Literate Sisters 


Since the Women's Literacy page was getting a bit bloated and unwieldy, I've split off the Christian women to their own page. When the Jesus Seminar low-balled ancient literacy down to the 1-3% level, this was in order to imagine a world in which it would be possible that no one who knew Jesus would write anything down, and that thus this information could undergo generations of processing, addition, and invention as uncontrolled 'oral tradition.' The focus of controversy is the literacy rate in the ancient empire during the first century. Was it really so low, and so segregated by caste, as modern 'scholars' claim? Strictly speaking, our literate ladies do not offer evidence on this point, as almost by definition they come along once the church is established. However, since there is no reason to suppose that literacy rates either plummeted or soared in following generations, they actually do provide evidence on the point in question.

Whatever was the trend in literacy, it must have been more of a gradual drift, although later, when barbarian hordes overwhelmed the empire, the Goths by the west and the Muslims by the east, literacy rates along with living standards generally took a tumble. As defended in these pages, I would suggest that literacy tracks with political system, and so Athens, a democracy, and Rome, a polity whose mixed constitution included democratic elements, likely had high literacy rates all along. Once the empire went over to one-man rule, literacy, on this theory, is likely to have declined. However there may have been countervailing factors; though under despotism, the culture continued to value the skills, like oratory, which were meaningful under the prior political settlement, not the current one. Let's look at some of the women who were demonstrably literate. Bishop Spong hurls the accusation that they had no ability to write. Is it true?:

Grapte Thecla
Basilina Waiting for Baptism
Watching and Praying Viva Perpetua
Marcella Eusebia
Aetheria Olympias
Laeta's Daughter Fabiola
Eudocia Demetrias
Marcellina Eustochium

  • “It was men who undoubtedly framed these legends and eventually recorded them, since women in that society had no access to the power that explained God or to the ability to write. . .Women thus neither influenced cultural assumptions directly nor shaped primal decisions about the nature of anything, nor were they engaged in any decision-making processes.”
  • (Bishop John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture, p. 88).

Thriceholy Radio


'Hermas' instructs his readers to give a copy of his opus to Grapte. Why give a copy of this prolix and confusing vision to Grapte? So she could use it as a door-stop? Or was this literate lady expected to explicate the book's contents to the widows and orphans?

  • “You will write therefore two books, and you will send the one to Clemens and the other to Grapte. And Clemens will send his to foreign countries, for permission has been granted to him to do so. And Grapte will admonish the widows and the orphans. But you will read the words in this city, along with the presbyters who preside over the Church.”
  • (Hermas, The Shepherd, Book First, Vision Second, Chapter 4).


Another Christian lady who placed her literacy skills at the service of the church is the fourth century Alexandrian Thecla who, according to tradition, put her good penmanship to use for the glory of God:

"The pedigree of this extraordinary manuscript, which is referred to the latter period, has been traced with a degree of accuracy which is unparalleled in the history of manuscripts. An immemorial tradition prevailed in the church from whence it was brought, that it was written not long subsequently to the Council of Nice, by a religious woman named Thecla. A religious person of this name certainly existed at this period, to whom some of the Epistles of Gregory Nazianzen are addressed, and the characters of the manuscript are of that delicate form, which evinces that it was written by the hand of a female." (Frederick Nolan, An Inquiry into the Integrity of the Greek Vulgate or Received Text of the New Testament, Kindle location 816).


Julian the apostate emperor mentions in passing that he and his mother shared the same tutor, the eunuch Mardonius:

"And now do you want me to tell you also my tutor's name and the nationality of the man who used to say these things? . .He had been brought up under the patronage of my grand-father, in order that he might instruct my mother in the poems of Homer and Hesiod. And since she, after giving birth to me her first and only child, died a few months later, snatched away while she was still a young girl by the motherless maiden from so many misfortunes that were to come, I was handed over to him after my seventh year." (The Works of the Emperor Julian, Misopogon, p. 461 Loeb edition).

If Basilina had a tutor whose specific calling was to instruct her in Homer and Hesiod, it stands to reason she was literate. Otherwise why not start with the ABC's.

