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

The Church at Smyrna and her Women (Part 2)

Ignatius and Gavia

The Church at Smyrna and her Women GaviaAs well as Alke (mentioned in part 1), there was another prominent woman in the church at Smyrna.[1]

In his letter to the Smyrneans, Ignatius sends greetings to a woman named Gavia, or Tavia,[2] and her household: “I greet the household of Gavia, and pray that she may be firmly grounded in faith and love both physically and spiritually. ” (IgnSm 13:2). In his letter to Polycarp, Ignatius sends greetings to a woman identified only as the widow, or wife, of an epitropos (i.e., a governor or procurator, etc).[3] Ignatius writes, “I greet . . . the widow of Epitropos[4] together with the whole household belonging to her and the children.” (IgnPol 8.2).[5]

A portrait of Euphrosyne Doxiadis c. 200 AD. This is one of the famous mummy portraits found in Fayum in Egypt.

It is likely that Gavia and the widow of epitropos are one and the same. Elite women, like Gavia, often married early in their childbearing years, usually to men much older than them. If they survived giving birth to their children, the wives usually outlived their husbands. [6] This seems to be the case for Gavia. It also seems that she was a Christian, while her husband was, or had been, a pagan. This situation of an upper class, Christian woman being married to an upper class, pagan man was not uncommon in the early church.[7]

Joanna, one of Jesus’ disciples and patrons, is identified in Luke 8:2 as the wife (or widow?) of Chuza, an epitropos of Herod Antipas. The Greek word epitropos is used “of governors and procurators, but [in Luke 8:2] most likely refers to one who administers a household or estate. Even if Chuza is only one steward among many, a high-ranking official is clearly indicated.”[8] Thus Joanna’s “marriage to Chuza places her squarely in the higher echelons of Herodian society.”[9] Gavia, likewise, was in the higher echelons of Smyrnaean society.

From Ignatius’ brief words to her, it seems that Gavia was a leader of a house church. Ignatius uses similar language when speaking about Gavia and her “children”, as John does in his three New Testament epistles when describing house churches and their members.[10] Adolf Harnack associates both Gavia and Alke with the “chosen lady” of Second John and writes,

A prominent position in some unknown church of Asia must also have been occupied by the woman to whom the second epistle of John was written, not long before the letters of Ignatius. She appears to have been distinguished for exceptional hospitality, and the author therefore warns her in a friendly way against receiving heretical itinerant teachers into her house.[11]

I suggest the Chosen Lady was being warned not to allow heretical teachers into her house church meetings, and not just into her home. Priscilla and her husband Aquila hosted and led a house church in Ephesus (Rom. 16:3-5a; 2 Tim. 4:19; etc). Nympha was the host and leader of a house church in Laodicea (Col. 4:15). It was not rare for house churches in Asia Minor to be hosted and led by a woman.

The Virgin-Widows in Smyrna

In the closing greetings of his letter to the church at Smyrna, Ignatius sends greeting to “the virgins who are called widows” (IgnSm 13:1 cf. IgnPol 4:1). Thus the congregation at Smyrna includes a group of women who had chosen to remain celibate.

The church order of widows was open to pious women who chose not to remarry after the death of their first husband. Instead of remarrying, according to social expectations, these widows chose instead to dedicate their lives to praying for the church and, if they were wealthy, to offer hospitality whenever needed (cf. PolPhil 4:3).

Christine Trevett believes that Gavia, whom she calls Tavia, may have been in charge of the Smyrnaean widows. Gavia was greeted immediately after the widows which “prompts the speculation that she was a (or the) benefactress of such celibate Christian women in Smyrna.”[12] Trevett also suggests, “She was probably a female presbyter [elder] with episkopos (that is, oversight) responsibilities” (cf. Hermas Sim. 9.27.2).[13]

In 1 Timothy 5:9-12, Paul had advised against enrolling young widows into an order of widows, but some churches permitted them.[14] In Smyrna, however, even young virgins were being admitted. It is likely that some unmarried Christian women in Smyrna, especially young women of high status, could not find suitable Christian husbands and, instead of marriage, they became sanctified virgins who were called “widows”. Most other churches, however, had separate orders for widows and virgins. Tertullian stated unequivocally that is was wrong for virgins to be admitted into the order of widows.[15] The Smyraeans did not always follow the pattern set by other churches in how they organised their ministries and used ministry titles.

