The Journal of Ecclesiastical History

Articles

Widows, Bishops and the Struggle for Authority in the Didascalia Apostolorum

Charlotte Methuen

Recent interest in the position of women in the early Church has stimulated new investigations of texts and documents which consider or define the roles of women. A number of surveys have appeared which consider a spectrum of early sources, and most of these refer to the rules laid down for widows and deaconesses in the Didascalia apostolorum. A simple reading of the Didascalia interprets it as a description of contemporary church practice which reveals a Church that allowed women a certain amount of involvement in restricted spheres: widows are to pray for the Church and deaconesses to assist at the baptism of women and to visit Christian women in their homes. Since the Didascalia does not empower women it is generally regarded with a certain amount of suspicion by those postulating a more positive role for women in early Christianity. However, a closer examination suggests that such a reading is not the whole story. Rather than having a purely descriptive function, it is more likely that the Didascalia represents an attempt to change the structure of ministry in the Churches in Syria, opposing some practices and supporting others. This article will argue that the internal evidence of the Didascalia reveals it to be an attempt to impose an episcopal structure on the Church and to restrict the activity and authority of women. Seen against a background of other sources this suggests that there were groups of Christians in second- and third-century Syria and Asia Minor which recognised women's authority, and that the Didascalia was written partly in opposition to such groups.