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‘The very deceitfulness of devils’: Firmilian and the Doubtful Baptisms of a Woman possessed by Demons

  • Charlotte Methuen (a1)

In the mid-third century, a controversy relating to the validity of baptism by the lapsed broke out between Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, and Stephen, bishop of Rome. The former maintained that baptisms carried out by those who later lapsed had no validity, but must be repeated by a priest of whose behaviour there could be no doubt. Stephen maintained that baptisms carried out in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were to be viewed as valid, whoever had carried them out. Cyprian appealed to his fellow bishops for support. In 256, Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea, wrote to him outlining the case of a woman who had for some time baptized and celebrated the eucharist, but who had then been identified as being possessed by demons, casting her earlier actions into question. This essay will analyse the grounds for Firmilian's doubts about the validity of the woman's actions, his proposed response, and the way in which this episode has been used in modern debates about the ordination of women.

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*Theology and Religious Studies, No. 4 The Square, Glasgow, G41 2NW. E-mail:
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1 For a summary of the dispute between Cyprian and Stephen over rebaptism, see Tilley, Maureen A., ‘When Schism becomes Heresy in Late Antiquity: Developing Doctrinal Deviance in the wounded Body of Christ’, JECS 15 (2007), 121, at 7–10. For the controversy and its consequences, see also Hall, S. G., ‘Stephen I of Rome and the Baptismal Controversy of 256’, Bibliothèque de la Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 8 (1987), 7882; Kirchner, Hubert, ‘Der Ketzertaufstreit zwischen Karthago und Rom und seine Konsequenzen für die Frage nach den Grenzen der Kirche’, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 81 (1970), 290307. A good overview of Cyprian's writings on the question of rebaptism can be found in Sebastian, J. Jayakiran, ‘. . . baptisma unum in ecclesia sancta . . .’: A Theological Appraisal of the Baptismal Controversy in the Work and the Writings of Cyprian of Carthage, Wissenschaftliche Beiträge aus Europäischen Hochschulen Reihe 1, Theologie Band 7 (Ammerbek bei Hamburg, 1997). Recent debate about the dating of some of Cyprian's key writings is not of relevance here: see Shuve, Karl, ‘Cyprian of Carthage's Writings from the Rebaptism Controversy: Two Revisionary Proposals reconsidered', Journal of Theological Studies 61 (2010), 627–43.

2 Bryant, Joseph M., ‘The Sect-Church Dynamic and Christian Expansion in the Roman Empire: Persecution, Penitential Discipline, and Schism in Sociological Perspective’, British Journal of Sociology 44 (1993), 303–39, especially 324–7. For Cyprian's motivation for his behaviour, see Montgomery, Hugo, ‘Saint Cyprian's postponed Martyrdom’, Symbolae Osloenses 63 (1988), 123–32.

3 Cyprian, Epistle 75.4, 7, 19 (PL 3, cols 1153–78); an English translation is available in ANF 5, numbered as Epistle 74, online at: <>, accessed 16 July 2014. Translations are given according to ANF, modified where appropriate by the author. Firmilian presumably conducted his church life in Greek, although we only have a Latin version of his letter.

4 Cyprian, Ep. 75.7.

7 Ibid. 8.

8 Ibid. 19. These ‘new prophets’ were presumably followers of Montanus and Prisca, that is, of the New Prophecy.

9 Ibid. 7.

10 Ibid. 10; cf. Eisen, Ute E., Amtsträgerinnen im frühen Christentum. Epigraphische und literarische Studien (Göttingen, 1996), 84–5; ET Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, MN, 2000), 72.

11 Cyprian, Ep. 75.10.

12 Hanson, R. P. C., ‘The Liberty of the Bishop to improvise Prayer in the Eucharist’, VC 15 (1961), 173–6, at 175. The ‘non’ is missing from the Latin in PL, but commentators are agreed that it is implied by the sense.

