the most significant figures in Mesopotamian cult organization was the en, a functionary already attested in some of the earliest cuneiform texts (ca. 3300–3100 B.C.E., usually termed “the archaic period”) found in the Sumerian city of Uruk (biblical Erech, located in southern Iraq). The office held by this person may be defined as “priest-king,” since his duties incorporated both religious and secular functions. As we will see, the intrusion of the political domain into the religious one was a frequently reoccurring phenomenon throughout the history of the ancient Near East. Indeed, the en acted as both the highest ruling authority of the city and its leading religious figure. He was perceived as a mediator between the populace of Uruk and its patron goddess, Inanna. As such, he was probably a charismatic figure, who gained power thanks to his abilities and personal qualities. As prime priest of the local deities, he handled both cultic and administrative activities of the temple and performed ceremonies and sacrifices for the gods. At the same time, he was in charge of daily life of the city, initiated building enterprises, and managed tax collection and its redistribution.

From the Early Dynastic period (beginning ca. 2900 B.C.E.), however, the political aspect of this office diminished until it was completely taken by other title holders: the ensi (a title usually translated as “governor”) and the lugal (a title later on to designate “king”). The en continued, nonetheless, to perform his religious and cultic tasks, his role being equal to that of a high priest. Once the use of the Akkadian language became widespread at the expense of Sumerian, this title was loaned into Akkadian in the form of the term ēnu.

The nin-dingir(-ra)/ēntu: High priestess.

The office of the ēnu had a female equivalent, known by the Akkadian designation ēntu. She was one of the most notable female cult attendants in Mesopotamia, frequently designated by the Sumerian title nin-dingir(-ra). The terms nin-dingir(-ra)/ēntu are usually translated by modern scholars as “high priestess” and they are found as synonymous in various lexical lists. In some of these lists the ēntu was paralleled with several titles of female cultic personnel who were devotees of various deities and resided in cloisters, such as the nadītu, qadištu, ugbabtu/gubabtu, and uppuštu. These lexical equations, however, do not necessarily point to synonymy but more probably to similar semantics shared by these terms. Thus, all these titles were related to each other as denoting women who were engaged in cultic activities, but they stood for different professions.

The Sumerian term nin-dingir(-ra) appears in lexical lists already in the Fara period (ca. 2600 B.C.E.), whereas its Akkadian equivalent ēntu is attested from as early as the Old Akkadian period (2334–2154 B.C.E.). In Old Akkadian administrative texts we encounter various women who bore the title ēntu and were described as belonging to specific deities, such as Ninšubur and Enlil. Later on, in the Ur III period (2112–2004 B.C.E.), these priestesses were documented as servants of the deities Bau, Gatumdug, Hendursag, and Nindar. In the Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000–1600 B.C.E.) the attestations of the title become much more abundant and appear in various textual genres. After the end of this period, however, the title is scarcely attested, and the office probably almost ceased to exist, except for a brief recurrence at the end of the Neo-Babylonian period (625–539 B.C.E.), during Nabonidus’s reign (556–539 B.C.E.). In many cases we note that the women chosen to fulfill this function came from the circles of the royal family and were either the king’s daughters or sisters. This custom probably reflects the aspiration of secular rulers to strengthen their control over the sphere of religion and cult. The duties of the ēntu included the occasional commissioning of building enterprises, managing the estates of her cloister, and performing lustrations, prayers, and sacrifices for the gods. She also participated in the “sacred marriage” rite (see below).

Gender, sexuality, and high priesthood.

The comparison between the ēnu and the ēntu is most revealing in regard to gender differences in Mesopotamian religion. The claim occasionally made by scholars that most ēnu priests served feminine deities whereas ēntu priestesses served male ones is inaccurate. Apparently, both officiants could serve deities of both sexes. As was noted, although the Sumerian term nin-dingir(-ra) is attested from early periods, the Akkadian term ēntu, and presumably the post of the high priestess it designated, only formed in Old Akkadian times. This may be viewed as evidence for the difference between the male and female offices of the high priesthood and testify to the fact that the female equivalent of an already well-established male office emerged at a later stage in history in the Semitic environment of the Old Akkadian empire. Caution is advised here, however, since the evidence in this regard is open for interpretation, and we are ignorant of the extent of activities and duties fulfilled by the nin-dingir(-ra) during the eras preceding Old Akkadian.

As for the range of their duties, as was specified above, both the ēnu and the ēntu were involved in a mixture of religious and secular activities. One major distinction between the ēnu and the ēntu lies in the aspect of sexuality incorporated in their performance. It has been argued that texts such as those describing the sacred marriage rite (see below) demonstrate that the role of the ēntu included sexual intercourse conducted as part of her cultic performance. Whether these descriptions were realistic or fictional, they clearly exhibit a social and cultural notion associating the role of the ēntu with sexuality. No parallel sexual aspect, however, appears to have accompanied the performance of the ēnu.

Gender ambiguity of male figures in Mesopotamia: The kalû.

Although his role in cult was significant, the ritual lamenter known as kalû (Sumerian gala) seldom functioned as a high-ranking official. Rarely, however, he could gain significant power and esteem and hold the office of chief cultic lamenter, kalamāhu (Sumerian gala.mah). As such, he performed important administrative duties and could become a wealthy and powerful person. This male figure is one of the best documented cult personnel in Mesopotamia and, as explained below, the evidence suggests that although he was biologically male his gender may have been more aligned with femininity.

The earliest attestations of the kalû (under the Sumerian designation gala) appear in lists of persons dated to the Fara period. The role of the kalû as a professional lamenter in funerals is evident in texts from the Early Dynastic IIIb period (ca. 2500–2340 B.C.E.) and from Gudea’s reign (2144–2124 B.C.E.). The documentation of the kalû in Ur III texts portrays a similar picture of a figure engaged in mourning rites.

The evidence seems to change from the Old Babylonian period onward. The duties and activities of the kalû evolved greatly and included music playing, singing, and chanting throughout the ceremonies of the goddess Inanna/Ištar. A corpus of proverbs dated to the Isin-Larsa period (ca. 2000–1900 B.C.E.) portrays the kalû as a ludicrous figure characterized as infertile. See for example the following: “A gala threw his son into the water, (saying:) ‘May the city be built like me! May the country live like me!’” This proverb seems to present a humorous analogy between the barren gala (symbolized by throwing his son to the water) and the ominous future of the population, since for the inhabitants of the city and the country to be built and to live “like the gala” means to remain infertile.

In later periods, especially in the first millennium, the documentation of the kalû depicts him as a priest involved in various rites. In these rites he frequently used a Sumerian dialect known as emesal, sometimes translated by scholars as “women’s language” but more probably meaning “thin/delicate speech.” The use of this dialect by the kalûs has been the source of a wide debate among scholars, since apart from these cultic male lamenters only female figures used emesal. This may be suggestive with regard to the gender identity of the kalû and the association of this male figure with effeminacy.

Several mythological compositions attest to the relation between the kalû and the goddess Inanna/Ištar, most notably “Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld,” “The Fashioning of the Gala,” and “Inanna and Ebih.” In these compositions the kalû is variously portrayed as a savior, soother, and votary of the goddess. According to documents dating from the Fara period to the end of Ur III (ca. 2600–2000 B.C.E.), he was a professional lamenter who performed funerary rites, with no evidence relating him to any cult. The earliest of these rites were exclusively performed by women; later, male kalûs and women performed them together; and eventually only kalûs were recorded as performing these rites. For this reason, the kalûs employed in their performance the emesal dialect, otherwise used by females alone. From the Old Babylonian period onward we find kalûs in contexts relating to Inanna/Ištar’s cult. It is therefore possible to hypothesize that the initial affiliation of the kalû with femininity, as a lamenter who performed funerary rites characteristic of women, stood at the background of his gender ambiguity. Starting at the Old Babylonian period, he was no longer associated with funerary rites and seems to have become affiliated with Ištar, as he is mentioned in proverbs, mythological, and administrative texts with the goddess. The documentation of this figure is long-lasting and continues even until the Hellenistic period. We notice in texts dating to these later periods that the role of the kalû remained virtually the same for many centuries.

As for the chief cultic lamenter, the kalamāhu, his title is attested from at least the Early Dynastic IIIb period. He was a high-ranking official and was in charge of various groups of workers, among them lower-rank kalûs. As a person who was originally kalû before becoming a chief-kalû, the kalamāhu likely possessed the traits of a feminine gender construct described above. However, scholars question whether the kalamāhu was indeed originally a kalû or merely fulfilled his role as a prebend holder. This doubt is probably unjustified, since although there is no evidence for the latter possibility we know for a fact that some kalamāhus were previously kalûs, such as an Ur III period official named Dada. This person was recorded in various texts both as a kalû and as a kalamāhu, and since these texts are dated we can be certain that they document the very same person, who was originally a kalû and later on was promoted to the role of kalamāhu.

Known Individuals.

Enheduanna, daughter of king Sargon of Akkad (2334–2279 B.C.E.), founder of the Old Akkadian empire, is the earliest ēntu-priestess at Ur known to us by name. Ancient traditions attribute to her the authorship of various literary compositions, most notably hymns exalting the patron goddess of the empire, Inanna/Ištar. Although the reliability of this attribution is now questioned by scholars, the very existence of this tradition exemplifies the importance Enheduanna enjoyed in later eras. Another known ēntu is Enannatumma, daughter of king Išme-Dagan of Isin (1953–1935 B.C.E.), who was also a high priestess and renovated two temples in the city of Ur.

A different high-ranking religious official discussed above, whom we occasionally know by name, is the kalamāhu. We have mentioned the kalamāhu Dada of the Ur III period and noted that much is known about the activities he performed along the years of his career. This person was a musical performer and an organizer of various ceremonies that took place in the court, which included singing and music playing. Thus he was in charge of other personnel, among them kalûs. Further, from an Old Babylonian private archive from the city of Sippar (southern Iraq) we learn that the owner of the archive was the kalamāhu Ur-Utu. He was in charge of the administration of the temple of Annunītum, a local goddess who was perceived as a manifestation of Inanna/Ištar. Ur-Utu was a wealthy and distinguished person, engaged in numerous business and religious activities. For example, he received payments for granting people the right to perform various cultic rites. We have abundant information documenting the lives and careers of these kalamāhus, which grants us an acquaintance with them far more intimately than with the usual anonymous persons who held these offices.

The Royal Couple as Religious Leaders.

We have some evidence from the history of the ancient Near East for kings and queens officiating religious roles as high priests. Mesopotamian rulers were usually considered their people’s representatives before the gods, mediators between the celestial and the earthly worlds. In the Assyrian Empire specifically, the king was regarded as a high priest. As for their consorts, already in mid-third millennium B.C.E. certain wives of Sumerian city-governors (ensi) were involved in the arrangement of various cultic procedures. We thus know of Baranamtarra, wife of Lugalanda, Šagšag, wife of Urukagina (or Uruinimgina), and Dimtur, wife of Enentarzi, all from the city-state of Lagaš (southern Iraq), who organized ceremonies and cultic rites. In the second millennium B.C.E., Šibtu, wife of Zimri-Lim, king of Mari (1775–1762 B.C.E.) was in charge of the state affairs during her husband’s frequent military campaigns. As such, she administered the ceremonial and cultic activities of the kingdom. Finally, in the first millennium B.C.E., a large number of documents attest to the involvement of Queen Naqi’a/Zakūtu, wife of Sennacherib, king of Assyria (705–681 B.C.E.), in the cult. One of these texts mentions the participation of both her and her husband in a ritual.

The best examples in this regard, however, come from the Hittite kingdom (ca. 1650–1200 B.C.E.), situated in the Anatolian plateau (modern Turkey). Hittite texts supply us with ample evidence for the function of the royal couple as religious leaders. In Hatti, the king assumed the role of the highest priest, venerating the prime deity of the Hittite pantheon, the Storm-god. The texts say explicitly that the land belongs to the Storm-god, under whose auspice the king rules. As such, the king acted as the leading celebrant of various cultic festivals throughout the year, especially during spring (the purulli and antahsum festivals) and autumn (the nuntarriyashas festival) time. These religious duties were of such high importance that occasionally a military campaign would be halted to allow the king to return to Hattusa, the royal capital (ca. 120 miles/200 kilometers east of Ankara, central Turkey), and celebrate an important festival.

His consort, the reigning queen (who assumed the title Tawananna), officiated similarly in the post of the highest priestess of the realm. We can therefore speak in this regard of gender as mirror image, the religious position of the reigning queen reflecting a female counterpart of the role assumed by the king. An excellent exemplification of this gender mirror image is found in nontextual evidence. A Hittite unfinished rock relief found in Fraktin, located in south-central Turkey, depicts the royal couple, King Hattusili III and Queen Puduhepa (1267–1237 B.C.E.), in an exact parallel: each one of them pours libation in front of the prime deity that corresponds to their sex, Tešub and Hepat. We see in this relief that the earthly royal couple venerates the celestial one, with the king and queen depicted alike. The posture and even size of Hattusili and Puduhepa are identical, thus insinuating equal cultic importance of the two. Naturally, the role of the Hittite king in the religious sphere was far greater than that of his consort; however, as his female mirror image, the queen enjoyed a highly distinguished religious rank herself.

Modern Debates.

Questions about the role of sexuality and gender in the ancient religion and cult are highly complicated. As a result, their research is frequently controversial and highly contested. In what follows, I will mention a few of these controversies.

The sacred marriage ceremony.

One of the heavily debated issues in the scholarship of ancient Near Eastern gender and religious studies involves the existence of the alleged institution of sacred marriage. This rite supposedly involved the engagement of the ēntu high priestess in sexual intercourse with the king, symbolizing the union between the celestial couple Dumuzi and Inanna. Scholars disagree whether the descriptions of this ceremony, the most notable of which is attributed to Iddin-Dagan king of Isin (1974–1954 B.C.E.), reflect true reality or are merely imaginary.

The kalû as homosexual or hermaphrodite.

Various attempts have been made by modern scholars to relate possible etymologies of the Sumerian term gala, or Akkadian kalû, with traits of homosexuality or hermaphroditic qualities. For example, some suggest that the term gala may refer to homosexuality: the cuneiform signs “uš” and “ku” that make up gala can alternatively be read as “gìš” and “dúr”: “penis” and “anus.” Some suggest that the term kalû originated from the Semitic root k-l-’, conveying the meaning “both” or “two kinds” and thus indicating the hermaphroditic characteristics. These attempts remain conjectural.

Castration among cult attendants in Mesopotamia.

Also debated is whether castration and self-emasculation account for the gender ambiguity among certain Mesopotamian male cult personnel. Because one of these figures, the kurgarrû, is frequently documented in myths and ritual texts as holding various weapons, probably cutting ones, certain scholars equate him with the galli, the first-millennium Anatolian priests of Attis and Cybele who later Roman sources describe as performing self-emasculation in reverence of their patron god Attis. The alleged parallel between the kurgarrûs and the galli has been taken even further to suggest that the gender ambiguity of other male figures in Mesopotamian cult such as the kalû, assinnu, and pilpilû should be explained in the same way. We must stress, however, that any resemblance between the Mesopotamian figures and the galli is unsubstantiated. No text documents the castration of any of these figures, and the only reason for the alleged comparison lies in the association of the kurgarrû with cutting weapons. This association received various alternative explanations, none of which related to corporal mutilation or castration.

[See also DEITY, subentry ANCIENT NEAR EAST; GENDER AND SEXUALITY: ANCIENT NEAR EAST; and RELIGIOUS PARTICIPATION, subentry SACRED PROSTITUTION.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Assante, Julia. “The kar.kid/harimtu, Prostitute or Single Woman? A Critical Review of the Evidence.” Ugarit-Forschungen 30 (1998): 5–96.
  • Bryce, Trevor. Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Cooper, Jerrold S. “Sacred Marriage and Popular Cult in Early Mesopotamia.” In Official Cult and Popular Religion in the Ancient Near East: Papers of the First Colloquium on the Ancient Near East “The City and Its Life,” Held at the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan (Mitake, Tokyo), March 20–22, 1992, edited by Eiko Matushima, pp. 81–96. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1993.
  • Gabbay, Uri. “The Akkadian Word for ‘Third Gender’: The kalû (gala) Once Again.” In Proceedings of the 51st Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, edited by Robert D. Biggs, Jennie Myers, and Martha T. Roth, pp. 49–56. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  • Henshaw, Richard A. Female and Male: The Cultic Personnel: The Bible and the Rest of the Ancient Near East. Allison Park, Pa.: Pickwick, 1994.
  • Lambert, Wilfred G. “Prostitution.” In Aussenseiter und Randgruppen: Beiträge zu einer Sozialgeschichte des Alten Orients, edited by Volkert Haas, pp. 127–157. Konstanz, Germany: Universitätsverlag Konstanz, 1992.
  • Marsman, Hennie J. Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.
  • Menzel, Brigitte. Assyrische Tempel. Vol. 1: Untersuchungen zu Kult, Administration und Personal; Vol. 2: Anmerkungen, Textbuch, Tabellen und Indices. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1981.
  • Peled, Ilan. “The Third Gender in the Ancient Near East: A Study of Institutionalized Gender Otherness.” Ph.D. diss., Bar-Ilan University, 2012.
  • Renger, Johannes. “Untersuchungen zum Priestertum in der altbabylonischen Zeit.” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 58 (1967): 110–188; 59 (1969): 104–230.
  • Sallaberger, Walther. “Priester.” Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie 10 (2004): 617–648.
  • Watanabe, Kazuko, ed. Priests and Officials in the Ancient Near East: Papers of the Second Colloquium on the Ancient Near East: “The City and Its Life,” Held at the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan (Mitaka, Tokyo), March 22–24, 1996. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1999.
  • Westenholz, Joan G. “Enheduanna, En-Priestess, Hen of Nanna, Spouse of Nanna.” In DUMU-E2-DUB-BA-A: Studies in Honor of Åke W. Sjöberg, edited by Hermann Behrens, Darlene M. Loding, and Martha T. Roth, pp. 539–556. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1989.

Ilan Peled

Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy

Prophetic activity is known not only from the Hebrew Bible but also from a number of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) archives and inscriptions. The two main archives are the royal archives from Old Babylonian (OB) Mari (eighteenth century B.C.E.; Durand and Charpin, 1988) and the state archives of the Neo-Assyrian (NA) empire (seventh century B.C.E.; Parpola, 1997; Nissinen, 1998). There are also a small number of Transjordanian and Hittite inscriptions (Zakkur, Amman Citadel Inscription, Deir ‘Allā, Tell Aḫmar) that attest to prophecy (translations of virtually all relevant texts can be found in Nissinen, 2003; for an overview of ANE prophecy see Stökl, 2012a, 2012b).

In both OB Mari and during the NA empire, prophets were part of the system of diviners, a kind of special advisory council to the king, providing them with the information they relied on for their decisions (Grabbe, 1995). This indicates that ANE prophets functioned as parts of the royal administration rather than being individual religious leaders who possessed the authority to challenge the king. This is partly due to the fact that the preserved ANE evidence for prophecy comes either from royal archives or royal inscriptions. Prophecy on behalf of rivals to the throne also existed, as is attested by a letter, SAA 16 59, which mentions that a female slave had been prophesying in favor of a rival to the throne.

