In my previous post, I discussed the Gospel of Mary and its portrayal as Mary Magdalene as the one to whom Jesus had revealed the secrets of salvation (as part of a gnostic myth) – -much to the consternation of the male disciples, especially Peter and his brother Andrew. Hey, how could he consider a *woman* more important than us men??? It’s an attitude that appears to have run through the family.
It is striking that there was a much wider tradition in early Christianity that said that Mary Magdalene was the *first* apostle, the one who made the other apostles. Now THAT is a view you don’t hear every day.
To explain it I first have to say something about women apostles more broadly in early Christianity, another topic most people don’t think or know much about. Here is how I explain it in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.
The term “apostle” comes from a Greek word that means something like “one who has been sent.” It can refer to anyone who is sent on a mission. In Christian parlance, it is used to refer to those who were specially commissioned and sent by Christ to spread his gospel. The word is sometimes distinguished from the term “disciple,” which means a “follower.” In a technical sense, there were twelve disciples. These were the closest followers of Jesus during his public ministry, the ones (all of them men) he chose to be his inner circle. But in a broader sense, all of the followers of Jesus, men, and women, could be called his disciples.
Who then were the apostles? Normally they are understood to be the closest followers of Jesus after his death, who took his message abroad to convert others to the belief that in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus had performed the act of salvation, making it possible for people now to have a right relationship with God. In other words, the apostles were the first witnesses to Christ, commissioned by him, after his resurrection, to proclaim his gospel.
We usually think of the apostles as men: the eleven remaining disciples (Judas having committed suicide), the one who replaced Judas according to the book of Acts (a man named Matthias), and one or two others like James, Jesus’ earthly brother, and Paul. Early traditions indicate that Jesus appeared to these others after his resurrection, to commission them as missionaries and leaders of the church. What most people don’t realize is that in the early days of the church, there were also women apostles.
There really shouldn’t be any dispute about this matter, since the apostle Paul himself mentions a woman apostle by name in the letter he wrote to the Christians of Rome. At the end of his letter, Paul sends greetings to various members of the congregation whom he happens to know (even though he has never visited Rome: he must have met these people elsewhere). Included in his greetings is the following:
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my compatriots and fellow prisoners, who are preeminent among the apostles. (Romans 16:7)
Andronicus is a man’s name, and Junia a woman’s. We know nothing else about these two: were they husband and wife? Brother and sister? Unmarried missionary partners? Here again, historians can’t help feeling desperately frustrated by the scarcity of our sources. Who were these people? How did they convert to faith in Christ? What did they do with their lives? What was their mission? How did they achieve it? What made them so special in the eyes of Paul? Why were they pre-eminent? Did Paul see them as even more important than, say, Peter, whom he does not mention here? Unfortunately, we will probably never know.
But we do know that one of them was a woman and that she was an apostle and a pre-eminent one at that. I should point out that not everyone has known this. As it turns out, English Bible translators have sometimes allowed their own biases to affect how they have translated this passage (Romans 16:7). In such venerable editions as the Revised Standard Version, Junia has undergone a sex change. In these translations, she is not called Junia (a woman’s name) but Junias (a man’s name).
Why would translators make this change? It is not because of what Paul actually wrote. What he wrote was “Junia,” the name of a woman. In fact, while Junia (feminine) was a common name in the ancient world, Junias (masculine) was not a name at all: it doesn’t occur in any ancient Greek text. And so what is going on with translations like the Revised Standard Version? It is purely a matter of patriarchal bias. The translators couldn’t believe that a woman could be an apostle, so they made the woman Junia into a non-existent man Junias.
Were there other women apostles? Other women, who understood themselves, and were understood by others, to be commissioned by Christ in order to spread the word of his death and resurrection? We know of at least one other, one who could be thought of, in fact, as the original apostle: Mary Magdalene. Mary is called an apostle by some early Christian writers. This would include an anonymous writer sometimes thought to have been Hippolytus, a Christian leader in Rome around 200 CE. In a commentary written on the Old Testament book, the Song of Songs, this writer points out that Jesus first appeared to the women at the tomb and instructed them to tell the disciples that he had been raised. He then appeared to the male disciples, upbraiding them for not believing the women’s report. As the author indicates:
Christ showed himself to the (male) apostles and said to them, “It is I who appeared to these women and I who wanted to send them to you as apostles.”
Mary and the others, therefore, could be thought of as “apostles sent to the apostles,” a title that Mary herself came to bear in the Middle Ages (Latin: apostola apostolorum).
In my next post, I’ll talk about the tradition that Mary Magdalene was indeed the “apostle of the apostles.”