Geoffrey Kirk weighs up the evidence for the existence of women Apostles in the early Church
There are, of course, apostles and Apostles. The Twelve whom Jesus chose (after a night in prayer to the Father, as Luke tells us), and whom at their calling he named ‘Apostles’, are a case to themselves. Linked with them are Paul (who sets out his own case for an individual calling at Galatians 1.2) and perhaps Barnabas from his commissioning at Acts 13.2-3.
Other uses of the term are less prescriptive: so Augustine is sometimes referred to as ‘apostle to the English’, Boniface as ‘apostle to the Germans’, and Francis Xavier as ‘apostle to Japan’.
Mary Magdalen, it has been claimed (on no less an authority than that of John Chrysostom) is ‘apostle to the Apostles’; that is to say, she took a message about the resurrection from the Lord to the Twelve. But the issue is by no means so simple. The story turns, not on Mary’s identity with the Twelve, but on the ironic point that she is not one of them.
In Jewish tradition, a lone woman could not be a witness in a court of law, which required three male witnesses. She who cannot witness is made to do so to those who are called to be witnesses. The point – part of the paradoxical theme of seeing,
touching and believing with which John ends his Gospel – is lost if Mary is simply counted as an Apostle like all the rest. Junia/s at Roman 16.7 is nowadays commonly said to be an Apostle. But again matters are by no means as clear as many would have them be. Even granted, which is itself open to doubt, that the companion of Andronicus is a woman (his wife, sister, mother?), there remains the matter of the meaning of the phrase which follows. Should it be translated as ‘well known to the Apostles’ or ‘well known as apostles’? (‘those outstanding apostles…my compatriots’ [Jerusalem
I version]). If the latter, what status is being accorded to Andronicus and Junia/s? Are they apostles or Apostles?
The only claim commonly made for a female bishop in the early church is Theodora, mother of Pope Pascal I (817-24). Her mosaic image in the baptistery of St Prassede in Rome is inscribed “Theodora Episcopal If, improbable as it seems, this is taken to mean that Theodora (about whom we know little) was not merely the mother of the bishop, but a bishop in her own right, it raises the question of what she was bishop of. What See did she occupy, and in whose succession did she stand? Until that information is forthcoming it seems wiser to adhere to the first interpretation rather than the second.
Some have also advanced the claims of a ‘Pope Joan’. But the only relevance of this medieval tale of cross-dressing and sexual prurience to the cause of female ‘Apostles’, and so of women bishops, is that it shows the paucity of real evidence and the desperation of those who are seeking it.
The truth is that we have no evidence whatever of female Apostles (Jesus chose only men, the Twelve and Paul; the Holy Spirit singled out Paul and Barnabas), and we have no incontrovertible evidence of women among their contemporaries or successors. The earliest authorities, after the Pastoral Epistles, all assert the maleness of the succession and ascribe a female priesthood only to pagans and heretics.
It is in the writings of the Gnostics and Montanists, where they have survived, that advocates of women bishops have had their richest pickings; though even that, in truth, has amounted to little.
More recently, the poverty of evidence has been attributed not to its absence but to a ‘male conspiracy’ to deny or eradicate it. Such a theory, of course, is difficult to refute, since it is dependent to a large extent on an assessment of psychological probabilities: ‘they would do that, wouldn’t they?’ But such a topsy-turvy approach – assuming the existence of something for which there is no evidence, and then developing a theory about the cause of its absence – surely belongs more to the world of Dan Brown than that of sober historical scholarship.