Women Erased: Female Clerics in the Early Church

Tuesday, May 24, 2022 at 8pm EDT

Join Professor Patel as we explore her research showing that in the early church, women served clerical roles as ordained ministers called deacons and presbyters, both subordinate to the higher-ranking bishops. By the second century CE, deacons functioned as liturgical assistants in the giving of the Eucharist and at baptisms, and could also be used to carry official letters and visit those in prison. The early Christian author Tertullian attests to women presbyters as well, clerics who directly taught, healed, offered the Eucharist, and gave baptisms. The image of solely men populating the clerical orders that stretch back to the time of Jesus and his disciples is an oft-repeated origin story, but one that should be questioned.

Amid the ongoing argument over women as clerics and historical precedent, new mosaics from the site of Ashdod in Israel have added to the evidence for female deacons in antiquity. The mosaic inscriptions reiterate that while most have viewed Francis’s appointments of women as a progressive and novel move, there is broad historical precedent for female clerics that goes later into the period of Late Antiquity than most realize. The mounting evidence from Ashdod and other sites across the Mediterranean together demonstrate that the origins of the early Christian church included women, even if not every church agreed upon their ordination.




May 24 2022


8:00 pm


  • Shaily Patel
    Shaily Patel

    Shaily Patel is assistant professor of early christianity in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. She earned her PhD from The University of North Carolina in 2017 and holds master’s degrees from Vanderbilt Divinity School and The University of Chicago. Her love for the ACC began as an undergraduate at Wake Forest University and remains firmly intact.

    Dr. Patel’s research explores the various, often contradictory ways in which so-called magic was used to advance a number of theological ends in early Christian texts. Rather than seeing magic solely as a way to malign the rituals and traditions of those external to formative Christianity, she aims to show that magic could be used for a variety of things, from enforcing social cohesion among budding communities, to generating conversion, to correcting the views of other Christian writers. Ancient Mediterranean magic was both dynamic and complex, and Dr. Patel hopes to similarly complicate modern understandings of ancient Christians and their texts in her current book project entitled Peter the Magician: Discourses of Magic in Early Petrine Traditions.

    Dr. Patel’s teaching is likewise dedicated to complicating easy assertions about the past, and about past Christians in particular. She teaches courses in New Testament, Christian apocryphal texts, orthodoxy and heresy, and demonology and exorcism. In each of her courses, she emphasizes the variety of early Christian groups and their respective beliefs. She locates early Christians within their cultural contexts, demonstrating how these multiple Christianities converge with or diverge from their Graeco-Roman origins.

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