Waiting for Baptism

Cyril of Jerusalem suggests that candidates awaiting baptism spend their time usefully, reading perhaps, though, following Paul, he does not want women reading out loud in church:

  • “Further, let the men when sitting have a useful book; and let one read, and another listen: and if there be no book, let one pray, and another speak something useful. And again let the party of young women sit together in like manner, either singing or reading quietly, so that their lips speak, but others’ ears catch not the sound: for I suffer not a woman to speak in the Church.”
  • (Cyril of Jeruslaem, Prologue to the Catechetical Lectures, 14).

Bart Ehrman

Why does Cyril suggest these young ladies read quietly if they could not read at all? He might as well suggest they while away the time by staging a slam-dunk basketball contest, because they could not do that either.

Watching and Praying

In a similar vein, widows on the church payroll were instructed to invest their time in 'reading,' a strange instruction if none of them could actually do so:

"Let such a one also be free from the love of money, free from arrogance, not given to filthy lucre, not insatiable, not gluttonous, but continent, meek, giving nobody disturbance, pious, modest, sitting at home, singing, and praying, and reading, and watching, and fasting; speaking to God continually in songs and hymns." (The Apostolic Constitutions, Book 3, Section 1, Chapter VII, ECF 0.07, p. 851).

Is Prophecy Possible?

Vivia Perpetua

The North African martyr Vivia Perpetua wrote a portion of the account of her martyrdom "by her own hand:"

"The young catechumens, Revocatus and his fellow-servant Felicitas, Saturninus and Secundulus, were apprehended. And among them also was Vivia Perpetua, respectably born, liberally educated, a married matron, having a father and mother and two brothers, one of whom, like herself, was a catechumen, and a son an infant at the breast. She herself was about twenty-two years of age. From this point onward she shall herself narrate the whole course of her martyrdom, as she left it described by her own hand and with her own mind. 'While,' says she, 'we were still with the persecutors, and my father, for the sake of his affection for me, was persisting in seeking to turn me away. . .'" (The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas, Chapter 1, Sections 1-2, Writings of Cyprian Volume II, Ante-Nicene Christian Library, pp. 277-278).

The narration was then continued by another party. The tragic waste of the Roman persecution of Christians is clear in this narrative; Vivia Perpetua had an infant child, a boy, from whom she was torn by the insane malice of her persecutors.


Marcella suffers from the disadvantage of being a fictional character. Certainly 'Thekla,' who turns up in her company, is fictional; and if your friends are fictional, questions might be raised about you. Marcella is one of the participants in Methodius' 'Banquet of the Ten Virgins.' She commends the "spiritual meditation of the Scriptures:'

"Now the whole spiritual meditation of the Scriptures is given to us as salt which stings in order to benefit, and which disinfects, without which it is impossible for a soul, by means of reason, to be brought to the Almighty; for “ye are the salt of the earth,” said the Lord to the apostles." (Marcella, in Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 1, Chapter 1).

One might think, she means only that she and her fellows should meditate on Scriptures which had been read aloud to them. But it turns out that she and her sisters are quite adept at flinging verses: "If, however, any one should venture to find fault with our argument as destitute of Scripture proof, we will bring forward the writings of the prophets, and more fully demonstrate the truth of the statements already made." (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 1, Chapter 3). Her arguments, complex and difficult, are not destitute of "Scripture proof," nor are theirs. How, if they are not literate?

Oh, but she's fictional. Like it's her fault. What we know about the historical Socrates is that he hated democracy. In Plato's dialogues, 'Socrates' presents the 'Theory of Ideas;' but in Xenophon's dialogues, he is aware of no such set of circumstances. Some readers speculated that, in his Sicilian sojourn, Plato encountered the writings of Pythagoras and there discovered the 'Theory of Ideas,' inserting it in the mouth of his 'Socrates' sock-puppet. The Platonic dialogues are fictional. Some of the Roman philosophical dialogues present themselves as stenographic records of actual encounters. Some may have been. But if Methodius made 'Marcella' and her sisters up, at least he thought his readers would not guffaw at the idea of ten literate women delving into scripture.

