Mark Stevens takes a look at the so-called biblical proofs for women apostles and wonders how to respond to them without dignifying them with a value they do not possess
As proponents of the ordination of women as priests and bishops come more and more to rely on what can only be described as exegetical and historical speculation – about the possibility of female apostles (‘Junia’ and Mary Magdalen), female concelebrants (as in the ‘Catacomb of Priscilla’), and even a woman Pope (the egregious ‘Joan’) – a problem acutely presents itself to opponents. How is one to dispose of these ‘arguments’ without conferring on them a dignity they do not merit?
It should be possible simply to allow the paucity of actual facts to speak for itself. Despite the heroic efforts of Eldon Jay Epp (Junia: Te first Woman Apostle, Fortress Press, 2005) and the imaginative flights of fancy of Richard Bauckham (Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels, T. & T. Clark, 2002), there is not much of substance to say about the matter. There has obviously been legitimate dispute about the gender of ‘Iounian’, and it is certainly the case that many ancient authorities suppose the person in question to have been female. But all that is hardly to the point.
Not much material
Let us suppose that the matter could be settled beyond dispute and that she was a girl. There would still be the matter of context. Was Junia ‘well known to the apostles’ or ‘well known among the apostles’ [i.e. ‘as an apostle’]? The Greek is capable of either interpretation. The evidence of modern textual studies seems to support the former – though John Chrysostom certainly favoured the latter. Grant then that Chrysostom got it right, and that there can be no appeal against his decisive authority. There is still, surely, the somewhat ambiguous meaning of the term ‘apostle’.
The narrow meaning – the ‘Twelve-plus-PauF, which has been primary throughout Christian history – is clearly not applicable either to Junia or Andronicus. But other usages might be. Barnabas, for example, is an ‘apostle by extension’ through association with the missionary work of Paul. And that usage has an honourable history. In the same way Boniface has been called the ‘apostle of the Germans’ and Augustine (or sometimes Gregory) the ‘apostle of the English.
Though I admit that examples do not readily spring to mind, one can see no reason why women should be excluded from such a wider definition. In that sense, it seems more than likely that the ubiquitous Priscilla (with or without her husband) must have accounted herself the apostle of somewhere! But even supposing such a usage to have been already current in Paul’s day, it would in no way impinge on the twelveness and the maleness of the ‘core’ apostles, whose symbolic role required, Luke tells us, the appointment of Matthias from an all-male shortlist.
You can make a case for Junia the Apostle (though pace Epp, not as the ‘First Woman Apostle’ – unless you are deliberately seeking to queer the pitch of the enthusiasts of the Magdalen). But the case is of minimal use as an argument for women bishops. To argue in the simplistic way of many, that Junia was an apostle so women ought to be bishops (quod erat demonstrandum, as they used to say) is on the comic side of the absurd.
Bishop of Durham
The case with Mary Magdalen (the subject of Tom Wright’s flippant intervention at the July Synod) is no better. The literature on the Magdalen is bewildering in its complexity. If you want to gain a quick overview of the company the Bishop of Durham has chosen to keep, visit
The facts about the Magdalen (and they are few) were set out in New Directions of April 2006. I can add nothing more because there is nothing more to add. Except perhaps this: that there has been a long tradition of romantic fantasy surrounding female figures both in the Bible and in the wider canon of literature. This intensified with the growth of female emancipation in the nineteenth century. It has always trodden a tangled path between fiction and scholarship.
Mary Cowden Clark (wife of Charles Cowden Clark, with whom she edited the Concordance to Shakespeare and other works) sought to provide role models which would liberate young women, and to deal with matters (domestic violence, sexual repression and the like) which were not commonly discussed in her day. She did so by ‘extending’ the Shakespeare canon (who could be more respectable than the Bard of Avon?) in a series of tales about Te Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines . Clark was exploiting for a moral and social purpose the genre confusion to which readers of fiction often succumb – that their favourite characters have a life of their own apart from the works in which they appear.
It was, if you like, an equal and opposite exercise to that of the famous Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 had published the Family Shakespeare with the clear intention of excluding the very things (sexuality and personal trauma) which Clark was hoping to expand on. Both approaches are represented in the modern feminist spectrum where, somewhat strangely, they are complementary rather than contradictory. In order to render the Bible amenable, it has to be both expurgated and ‘expanded’. In order to refine perception of the general ‘trajectory’ the awkward bits have to be cut out.
Making it up
Such a genre error is fatal to real scholarship. The characters in a narrative exist (despite our longings to the contrary) only in the literary context which their authors have provided for them. Even Shakespeare himself was unable to transpose Falstaff from Henry IV, Part II to Te Merry Wives of Windsor A character, despite the illusion, is only a function of the story of which he or she is a part. To give that character a life or significance beyond the story is to rewrite the original to serve one’s own purposes. Those purposes may or may not be moral, sound and good; but whichever, they emphatically do not conduce to the exegesis of the text.
The Bishop of Durham may want women to be bishops; he may be convinced that in a world which is godly, just and right that women ought to be bishops. But he cannot make of Mary of Magdala, whose role in each of the gospels is both circumscribed and different, a character who has a life and significance outside them. Tom Wright made fun of Dan Brown in his Synod intervention. He did so only because he is acutely aware of how close his own position is to that of Brown.
Not worth a response
But to return to the problem: how to dispose of these arguments without dignifying them further by our response?
That is, I believe, a question to which there is no answer; for the simple reason that these are not arguments. No reasonable person (and few downright foolish ones) would base a change in the orders of the universal church on the evidence which these cases and others like them provide – unless she had what seemed to her other compelling reasons for doing so.
That the proponents of these innovations have reasons extraneous to Scripture which compel them (as they think) to act and to act decisively cannot now be doubted. The nature of the biblical arguments they do employ, moreover, show them, quite simply, to be confused about the role and authority of Scripture itself. I am put in mind of the Vice-Presidential candidate in the United States who proclaimed from the hustings: As Jesus Christ has said – and quite rightly in my opinion…’ ND
A tale within a tale
From Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines
A story as told to Ophelia when a young girl by Jutha her foster-sister:
The young girl told her the legend as she heard it. She told her that when He who had pity in his heart for the veriest wretch that crawls, for the dying thief, for the erring sinner, even for her whose sins were many, when He who taught divine pity and charity above all things, walked the earth in human shape, and suffered human privation in the plenitude of His merciful sympathy with poor humanity, it once upon a time befell, that He hungered by the way, and seeing a shop where bread was baking, entered beneath the roof, and asked for some to eat.
The mistress of the shop was about to put a piece of dough in the oven to bake; but her daughter, pitiless of heart, declaring that the piece was too large, reduced it to a mere morsel. This was no sooner done, than the dough began to swell and increase, until, in amaze at its miraculously growing size, the baker’s daughter screamed out, like an owlet, ‘Whoohoo-hoo-hoo!’
Then He who had craved food, held forth his hand; and, in the place where she who lacked charity had stood screaming, there was a void; but against the window, beating its wings, hooting and struggling to get out, was a huge mealy-feathered owl. It forced a way through, took fight, and was seen no more; excepting when some night-wanderer descries the ill-omened bird skulking in the twilight wood, or obscure grove; and then he murmurs a prayer, to be delivered from the sin of uncharitableness, as he thinks of the transformed baker’s daughter.