d r a f t

Pix and links to a Twitter thread by a scholar at the University of Iowa who specializes on the role of women in the early Christian church, w/ preliminary reaction to the dig’s potential significance:

Screen shot, Dr. Sarah Bond’s Twitter thread on deaconesses.

Notes and excerpts from Haaretz article (cited below):xxx

Ashdod Yam — port city on sea in what is now Ashdod — “Church of the Deaconesses,”

[My paraphrase pf background:] Prof. Alexander Fantalkin, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University who heads the dig. Fantalkin and his team were excavating the seaside acropolis of Ashdod Yam in 2017 when the Israel Antiquities Authority asked them to investigate a nearby plot of land adjacent to a modern villa, where mosaic tiles kept cropping up on the sandy surface.

Starting with the Assyrian conquest of the area at the end of the eighth century B.C.E., ancient Ashdod declined in importance. Then, during the later Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods, Ashdod Yam grew to become the dominant settlement in the region. Known as “Azotos Paralios” (“Ashdod by the Sea” in Greek) it appears as a major town, featuring large public buildings, in the Madaba Map, a sixth-century mosaic map of the Holy Land found in a Byzantine church in Jordan.

David’s lede:

The Holy Mother Sophronia. Theodosia the deaconess. Gregoria the deaconess. These are some of the women lovingly memorialized at a magnificent Byzantine basilica that Israeli archaeologists have uncovered in the southern city of Ashdod.

The splendidly mosaiced church, built in the fourth or fifth century C.E., is being hailed as one of the earliest and largest Christian basilicas found in Israel. It is also one of the most unusual, partly due to the number and prominence of graves and inscriptions dedicated to female ministers. Then as now, women in the clergy were usually overshadowed by their male counterparts.

And if that wasn’t enough, when the archaeologists investigated the graves dug beneath the floors of the 1,600-year-old basilica, they encountered an additional, darker, puzzle. It appears that most of these holy tombs were reused at a later date. Instead of just finding the skeletons of the people memorialized in the church’s Greek inscriptions, researchers uncovered jumbles of bones belonging to dozens of individuals who had been unceremoniously dumped in and covered in lime sometime in the sixth century.

xxx

The rushed floor repairs, the mass burials, the use of lime – normally employed to limit smells and contagion – all point to a time of crisis and widespread death. This leads the researchers to suggest that the later burials may be connected to the so-called Plague of Justinian, which hit the Byzantine Empire in the 540s. The epidemic, named after the emperor at the time, is said by ancient historians to have killed millions and to have contributed significantly to the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, in recent years, some scholars have questioned whether this epidemic was really so devastating, as little evidence of its effects had been found in the archaeological record. In 2013, researchers did identify traces of Yersinia pestis, the pathogen responsible for the plague, in human remains from a sixth century cemetery in Germany, but much more data is needed to understand the scope and reach of this ancient pandemic.

xxx DNA xxx
Fantalkin — a central tomb

For one thing we don’t know to whom the church was dedicated. The central apse housed the main altar and a tomb, probably from the late Roman period, preceding the construction of the basilica.

When the archaeologists opened the grave, they found a single skeleton, buried without any artifacts – a simple burial typical of early Christian holy persons, says Dr. Hila May, a physical anthropologist from Tel Aviv University who is studying the human remains from the site.

According to the New Testament (Acts 8:40), Philip the evangelist was transported by the Holy Spirit to Azotos Paralios, where he preached. The saint also had four unmarried daughters who were gifted prophetesses (Acts 21:9) and played an important role in the early Church. It is therefore possible that, given Philip’s connection to Ashdod Yam, a tradition may have developed that one of his daughters was buried there and an ancient local tomb may have been identified as her grave, ultimately leading to the construction of a basilica that was particularly beloved by female ministers, Fantalkin says.

This, at the moment, is pure speculation, but whoever the person buried in the apse was, she (or he) must have been seen as someone holy enough to merit the construction of such a magnificent church and to push many faithful to choose it as their final resting place.

xxx

While there are similar burials and memorial inscriptions in many Byzantine churches, the amount of texts and the high number of deaconesses and other female ministers mentioned is unique, says Prof. Joseph Patrich, an archaeologist and Byzantine expert from the Hebrew University who did not take part in the dig.

These women probably had a high status and had the means and power to be memorialized in such fashion, Di Segni adds. For example, the “Holy Mother Sophronia” was likely the mother superior of a nearby convent, she suggests. As for the deaconesses, who make up most of the women mentioned in the inscriptions, these could have been nuns or secular women of an older age and high class, Di Segni says. In the Byzantine Church, deaconesses had an important role in the baptism of women and other rites, as well as in ministering to female converts, the sick and poor, explains Dr. Balbina Bäbler, a historian from the University of Göttingen who is part of the project.

The ministry of female deacons (from the Greek “diakonos” – servant or assistant) was eliminated in most Christian denominations over the centuries, but recently there have been calls to bring back this ancient order. Both the Orthodox Church of Greece and the Patriarchate of Alexandria and Africa have restored the role, while Pope Francis has set up a commission to study the possibility of a similar move for the Catholic Church.

Works Cited

Ariel David, “Byzantine Basilica With Graves of Female Ministers and Baffling Mass Burials Found in Israel,” Haaretz, Nov 15, 2021 https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/MAGAZINE-byzantine-basilica-with-female-ministers-and-baffling-burials-found-in-israel-1.10387014?fbclid=IwAR1oqtdeixKea_bUGwpY78XTLqt9MybHSbOgnsHX4SIXvIQrH4xXkB0Uy5I

Madaba Map (Wikimedia Commons) — Ashdod and Mediterranean (No. 7) at bottom.

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