It is striking that all terms used for prophets in the ANE are attested in both masculine and feminine forms. The professional titles which were used during the OB period are āpilum / āpiltum, and raggimu / raggintu during the NA; the term for (cult-)ecstatic are mu/aḫḫû(m) / mu/aḫḫūtu(m). With regard to the function of the individual prophet, there does not appear to be any differentiation between male and female prophets. At Mari, however there is a distinction with regard to the distribution: there are many women among the lower-level mugḫḫû and very few among the higher-level āpilū (Stökl, 2009). There may also be a difference with regard to the way that female prophets’ oracles are treated and trusted (Hamori, 2012). No such differences can be seen in the NA empire, where the vast majority of attested prophets are women.

There is a popular theory that gender ambiguity is an intrinsic part of ANE prophecy (e.g., Huffmon, 1992; Nissinen, 2003, p. 200). In most texts the prophet’s gender is indicated through the use of “gender determinatives.” But there are some exceptions to this general rule. Additionally, the assinnu, whose role is often understood by modern scholars as performing gender ambiguously in late first-millennium texts, is connected to prophecy at Mari (early second millennium B.C.E.). Recently, Stökl (2013) and Zsolnay (2013) have questioned the interpretation of the data. Zsolnay points out that there is no indication that the Old Babylonian assinnu performed their gender ambiguously; instead their function appears to have been linked to the martial cult of the deity: Ishtar. At the same time, not a single assinnu is attested in connection with prophecy in the texts from the first millennium. Since the assinnu is attested relatively well in the first millennium and since there is evidence for prophecy in the first millennium, this absence is likely significant (Stökl, 2013; Zsolnay, 2013). The other three texts that are often taken as evidence for gender ambiguity in ANE prophecy are Neo-Assyrian and can be found on the same tablet, SAA 9 1, the first and largest of the collective tablets that preserve ten prophetic oracles to Esarhaddon (Parpola, 1997, pp. 4–11). Their significance lies in the fact that all three are contained on an otherwise well-written archival copy, which rules out the possibility that each case can be attributed to scribal idiosyncrasy.

The three cases are: (1) Ilūssa-āmur, (2) Bāia, and (3) Issār-lā-tašīaṭ. (1) The name of the female prophet Ilūssa-āmur is spelled with a female determinative in SAA 9 1.5: 5, but the gentilic in the following line is most probably masculine (libbala[yya]). The end of the word is broken away, and the grammatical gender has been restored by Parpola. Other restorations have been suggested, but in view of NA grammar and the attested forms of the gentilic, Parpola’s restoration is reasonably certain. (2) The name of the female prophet Bāia is spelled with a female determinative in SAA 9 1.4: 40, where she is described as a “son of Arbela,” i.e., a (male) person from Arbela. In SAA 9 2.2: 35, the prophet is described as a (male) “Arbelan” with a masculine gentilic. The identity of the prophet is uncertain as only parts of the last a-sign are visible. On the basis that the oracle in SAA 9 2.2 is similar to SAA 9 1.4, Parpola reconstructs the prophet’s name as Bāia, but this is far from certain. (3) In the case of Issār-lā-tašīaṭ, the grammar of the name itself indicates that the prophet was male (Edzard, 1962) but the spelling of the gender determinative is unclear. According to Parpola, the scribe started writing the feminine gender determinative and then superimposed a masculine and a divine determinative, while Weippert (2002) sees a feminine and divine determinative. Since SAA 9 1 is an archival tablet from Nineveh, it is highly unlikely that the scribe saw the prophet’s performance in Arbela. The scribe would therefore not have been able to detect any ambiguous gender performance.

[See also GENDER AND SEXUALITY: ANCIENT NEAR EAST.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Durand, Jean-Marie, and Dominic Charpin. Archives épistolaires de Mari. 2 vols. Archives royales de Mari 26. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 1988.
  • Edzard, Dietz Otto. “mNingal-gāmil, fIštar-damqat: Die Genuskongruenz im akkadischen theophoren Personennamen.” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 55 (1962): 113–130.
  • Grabbe, Lester L. Priests, Prophets, Diviners, Sages: A Socio-Historical Study of Religious Specialists in Ancient Israel. Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1995.
  • Hamori, Esther J. “Verification of Prophecy at Mari.” Welt des Orients 42 (2012): 1–22.
  • Huffmon, Herbert B. “Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, edited by Daniel N. Freedman, pp. 477–482. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  • Nissinen, Martti. References to Prophecy in Neo-Assyrian Sources. State Archives of Assyria Studies. Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Corpus Project, 1998.
  • Nissinen, Martti, with C. L. Seow and Robert K. Ritner. Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East. Society of Biblical Literature; Writings of the Ancient World 12. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
  • Parpola, Simo. Assyrian Prophecies. State Archives of Assyria 9. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1997.
  • Stökl, Jonathan. “Ištar’s Women, YHWH’s Men? A Curious Gender-Bias in Neo-Assyrian and Biblical Prophecy.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 121 (2009): 87–100.
  • Stökl, Jonathan. “Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, edited by Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville, pp. 16–24. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2012.
  • Stökl, Jonathan. “Gender ‘Ambiguity’ in Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy? A Reassessment of the Data behind a Popular Theory.” In Prophets Male and Female: Gender and Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East, edited by Jonathan Stökl and Corrine L. Carvalho, pp. 59–79. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.
  • Weippert, Manfred. “‘König, fürchte dich nicht!’ Assyrische Prophetie im 7. Jahrhundert v. Chr.” Orientalia 71 (2002): 1–54.
  • Zsolnay, Ilona. “The Misconstrued Role of the assinnu in Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy.” In Prophets Male and Female: Gender and Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East, edited by Jonathan Stökl and Corrine L. Carvalho, pp. 81–99. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.

Jonathan Stökl

Hebrew Bible

Religious leaders or religious specialists in the Hebrew Bible functioned as intermediaries between the worshipping community and its deity. Categories of religious leaders in the Hebrew Bible include priests, scribes, judges, and prophets. Religious leaders were both male and female, professional and lay. However, the preponderance of representation of religious leadership was male. This is in large part because the religious traditions represented as normative or orthodox in the Hebrew Bible provide us with the views of the male religious elites responsible for the texts. Women are associated more with the popular religious traditions that the writers considered heterodox, such as necromancy and wizardry. These different locations of power constructed through sexuality and gender in the Hebrew Bible are part of the focus of this entry.

Judges.

The Hebrew noun shophet (judge) is a participial form of the verb shaphat, which means “decide,” “rule,” “govern” or “deliver.” Judges were individuals either chosen for their moral character or endowed with God’s spirit to inquire of God on behalf of the people, to settle disputations between parties, to teach the people God’s statutes and instructions (Exod 18:13–20; Num 11:16–17; Judg 3:9–10), and to carry out punishment following judgments (Deut 19:16–19, 25:1–3). The average person likely associates the term in the Hebrew Bible with the charismatic figures who appear in the book of Judges. However, few of the “judges” in this period are represented as functioning in the judicial sense of the term. They function primarily as military leaders whom Yahweh raised up to deliver the Israelites from the hand of their enemies (Judg 2:16–19, 3:10), rulers of territory, and executors of justice (4:4, 16:31; 1 Sam 7:6).

Both laity and priests handled the administration of justice in ancient Israel (Deut 17:8–9, 19:17–18). However, the Hebrew Bible also depicts monarchs as administering justice, such as David (2 Sam 8:15), Absalom (15:2) and Solomon (1 Kgs 3:16–28). This conflicts with the responsibilities of the king as described in Deuteronomy 17:14–20, where the king is subject to the same authority as the people. Only one woman, Deborah in Judges, holds the office of judge in the Hebrew Bible. She is described as “judging” Israel in the forensic sense of deciding disputes (4:4–5). Most scholars take for granted that Deborah was a judge. However, each version of the origins of the judicial system in ancient Israel specifies that only men should hold this office. For example, the book of Exodus, which credits Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, with its institution, describes Jethro as instructing Moses to appoint upstanding men as officers to sit as judges for the people over minor cases, while Moses handled the major cases (18:13–27). A similar version in the book of Numbers depicts Yahweh commanding Moses to choose seventy elders to help him with judging the people (11:16–25). The Deuteronomic material conflates the two traditions, with Moses appointing tribal elders as military leaders and judges at his own initiative to govern the people (Deut 1:9–17; cf. 16:18). This was a two-tiered system comprising tribal leaders in the local towns (16:18) and a council of Levitical priests and judges, who carried out judicial decisions too complicated for the local magistrates (17:8–12).

In contrast, 2 Chronicles 19:5–11 records that King Jehoshaphat instituted the judicial system in ancient Israel, appointing judges in each major fortified city of Judah, who were charged with simple cases. He appointed Levites and priests, followed by male heads of families as administrators over more difficult cases. This hierarchical structure depicts a centralized judicial system that invalidates the local tribal courts.

In each case mentioned, males are tasked with overseeing the judicial system in Israel. Deborah’s depiction as both a prophet and judge (Judg 4:4) suggests that the writers wished to portray her in the tradition of Samuel, who is portrayed as both a prophet and judge, administering justice throughout Israel (1 Sam 7:15–17).

Priests.

The priesthood in the Hebrew Bible has been defined in terms of its function as the institution for mediation (Vaux, 1997) and the administration of Yahweh’s house (Leithart, 1999). The bulk of the information in the Hebrew Bible on the role and function of the kohen (priest) is found in the book of Leviticus. The priest’s primary duties were related to table or altar service (Num 4:5–20). He was also responsible for presenting burnt sacrifices and offerings and overseeing the proper handling of offerings and declaring matters clean and unclean (Lev 1—7, 21—22), oracular consultation (Num 27:21; Judg 18:5), judging (Deut 17:8–13; 19:17), Torah instruction (Deut. 33:10; Hos 4:6; Mic 3:11), and guarding the sanctuary (Num 1:53; 3:28, 32).

Prior to the monarchy, male heads of households performed priestly duties. These were mostly rituals observed in the home, such as offering prayers and sacrifices on behalf of their families (Exod 12:1–13, 43–49). However, the book of Judges reports that a certain Micah built a shrine in his home and appointed his son to serve as priest at his sanctuary before replacing him with a Levite (Judg 17). Male heads of households also offered sacrifices at local shrines and high places (Gen 22, 31; Judg 13:19), as well as leading their families in worship during major festivals (Deut 16:16; 1 Sam 1:4).

The book of Exodus provides an account of the inauguration of the office of priesthood. According to Exodus 28—29, Yahweh instructed Moses at Mt. Sinai to construct the tabernacle and consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve Yahweh as priests for perpetuity. This command established a central dwelling place for encountering Yahweh and a permanent leadership for mediating between Yahweh and the people. It also officially established the male exclusivity of the priesthood in ancient Israel.

Women’s primary relationship to the priesthood was by birth or marriage. Priests could marry only the virgin daughters of other priests (Lev 21:13). They were prohibited from marrying prostitutes or any other women who had been sexually defiled, including divorcees and widows (21:7, 13). If a priest’s daughter married a nonpriest, she was cut off from a share of the sacred offerings. However, if she was widowed or divorced without offspring, she could return to her father’s house and resume partaking of the offering (22:12–13).

Unlike the sons of Aaron, neither the daughters of Aaron nor any other Israelite women could be priests. Scholars have offered various reasons for the exclusion of women from the priesthood. One reason is the gender correspondence between deities and religious functionaries such as priests. For example, Jonathan Stökl (2009) argued that the scarcity of female prophets in the Hebrew Bible was likely a result of both monotheism and patriarchy. Stökl maintained that because Yahweh, Israel’s deity, was male, the gender of the religious mediator must also be male. However, this does not account for the few Israelite female prophets in biblical Israel (see the section on prophets, below). Moreover, in Mesopotamia, where there were priests and priestesses, the gender of the cultic functionary was complementary to the gender of the deity, with male priests serving goddesses and female priestesses serving male gods.

Another reason cited for the exclusion of women is the physiological differences between females and males. According to this view, there was some doubt that females could perform the priestly role of animal sacrifice because of their limited physical strength. However, lifting heavy livestock such as a bull for sacrifice was the role of the worshipper, not the priest who sprinkled the blood of the animal on the altar (Lev 1:4–5, 3:2).

A woman’s reproductive physiology is also cited as a reason. Ritual purity regulations defined menstruating women and women who have just given birth as ritually unclean and in need of purification (Lev 15:20–23; 12:2, 5). The discharge of blood during menstruation and childbirth required women to be secluded in order to avoid contamination. Anything that came into contact with a menstruating woman or her bed or seat was unclean. Therefore, she was denied participation in the cult during her time of impurity. For some, this explains why women are banned from the priesthood. However, men who had a sexual discharge were also made ceremonially unclean and excluded from cult participation until their purification by washing of clothes and bathing (Lev 15:3).

There were also distinctions made between Aaron’s sons and non-Aaronite males. According to several texts, only Aaron’s sons could be priests. All other males were excluded. However, this did not appear to apply to kings. Certain texts depict Israel’s kings performing priestly duties. For example, King Saul offered sacrifices (1 Sam 13:8–9), although he might have viewed this as his role as the symbolic male head of the nation. Kings Jeroboam I and Ahaz are also depicted as presiding at the altar (1 Kgs 13:1–6; 2 Kgs 16:13). They are each condemned for sacrificing at unauthorized sites, but not for their sacrificial activity, implying that this was a normal function of the king. However, 2 Chronicles 26:16–21 is explicit in its condemnation of kings presiding as cultic functionaries.

The priestly texts made further distinctions between certain male members of Aaron’s family. Male descendants with any physical defects, such as blindness, disability, skin disease, running sores, or damaged testicles were prohibited from performing certain priestly functions such as performing table service before the Lord: “He shall not come near to offer the food of his God” (Lev 21:18–21). They were also excluded from approaching the veil or the altar in order not to defile the Lord’s sanctuary (21:23).

Levites.

The priestly material distinguishes between the descendants of Aaron and descendants of Levi or Levites (leviim). Leviticus and Numbers depict the priests as the personal attendants of Yahweh in the house of Yahweh. By contrast, the Levites are described as lower clergy appointed by Yahweh to serve Aaron and his sons, overseeing the maintenance of the tabernacle and all its equipment, and setting up their tents around the sanctuary encamping the sanctuary to protect it from encroachment ((Num 1:47–53, 3:5–39). The descendants of Levi’s son Kohath ages twenty to fifty were set apart from Levi’s other sons to set up and dismantle the tabernacle (Num 4:1–4, 15).

In contrast, the Deuteronomic material refers to the “Levitical priests,” inferring that Levites and priests are one and the same (Deut 21:5, 31:9) and that table service was the Levites’ prerogative (18:1–8). However, the postexilic texts reinscribe the distinctions between priests and Levites. For example, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah refer to the priests and Levites separately among the cultic personnel (Ezra 1:5; 2:36–63, 70; 6:18; Neh 7:39–60, 72).

Mourning Women.

Qonnanoth (professional mourners) were among the few religious specialists in the Hebrew Bible that were almost exclusively female. Women skilled in mourning were called upon to sing dirges and lament on behalf of Zion in the book of Jeremiah (9:16–19; Heb 9:17–20). Jeremiah 9:20 implies that professional mourners trained their daughters or other women in the art of grieving. This same text gives the impression that they were older women known for their experience (9:17; Heb 9:16).

Other texts that associate wailing and chanting with women are 2 Samuel 1:24, where the daughters of Israel are summoned to weep for Saul and Jonathan, and Ezekiel 32:16–18, where Yahweh commands the women of the nations to chant a lamentation over Egypt and its hordes. Juliana Claassens (2010) has suggested that women may have belonged to guilds where they honed their craft. That these women are called upon to lead the community in public expressions of grief challenges the public/private dichotomy, which holds that women’s work was restricted to the domestic realm.

Prophets.

The term “prophet” (nabi’; fem. nebi’ah) in the Hebrew Bible is difficult to define because the term connotes different phenomena throughout the texts, therefore making it difficult for scholars to reach a consensus. This dilemma is complicated by the common understanding of the English term “prophet,” from prophetes, the Greek translation of nabi’, as a “foreteller,” one who predicts the future. Although biblical prophets might speak about future events, they are understood as “forthtellers,” individuals who addressed the present while referring to Israel’s past. Israelite prophets functioned at the most basic level as Yahweh’s “mouthpieces” (Deut 18:18B), mediators between Yahweh and humans.

Prophecy is one among several forms of divine consultation that are sometimes referred to as “divination.” The various terms for prophet in the Hebrew Bible are ro’eh and cḥozeh (seer or visionary), ish ha-’elohim (holy man or man of God), and nabi’ (one who is called by Yahweh to speak on behalf of Yahweh). What is not as clear is the distinction between each type. For example, according to the Deuteronomic material, the figure now called a nabi’ (prophet) in Israel was previously referred to as a ro’eh (seer; 1 Sam 9:9). Some scholars have argued that the ro’eh title reflects a nomadic setting, in contrast to the nabi’ title, which emerged during the settlement period in ancient Palestine.

Other scholars, while in agreement that the use of the four different labels for prophet reflects linguistic usage in different times and places, contend that the variation is between the northern and southern kingdoms. For example, they maintain that the term nabi’ may have been particularly prominent as a way of referring to prophets in Israel, while the ḥozeh label appears to have been particular to Judah.

Still another suggestion is that the different titles reflect different prophetic behavior. While there has been considerable debate whether Israelite prophets displayed ecstatic behavior or only spoke intelligibly, the niphal verb form of naba’ (prophesy) in Hebrew means “to act as a nabi’,” “to prophesy,” or, in a derogatory sense, “to behave like a prophet” (Müller, 1998, p. 134). King Saul is described as having been possessed of the spirit of God and fallen into a prophetic frenzy, which caused him to prophesy with the prophets (1 Sam 10:5–6, 10–13). The prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:29 are said to have “raved until the time of the offer of the oblation” (NRSV). The word translated “raved” is literally “prophesied” and conveys the behavior of one crazed or in a frenzy.

Prophets also appear in the Torah, or Pentateuch. The first four books depict them as charismatic figures whose methods of divine revelations or disclosures to humanity were usually through visions and dreams (Num 12:6) and spirit possession (Num 11:16–17, 25). Only three figures are designated prophets: Abraham (Gen 20:7), Aaron (Exod 7:1), and Miriam (Exod 15:20). However, the text implies that other figures who received divine revelation through dreams and visions were prophetic figures, such as Jacob (Gen 28:11–12, 17–18; 31:4–16), Joseph (Gen 38:20–24), and Moses (Exod 3:4B).

The book of Deuteronomy presents Moses as the founder of the office of prophet in ancient Israel and the prophet par excellence, the model for all others who come after him (Num 12:6–8; Deut 13:1–5 [Heb 13:2–6], 34:10; cf. Hos 12:14). However, as David Petersen observes, according to Deuteronomy 34:10–12, there really is no prophet who is like Moses: “Whether as known by the deity face to face or as a performer of wonders, Moses had no competitors or imitators, either before him or after him” (2006, p. 317). Consequently, all other prophets are subordinate to Moses.

Unlike priests, prophets did not inherit their position. Rather, they were servants of Yahweh called by Yahweh. Therefore, the office of prophet is one of the few religious leadership positions that were open to individuals regardless of kinship or gender. For example, women could be prophets. There are four named women prophets in the Hebrew Bible: Miriam (Exod 15:20), Deborah (Judg 4:4), Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14; cf. 2 Chr 34:22), and Noadiah (Neh 6:14), as well as an unnamed woman (Isa 8:3). There are also women in Ezekiel 13:17 who are not identified as prophets but are accused of prophesying by unauthorized means. The text is ambiguous whether gender contributed to their being charged.

