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4 More Woman Liturgical Leaders and Apostles

Having looked at Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a liturgical leader in ancient art and manuscripts, in this post 4 of 7, we look at four more women apostles, preachers, and baptizers. In the Bible, we see Junia as an apostle and other women as church leaders. This post discusses other women apostles and church leaders examined in chapter 3 of Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership by Dr. Ally Kateusz.

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

In post 2 of 7, I review Dr Ally Kateusz's discussion on how ancient art preserves the memory of Mary and other women as liturgical leaders.

In post 3 of 7, we look at non-canonical records describing Mary the mother of Jesus as a liturgical leader and how manuscripts were shortened and markers of Mary's liturgical leadership were redacted. Relying on shortened or redacted manuscripts about women has distorted our understanding of how women were active in the early church. Long narratives of women have been dismissed as non-canonical gospels. These manuscripts are not included in the canon of the Bible but are credible ancient historical documents that were translated and widely distributed, giving us a picture of the early church. Sometimes the very fact that these gospels described women in leadership roles was the reason they were dismissed and excluded from the Bible.

Today we will look at long biographies of four women who were early leaders in spreading the Jesus movement and did the same activities as the male apostles. Mariamne, Irene of Macedonia, Nino of Iberia and Thecla are each described as:

  • apostles

  • preaching

  • performing signs such as healing, exorcising demons

  • baptizing (sealing, washing) men and women

Epiphanius recorded that the Jesus movement ordained women bishops, priests, and presbyters (elder/minister). There were bitter conflicts between communities that had male and female priests and other officers and those that did not. Those who disagreed with female clergy slandered female clergy and their communities with accusations and lies about debauchery and adultery, calling women priests prostitutes, mocking the Christian practice of greeting one another with a kiss (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12,1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14). Justin Martyr of Rome said followers of Jesus 'upset the lamp', making it dark so they could have an orgy. When a man and a woman evangelized together, Justin Martyr called the woman a prostitute. Justin Martyr and others accused Christians of eating human flesh, the physical body of Christ, at the Communion table. Opponents of women clergy accused the women of taking blood from a baby to bake the Communion bread. Augustine of Hippo complained that the Jesus movement gave positions of leadership to women, even the honour of being priests.

Conflicts arose between communities that had male and female priests, deacons, and elders and those which did not. Those who did not have female clergy accused the others of 'upsetting the lamp', orgies, adultery, and blood in the Eucharist bread. Those who believed in gender equality in leadership accused others of blasphemy and lies about church clergy.

Apostle Mariamne

Mariamne, Philip's sister, is described in the Acts of Philip as an apostle who preached and baptized people. This manuscript describes Mariamne standing beside Jesus, holding the registrar while the risen Jesus assigned missions, and Jesus sent Mariamne to evangelize and preach with Philip and Bartholomew (also called Nathanael). They preached and baptized people in Phrygia and Lykaonia (Turkey).

The Acts of Philip give strong accounts of Mariamne, a woman apostle, showing that it was very common to have both male and female clergy and that there was bitter conflict about it.

Image of Apostle Irene of Macedonia
Photo of Irene:

Apostle Irene of Macedonia

The eighth-century Old Syriac Gospels tell eleven narratives of women leaders. The second-longest narrative describes Eugenia, who disguised herself as a eunuch and became the abbot of an all-male monastery, teaching, healing, and leading. The longest narrative is about Irene of Macedonia. Timothy baptized her and then she became an evangelist. The shorter narrative from the Life of Saint Irene shows that Irene converted over 10,000 people by travelling, preaching, healing the sick, and working other miracles. The longer narrative in the Old Syriac Gospels says that Irene was an apostle who baptized people, raised her arms, led in prayer, exorcized demons, baptized (sealed) and raised the dead. Later scribes added that Irene asked Timothy to baptize the same people she had already baptized. In the third scene, it says Irene won many to Jesus and then a priest came and baptized the people Irene converted. In the fourth scene, it says 130,000 people believed in God and were baptized by Irene's own hands. Like Paul, Irene had a vision of Christ, who set His seal upon her. The seal of baptism was a reference to a bishop signing a newly baptized person and indicates Irene was a bishop and an overseer.

Apostle Nino of Iberia

Nino was the woman who converted all of ancient Iberia (Georgia) in the early fourth century. While the church pushed her into anonymity, her story was preserved in Georgia in a document called The Conversion of K'art'li. Nino was ordained by the patriarch of Jerusalem, and commissioned to preach and baptize. Where early manuscripts say that Nino baptized with her own hands, some later texts were altered to say she baptized through the hands of Jacob the priest or that a male clergy baptized the people that Nino converted.

Image of Apostle Thecla
Wikimedia Commons,_the_first_martyr.jpg

Apostle Thecla

Much of our knowledge of Thecla comes from the Acts of Paul and Thecla: read it here.

Thecla is part of a wealthy family in Iconium and she hears Paul preach there (Acts 14:1-19). Later, Thecla was with Paul in Antioch of Pisidia, and Myra and Paul told Thecla that Christ chose her to be an apostle, to go out, to teach the word of God (Source: Know your Mothers).

Ally Kateusz examines The Acts of Thecla and the Life of Thecla which are longer narratives that add the detail that Paul told Thecla to baptize or seal new believers. In contrast to those who say these are from the fifth century or later, Kateusz points to indications some of the narratives about Thecla came from before the third century.

The church widely debated the Holy Trinity in the fourth century and after that instructed scribes to add references to it. For example, in 1 John 5:7-8, "...there are three that testify [in heaven, the Father, Word, and Spirit and they are one; and three who testify on earth], the Spirit, water and blood, and the three are in agreement", the section in brackets did not appear before the fourth century.

In addition, where Matthew 28:19 may also have been adjusted to affirm the Trinitarian doctrine. It now reads "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." However, it may have originally read like Mark 16:15-17: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved... In my name they will drive out demons;" Prior to the Council of Nicaea, Eusebius quoted Matthew 28:19 saying Jesus commanded the disciples to "baptize in my name" and only after the Council of Nicaea did Eusebius start saying "baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." The lack of references to the Holy Trinity indicates that narratives about Thecla came from before the third century.

Also, the second-century writer Tertullian knows about the stories of Thecla and complains about them. He criticizes women for preaching, teaching, exorcising demons, healing, baptizing, and officiating at Holy Communion. Tertullian complains that women were using Thecla's example to justify their own leadership roles.

The long narratives of these four woman apostles and their activities demonstrate that many Jesus communities had women and men leaders. The fifth-century Gelasian Decree of Pope Gelasius condemned the Acts of Philip, the Acts of Thecla, and the Dormition narratives as heresy. The church dismisses these texts because they are not in the Bible, yet they are not in the Bible because the church dismissed them. Texts that were not condemned were edited and redacted to bring the text into conformity with the preferred gender norms of the church organization. These shorter, abridged texts, became evidence to lead us to think women were not leaders in the early Christian church. Did we impose cultural beliefs and church orthodoxy onto the manuscripts, omitting the parts that did not fit? It appears so. Dismissing these long texts of women apostles, preachers, and baptizers, leads us to imagine a past without women liturgical leaders and priests.

In post 5 of 7, we will look at Mary as High Priest and Bishop.


Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership by Dr. Ally Kateusz is available at no charge, Licensed under Creative Commons Open Access:

Also available on GoogleBooks

Elaine R 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

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

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