13 Cyprian, Ep. 75.10.

14 Ibid. The meaning of the verb is ambiguous, and could mean either ‘had contact with’ or ‘slept with’: see Trevett, Christine, ‘Spiritual Authority and the “Heretical” Woman: Firmilian's Word to the Church in Carthage’, in Drijvers, Jan Willem and Watt, John W., eds, Portraits of Spiritual Authority: Religious Power in Early Christianity, Byzantium and the Christian Orient (Leiden, 1999), 4562, at 57–8.

15 Cyprian, Ep. 75.10.

16 Ibid. 11.

18 For an introduction to Montanism, see Trevett, Christine, Montanism: Gender, Authority and the New Prophecy (Cambridge, 1996).

19 Wypustek, Andrzej, ‘Magic, Montanism, Perpetua, and the Severan Persecution’, VC 51 (1997), 276–97, at 279; cf. Labriolle, P. de, La Crise montaniste (Paris, 1913), 487.

20 Jensen, Anne, Gottes selbstbewußte Töchter. Frauenemanzipation im frühen Christentum? (Freiburg, Basel and Vienna, 1992), 352–8, especially 357 (ET God's Self-Confident Daughters?: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women [Louisville, KY, 1996], 182–6).

21 Hanson, ‘Liberty of the Bishop’, 175.

22 Trevett, ‘Spiritual Authority’, 45, 50.

23 Ibid. 51–5.

24 Wypustek, ‘Magic, Montanism’, 277; cf. Eusebius: ‘[Montanus] became beside himself, and . . . raged in a frenzy and ecstasy, and began to babble and utter strange things’: Church History 5.16, as cited by Caciola, Nancy, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages (New York, 2003), 67.

25 Tertullian, Ad Praxean 1.5; cf. Klawiter, Frederick C., ‘The Role of Martyrdom and Persecution in Developing the Priestly Authority of Women in Early Christianity: A Case Study of Montanism’, ChH 49 (1980), 251–61, at 252. Klawiter sees the authority of the Montanist prophets as arising primarily from their experience as confessors or martyrs, but, as noted above, in Firmilian's context response to persecution does not seem to be the main concern.

26 Caciola, Discerning Spirits, 7. Karen L. King makes a similar point: ‘For Christians, the rhetoric was clear: true prophets were inspired by divine agency; false prophets were inspired by the devil and his demons. In practice, however, distinguishing the two was trickier’: ‘Prophetic Power and Authority: The Case of the Gospel of Mary [Magdalene]’, in Mayne Kienzle, Beverly and Walker, Pamela J., eds, Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity (Berkeley, CA, 1998), 2141, at 29.

27 Trevett, ‘Spiritual Authority’, 58–9.

28 Eisen, Amtsträgerinnen im frühen Christentum, 85 (Women Officeholders in Early Christianity, 72, amended). Eisen cites Seeberg, Reinhold, ‘Über das Reden der Frauen in den apostolischen Gemeinden’, Deutsch-Evangelisches Jahrbuch 2 (1899), 1943.

29 Thraede, Klaus, ‘Ärger mit der Freiheit, Die Bedeutung von Frauen in Theorie und Praxis der alten Kirche’, in Scharffenorth, Gerta and Thraede, Klaus, eds, ‘Freunde in Christus werden . . .’. Die Beziehung von Mann und Frau als Frage an Theologie und Kirche, Kennzeichen 1 (Gelnhausen and Berlin, 1977), 31182, at 136; Jensen, Gottes selbstbewußte Töchter, 355 (God's Self-Confident Daughters?, 184); cf. Methuen, Charlotte, ‘Widows, Bishops and the Struggle for Authority in the Didascalia Apostolorum’, JEH 46 (1995), 197213, at 212.

30 Hanson, ‘Liberty of the Bishop’, 175.

31 Frankfurter, David, ‘Where the Spirits Dwell: Possession, Christianization, and Saints’ Shrines in Late Antiquity’, HThR 103 (2010), 2746, at 30.

32 Wright, John H., ‘Patristic Testimony on Women's Ordination in Inter Insigniores’, Theological Studies 58 (1997), 516–26, at 519.