Scribes.

The Hebrew word sofer (scribe) is a participle form of the root safar, which has a range of meaning from “to count (up),” “make a written record,” “to count (out), or “to write.” The role of the scribe changes over time in the Hebrew Bible. The first mention of a scribe in the Hebrew Bible was in the premonarchic period. The role of the scribe was to muster the tribes of Israel for battle (Judg 5:14). During the monarchic period scribes were officials affiliated with the Temple and the royal court who had administrative duties that were more reflective of the term’s root. For example, Shaphan, a “scribe to the house of Yahweh” (2 Kgs 22:3) who served under King Josiah of Judah, was responsible for distributing Temple funds for Temple repair (22:5), as well as reading the “book of the Torah” to the king (22:8).

Scribes who served in the royal court include Seraiah, scribe to King David (2 Sam 8:17; variant spellings Sheva, 2 Sam 20:25; Shishah, 1 Kgs 4:3; Shavsha, 1 Chr 18:16); brothers Elihoreph and Ahijah, serving King Solomon (1 Kgs 4:3); and Elishama, a scribe in King Jehoiakim’s house (Jer 36:12, 20–21). Jeremiah was placed under house arrest in the home of the scribe Jonathan (37:15, 20). Whether ancient Israel had scribal schools has yet to be determined by textual evidence. There is, however, a reference to a group of scribes who are accused of writing with a “false pen” (Jer 8:8).

By the postexilic period, the role of the scribes was to preserve and interpret the book of the Torah. For example, Ezra, who is described as both a priest and a scribe “skilled in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6), was responsible for reinstituting the worship of Yahweh in Judah for the returnees from Babylonia. This responsibility included reading the Torah for the people and interpreting it (Neh 8).

Although several scribes were Temple and government officials, scribes also served private individuals. For example, the scribe Baruch wrote down the words of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 36:4, 17–18). He also read the scroll with the words dictated by Jeremiah in the house of Yahweh at Jeremiah’s command (36:5–6, 8). Wealthy individuals and royalty were also trained in writing. Thus, Queen Jezebel wrote letters to the elders in the name of her husband, King Ahab (1 Kgs 21:8), and Queen Esther wrote letters confirming the institution of the feast of Purim (Esth 9:29).

The office of scribe does not appear to be a hereditary position. However, certain passages suggest that fathers (and at least one mother) may have trained their sons in the scribal tradition. For example, Shisha, a scribe in King David’s administration (see above), was also the father of scribes Elihoreph and Ahijah. Jeremiah 36:10–12 infers that Shaphan’s son Gemariah and grandson Micaiah may have been scribes. Ezra 2:55 lists the descendants of a female scribe, Hassophereth (lit. “female scribe”; the name appears as Sophereth in Nehemiah 7:57), who served under Solomon among the postexilic temple functionaries. She may have been the leader of a guild of scribes in monarchic Israel.

Final Thoughts.

Religious leadership in the Hebrew Bible reflects the deployment of power through the social constructions of sexuality and gender. Who gets to represent Yahweh on behalf of the community is based not only on who is in power but also on the constructions of sexuality and gender. For example, the exclusion of males with crushed testicles or severed penises from performing certain priestly duties or participating in the assembly could have been based just as much on the sexual ambiguity of emasculated males as on their being seen as a source of defilement.

As mentioned above, there were different forms of divination. However, not all forms were acceptable. The biblical writers approved of noninductive forms such as prophecy and messages received through dreams, which did not require specific skills to perform. However, alternative forms of divination such as magic and necromancy (divination by inquiring of the dead), which may have required formal training, were considered heterodox. Yet priestly modes of divination that belonged to the latter, such as the Urim and Thummim (1 Sam 23:8–13) and the ephod (Exod 28; 39), were tolerated.

Women practiced both forms of divination. Although women could be prophets, the eshet ba’alat-ob (lit. “mistress of spirit” or medium) in 1 Samuel 28 (cf. Lev. 19:31), mekash-shefah (sorceress) and yidde’oni (lit. one with a spirit of divination or wizard) were denounced (Exod 22:18 [Heb 22:17]; Lev 19:31, 20:27). There is an imbalance between the penalties for female practitioners of forbidden forms of divination and those for male practitioners. For example, female sorcerers were sentenced to death (Exod 22:18 [Heb 22:17]). However, the fate of male sorcerers is not specified (Deut 18:10; Jer 27:9; Mal 3:5). Nevertheless, the fact that women practitioners are denounced suggests that there was a clientele for their arts despite the ban.

[See also EDUCATION, subentry HEBREW BIBLE; IMAGERY, GENDERED, subentry PRIESTLY LITERATURE; and POPULAR RELIGION AND MAGIC, subentry HEBREW BIBLE.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Botterweck, G. Johannes, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, eds. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. 9 vols. Translated by John T. Willis and David E. Green. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974–1984.
  • Claassens, L. Juliana M. “Calling the Keeners: The Image of the Wailing Woman as Symbol of Survival in a Traumatized World.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 26, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 63–77.
  • Grabbe, Lester L. Priests, Prophets, Diviners, Sages: A Socio-Historical Study of Religious Specialists in Ancient Israel. Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1995.
  • Lawrence, Beatrice. “Gender Analysis: Gender and Method in Biblical Studies.” In Method Matters: Essays on the Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David L. Petersen, edited by Joel M. LeMon and Kent Harold Richards, pp. 333–348. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.
  • Leithart, Peter J. “Attendants of Yahweh’s House: Priesthood in the Old Testament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 24 (1999): 3–24.
  • Müller, H.-P. “איבִנָ nāḇî’.” In Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 9, edited by G. W. Botterweck, G. Johannes, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry and translated by John T. Willis and David E. Green, pp. 129–150. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998. German version of Vol. 9 was published in 1984–1986.
  • Nissinen, Martti. Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East. Edited by Peter Machinist. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
  • Petersen, David L. “The Ambiguous Role of Moses as Prophet.” In Israel’s Prophets and Israel’s Past: Essays on the Relationship of Prophetic Texts and Israelite History in Honor of John H. Hayes, edited by Brad E. Kelle and Megan Bishop Moore, pp. 311–324. New York: T&T Clark, 2006.
  • Rooke, Deborah W., ed. Embroidered Garments: Priests and Gender in Biblical Israel. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2009.
  • Shectman, Sarah. “The Social Status of Priestly and Levite Women.” In Levites and Priests in Biblical History and Tradition, edited by Mark A. Leuchter and Jeremy M. Hutton, pp. 83–99. Ancient Israel and Its Literature 9. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.
  • Stökl, Jonathan. “Ištar’s Women, YHWH’s Men? A Curious Gender-Bias in Neo-Assyrian and Biblical Prophecy.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 121 (2009): 87–100.
  • Vaux, Roland de. Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions. Translated by John McHugh. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997.
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Vanessa L. Lovelace

Greek World

The great variety of Greek religious officials requires detailed examination of their functions, duties, and privileges. Officials were in charge of the rituals honoring the gods and served as mediators between gods and humans: the terms hiereus (priest) and hiereia (priestess) suggest a special relationship with the hiera (sacred). As a general rule, the gender of the official matches that of the deity. There are, however, many exceptions to this neat scheme of gendered relations to the gods, particularly in the cults of Apollo and Dionysus. Although priests and priestesses seem at first sight to have equal functions, the kind of influence they exerted on religious matters and their relationship to political authority depended on gendered legal status. A related issue concerns the authority of religious officials. They have long been considered as equivalent to civic magistrates, especially because they have been compared to Christian priests. Indeed, as studies show, Greek priesthoods were not necessarily intended for experts or for people having a vocation for religion. Moreover, the authority of priests was usually limited to the sphere of the sanctuary, dealing with its administration and ritual actions. While priests had no authority over the city, they served as mediators between the city and the gods, and the city participated actively in the regulation of cults and conduct of rituals.

Methodological Concerns.

The position of ancient Greek women has been examined through a masculine and often fantasizing lens. Herein lies an array of ideological positions, from feminists’ accusation of oppression to male anxiety about the feminine “otherness” and about women’s violence toward men. Moreover, what we know about Greek women is written by men. Ancient authors had an interest in priestesses, but their works are lost. There was indeed a play by Aeschylus entitled Hiereiai and a comedy by Menander entitled Hiereia. Moreover, modern scholars have often compared information about ancient Greek women and information about women in modern Mediterranean societies: they were confined in the limits of the house, silent, powerless, and oppressed. While gender inequality clearly existed as a phenomenon, it is dangerous to generalize across the different city-states. For example, compared to the conservative Athenian society, Spartan women appear to have been trained and freely speaking. Women’s roles in Greek religion must have varied significantly from city-state to city-state and region to region, as well as from one cult to another.

To speak generally, however, women have since antiquity been attributed a special relationship to the divine sphere because of their “irrational” nature. Therefore they have a special connection to the Dionysian cults and ecstatic, frenzied wanderings in the wild. However, their functions were far more varied and significant. A widely held view among twenty-first-century scholars is that Greek women were denied political citizenship but enjoyed religious citizenship. Nonetheless, priestesses, just as with priests, had to be descended from citizen families. They were astai (having only civic rights), sometimes for generations, as the priestess of Artemis Pergaia in Halicarnassus in the third century B.C.E. (Sokolowski, 1955, Lois sacrées de l’Asie Mineure, no. 73, l. 6–8). Furthermore, official positions in the service of the gods rendered them wholly visible in the public sphere. Not only were priestesses granted the right to attend events that were normally forbidden to women, as the priestess of Demeter Chamyne at Olympia who was permitted to watch the games (Pausanias, Description of Greece 6.20.9), they also had responsibilities and charges, such as for the possessions of the sanctuary, as shown by an Athenian inscription dating from the imperial period in which the priestess was accountable for the furniture (IG II2 1346, l. 5–7), and they were not excluded from participation in legal procedures, unlike ordinary women. Priestesses also had the power to appoint other religious officials (IG II2 1328, l. 16–17; Sokolowski, 1969, Lois sacrées des cités grecques, no. 166, l. 23–26). More significantly, they were able to bring to court cases of impiety and argue before the assembly, and therefore they would have had to deal with political bodies. In addition, they were eligible to receive honors usually reserved for men. Therefore priestesses were singled out not only from ordinary women but also from ordinary men.

Most of the evidence on prominent women representatives comes from Athens. In the following discussion I will present some examples from the Athenian evidence, complemented by some examples from elsewhere, showing the variety of practices depending on both the locale and the time period in question. One general trend is the increasing visibility of women in the public sphere, and with the coming of the Hellenistic age public honors were bestowed on benefactresses with more frequency. Priestesses are, however, the most prominent women of the classical period, having in the religious sphere a role equivalent to that of men.

The Priestesses of Athena Polias.

Among the mostly highly ranked Athenian women, the priestesses of Athena Polias serving the city goddess are the most famous. We know of twenty-seven of them, which illustrates their exceptional position. Their mythic model is Praxithea, wife of Erechtheus, the king of Athens. She appears prominently in the lost play of Euripides entitled Erechtheus. In order to save the city and following the oracle of Delphi, she agreed to the sacrifice of their daughter. Erechtheus became a hero, the daughter was given divine status, and the goddess herself made Praxithea, whose name means “the one acting for the goddess,” her first priestess.

The lifelong priesthood of Athena Polias was inherited by married women who were members of the genos of the Eteoboutadai, one of the most illustrious Athenian families that also provided the priest of Poseidon Erechtheus. The priestess was assisted in her service by other female attendants. She performed the preliminary sacrifices at the altar of Athena. She received barley, wheat, and an obol for each Athenian’s birth or death (Aristotle, Oeconomica 1347A). She also performed the proteleia (preliminary sacrifices) on weddings. Lycurgus’s lost speech “On the Priestess” reports the administrative powers of the priestess of Athena Polias. By decree, she might add her seal to the register (frag. 6.4).

The first actual known priestess of Athena is Lysimache in the last quarter of the fifth century B.C.E. She was in office for over sixty years, and had had four children. The state honored her with a statue. Among the most honored priestesses was Chrysis. In 106/5 B.C.E., after having performed the Pythais, the official procession of the Athenians to Delphi, she was honored by the Delphians. She received the crown of Apollo and honors usually reserved for men. She and her descendants were bestowed the privileges of proxenia to Delphi (being special representatives), promanteia (priority in consulting the oracle), prodikia (priority of legal processes), asylia (inviolability), ateleia (freedom from taxes), proedria (a front seat) at competitions held by the city, and the right to own land and houses (IG II2 1136, l. 12–20). While honorary decrees were awarded to priests according to their own report, they were usually awarded to priestesses based on a report presented by their kyrios (guardian, usually their husband or father); this passage is lost in the decree for Chrysis.

Other priestesses of Athena Polias played an exceptional role because of their involvement in politics. One of them expelled the Spartan king Cleomenes from the Acropolis in 508 B.C.E. Indeed, he was trying to install the Athenian Isagoras as leader of an oligarchy, and the Spartans were planning to invade Athens (Herodotus, Histories 5.72). The same misadventure occurred to Cleomenes in Argos where the priestess of Hera refused him entry to the temple (6.81). In another critical situation, just before the battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.E., which impeded further Persian invasion, Themistocles was trying to lead the Athenians out of town. The Athenians were persuaded to leave the city when the priestess announced that the snake guarding the Acropolis had abandoned the place (Herodotus, Histories 7.142–144 and 8.41).

Priestesses of Demeter.

The priestesses of another prominent cult, that of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis, were also descendants of a powerful family, appointed by lot among the members of the genos of the Philleidai. It is noteworthy that one of these acted against the hierophant Archias, the official in charge of showing the rituals to the initiates during the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the fourth century, Archias was found guilty of impiety (Demosthenes, Against Neaira 116–117). He was called to the law court because he had carried out an unlawful sacrifice during the festival of the Haloa for a hetaira named Sinope. His impiety was twofold: he had sacrificed in the courtyard of the sanctuary, which was illegal on that day, and had performed a sacrifice that was under the jurisdiction of the priestess.

Another Eleusinian priestess disobeyed civic authority. The Athenian politician Alcibiades was condemned to death for his involvement in the profanation of the Mysteries in 415 B.C.E. A decree stated that he was to be cursed by all priests and priestesses. A priestess of Demeter named Theano refused, stipulating that she was a praying, rather than a cursing, priestess (Plutarch, Alcibiades 22.5). The historical existence of Theano has been questioned. Theano is indeed the name of the only priestess mentioned in the Iliad (6.297–310), that of Athena in Troy. On behalf of the Trojans, she intervened by bringing a garment as an offering from the Trojan women who were asking for the help of the goddess. She thus appears as a model for priestesses. Whether or not Eleusinian Theano actually existed, it is noteworthy that seven years later, the hierophant Theodoros refused to rescind his curse against Alcibiades when the people favored his return (Plutarch, Alcibiades 33).

Priestesses of Demeter serving women-only festivals possess special authority. In the sanctuary of the Thesmophoroi in Piraeus in the fourth century B.C.E., no one was to free slaves, nor assemble thiasoi, nor make dedications or purifications or approach the altar and the buildings without the priestess (IG II2 1177, l. 3–7). The priestess therefore has control of what happens in her sanctuary, since her presence is required for a series of religious and civil actions. Yet the laws in case of transgression imply that the demarch, the magistrate presiding over the district, imposes a fine and takes the matter to a trial by jury. Thus the priestess does not interact directly with the magistrates, but rather through an intervening entity in her transaction with the political body.

Other Prominent Female Officials.

More prominent female officials, this time in oracular sanctuaries, served a male god. Euripides in his lost play the Captive Melanippe (frag. 494 Kn) shows the importance of women in ritual through the examples of the Pythia at Delphi and the priestess of Zeus at Dodona who both prophesy the gods’ will. The oracles have a crucial role regarding religious as well as political issues. The oracular responses were preserved in the archives and produced when necessary.

The pythia, called a mantis, a promantis (diviner), and a prophētis (prophet), pronouncing the oracles of Apollo, had once been a young maiden, a status that changed because of a rape. Thereafter she had to be over fifty, still wearing a maiden’s garment (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica 16.26.6). She seems to have been chosen from among the local peasant women. Given the popularity of the oracle in the classical period, up to three pythias were prophesying by turns. The god was served by more priests and prophētai who assumed complementary tasks.

The pythia’s political authority has been both exaggerated and minimized in modern scholarship. The oracle was indeed consulted for state matters such as war or tyranny, and in most colonization expeditions. There are stories relating to manipulation, corruption, and blackmail of the pythia by politicians (Herodotus, Histories 5.63, 5.66, 5.90, 6.123; Aristotle, The Constitution of the Athenians 19.4; Jacoby, 1924–1958, vol. II A, p. 103, 70 frag. 206). Yet the presence of an uneducated woman at the center of the procedure would have limited the possibilities of influence. Even so, the Spartans claimed that the Delphic oracle gave them their constitution (Herodotus, Histories 1.65; Plutarch, Lycurgus 6). The Athenians consulted the pythia in 352 B.C.E. regarding the delimitation of the hiera orgas (sacred meadow) lying at the border of Megara to avoid a war. The pythia also participated in the appointment of the ten eponymous heroes of the tribes of Athens (Aristotle, The Constitution of the Athenians 21.6).

These stories relating the pythia’s authority form a clear picture of the influence exerted by the sanctuary of Delphi. Even if her personal relations to the politicians of the time were limited, she was pronouncing the will of the god and therefore influenced the outcome of most crises and expeditions.

More Female Attendants.

Athenian girls, at least those descending from citizen families, had the occasion to officiate at festivals at various stages of their lives. Aristophanes’s Lysistrata gives a much debated summary of these roles: a young girl at seven was an arrēphoros (carrier of things not to be spoken) serving Athena, then she was an aletris (flour grinder) for the founding goddess; at ten she would attend the Brauronia in honor of Artemis participating with the title of “bear” or, according to another interpretation, “playing the bear” in an initiation ritual. As a maiden, she would serve as a kanēphoros (basket bearer). All offices were filled by young girls or women, who were suitable since their families had the means to support them.

Once they became adults, women could inhabit a great variety of attendants’ offices. Working along with the priestesses in charge, these lower officials had ritual and administrative functions that contributed to the management of the sanctuary. We know, for example, that a certain trapezophoros (one who bears, or takes care of, the offering table) and another one called kosmō (related to the adornment or furnishing) were collaborating with the priestess of Athena Polias, taking care of everything along with her (Lycurgus frag. 6.20). They were sometimes praised for their service, as was the diakonos (attendant) of the priestess of Athena Polias named Sueris in the third century B.C.E. (IG II2 3464). At times the name of their function was shaped after the title of male magistrates; the Thesmophoria, a women-only festival of Demeter, was administered in the Attic deme of Cholargos by two women called archousai after the Athenian chief magistrates (IG II2 1184, l. 3). Even though we know no more than their duties during the festival, other cult attendants did take initiatives on various levels. The zakoros (subordinate guardian) Timo, officiating in the sanctuary of Demeter on Paros, was accused of letting the Athenian general Miltiades get into the sanctuary and do or see things that were forbidden to men (Herodotus, Histories 6.134–136). Miltiades was injured and died, and while the Parians accused Timo of betraying the city, the oracle of Delphi asserted that Timo was not responsible and only led Miltiades to meet his fate.

