I’ve covered women presbyters in church canons and Episcopal letters. Now, we’ve arrived at the time of tomb inscriptions.
I have a confession to make: there are very few tomb inscriptions available to us from the West for women presbyters. We will find out why after we’ve seen all the evidence of women presbyters, both from the West and the East.
For now though, we’ll look at three tomb inscriptions and gather details from them.
First, there is Martia the Presbyteress. According to Madigan and Osiek, the inscription of Martia is “a graffito found near Poitiers in Gaul...evidence...including conciliar and epistolary writings considered...may place it in the sixth century” (Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, “Ordained Women In The Early Church: A Documentary History.” Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, page 195).
Let’s read the inscription:
“Martia the presbyters (presbyteria) made (ferit) the offering (obblata) together with Olybrius and Nepos” (195).
Giorgio Otranto, as I mentioned in a previous post, views such inscriptions as a noun and a title. Madigan and Osiek write,
“We agree with Otranto. First of all, the Council of Tours (567) would use ‘presbyteria’ as a title at roughly the same time this graffito was made; the slightly later Council of Auxerre (578) would use ‘presbyteria’ as a title as well. All three pieces of evidence come from Gaul. We also agree with Otranto that ‘Olybrius and Nepos are almost certainly two presbyters who were officiating in the community to which Martia also belonged; and it is probable that this woman collaborated with them during the Eucharistic celebration...[according to Otranto] ‘the fact that there had been a desire to record an action performed by Martia during a liturgical celebration would seem to signify not the usual service of the faithful at the moment of the offertory, but rather an act habitually performed by a deacon or another member of the clergy.’ Otranto is right to interpret this letter in light of the letter of the three Gallic bishops. Both texts are found in roughly the same period; both refer to activities in Gaul; both refer to the participation by women in the Eucharistic celebration. In light of this roughly contemporary literary evidence, and of the existence of the graffito, it seems likely that Martia HAD AN IMPORTANT ROLE AS A MINISTER IN THE CELEBRATION OF THE EUCHARISTIC SERVICE in Poitiers” (195-96).
Notice that Martia’s inscription says that she “made” the offering with the two other officials. This means then, that she had some role to play in the Eucharist that likely involved administering the eucharist to the congregation.
The next inscription concerns Flavia Vitalia. According to Madigan and Osiek, Vitalia’s inscription is dated around 425 and was found in modern-day Croatia. The tombstone was bought by a man named Theodosius. Let’s read the inscription:
“Under our Lord Theodosius, consul for the eleventh time, and Valentinian, most noble man of Caesar, I, Theodosius, bought [a burial tomb] from the matron (matrona) Flavia Vitalia, the holy presbyter[a] (presbytera sancta) for three golden solids” (196).
Madigan and Osiek write,
“What can we say with certainty about Flavia Vitalia? First of all, the description of her as matrona tells us she was free-born and married. Second, the title PRESBYTERA tells us, in all likelihood, that she OCCUPIED AN OFFICIAL AND RECOGNIZED PLACE AS A LEADER IN THE ECCLESIASTICAL COMMUNITY OF SALONA...this piece of evidence emerges from a similar ecclesiastical-cultural milieu as the one reprehended by Pope Gelasius, and Flavia was functioning as ‘presbytera’ at about the same time as those whose activities so infuriated the people. In this light, it is EQUALLY IMPOSSIBLE to conclude that Flavia Vitalia was NOT a presbyter in the full and proper sense of the term, invested with the status and all the functions of the sacerdotal office” (196).
Look back at the inscription: Flavia Vitalia is called “the holy presbyter.”
Remember the Tertullian post on Prisca? He called her “the holy minister,” and certainly thought of her as an ecclesiastical authority. Well, Vitalia’s position is that of “the holy presbyter,” so she would not have just been a helper or someone without spiritual authority in the church. Therefore, we can infer from her inscription that she was a leader in her church. We are also told something else: that in the fourth and fifth centuries, church officials began to be in charge of selling burial plots (Madigan and Osiek, 196). Flavia Vitalia, then, must have been a church official of some rank to be appointed this task.
The last notable tomb inscription we have for women presbyters is “a sacerdota from Solin.” It reads:
“...of/to [?] a PRIESTESS...” (caps mine).
Madigan and Osiek supply the following information:
“The epigraph on this tombstone is fragmentary. It is the genitive or dative form of ‘sacerdota,’ ‘priestess.’ The only other bit of the epigraph remaining is a cross. This indicates the entombed was a Christian, not a pagan priestess. Obviously, as this tombstone comes from Solin, it has to be interpreted in light of the Flavia Vitalia inscription and vice versa. Taken together, they suggest a strong possibility, minimally, that women were functioning as presbyters in the community. Eisen even suggests that ‘it is possible that the epigraphically attested sacerdota was the bishop’ of the community. Eisen is correct. It IS possible. Such a possibility is strengthened, philologically, by the use of ‘sacerdota’ rather than ‘presbytera.’ This is clearly NOT THE WIFE OF A PRIEST, NOR IS IT MERELY A RESPECTED ELDERLY WOMAN IN THE COMMUNITY. She is a ‘priestess’ or ‘sacerdotess,’ a woman with high official status and some sort of important official function in the community of Solin. Here the fragment of a single word, when interpreted in conjunction with contemporaneous inscriptional evidence, CAN bear at least that much historical weight” (197).
These are the three major tomb inscriptions on women presbyters in the West. In my next post, I will cover women presbyters from the East.