based on: The Death of Jerome, The Belles Heures
of Jean, Duke of Berry. f. 191., inage modif.




 [See also: MonHis]

Communities of  WIDOWS and virgins in early Church: attested in Tertullian and other early theologians; their early history is largely unwritten and therefore uncertain (although hotly debated), despite their vital importance (see P. Brown, The Body and Society, Columbia U. Pr., NY 1988, pp. 147-149 text below). Antony was able to entrust his young sister to the care of one of these communities (ca. 268) BEFORE he began his own monastic enterprise.

Thus Antony is NOT the historical founder of Christian monasticism (nor, according to St. Jerome, was Antony the first desert hermit);but rather he is the earliest popular icon or exemplar of monastic spirituality.

The third-century SYRIAN Church had celibate liturgical and social service-oriented communities of men and women called “sons-” and “daughters of the covenant” (see P. Brown, The Body and Society, pp. 101-102 text below).

THESE existed BEFORE the more famous efforts of Antony, Pachomius, Amoun, Macarius, and the other founders of Egyptian monasticism. Remotely-possible sources of influence include:

the Roman otium (philosophical retirement, usually by the wealthy)

the withdrawal from society advocated by some Greek and Roman philosophers;

the Jewish hermit-colonies in Egypt and communities in Palestine described by Philo;

or even Hindu and Buddhist ascetics resident in Alexandria.



[On the Earliest Orders of Widows and Virgins]

Peter Brown, The Body and Society, Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988) ISBN: 0231061013.

Part One, “From Paul to Anthony”,
Ch. 7 “A Promiscuous Brotherhood and Sisterhood” pp. 144-148


    The Christian clergy [...]took a step that separated them from the rabbis of Palestine and (for all we know) from the Jewish leadership of the Diaspora: they welcomed women as patrons and even offered women roles in which they could act as collaborators. By 200 A.D., the role of women in the Christian churches was quite unmistakable.

    The crucial factor here was that women had been encouraged to be continent and had been urged to remain widows after the death of their first husband. It is highly unlikely that their prominence would have been achieved in a community where every woman was expected to marry. In Judaism, by contrast, women were excluded from the central activity of the rabbis: with a few, outstanding exceptions, women took no part in the passing down of the tradition through the intensive study of Torah.”23 In return, the married woman provided for the biological continuity of Israel. She maintained the home from which the scholars and the sons of the scholars set out.24 It was a role unambiguously blessed by the rabbis as part of the goodness of God’s creation. But it formed a crushing bar to further religious service. The study of Torah assumed the precious privilege of free males in an ancient society—the freedom to dispose of their time. For a woman, the duties of childbearing occurred in precisely those years when their spouses, as late adolescent males, were free to serve their long apprenticeship at the feet of the Sages. The biological fact of menstruation incurred disqualifications from participation in so many rituals that it was all but impossible for a mature woman to adjust the timetable of her life so as to keep pace with that of the leisured men.25 In Palestine, at least, if not in the Diaspora, the role of women as patrons of the community was kept to a minimum.26 The notorious remark that it was better to burn Torah than to allow a woman to handle it was a snub addressed by a rabbi to a rich matrona. If the Sages were forced to be dependent on unscholarly patrons, they would at least avoid the humiliation of appearing to be dependent on a woman.27

    Much though they may have wished, at times, to snub their own protectresses in the same abrupt manner, the Christian clergy of late antiquity found that, in their community, influential women were there to stay. This was not a development which we should take for granted. The pseudo-Pauline letters show us Christian communities that had been quite content with the solution upheld by the rabbis.

Let women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.. . . Not-withstanding, she shall be saved through child-bearing if they [her children] continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.28

    By the year 200, however, this dismissive attitude was no longer possible. Continence had been actively encouraged for women as well as for men. Less merit was attached to motherhood. The sense of pollution by blood, which had tended to exclude women as a source of menstrual impurity, was not entirely abandoned in Christian circles. An unknown author in Syria, in the mid-third century, set aside many pages to persuade both men and women to pay no attention to the disqualifications contained in the Jewish laws of purity. The fact of having menstruated, of having had intercourse, or of having experienced a night-emission, was still considered by them as a reason for not approaching the Eucharist, for not praying, for not touching holy books.29 A bishop of Alexandria could assume that no Christian woman would approach the Eucharist during her period.30 But these mercifully precise taboos had been swamped by a general sense that intercourse in itself (and not merely the formless products of the human body, blood and semen) excluded the Holy Spirit. It was to men that Clement of Alexandria wrote at length, in order to reassure them that sexual intercourse in marriage did not automatically debar the Christian from perfection. In Christian circles, the vocal advocacy, for well over a century, of extreme views on continence had brought about a situation unheard of in Judaism. Married men trembled on the brink of being demoted to the position of women: their physiological involvement in sex made them ineligible for roles of leadership in the community. Some women, however, edged closer to the clergy: continence or widowhood set them free from the disqualifications associated with sexual activity.

