- Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership by Ally Kateusz
In her compelling book, Mary and Early Christian Women, Ally Kateusz presents a multidisciplinary analysis of literary texts, church art, and church correspondence to show that women religious leaders preached, baptized, led communities, and served Eucharist in the early Christian church. She supports her literary and iconographic claims with official church commissions, directives, and commentaries, sometimes made by popes. She also shows how Mary, the mother of Jesus, was initially remembered and honored as a dynamic religious leader. Her thesis is that Mary’s recharacterization as submissive and demure as well as the absence of women religious leaders in later church text and art was the result of intentional church efforts after the sixth century to constrain women’s religious leadership and to create a “false imagination about the past.”
Kateusz’s work on a discipleship of equals builds upon that of Harvard professor Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and she adds new discoveries and current scholarship to the conversation. Kateusz points out that today’s leading scholars are nearly unanimous in their belief that firstand second-century followers of Jesus gathered in small meal groups with rotating, informal leaders, and she presents historical proof that some of these Jesus groups had female leaders. It is interesting to learn that a fourth-century Christian community justifies women’s religious leadership with Galatians 3:28, the same scripture passage often cited by Christian communities today. She includes a quote from a text written by Bishop Epihaneus of Salamis (ca. 310–403 C.E.): “They have women bishops, presbyters and the rest; they say that none of this makes any difference because ‘In Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female.’” She also provides iconographic evidence of women and men officiating at the altar from the beginning of the Christian era. [End Page 107]
The same fourth-century bishop also complained that a large geographic region of Eastern Christianity was breaking bread to the name of Mary. Kateusz frames these practices in the larger context of how Mary, the mother of Jesus, was remembered and honored in text and art. The Life of the Virgin is a biography of Mary’s life, and this narrative sheds light on how women participated in the ministry of Jesus. While the Gospel of Mark only depicts male disciples with Jesus as he heals Peter’s mother-in-law, the author of The Life of the Virgin remembers female disciples being there: “When the Lord entered Peter’s house and healed his mother-in-law, who was confined because of a fever, his all-holy and blessed mother, the Virgin Mary, was with him as well as the women who were disciples of the Lord.” In this text, women baptize and are present at the Last Supper. There is also gender parity of religious leadership. “She was always inseparable from the Lord and king her son, and as the Lord had authority over the twelve apostles and then the seventy, so the holy mother had over other women who accompanied him.” Significantly, after Jesus dies, in this account Mary teaches both male and female apostles and sends them forth to evangelize.
So, how can it be that so few canonical textual references show this discipleship of equals occurring in the early church? Kateusz documents how scribes participated in erasure of evidence by destroying texts as well as obscuring evidence through translation. Examples include Chapter 18 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, where the apostle Junia’s name was changed to Junius in certain translations. Excising female authority while male authority was left intact was also accomplished when words for male and female disciples were translated as male disciples and women.
Narratives about women were also redacted, including multiple versions of the “Dormition of Mary,” about the death and ascension of Mary. The longest and most complete manuscript describes her as a liturgical leader who preaches the gospel, leads prayers, heals with her hands, exorcises, baptizes, and gives female evangelists books and writings to...