Were there ordained women in the early church? My little internet treasure hunt

Yesterday I read this article in the Telegraph online written by Bettany Hughes promoting her BBC programme Divine Women. I was intrigued by the mention in the article of an image in the Priscilla Catacombs of Rome showing a woman wearing an alb (a sign of an ordained person) with a Bishop putting his arm on her shoulder. I promptly did a quick internet search for this image and at first couldn’t find anything. Then I came across this interesting article which contains this image:

I assumed that this was the image to which Bettany Hughes was referring (it actually isn’t) but I couldn’t figure out where it was from (there not being a reference on the website where I saw it). So I posted the image on Facebook and Twitter to see if I could find out what it was a picture of. A few friends helped out, initially I thought as far as I would get would be my brother in law Steve’s hilarious interpretation:

“It is actually an image from the first ever game of ‘bullseye’. She lost the game and has been presented with a thanks for playing trophy but he is just saying ‘let’s see what you could have won'”.

But then my friend Lawrence came up trumps with finding this site about the Basilica of St Prassede in Rome – which is where the image is from.

It turns out that this is just part of a bigger picture showing the two daughters of St Pudens, Saints Prassede and Pudenziana being presented to God – this image is St Prassede being presented by St Paul (Source: Wikipedia).

So I was looking at the wrong picture all along, I watched the second episode of the programme and discovered there are three main images that support Hughes’ argument that there were ordained women in the early church, one from this basilica of St Prassede, and the others from the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome.

The main image I was looking for is this one from the Catacomb of Priscilla:

It’s the grouping on the left that Bettany Hughes was talking about. It’s almost impossible to make out here but apparently the woman is wearing an alb and is being blessed by a Bishop. I’m not sure what to make of this – it seems a lot to extrapolate from a rather vague image. However, the female figure in the centre is striking and obviously worshipping God – perhaps even leading worship?

The other intriguing fresco in the catacomb is this image of women around a table apparently breaking bread (ie sharing communion). I wonder whether this is an image of an Agape meal?

Whatever it is a picture of, it is unusual to see so many women depicted and especially in a place of worship. I find this so exciting (I’m a bit of an ancient history geek!) Whether it means women presided at the Eucharist in the early church I’m really not sure but it does confirm what we already know from the New Testament: that women were very prominent in the early church. In fact, they provided much of the financial support for the fledgling movement (for an example, see Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2).

The other intriguing image Hughes referred to in the programme is the mosaic of Bishop Theodora:

This is in a chapel in the Basilica of St Prassede, alongside images of the sisters Prassede and Pudenziana with the Virgin Mary.

If you look closely you can see the word ‘episcopa’ written above her head and down the left hand side the name Theodor – apparently with the ‘a’ removed. It’s suspected that this was a later defacement because Episcopa is the female form of Episcopos, the Greek for Bishop – it couldn’t be seen for a woman to be a bishop and so they changed Theodora’s name to the male form, Theodore.

Theodora was actually the mother of the Pope Paschal I so some hold that the ‘episcopa’ simply refers to this. Some argue that other uses of episcopa in these early centuries simply refer to the ‘wife of a bishop’ and not a female bishop. The same argument is used for the translation of deacon in the New Testament – in 1 Timothy 3:11 – that the female form of deacon simply means ‘wife of a deacon’ rather than a deaconess in their own right.

I think, however, that even if you accept this conservative reading, it still leaves me with these questions:

  • Why was the word episcopa or deacon connected to women at all?
  • Why commemorate Theodora in this rich mosaic, in a prominent place next to two female saints and the Virgin Mary?
  • Why provide her name? If her fame was only that she was the Pope’s mother, why not just say Mother of Pope Paschal?

Finally, in my online research I also came across an interesting passage in a document from the 3rd century called the Didascalia. One of the main arguments against women’s ordination is that if you are to represent Christ at the eucharist, you must be a man. The Didascalia has an interesting take on the roles of male and female deacons (an ordained servant of the church):

The deacon stands next to you as a symbol of Christ; therefore you should love him.
The deaconess should be honoured by you as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

Didascalia II, 26, 5-6

What an interesting idea! That a woman can represent a different part of the triune God – the Holy Spirit, even if directly she cannot represent Christ because she is female.

So this has been an interesting little excursion into early church history. I think some of Bettany Hughes’ interpretations stretch things a little but I think this archaeological evidence supports what we know from scripture. Christianity had a radical new equality built in from the start between men and women: from the way in which Jesus treated and honoured women, through to women being the first heralds of the Good News of the Resurrection and then on to their role in the early church providing finances and homes for worship. As Paul writes to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

– Galatians 3:28

Update 20th November 2013:

The frescos in the Priscilla catacombs have now been restored: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/19/vatican–frescoes_n_4305560.html#slide=3132684

You can now see that the woman in the grouping on the left is wearing a dalmatic – a vestment still worn by deacons today – and seems to be being presented or sponsored by two men.

Restored fresco


  1. the pose is actually of an Oran, or singer, not a deaconess, though there are writings that suggest deaconess position existed, but not in the serving of the eucharist. more of a leader among women and service to the community.


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