    We only have a few, vivid glimpses of what it was like to be a woman in the Christian communities of the time. They suggest that in reality continence was often the only option that a young person could take. In a small group, where marriage with pagans was severely discouraged and yet where considerations of social status had by no means been suspended among the saints, it would have been extremely difficult for many heads of households to find suitable husbands and wives for their children. Many believers simply avoided mésalliances by encouraging their children to grow up as virgins. Clement had heard of the deacon Nicholas: “of his children, his daughters all remained virgins to their old age and his son has also remained uncorrupted.”31

    It is possible that some of the more exotic Gnostic teachings, which seemed to advocate “Communion” through free love, may have served as a way of encouraging Christian parents to allow their girls to circulate more freely among the brethren, as brides:

The story goes that one of them came to a virgin of our church who had a lovely face and said to her: “Scripture says, Give to every one that asks of you.” She, however . . . gave the dignified reply: “On the subject of marriage, talk to my mother.”32

    At the beginning of the third century, Pope Callistus earned the scorn of his rival, Hippolytus, by allowing the upper-class women of the Roman Church to live in concubinage with lower-class believers. Women from a resolutely pagan nobility, they would consent to marry husbands within the Church only if these commoners did not count as fully legal spouses.33 It is hardly surprising, given these difficulties, that many Christians preferred continence to the complexities of finding a partner, and that men and women alike were strongly urged not to add to these complexities by attempting to marry again once wid-


    An “order” of widows sprang up in all churches from an early time.34 Most of these were helpless creatures, destitute old ladies only too glad to receive food and clothing from the hands of the clergy. What we know of other groups where remarriage is discouraged indicates that widowed women would have become a numerically important element in any Christian church. In the mid-third century, the Roman church supported 1500 widows and destitute persons.35 In one African church, at Cirta, in 303, the pagan authorities confiscated thirty-eight veils, eighty-two ladies’ tunics, forty-seven pairs of female slippers, and only sixteen pieces of male clothing.36 By the end of the fourth century, the church of Antioch supported three thousand widows and virgins.37 Not all of these widows, however, were of low social status. It was, after all, women of high status who would have experienced the greatest difficulty in finding husbands within the church. Many wealthy and cultivated young women would have found themselves, on the death of their husbands, with the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in the service of the church. Jerome knew of three ladies in Gaul, who had already spent widowhoods of forty, twenty, and twelve years.38 John Chrysostom’s mother had been widowed at the age of twenty. His future soul mate, the remarkable Olympias, had been widowed in her mid-twenties, and spent the remaining twenty years of her life supporting the church at Constantinople.39

    Influential and devout widows were disturbingly amphibious creatures. They were neither unambiguously disqualified as married, sexually active persons, nor were they fully at home in the ranks of the clergy. They were the only lay persons who had accumulated all the attributes of effective members of the clergy, barring the crucial prerogative of ordained service at the altar. The influential widow stood for lay persons of either sex at their most active in the church. The role that members of the clergy were prepared to allow such a widow to play was a clear omen of much or how little they valued the active participation of lay persons of either sex.


[The Origins of Celibate Communities in the Syrian Church]

Peter Brown, The Body and Society, Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988) ISBN: 0231061013.

Part One, “From Paul to Anthony”, ch. 4. “To Undo the Works of Women: Marcion, Tatian, and the Encratites”, pp. 100-102


    For all the stirring rhetoric of their imagined heroes, the average practitioners of continence in Syria strike us as remarkably serene persons. The followers of Tatian included austere wandering preachers, for whom the deeds of Apostles such as Thomas continued to act as a model. By their “apostolic” journeys from town to town and village to village, they linked quiet little groups of men and women. To these men and women, Christian baptism had brought an ability to live at ease with each other. The presence of the Holy Spirit ensured that the fearsome current of sexuality that had once flowed through their bodies was safely disconnected. No treacherous spark now jumped between the once-charged poles of male and female. 74

    Men and women missionaries even traveled together—the most grueling test of all of sexual good faith in a society used to the sedentary seclusion of most of its womenfolk.75 Possessed by the Holy Spirit, as Adam and Eve had once been, men and women could once again stand together as couples, linked in a chaste communion that astonished and appalled observers in this and in all future centuries.76 When, for instance, in the late fourth century, Jerome arrived from Italy to live for a time in a Syrian village, he came to know of an elderly, un-married couple, a man and a woman, who would walk to church every day and return home together. The phenomenon intrigued him and greatly titillated his imagination. The villagers, however, referred to the couple, without any to-do, as the “Holy Ones.” 77The incident is a reminder that sexual renunciation, as practiced in one region, could look very different to Christians from another part of the Roman world.

