Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

The Church at Smyrna and her Women (Part 1)

Women in the Church at Smyrna: AlkeThe ancient city of Smyrna in Asia Minor was about 80 kilometres (or 50 miles) north of the metropolis of Ephesus.[1] Paul may have visited Smyrna in around 54 CE during his third missionary journey, and he may have founded the church there at that time (Acts 19:10).[2]

Photo is of the western portico of the agora in Smyrna (modern-day Izmir.)

We do not know if Paul wrote any letters to the Christians in Smyrna. If he did, none survive that we know of. The Smyrnaean church, however, is one of the seven churches addressed in the seven letters included in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 2:8-11, the church is commended, and it is warned of persecution.

We hear nothing more about Smyrna in the New Testament, but, in the collection of late first to mid second century Christian writings known as the Apostolic Fathers, we read that the church was indeed persecuted and that its elderly and much loved leader, Polycarp, was martyred for his faith (c. 155–167). In the Apostolic Fathers we also discover some women who were active in ministry in the Smyrnaean church.

Polycarp and Alke

Polycarp is usually referred to as the “bishop” (episkopos) of Smyrna, but he didn’t use that term for himself in his letter to the Philippians. Rather, he seems to include himself in the group of elders. Polycarp’s letter to the Philippian church (which is contained in the Apostolic Fathers), reveals that he was a humble, unassuming man. Nevertheless, in Ignatius’s letters (also contained in the Apostolic Fathers), Polycarp is called “bishop”, and Ignatius presumes that the church at Smyrna has a three-tiered hierarchy of leadership consisting of one bishop, a group of elders, and at least one deacon.[3]

Polycarp is mentioned in several letters in the Apostolic Fathers. These letters are: (1) Ignatius’ letter to the church at Smyrna; (2) Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp; (3) Ignatius letter to the church at Ephesus; (4) Polycarp’s letter to the church at Philippi; (5) and an account of Polycarp’s martyrdom which is narrated in a letter from the church at Smyrna to the church at Philomelium. A woman named Alke (pronounced “Ahl-kee”) is mentioned in three of these letters.[4] (Alke is sometimes written as Alce.)

Apart from Polycarp, no Smyrnaean Christian is named more often than Alke in the Apostolic Fathers. What was Alke’s role or position in the church? Was she a deacon? And what was her association with Ignatius?

Ignatius and the Ephesian Deacons

Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in Syria, spent a few days in Smyrna at a very bleak time near the end of his life.[5] Sometime in the first half of the second century, possibly during Trajan’s reign,[6] he had been travelling as a prisoner in the custody of ten Roman soldiers en route to Rome to die as a martyr in the Colosseum.[7] When they reached Smyrna they rested for a few days, and Ignatius received many visitors. Some visitors were local Smyrnaeans, but others were bishops, deacons, and other delegates sent by certain churches, to offer comfort and consolation.

During his journey, Ignatius was continually attended by deacons. They ministered to him on behalf of the churches which sent them. In the letters which he wrote during his stay at Smyrna, Ignatius speaks with a deep and warm affection for these deacons and the service they provided to him.[8] He had a real regard for them and typically refers to them as his “fellow servants” (sundouloi).[9]

The Ephesians had sent Burrhus and Crocus to help Ignatius. This is what Ignatius wrote about these two men in his letter to the Ephesians:

Now concerning my fellow servant (sundoulos) Burrhus, who is by God’s will your deacon, blessed in every respect, I pray that he may remain with me both for your honor and the bishop’s. And Crocus also, who is worthy of God and of you, whom I received as a living example of your love, has refreshed me in every way; may the Father of Jesus Christ likewise refresh him . . . (IgnEph 2:1).

Paul Trebilco, commenting on the ministries of Burrhus and Crocus, notes that Burrhus may have been a scribe or letter carrier for Ignatius, and that Crocus probably carried a letter from Ignatius to Rome (IgnEph 2:1; IgnRom 10:1).[10] Trebilco also compares the description of the two Ephesians, observing that Ignatius used the same language to describe Burrhus’ ministry in IgnSm 12:1 and Crocus’ ministry in IgnEph 2:1.[11] This suggests they both had very similar ministries.

Unlike Burrhus, Crocus is not called a deacon by Ignatius, but he seems to have acted as a deacon, including acting as a letter carrier. (Being a letter carrier was a typical duty of a deacon.) If Crocus was not a deacon, he may have been part of the council of elders in Ephesus.

