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CNN Features Mosaics and Frescos of Early Women Officeholders

Widespread archaeological and literary evidence of female deacons, priests and bishops in early Church

One happy outcome of the recent papal transition was the heightened media profile FutureChurch and other progressive Catholic organizations were given in both print and TV venues. FutureChurch was quoted widely in national and international print and radio media.

On April 12 CNN’s LiveFrom program featured Sr. Chris Schenk opposite Fr. Joseph Fessio, provost of the traditionalist Ave Maria University in Florida. The show’s producers and host, Kyra Phillips, were vitally interested in newly available archaelogical and literary evidence that women held leadership and ministerial roles in the early church identical to those held by men. Inscriptions and images found on papyri, tombstones, frescos and mosaics show early Christian women served as apostles, prophets, priests, deacons, bishops, stewards, enrolled widows and teachers of theology.

sofia inscription

Two hours before the program aired, the FutureChurch office obtained permission from Dr. Dorothy Irvin to scan and email to CNN her photographs of the 9th century mosaic of women bishops at St. Praxedis in Rome and of a woman priest honored in a fresco in the Catacombs of Priscilla. “It is one thing to say that we can’t talk about women’s ordination today, it is quite another to say that the church has had no history of women priests. Archaeological artifacts and literary studies show conclusively that women served their communities as deacons, priests and bishops in both the eastern and western Churches,” said Schenk on the program.

"Here lies Kale the presbyter who lived 50 years irreproachable she ended her life on the 14th of September"

Fr. Fessio contended that tombstone inscriptions for women officeholders merely meant that these women were the wives of priests and bishops. However, contemporary scholarship rejects this interpretation. In the ancient world, titles were legal identification, since no system of family surnames yet existed. If a woman is described by a title such as presbytera (woman priest) it means that she held that office herself. If her husband had the office, the title is attached to his name (not hers) and she is named as his wife without a title. Also, the words presbytera (woman priest) and episcopa (woman bishop) were often found on tombstones of unmarried women as well as on married women’s tombstones whose husbands carried no title at all.

A new monograph written by FutureChurch’s Sr. Christine Schenk summarizing the work of two scholars: Ute Eisen and Dorothy Irvin, is now available from the FutureChurch office. Attractively presented, the 5000 word monograph includes a map of the Mediterranean world showing exact sites where archeological data about each woman priest, deacon or bishop was found as well as line drawings of ancient inscriptions produced by archeologist Dorothy Irvin.

Eisen’s book: Women Officeholders in Early Christianity shows that women led and served communities as priests, deacons and bishops Asia Minor, Greece, Spain, Egypt, Sicily, Italy, Palestine and Yugoslavia.

Dorothy Irvin holds a pontifical doctorate in Catholic Theology from the University of Tuebingen, Germany with specialization in bible, ancient near eastern studies and archeology. For the last eighteen years she has been an active field archeologist.


Women Officeholders in the Early Church

New Monograph & Map Summarize Archaeological Discoveries

Inscriptions and images found on papyri, tombstones, frescos and mosaics in Rome, Sicily, Jerusalem, Northern Africa and many other places reveal that early Christian women served their communities as deacons, priests, theologians and bishops. This monograph summarizes the groundbreaking work of scholars such as Ute Eisen and Dorothy Irvin. Eisen’s book: Women Officeholders in Early Christianity (Liturgical Press, 2000) is an exhaustive study of the written evidence for women officeholders from the ancient Church to the Middle Ages. Irvin, a theologian and an active field archaeologist, holds a pontifical doctorate in Catholic Theology from The University of Tuebingen, Germany. Her calendars The Archaeology of Women’s Traditional Ministries in the Church have made recent discoveries of women’s ministry in the ancient church more widely accessible. Email: irvincalendar@hotmail.com

Focus on FutureChurch

Spring 2005



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