Women of Authority in and Outside of the Congregation

Women of the Church of Jerusalem in the first century had many responsibilities within their own households and in the congregation as they do today. The question has arisen concerning the responsibility of the prayers associated with Erev Shabbat. Traditionally the women of the household recite these blessings, whether that is the mother, wife or eldest daughter. The question involves whether or not it is appropriate for the woman of the house to recite prayers in the presence of her husband or other males (such as visitors) within the same home who are gathered together for the welcoming of Shabbat.

The Assembly recognises that in some cases there are distinguishing differences between “blessings” and “prayers”. First, it is against both halakha and Tradition for a female member of the family or within the congregation to offer up prayers, especially when there are qualified male members of the clergy available. However, since the blessings associated with the welcoming of Shabbat are seen as different than “prayers”, it is permitted and encouraged for the woman of the household to offer the appropriate blessings.

We have examples in the Tanakh where Miriam, the sister of Mosha, offered up a song while in the presence of her brother and other men. In this light, the Assembly interprets the difference between a “prayer” and a “blessing”. A song in praise of God is also considered to be a “blessing”. It can also be seen that, although the Israelites were not congregated for a formal worship service, they were gathered together – both men and women – both leaders and lay persons, and Miriam offered a blessing.

In the same light women of the household should be permitted, especially within their own home, even in the presence of their husbands or elder sons, to offer blessings for various occasions – whether it is for the welcoming of Shabbat or on Holy Days and general feasts. Women should therefore also be permitted to recite blessings in the congregation. All the while, in both cases – within the family setting and within the congregational setting – the female should be wearing of head covering for obvious reasons.

The Assembly has given special titles referring to “women of authority” within the Church and for those who have responsibilities within their own households. These have included, in the past: “Mother”, “Daughter of Truth”, etc.

+Mar Yosip IV wrote within the Annals around 354 C.E. referring to “mothers of the church” and “daughters of truth” as well as “daughters of light”. +Mar Yosip IV gave clear definitions for these titles stating that these “mothers of the church” were in fact women who were given special responsibilities by the Bishops to work within the Church of Jerusalem, however they had no authority over the male clerical members.

He spoke of the “daughters of truth” as those who often times served as readers or those who made the bread for Qurbana. +Mar Yosip IV also defined the “daughters of light” as those sisters among the Assembly who were prophetesses. A prophetess speaks divine revelation and is therefore responsible for relaying the revelation to the congregation. His Holiness +Mar Yosip IV also gave regulations concerning the timing and manner in which these revelations or prophecies and dreams, visions, etc. were to be spoken. This was never done in the middle of Holy Qurbana. It was always in an organised fashion after consulting with the Bishop first so the Bishop would be able to pray and discern the information given by the “daughter of light” and it usually gave time for other “daughters of light” in other locations to give supporting information, thus confirming the message was indeed of Divine origin. This same pattern is followed within the Assembly to this day.

“Mothers of the Church” were responsible for making sure all the females of the Church were provided for spiritually. In the social context of the first century Church of Jerusalem, men did not have much public dealing with women and vice versa. It was socially unacceptable, as is the case in many areas today (Mishqana included) for male members of the Assembly to spend a lot of time with the female members without close supervision of other males and females. St. Timotheos of Lisbon said, “Closed doors open the doors to suspicion, rumours and temptation of scandal.” Therefore, the “mothers of the Church” served in active ministries among fellow female members even to the point of having their own assembly (or “chavurah”) from time to time. These often times served as a place for contemplative study, meditation and the reciting of blessings together. This eventually led to life in the convent or other similar orders.

Two manuscripts from Qumran present evidence for special responsibilities for women in an organisational structure outside of the traditional family and/or kinship structure. This evidence for women’s special titles in Second Temple Judaism may be the most ancient currently available outside of the Scriptures and the Annals, and assists in shedding light on the historical backgrounds for women’s titles and offices in the later Jewish synagogue and the early Church of Jerusalem.

The first instance of a specific woman’s title occurs in 4QDamascus Document (4Q270), frag. 7, col. i, ll. 13-15, which reads:

[One who murmur]s against the fathers [shall be expelled] from the congregation and not return; [if] it is against the mothers, he shall be penalized for ten days, since the mothers do not have authoritative status (?) within [the congregation.]

Notice how the Annals support the above passage:

“Anyone speaking babble against the holy fathers without repentance must be removed from the assembly and may not gather there again for the span of three new moons. Anyone speaking babble against the holy mothers without repentance must be removed from the assembly and may not gather there again for the span of ten days. The one displaying disrespect toward any of the holy fathers, and indeed the sons of light, the brothers, and any of the holy mothers, and indeed the daughters of truth, the sisters, shall not go without punishment…. The mothers and the daughters may not speak with boldness in the presence of an assembly with holy fathers and sons.” (The phrase “speak with boldness” means “authoritatively”.)

This passage is part of the “penal code,” a list of offences and punishments found in the Damascus Document, the Community Rule and the Annals. Another instance occurs in 4Q502, which is one of the liturgical texts. 4Q502 contains several examples of titles for women who have been given specific duties either within or outside the immediate congregation (an active ministry): “daughter of truth” (Hebrew BT )MT; frgs. 1-3, l. 6); “female elder” (Hebrew ZQNWT; frg. 19, l. 2; frg. 24, l. 4) and “sisters” (Hebrew L)XYWT; frg. 96, l. 1).

Although the contexts for all of these titles are fragmentary as far as the Qumran documents are concerned, they are supported by the Annals and certainly point to a form of responsibility for women in an organisational structure that is outside the bounds of the traditional family.

In the case of the passage from the Damascus Document, the organisational structure is that of the MXNH or “camp,” to which the penal code found in the Damascus Document applies. In all likelihood 4Q502 is referring to the organisational structure of the Damascus Document, or it may be presuming another structure, such as that of the YXD in the Community Rule.

(S.W. Crawford contributed references concerning the Qumran documents.)

1 October 2005