Akin to Marcella is her sister Theophila, who says, "For I think I have perceived clearly from the Scriptures that, after He had brought in virginity, the Word did not altogether abolish the generation of children; for although the moon may be greater than the stars, the light of the other stars is not destroyed by the moonlight." (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 2, Chapter 1). How did she perceive this "from the Scriptures" if she could not read them? Thaleia commends her, "For you seem to me, O Theophila, to have discussed those words of the Scripture amply and clearly, and to have set them forth as they are without mistake." (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 3, Chapter 2). She knows this how? She concludes her remarks, "Let any one who will, take in his hand the Epistle to the Corinthians, and, examining all its passages one by one, then consider what we have said, comparing them together, as to whether there is not a perfect harmony and agreement between them." (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 3, Chapter 14). Realize that, according to Bishop Spong, she is talking to a group incapable of taking in hand the Epistle to the Corinthians or any other writing, other than to wave as a fan; so why does she say it?

Procilla exhorts her sisters, "For if you will look at the books of Moses, or David, or Solomon, or Isaiah, or of the prophets who follow, O virgins, you will see what offspring they have left, for the saving of life, from their intercourse with the Son of God." (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 7, Chapter 4). According to Bishop Spong, they could look at these indeed, but not read them. Tusiane, like Marcella, commends meditation upon the scripture:

"Whoso, therefore, desires to come to that Feast of Tabernacles, to be numbered with the saints, let him first procure the goodly fruit of faith, then palm branches, that is, attentive meditation upon and study of the Scriptures, afterwards the far-spreading and thickly-leaved branches of charity, which He commands us to take after the palm branches. . ." (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 9, Chapter 4).

She nowhere mentions that this goal is impossible of attainment. The ten virgins' symposium, fictional as it may be, testifies to literacy amongst Christian women.


One hesitates to include this formidable lady, the emperor Constantius' wife, in this company, not only because she was an Arian but owing to the ruling family's appalling habit of simplifying the succession by murdering those family members whose continued existence would tend to complicate it. Julian the Apostate, who came to power through her patronage, remembered her as a saint, a paragon of disinterested kindness, but others remembered her differently. Nevertheless, in looking at Christianity as a social reality whether accompanied by any parallel spiritual reality or not, it is worth noting that this lady, of Greek stock and consular heritage, was well-educated and influential:

"Under these circumstances he was at a loss how to act. It happened, however, that when the empire was in the greatest danger, Eusebia, the wife of Constantius, who was a woman of extraordinary learning, and of greater wisdom than her sex is usually endowed with, advised him to confer the government of the nations beyond the Alps on Julianus Caesar, who was brother to Gallus, and grandson to Constantius." (Zosimus, New History, Book 3, at

According to Julian, she was a competent orator: "For she herself did not say more, and that though she knew how to utter speeches not a whit inferior to those of the most gifted orators." (Julian the Apostate, Panegyric on the Empress Eusebia, Section 123). She was a generous, and bookish, gift-giver: "For she gave me the best books on philosophy and history, and many of the orators, and poets, since I had brought hardly any with me from home. . ." (Julian the Apostate, Oration III, Panegyric on the Empress Eusebia, Section 123-124).


This lady went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the fourth century and wrote a lengthy letter recounting her experiences, addressed to her 'ladies, reverend sisters.' It seems she visualized these parties as literate, as she herself would seem to have been, because she says to them,

"Now it would be too much to write of all these things one by one, for so great a number could not be remembered, but when your affection shall read the holy books of Moses it will more quickly recognize the things that were done in that place." (Letter of Aetheria, ccel).

Her language is not literary Latin but popular. She promises when she comes home to bring with her new and improved versions of various apocryphal writings (she is perhaps a touch naive) to show her 'sisters:' "For although I have copies at home, yet it seemed to me more pleasant to receive them from him, lest perhaps something less might have reached us at home, and indeed that which I received here is fuller. So if Jesus our God bids it, and I come home, you too shall read them, ladies, my own souls." She does not explain how they were to do this if, ex hypothesi, they were illiterate.

  • "To secure the passing round of the watchword for the night the following course is followed. One man is selected from the tenth maniple, which, in the case both of cavalry and infantry, is quartered at the ends of the road between the tents; this man is relieved from guard-duty and appears each day about sunset at the tent of the Tribune on duty, takes the tessera or wooden tablet on which the watchword is inscribed, and returns to his own maniple and delivers the wooden tablet and watchword in the presence of witnesses to the chief officer of the maniple next his own; he in the same way to the officer of the next, and so on, until it arrives at the first maniple stationed next the Tribunes. These men are obliged to deliver the tablet (tessera) to the Tribunes before dark."
  • (Polybius, The Histories, Book VI, Chapter 34, Kindle location 8481).


