Women Martyrs in the Early Church: Hearing Another Side to the Story -- By: Andrea Lorenzo Molinari

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 22:1 (Winter 2008)
Article: Women Martyrs in the Early Church: Hearing Another Side to the Story
Author: Andrea Lorenzo Molinari

Women Martyrs in the Early Church:
Hearing Another Side to the Story

Andrea Lorenzo Molinari

ANDREA LORENZO MOLINARI is the President of Blessed Edmund Rice School for Pastoral Ministry, a satellite location for theological studies in connection with Barry University (Miami, Florida). He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University and is author of three books: The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles (2000), ‘I never knew the man’: The Coptic Act of Peter (2000), and Climbing the Dragon’s Ladder: The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas (2006).


It is no secret that the vast majority of the voices that speak to us from the days of the early church are male. Early church history is filled with stories of famous martyr-bishops such as Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. a.d. 107-8), Polycarp of Smyrna (d. ca. a.d. 156), and Cyprian of Carthage (d. a.d. 258). In addition to these unforgettable personages, there is also no lack of male evangelists, apologists, and theologians whose views are readily available for anyone who has the time and desire to read them. As an early church historian, I would hardly dissuade anyone from taking up such a task. However, it saddens me that the stories of women, who surely must have made up at least fifty percent of the early church population, go largely untold.

Happily, much progress has been made toward righting this injustice over the last several decades. This is evidenced by a number of popular works that collect traditions related to early Christian women, making them readily accessible to contemporary Christians.1 In addition, many scholarly pieces have been published that range from more general introductions to the subject2 to specific studies of individual early Christian women.3 However, one of the persistent problems faced by any scholar who attempts to paint an accurate portrait of women in early Christianity is the paucity of historical sources. The historian is forced to learn how to read between the lines, piecing together a plausible back story around the almost footnote-like references to various Christian women and their activities. In this short article, it is my hope to demonstrate briefly just how such ancient detective work is accomplished and how this work can bear good fruit in terms of fleshing out a more accurate picture of the roles women played in the early church. To this end, I intend to consider two of the earliest instances of women suffering martyrdom for their faith, namely the tradition involving Peter’s wife and the two women “deaconesses” mentioned by Pliny the Younger in his famous letter to the Emp...

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