    The celibacy of the Encratites was a group celibacy, and not one that favored isolated recluses. The individual gained a sense of security, which supported his or her renunciation, through the sense of be-longing to a clearly defined holy group. There was a tendency, built into the Near Eastern landscape itself, for Encratite communities and for the churches of the Marcionites to settle down into tight-knit sectarian villages. These communities may have resembled the Shaker “Families” of nineteenth-century America. They survived for very long periods by attracting converts and by acting as substitutes for foundling hospitals among the neighboring peasantry. They throve in the mountainous areas of Syria and Asia Minor, where the population al-ways exceeded the scarce resources of the highlands, and where there were many children to be taken [i.e. children "exposed" and abandoned by their parents].78

    But this was not the only solution adopted by the continent. By the end of the third century, little groups of continent men and women—called “The Sons and Daughters of the Covenant”—stood at the core of the married Christian communities in the Syraic-speaking regions of the Near East.79 These were not settlements of wild ascetics, but pools of quiet confidence that the Spirit rested on those who had re-gained, through baptism and continence, the full humanity of Adam and Eve. Their presence bathed the Christian community as a whole with a sense of being a group marked out by inviolate holiness. Crowded into the little churches of Syria and Northern Iraq, they stood like the animals in Noah’s Ark, their sexual urges marvelously stilled by the presence of God. The Holy Spirit bubbled up within them in the chanting of the Psalms and the self-composed hymns that are the glory of the Syriac church.80 Unjoined in bodies, young men and women were truly joined by the ethereal harmony of their voices, kept sweet by the absence of sexual activity, which ancient people knew to affect the voice adversely,81 in the spiritual chants that gave density and human warmth to the austere doctrines that we have described:

Outside the Ark were fearsome waves,

but inside, lovely voices;

tongues all in pairs,

uttered together in chaste fashion,

foreshadowing our festival day,

when unmarried girls and boys

sing together in innocence praise

to the Lord of the Ark.82

Notes to Part One, ch. 7, on the Earliest Communities of Women

23 This did not in any way mean that a well-to-do Jewish woman could not live an active life outside the narrow circle of the scholars: see G. W. Bowersock, Roman Arabia, pp. 76-79, 87-90, on the litigation of Babata, a Jewish woman whose documents were found in Masada.

24 Babylonian Talmud: Sotah 21a, A. Cohen, trans., The Talmud, p. ,o5.

25 L. J. Archer, “The Role of Jewish Women in Graeco-Roman Palestine,” pp. 277-280.

26 But see the evidence for the Diaspora, as marshalled and interpreted by B. J. Brooten, Woman Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue.

27 Palestinian Talmud: Sotah 3.4, in M. Schwab, trans., Le Talmud de Jérusalem, 4:261.

28 I Timothy 2:12 and 15.

29 Didascalia 6.21.1–8, Funk, ed. pp. 368–372; Connolly, pp. 242–250.

30 Dionysius of Alexandria, Canonical Letter 2: P.G. 10: 1281a.

31 Clement, Strom. 3.4.25, H. E. Chadwick, trans., Alexandrian Christianity, p. 52.

32 Ibid. 3.4.27, Chadwick, trans. p. 52.

33 Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 9.7, in J. H. MacMahon, trans. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 5:131. For upper-class women in Carthage, see G. Schöllgen, Ecclesia sordida? Zur Frage der sozialen Schichtung frühchristlicher Gemeinden am Beispiel Karthagos zur Zeit Tertullians, pp. 204-215.

34 R. Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church is a clear survey.

35 Eusebius, Eccles. Hist. 6.43.11.

36 Gesta apud Zenophilum, P.L. 8: 73,B, ingeniously adduced by Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 310.

37 John Chrysostom, Hom. 66 in Matt. 3: Patrologia Graeca 57:630.

38 Jerome, Letter 123.1: P.L. 22:1047.

39 See esp. E. A. Clark, Jerome, Chrysostom and Friends, pp. 107—144.

Notes to Part 1, ch. 4, on Syrian Celibate Communities

74 Beatrice, “Continenza e matrimonio,” pp. 51, 59.

75 Babylonian Talmud: Sukka 52a, in W. Slotki, trans., The Talmud, pp. 248–249. In the Acts of Philip, the holy woman Mariamne was denounced for traveling with the Apostles. “She travels about with these magicians and no doubt commits adultery with them.” Acts of Philip 125, in M. Bonnet, ed., Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha 3:54; trans. A. Walker, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 8:499.

76 G. Flecker, Amphilochiana, p. 69 and Epiphanius, Panarion 46.3, with A. Guillaumont, “Le nom des ‘Agapètes.’”

77 Jerome, Life of Malchus 2: Patrologia Latina 23: 56A.

78 See the later example of the community of the Abelonii, reported near Hippo—presumably in the mountains—by Augustine, de haeresibus 87: Patrologia Latina 42:47. For Marcionite villages that survived in the hills near Cyrrhus into the middle of the fifth century, see Theodoret, Historia Religiosa 21: P.G. 82: 1439D–1449B and Letter 81: P.G. 83: 1261C.

79 G. Nedungatt, “The Covenanters in the Early Syriac-Speaking Church”: F. Burkitt, Early Christianity Outside the Roman Empire, p. 139—”quiet, dignified and temperate.

80 Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom, pp. 28–29 is exceptionally fine on this.

81 Nemesianus, Eclogue 4.11-loss of virginity is betrayed by a change in the girl’s voice; Soranus, Gynaecia 3.1.7—On professional woman singers.

82 Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on the Resurrection 2.4, S. P. Brock, trans. The Harp of the Spirit, p. 74; compare Philo, de vita contemplativa 88.




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