33 Trevett, ‘Spiritual Authority’, 59.

34 King argues that ‘women's prophetic speech was highly valued in early Christian movements and contributed to the construction of early Christian teaching and practice’: ‘Prophetic Power and Authority’, 32. Karen Jo Torjesen concurs: ‘Prophecy was considered a natural role for women in antiquity. . . . Second-century Christians familiar with the spirit-inspired worship of churches like that of Corinth would have associated the orans [praying and prophesying with outstretched arms] with women's “liturgical” prophecy’: ‘The Early Christian Orans: An Artistic Representation of Women's Liturgical Prayer and Prophecy’, in Kienzle and Walker, eds, Women Preachers and Prophets, 42–56, at 47.

35 See Eisen, Amtsträgerinnen im frühen Christentum (Women Officeholders in Early Christianity); Lyman, Rebecca, ‘Women Bishops in Antiquity: Apostolicity and Ministry’, in Harris, Harriet and Shaw, Jane, eds, The Call for Women Bishops (London, 2004), 3750; Madigan, Kevin and Osiek, Carolyn, eds, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore, MD, 2011); Methuen, Charlotte, ‘ViduaPresbyteraEpiscopa: Women with Oversight in the Early Church’, Theology 108 (2005), 163–77; eadem, ‘Die Autorität von Frauen in der Alten Kirche am Beispiel der Syrischen Didascalia’, in Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz, Gury Schneider-Ludorff and Beate-Irene Hämel, eds, Frauen Gestalten Geschichte. Im Spannungsfeld zwischen Religion und Geschlecht (Wiesbaden, 1998), 9–32; Jo Torjesen, Karen, When Women were Priests: Women's Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity (San Francisco, CA, 1993); Ramelli, Ilaria, ‘Theosebia: A Presbyter of the Catholic Church’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 26 (2010), 79102. For subsequent developments, see Macy, Gary, The Hidden History of Women's Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West (Oxford, 2008).

36 For a useful summary of the evidence, see Ramelli, ‘Theosebia’, 87–9; for more detail, Eisen, Amtsträgerinnen im frühen Christentum (Women Officeholders in Early Christianity); Madigan and Osiek, eds, Ordained Women.

37 Burrus, Virginia, ‘The Heretical Woman as Symbol in Alexander, Athanasius, Epiphanius, and Jerome’, HThR 84 (1991), 229–48, at 248.

38 Trevett, ‘Spiritual Authority’, 58.

39 Wright, ‘Patristic Testimony’, 519.

40 Frankfurter, ‘Where the Spirits Dwell', 30.

41 Since no other writings by Firmilian are extant, we do not know whether he discussed these questions elsewhere.

42 Frankfurter, ‘Where the Spirits Dwell', 30.

44 Didascalia Apostolorum, transl. and ed. by R. Hugh Connolly (Oxford, 1929), 142.

45 Jensen, Gottes selbstbewußte Töchter?, 279 (God's Self-Confident Daughters?, 139).

46 Inter Insigniores, §1 n. 7, online at: <>, accessed 28 August 2014.

47 Wright, ‘Patristic Testimony’, 526. As most recently articulated in Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), Roman Catholic teaching holds, not that women are inferior, but that men and women are complementary: ‘The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different.’ However, the presentation of women as receptive could very easily shade into suggesting that they are inferior: ‘the woman is the one who receives love in order to love in return . . . This “propheticcharacter of women in their femininity finds its highest expression in the Virgin Mother of God. . . . the “perfect woman” (cf. Prov 31:10) becomes an irreplaceable support and source of spiritual strength for other people, who perceive the great energies of her spirit’: Mulieris Dignitatem, §§10, 29, 30, online at: <>, accessed 28 August 2014.

48 Wright, ‘Patristic Testimony’, 526.

49 See, for instance, Bauer, Walter, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity (Philadelphia, PA, 1971); Chadwick, Henry, Heresy and Orthodoxy in the Early Church (Aldershot, 1991); Lyman, Rebecca, ‘Hellenism and Heresy’, JECS 11 (2003), 209–22.

