by John Wijngaards
Justinian was Byzantine emperor for almost 40 years (527-565). One of his reforms consisted of checking and codifying of existing laws. The purpose was not so much to introduce innovations, as to streamline existing legal systems. This also extended to the organization of the Church. We reproduce here Novella VI 6, part of a decree by which the emperor legislated on Church affairs in 535 AD.
Novella 6, 6 § 1. Whatever we have decreed about the venerable [male] clerics, we want also to apply to the God-pleasing deaconesses [διακονισσων], so that they too do not transgress the [right] practice.
Novella 6, 6 § 2. First of all, in age they should neither be young, nor in their flowering which could easily lead to transgressions, but from those who have passed their middle age and who are, in harmony with divine rules more that 50 years old. Only then they merit sacred ordination [χειροτονιας].
Novella 6, 6 § 3. And they should be either women confirmed as virgins, or widows who have been the wife of one husband. For we will not allow those who have contracted a second marriage or those who have led a life either reprehensible or even in any way suspect, to approach the sacred mysteries and minister to the revered rites of baptism and to be part of other secret rites, which they rightly perform in connection with the venerable mysteries.
Novella 6, 6 § 4. When however there is some real need as the occasion arises to ordain as deacon [χειροτονηθηναι διακονον] a woman who is younger than the age stipulated above, she may be ordained [χειροτονεισθαι] in some sacred convent and live there where she will have no involvement with men and provided that she is not left to her own devices, but is a modest person who lives a simple life and whose worthiness has been testified to by many people who have lived with her.
Novella 6, 6 § 5. But we do not want those women deacons [διακονους] who are called to ordination [χειροτονιαν] after either having been a widow or a virgin, to remain in close association with relatives, friends or ‘sponsors’ – for those who use this kind of name burden their life with a lot of bad suspicion. Rather, they should either live on their own, or only with their parents and children or true brothers or other persons about whom, if someone would presume to suspect evil of them, that person himself would both be judged to be a fool and impious.
Novella 6, 6 § 6. Therefore, if something of this nature is said about a woman who would like to receive the ordination to deaconess [διακονισσης χειροτονιαν], namely that she has some involvement with a person about whom in spite of a good reputation there is some evil suspicion, a woman of this nature should not at all be admitted to the diaconate ordination [χειροτονιαν διακονιας].
Novella 6, 6 § 7. For if she commits anything of that kind and has a relationship with someone of the reputation mentioned, although she has been ordained [χειροτονηθοιη], she will lose her diaconate [διακονιας] and both she herself and the man will be subject to this law and all the other laws that punish those who corrupt women.
Novella 6, 6 § 8. All those women who will be ordained [χειροτονουμενας] as venerable deacons [διακονους] must, at the time of their ordination [χειροτονιας], both be admonished and be told of the sacred prescriptions in the hearing of all the other venerable women deacons [διακονων] who already exist, so that they preserve the fear of God and resolve to adhere to the sacred rules, so that they also will fear to lose their sacred order [‘ιερας ταξεως], in the knowledge that if they will presume to shame their ordination [χειροτονιαν], or leaving their sacred ordination [χειροτονιαν], choose to marry, or elect an entirely different kind of life, they themselves will be subject to the death penalty and their property will be confiscated and given to the sacred churches or monasteries to which they are attached.
Novella 6, 6 § 9. But the men who have presumed to either accept them as their wives or to commit fornication with them, will themselves be subjected to the sword, and their property will be confiscated by the state treasury.
Novella 6, 6 § 10. For if according to the ancient laws those virgins who had been called to their dignity by mistake, incurred the condemnation of death when they were corrupted [= the Vestal Virgins], how should we not all the more decree [this punishment] on those women who are glorified by God, anxious as we are to preserve chastity which is one of the highest ornaments in women and which agrees so much with venerable deaconesses [διακονισσων], so that they both guard what is becoming by nature and preserve what they owe to their priestly ministry [τηι ‘ιεροσυνηι].
Novella 131 dates from 545 AD. Notice how the woman deacon, like other members of the clergy, was ordained for a specific church community.
Novella 131, 23, line 23ff. If a bishop, or cleric, or minister of whatever ecclesiastical grade, or deaconess of a church [εκκλησιας διακονισσα], dies without a last will and legitimate heirs, the church in which these [ministers] were ordained inherits [what they owned].
Novella 123 (546 AD) is mainly concerned with judicial matters involving clerics. Concern about public morals affecting the clergy also extended to women deacons. In Novella 123, 13, the emperor had already reiterated that no woman should be ordained a deacon if she was younger than 40 years old, or if she had entered a second marriage. See Novella 6, 6, § 5-7 with an explanation of the men in a woman deacon’s house who would not arouse suspicion.
Novella 123, 30. We do not permit a deaconess [διακονισσα] in any way to live with a man when this might give rise to suspicions regarding her chastity. If she does not observe this rule, the priest who has charge of her should admonish her to expel such a man at all costs from her home. If she is reluctant to do this, she should be relieved of her ecclesiastical ministry [’εκκλησιαςτικης ‘υπηρεςιας] and of her church income, and relegated to a convent where she should stay for the rest of her life. Her possessions should be divided between herself and her children, if she has any, according to the number of people involved, and the portion that belongs to her should be handed to the convent so that it can look after her. If she does not have children, her property shall be equally divided between the convent and the church in which she had been installed.[3 ]
1. R.Schoell and G. Kroll (eds), Corpus Iuris Civilis, vol. III, Novellae, Berlin 1899, pp. 43-5. The division in paragraphs is my own.
2. Schoell and Kroll (eds), Corpus Iuris Civilis, vol. III, p. 662.
3. Schoell and Kroll (eds), Corpus Iuris Civilis, vol. III, 616.