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Mary: High Priest and Bishop

In this post 5 of 7, we discuss Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a high priest and bishop, and look at a second-century conflict over gender roles in the church. We'll focus on chapter 4 of Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership by Dr. Ally Kateusz.

In post 1 of 7, I introduce Mary as more than a Mother of Jesus.

In post 2 of 7, I review how ancient art preserves the memory of Mary as a liturgical leader and other women participating in worship leadership, swinging censers during Eucharist or memorial services.

In post 3 of 7, we look at how the markers of Mary's liturgical leadership have been redacted from ancient manuscripts.

In post 4 of 7, we saw that in the first century, those who did not agree with female leadership accused those with both male and female priests of orgies, adultery, and eating human blood at Eucharist. Those who supported gender equality in leadership responded with warnings of hell for those who lied and blasphemed against church clergy. We examined four women described as apostles, preachers, and baptizers: Marimane, Irene, Nino, Thecla. Ally Kateusz reveals how these manuscripts show the women lifted their hands and their voices to pray, speak, cast out demons, and baptize people. The records show they taught men as well as women and the same roles of authority over communities including men and women. The narratives show that Timothy baptized Irene of Macedonia and she converted 130,000 people and appeared to baptize people as a bishop or overseer. Paul apparently commissioned Thecla to go out as an apostle to teach the word of God.



Descriptions of Mary and other early Christian women leaders are in manuscripts that are not in the canon of today's Bible, yet are credible ancient historical documents. Many in the early church referred to these manuscripts as sacred, translated and distributed them. To dismiss non-canonical manuscripts because the church did not include them in the canon of the Bible is to ignore that the church may have dismissed them for the very reason that they portray women as priests.

Most scholars agree that Paul did not author the letters to Timothy, but disagree on whether these letters reflect Paul's ministry and practices. Whether Timothy is written by Paul or a false Paul, we honour the letter as part of the canon of the Bible. I write a separate post about how we might understand 1 Timothy in context to support women as equals. This letter may not be restricting women at all. The letter of 1 Timothy could in fact be understood as advice for private households, encouragement for women to learn doctrine, and no gender specifications regarding the leadership of worship services. This understanding puts 1 Timothy in harmony with Paul and Timothy's practices (in Acts and Romans) of honouring women apostles, co-workers, and house church leaders.


Early Conflict Over Gender Roles in the Church

Kateusz states that the letter of 1 Timothy may be part of the bitter conflicts between Christian communities in the first century. It appears to authorize only men to lift their hands and voices to pray, while women should learn in silence and not teach or have authority. The author of 1 Timothy apparently contradicts the women in ministry and the idea that Paul and Timothy authorized women in ministry:

  • the author of 1 Timothy wanted to contradict the idea that Paul or Timothy authorized women leaders. The author seems to contradict the story that Timothy appointed woman leaders such as Irene of Macedonia, or that Paul appointed woman leaders such as Thecla. In fact, later manuscripts had, somewhat inconsistently, either redacted or altered the part where Timothy authorized Irene to teach and baptize men and women or to establish and oversee church communities in Macedonia.

  • the author opposed the way women such as Mariamne, Irene, Nino, and Thecla led men and women in prayer and teaching. They do not fit the descriptions of silent and submissive females and male leaders in 1 Timothy.

Kateusz discusses how the author of 1 Timothy apparently contradicts the Six Books Dormition narrative of the mother of Jesus. This is an ancient manuscript describing what Mary did after Jesus rose from the dead, and how she passed from earth to heaven. In the Six Books, Mary lifted their hands to pray and bless others, to work miracles, to teach both men and women. to authorize and supervise evangelists. Mary takes the posture of a priest or liturgical leader when she lifts her hands and blesses people. The Bible describes high priests raising their hands and blessing people (Lev. 9:22, Deut. 10:8). Jesus lifted his hands and blessed people (Luke 24:50). In a scene just before Mary passes away, the male apostles return from their mission journeys. Mary lifts her hands and leads them in prayer praising God, and they prostrate themselves. The apocryphal book of Sirach describes high priests raising their hands, praising God, and then people prostrating themselves.

Kateusz notes later copies of the same manuscripts omit that Mary raised her hands. Raising her hands is taking the posture of a priest, or of one who is officiating over Holy Communion. Some manuscripts have Peter in place of Mary leading in prayer praising God. The narrative then shows the apostles arrive to see Mary and Peter raises his arms and prays. In another manuscript, the Gaelic Dormition, the original text has both Peter and Mary asking Jesus questions, and in the later, redacted manuscript, Peter asks both of the questions. Mary is effectively silenced in line with the author of 1 Timothy.