Other stories relate notable individual women even though they are not priestesses or cult officials. In the beginnings of the settlement of Thasos we find Cleoboia, who first brought the rites of Demeter from Paros (Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.28.3). The Ephesian colony of Massalia was likewise established under the presence of Aristarche, who introduced the cult of Artemis (Strabo, Geography 4.1.4). While we know very little about Cleoboia, Aristarche was a distinguished Ephesian instructed by the goddess to act as she did. She did what was necessary for the foundation of the colony and the new cult, and was appointed priestess as an honor.

Further Issues.

Women had their own special position in the public sphere, especially when it came to religion. As worshippers, they attended sanctuaries and performed rituals. As officials of given cults they had specific duties overlapping with those of men. Priests and priestesses had equal functions, similar duties, and the same rules of appointment depending on status, wealth, and age. Indeed, procedures for appointment show that any citizen fulfilling specific requirements could become a priest, and, with the exception of hereditary priesthoods, any citizen could aspire to the priesthood. With sufficient financial means a priest was able to make the cult more impressive, as the honors occasioned by such generosity show. As to honors, females and males were praised in the same terms for the same services. Additionally, some female priesthoods had precise requirements for sexual status and conduct. Sometimes, priestesses enjoyed the same privileges as priests. The priestesses of Athena Polias had the privilege of cultic eponymy as well as the one of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis. Female priesthoods could also serve to date historical events, as happened with the dating of the beginning of Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War, which uses the name of the priestess of Hera at Argos, Chrysis, along with the ephors of Sparta and the archon of Athens (2.2.1). The names of the priestesses of Zeus at Dodona were also preserved (Herodotus, Histories 2.55.3).

It is not difficult to discern the significance of such female priesthoods. These women had exceptional positions and a strong sense of family pride. What, then, is the difference between priestesses and priests? Priesthood did not necessarily “convert a female to a male” as Susan Cole (2004, p. 122) has asserted. The phenomenon of female officials opposing political authority is indeed intriguing, as the possession of religious privileges is not equivalent to the possession of political rights. Priests collaborate with the demos (people), the magistrates, and other religious experts such as the exēgētai (expounders). Eventually the citizen body made decisions. Clearly, gender limited the independence of priestesses more often than not. An official, the gynaikonomos (supervisor of women), ensured that women were behaving properly. As a rule, female religious officials needed a kyrios to mediate the relationship with the political bodies. Here again, however, there are exceptions. An inscription dating from the fourth century B.C.E. from Arkesine on Amorgos shows a priestess of Demeter reporting directly to the prytaneis (members presiding at the council) and complaining about women’s access to the sanctuary (IG XII 7, 4, l. 4–8). Another noticeable exception is reported in an inscription from Mylasa in Asia Minor, where “the women resolve[d]” issues in a cult of Demeter (Sokolowski, 1955, no. 61, l. 5), according to the expression that is usual for civic male magistrates making decisions. If women were able to adopt men’s usage in their service, the differences were immediately recognizable. Iconographical evidence distinguishes priestesses with a key as wardens and priests with a knife as sacrificers. This, again, does not mean that women did not perform sacrifices, as modern scholars long conjectured, but they did perform them much less often than men.

Political power is as important for this issue as gender. Religious agents officiating in public cults on behalf of the political authority operate under its responsibility. Civic magistrates were also allowed to perform rituals. According to Aeschines (Against Ctesiphon 17–18), both priestesses and priests have to do with the public affairs (ta koina). According to law, they are accountable to the council and the people. Accountability does not involve only the individuals but also their families. Women’s legal restrictions limit their acting capacity. Insofar as a priestess makes decisions and acts in her sanctuary, she behaves as her male counterparts do. But when she is to report before the assembly, her kyrios (guardian) speaks for her. The guardian may be necessary even to regulate sanctuary affairs, as is implied by a fourth-century B.C.E. inscription from Miletus where reports on those that did not give the priestess her perquisites were made by her guardian (Sokolowski, 1955, no. 45, l. 8–14).

Unlike priests, who have been compared to civic magistrates, female officials did not hold civic offices, at least not until the Hellenistic period. From the Hellenistic period on, and especially in Asia Minor, priests and priestesses officiate together in the same cults. Artemis Leucophryene in Magnesia is served by both a priest and a priestess (Sokolowski, 1955, no. 32, l. 15–16), as are Artemis Hymnia in Mantineia (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.13.1) and the Corybants at Erythrai (Sokolowski, 1955, no. 23). Teams of male and female officials seem to be the rule for priesthoods of the imperial cult, at least in the first century C.E. Moreover, civic titles that had until then been reserved for men were bestowed on women.

Priests and priestesses often collaborated with civic magistrates in order to enforce rules and laws for orderly conduct of the rituals. While at times they were opposed to decisions made by state officials, they did not have the power to overcome their authority. Significantly, politicians had an active role in religious conduct and rituals, even in those held only by women. In fact, it is the demos that has the ultimate authority not only to enact regulations concerning priesthoods and fixing their payments but also to introduce new deities.

Even the most oppressed women in the classical period, the Athenians, acted as public religious officials. Although equality was impossible, given that women could not act alone in legal matters, priestesses and other female attendants were acting on behalf of the polis (Sourvinou-Inwood, 1995, p. 114). Order and good relation with the gods depended partly on women performing their own duties. Regarding religion, women were not exactly subordinated to men. They followed a different kind of hierarchy from which priests were excluded or in which they performed different functions. In this context, priestesses were acting in ways complementary to those of men, if often with more limited authority.

[See also POLITICAL LEADERSHIP, subentry GREEK WORLD; RELIGIOUS LEADERS, subentries on EARLY CHURCH, NEW TESTAMENT, and ROMAN WORLD; RELIGIOUS PARTICIPATION, subentry GREEK WORLD; and SOCIAL INTERACTION, subentry GREEK AND ROMAN WORLDS.]

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Ioanna Patera

Roman World

When discussing the subject of religion, Roman writers rarely missed an opportunity to praise the antiquity of their religious traditions and their history of unwavering devotion to the gods. According to legend, Romulus founded Rome in 753 B.C.E. by performing a religious ritual designed to establish sacred space within the city’s boundary (pomerium), whereas the next king, Numa (r. 715–673 B.C.E.), was credited with creating the organizational structure of Roman religion. These ancient roots were a source of pride for later Romans: not only did Cicero boast that the Romans “have excelled every race and nation in piety (pietas) [and]…religious matters (religio),” but also he and many of his contemporaries simply assumed that it was the people’s adherence to their “ancestral customs” (mos maiorum) that ensured divine favor and Rome’s place of primacy in the world (On the Reply of the Haruspices 19; On the Nature of the Gods 2.8–9; 3.5–6; Virgil, Aeneid 1.278–279).

Priestly Colleges and Public Cults.

Because the performance of religious rites maintained the “peace of the gods” (pax deorum), religious symbols dominated the landscape: in the words of Livy, “There is no place in our city that is not filled with a sense of religion (religiones) and the gods” (5.52; see also 1.21.1). When shaping public policy, Roman politicians and generals ignored religious considerations at their own peril. Yet this does not mean that the religious practices of the state displayed a structural or doctrinal coherence. On the contrary, Roman reverence toward the divine was multifaceted and even inconsistent: instead of producing a systematic theology, the official cults were focused almost exclusively on public rituals and performances that ensured the health of the state (Cicero classifies religion under three categories: ritual, auspices [the observance of signs to ascertain the gods’ will], and prophetic warnings through divine portents; On the Nature of the Gods 3.5). In this eclectic environment, the Romans relied upon various officially sanctioned religious functionaries (sacerdotes) who were charged with specific responsibilities in managing the state cults (sacra publica) and conducting other religiopolitical duties.

Rome’s religious leaders were either members of an official priestly college or linked with less influential confraternities. The membership requirements and structure of the colleges were modified over the centuries, but by the end of the second century B.C.E. four major organizations achieve recognition as “most distinguished” (amplissima): the pontifices, the augures, the quindecemviri, and the septemviri (Res. gest. divi. Aug., 9.1; cf. Cicero, On the Laws 2.20–21). Led by the pontifex maximus, the pontifical college regulated the religious life of the citizen body by controlling the religious calendar and sacred places, conducting public rituals (performed especially by priests known as the flamines), regulating burial sites, and formulating procedures for the introduction of new religious rites. As experts in Rome’s religious heritage, they also functioned as an advisory body to the Senate and other political figures when the latter needed technical expertise and were even involved in more “political” affairs (e.g., publishing a record of the events of the state and adjudicating wills, inheritances, and adoptions). If the pontiffs provided a bridge between the individual and the state, the augurs were specialists in divination who acted as mediators between heaven and earth: they assigned sacred space and interpreted auspices to cultivate the benevolence of the gods. Magistrates could also call upon the college of the quindecemviri (“fifteen men”) to interpret the meaning of portents, which they did by consulting the collection of oracles found in the ancient Sibylline books. Finally, the septemviri (“seven men”) coordinated the sacrificial banquet dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva during the Plebian Games. Aside from these major colleges, minor priestly groups were responsible for assessing prodigies, drafting declarations of war and peace, maintaining lesser festivals such as the Lupercalia, and, with the beginning of the empire, performing rituals associated with the emperor cult (Scheid, 2003, pp. 129–143).

Most of the sacerdotes of the major priestly colleges were men who, until the beginning of the third century B.C.E., came from the patrician class and held their (normally lifetime) appointments while simultaneously retaining membership in the Senate. Women’s participation in this system was limited, but recent evaluations of the epigraphic material, combined with a re-examination of the literary sources, suggest that the opportunities for women to act as leaders were more varied than previously thought (Schultz, 2006). In the college of pontiffs, for example, the wives of the priests of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus were priestesses (flaminicae) bound by the same rules as their husbands and responsible for performing sacrifices. These women (and the regina sacrorum, the wife of the king of the sacred rites) were thus essential rather than ancillary members of the flaminate. Outside of the major colleges, it is clear that women could assume the office of the piatrix, a female interpreter of prodigies, whereas matrons participated in and even led ritual acts of supplication (supplicatio) on behalf of the state. In the Imperial period, women could also become priestesses in the cult of the emperor.

The cults of Ceres, Liber, and Juno Populona, which attest to the existence of priestesses (sacerdotes) and female magistrates (magistrae) and ministers (ministrae), provide additional evidence that Roman women assumed official leadership roles. More influential at a public level was the cult of the Vestal Virgins, an institution whose gender ambiguities and liminality contributed to its revered reputation and sacrality. Specifically, in this cult the priestesses were virgins who engaged in performances normally associated with married women: in a scene reminiscent of a manus marriage, they were taken away from their families by the pontifex maximus, who thereupon exercised authority over their behavior. They also wore clothing and hairstyles typical of brides or matrons and they presided over the Bona Dea festival, a celebration dedicated to women. At the same time, however, the Vestals enjoyed privileges characteristic of men, such as the power to provide legal testimony, draft a will, and manage their wealth while their father was still alive; as well as the accompaniment of an attendant (lictor) during public excursions. Further examination of their practices reveal similar aspects of ambivalence, such as performing private (i.e., feminine) duties (e.g., attention to the sacred hearth of Vesta and preparations of the salt and flour mixture [mola salsa] for sacrifice) in the Forum, the heart of public (i.e., masculine) space, and participating in rituals designed to promote fecundity. The link between private and public and purity and fertility suggests that the Romans connected the proper functioning of this cult with the maintenance of the “peace of the gods” and the health of the state (Beard et al., 1998, pp. 52–54; Kraemer, 1992, pp. 81–84).

Foreign cults.

Rome’s expansion in the later Republican period brought its citizens into contact with a number of foreign religions (sacra peregrina) from Asia Minor, Greece, and Egypt. The Senate was not adverse to introducing these cults into Roman society (they even sanctioned them to reestablish Rome’s bond with the divine), and they became enormously popular avenues for both men and women who wanted to cultivate meaningful religious experiences—hope for a better life on earth and after death—that the state cults could not offer. Moreover, whereas the (mostly male) patricians and other Roman elites controlled the state cults, the sacra peregrina were less restrictive with regard to class, ethnicity, and gender. Indeed, a full examination of the data (literature, epigraphy, and iconography) reveals that these cults drew their leaders from a broad spectrum of society, from the elites to slaves, Romans and non-Romans, and men and women. It should not be surprising, then, to discover that these cults articulate alternative models of leadership and social organization.

Magna Mater.

In 205 B.C.E., the Senate authorized the importation of the cult of Cybele from Asia Minor. Taking the name Great Mother (Magna Mater), this goddess arrived with much pageantry, but legislation was passed early that prevented Roman citizens from joining the priesthood and participating in its processions (these restrictions were abolished under the empire). The anxiety provoked by this cult stemmed from its provocative expressions of gender ambiguity. Specifically, the cult leaders were priests (galli) who had castrated themselves in imitation of the god Attis, who performed this act upon himself after the Mother Goddess drove him mad and adopted women’s dress and hairstyles. For the Roman mentality, which recognized the genitalia as a symbol of masculine power and virility and stereotyped femininity as derivative, soft, and weak, eunuchs were ambiguous “others” whose sexual identities subverted the “stable” categories of gender. Because castration made a man “unmanly,” both physically and morally, it is thus understandable that Roman writers found the practice of the galli confusing and their behaviors objectionable (Catullus 63; Juvenal, Sat. 6.51–521; Julius Obsequens, Book of Prodigies 44a; see also Epictetus, Discourses 1.2.25–28). Women too were well represented as leaders—inscriptions reveal that about half of the cult officials were female—who presided over all aspects of the cult (e.g., caring for the shrine and statue of the deity, funding banquets, and celebrating the springtime mysteries by leading the procession with the high priest [archigallus]).

Dionysus.

In these processions the priests would bear the image of the deity, accompanied by followers waving knives and playing music on cymbals, tambourines, and horns. This sort of activity was also characteristic of the devotees of Dionysus, the god of wine whose cult both literature and art connect with mysteries, secret initiations, and ritual license (see especially the frescoes found in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii). Women also were at the heart of this cult as both participants and leaders. According to Euripides’s Bacchae, a band of maenads (thiasos) accompanied the god wearing fawnskins, carrying wands (thyrsoi), handling snakes, playing flutes, and dancing wildly. Plutarch reports that women Dionysiac revelry dancing at the base of Mount Parnassus as early as the fifth century B.C.E., whereas literary and epigraphic sources attest to the existence of thiasoi in Greece and Asia Minor (Plutarch, Mor. 953D; Kraemer, 2004, pp. 16, 20–22). The duties of the female leaders remain frustratingly vague—inscriptions refer to them throwing raw meat (omophagion), carrying sacred objects, and leading ecstatic processions to the mountains and throughout the city—but they apparently oversaw the celebrations of both public and private celebrations of thiasoi, groups that could either be exclusively female or a mixture of men and women.

The cult of Dionysus appears on Italian soil by at least 400 B.C.E., the probable dating of a gold tablet found in a burial chamber at Hipponion that exhorts the deceased woman to drink from the waters of Remembrance to travel on the “sacred way which also other initiates (mystai) and bacchoi gloriously walk.” Other scattered evidence from the fourth and third centuries B.C.E. reveal that Romans were familiar but not hostile to the traditions of Dionysus. This changed in the late second century, however. In 186 B.C.E., accusations against the cult in Rome placed Bacchants under official scrutiny. The investigation culminated in a senatorial decree (Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus) that banished men from holding the priesthood, dissolved the office of the magistrate, dismantled Bacchic cult sites, and placed severe restrictions on the cult’s activity. During this reign of terror, around 7,000 people associated with the group were either imprisoned or killed.

Many questions about this event remain unanswered, but the senatorial decree offers important insight into the cult’s religious leadership. Specifically, its restriction of the priesthood to women and its dissolution of the positions of magister and promagister imply that these positions had been open to both sexes. The specific actions against the men also cohere well with recent studies that argue the Senate’s actions were designed to reassert authority over aristocrats from Etruria and Campania who had (supposedly) used the cult meetings as a forum for advancing their own political ambitions. Political considerations thus appear to have motivated the Senate rather than any general anxiety over female leadership or men and women worshipping together (points highlighted in Livy’s account, 39.8.1–19.7). In this instance it appears that the historian is simply employing stereotypical gendered rhetoric that defined foreign cults as lascivious and female behaviors as deviant and corrupt (Schultz, 2006, pp. 82–92).

Isis.

The suspicion that the Senate evinced for the cult of Dionysus was absent in the mystery religion of Isis. Indeed, this cult, which appeared in Italy at the end of the second century B.C.E., received official support from the beginning of the imperial period. In her Hellenistic incarnation, the Isis aretalogies speak of the goddess as the patron of women and routinely associate her with the principles of feminine domesticity (e.g., marriage, motherhood, fertility). Women no doubt came to the cult because of these associations, but her status as a savior who could alter a person’s fate and ensure a better afterlife gave the cult broad appeal.

The two most important festivals dedicated to her were the Isia, which commemorated the death and resurrection of Osiris, and the Festival of the Ship of Isis (Navigium Isidis), which included the launching of a ship dedicated to Isis to mark the beginning of the navigational year. Evidence for these rites is rare and disputed, but if frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum do depict these ceremonies, then it is clear that women were central actors in these rites (see also Apuleius, Metam. 11). Still, even at the height of its popularity women appear to represent only a minority of cult leaders: in the last centuries of the republic the priesthood was originally restricted to men, with women only managing to hold lesser ministerial positions such as “basket-bearers” (kanephoroi), attendants who opened the temples (pastophoroi), and stolists who dressed the statue of the goddess. In the imperial age, however, when the cult received support from emperors, over two dozen inscriptions refer to women with the titles hiereia or sacerdos and tombstone images, reliefs, and paintings portray women dressed in priestly clothes (i.e., linen garments and fringed mantles) and carrying distinctive cult objects such as the rattle (the sistrum). During the first centuries of the empire these priestesses could hold lifetime appointments (inscriptions refer to them as hiereia dia biou and sacerdos perpetua), yet there is no indication that they ever attained the highest echelons of the priesthood.

Mithras.

The cult of Isis used initiations as the mechanism for bringing votaries into the various grades of priestly offices—Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, for instance, details three separate initiations for Lucius, which culminate with him becoming a permanent attendant of the goddess (11.23–30). The cult of Mithras, a first-century C.E. Roman mystery religion that draws upon Persian traditions, utilized initiation ceremonies in a similar fashion to allow members to gain increasing rank and status. Because the literary evidence for this cult is almost completely lacking (and what does exist comes from nonmembers), scholars have had to rely on the (extensive) archaeological remains to determine how members organized their leadership. From this material it appears that Mithraic sanctuaries were modeled on the architecture of the universe. Astrological features were designed to mimic the cosmos and represent the stages in a votary’s initiation: thus the floors in the Mithraea of Felicissimus at Ostia and St. Prisca in Rome consist of a mosaic of seven symbols corresponding to each of the seven planets: Raven (Mercury), Bridegroom (Venus), Soldier (Mars), Lion (Jupiter), Persian (Moon), Sun-Runner (Sun), and Father (Saturn).

The specific roles played by members of each rank are impossible to recover, but Porphyry speaks of three classes within these seven ranks, so that initiates of the first three categories (Raven to Soldier) were at the lowest level and those classed from Lion to Sun-Runner had received a complete initiation. Only those members of the highest order, Father, claimed the name “priest” (sacerdos) (On Abstinence from Animal Food 4.16). In the same passage, Porphyry also states that Mithraism termed women “hyenas,” a designation that has almost universally been interpreted to mean that women were excluded from the cult, a conclusion seemingly in accord with the masculine imagery that dominates the material record. Yet the inclusion of the category “woman” in the Mithraic worldview suggests a place for the feminine in the ideological imagination of the cult, a position bolstered through the recognition of the feminine aspects of the Moon and Venus and, ironically, the omnipresent image of the sacrificed bull (Griffith, 2006).

