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Art Preserves Mary as Liturgical Leader

When Mary of Nazareth was a teenager, God called her to give birth to Jesus. Did God call her to do more? When she was middle-aged, did God give her new tasks?

This post is part 2 of 7, where we see Mary as a foundational church leader and speaker.

In part 1 of 7, I introduced Mary as more than a Mother.

book cover
book cover

After accepting God's call to give birth to Jesus, Mary encouraged Jesus to perform public miracles and followed him as a disciple all the way to the cross. After he rose, Mary was with the apostles after Jesus's ascension (Acts 1:9-14) and when the Holy Spirit came on all believers (Acts 2:1). Jesus equates anyone who follows him is his mother, brother, or sister (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:33-35, Luke 8:19-21). Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold suggests that God called Mary not only to give birth to Jesus, but with more than being a mother. After giving birth, Mary had more gifts to give in God's service.

The Bible does not show what Mary did after Jesus's resurrection. However, extra-canonical records portray her as a leader in the early Jesus movement. In Chapter 1 of Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, Dr. Ally Kateusz provides background and perspectives on the importance of Mary and other women in early Christian leadership. Kateusz shows that art is more preservative than manuscripts, and art portrays Mary the Mother of Jesus as a priestly leader.



This series is intended to reveal historic records of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a leader in the early church. It is nothing to do with making her Holy or divine or placing her at the level of Jesus. It is to restore her to the same level as male priests and leaders of the early church. Non-canonical manuscripts are respected as ancient historical documents; they are in no way trusted at the level of the canon of the Bible.


The Virgin Mary is often seen as an ideal of obedience, submissiveness and self-sacrifice. Not only is this ideal potentially harmful in teaching women to accept abuse, but it is also quite far from the way Jesus's mother is described by early Christians.

Ally Kateusz presents patterns of female and male leaders with equivalent authority as liturgical leaders in the early Jesus movement. Mary the mother of Jesus and other women were apostles, prophets and preachers. They evangelized, healed, exorcized demons, baptized, led prayers and presided over the communion table.

In Bible times, as today, Judaism had multiple philosophies regarding women; in some women may be rabbis and in others, they may not be permitted. Therapeutae Jews had a gender-parallel meal ritual with a female leader representing Miriam and a male leader representing her brother Moses. Stone memorials name women as 'head of the synagogue', 'elder', and 'priestess'.

In the Bible, Luke and John show that a Jewish woman could be both a mother and a priestly leader. As Abraham was a founder of Israel, Mary may be seen as a founding figure in the church. Luke and John use priestly symbols to present Mary as a 'New Abraham':

- angels announced Mary would miraculously conceive a child, as for Abraham and Sarah

- Mary's son carried the wood for his own sacrifice, as Isaac did

- Mary stood on the Golgotha hill as Abraham stood on Mount Moriah

Maria as a church leader in 4th century art

Ancient art portrays of Mary with arms raised, with a direct gaze, acting as a liturgical leader. Art preserves Mary as a liturgical leader even when manuscripts omit or redact these records.

By the 1500s, Mary is portrayed as silent and submissive, reflecting the cultural ideal for women and reinforcing how women should behave.

When a woman is portrayed standing with arms raised and a direct gaze it shows her in a more powerful posture than when portrayed kneeling with hands folded

and gaze lowered. Ally Kateusz looks at how iconography or images represent power structures and social control over what we understand as the ideal behaviour and attitude of a woman. The more submissive posture was rarely in art during the first millennium.

Maria as silent and submissive in 16th century art

Extracanonical gospels are not included in today's Bible but many Jesus followers in the fourth century referred to these gospels, treated them as sacred, translated and distributed them. These ancient extracanonical texts portray Mary as a priest and a founding figure in the church.

For example, the second-century Protevangelium of James specifies that Mary entered the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple, a place reserved for high priests. The Gospel of Bartholomew describes Mary with the bread and wine at the Temple altar and standing in front of the male apostles as their liturgical leader, leading them in prayer. The men, including Peter, acknowledged that God made Mary his Temple, living in her womb, restoring the dignity of women, and giving her the right to lead them in prayer. A third-century archbishop of Antioch, Demetrius, wrote that through Mary all women acquire freedom of speech with the Lord.

The Old Syriac under script of a Palimpsest from the fifth century describes Mary not as "pure" but as a liturgical leader, offering the censer of incense to God. She preached, led prayers, healed, exorcized demons, baptized believers, sent out evangelists, and wrote letters. Baptism is referred to as a 'seal' and the Palimpsest text says Mary took water and sealed new believers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These descriptions of Mary are far more frequent in early records than descriptions of purity or virginity.

Kateusz discusses how what we think we know about the past can affect what is actually there. Our perceptions of Mary as silent and submissive make it difficult for us to perceive her as a leader and central figure in the establishment of the early church. After the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism made a structural change from patriline to matriline; in other words, after Mary gave birth to Jesus, who had no earthly father, a child is born a Jew only if its mother was a Jew. In the fourth century, Epiphanius wrote that he “who dishonours the holy vessel [Mary] also dishonours his Master.”

However, many Protestant Reformers thought devotion to Mary was excessive and replaced proper devotion and honour to Jesus. Collyridianism was an early heretical movement that worshipped Mary, the mother of Jesus as a goddess. In rejecting Mary as a goddess, we have rejected her as a priestly leader. After Vatican II in 1965, the Roman Catholic church demoted Mary, replaced many liturgies that featured Mary and moved statues of Mary to less conspicuous places.

This book is not about making Mary into any kind of god, but about restoring her historically accurate position as an apostle, priest, and bishop, giving her the same honour we give to male apostles, priests, and bishops. According to Dr. Ally Kateusz, we have created a false imagination of Mary as a silent and submissive woman or as the virgin mother of Jesus. We have hidden past records of Mary as a liturgical leader and central figure in the establishment of the early church.

Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership by Dr. Ally Kateusz. It is available free, Licensed under Creative Commons Open Access

Also available on GoogleBooks

Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:

  • Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, Book 1

  • The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role

  • Because She Was Called: from Broken to Bold, Book 2, A Novel of the Early Church, imagines Mary Magdalene's trip to testify before the emperor


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