One of John Chrysostom's correspondents was a widow named Olympias. Notice that John instructs her to read his letter aloud. If Olympias, for her part in this correspondence, were following the procedure described by the partisans of ancient illiteracy: dictating her own letters, then having the replies read back to her, then John's request is in vain. If someone is reading the letter to her, then of course he is reading it aloud; how else to convey its contents to an illiterate person? Rather, he is telling her to read it aloud, an instruction only a literate person can follow:


  • “I sent you the treatise which I have lately written, that 'no one can harm the man who does not injure himself,' and the letter which I now send your honor contends for the same position. I beg you therefore to go over it constantly, and if your health permits you, recite it aloud.”
  • (John Chrysostom, Letter to Olympias, Section 4, p. 484 ECF).

Laeta's Daughter

Jerome advises his correspondent Laeta to raise her infant daughter to play with alphabet blocks, advice whose utility is not apparent if, as is claimed, women were not literate:

  • “Get for her a set of letters made of boxwood or of ivory and called each by its proper name. Let her play with these, so that even her play may teach her something. And not only make her grasp the right order of the letters and see that she forms their names into a rhyme, but constantly disarrange their order and put the last letters in the middle and the middle ones at the beginning that she may know them all by sight as well as by sound. Moreover, so soon as she begins to use the style upon the wax, and her hand is still faltering, either guide her soft fingers by laying your hand upon hers, or else have simple copies cut upon a tablet; so that her efforts confined within these limits may keep to the lines traced out for her and not stray outside of these. Offer prizes for good spelling and draw her onwards with little gifts such as children of her age delight in.”
  • (Jerome, Letters, 107.4).

This is good advice, still worth following today. Incidentally, the pagans did not lag behind in giving youngsters playthings intended to impart an appreciation for literacy: ". . .your little Fronto prattles no word more readily or more constantly than this Da (Give). I on my part do my best to supply him with scraps of paper and little tablets, things which I wish him to want." (M. Cornelius Fronto, Correspondence, Volume II, Loeb edition, p. 173).


Fabiola was the first person to found a hospital, according to Jerome: "She was the first person to found a hospital, into which she might gather sufferers out of the streets, and where she might nurse the unfortunate victims of sickness and want." (Jerome, Letter 77.6, to Oceanus). In a broad sense there were medical institutions in pagan antiquity, but their mission was somewhat different from the modern hospital. The sufferer who spent the night in the temple of Asculapius hoped that the god would visit him in a dream and reveal the cure to him. This is not exactly how they do it nowadays! She was evidently literate, otherwise Jerome's narrative about unrolling the scroll is somewhat beside the point. Why not say, 'The man who was reading the book out loud came to the passage. . .'?:

  • “Blessed Jesus, what zeal, what earnestness she bestowed upon the sacred volumes! In her eagerness to satisfy what was a veritable  craving she would run through Prophets, Gospels, and Psalms: she would suggest questions and treasure up the answers in the desk of her own bosom. And yet this eagerness to hear did not bring with it any feeling of satiety: increasing her knowledge she also increased her sorrow, and by casting oil upon the flame she did but supply fuel for a still more burning zeal. One day we had before us the book of Numbers written by Moses, and she modestly questioned me as to the meaning of the great mass of names there to be found. . .I replied as best I could and tried to satisfy her inquiries. Then unrolling the book still farther she came to the passage in which is given the list of all the halting-places by which the people after leaving Egypt made its way to the waters of Jordan.”
  • (Jerome, Letter 77.7, to Oceanus).


The fifth century also offers the learned and accomplished authoress, Eudocia:

"One of the most influential persons during the reign of Theodosius was his sister, Pulcheria. It was she who arranged the marriage of Theodosius and Athenais (later baptized Eudocia), the daughter of an Athenian philosopher and a woman of high cultural attainment and some literary genius. Eudocia wrote a number of works, treating chiefly of religious topics, but reflecting also some contemporary political events." (History of the Byzantine Empire, 324 to 1453, Alexander Vasiliev, Kindle location 1096).


Jerome advised Demetrias, a Roman noblewoman embarking upon a religious life, to devote herself to her studies: "Love to occupy your mind with the reading of scripture." (Jerome, Letters, Letter CXXX, Chapter 7).