Domestic Cult.

In addition to the state cults and mystery religions, Romans also valued private cults (sacra privata), those practices centering upon the health of the family rather than the state (although even these rites tended to mirror official ritual practices). In this sphere, the male head of the household (paterfamilias) was responsible for executing sacrifices to the domestic gods (the Lares, protectors of the family, and the Penates, guardians of the storehouse) and performing rituals connected to the life cycle (e.g., birth, marriage, death) and ancestor worship.

Women too were active in attending to the religious life of the domus: they decorated the hearth with garlands, maintained the supplies of the storehouse (penus), prepared the materials used in ritual activities, and tended the hearth fire (responsibilities that mimicked those of the state’s Vestal Virgins). There is also evidence of women joining their husbands in sacrifice during the Terminalia festival, and according to Plautus a young girl even substitutes for her wayward father by offering sacrifices at the family shrine of the Lares (Pot of Gold, 23–25). Other sources suggest that it was not unknown for women to perform without male supervision sacrifices of various kinds, even if it was more customary for men to act as officiants and the rest of the family as participants.

Judaism and Christianity.

In the Roman imagination, both Judaism and Christianity fall under the category of foreign cults. Like many of these mystery religions, they exhibit significant breadth in their approaches to leadership. Israel’s early authority figures are almost exclusively men whom God and the community invest with political, military, and religious power. Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah demonstrate, however, that Israel occasionally acknowledged women’s prophetic and administrative activity (Exod 15:20; Judg 4:4; 2 Kgs 22:14).). The Hebrew Bible also refers to the wife of the king as the “royal lady” (gevira), but it is unlikely that she had an official role in religious performances.

More evidence for women’s involvement in leadership appears in the late Hellenistic period. References to “female elders” and “mothers” in Dead Sea Scrolls seem to indicate a formal office, whereas inscriptions from the empire confer upon women titles such as “ruler of the synagogue” (archisynagōgos; archisynagōgissa), “leader” (archēgissa), “elders” (presbytera; presbyterēsa), “mother of the synagogue” (mētēr synagōgēs; mater synagogae), and “priest” (hiereia; hierissa). When seen in the context of other Greco-Roman religious traditions, it is difficult to think that such terms were simply honorific titles. Rather, it is more plausible that these women, like their pagan counterparts, were active members of their communities as religious leaders, administrators, and benefactors (Brooten, 1982).

The expansion of leadership opportunities within the early Christian movement is equally apparent. Although the gospels’ disciples and Paul continue the tradition of masculine authority figures, a variety of New Testament passages illustrate that other leadership configurations were possible. Some women, unattached to male partners, missionized and led communities: Paul, for instance, identifies Phoebe as a “deacon” (diakonos) and a “benefactor” (prostatis) and acknowledges four other women for their hard work in Christ ((Rom 16:1–2, 6, 12). Missionary couples also were active, with Andronicus and Junia (“prominent among the apostles”) and Prisca and Aquila receiving special attention (Rom 16:3, 7; cf. 1 Cor 16:19; Acts 18:8). The latter couple was also in charge of a house-church, a practice that quite likely put the women at the forefront of religious life (Rom 16:5; Phlm 2; Phil 4:2–3; Col 4:15). For Paul, then, there is nothing unusual about women building, overseeing, and supporting Christian communities.

Those Christianities that sought to accommodate themselves to the patriarchal values of antiquity gradually restricted women’s leadership roles. This development was neither linear nor uniform, but New Testament literature from the late first and early second centuries exhibits an androcentric turn. Authors instruct wives to be subordinate to their husbands and insist that women “learn in silence with full submission” (Col 3:18; Eph 5:22–24; 1 Tim 2:8–15; 1 Pet 3:1–7). Women’s lives become subject to greater regulation as their work as teachers narrows to nonliturgical duties and the office of widows comes under tighter control (1 Tim 5:3–16; Tit 2:3–5). In this process, (male) bishops, presbyters, and deacons emerge as authorities responsible for disseminating the authentic teachings of the faith and shaping a (proto)-orthodox identity (1 Tim 1:3–4; 3:2; 4:11, 14; 5:17; 6:3; Tit 1:9; 2:1, 15). Christian texts from the second century continue to speak of women as prophets and teachers (e.g., the oracles of Priscilla and Maximilla from the New Prophecy, The Acts of Thecla, The Gospel of Mary), but those who value them come under increasingly hostile criticism. Employing the gendered rhetoric of the period, their opponents link women leaders with uncontrollable passions and irrationality, which signal a deviation from “truth” and unveil their heretical nature ((Rev 2:20–23; Irenaeus, Haer. 1.13.5; 1.23.2; Epiphanius, Medicine Chest 79.3; Jerome, Letter 133.4).

[See also POPULAR RELIGION AND MAGIC, subentry ROMAN WORLD; RELIGIOUS LEADERS, subentries on EARLY CHURCH and NEW TESTAMENT; and RELIGIOUS PARTICIPATION, subentries on EARLY CHURCH, NEW TESTAMENT, and ROMAN WORLD.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Beard, Mary. “Priesthood in the Roman Republic.” In Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World, edited by Mary Beard and John North, pp. 19–48. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • Beard, Mary, John North, and Simon Price. Religions of Rome. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Bowden, Hugh. Mystery Cults of the Ancient World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • Brooten, Bernadette J. Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982.
  • Cohick, Lynn H. Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009.
  • Griffith, Allison B. “Completing the Picture: Women and the Female Principle in the Mithraic Cult.” Numen 53 (2006): 48–77.
  • Heyob, Sharon Kelly. The Cult of Isis among Women in the Graeco-Roman World. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1975.
  • Kraemer, Ross Shepard. Her Share of the Blessings: Women’s Religions among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Kraemer, Ross Shepard, ed. Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Sawyer, Deborah F. Women and Religion in the First Christian Centuries. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Scheid, John. An Introduction to Roman Religion. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
  • Schultz, Celia E. Women’s Religious Activity in the Roman Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. “Word, Spirit and Power: Women in Early Christian Communities.” In Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether and Eleanor McLaughlin, pp. 30–70. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.
  • Warrior, Valerie M. Roman Religion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

David M. Reis

New Testament

Religious leaders in the New Testament are those individuals who sought to influence groups of people through various social processes to achieve specific goals. Of course, religious leaders during the New Testament period were also political leaders, and one cannot easily separate these two into discrete domains. Furthermore, leadership began within the context of the synagogue but also emerged within a network of house-churches, influenced by domestic discourses, with differing degrees of closeness to their original synagogal setting. This movement that found its source in Israel’s messiah was navigating leadership amid competing non-Jewish movements as it expanded across the Mediterranean basin while still being led primarily, if not exclusively, by Jewish men (with some exceptions). In seeking to summarize the leadership structures that emerged from these intersecting influences, one must recognize the rhetorical nature of the extant texts. The occasional nature of Paul’s letters, which serve as the earliest surviving evidence for religious leaders, should be taken into consideration when attempting to organize this material; since these letters are fragmentary and local, regional variation should be expected. Finally, although linguistic and social anachronism is a constant challenge when describing leadership practices in the first century C.E., this should not discourage interpreters from seeking to uncover key aspects of the roles, gender, and nature of leadership within the nascent movement(s). Although final answers are not attainable, what follows provides a general understanding of religious leaders in the New Testament; although much more could be said, the goal here is to provide a snapshot of what researchers within the field of gender and biblical studies have uncovered with regard to religious leaders in the New Testament.

Religious Leadership Roles.

Religious leaders in the New Testament emerged within the cultural context of the Roman Empire and the Jewish Temple and synagogues as each negotiated differing models of gender. Roman religion was both a public and a private affair and thus officially designated leaders contributed to the formation of civic identity, while the head of the household ensured that everyday devotion to the family gods was enacted. Jewish religious leadership as well was socially constructed and reinforced gender hierarchies. Prior to 70 C.E., the Temple served as the primary focal point for Jewish religious life and only priests could officiate there; however, the synagogue allowed for a more diverse leadership group and after 70 C.E. became the center for Jewish life.

Religious roles in the New Testament may be divided into two categories: officially designated and charismatic. This division is an etic distinction brought in for heuristic purposes, recognizing, however, that institutionally ordered and charismatically recognized leaders interpenetrate one another in terms of social influence. Officially designated leaders include the disciples, apostles, prophets, elders, overseers, deacons, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. However, the use of the term “officially” raises an important issue concerning the nature of the Christ-movement at this early stage. The highly institutionalized nature of the movement is evident by the time of Irenaeus, but it does not follow that there was little to no institutional structure in place during the mid-first century. Clarke (2008) argues for an earlier construction of institutional roles undertaken by officially designated leaders. This view places the house-churches as the institutional setting for the majority of the movement, with each house-church led by an overseer and assisted by a deacon. Furthermore, if a region had several house-churches, then a council of elders met to provide further guidance to the movement, although the exercise of power was to be constrained by its leaders. This type of hierarchy is in opposition to the egalitarian impulse often discerned in the earliest Christ-movement that Clarke claims is the result of contemporary hermeneutical concerns. These same concerns may also construe religious leaders as exerting power in an undifferentiated way, and Ehrensperger (2009) has called this understanding into question. She rejects the idea that New Testament leaders led in a dominating manner and suggests that they relied instead on the transformative use of power. For both Clarke and Ehrensperger the roles of the religious leaders in the New Testament were constructed from kinship discourse (leading like a father but not the paterfamilias), educational discourse (teaching in ways associated with Jewish teaching and learning discourse), and empowerment discourse (building people up in ways that differed from imperial ideology).

Charismatic leadership is more challenging to discern in the sources because the movement, generally speaking, was charismatic and the role of prophets might be viewed in an ambiguous way since unofficial leaders could claim direct access to the divine and implicitly (or explicitly) challenge the leadership of the officially designated leaders. The idea that the earliest movement was led by prophets relies on the claim that overseers and deacons were a later development. The presence of charismatics in the earliest Christ-movement is undeniable but it does not follow that those same individuals had received special gifting to lead. First Corinthians 6:5 suggests that there was a distinction between administrative and nonleadership gifts. Although prophets and others with unique gifts would have contributed to leadership, this could occur alongside officially designated leaders such as overseers/bishops and deacons. For instance, Paul does not refer to elders in the Corinthian correspondence, but 1 Corinthians 16:15–16 directs the Corinthians to be subject to the household of Stephanus as well as to other co-workers and laborers among them. Thus, there is some level of asymmetry in the movement. Hierarchically ordered relationships existed, but leadership was also based on Paul’s preeminence as the one who brought them the gospel and the trust that followed from that (2 Cor 10:14), rather than on some sort of institutional primacy or fixed ecclesial structure (Ehrensperger, 2009, p. 61). Religious roles in the New Testament developed as both officially designated and charismatic leaders interacted and together led local congregations; some of these major figures will now be highlighted.

Apostolic Leaders.

Four major religious leaders emerge from the New Testament: Peter, James, John, and Paul. Peter is pictured in the Gospels as one of the Twelve disciples (Mark 3:16), a member of the inner circle (Mark 5:37), and the one who recognized Jesus as messiah (Mark 8:29). He became a central apostolic leader in the early days of the movement (Acts 1—5; Gal 1:18; 1 Pet 1:1) and participated in mission work primarily among the Jews (Gal 2:7–8). He was not the primary leader in Jerusalem; that was reserved for James, the brother of Jesus, who eventually took over the leadership in that city from the Twelve. He was one of the key early leaders within the movement and managed the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem as it sought to determine the way non-Jews should relate to Torah (Gal 2; Acts 15). John, one of the sons of Zebedee, was another early leader, one whom Paul described, along with Peter and James, as a pillar of the movement (Gal 2:9). He was a close associate of Peter and one of Jesus’s inner circle (Luke 5:10; Mark 9:2). Paul’s apostleship was not uncontested; his leadership position was weakened in that he had not seen Jesus in the flesh, nor had he been taught by Peter, James, and John, and he actually had persecuted the early Christ-movement (Gal 1:23). Thus, other leaders challenged the legitimacy of his apostleship, a challenge Paul met with his own recounting of his leadership autobiography (Gal 1—2). He argued that genuine leadership is shown in suffering and weakness (2 Cor 11:22–29; 12:7–10) and that although he had not seen Jesus in the flesh, he was nonetheless still a proper apostle, although “one untimely born” (1 Cor 15:8; see also Gal 1:1; 1 Cor 9:1).

Peter, James, John, and Paul were not the only ones to be described as apostolic leaders (i.e., those sent out by God with a message to proclaim). Mark 3:14–15 highlights the continuity between the Twelve disciples and the later apostles. The original commissioning of this group was “to the lost sheep of this house of Israel” (Matt 10:5–6), but later the mission was expanded to the nations (Matt 28:16–20). Thus, proclamation of a message is an early role for the apostolic leaders; however, the term “apostle” was not restricted to just the Twelve. Luke views Paul along with Barnabas as an apostle (Acts 14:14), whereas Paul intimates that James was an apostle (Gal 1:19; 1 Cor 9:5), that Paul, himself, also was one (1 Cor 9:1; 15:9), and he refers to Andronicus and Junia as apostles in Rome (Rom 16:7).

That there might be a woman among the apostles has led some interpreters to read the name as Junias, its male iteration, in line with the rest of those named. Epp (2005, pp. 68, 78), however, argues that Junia, the feminine name, is to be preferred to the otherwise unattested masculine name Junias and that the reading “outstanding among the apostles” fits the context better than “well-known to the apostles.” The term “apostle” (apostolos) may be used in differentiated ways, and the rhetorical context must be brought into this discussion to determine the legitimacy and plausibility of the claim that Junia was an apostle (see Clarke, 2008, p. 91; Ehrensperger, 2009, p. 54). Finally, although the term is not used for her, Mary Magdalene is often regarded as an apostle based on her witness to the resurrection and her missionary and proclamation activity (Brock, 2003; cf. Matt 28:10; John 20:16–18; 1 Cor 9:1). Apostleship and leadership are not interchangeable terms; there were leaders who were not considered apostles and those individuals will now be detailed.

Leaders and patrons.

First Thessalonians 5:12 provides an apt starting point for understanding the nature of religious leadership from key passages and pertinent ancient vocabulary found in the New Testament. In this passage, the term “lead” (proistēmi) emphasizes “laboring” (kopiaō) and “admonishing/exhorting” (noutheteō) and describes religious leadership at the earliest stage we can access (Clarke, 2008, p. 71). Romans 12:8 notes that those who lead are particularly gifted for this purpose. The term as used in these two verses draws on household management discourse and suggests this context (along with the ancient system of patronage) as the proper locus for the emergence of leadership terminology. The patronage context is more explicit in Romans 16:1–2 where Phoebe is described as Paul’s “patron” (prostatis), as well as the patron of others. Social relationships were structured around patronage and although it is not clear how this was transformed within the Christ-movement, some sort of reciprocity was central to the system. It is likely that, as Paul’s patron, Phoebe provided material assistance to him and hospitality when needed. She would have been considered a leader in that she used existing social processes to influence a group of people to accomplish a certain goal. Williams (2006, pp. 38–41) has recognized the importance of the house, household, and patronage for understanding the overarching framework for leadership in the Christ-movement. For example, God is seen as the patron and the Christ-followers are seen as God’s clients, with the leaders serving as brokers dispensing the patron’s gifts. In this configuration, New Testament leadership is placed in its first-century Roman context, which highlights the complex interplay between social structures and religious experiences. Those tasked with mediating these experiences were defined as leaders. The New Testament uses several key vocabulary words as labels to describe these individuals.

Overseers and stewards.

Overseers (episkopoi) as leaders appear early in the Christ-movement and most likely reflected the general idea of “guardian,” although the meaning of the term quickly shifted to something closer to “bishop.” The more generic meaning of “overseer” is reflected in Acts 20:28, which further clarifies the nature of the “elders” in Ephesus (Acts 20:17). The elders were to be overseers of the flock given to them. A similar generic idea is evident in 1 Peter 5:1–2. There is a probable shift in meaning to bishop in Philippians 1:1, where Paul refers to “bishops” and “deacons.” This represents a development from Acts and may serve as a midpoint to what is found in the Pastoral Epistles, when the office of bishop is more established (1 Tim 3:1). During this period, congregations received guidance concerning what types of persons were suitable for this position. They were to be effective organizers with culturally respected personal traits and domestic leadership skills since they were to function as examples (1 Tim 4:2; Titus 2:7; Heb 13:7). Goodrich (2013, p. 97) has contributed to the discussions concerning overseers and their role in leadership by emphasizing the importance of the stewardship metaphor seen in Titus 1:7. He understands there to be structural authority attached to the position and has brought into alignment the skills and ethical attributes expected for stewards in the Greek and Roman world and those of the overseer. In this configuration, Timothy and Titus, as regional leaders, were directed to identify individuals who had the attributes and the capabilities to run the household effectively and to place or appoint those individuals in positions of leadership in the household of God (1 Tim 3:1; Titus 1:5). The material in the Pastoral Epistles concerning elder qualifications (1 Tim 5:17–22; Tit 1:5–6) overlaps significantly with the qualifications for a bishop (1 Tim 3:2–7; Tit 1:7–9), although it is likely that the bishops were a subgroup identity appointed from among the elders (1 Tim 4:14). It cannot be ruled out, however, that these represent two names for the same leadership position. What is clear is that by the time of Ignatius these are two distinct church offices. There are no examples in the New Testament of women being referred to as overseers, although it should also be noted that the qualification lists result in the exclusion of many men as well.

Deacons and deaconesses.

Deacons (diakonoi) as leaders in the Christ-movement are ubiquitous in the New Testament, although as in the case of the overseers, it is not clear when this term shifted in referent from a generic “servant” or “minister” to a “deacon.” Mark 10:43 is a good example of the way remembrances of Jesus’s teaching influenced the development of a leadership position with an emphasis on serving as a measure of greatness. The serving aspect is most clearly seen in Acts 6:2–3, where the “servant” is one who waits on tables; perhaps here the development of this leadership position from the earlier generic meaning begins. Paul refers to himself and Apollos as “servants” in 1 Corinthians 3:5 and to himself (and others) in 2 Corinthians 3:6 as “ministers of a new covenant.” These may refer to a similar generic idea of servility but a shift occurs in Philippians 1:1, where he refers again to bishops and deacons who serve as an intermediate subgroup descriptor. By the time of the Pastoral Epistles, the term has further developed into an office since the congregation is given instructions concerning the way to identify those who qualify (1 Tim 3:8–13). As with overseers, these individuals are also to have strong organizational skills and to exhibit blameless moral character. The question asked about overseers concerning women is not as acute for deacons since Romans 16:1 refers to Phoebe as a “deacon” (diakonos) of the “congregation” (ekklēsia) in Cenchrea, a port city near Corinth. The question is: Does this signify a generic servile position or a later leadership office? It is unlikely that this refers to the generic category; rather, it refers to the middle use, similar to Philippians 1:1 (Matthew, 2013, p. 74). Although diakonos (and its associated word group) is used in the New Testament primarily in reference to males, deacons must have included mixed groups since at least in one case the word is used to refer to a woman and 1 Timothy 3:11 provides counsel to women who are associated with this leadership position (i.e., they are to model prototypical characteristics) (Witherington, 1990, p. 196). A further institutional development in the office of a deacon is noticeable in the third century (Didascalia apostolorum 2.57.1–9), where the office moves away from its New Testament descriptions.

