The Ecclesiastical Canons of the Apostles (ca 250 AD?)

by John Wijngaards

This obscure document contains fragments of 2nd and 3rd century material. The first section quoted seems to refer to women deacons, while calling them ‘widows’. The identification follows from the implicit quote of 1 Timothy 3,8 – a diaconate passage, and from the allusion to baptismal nudity.[1] The second section, from a different source, mentions the women’s diaconate explicitly and seems to want to explain why women deacons, unlike their male colleagues, do not exercise the role of celebrant.[2] The text reflects masculine bias, while being at the same time a witness to the existence of the women’s diaconate, which it presents at established by the Apostles.

Canon 21. [The Apostle] Peter said: ‘Three widows are to be instituted [καθιστανεσθωσαν]. Two will pray for all those who are being tested [= catechumens under instruction?] and for the uncoverings in all that is needed [= anointing naked catechumens, etc. ?]. The other one will look after the women who are suffering illnesses. She must be a good deacon [ευ διακονος ’ηι], reliable, reporting whatever is needed to the priests, not given to wine, not greedy for money [from 1 Timothy 3,8], so that she can stay awake during her ministry at night, or if someone asks her to do other good works. For the first reward of the Lord is good [= allusion to Matthew 20,27, and part of diaconate ordination prayer].’
Canon 24 – 28. Andrew said: ‘Brothers, it would be useful to institute a diaconate [διακονιαν] for the women’. Peter replied: ‘We have already decided about this. Regarding the offering of the body and the blood we need to be very clear.’ John said: ‘You have forgotten, brothers, that when the teacher asked for the bread and the chalice, and he blessed them saying: “This is my body and blood”, he did not allow the women to stand [as celebrants] with us.’ Martha said: ‘That was because of Mary. He saw her smiling.’ Mary replied: ‘Not like that. I laughed for he foretold us, when he was teaching, that the weak will be saved through the strong’ [meaning obscure].[3] Cephas said: ‘Some things [he taught] you should remember, namely that it is not fitting for women to pray standing, but rather seated on the ground [meaning obscure].’[4] James said: ‘How then can we establish a diaconate [διακονιαν] regarding women, unless it is a diaconate [διακονιαν] in order to serve women who are in need [of such service]?’


1. J.W.Bickell, Geschichte des Kirchenrechts, vol.1, Giessen 1843, p.127.

2. R.Gryson, Le ministère des femmes dans l’Église ancienne,Gembloux 1972,pp.82-5. Th.Schermann, Die algemeine Kirchenordnung des 2. Jahrhunderts, Paderborn 1914.

3. The meaning could be that women [the weak] are saved by men [the strong], but there may also be a reference to the well-known legend according to which the apostles, whom Christ had called ‘weak’ (Matt. 26:41 were saved by Mary of Magdala after the resurrection. For while the apostles had lost heart, Mary stood up among them and reminded them of the Lord’s teachings. See, e.g. the second-cent. Gospel of Mary; transl. by K.L.King et al., The Nag Hammadi Library, San Franscico 1988, pp. 526-7. Such ancient texts manifest tensions that existed between men and women in ministries; K.J.Torreson, When Women were Priests, San Franscico 1995, pp. 34-43.

4. If there was a local custom for women to sit on the floor in church while the men prayed standing, this might well have been justified with a reference to the story of Mary and Martha. Mary ‘sat at Jesus’ feet’ and this was ‘not to be taken from her’ (Luke 10:38-42).