Virginity and celibacy were seen as important, almost vital, virtues by many early Christians, and for some women joining the orders widows or virgins was an attractive option for them. Being a widow or a virgin gave a woman respectability within the church community.

Widows and virgins were highly regarded, official church orders. This regard is highlighted in this rhetorical question posed by Tertullian where he mentions two offices usually held by men, followed by two offices usually held by women: “But what if a bishop, if a deacon, if a widow, if a virgin, if a doctor [i.e. a teacher], if even a martyr, have fallen from the rule (of faith), will heresies on that account appear to possess the truth?[16]

Crescen’s Sister

As well as Alke, Gavia, and the virgin-widows, still more Smyrnean women are mentioned in the Apostolic Fathers. Ignatius makes a point of mentioning the wives, as well as the husbands, in his final greetings in his letter to the church at Smyrna (IgnSm 13:1).[17] And he mentions the female slaves, as well as the male slaves, who were part of the Smyrnean congregation, in his letter to Polycarp (IgnPol 5:3). But, perhaps more significantly, as he closes his letter to the Philippians, Polycarp mentions Crescens and his sister (PolPhil 14:1 cf. 2 Tim 4:10).

This brother and sister team had come from the church at Philippi with a letter for Polycarp, and had stayed in Smyrna for a while. They were now returning with Polycarp’s letter which included his commendations of Crescens and his sister. (They were also carrying copies of Ignatius’ letters for the Philippians to read.) Polycarp’s language shows that Crescens had been an envoy between the Smyrneans and Philippians on several occasions, but on this mission, at least, he was joined by his sister (cf. 1 Cor 9:5). Letter carriers maintained a vital network of communication between the churches. Crescen’s sister is just one woman actively involved in Christian ministry—and a challenging ministry at that—in the second century.[18]

Alke, Gavia, and Men of the Church at Smyrna

In Ignatius’ final greeting in his letter to Polycarp, three members of the church at Smyrna are named: Attalus, Polycarp, and Alke. The nameless widow of epitropos is also greeted here (IgnPol 8:21). Thus we have two men and two women, each greeted individually.

In Ignatius’ final greeting in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, four members of the church are named: the women Gavia and Alke are mentioned first, and then the men Daphnus and Eutechus (IgnSm 13:2). Again, two men and two women are each singled out for greetings. In fact, apart from Polycarp, much more is said about the women than the men in Ignatius’ letters. The letters in the Apostolic Fathers tell us nothing at all about Attalus, Daphnus or Eutechus, except for their names.

It could be that women were actively involved in the church at Smyrna in equal numbers to the men. Wayne Meeks has observed that the number of women ministers in the churches founded by Paul is “nearly equal to that of men.”[19] Perhaps the church at Smyrna had been founded by Paul, and Polycarp had maintained the Pauline tradition of giving gifted women the freedom to minister in various ways: as co-workers, patrons, deacons, house church leaders, prophetesses, etc.

Alke and Gavia were particularly prominent members of the church in Smyrna, but other women were also devoted to the church and Christian ministry. Some of these women had the ecclesial title of “widow”. Alke and Gavia may, or may not, have had the title of elder or deacon, but these women were real ministers and influential leaders in the church at Smyrna.


Endnotes

[1] We have evidence of women who were prominent in Smyrnaean society. For example, a second-century inscription from Smyrna mentions a woman named Rufina who was synagogue ruler. It is unclear whether “synagogue ruler” was an honorary title in the case of Rufina, but even so, it indicates she was a woman of influence. The inscription reads: “Rufina, a Jewess synagogue ruler [archisynagōgos], built this tomb for her freed slaves and the slaves raised in her household. No one else has a right to bury anyone here.” (CII 741; IGR IV. 1452)

[2] This woman is sometimes called Gabia or Tavia, but Lightfoot states, “There cannot be much doubt about the word here. The [masculine and feminine] names Gavius [and] Gavia are frequent in Latin inscriptions . . . . On the other hand I have not observed any example of Tavia . . .” J.B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers: A Revised Text with Introduction, Notes, Dissertations, and Translations, Vol 2, Part 2, (Georg Olms, 1973) 325.