Elders and presbyters.

Elders were synonymous with overseers in some settings, but the New Testament also reflects some variation in practice. The approach of “elders” (presbyteroi) to leadership was developed from within existing Jewish practice (Campbell, 1994; Exod 19:7; Josh 20:4; 1 Macc 12:35; Mark 11:27). Elders are appointed in various congregations (Acts 14:23) and evident in Jerusalem (Acts 21:18); they led along with the apostles in the early Christ-movement (Acts 16:4). The Johannine epistles show evidence of an elder structure (2 John 1; 3 John 1) but transformed it into a single elder configuration, although what this position entailed is unclear. Outside of the Johannine literature, elders are given an explicit leadership position in 1 Timothy 5:7 and a ritual function in James 5:14.

All of these labels and key vocabulary terms, taken together, provide a general taxonomy for religious leaders in the New Testament. Other potential leadership labels and vocabulary that might be considered in a study of religious leaders in the New Testament but cannot be pursued here include pastor-teachers, evangelists, co-workers, widows, virgins, and prophets (see further Eisen, 2000; Zamfir, 2013). However, the social significance of these labels has been the source of several debates within New Testament studies. Three will be highlighted: the challenge of precept and practice, the interplay of domestic and congregational space, and Paul’s gendered theology.

Modern Debates.

Modern debates concerning gender and religious leadership revolve around the tension between the practices evident in the New Testament and certain precepts also found in the text (Alexander, 2013). Romans 16:1–16 highlights the religious leadership of several women within the Christ-movement and brings to the fore an ethos of mutuality (Matthew, 2013), whereas 1 Corinthians 11:2–16; 14:33B–36 and 1 Timothy 2:8–15 seem to offer blanket restrictions on practices most likely assumed in Romans 16. Alexander (2013, p. 21) makes sense of this seemingly contradictory evidence by noting the developing “anxieties” within the Christ-movement with regard to “their precarious position in Roman society,” but she also thinks these reflect the all too real challenges of living out “underlying theological principles” (e.g., Gal 3:28; 6:15–16; Phil 2:5).

Further, Økland (2004) has highlighted the leadership challenges associated with differing gender expectations when the “congregation” (ekklēsia) gathers in “household” (oikos) space, challenges evident in 1 Corinthians 11—14. She contends that Paul vacillates between differing gender models and this accounts for the rhetorical unsettledness in passages like 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 and 14:34–36. She recognizes in these texts a challenge to Roman imperial discourse by ideas of newness “in Christ” (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 12:13; 2 Cor 5:17), provoking a debate over the nature of the household “in Christ”: Had it been obliterated, transformed, or reprioritized (1 Cor 11:34; 14:35; 16:19; Rom 16:5)?

The influence of the restriction texts have led scholars to challenge the dominance of Paul’s agency with regard to the construction of gender; some have suggested that he should be decentered and seen as only one among several voices in the formation of the early Christ-movement (Lopez, 2005). He also has been understood to be more complicit in reinforcing Roman imperial discourses than scholars like Ehrensperger and Clarke put forth (Vander Stichele and Penner, 2005). Both Penner and Lopez (2012) alert interpreters to the importance of recognizing the rhetorical nature of these texts; when interpreters study Paul and make claims about topics such as religious leadership and gender, they are at the same time studying and making claims about themselves.

[See also FAMILY STRUCTURES, subentries on EARLY CHURCH, NEW TESTAMENT, and ROMAN WORLD; PAUL; RELIGIOUS LEADERS, subentry EARLY CHURCH; and RELIGIOUS PARTICIPATION, subentries on NEW TESTAMENT and ROMAN WORLD.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

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  • Brock, Ann Graham. Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • Campbell, R Alastair. The Elders: Seniority within Earliest Christianity. London: T&T Clark, 1994.
  • Clarke, Andrew. A Pauline Theology of Church Leadership. Library of New Testament Studies 362. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2008.
  • Ehrensperger, Kathy. Paul and the Dynamics of Power: Communication and Interaction in the Early Christ-Movement. London: T&T Clark, 2009.
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  • Lopez, Davina C. “Paul, Gentiles, and Gender Paradigms.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 59, nos. 3–4 (2005): 92–106.
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  • Økland, Jorunn. Women in Their Place: Paul and the Corinthian Discourse of Gender and Sanctuary Space. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 269. New York: T&T Clark, 2004.
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  • Sawyer, Deborah F. Women and Religion in the First Christian Centuries. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Vander Stichele, Caroline, and Todd Penner. “Paul and the Rhetoric of Gender.” In Her Master’s Tools? Feminist and Postcolonial Engagements of Historical-Critical Discourse, edited by Caroline Vander Stichele and Todd Penner, pp. 287–310. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.
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J. Brian Tucker

Early Judaism

When the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity, sometime after 538 B.C.E., they were understood by the reigning Persian Empire as a religious more than an ethnic community. This is indicated by the fact that although at the opening stage of their return journey they were led by two men—one a scion of the secular royal House of David (Zerubbabel) and one an offspring of the religious priestly House of Zadok (Joshua son of Jehozadak) (Hag 1:1)—very soon the secular leader disappeared. For the next 360 years the high-priestly family that oversaw the return to Jerusalem continued to lead the Jews. This family functioned in the office of high priests in the newly built Temple in Jerusalem and conducted all negotiations, religious as well as secular, with the ruling power—even when in 332 B.C.E. it changed hands and the Greeks under Alexander the Great assumed power. After about 360 years, in 151 B.C.E., a high priest (Jonathan) from the Hasmonean family, which had just won a great military and victory over their Seleucid (Hellenistic) overlords and attained political independence, came to power, and religious and secular leadership were combined in a single same ruler.

Only under Roman occupation with the rise of a nonpriest to the kingship (Herod 40 B.C.E.–4 B.C.E.) did this personal union come to an end and the high priesthood returned to function on a purely religious basis. With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the priesthood lost its power base, and alternative religious Jewish manifestations came into existence—the study-house and the synagogue—with new forms of the leadership in the sage and the head of synagogue.

The following is a review of the role of gender in the developments described above.

The Priesthood.

In biblical times we identify in Israel two forms of religious leadership. On the one hand, there was the priestly leadership that oversaw the Jewish sacrificial rituals, first all over the country and later in the Jerusalem Temple. This leadership claimed its descent from Aaron the brother of Moses and represented the religious establishment in Israel and then in Judah. The priests, according to the Bible, received their authority from their descent: one could not become but was born a priest. In the Bible, the priesthood is a male office, and the Temple was rarely visited by women. Whether this picture is strictly historical cannot be determined.

Some feminist scholars claim that biblical authors suppressed the reality of women’s participation in the Jerusalemite or Israelite cult, but such a claim cannot be proven. In any case, the heritage received by postbiblical Judaism, based on its absolute dependence on the Torah, was one of an all-male priestly institution. During the entire Second Temple period only men ministered in the Temple, and women’s participation was relegated to the woman’s court. The women’s court in the Second Temple was the largest court in the Temple, but although men and women mingled in it, women were not allowed beyond its boundaries; all meaningful ritual activity (except on specific occasions like Passover) was carried out in the inner courts such as the court of Israel (which was all male) or the court of the priests.

Prophecy.

A second religious leader portrayed in the Bible is the prophet. This type of leader was chosen by God ad hoc to admonish the secular leadership and the people. In some cases, the prophet predicted the future. A true prophet was recognized by the verification of his or her predictions after the fact. Unlike the priest, who must be male and born into the priestly clan, the prophet could be anybody possessed by the spirit of God. A prophet could be male or female, and indeed the ultimate Deuteronomic prophet was a woman—Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14–20). She interpreted for King Josiah the meaning of the book of Torah he had just discovered and issued the Deuteronomic prediction of the end of the Kingdom of Judah based on the failure of its citizens to correctly observe its precepts.

The fate of prophecy in the Second Temple period is debated. Rabbinic Jewish tradition claims that the last of the prophets died with Malachi (ca. 400 B.C.E.), but Christians claim that Jesus was a prophet (e.g., Matt 13:57; 14:5). When the historian Josephus predicted to Vespasian that he would be the next emperor, he claimed to be a prophet (Josephus, B.J., 3:8:9). It is quite possible that prophets were still active on the margins of society throughout the entire period. Evidence for their activity is scant but not completely absent. If the tradition of prophecy had not quite died out and traces remained in Second Temple Judaism, women may have been among the possible candidates for the title of prophet. Unlike the First Temple prophetesses, whose actions and words are recorded favorably, one prophetess mentioned in the postexilic book of Nehemiah (440s–30s B.C.E.) is treated negatively: Nehemiah does not like a certain Noadiah or appreciate her prophecies. In fact, he prays to God to punish her for joining his enemies ((Neh 6:14)), but he does designate her “prophetess” (nevi’ah) like her preexilic counterparts. Beyond this glimpse, the sources reveal no more of Noadiah’s activities or influence.

The pseudo-epigraphic Sybillan Oracles, popular in the Jewish Diaspora (second century B.C.E. to second century C.E.), use the pagan Sybil to convey prophecies about Jewish history and fate. The blatant use of a female (albeit pagan) figure as prophetic in these texts may reflect the attitude to female prophecy in some Jewish circles. Prophetesses also appear in Christian documents, which may in turn reflect Jewish practices. Before Christianity became a separate religion, it was only one among many religious sects that dominated Second Temple Judaism. The four daughters of Philip the Evangelist, who are described at the end of the book of Acts as prophesying ((Acts 21:9; 30s–40s C.E.), can easily be counted as Jewish women in a Jewish movement. In a movement that views its founding leader as a prophet, it is no surprise that prophecy held a prominent position and that prophetic movements (like Montanism) continued to emerge from it for many centuries and counted women among its prophets.

Jewish Sects.

Christianity, or “the Jesus Movement,” was one of several sects that dominated Jewish religious life in the Second Temple period. Sects like the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Dead Sea Sect were deeply involved in an ongoing debate on the very nature of Judaism—what was its law; what was its theology; how one worshiped as Jews; even what calendar a Jew should adopt. They were, however, marginal groups, only infrequently involved in established politics, and thus we find that they often tolerated women as hangers-on, supporters, and possibly also full members.

The question of women’s leadership in these sects is not an idle one. There is little doubt, for example, that after the death of Jesus (33 C.E.), women, and especially Mary Magdalene, were very active in reviving the movement and keeping it alive ((Matt 28; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–10; John 20:1–18). I have argued elsewhere that Mary Magdalene should be viewed as the true founder of Christianity because she is responsible for formulating the Christian doctrine on the empty tomb and the resurrection, both essential to Christianity.

Mary Magdalene’s important leadership role in the foundation of Christianity was later suppressed, especially by Paul, who fails to mention her in his letters and does not include her among those who encountered the resurrected Christ (1 Cor 15:3–8). Nevertheless, Paul himself worked with Jewish women who preached early Christianity, such as Priscilla (Acts 18; Rom 16:3) and l Junia (Rom 16:7), who were known as apostles.

We know very little about the different sects of Second Temple Judaism, depending on the sources that have survived. The Pharisees, definitely a prominent Second Temple Sect, were probably the forerunners of the rabbinic movement, but most rabbinic documents were written many centuries after the Pharisees became the rabbis (Mishnah and Tosefta—third century C.E.; Palestinian Talmud—fourth century C.E.; Babylonian Talmud and haggadic Midrashim—sixth to seventh century C.E.); they do not necessarily reflect the exploits and activities of the historical Pharisees, both because of internal changes that occurred over time within the rabbinic movement itself and because the rabbis wished to disassociate themselves from their Pharisee forebears. The rabbis kept a scanty record about the leadership of their forerunners, and even the mythic Hillel and Shammai (30s B.C.E.) are never described as Pharisees. The one period during the Second Temple in which the Pharisees actively participated in the running of the Jewish state was during the reign of a Jewish queen. In 76 B.C.E., Queen Shelamzion Alexandra (better known mistakenly as Salome Alexandra) was nominated to the throne by her Hasmonean husband, Alexander Jannaeus, on his deathbed; she reigned nine years, until 67 B.C.E. Like all others in his family before him, Jannaeus had been both king and high priest. Although Shelamzion could not serve in the traditional priestly function, which she relegated to her son, Hyrcanus II (see Josephus B.J. 1:5:1; A.J. 13:16:2), her alliance with the Pharisees placed her in a position to influence religious decisions and in effect made her a religious as well as a secular leader. The exact nature of her religious influence is unclear, but the rabbinic writings remember the queen as a ruler especially blessed by God (Sifre Deut. 42).

The sources regarding the Dead Sea Sect (third century B.C.E. to first century C.E.) provide testimony from within the sect itself. The documents known as the Rule of the Community, the Rule of the Congregation, and the Damascus Document give us a fair picture of the community organization and leadership. The sect was highly hierarchical and led by priests of the Zadokite family (e.g., CD IV, 1; 1QS V, 2; 1QSa I, 2). Documents describe the founder of the sect, the Teacher of Righteousness (e.g., CD XX, 32; 1QHab I, 13), and the Overseer of the camps (CD XIII, 16; 1QS VI, 12) and of elders (1QS VI, 8) along with other notables such as the fathers of the community (1QSa I, 16; 1QM III, 4). Because early scholars identified the Dead Sea Sect (following Sukenik, 1955) with the celibate male Essenes (B.J. 2:8:2) mentioned in Josephus, the field was slow to recognize that the sect certainly counted women among its number and that some texts describe women in leadership roles. In one document, certain women are given the role of overseers, whose job it is to determine whether certain girls are virgins at their entrance into marriage (4Q159; 4Q271). More important are women described as “mothers” (amot) of the community, alongside a group of men named “fathers” of the community (4Q270). This text is certainly hierarchical, distinguishing between the fathers who have something called roqmah and the mothers who lack it. But the existence of women leaders is clear. Women elders are apparently mentioned in a very fragmentary text (4Q502). Because the male and female forms of “elder” in Hebrew (zaqen; zeqenah) are the same as “old man” or “old woman,” this text was initially understood as referring simply to old men and women; Eileen Schuller (1993) has rightly argued, however, that had there only been male elders mentioned in this text, no one would have translated the word as old men.

Sages.

With the destruction of the Temple (70 C.E.), traditional Jewish leadership ceased to exist, and also sectarian groups seem to have ended. A new movement came into existence and slowly rose to prominence, eventually even gaining the recognition of the Roman authorities—the rabbinic movement. The rabbis argued that their authority derived not from birth (as the priest) or from a direct instruction from God (like the prophet), but rather from the erudition in the holy law and scriptures. They argued, for example, that a scholar who is a bastard takes precedence, in the eyes of heaven, over a high priest who is an ignoramus (m. Hor. 3:8). One could, in theory, suppose that birth and gender not being a prerequisite, the scholars could count women among their number. In reality, however, to become a sage and join the leader ranks, one needed a long and thorough education in the holy scriptures.

Women were barred from this process at its very beginning, since educational institutions in Judaism, although relatively democratic, were purely male institutions. Rabbinic literature mentions literally hundreds of scholars, some of whom became prominent religious leaders. In this extensive literature, which covers many generations and many centuries, only one woman is possibly described as a sage—Beruriah (mid-second century C.E.). Although the Babylonian Talmud declares that Beruriah learned three hundred traditions each day from three hundred masters (b. Pesaḥ. 62b), this picture is not likely historically accurate. The later rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud did not know how she rose to prominence, because her teachings and their implication for her role as teacher and leader had been suppressed. A legend arose of a woman who was the daughter of a great sage and the wife of another, who mocked great sages, taught others, and learned more and better than any male sage. Her legend continued to develop until, in the Middle Ages, the great talmudic commentator, Rashi (to b. ʿAbod. Zar. 18b), chose to disgrace her memory rather than cherish it by arguing that she eventually succumbed to sexual temptation and then killed herself.

The Synagogue.

The second institution that replaced the Temple was the synagogue. Synagogues existed before the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., especially in Jewish communities in the Diaspora. As a predestruction inscription from Jerusalem indicates, they were institutions of charity, hostels, community gatherings, and even study-houses. The function of a prayer house, which imitates the Temple ritual, only developed after the destruction of the Temple. Although there is little doubt that in the Middle Ages the synagogue and rabbinic society became interchangeable, scholars are now of the opinion that, during the early development of the two institutions (second to seventh century C.E.), they were separated one from the other and addressed different audiences.

Synagogues were not necessarily supervised by rabbis, and synagogue-goers were not necessarily guided religiously and spiritually by the rabbis. Synagogues hosted translators (who translated the Hebrew Bible mostly into Aramaic), preachers (who interpreted it for the listeners), and liturgists, known as paytanim (who wrote liturgical poems for the synagogue). These roles are evident from the rich literary heritage of the synagogue that has survived independently of rabbinic texts. Additional information about the synagogue and its leadership is available from inscriptional remains, which reveal more about the administrative organization of the synagogue. Synagogue inscriptions list the donors (including women) who assisted in the building of the structure, as well as various functionaries who ran the synagogue—the head of the synagogue (archisynagogos), members of the council of elders (the gerousia), the leader (archon), and the father of the synagogue and the scribe.

The same inscriptions reveal that women occupied many of these positions. Four inscriptions from late antiquity (second to fifth century C.E.) mention women archisynagogoi: one from Myndos (mentioning Thepompte), one from Smyrna (mentioning Rufina), one from Thebes (mentioning Peristeria), and one from Crete (mentioning Sophia). Two inscriptions, one from Briscea in Italy (a certain Caelia Paterna) and one from Rome (Sara Veturia Paucla; Marcella), mention women with the title “mother of the synagogue.” Other inscriptions mention women who bear the title “elder”: one from Greece (mentioning Rebecca), one from Malta (mentioning Eulogia), one from Rome (mentioning Sarra Uria), one from Venosa in Italy (mentioning Veronica, Mannine, and Faustina), one from Sevastopol in Asia (mentioning Sara), and one from Tripoli in Libya (mentioning Mauzazula). In one inscription from Byblos in Lebanon, a woman even bears the title of archon (Sambathi).

All these inscriptions indicate that leadership positions in the synagogues were not necessarily reserved for men alone. Of course, given that ancient Judaism was a thoroughly patriarchal society, more men than women bear these titles, but the evidence presented above lists a good number of women serving as functionaries in this institution. How women were able to fill these functions is not explained, but we may speculate that they were well-to-do members of the Jewish community and that the positions were voluntary. Well-to-do women may have volunteered and enjoyed the prestige and authority that went with these positions.

Another inscription may also reveal women’s roles. A third-century C.E. inscription found in Aphrodisias in Asia Minor lists donors to a Jewish soup kitchen founded in that city. The founder, who heads the list of donors, is a woman—Yael—designated prostates (leader); she is the only woman in the list. Charity may have been a field in which Jewish women could lead and shine.

A note of caution may be in order. All the inscriptions that list women synagogue leaders originate from the Diaspora, and the only name recorded in the Jewish script is the woman archon from Lebanon’s inscription. The other inscriptions are inscribed in Greek or Latin. Perhaps the Jews who produced these inscriptions, living in the Greco-Roman Diaspora, were influenced by the surrounding society in which they functioned, where women held religious functions in pagan and Christian religious institutions. Or perhaps the male leadership tradition in Palestine was carried over from the Temple to the synagogue.

