Fourth-Century Church Tales

Mount Athos, jutting up from the Aegean Sea in northeastern Greece, is a place of austere traditions. Twenty Greek Orthodox monasteries cling...


Mount Athos, jutting up from the Aegean Sea in northeastern Greece, is a place of austere traditions. Twenty Greek Orthodox monasteries cling to its rocky slopes and to a way of life that has excluded women and even female farm animals since 1060. Yet ironically, one of its monastic libraries has produced tantalizing evidence of the important role of women in the first centuries of the Christian church.

This surprise appears in a manuscript that François Bovon, now Frothingham professor of the history of religion at the Divinity School, and a colleague from the University of Geneva, Bertrand Bouvier, discovered in 1974. In the Xenophontos Monastery library they found a fourteenth-century copy of the apocryphal Acts of Philip that was based on a text written a millennium earlier--a manuscript that proved to be far more complete than any other known to scholars. Now, after a quarter-century of philological and historical scholarship, Bovon and Bouvier have translated the Xenophontos version of the Acts of Philip into French and have published, with the help of Bovon's former student Frédéric Amsler, a critical edition of this manuscript and other Greek manuscripts related to the apostle Philip. An English translation will appear in a few years. Where scholars of a century ago tended to dismiss the work as "grotesque" or the writing of an "idiot," Bovon says, "I like it. It's one of the few expressions from antiquity of popular culture."

Among the revelations turned up in this unexpurgated Acts of Philip, especially in the story of a visit to Hell, are glimpses of a heretical community whose members may have written or transmitted the text. Devoted to ascetic practices, the group flourished in Asia Minor during the fourth century A.D. Members were to eat no meat, drink no wine, shun wealth, and abstain from sexual intercourse. Both sexes wore men's clothing made only from plant fibers. Even the sacrament of the Eucharist was modified, with water replacing wine. Sect members believed that this level of purity not only guaran-
teed salvation after death, but allowed them to "talk with God" in this life.

Within the community, women as well as men served at all levels. One list mentions "presbytides" (female elders, or priestesses) alongside "presbyters" (male elders, or priests). Deaconesses are paired with deacons, as are virgins with eunuchs. (It is unknown whether the latter rank required surgery or merely celibacy.)

Such groups did not escape the notice of the official church. The council of Gangra (circa A.D. 343) declared such ascetic excesses to be anathema, and another fourth-century council, at Laodicea, "forbade the appointment of presbytides," says Bovon.

Also included in the lively Acts of Philip are fascinating characters like Philip's sister, Mariamne, who may well have served as a role model for women in the fourth-century ascetic community. Bovon believes her to be Mary Magdalene of the canonical Gospels; the name "Mariamne" is a variant of "Mary," and when the third-century Christian writer Origen mentions the Magdalene, he uses the quite similar name "Mariamme."

Mariamne supports her brother in his missionary work. When Philip first receives his assignment from the risen Jesus, he burst into tears--a lapse that causes Christ to tell Mariamne that her brother is acting like a sissy. "Go with him wherever he goes," the Savior says, adding, "And, Mariamne, change your clothes...Don't wear that summer dress." (Such dialogue illustrates the vernacular language that occasionally crops up in the apocrypha.) As Philip preaches, baptizes, and heals a blind man--rubbing the sightless eyes with saliva he dips from his sister's mouth--Mariamne also recruits converts, including the governor's wife, and baptizes the women. Her active participation is quite consistent with the concept of a contemporary female priesthood.

~Peter H. Desmond

François Bovon e-mail address:

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