[3] Lightfoot notes, “Mention is made in the inscriptions at Smyrna of an officer called epitropos stratēgos or epitropos tēs strategias (CIG 3151, 3162), and perhaps this officer may be meant. Another Smyrnaean inscription speaks of ho epitropos tou Sebastou (CIG 3203).” Apostolic Fathers, 359.

[4] Epitropos occurs three times in the New Testament (Matt. 20:8; Luke 8:3; Gal. 4:2).

[5] Michael Holmes translates the Greek word epitropos as a proper name in IgnPol8:2. He translates the phrase tēn tou epitropou as “the widow of Epitropos”, but the feminine pronoun can also be translated as “wife” or even “daughter”. The Apostolic Fathers, Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd edition), edited and translated by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)

[6] “Demographic studies indicate that elite women often survived their older husbands to become widows.” Katherine Bain, Women’s Socioeconomic Status and Religious Leadership in Asia Minor, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014) 60.

[7] Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, 223-224.

[8] Greg W. Forbes and Scott D. Harrower, Raised from Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015) 85. (A review of this book is here.)

[9] Forbes and Harrower, Raised from Obscurity, 86.  Forbes and Harrower also state, “The importance of Joanna is more significant than the two [New Testament] references to her might indicate. . .” Raised from Obscurity, 85

[10] Ignatius and Polycarp are believed to have been disciples of the apostle John. However, it is not known with certainty whether the apostle John, or an Ephesian elder named John,  is the author of the New Testament letters 1, 2, and 3 John.

[11] Adolf Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, transl. and ed. James Moffatt (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1972) 223-224.

[12] Christine Trevett, Christian Women and the Time of the Apostolic Fathers (AD c.80-160): Corinth, Rome and Asia Minor (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006) 219.

[13] Trevett, Christian Women, 220.

[14] Trevett notes that we have evidence that women in the early church “did help by sheltering the ascetically inclined who were separated from their own unsympathetic families. [Moreover] in 1 Timothy 5:16 it is suggested that in Ephesus some Christian women were acting as benefactresses for widows.” Christian Women, 219.

[15] Tertullian (c. 200) writes with disdain, “I know plainly, that in a certain place a virgin of less than twenty years of age has been placed in the order of widows!” He regarded the idea of “virgin-widows” as monstrous. On the Veiling of Virgins 9, Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

[16] Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 3. Translated by Peter Holmes. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

[17] In IgnSm 13:1 Ignatius greets the men as brothers (adelphoi), and includes their wives and children in his greeting.

[18] Phoebe, the deacon of the church at Cenchrea, had delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans. So it seems being a letter carrier was one ministry that both men and women were involved in.

[19] Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) 81.


Related Articles

Deacons and Women in the Apostolic Fathers
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
The Chosen Lady in 2 John
Chastity, Salvation and 1 Timothy 2:15
Believing Wives and Female Co-workers of the Apostles
Eusebius and Letter Writing in the Early Church

Posted April 22nd, 2016 . Categories/Tags: Church History, Equality and Gender Issues, Women in Ministry, , , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

4 comments on “The Church at Smyrna and her Women (Part 2)

  1. Tim says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this second part. It is a wonderful way to learn more about our sisters and brothers in the early church, and how they served one another. Nicely done, Marg.

    • Marg says:

      I love many of the letters in the Apostolic Fathers. They are a window into the diversity of thought and practice in the post-apostolic church. Some of the expressions of Christology are wonderful.

  2. I agree that was a very insightful article about women during the early church. It is a shame that the history of women in the church get’s overlooked often due to misinterpreted ideas about women in the ministry. Thanks again. God Bless.

    • Marg says:

      Hi CT,

      I think many Christians are ignorant of many aspects of the church’s history. I’m still ignorant of our history in certain places and centuries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2009–2016   Margaret Mowczko | Powered by WordPress

More in Church History, Equality and Gender Issues
The Church at Smyrna and her Women (Part 1)

In Christian writings known as the Apostolic Fathers (late 1st and early 2nd centuries) we discover that women were active in ministry in...

Close