[See also ECONOMICS, subentry EARLY JUDAISM; EDUCATION, subentry EARLY JUDAISM; IMAGERY, GENDERED, subentry PRIESTLY MATERIAL; and RELIGIOUS LEADERS, subentry NEW TESTAMENT.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Ackerman, Susan. “Why Is Miriam also among the Prophets? (And Is Zipporah among the Priests?).” Journal of Biblical Literature 121, no. 1 (2002): 47–80.
  • Brooten, Bernadette J. “The Gender of Iael in the Jewish Inscription from Aphrodisias.” In Of Scribes and Scrolls: Studies in the Hebrew Bible, Intertestamental Judaism and Christian Origins Presented to John Strugnell on the Occasion of His Sixtieth Birthday, edited by Harold W. Attridge, John J. Collins, and Thomas H. Tobin, pp. 163–173. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1990.
  • Brooten, Bernadette J. Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1982.
  • Ilan, Tal. 1995. “The Attraction of Aristocratic Jewish Women to Pharisaism.” Harvard Theological Review 88, no. 1 (1995): 1–33.
  • Ilan, Tal. “Beruriah Has Spoken Well: The Historical Beruriah and Her Transformation in the Rabbinic Corpora.” In Integrating Jewish Women into Second Temple History, pp. 175–194. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck 1999.
  • Ilan, Tal. “Huldah, the Deuteronomic Prophetess of the Book of Kings.” Lectio Difficilior 11, no. 1 (2010). www.lectio.unibe.ch/10_1/ilan.html (accessed 30 September 2013).
  • Ilan, Tal. “In the Footsteps of Jesus: Jewish Women in a Jewish Movement.” In Transformative Encounters, edited by Ingrid R. Kitzberg, pp. 115–136. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1999.
  • Ilan, Tal. “Once Again on Yael and the Aphrodisias Inscription.” Zutot 4 (2004): 44–49.
  • Kraemer, Ross S. “A New Inscription from Malta and the Question of Women Elders in Diaspora Jewish Communities.” Harvard Theological Review 78, no. 3–4 (1985): 431–438.
  • Rivkin, Ellis. “Defining the Pharisees: The Tannaitic Sources.” Hebrew Union College Annual 40–41 (1970–1971): 205–249.
  • Schuller, Eileen. “Women in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” In Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet of Qumran Site: Present Realities and Future Prospects, edited by Michael O. Wise, Norman Golb, John J. Collins, and Dennis G. Pardee, pp. 115–131. New York: New York Academy of Science, 1993.
  • Stoekel Ben Ezra, Daniel. “A Jewish Archontess: Remarks on an Epitaph from Byblos.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 169 (2009): 287–293.
  • Sukenik, Eliezer L. The Dead Sea Scrolls of the Hebrew University. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1955.

Tal Ilan

Early Church

While most early church leaders were men, Christianity was never an exclusively male movement. The earliest Christian sources, included in the New Testament corpus, attest to several influential women who share the same titles as their male co-workers (diakonos, synergos, apostolos). Early Christ-followers formed charismatically led house-based communities where women, along with men, exercised the gift of prophecy, and where women who hosted the assembly gatherings in their homes must have enjoyed an important position. Only gradually did the movement develop into a hierarchically structured organization with clerical offices. This entry considers what can be known about women holding these and other leadership positions in the early church. It is organized around different titles used for outstanding individuals, including officially designated roles such as bishop, presbyter, and deacon, as well as charismatic ones such as prophets, teachers, and the ascetic roles of virgins and widows.

Ancient sources seldom give direct answers to questions posed by present-day scholars. If sources refer to women at all, it is often in passing; much information must be inferred. As a rule, the sources are ambiguous and can be (and have been) interpreted in several ways. A basic ambiguity is rooted in the language itself. Greek and Latin (and several other ancient languages) are grammatically gendered and use the masculine plural not only for groups of men but also for groups of both men and women. When a text contains a noun in the masculine plural form, such as diakonoi or apostoloi, it is often impossible to know whether it has been used exclusively (for males) or inclusively (for males and females).

Another difficulty is the ideological thrust of the sources from this period, most of which betray an elite male point of view. They comprise theological treatises, letters, and homilies written by upper-class men to like-minded audiences and have no interest in describing reality as it was—but rather as it, in their view, ought to be. The same can be said of the so-called church orders, texts that claim to offer authentic apostolic teachings on church organization and other ecclesiastical matters. Such descriptions of clerical offices and women’s roles in the church reveal more about the ideals of their authors than about the reality of early Christian communities. It is also noteworthy that during the first centuries there was no universal church legislation or unified practice; what was possible for women at one place and one time was forbidden at another place and another time. Another set of sources is provided by the apocryphal acts of apostles that include prominent female characters. These are fictional texts, which raises the question of whether they can be used to reconstruct the lives of real women.

Women’s Leadership: Roles, Titles, Offices.

When inquiring about leadership roles in early Christianity, an essential question is what precisely “leadership” signifies. Who would have been recognized as leaders, and how would one have been able to claim such power? Leadership can manifest itself in different forms; for example, a person who does not hold an officially designated position can nonetheless be acknowledged as a spiritual authority. In the New Testament writings, prominent individuals are called by such titles as apostolos (apostle), episkopos (overseer), diakonos (attendant or minister), and presbyteros (elder). In subsequent early Christian literature, the title “apostle” was reserved for Jesus’s disciples and other great figures of the first generation, while the other three developed into clerical offices and are frequently translated as “bishop,” “deacon,” and “priest.” However, especially in the last-mentioned case, this is anachronistic. There is another Greek word for priest, hiereus, but in early Christian parlance it is mostly used for Jewish and Greco-Roman priests.

The tasks and responsibilities of each of these offices and their interrelationship are not always easy to determine and probably varied locally. In several church orders, officeholders are listed in a hierarchically descending order. For example, in the Apostolic Constitutions (late fourth century C.E.), only bishops and presbyters are allowed to baptize, and deacons are instructed to assist them. Moreover, presbyters are forbidden to ordain deacons and other members of the lower clergy, for this right belongs to the bishop alone (Apostolic Constitutions 3.11). This places presbyters lower than bishops but higher than deacons. On the other hand, in the Didascalia Apostolorum (third century C.E.) bishops are compared to God, deacons to Christ, and deaconesses to the Holy Spirit. Presbyters are mentioned only after these and compared to the apostles (Didascalia Apostolorum 9; cf. Apostolic Constitutions 2.26).

Several other identifiable roles, such as teachers and prophets, were less closely tied with church organization. Would they have been counted among religious leaders? The answer depended on the one who gave it. Several sources describe power struggles between local church leaders and independent teachers. Some teachers, such as Justin Martyr in Rome or Clement in Alexandria, were settled and gathered a circle of disciples around them. Others were itinerant and spread their influence by moving from one community to another. Some were highly esteemed; others were rejected as “false teachers” and “pseudoprophets.”

Additional official roles in the developing church included lectors, assistants, cantors, doorkeepers, widows, and virgins (Apostolic Constitutions 3.11, 15). From a gender-critical perspective, the most relevant of these are the ascetic roles of widows and virgins. Church orders list widows and virgins between clergy and laypeople, giving them only assisting roles and placing them in full submission to the local bishop. Thus, these are not leadership roles, strictly speaking. However, the precepts of the church orders and the writings of such male theologians as Tertullian, John Chrysostom, and Jerome—all of whom prohibit women from teaching—may reflect an attempt to restrict the activities of women who were deemed too independent. Moreover, in relation to the ordinary members of the community, those belonging to the “order” of widows and virgins enjoyed special status.

Female Bishops and Presbyters.

The titles episkopos and prebyteros appear infrequently in the feminine forms episkopa, presbytis, and presbytera. Most of these, found in fragmentary epigraphic data, are difficult to decipher. According to traditional scholarly views, a feminine form does not refer to a female officeholder but to the wife of a male bishop or presbyter. This is possible, though it reflects the presupposition that women could not have held positions of authority in the early church—at least, not in any “genuine” Christian church, but only among groups that were condemned as heretics. The question of who represented orthodoxy and heresy, however, was far from settled in the first Christian centuries. There were several divergent groups that all thought they represented the original, apostolic teaching and practice while others deviated from “truth.” Over the course of time, dominant forms of Christianity rejected women’s leadership and applied this standard to earlier generations. Sometimes allowing women to hold prominent positions was the reason to label someone as heretical.

A case in point is Epiphanius of Salamis (late fourth century C.E.), who characterizes a Montanist Christian group whom he called Quintillianists as having “woman bishops, presbyters and the rest” (Panarion 49.2.5). Epiphanius does not question the doctrines of this group; it is their practice of letting women hold leadership roles that, in his view, shows that they have deserted the right faith (Panarion 49.3.1). It is not clear what Epiphanius means by “the rest.” An obvious reference might be deacons; Epiphanius may have wanted to avoid mentioning them since there were female deacons in his church, something of which he approved (Panarion 79.3.6), as long as they did not perform liturgical functions.

Evidence concerning female presbyters tends to be unclear when the feminine form refers to an older woman, when to a wife of a male presbyter, and when possibly to a female officeholder. Again, the majority of these rare occurrences appear in epigraphic materials. Texts where the feminine presbytis is clearly used as an honorific title can be found in legendary narratives. In the Acts of Philip, the apostle raises a young man from the dead who describes the punishments he has seen in hell while dead. They include the torturing of a man and a woman who have slandered male presbyters (presbyteroi), female presbyters (presbytides), eunuchs, deacons, deaconesses, and virgins (Acts of Philip 1.12). In the Martyrdom of Matthew, the martyred apostle appears to the king who was responsible for his execution, but later converted, and appoints him presbyter (presbyteros), the king’s wife presbyter (presbytis), the king’s son deacon and the wife of the son deaconess. Although these are fictional stories, their matter-of-fact references to female officeholders seem to indicate that their authors knew of female presbyters and deacons.

Texts that deny female presbyters’ presence in early Christianity offer another indication of their presence. Epiphanius claims that a woman has never acted as priest (hierateuein): had God intended women to be priests and perform baptisms, he would have made the mother of the Lord a priest and ordered her to baptize his son. Notably, Epiphanius knows of female presbyters (presbytides), but he explains that they are older widows. He further claims that female presbyters and female priests (hierissai) have never been assigned (Panarion 79.2–4). Another source that mentions female presbyters is Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea (a regional synod probably held in the late fourth century C.E.) that prohibits appointing presbytides and female presiders (prokathēmenai). The terse formulation without any broader context makes it difficult to judge what the role and the tasks of these women were.

Some texts mention women who baptize without giving them any specific title. With the development of clerical offices, the right to baptize was invested in bishops and they could delegate it to presbyters (Apostolic Constitutions 3.16) and sometimes to deacons (Jerome, Against the Luciferians 9). Thus, texts that prohibit women from baptizing might indicate that in some communities, women functioned as presbyters. For example, the Didascalia Apostolorum disapproves of both women who baptize and those baptized by women, warning that this is a great danger for both parties (Didascalia Apostolorum 15). The author uses the same argument as Epiphanius: Christ was baptized by John, not by his mother. In other texts, the women who perform baptism seem to be itinerant teachers and prophets. Their baptizing activity is likewise condemned (Tertullian, On Baptism 17.4; Cyprian, Letter 75).

Deacons, Deaconesses, and Widows.

The word diakonos has a wide range of meaning, from the person who serves food and drink at the table to a messenger or intermediary. The latter sense fits well with the usage of the word as an honorific title of Phoebe, the female diakonos of the church in Cenchrea (Rom 16:1–2). She comes to Rome as a representative of her community, perhaps carrying Paul’s letter with her. Even though Phoebe’s position is not explained in detail, it is unlikely that she has merely an assisting role in her church. Paul underlines her importance by calling her a prostatis, a benefactor or supporter of his ministry. It is also noteworthy that in the book of Acts, the tasks of the first diakonoi go beyond distribution of food and involve missionary activities (6—8). The reference to Phoebe proves that women as well as men bore the title of diakonos in the early church. Thus, when the word appears in plural (Phil 1:1; cf. 1 Tim 3:8–13), women cannot be automatically excluded. The earliest Latin reference to female deacons appears in Pliny’s letter to the emperor Trajan (ca. 110 C.E.), where he mentions two female slaves called “deacons” (ministrae).

In later sources, a new office of deaconess appears, first in the East during the third century and later in the West. The earliest mention of a diakonissa occurs in the Latin translation of the Didascalia Apostolorum. It is unclear whether this is a later translation and what the Greek word used in the original might have been; a parallel passage in the later Apostolic Constitutions, preserved in Greek, uses the masculine form diakonos with a feminine article. In some instances, the variant diakonē is used (Apostolic Constitutions 8.13.14). Only after the office of deaconess became established was the masculine form reserved primarily for men.

With the rise and establishment of the female diaconate, the duties of this office were separated from those of their male counterparts. Deaconesses performed a special ministry for women; they assisted at the baptism of women and gave them religious instruction afterward. Moreover, they accompanied the bishop when he made pastoral visits to women’s homes and were responsible for order among women at assembly gatherings (Didascalia Apostolorum 16; Apostolic Constitutions 3.16; 8.28). In several texts this is the only officially designated and approved role for women. Female officeholders were needed for the sake of decency, to help the male bishop with duties he could not perform without eroding propriety.

While deaconesses were deemed necessary in the church and were counted among the clergy, it is evident that their role was to assist the bishop, not to be leaders. Female deacons were not permitted any sacramental role, and in the church orders they are always listed after male deacons. The church orders also plainly state that deaconesses (as well as deacons) must fully submit to episcopal control and not act independently. However, paying pastoral visits and giving instruction to women on behalf of the bishop must have given deaconesses considerable authority among female community members.

Alongside higher and lower clerical positions, there were other designated groups that fell somewhere in between clergy and ordinary laity. In several texts widows, sometimes accompanied by virgins, appear as identifiable groups, though these were not considered church offices and involved no ordination. The order of widows is mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:3–16, where they appear both as objects of charity and as a group with specific duties and qualifications. Widows as an ecclesiastical institution are likewise mentioned in other early Christian texts (Ignatius, Letter to the Philippians 4; Tertullian, On Monogamy 11.1; On Modesty 13.7; Didascalia Apostolorum 15). Therein the tasks of widows included prayer, fasting, and private instruction of younger women. Widows are exhorted not to run around but to stay at home, as is proper for an “altar of God.” They are strictly forbidden to teach without the bishop’s permission, and even then their instruction should only concern basic issues. Should anyone inquire about more complicated matters, widows should lead the inquirer to the clerical officials. Such exclusion of women (and male laity) from teaching and other leadership functions may imply that there were in fact widows who exercised these roles. Restrictions on women, especially widows, can be seen as a sign of a struggle for authority and power, where women who were too active must be put in their proper place.

Women as Teachers and Prophets.

Not all religious authorities were bishops and other local church leaders. An important means of exercising leadership in the early Christian movement was through itinerant teachers, whose examples were the apostles whom Jesus had sent to spread the word. The title apostolos literally means “one sent forth”—thus, apostles were those commissioned to go and teach. In addition to Jesus’s twelve disciples, the title was also used for first-generation heroes such as Paul and Barnabas. Occasionally, but infrequently, it was used for a woman (Rom 16:7). In subsequent early Christian literature Mary of Magdala and the other women at the tomb, who were first commissioned by an angel and then (according to Matt 27:57–66) by the risen Christ himself to tell the male disciples about the resurrection, were hailed with the title apostola apostolorum—“apostle to the apostles.” In the Acts of Philip, she appears by the name Mariamne as a companion of Philip together with Bartholomew. Even though she is not explicitly called an apostle, the three main characters are collectively called apostoloi (Acts Phil. 13.1,5). Her duties include keeping a record of the places they visit, making preparations for the Eucharist, and baptizing women while Philip baptizes men (Acts Phil. 8.2; 14.9). Thus, while her role in this fictional story can be characterized as leadership, her leadership is subordinate to Philip’s.

Thecla, the heroine of the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla (ca. late second century C.E.), is another apostle figure. She hears Paul’s preaching, converts to an ascetic form of Christianity, deserts her fiancé, commits herself to virginity, and becomes a follower of Paul. Even though she is not called an apostle, she is sent by Paul to “go and teach the Word of God” (Acts Paul 41). Thecla, who takes on masculine characteristics by cutting her hair and wearing her mantle in a manly fashion, begins to teach publicly, working independently of Paul or any other man, even though her missionary activities are reported very briefly.

While some scholars have argued that there was a real female teacher called Thecla, the majority view takes her story as fictional. Regardless, others maintain that the text was transmitted, perhaps even created, by independent ascetic women teachers who took Thecla as their role model. Yet others have been more cautious and claimed that the text does not offer a window into the lives of real Christian women. On the other hand, real women read, heard, and retold these stories—and were inspired by them. Tertullian (third century C.E.) condemns those who claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize (On Baptism 17.4). Even though the Acts of Paul and Thecla only tells of Thecla’s self-baptism, there might have circulated other stories of her baptizing activities. Yet, more than for her autonomy and authority, she was remembered as a martyr and especially as an ideal virgin, a perfect model to imitate.

Other female teachers appear only in passing in early Christian sources. One example is Graptē in the Shepherd of Hermas. The visionary Hermas is instructed to make two written copies of his visions and send one of them to Clement and the other to Graptē, who, for her part, is to recount them to the widows and orphans (Herm. Vis. 2.4.3). Graptē receives no title, which makes it difficult to deduce what her role was in the community—and it is impossible to know whether she was a historical figure or a fictional character. Be that as it may, the text shows that for its author, it was conceivable that women acted as overseers of widows and children. Origen (third century C.E.) lists several women teachers and their followers: Helena, Marcellina, Salome, Mariamne, and Martha (Against Celsus 5.62). While the three last-mentioned figures at least share the same name of Jesus’s female followers and appear in some apocryphal texts, Origen tells nothing further of them.

While women are sometimes called “prophet” or “prophetess,” the number of named female prophets is small. The New Testament mentions the aged Anna (Luke 2:36–38) and the four virgin daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9). These biblical figures appear frequently in later texts and are highly esteemed. On the contrary, several early Christian authors cast female prophets from their own period in a dubious light and see in women’s authority a true sign of heresy. Most prophetesses are linked with the so-called Montanist movement, originally called the New Prophecy by its followers and often referred to as the Phrygian or Cataphrygian sect by their opponents. Two of its best-known prophets were women, Priscilla and Maximilla (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 8.19; Origen, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, fragm. 74). Epiphanius adds Quintilla as a third prophet (Panarion 48–49). According to Origen, the followers justify women’s prophetic activity by invoking the example of biblical prophetesses. This, in Origen’s view, is not a valid argument, for biblical women only prophesied in private, not in front of assemblies.

In the mid-third century C.E., Firmilian the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia wrote a letter to Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, about baptism. He recounts an unnamed and otherwise unknown female prophet who performed miracles, celebrated the Eucharist, and baptized many (Cyprian, Letter 75.10). In Firmilian’s judgment, she only pretended to be a prophet and was actually acting under demonic influence, but she seems to have been popular and performed the baptism according to the usual ecclesiastical practice. Even though Firmilian disapproves of the prophet and questions the validity of her baptizing, he condemns her because she lacks the Holy Spirit, not because of her gender. If this indicates that Firmilian did not oppose female prophets performing liturgical functions, then he differs in this respect from other writers, such as Tertullian (On the Veiling of Virgins 9.1) and Epiphanius (Panarion 79.3.4), who, to some extent, accepted female prophets but vehemently opposed their liturgical roles.