"In addition to the rule of psalmody and prayer which you must always observe at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, at evening, at midnight, and at dawn, you should determine how much time you will bind yourself to give to the learning and reading of scripture, aiming to please and instruct the soul rather than to lay a burthen upon it." (Jerome, Letters, Letter CXXX, Chapter 15, p. 598, ECF_2_06).


Ambrose, the fourth century bishop of Milan, had an elder sister named Marcellina. In his funeral oration for his deceased brother Satyrus, he says of her that she knows the scriptures better than those who are trying to comfort her,

"For though she often breaks off her weeping by speech, she renews it in prayer; and although in her knowledge of her Scriptures she excels those who bring consolation, she makes up for her desire of weeping by the constancy of her prayers, renewing the abundance of her tears then chiefly, when no one can interrupt her." (Ambrose, On the Decease of His Brother Satyrus, Book 1, Section 76).

Of Marcellina, he says, "your sleep is on your book." (Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book 3, Chapter 4, Section 15).


Eustochium is Paula's daughter. The instruction Jerome gave to Demetrias is the same as he had given to Eustochium years before: "Read often, learn all that you can. Let sleep overcome you, the roll still in your hands; when your head falls, let it be on the sacred page." (Jerome, Letters, Letter 22, To Eustochium, Chapter 17, p. 121, ECF_2_06). What, she is expected to fall asleep at Kinko's? It should be apparent, that if reading scripture is one of the principal occupations of ladies devoted to the religious life, they must have been literate.

The Latin Vulgate


We close the book on the classical world with the linguistically gifted Paula:

"The holy scriptures she knew by heart, and said of the history contained in them that it was the foundation of the truth; but, though she loved even this, she still preferred to seek for the underlying spiritual meaning and made this the keystone of the spiritual building raised within her soul. She asked leave that she and her daughter might read over the old and new testaments under my guidance...I will mention here another fact which to those who are envious may well seem incredible. While I myself beginning as a young man have with much toil and effort partially acquired the Hebrew tongue and study it now unceasingly lest if I leave it, it also may leave me; Paula, on making up her mind that she too would learn it, succeeded so well that she could chant the psalms in Hebrew and could speak the language without a trace of the pronunciation peculiar to Latin. The same accomplishment can be seen to this day in her daughter Eustochium..." (Jerome, Letters, Letter 108).

With Paula, one of the translators of the Vulgate, we come full circle. In Roman legend, Carmenta, Evander's mother, is said to have devised the letters of the Latin alphabet; her daughters used her invention cleverly.

Bible Versions

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the Conversion of Paula by Saint Jerome

Were these literate Christian women remarkable in their society? How common was women's literacy in the ancient world?:

Women's Literacy
Cleobuline Sappho
Phaedra Daphne
Pindar's Relative Hestiaea
Agallis Arete
Hedyle Among the Scythians
Eurydice Aspasia
Pythagoras' Mother Leontion
Telesilla Megisto
Polycrite Corinna
Praxilla Lovers' Leap
Anyte Kratesiklea
Sophonis Timoxena
Love-Letters Philenium
Hortensia Virginia
Attica Caecilius's Girlfriend
Neaera Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi
Sulpicia Heroides
Cleopatra Perilla
Thisbe Caenis
Persinna Sempronia
Cornelia, Pompey's wife Pompeia
Fulvia Apicata
Caligula's Sisters Detractors
Cydippe Calpurnia
Fundanus' Daughter Verania
Saturninus' Wife Marcia
Callirhoe Manto
Leucippe Melite
Rectina Baker's Wife
On the Wall Aurelia
Midwives Domitia Lucilla
Zenobia Vivia Perpetua
Domitia Sosipatra
Julia Domna Hypatia
Chrysanthius' Melite Bassula

Followers of the 'Jesus' Seminar are familiar with 'Bible Contradictions.' Do they amount to much?

I Thirst Timothy the Gentile
Faith vs. Works Love Your Enemies
Paul the Maverick Seeing God
Realized Eschatology He Hanged Himself
Uncorroborated False Witness
Atonement Head Covering
Men and Angels From Everlasting
Preach the Faith Bishops and Deacons
Cock Crow Wrong Day
Two Genealogies Editor's Choice
Sermon on the Mount. . .or Plain The Twelve
With You

In addition to 'Bible Contradictions,' the atheists offer other Bible head-scratchers, like who was Cain's wife:

Bible Difficulties