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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

Redacting Records of Mary as a Liturgical Leader

Updated: 15 hours ago

Let us examine historical records of Mary as more than the mother of Jesus. This is post 3 of 7, outlining Chapter 2 of Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership by Dr. Ally Kateusz.

In this chapter, Ally Kateusz provides an analysis of how ancient manuscripts were altered and elements showing Mary's liturgical leadership were redacted or removed. Markers of the leadership and authority of women in the early church are shown in early manuscripts and changed in later manuscripts.

The Bible mentions many women leaders in the early church. The New Testament identifies house churches with women leaders: Chloe, Nympha, Apphia, Priscilla, Lydia, and Mary the mother of John Mark. Paul names many women leaders in Romans 16.

Historical writers also indicate many women leaders in the early Jesus movement. Pliny the Younger, in the second century, questioned women ministers to find out more about their assemblies. Also in the second century, Celsus listed founders of Christian groups and five of the seven were women.

There are long ancient narratives of holy women preaching, teaching, working miracles and baptizing. Scholars have largely dismissed them, based on their rule-of-thumb that the shortest narratives are more reliable and preferred. Kateusz demonstrates that the longest, most detailed narratives about early Christian women leaders are usually the oldest and most reliable.

These longer narratives show women as leaders, and the shorter narratives delete the elements that show women as leaders. The longer records detail who the woman was, what she did, who with, where, and when. They show women working miracles, healing, baptizing, and officiating in worship. Shorter records simply praise a woman as good and holy.

Kateusz quotes studies of ancient New Testament manuscripts that show that scribes omitted portions of the texts more often than they added to them. The church or a bishop may have instructed them to make these alterations and omissions to remove what was objectional, offensive, or did not fit with the orthodoxy of the day. It appears that later scribes may have censored or excised passages that portrayed a woman in a leadership role because that did not agree with the view of the church.

Kateusz provides several examples showing how the oldest manuscripts are the longest. Sometimes scribes shortened a text, especially where it showed a woman performing a liturgical activity such as putting incense on a censer or offering the censor to God. A censor is a container to burn incense, swung by a chain in a religious service. A priest or deacon may swing the censor at the Eucharist or memorials or other services, with the rising smoke representing our prayers rising toward Heaven. In Exodus 30 and Leviticus 16, setting the censer of incense to God was done by the high priest. Offering incense shows higher liturgical authority than leading in prayer.

In the second century, Tertullian wrote that Christians used a lot of incense in their burials. In Mediterranean culture, women had the role of preparing the dead bodies and lamenting in the procession to the tomb, even after churches were built over some of these tombs. Kateusz shows art from the 500s portraying women with censers leading official processions.

In later centuries, liturgical censers were restricted to men, and some of the shortened passages of the Six Books manuscript delete Mary and other women using censers, creating a historical illusion that only male clergy had ever used them.

Kateusz provides an analysis of eight successive narratives of Mary and her liturgical leadership. It starts with the fifth-century Six Books palimpsest, which appears to be the most ancient and most complete surviving manuscript. The narrative elements are parts of the story that show Mary has a liturgical role or authority within the community of believers, teaching them, leading them, giving them writing, healing and exorcizing demons, preaching, and sealing (which means baptizing).

The chart shows how some scribes redacted the narrative, apparently in accordance with what was objectionable to the church authorities. Narrative elements that portray Mary as a liturgical leader or priest are more often shown in the fifth-century palimpsest. In later manuscripts, these elements showing Mary's leadership are more often omitted:

In looking at how manuscripts have changed over the centuries, we may ask why the markers Mary's liturgical leadership and portrayals of women with authority in the early church have been redacted. Did we start with our cultural beliefs and church orthodoxy and impose these onto the manuscripts, omitting the parts that did not fit? It appears so. The shorter, redacted manuscripts have led us to imagine a past without women liturgical leaders and priests. We have hidden past records of Mary as a liturgical leader and central figure in the establishment of the early church. Maybe we were afraid that portraying Mary as a preacher would make her appear divine. Maybe we were afraid that records of Mary as a teacher, speaker, and leader would provide an example or rationale for other women in ministry.

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. Maybe we can replace the false imagination of Mary with the true historical records of Mary as a liturgical leader and churchmother, giving her the same honour we give to male liturgical leaders and churchfathers.

In post 4 of 7, we will look at records of other women apostles: preachers and baptizers.


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

In post 2 of 7, I look at Chapter 1 of the book Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership. In it, Dr Ally Kateusz gives background and discusses how ancient art preserves the memory of Mary as a liturgical leader.

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

Also available on GoogleBooks