The Didascalia Apostolorum and Women in Early Christianity

01 Dec

Unfortunately the “history lull” which I referred to in my last post has come to pass. I’ve been reading plenty. I’ve gone through several books on Middle Platonism and am about a third of the way through Tertullian. Unfortunately, reading for an hour or so each day and spending several hours putting a decent post together on Irenaeus or trying to synthesize Platonism’s influences on Christianity, at least to the start of the third century, are two very different things from a time management perspective. And I have a couple of personal things going on including a bit of a career shift. However I have one theme from the Didascalia Apostolorum (DA) I want to share. And it’s a pretty important one.

The DA was probably written in the first half of the third century, likely in Syria, near or in Antioch. It is claimed to have been written by the Twelve Apostles, obviously falsely. It is another of the handbooks of Christian living and Church organization and practice. It can be viewed as a successor to The Didache.

The facade of the Church of Saint Peter in Antioch. The church itself is a cave believed to have been used from the 3rd century and possibly earlier. The facade dates from the 11th century. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. The facade of the Church of Saint Peter in Antioch. The church itself is a cave believed to have been used from the 3rd century and possibly earlier. The facade dates from the 11th century.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Before I get to my main point I want to note a couple of items in the DA which I think can be looked at as indicators of what contemporary opinion was, at least in Syria. There is a statement that Roman officials have been defiled by wars which may hint at a growing opposition to Christian military involvement. 1

Related to The Resurrection, the DA continues to follow the theory that while most people who die will sleep while awaiting the Day of Judgment, the Martyrs will be resurrected immediately. 2

Echoing Irenaeus, Simon Magus is the root of all heresies. The DA discusses Simon coming to Rome and trying to pervert the people by his flying and false miracles in a fair amount of detail, enough so to indicate that it considers The Acts of Peter to be canonical. 3

But the main issue raised in the DA which I want to address is its attitude towards women. A common theme during the Medieval Period is one where women are characterized as weak, unable to teach (though occasionally one will be possessed of a masculine spirit and conquer this handicap) and, most damning, they are temptresses. As Eve tempted Adam with an apple, women tempt men sexually because, well, it’s their nature. I’ve never really analyzed just how predominant these themes were during the Medieval period but they were certainly present. I’ve been waiting to find the earliest mention of these in a religious work and the DA appears to be it, though to be fair I’ve just started with Tertullian and my understanding is that he, writing a couple of decades earlier, is also fairly anti-women, at least when viewed through modern, western eyes (most of ours anyway).

To me this is different from Paul’s assertion, picked up on by early writers, that as Christ is the head of the Church so men should be the head of their households over women. This was a male-dominated society which even today we haven’t completely broken free from and I can’t see this as being too out of line with contemporary thought related to other aspects of Roman culture. Clement of Alexandria may indicate a move in this direction when he orders that women be completely covered from head-to-toe whenever they go out in public. The DA takes this to a new level. 4

In Chapter II men are warned against adulterous women. An adulterous woman is a seductresses who, “is wanton, bold and dissolute” and will, “lead down to the chambers of Sheol those that cleave unto her.” In chapter XV women are strictly prohibited from teaching. “It is neither right nor necessary therefore that women should be teachers … For you have not been appointed to this, O woman, and especially widows …” and “For He the Lord God, Jesus Christ our Teacher, sent us the Twelve to instruct the people with us; and there were with us women disciples, Mary Magdelene and Mary the Daughter of James and the other Mary; but he did not send them to instruct the people with us. For if it were required that women should teach, our Master himself would have commanded these to give instruction with us.”

The DA is particularly concerned with an order of widows and the behavior of its members. Widows should do nothing but pray; “But a widow who wishes to please God sits at home and meditates upon the Lord day and night, and without ceasing at all times offers intercession and prays with purity before the Lord.” A widow’s life is not her own; “And let them not act after their own will, nor desire to do any thing apart from that which is commanded them, or without counsel to speak with any one by way of making answer, or to go to any one to eat or drink, or to fast with any one, or to receive aught of any one, or to lay hand on and pray over any one without the command of the bishop or deacon.”

Women are not to baptize though female deacons are to be appointed to minister to women. Also from Chapter XV, “That a woman should baptize, or that one should be baptized by a woman, we do not counsel, for it is a transgression of the commandment, and a great peril to her who baptizes and to him who is baptized.” Chapter XVI has a discussion of female deacons where a dominant concern appears to be that in Roman households (labeled “heathen” in my edition) only women are allowed to meet with a Christian woman though the DA also says, “But let a woman be devoted to the ministry of women, and a male deacon to the ministry of men.”

It appears that at some point in the first quarter of the third century women came to be viewed differently by religious leaders. As this is the first mention I’ve seen of it I can’t begin to assess how widespread this was at this time, where it may have originated from, or how it may have spread. And does this reflect a move from Christian services taking place in house churches to services in locations owned by the community? The Roman woman was charged with running the domestic household and in the early years of Christianity this likely carried over to women having a significant role in services in house churches. 5 In any case, this attitude toward women certainly caught my attention and to me is easily the most significant aspect of the DA. So far I haven’t come across anything this explicit in Tertullian, which would predate the DA (probably), but I’ll be interested to see if it shows up. At the very least, as Tertullian wrote from Carthage, this would indicate that these attitudes were present in a wider geographic area.

Fortunately, some of these attitudes weren’t implemented as strictly in practice as the author of the DA seems to have wished. Women were abbesses, developed rules for their orders and, as Radegund demonstrates, could be very influential. Of course many of these women were then described in terms such as, “despite the weakness of her sex she demonstrated that she possessed a man’s spirit” whenever they achieved something significant. It will be interesting as I read further to see how these attitudes evolved. I’ve always said that I consider women and peasants (I’ve decided to include slaves as peasants) to be the two great unknown classes of medieval society, viewed almost exclusively through the words of others. Anything which sheds some light on them is welcome.

1 DA XVIII. Interestingly Tertullian, who wrote in North Africa earlier than this, in Apology XLII, uses Christian military activity as one of many ways in which Christians and Romans are identical except for their worship.

2 DA XX. Other writers have proposed that the very holiest will be resurrected immediately. The DA spends a fair amount of time granting this explicitly to martyrs.


4 Clement of Alexandira, Instructor XI.

5 Two good books discussing this are Balch and Osiek (2003) and Osiek, MacDonald and Tulloch (2006).

Balch, David L. and Osiek, Carolyn, eds., Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (2003). ISBN: 978-0-80283-986-2′

Connolly, R. Hugh, trans., Didascalia Apostolorum: The Syriac Version Translated and Accompanied by the Verona Latin Fragments. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock (2007). ISBN: 978-1-55635-669-8.

Kleist, James A., trans., The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papias, The Epistle to Diognetus, Ancient Christian Writers Number 6. New York: Newman Press (1948). ISBN:0-8091-0247-1.

Osiek, Carolyn, MacDonald, Margaret Y. and Tulloch, Janet H., A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-8006-3777-4.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire). Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. Three Parts: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-085-8.


Posted by on December 1, 2013 in Religion, Society and Social Structure


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3 responses to “The Didascalia Apostolorum and Women in Early Christianity


    December 19, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    Hi, Love your blog and have awarded you with the Inspirational blogger Award. See more here:!special-blog/c1pv1

  2. Richard Roberts

    June 6, 2018 at 12:23 pm

    really loved your article. very interesting


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