Geoffrey Kirk looks at some very implausible assertions

As the campaign for women bishops gets into its stride, some well-loved characters of fiction are predictably reappearing. In a recent WATCH publication Women and Episcopacy, ‘Theodora Episcopa’ is strutting her stuff once more as a tenth-century Penny Jamieson, and Junia the Apostle has re-emerged from the critical apparatus of Nestle-Alland. (Both courtesy of Dr Jane Shaw, chaplain of New College Oxford, you will not be surprised to learn.)

Where, regular readers of this journal will ask, are the concelebrating women priests of the Catacomb of Priscilla? Or the ‘presbyterae’of ninth-century Basilicata? Resting, no doubt, like the old troupers that they are; waiting for the come-back which will most surely come.

Shaw’s article is one of the more entertaining contributions to what must have seemed to Synod members (many of them world-weary observers of campaign theology) a lacklustre collection. Shaw provides, of course, a spirited recitation of familiar tropes.

A summary of her paper appeared some while ago in the Guardian (where else?):

‘I can already hear a vociferous minority saying that the Church is not the world and should not bow to secular pressure, but there is a more compelling reason for ending discrimination against women: it goes against the heart of the Christian message, a message of equality and justice which the Church has too often perverted. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The early churches tried to live this equality in the midst of a hierarchical society. We have biblical evidence that women were apostles and deacons, and other evidence that they were priests and bishops. But by about the third century, this tradition had largely been lost.’ (Guardian, Feb 16 2002)

If this is what Dr Shaw teaches in the University of Oxford (once a renowned seat of religious and useful learning), I hope that she has more evidence for her confident assertions than I have ever read or even heard rumoured.

Let us take the various points in historical order.

Galatians 3:28

This is a reference to the baptismal covenant, and finds its place in the Pauline corpus in the company of two other similar passages (neither of which refer to ‘male and female’ (1 Corinthians 12.13; Colossians 3.11; see also 1 Corinthians 11.11 and Romans 10.12)). The passage which governs the trio is 1 Corinthians12.13ff, which moves seamlessly into the great metaphor of the Body.

(That metaphor, of course, is not original to Paul and has an interesting intellectual life after his use of it. From Cicero to Shakespeare and beyond, it is a metaphor with hierarchical and ‘conservative’ overtones. The metaphor of ‘headship’ (much loved of our Evangelical friends) is, of course, governed by it. Christ is the ‘head of the Body’ because he is its source and origin. It springs from his sacrifice of his Body – just as Eve was confected from a rib of the first Adam. The Church is ‘flesh of his flesh’ because it eats his flesh and drinks his blood. He is, moreover, the antecedent Patriarch of all the sons and daughters of God by Faith (Matthew 3.9; John 8.58). None of this, I have to say, is much help to Dr Shaw, or to Dr Paula Gooder (pp13–15 in the same volume). But I digress.

The metaphor in question lies at the heart of the paradox by which Paul seeks to reconcile the concepts of hierarchy and equality within his Christology and ecclesiology. There is no question of equality meaning equivalence. Paul teases out the implications of this great paradox in other places: the relationship of Jew and Gentile (and so the significance of the saving work of Jesus the Jew) in Romans 9–11; the relationship of slave and master (and thus of Paul to his master, the Lord Jesus) in the letter to Philemon; the relationship of man and woman as husband and wife (and so of the mysterion of Christ and the Church) in Ephesians 5.

Paul is the man who thinks that the purpose of the Gentile mission is the salvation of Jewry and that wives ought to obey their husbands. He is the one who sends a runaway slave back to his master.

Paul did not, because historically he could not, embrace the post-Enlightenment egalitarianism that Dr Shaw finds so compelling. A Shavian-style conversation (in heaven, perhaps?) between Gamaliel’s pupil and Percy Shelley’s wife would certainly be an entertainment. But it could not be expected to end in substantial agreement!

‘Junia’, the ‘apostle’ (Romans 16.7)

It was Andy Warhol who opined that one day everybody would be famous for fifteen minutes. But even he, I suspect, would have been surprised to find that a first-century character of indeterminate sex would one day occupy sixteen column inches of The Times on the sole authority of someone almost as unknown as s/he. But so it was on Saturday July 6 – appropriately close to a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England.

Richard Bauckham (Professor, it appears, of New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews) has apparently ‘discovered’ more about ‘Junia’ than we know about almost any other New Testament figure apart from Jesus and Paul. On no evidence at all, Bauckham claims that ‘Junia’ is the Joanna of Luke 24.10. And that she in her turn was Joanna wife of Chusa, steward to Herod Antipas (Luke 8.3). He goes on to speculate that Joanna changed her name to Junia, and Chusa to Andronicus, that Chusa converted to Christianity and was, with his wife, one of the ‘apostles’ of the Roman Church!