In the same way, narratives that originally say Thecla converted and baptized people were amended to say that Thecla asked a male priest to baptize people she had taught and converted. Similarly, the Acts of Philip gospel was revised to replace Mariamne with Peter, eliminating her authoritative position. Even when manuscripts are amended, art is better able to preserve the thinking of past eras.

Mary as a High Priest, Bishop, and Eucharist Officiant

Mary leading the apostles after Jesus ascends

Carvings, mosaics, frescoes, and paintings portray Mary pictured as a high priest or bishop, raising her arms and acting as a prayer leader of male apostles. We regularly ask our ministers and priests for prayers of intercession, asking God to bless and help others.

Fig. 4.1 is an illustration from 586 AD that shows Mary larger, in a dominant position and posture. She wears a blue maphorion (a head covering for noblewomen and holy women). There's an angel on each side of her, and Jesus is above, ready to receive her into heaven. On her right is Peter, shown with keys and thick bangs. On her left is Paul, described as bald in the Acts of Paul and Thecla.

Mary called a minister of the temple

The oldest art that links Mary to the Temple in Jerusalem is a fourth-century carving, preserved perhaps because it was in an underground crypt in the Basilica de Santa María Magdalena in France. The sculptor carved the title 'Virgin Mary, Minister of the Jerusalem Temple.' The apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew, and Gospel of James (Protoevangelium of James), described Mary at the Altar of the Jerusalem Temple and inside its Holy of Holies. Her posture is that of a priest: raising her arms to bless people, lead in prayer and praise God.

Mary leading Paul and Peter in worship under Christ

The portrayal of Mary as a bishop was widespread when Popes of the seventh century commissioned the mosaic at the Lateran Baptistery Chapel in Rome. The mosaic is above the altar, placing Mary in the location of the Eucharistic leader of sixteen men. The close-up shows Mary with raised arms, wearing red shoes and an episcopal pallium. Red shoes are still worn today by the Pope (the Roman Bishop). The episcopal pallium is a liturgical vestment a narrow band looped around her neck with one long end hanging down; it is only worn by bishops and archbishops. Christ is pictured above Mary and blessing her. While other ancient art is displayed for tourists, this mosaic is intentionally hidden by a huge altarpiece with a painting of a quiet, unassuming Mary holding her baby.

As the church often commissioned art, it also regulated art so that it reflected the views and doctrines of the church. After the fourth century, the halo on Jesus was always divided into three to represent the Trinity. Kateusz states that in 1916 the Holy Office forbade depictions of Mary dressed in priestly vestments.

Mary leading apostles to worship Christ

Early art not only showed Mary as a priest or bishop but also as a Eucharist Officiant. Art indicates a Christian minister officiating at Holy Communion with arms raised, wearing an episcopal pallium and holding a Eucharistic cloth called the maniple. The officiant would use this cloth to touch the chalice holding wine and the plate of bread. The maniple is a narrow white cloth, often with fringes and embroidered with thin red stripes. Only a person with liturgical authority would hold it, keeping it tucked in their waistband until needed to serve Communion. Kateusz provides this photo of a sixth-century altar mosaic in Livadia, Cyprus, showing Mary wearing the blue maphorion and red shoes. Hanging from her belt is the Eucharistic cloth or maniple with two thin red stripes, indicating that she officiates at Holy Communion. A layer of plaster covered this mosaic for several centuries.

Ancient art has preserved the memory of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a high priest, a bishop and a Eucharist officiant, and a model for women clergy. Other mosaics and carvings portray other women holding the Eucharistic cloth, carrying the open gospel book and wearing the red shoes of a bishop. The church later restricted these symbols of liturgical power and authority to men only. They condemned portrayals of Mary as idolatrous, making her a goddess or object of worship and attempted to hide or destroy such portrayals in art and manuscripts. However, Mary was portrayed not as a god but as a high priest or bishop, wearing the Eucharistic cloth and red shoes, raising her hands to lead in prayer and bless people, similar to portrayals of the church forefathers.

Read post 6 of 7 on how Mother and Son were paired and records of Mary's life after the resurrection.

Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, by Dr. Ally Kateusz. It is 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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