Currently, I’ve been providing information regarding tomb inscriptions of female deacons in the West as well as the East. At the present time, we have covered women deacons in the West and are attempting to cover the presence of women deacons in the East. This is where Part III will resume.
Next on our list is a limestone inscription from Phrygia in Asia Minor. The limestone is broken into two pieces:
Left side: “Aurelius Antonius, son of Miros, together with his aunt ELAPHIA DEACONESS of the Encratites…[text is broken off]”
Right side: “I, ELAPHIA, DEACONESS OF THE ENCRATITES, have set up this monument as memorial to the presbyter Peter together with his brother Polychronios” (OWEC, 78).
Regarding the limestone:
“In the right inscription, she [Elaphia] alone makes the commemoration, to a presbyter and his brother, both of whose relationship to her is unknown. Since no relationship is stated, it is possible that SHE WAS ACTING AS A CHURCH OFFICIAL to commemorate two brothers, one a cleric, who had no surviving family to do it for them” (OWEC, 78).
What interests me, aside from Elaphia as a deaconess here, is that she is called a “deaconess of the ENCRATITES.” Madigan and Osiek provide information on this interesting group as well:
“The Encratites were a sect of ascetics known from the second century on in the East. Celibacy was an important part of their practice…” (OWEC, 78)
Another inscription comes from a marble sarcophagus near Nicomedia in Bithynia (Asia Minor):
“In memory of EUGENIA DEACON we, the poor people of Geragathis, restored the sarcophagus that we decorated” (OWEC, 81).
This is an interesting one because of those who describe themselves as “the poor people of Geragathis.” According to Madigan and Osiek, “The group could be of a particular place or belonging in some way to a person. Ute Eisen suggests the leader of a house for the poor where Eugenia had worked” (81).
A Nicopolis (Thrace) inscription dated from 538 CE tells of a woman who was patron of a memorial center:
“Here lies EUGENIA of praiseworthy memory, d…[stone broken off], WHO BUILT THE HOUSE (domo[n], i.e., shrine) OF THE GLORIOUS APOSTLE ANDREW in a holy manner, and ended life on June 12 in the first Indiction, in the reign of our godly and reverend ruler (despo[tou]) Flavius Justinianus, eternal Augustus and Emperor, in the twelfth year of the consulship (hypatia) of the noble Flavius John” (OWEC, 81).
Only the first letter of her title [d] is preserved (Madigan and Osiek, 81) so that we don’t know if she was a deacon or deaconess. We do know, however, that she played a role in the construction of a memorial center—so she must have had quite an influence in her community.
The next inscription concerns a woman named Maria of Archelais. The inscription itself was of grey marble stone, with a cross and ivy decoration in the center; the words themselves were written below the arms of the cross. It is a sixth century inscription:
“Here lies MARIA THE DEACON of pious and blessed memory who, according to the saying of the Apostle, raised children, exercised hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, and distributed her bread to the needy. Remember her, Lord, when she enters into your kingdom” (OWEC, 82-83).
Madigan’s and Osiek’s comments are fitting by themselves for Maria’s tomb inscription:
“The inscription contains biblical allusions to 1 Tim. 5:10 in the middle and Luke 23:42 at the end. The allusion to the work of widows in 1 Tim. 5:10 makes it almost certain that Maria was a widow at the time of her death. The title ‘the Apostle’ is frequently used of Paul by writers of this period. Everyone would know to whom it referred. Her title is ‘diakonos,’ and the total lack of mention of any relatives is unusual. It may mean that she had no surviving relatives, or it may indicate HER LEVEL OF IMPORTANCE TO HER CHURCH COMMUNITY. PERHAPS THE COMMUNITY ERECTED HER MEMORIAL” (83).
They also give us insight into Maria’s work as a deacon:
“the description given here from 1 Timothy lists typical works that would be theirs. Raising children may mean not only their own but the neglected or orphaned children of others. Hospitality involved the washing of feet as a sign of welcome and was not understood only as slaves’ work. Feeding the poor was a necessary work of charity that was expected of all. The mention of these specific activities is a biblical allusion and DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN THAT MARIA EXCELLED ONLY AT THESE FUNCTIONS” (83).
Maria of Moab has something of historical note to show us:
“Here lies MARIA daughter of Valens, DEACON, who lived thirty-eight years and died in the year 538 [643-44 CE]” (OWEC, 83).
While Maria’s title was abbreviated (dk), leaving us in the dark as to whether she was a deacon or deaconess, we do know that her age is of note. According to the writers, “She was already a deacon at the age of THIRTY-EIGHT, DESPITE THE LOWER AGE LIMIT OF FORTY SET AT THE COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON for ordination of a woman deacon. These frequent discrepancies show that LEGISLATION MAY HAVE BEEN ENACTED, BUT WIDE OBSERVANCE WAS ANOTHER THING” (83).
Maria’s age was two years BELOW the age limit set by the church council, which shows us that rules, although set down in stone, were not implemented as such. And this will be seen also in our future posts regarding women presbyters. Although church councils attempted to undermine women in leadership positions, they couldn’t be at EVERY church to enforce those rules—and that is where churches took advantage of the councils’ lack of access and followed personal convictions. As Madigan and Osiek tell us, councils continued to decree and make their rules, but they couldn’t enforce observance. It seems then, that everyone exercised power in their own spheres.
This will conclude Part III of Women Deacons in the East: Tomb Inscriptions. Having read over these inscriptions, I think what encourages me most is that these inscriptions teach us so much about the women whose names are engraved on them. We’ve learned that women deacons contributed to financial projects, worked in hospitals, took care of orphaned children, had ordinations, etc. What this shows us, however, is that women deacons were a COMMONLY-ACCEPTED thing in the church for quite some time. And this fact should make us pause and ask, “if the early church accepted women leaders, then why have we forgotten this?” It makes me realize more and more each day that “history is written by the victors.” Church councils wrote what they did; but the women, those who served in leadership positions, only have their tomb inscriptions left to tell their story. And, similar to Abel, though they are dead, their lives “still speak” (Hebrews 11:4).