This thesis, more a romantic novel than a piece of serious scholarship, is assailed by three overlapping difficulties.

First, there is the gender of ‘Junian’ Is it the accusative of Junias (a man’s name) or of Junia (a woman’s name)? Or is it a scribal error for ‘Julian’ (same problem!), as some manuscript evidence might indicate? Despite the acceptance of ‘Junia’ by Origen, Jerome, John Chrysostom and John Damascene, the matter must still be regarded as open.

Next, there is the meaning of the phrase often translated as ‘outstanding among the Apostles’. Recent American research suggests that it might more properly be ‘well-known to the Apostles’ (see John Hunwicke, ‘Junia, a Woman Apostle?’, New Directions, March 2001, p8). Again there is legitimate dispute, and no evidence is conclusive. Of course if the second translation is preferred the gender of ‘Junian’ is irrelevant!

Then there is the meaning of ‘A/apostle’. Any glance at a concordance will show that the principal users of this term are Luke and Paul and that they use it differently. Luke restricts it to the Twelve and makes it, in some sense, an ‘office’ or status – hence his account of the choice of Matthias. Paul, for understandable reasons, uses it more loosely. The two uses have had a happy co-existence: the Didache is the ‘Teaching of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles’; Augustine is said to be the ‘apostle of the English’. There is even a phrase the force of which depends on the apposition of the two: Mary of Magdala, who was sent to give the news of the empty tomb to the Twelve, is called ‘apostola Apostolorum’.

It needs to be understood, however, that arguments about the origins of the ‘apostolic ministry’ have exclusively based themselves on the Lucan and Deutero-Johannine ‘restrictive’ use of the term. (see also Revelaton 2.2; and Revelation 21.14).

These considerations apart, what would ‘outstanding among the Apostles’ mean applied to one (Andronicus aka Chusa) who fulfilled none of the criteria set out in Acts 1.21–22 ? More outstanding among the Apostles than whom, one should ask? Of course, again, if we cannot be certain that ‘apostle’ in this context means ‘equivalent with the Twelve’, the gender of ‘Junian’ is irrelevant!

Finally, whatever one says about ‘Junia’ or ‘Junias’ s/he is inexorably linked to Andronicus. He might, of course have been her/his brother – there is no more reason to suppose that the two of them were another Priscilla and Aquila than there is to suppose that Priscilla had any association with the Catacomb in Rome which now bears her name.

The ‘concelebrants’ of the Catacomb of Priscilla

As I have pointed out elsewhere (New Directions, April 2001, ‘A Hidden Tradition?’, pp7ff), the burial ground in question has no connection with that indomitable Pauline spouse, nor is there any evidence at all of ‘concelebration’ at the time in question. The fresco falls into an iconographical pattern familiar to art historians. It is not a representation of a contemporary celebration of the Eucharist.

Theodora Episcopa

Here we move deeper, if possible, into the realm of make-believe. I have dealt with this in extenso on another occasion (New Directions, December 2001). Theodora was indeed the mother of Paschal I, and Paschal undoubtedly commissioned her funerary chapel at St Prassede. Probably he also commissioned the mosaics over the triumphal arch preceding the apse of the same Church. He was lucky to be able to engage some of the foremost Byzantine mosaicists of the day; lucky because the Byzantine Emperor, Leo V, the Armenian, was an iconoclast who had little or no work to give them. They naturally drifted West.

More important, historically, however, than the triumphal arch or the portrait of Theodora (she was, by the by, never interred in the chapel prepared for her) is the decoration of its vault. There, supported by four caryatid angels, is a clipeus of the Christos Pantocrator. Leo and Paschal were at loggerheads in one of the great theological controversies of the age. This was a position statement on the part of the Papacy!

Why then did Leo, whose imperial chancery would have to hand the condemnations of women priests and bishops from Epiphanius onwards (including those Papal denunciations cited by Professor Giorgio Otranto) not lambast his opponent for unorthodoxy not only about images, but also about women clerics?

The answer must surely be that, like the Frau Doktor of many a nineteenth-century German village and like many a presbytera in modern Greece, Theodora proudly wore a title which showed, not personal status, but family relationship. There is no more to the infamous inscription than that!

In a discipline like theology (apart from archaeology, perhaps the only remaining academic field in which ‘primitive’ is a term of approbation), there is obviously an incentive for any campaigning group to get its hands on the past. To attempt to do so, however, without due scholarly caution and without adequate evidence is counter-productive. A hermeneutic of suspicion allied to a penchant for romantic fantasy is just not enough.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.