50 Hans Achelis, for instance, one of the translators and editors of a German translation of the Didascalia Apostolorum published in 1904, had no doubt that its author was seeking to suppress the ministry of ‘prophetesses empowered by the Spirit’ (geistesmächtige Prophetinnen), known as widows, and witnessed to by other early sources: ‘The widows, whom the author has in mind, are not weak women but prophetesses empowered by the Sprit.’ He comments further: ‘Should anyone be surprised by this conclusion, I would point initially to the Apostolic Church Order [a third-century church order] 21 (24): “Three widows are to be appointed, two to devote themselves to prayer on behalf of all those who are tempted and to revelations about whatever is necessary, and one to sit with the women who are sick”.’ Hans Achelis and Johannes Fleming, Die syrische Didaskalie, Texte und Untersuchungen 25, Neue Folge 10 (Leipzig, 1904), 275 and n. 2. For the widows in the Apostolic Church Order, see also Cloke, Gillian, This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, AD 350–450 (London, 1995), 90.

52 See, for instance, Women Bishops in the Church of England? A Report of the House of Bishops’ Working Party on Women in the Episcopate (London, 2004), 167–8, albeit for a very brief discussion.

53 Macy, for instance, notes ‘how concern over the ordination of women in the present has driven the historical question of whether women had ever been ordained in the past’: Hidden History, 21. He also highlights the danger of uncritical assumptions that the term ‘ordination’ as it was used in Late Antiquity or the early medieval period can be taken to be congruent with its meaning today: ibid. 15–17, 23–48.

54 Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd enlarged edn (Chicago, IL, 1970). Kuhn's thesis is, however, based upon a reading of the history of science which has not gone unchallenged: see, for example, Field, J. V., ‘On the Revolutions: Copernicus (1543) and Kuhn (1957, 1962, 1987)’, Bulletin of the Society for Renaissance Studies 5 (1988), 26.

55 Cyprian, Ep. 75.19.

56 For a North African case study examining similar questions in relation to Perpetua, Felicitas and Cyprian, see Methuen, Charlotte, ‘“I, who knew that I was privileged to converse with the Lord . . .”: Christian Women and Religious Authority in Third-Century North Africa’, Modern Believing 54 (2013), 2333. Caciola identifies in the high Middle Ages ‘a practice of institutionalised mistrust regarding individual claims to visionary or prophetic authority’ and traces the ongoing difficulty that this process of discernment caused for the medieval Western Church, exploring ‘how the testing of spirits was coded and recoded in response to changing social, cultural and religious currents of the late twelfth through fifteenth centuries’: Discerning Spirits, quotations at 1–2. For this process and its historiographical repercussions for interpreting the contribution of women, see Anke E. Passenier, ‘Der Lustgarten des Leibes und die Freiheit der Seele. Wege der Mittelalterlichen Frauenspiritualität’, in: Elisabeth Hartlieb and Charlotte Methuen, eds, Sources and Resources of Feminist Theologies, European Society for Women in Theological Research Yearbook 5 (Mainz, 1997), 244–65; Charlotte Methuen, ‘Mystikerinnen im Mittelalter: Theologie einer weiblichen Gotteserfahrung?’, in Elzbieta Adamiak and Marie-Theres Wacker, eds, Feministische Theologie in Europa – Mehr als ein Halbes Leben. Ein Lesebuch für Hedwig Meyer-Wilmes, Theologische Frauenforschung in Europa 25 (Munster, 2013), 126–41.

57 For evidence that some women continued nonetheless to exercise ministries of leadership, cf. Eisen, Amtsträgerinnen im frühen Christentum (Women Officeholders in Early Christianity); Methuen, ‘ViduaPresbyteraEpiscopa’; Macy, Hidden History; Morris, Joan, Against Nature and God: The History of Women with Clerical Ordination and the Jurisdiction of Bishops (London and Oxford, 1973), also published as The Lady was a Bishop: The Hidden History of Women with Clerical Ordination and the Jurisdiction of Bishops (New York and London, 1973).

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