Ignatius also speaks of Crocus as “a name very dear to me” (IgnRom 10:1). Later in his journey towards Rome, Ignatius wrote a letter from Troas to the Christians in Smyrna and a letter to Polycarp himself. In each of these two letters Ignatius speaks with a similar affection and regard for Alke, and he uses the exact same expression: “a name very dear to me” (IgnSm 13:2; IgnPol 8.3). What ministry did she provide that would cause Ignatius to say this about Alke? Was she a deacon like Burrhus and Crocus?

Ignatius and Alke

Alke was a high-status woman and, most likely, a patron of the church at Smyrna, just as Phoebe had been the patron and a deacon of the church at Cenchrea. By the early second century, many ministries within the growing church became formalised, and women were increasingly excluded from a few ministries and a few positions. Yet in some churches, such as the church in Smyrna, male ministers “welcomed women as patrons and even offered women roles in which they could act as collaborators. By 200 AD, the role of women [as patrons and collaborators] in Christian churches was quite unmistakeable.”[12] As patron, and possibly deacon, Alke may have hosted, or led, one of the house churches in her own home.[13]

Alke may have opened her home to Ignatius during his stay in Smyrna. Or perhaps she had supplied some provisions to make his journey to Rome more bearable. She may have even bribed the unit of soldiers, which was guarding Ignatius,with instructions to treat their prisoner more kindly.[14] Whatever her ministry, Ignatius was deeply appreciative.

Ignatius, who believed that a strict hierarchy of (male) leadership was the best antidote for heresy, had a genuine affection for Alke, as he did for the male deacons who served him. Interestingly, Christine Trevett uses Ignatius and Alke as an example of diversity within the church during the post-apostolic period. She notes that Ignatius was a man with the title of bishop who urged other churches to set up a three-tiered hierarchical structure of male leadership with the ecclesial titles of bishop, elders, and deacons. Alke, on the other hand, was a woman with no formal title that we know of who, nevertheless, had an influential position in her church at Smyrna.[15]

Yet it is possible that Alke was regarded as a deacon or elder by the Smyrnaean Christians, if not by Ignatius. We have only a few names of people associated with the church at Smyrna in the post-apostolic period, and Alke’s name is distinguished among them (IgnPol 8:21; IgnSm 13:2).

Alke’s Dangerous Relatives

Alke’s name occurs again in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, alongside that of her brother Nicetas and nephew Herod. Nicetas and Herod were opponents and persecutors of Christians. Moreover, Herod held the respected position of chief of police (eirenarch) at Smyrna, and was instrumental in pursuing Polycarp and putting him to death (MartPol 17:2 cf. 6:2; 8:2).[16] 

“Alke” means “strength as displayed in action, prowess, courage”.[17] Alke may have needed to exercise prowess and courage at various times, since she was closely related to such dangerous men. However, Alke, like Polycarp, lived a long life, and it seems she was still alive when Polycarp was martyred.[18]

The fact that Alke’s name is mentioned in the description of Nicetas and Herod, shows that she was well known, not only in Smyrna, but also by the Christians in Philomelium, the people to whom the Martyrdom of Polycarp was addressed.[19] Adolf Harnack writes, “Alke was a Christian of especial influence and energy in Smyrna, and . . . her character was familiar throughout Asia. By the year 115 AD she was already labouring for the church, and as late as 150 AD, she was still well known and apparently living . . .”[20]

Alke was not the only Smyrnaean woman mentioned in the Apostolic Fathers. In Part 2 we look at more women involved in the church at Smyrna.


Endnotes

For this article I’ve used and quoted from The Apostolic Fathers, Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd edition), edited and translated by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007). Older translations of Ignatius’ letters can be read online here; Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians here; and the Martyrdom of Polycarp here.

[1] The city of Izmir and the town of Selçuk are situated on or near the sites of ancient Smyrna and Ephesus, respectively, in modern day Turkey.

[2] Paul visited nearby Ephesus in 50, 52, and c. 54–57 CE. During his third missionary journey he spent three and a half years at Ephesus building up the church. Ephesus became a strong church with influence extending to other parts of Asia Minor, including Smyrna. In Ignatius’ letters, we read that Smyrna and Ephesus worked together to support Ignatius.

[3] Ignatius’s letters reveal he believed a leadership hierarchy, which included one monarchical bishop, was the church’s best defence against the numerous heresies that were plaguing the church. In fact Ignatius believed that without a bishop, a council of elders, and at least one deacon, “no group can be called a church” (IgnTrall 3:1). Polycarp, however, never used the word “bishop” (episkopos) in his letter to the Philippians, but only refers to the church offices of elders, deacons, and virgins. (More about virgins in part 2.)

