Thursday, August 6, 2009

Women Deacons in the East: Tomb Inscriptions, Part II

There are more tomb inscriptions than those presented in Part I.
This post will start with a mosaic inscription from Patras, Greece—that of Agrippiane:

“The DEACON AGRIPPIANE, most beloved of God, made the mosaic in fulfillment of her vow.” (Ordained Women in the Early Church, 70). [from this moment on, the book titled will be referenced by the acronym “OWEC”]

Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek write:

“Agrippiane is a DIAKONOS who exercised her patronage by paying for a mosaic floor after having made some kind of promise to God, the details of which are unknown. The usual pattern, often practiced by believers of the early Church, is to promise to do something specific if a request has been granted by God. Both clergy and laity could make such vows and were bound to fulfill them. The appellation ‘most beloved of God’ (theophilestate) IS KNOWN IN OTHER CONTEXTS AS A DESCRIPTION OF CHURCH OFFICIALS” (OWEC, 70).

With Agrippiane, when she is called a “diakonos,” the title “most beloved of God” adds to our belief that Agrippiane was a deacon of a church in Greece.

The next tomb inscription is a funerary inscription from Apollonia, Pontus (Thrace):

“Alexandra subdeacon” (OWEC, 70).

According to Madigan and Osiek, the office of subdeacon existed for men, but we have no evidence regarding what the office meant for women. “The title HYPODIAKON on the Greek inscription is an abbreviation either for HYPODIAKONOS or HYPODIAKONISSA, so her actual title could have been either term” (OWEC, 70).

For those whose minds are curious as to what a subdeacon did, you’re in good luck. David Bercot, editor of the work “A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs,” gives us the details of what the office would have required for men:

“In the early church, a subdeacon was an assistant to a deacon, and in some churches he performed similar functions to that of a deacon” (“A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs” by David W. Bercot, Editor. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, page 635).

So a subdeacon for the deacon was an assistant to the deacon; assistants usually did whatever the deacons needed them to do. This is probably how it worked among the women. They possibly had assistants as well, who did whatever the women deacons needed them to do.

The next inscription concerns a fourth-century inscription found in 1910 in the Peloponnesus, a marble plaque:

“Here lies [________] only child, twenty-three years old, daughter of [________] and ALEXANDRA DEACON, raised and taken in by my father Erenianos in swaddling clothes, in distress and pleas, buried in hope by me. As God wished, I fulfilled this path for her in the fourteenth Indiction, September 13” (OWEC, 71).

We know that Alexandra, mentioned in the inscription, is the mother of the child who died at 23. Alexandra is considered to be a deacon of a church.

The next inscription concerns Anastasia of Palestine. The inscription itself is “a funerary inscription of the Byzantine Period, from the burial caves at the St. George Choziba Monastery, Deir el Qilt in Wadi Kilt, between Jerusalem and Jericho” (OWEC, 71).

“Here lies ANASTASIA DEACON, in the month of February 27, in the 11th Indiction” (OWEC, 71).

Madigan and Osiek tell us that in the place of “deacon” here in the inscription are really just four letters, an abbreviation of the title (DIAK); therefore, we can’t know whether Anastasia was a deacon or a deaconess (OWEC, 71).

The last tomb inscription in this post is from the fifth century, from Delphi (Greece):

“The devoted DEACONESS ATHANASIA, who lived a blameless life decorously, INSTALLED AS DEACONESS by the most holy bishop Pantamianos, set up this memorial. Here lie her mortal remains. If anyone else dares to open this monument where the deaconess has been placed, may he share the lot of Judas the [betrayer] of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (OWEC, 72)

Regarding this tomb inscription, Madigan and Osiek tell us that “this is the only inscription of a female deacon that speaks of her installation as deaconess (Katasthathisa)and gives the name of the installing bishop, probably because of his importance. This verb (kathistemi) is not normally used for ordination and is sometimes contrasted to ordination. It rather connotes official appointment to an office or function…” (OWEC, 73).

Despite Madigan and Osiek’s claim here, I’d have to say that the word “kathistemi” is used in the Greek New Testament for appointment to church office. It is especially used for the first deacons of the early church in Acts 6. When Peter says, “Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can APPOINT to this duty” (Acts 6:4, HCSB), he is telling the church to pick seven men they can install to the office of deacon. In the early church, installment, appointment, and ordination meant the same thing; so I don’t see where the difference lies. At least in the Greek New Testament, “kathistemi” did mean ordination.

This means, then, that Athanasia, the deaconess, WAS ORDAINED to her position. What adds to this conclusion is the fact that we are told the name of the Bishop who ordained her: “installed as deaconess by THE MOST HOLY BISHOP PANTAMIANOS…” If Athanasia was just given a church office that held no significance of ordination, why would a bishop’s name be used here? As we will see throughout the study of tomb inscriptions, there were women who served as “deacons” and did good charitable things, but the name of a bishop was not given—nor were any of the details of their appointment.

This will conclude Part II of our study of tomb inscriptions. As we see, though, women did serve in leadership in the early church. As we progress through the study, I hope that you feel as I do: that much of this material, although true, remains hidden or undiscussed. Something must be done…


  1. Deidre, Thank you for all the work you are doing on this site!


  2. Lydia,

    thanks for the uplifting encouragement. I need that so much...

    Please continue to read here at the site and respond often. Pray for the blog and pray for me, that the Lord would continue to endow me with knowledge to do His work.


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