I am back to give the last three references to women deacons that I will mention in our series on Women Deacons in the East (from the book “Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History” by Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek). These last three are a great bunch by which to end our archaeological study of tomb inscriptions with regard to women deacons.
First, there is Paula. The tombstone of her brother is from Laodicea Combustia, Phrygia. On the stone is written the following words:
“PAULA, DEACON MOST BLESSED OF CHRIST. SHE BUILT ME AS TOMB of her blessed brother Helladius, outside the homeland, constructed of stones as guardian of the body UNTIL THE TERRIBLE SOUND OF THE TRUMPET WAKES THE DEAD AS GOD HAS PROMISED” (OWEC, 87).
According to Madigan and Osiek, Paula is called a “diakonos” (masculine term for “deacon”) and “one can infer her high level of education and family loyalty, and her sufficient wealth to afford an expensive memorial” (87). In addition, the last words “until the terrible sound of the trumpet wakes the dead as God has promised” come from 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 (87)—
“Listen! I am telling you a mystery:
We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the LAST TRUMPET. FOR THE TRUMPET WILL SOUND, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed.” (HCSB)
We discover that Paula built a tomb for her brother and the tomb itself tells us she was a “diakonos.” But, aside from that, we find that believers of the early church had firm convictions regarding their eschatology. Paula really believed that the Lord would return and that the Scriptures told her so. And I think we should all look at death in this way: whenever someone who loves us leaves us, we should remember that God has promised to raise them from the dead—and not just them, but all of us who love Him!
This next tomb inscription concerns a woman named “Sophia” and comes from the fourth century. According to Madigan and Osiek,
“the stone was found by workers below the Tomb of the Prophets on THE MOUNT OF OLIVES in Jerusalem on December 8, 1903, in five pieces, with the bottom missing. It is now in the museum of St. Anne’s Church, Jerusalem” (OWEC, 90).
On the tomb are the words as follows:
“Here lies the slave and bride of Christ SOPHIA, DEACON, THE SECOND PHOEBE, who slept in peace the twenty-first of the month of March in the eleventh Indiction…the Lord God…” (90).
According to Madigan and Osiek,
“The most surprising part of the description is her [Sophia] appellation as ‘SECOND PHOEBE,’ a reference to Rom. 16:1-2, where Phoebe, bearer of Paul’s letter to Rome, is recommended to the recipients as ‘diakonos’—THE EARLIEST USE OF THAT TERM, with Phil. 1:1, for an officer of a particular church—and ‘prostatis,’ patron or benefactor (see Phoebe). The comparison to Phoebe is probably not only to her diaconate, which was common to many women of the period, but to her position as patron and benefactor” (OWEC, 91).
We also find that Sophia calls herself the “slave” and “bride of Christ,” which means that she knew her eschatology. According to Madigan and Osiek, “calling oneself the slave or servant of Christ or God was common early Christian language (see Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 4:5; Phil. 1:1; Gal. 1:10), and the use of bridal imagery…was also beginning at this period” (90).
The most important thing about Sophia’s tomb inscription is that she is labeled “the second Phoebe.” Since she is a “diakonos,” and the first Phoebe (Rom. 16) was a “diakonos,” we can infer that she believed she was following in the footsteps of the Phoebe Paul mentions in Scripture.
The fact that Sophia believed herself to be in line with the Phoebe of Romans 16 tells us that the church used this woman as an example for all women to follow and pattern themselves after. I’ve spent quite a bit of time here at the blog trying to rebut complementarians who attempt to remove this woman from having any importance in the early church at all—and make Phoebe out to be nothing but a “good assistant.” Phoebe was a woman of means, someone very active and trustworthy in the early church—and from now on, when complementarians attempt to discredit Phoebe, point to this evidence about a woman named “Sophia” who evidently believed that she was walking in the footsteps of the Phoebe who helped Paul! This is the goal of providing historical evidence at the site: so that you can inform others of the truth regarding women and their work in the early church.
The last reference I will make concerns a woman named “Zaortha”:
“Zaortha DEACONESS” (94).
Someone might be puzzled to see such a short tomb inscription and wonder, “Why is this here? Why would you even post this inscription?” That’s a good question, and I have a good answer: because she served as a deaconess in a Syriac-speaking church.
As Madigan and Osiek tell us,
“The word for deaconess that is transliterated into Greek as ‘samastha’ is Syriac ‘shamashta,’ not the usual Syriac word, which is ‘mshamshanita.’ The root meaning of the term is the same, ‘servant’ or ‘minister.’ Whether this is a regional or some other variation is not known. Nor is anything further known about the deaconess Zaorta. This is not a funerary commemoration but her dedication of a piece of the chancel screen as a pious offering to the church. She was therefore a person of means, PROBABLY A PATRON IN THE COMMUNITY. Together, with the deaconesses to whom Severus wrote, SHE IS EVIDENCE OF THE USE OF THE OFFICE IN THE SYRIAC-SPEAKING CHURCHES” (OWEC, 94).
This seems to be the only evidence of the existence of a female diaconate in Syriac churches. In any case, however small the evidence, the evidence still exists.
This will conclude our study of tomb inscriptions of Women Deacons in the East. We have one bit of business left—and that involves to show evidence of ecclesiastical texts that confirm the female diaconate as an ORDAINED office. Part Five is on its way…