Women and Asceticism.

Most, if not all, female teachers and prophets were celibate, either widows who refused to remarry or virgins who had never married. Virginity and asceticism belonged to Christian life from its beginnings, but voluntary continence instead of, during, or after marriage began to flourish in the fourth century C.E. Many ascetic women lived in urban settings in their family houses. For example, Macrina, the sister of Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, of whom relatively much is known from her biography written by Gregory, lived with her mother and gathered a group of virgins to form an ascetic community in her house. Others followed her example. It is clear that these women held authoritative status in their own community, and their activities exceeded that. They played an influential role as friends and conversation partners of male theologians, as supporters of local churches, and as founders of monastic establishments. Yet, their influence was confined to private settings, in monasteries and within the family, for women’s teaching in public was discouraged.

Other female ascetics practiced a solitary form of asceticism in the desert. Among the desert fathers whose teachings have been preserved in the Apophthegmata Patrum, there were “desert mothers,” or ammas, such as Theodora, Sarah, and Syncletica. These singular figures, known for the rigor of their lifestyle, were highly esteemed. Pilgrims, both men and women, visited them frequently. They exercised great authority but their leadership was spiritual, not social or political.

Female leaders of ascetic communities—such as Macrina, Melania the Elder and her granddaughter Melania the Younger, Olympias, Paula and her daughter Eustochium—might have enjoyed great authority within and outside their communities, but spiritually they were under the pastoral control of the local bishop or another male member of the clergy. The influential women that we know by name belonged to the highest social stratum. As such, they were exceptional figures and enjoyed a position unavailable to women of lower classes. They formed an ascetic elite in two senses. First, they were members of the wealthy aristocracy who could take liberties that were unimaginable for most people. Second, celibacy and the monastic lifestyle became the “higher calling,” in that those engaging in it were deemed superior to ordinary, married people.

Assessment.

Christianity emerged in a male-dominated world where leadership roles were, as a rule, reserved for men. Ancient sources, however, provide some indication that women had an active role in the Christian communities, sometimes even bearing clerical titles. Source materials are often fragmentary and ambiguous, which has led to differing scholarly stances, often based on either conscious or unconscious presuppositions. Those for whom any public position of authority for women in the church is unimaginable tend to take textual restrictions of women’s rights to teach and baptize at face value, concluding that women have never functioned in leadership roles in the church. If there were women who received the title of a bishop or a presbyter, they belonged to heterodox groups. Those who are strongly in favor of women’s active leadership in present-day religious communities deduce that women were equally active in shaping early Christianity and held leadership roles along with men. Gradually, a male-oriented hierarchy became dominant, and evidence of women’s earlier leadership was suppressed.

Neither view is without problems. Claiming that the “true” church never allowed women’s leadership and labeling those Christian groups who approved of it as heretical is not free from value judgment. Instead of “orthodoxy” and “heresy,” it would be more accurate to speak about fundamental diversity during the first Christian centuries. Some Christian communities accepted women as leaders, others did not. Over time, those forms of Christianity that refused women’s leadership gained power and were able to declare those groups where women’s prominent roles were maintained as heretical. On the other hand, to state that there was an early egalitarian period in the church is equally generalizing and misleading. It often entails the biased idea that early Christianity adapted to the inferior, male-oriented order of Roman society and applied its gendered hierarchical models to developing ecclesiastical structures. Early Christian communities, however, were not disconnected from their wider cultural environment. Women in general were not more oppressed in the Greco-Roman or Jewish culture and society, and Christian women did not enjoy a more advanced position compared to other women of the time.

Women of sufficient social status could engage in civic leadership and exercise economic and political power in the Roman society. It was not different in early Christian communities. Most of the available sources originate from elite circles, and the women they describe are prominent members of the highest social classes. There might also have been other women who had considerable influence in their local communities, but their memory has not been preserved.

[See also GENDER TRANSGRESSION, subentry EARLY CHURCH; POPULAR RELIGION AND MAGIC, subentry EARLY CHURCH; RELIGIOUS LEADERS, subentries on LATE ANTIQUITY, NEW TESTAMENT, and ROMAN WORLD; and RELIGIOUS PARTICIPATION, subentries on EARLY CHURCH and NEW TESTAMENT.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

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  • Eisen, Ute. Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000.
  • Elm, Susanna. “Virgins of God”: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.
  • Lehtipuu, Outi. “The Example of Thecla and the Example(s) of Paul: Disputing Women’s Role in Early Christianity.” In Women and Gender in Ancient Religions: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Stephen Ahearne-Kroll, Paul Holloway, and James Kelhoffer, pp. 338–367. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 263. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.
  • Madigan, Kevin, and Carolyn Osiek, eds. Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
  • Matthews, Shelly. “Thinking of Thecla: Issues in Feminist Historiography.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 17 (2001): 39–55.
  • Methuen, Charlotte. “Widows, Bishops and the Struggle for Authority in the Didascalia Apostolorum.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 46 (1995): 107–213.
  • Miller, Patricia C., ed. Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005.
  • Osiek, Carolyn, and Margaret Y. MacDonald with Janet H. Tulloch. A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006.
  • Tabbernee, William. Prophets and Gravestones: An Imaginative History of Montanists and Other Early Christians. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2009.
  • Torjesen, Karen J. When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995.
  • Trevett, Christine. Montanism: Gender, Authority and the New Prophecy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Outi Lehtipuu

Late Antiquity

Religious leadership in late antiquity, from the fourth to the sixth centuries, shows a variety of experience that may surprise modern readers who have become accustomed to the idea of male-dominated early Christian communities organized on the same lines as the patriarchal society of the Greco-Romans. For the first two centuries of its existence, Christianity was a religious movement practiced primarily in the private space of the household rather than the public space of the temple. In such domestic contexts, practical leadership by women seems to have been accepted. For example, in his Letter to the Romans the apostle Paul sent greetings to Junia, part of a husband and wife team whom he considered to be “eminent among the apostles” (Rom 16:7). As to whether she was an apostle herself or merely highly regarded by the apostles, the text is ambiguous. Another female disciple and colleague of Saint Paul, the virgin and martyr Thecla, became the subject of the apocryphal second-century work Acts of Paul and Thecla and the center of a widespread cult of women’s piety in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Religious leadership roles in late antiquity were of two major types: those sanctioned by an official church order, increasingly institutionalized and hierarchical in nature, and the less constrained spiritual authority of those whose ascetic withdrawal from the life of the flesh was believed to allow them direct engagement with heavenly realities.

Gender and Church Orders.

Gender roles in late antiquity were defined to some extent by social status, which was surprisingly fluid, as much linked to patronage networks as to wealth, as the newly Christian empire came under a series of external and internal pressures from the fourth century onward. This fluidity of roles and status existed as much in ecclesiastical and monastic secular spheres as it did in secular spheres. Bishops, whose original function was merely to oversee the community, gradually assumed the sole right to preach, while presbyters and deacons played important roles in administering the sacraments. With the responsibility of preaching came more episcopal power over the running of church affairs, including the appointment and discipline of a nearly all-male clergy. This was divided into two levels: minor orders such as porter, cantor, lector, and exorcist, and the major orders of priest, deacon, and bishop. However, women were not altogether excluded from offices of leadership in the newly organized church.

The diaconate was open to women who were virgins or formerly married, now widowed (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 6). The same work (3.2.15, trans. Donaldson, 1885, p. 431) allows for women deacons “for the ministrations towards women,” especially baptism. In the ecclesial typology of the east, the bishop was said to be in the image of God of Father; the deacon, of Christ; the deaconess, of the Holy Spirit; and the priests, of the apostles (Didascalia apostolorum 2.26.4). Female deacons continued to be ordained at least until the early medieval period. The Greek noblewoman Olympias is a well-known example of a Byzantine deaconess. A patron and friend of John Chrysostom while he was patriarch of Constantinople (398–403/4), Olympias ran a hospital and an orphanage, and provided hospitality for visiting monks out of her own pocket. There is inscriptional evidence for presbytera, episkopa, and diakonissa, the feminine forms of presbyteros (initially meaning “elder,” later “priest”), episkopos (“overseer,” later “bishop”), and diakonos (“steward” or “deacon”), although some scholars argue that these titles were reserved for wives and widows of the clergy, it being commonplace in both the eastern and western churches for lower clergy to marry. Nonetheless, the Council of Laodicea in the late fourth century found it necessary to legislate against the appointment of female presbyters (Canon 11) and for the exclusion of women from the sanctuary (Canon 44).

The liturgy of the earliest church had in fact been antisacrificial, or at least spiritualized, the culmination of a trend beginning in the Hebrew scriptures, whereby sacrifice is removed from the domain of cultic ritual and becomes service, practical and ethical: acts of mercy, not sacrifice (cf. Hos 6:6 and Matt 9:13). Early Christians were often suspected of “atheism” precisely because they did not sacrifice as the pagans understood it. Sacrifice had been spiritualized and internalized so that we find, especially prominently in Paul’s thought, the conviction that it is Christians themselves who constitute the new Temple. Early Christians eschewed cultic designations, as the titles given to leaders in the early church were initially secular. The bishop or episkopos was literally an overseer. The responsibilities of the episkopos were initially the same as, or at least modeled upon, the manager of a household, as 1 Timothy 3 suggests.

The sacralization of church leadership begins late in the in the third century with the identification of Christian ministry with the Levitical priesthood in the canons of the Council of Carthage, and it is with Cyprian of Carthage that we first find bishops and presbyters being called “priests” (sacerdotes; Epistle 63), although he was yet to associate their priestly function with the liturgy. When applied to the liturgy, the Levitical understanding of priesthood brought with it an increasing emphasis on notions of ritual purity, as can be seen in the canons of the Synod of Elvira (306), which enjoined celibacy for all ministers of the altar. Hence Pope Siricius (384–399) argued that since Christ came “not to destroy the law but to fulfill it” (Matt 5:17), “perfect sexual continence is now required of the priests who offer sacrifice on behalf of the Church” (Hunter, 2007, p. 215). The sacralization of church leadership and the exclusion of women from that leadership go hand in hand, as notions of ritual purity excluded women from the altar, given that they were polluted by menstruation, giving birth, and sexual activity, according to Levitical laws. The central Christian liturgy of the Eucharist, which began as table fellowship in the woman-friendly space of house churches, evolved into a cultic practice that in anthropological terms was inimical to women.

By the late fourth century, the clerical orders, having been endowed with legal standing as servants of the empire, assumed a cultic function for the imperial church in the performance of a liturgical “sacrifice” that ensured the continuity and prosperity of the Roman Empire, whose leaders were now Christian, with the notable exception of Julian the Apostate (361–363). Post-Constantinian liturgies can be seen to mark the beginning of a process whereby Eucharistic language became specifically cultic in orientation (Daly, 1978, p. 138), with an increasing emphasis on the sacrifice of the Cross in Christian thought and practice. It is perhaps ironic that the main instigator of the official cult of the Cross was Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, who was credited after her death with having found the remnants of the True Cross at Golgotha in the course of her pilgrimage to Palestine in the 320s (Ambrose, Funeral Oration for Emperor Theodosius, 395 C.E.).

Mary Magdalene: The First Apostle?

The figure of Mary Magdalene offers us an illuminating symbol of the diminishing role of women as leaders within the institutionalized church. Mary Magdalene exemplifies the manner in which women were gradually pushed from the center to the margins of Christianity. In the Synoptic Gospels, Simon Peter is always named first among the male disciples, while Mary Magdalene is given prominence among the female disciples, suggesting a primacy analogous to that of Peter (Maisch, 1998, pp. 9–11). In John’s Gospel it is Mary Magdalene rather than Peter who is presented as the model for discipleship. In her witness to the disciples, Mary Magdalene uses the same apostolic formula, “I have seen the Lord,” that Paul uses to legitimate his own apostolic authority (1 Cor 9:1; see Maisch, 1998, p. 12). It is only in John 21, considered by a large number of biblical scholars to be a later appendix, that Mary is displaced by Peter.

That Mary was chosen as the first witness was something that a number of church fathers felt needed explanation. Ambrose, for example, considers the event according to the typology of the “second Eve.” As it was Eve who first brought the message of sin to Adam, it was appropriate that a woman (Mary) “should also have been the first to bring the message of the grace of the Lord” (Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit 3.11.74). Jerome considered that Christ first appeared to a woman in order to show his humility (Letter 12, “To Anthony”). Both Jerome and Augustine manage to turn Mary Magdalene’s grace into a failure of faith in their consideration that Mary Magdalene was not allowed to touch his feet because she did not believe in his divinity (Jerome, Letter 59, “To Marcella”; Augustine, Sermon 244.2–3).

By the time of Gregory the Great (590–604), the figure of Mary Magdalene had undergone a transformation. She became a theological type of the church rather than a historical figure (Maisch, 1998, p. 31). The figure of Mary became conflated with Mary of Bethany, who anointed Jesus, along with the other anointing women, especially the sinful woman in Luke 7:36–49 (Johnson, 1998, pp. 146–150). Mary Magdalene was later dubbed “the apostle to the apostles” by the medieval philosopher Peter Abelard, but her apostolate was particular, being restricted to the twelve male apostles, whose apostolate by contrast was universal and ongoing. One might say that her apostolic authority was confined to the domestic rather than public sphere.

Female Asceticism.

Women still exerted spiritual authority in ascetic contexts, whether as solitaries or as leaders and members of female communities. Ascetic leadership offered an alternative domain of spiritual authority to the ecclesial orders, and one that was at least theoretically more open to women. The consecration of male and female virgins in the fourth century was considered “white” martyrdom, compared to the “red martyrdom” of the second, third, and early fourth centuries. These were lay people who consecrated themselves to God’s service through prayer, fasting, and chastity and remained living at home with their parents. They were often wealthy aristocratic women whose inherited wealth and property was left to the church.

Female communities of nuns were governed by an abbess, to whom absolute obedience was owed. In community this person had ultimate authority over every aspect of the lives of the women in her spiritual charge. In the 320s the Egyptian monk Pachomius set up chains of monasteries on military lines in Upper Egypt, where each monk had a cell and work to do for the community, for example making mats to sell, gardening, or pottery. Pachomius allowed for communities of women run along the same lines, but under his ultimate governorship.

The concept of gender goes further than “male” and “female” biological sex, and invites us to see masculinity and femininity as constructions of society, rather than biological necessities (James, 1997, p. xvii). Twenty-first-century thinking on the question of sex and gender sees biological sex as a given, albeit one that can be surgically changed, while gender slides along a spectrum that does not correlate with biological sex. The church fathers would have agreed that gender and sex need not correlate, but for them it was a matter of sublimating sexuality altogether in order to attain “perfect” male gender. For them, gender was a given; sex was mutable. Whereas bodies could change because they belonged to the transient realm of “becoming,” gender as the social meaning attributed to the body was eternal, according to early Christian thinkers. To change one’s gender status required transformation of the body, usually achieved through ascetic practices, thereby making themselves “eunuchs for the kingdom of God.” Some ascetics took this ideal literally and resorted to self-castration, as in the case of Origen of Alexandria (d. ca. 254).

Some of the best examples of the sliding scale of gender are found in the sayings of the monks and nuns who inhabited the Egyptian desert from the end of the third century onward. These sayings have been preserved in several collections, including the Apophthegmata, preserved in Greek, Coptic, and Syriac versions and in a later Latin translation. They include the sayings of monks and nuns from the first desert father Anthony of Egypt (d. ca. 270) to the sixth-century Abba Phocas. Abbas Sarah and Syncletica were among the “desert mothers” whose sayings were included in the collection. The sayings attributed to the desert mothers were not necessarily ever uttered by historical women, but their inclusion in monastic literature for the edification of ascetic men and women tells us much about how early Christians regarded the relationship between gender and spiritual authority.

As the inferior sex, women were seen as more subject to the weaknesses of the flesh than men. “Equality in late antiquity was a thoroughly androcentric concept that in effect required a renunciation of feminine specificity” (Casey, 2010, pp. 38–39). Thus the Egyptian desert mothers who triumphed over their inferior physical status in the solitary ascetic life could be seen as greater athletes than the men who achieved the same goal with fewer handicaps. The harsh conditions of desert life included lack of regular food and water and exposure to predations of wild beasts and to the elements, which together caused most of their outward female characteristics to fall away, such as the menstrual cycle; female ascetics’ breasts shriveled; their hair fell out or was shaved off. In a typical example, Abba Bessarion and an old man came upon a brother in a cave, who was engaged in plaiting a rope. The brother ignored their presence and continued with his task. On their return journey they looked for him again and found him dead in the cave. Bessarion and the old man took the body to bury it and discovered to their astonishment that the “brother” was a woman (Apophthegmata, “Bessarion,” in Ward, 1981, p. 41). Such female ascetics as the unnamed “brother” could be considered equal in spiritual terms to men, even excelling them in spiritual warfare, but at the cost of sacrificing their biological distinctiveness.

Charismatic Religious Leadership.

A third kind of religious leadership in late antiquity was that based on the charismatic gifts of prophesy, preaching, speaking in tongues, or the interpretation of tongues. This kind of spiritual authority was much more accessible to women, and by its very nature less able to be co-opted by men. Several well-known female leaders emerged in the charismatic movement known as Montanism in the late second and third centuries, in Asia Minor and North Africa. They may have developed their own hierarchy of regional bishops, and they may have allowed female clergy, as Epiphanius of Salamis charged in 375 C.E. (Panarion 49.2.1–5). Epiphanius also objected to their conceptualization of the Holy Spirit in female form. The prophetess Priscilla reported that even Christ came to her “under the appearance of a woman” (Panarion 48.12; see Trevett, 1996, pp. 185–186). However, this movement did not survive the fifth century. In spite of powerful deaconesses like Olympias, and the flourishing cults of individual women such as Mary Magdalene and Saint Thecla, the leadership of women in both eastern and western churches never regained the acceptance that it had enjoyed in the earliest centuries of Christianity.

[See also GENDER TRANSGRESSION, subentry EARLY CHURCH; POPULAR RELIGION AND MAGIC, subentry EARLY CHURCH; RELIGIOUS LEADERS, subentries on EARLY CHURCH and NEW TESTAMENT; and RELIGIOUS PARTICIPATION, subentry EARLY CHURCH.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Casey, D. Flesh Made Word: Theology after Irigaray. Saarbrücken, Germany: Lambert Academic Press, 2010.
  • Daly, Robert J. The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1978.
  • Donaldson, James, trans. “Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 6.” In The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 7: Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries, edited by Philip Schaff, pp. 385–506. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1885.
  • Hunter, David G. Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovinianist Controversy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • James, Liz, ed. Women, Men, and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium. London: Routledge, 1997.
  • Jay, Nancy. Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • Johnson, Elizabeth A. Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints. New York: Continuum, 1998.
  • Maisch, Ingrid. Between Contempt and Veneration…Mary Magdalene: The Image of a Woman through the Centuries. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1998.
  • Torjesen, Karen Jo. “Clergy and Laity.” In The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter, pp. 389–405. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Trevett, Christine. Montanism: Gender, Authority, and the New Prophecy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Ward, Benedicta, trans. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Rev ed. London: Mowbray, 1981.
  • Other primary sources from the first three Christian centuries are available online at Early Christian Writings, www.earlychristianwritings.com. Patristic sources are available in translation in Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.ccel.org(both sites accessed 30 June 2013).

Bronwen Neil and Damien Casey