[4] IgnSmyrn 13:2; IgnPol 8.3; IgnEph 21:1; MartPol 17:2.

[5] The Encyclopaedia Britannica has a comprehensive article on Ignatius of Antioch here.

[6] Eusebius (Church History 3.36) wrote that Ignatius’ trip to Rome occurred midway during Trajan’s reign (98-117). J.B. Lightfoot suggests a date around 110. Adolf Harnack suggests a date around 115. A few scholars suggest that Ignatius’ trip occurred during Hadrian’s reign (117–138).

[7] There is no real evidence that Ignatius survived the long trip and was martyred in Rome, but it is likely that this is what happened.

[8] Ignatius wrote letters to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians and Philadelphians from Smyrna, and to the Romans in anticipation of his arrival.

[9] IgnEph 2:1; IgnMag. 2:1, 6:1; IgnPhild 4:1; IgnSm 12:2.

[10] Trebilco, The Early Christians at Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2004, 2007) 702, fn. 53.

[11] Trebilco, Ephesus, 702, fn. 55.

[12] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (1988) 144-145.

[13] Several New Testament women hosted, cared for, and/or led house churches: Nympha, the Chosen Lady, Priscilla with Aquila, and possibly Euodia and Syntyche, Chloe, and Lydia.

[14] We know of other cases were Christians bribed Roman soldiers to treat their captives more kindly. For example, in chapter three of the Martyrdom of Perpetua it says, “Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who tried to take care of us, bribed the soldiers to allow us to go to a better part of the prison to refresh ourselves for a few hours.” “The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas”, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, transl. Hebert Musurillo (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) 110.

[15] Christine Trevett, “The Church before the Bible”, The Bible in Pastoral Practice, Readings in the Place and Function of Scripture in the Church, Paul Ballard and Stephen Holmes (eds) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) 11.

[16] Alke’s name occurs in Eusebius’ account of Polycarp’s martyrdom which is mostly taken directly from the Martyrdom of Polycarp as it appears in the Apostolic Fathers (Church History 4.15.41).

[17] H.G Liddell, R. Scott, and H.S. Jones, “ἀλκή”, Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) 67. Their use of italics.

[18] Some suspect that Alke and Polycarp were married, but the two are never mentioned as a couple in ancient documents.

[19] The verse in the Martyrdom of Polycarp which mentions Alke, reads: “So he [the ‘evil one’] incited Nicetes, the father of Herod and brother of Alce, to plead with the magistrate not to give up his [i.e. Polycarp’s] body, ‘or else,’ he said, ‘they may abandon the crucified one and begin to worship this man’  . . .” (MartPol 17:2).

[20] Adolf Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, transl. and ed. James Moffatt (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1972) 224.


Related Articles

Deacons and Women in the Apostolic Fathers
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
Harnack’s Positive Descriptions of NT Women Ministers
Theonoe and Myrte: Prophetesses in Corinth

Further Reading

Jacob Prahlow, who blogs at Pursuing Veritas, has a current series looking at the context, and at issues surrounding the study, of women in the Apostolic Fathers here

Posted April 21st, 2016 . Categories/Tags: Church History, Equality and Gender Issues, Women in Ministry, , , , , , ,

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8 comments on “The Church at Smyrna and her Women (Part 1)

  1. […] « The church at Smyrna and her women (Part 1) […]

  2. Thanks for this, Marg. The meaning of the name Alke is intriguing, especially as she is mentioned alongside Daphnus whose name means “Laurel”. The name “Daphnus” is associated with other leadership names in 3 Corinthians (in the Acts of Paul), so it seems that the author of that document saw significance in the meaning of the name. Perhaps both Alke and Daphnus were given their names after they became hosts of the church. Perhaps they were married, in which case “Eutecnus and the others” would refer to the other members of the household. Alke was probably the more important (for the church) since she is mentioned first.

  3. […] [11] For more about Alke and Gavia see Margaret Mowczko, The Church at Smyrna and her Women at New Life. < http://newlife.id.au/church-history/women-church-smyrna-alke/> […]

  4. […] There is another person who Ignatius refers to with warmth, and that person is Alce (or Alke). Ignatius greets her affectionately in two different letters […]

  5. […] Alke and Gavia: Harnack mentions these two women from the church at Smyrna, who he associates with the ‘chosen lady’ in 2 John. (p.223-224) Alke and Gavia were prominent women in the Smyrnean church, and were probably house church leaders. They are mentioned in the collection of writings known as the Apostolic Fathers. […]

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