Against Patriarchy, Part Thirteen: Women Apostles

In the last post I hinted at the fact that we can find good evidence for several female apostles in Scripture. It is to this matter that we now turn.

The Qualifications of Apostleship

In Greek literature outside of the New Testament, the word “apostle” originally referred to a type of transport ship and eventually came to refer to the dispatch ship that went out ahead of the fleet. The usage of this word by the New Testament writers indicates that in some sense the apostles were “messengers” in the sense of ships sent ahead of the fleet to bring the news of its sure arrival. The close connection between the “sea” and the Gentiles noted in Scripture would seem to mean that these Apostles were sent out into the world as ships to be “fishers of men.” For someone to qualify as an apostle they must have been with Jesus in His earthly ministry (Acts 1:21), witnessed the Resurrection  or the Resurrected Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:3, 5-8), and had been called for a vocation or mission by the Resurrected Jesus (Gal. 1:11-16; 1 Cor. 1:1, 17; 2 Cor. 12:11-12; 15:8-11; Rom. 1:1; Eph. 1:1).

We also know that there were more apostles than merely the Twelve, and this distinction between them is maintained throughout Luke-Acts. “The Twelve” is the expression used to refer to the group we call the Apostles, but at the time there were many, many more who followed Jesus as disciples, witnessed the Resurrection, and were sent out to make disciples of all the nations. In between the Resurrection and the Ascension, Jesus was “appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the Kingdom of God,” (Luke 1:3). Paul reports that He “appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep,” (1 Cor. 15:6). He appeared to the men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-34).

Most especially, however, He appeared to the women who followed Him, and He did so to them prior to making Himself known to the male disciples (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-11; Luke 24:1-12), and in particular He made Himself known to Mary Magdalene (John 20:1-2, 11-18). Recall our qualifications of Apostleship, that 1) they must have been with Jesus from before the crucifixion, 2) one to whom the Resurrected Jesus appeared, and 3) be given a commission to bring news.

We know that these women were with Jesus from prior to the crucifixion because they had ministered to Him prior to this (Luke 8:1-3). The crucifixion accounts in particular tell us that the women “had followed Jesus from Galilee” (Matt. 27:55-56; Luke 23:27, 49, 55). Mark records that when “He was in Galilee, they followed Him and ministered to Him, and there were also many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem,” (Mark 15:40-41).

They go to the tomb on the first day and encounter the Risen Jesus, making them not merely eyewitnesses but the first eyewitnesses. Not only this, but they are given a commission, thus matching all the criteria for apostleship. In Mark’s account, the women are told, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, as He told you,” (Mark 16:7). In Matthew’s account, the angel reiterates the command to go, but then Jesus Himself appears as they are running along the way and tells them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to got to Galilee, and there they will see me,” (Matt. 28:10).

Mary Magdalene in particular is singled out as the very first human being to see Jesus alive (Mark 16:9; John 20:14-18). Jesus told her, “go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” and “Mary Magdalene went and announced [apaggello] to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord,'” (John 20:18). This is connected closely to the word used for the words of the Apostles before the first Church council in Acts 14: “When they had arrived and gathered the Church together, they declared [anaggello] all that God had done with them,” (Acts 14:27). As Paul defends himself before Agrippa, he says, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared [apaggello] first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem,” (Acts 26:20).

There is another interesting aspect to Mary’s apostleship and the message she bore. The Twelve ignored her. Mary Magdalene, Jesus’s mother, and Joanna, along with a few others, return from the tomb and “told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them,” (Luke 24:10-11). In Mark’s account, Mary “went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe it,” (Mark 16:10-11). The apostles prove themselves to be unlike Jesus in their dealing with the women followers, and ignored her as one with an apostolic message of good news. But Jesus soon corrects them. “Afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and He rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw Him after He had risen,” (Mark 16:14). Jesus vindicates Mary as an apostle, one who had seen the Lord and bore the message to others, rebuking the others for not listening to her.

All well and good, you might be thinking, but nobody ever said Mary was an apostle. So it would be going beyond the bounds of Scripture to say that she was an apostle. But we must remember that there were other apostles beyond “the Twelve” who spread the good news of the resurrection and who were commissioned by Jesus to carry this message, and that Mary meets all of the Scriptural criteria for the office. This by itself would be enough, but there is more to say. Many early Church Fathers recognized Mary Magdalene as an apostle, equal in authority to the Twelve. Augustine called her “Apostle to the Apostles,” a title that was in circulation probably much earlier. An eleventh century painting shows her standing before the eleven Apostles, her finger raised, instructing them on what she had seen and heard. The Eastern Orthodox church to this day recognizes her as co-equal to the Twelve. The second-century gnostics attempted to use her influence and wide-ranging respect throughout the Church as a means of attracting converts by penning an anonymous letter titled The Gospel of Mary. Hippolytus, a martyred Bishop of Rome (170-236 A.D.) wrote, “Lest the female apostles doubt the angels, Christ himself came to them so that the women would be apostles of Christ and by their obedience rectify the sin of the ancient Eve … 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,” (De Cantico 24-26). Gregory of Antioch (d. 593) wrote of Christ’s intention in making Mary and the other women apostles was so they might “be the first teachers to the teachers. So that Peter who denied me learns that I can also choose women as apostles,” (Oratio in Mulieres Unguentiferas. XI).

There is one more female apostle to mention here. Paul himself speaks of her in Romans 16 alongside the other many women that appear among the Church leaders there. He writes, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me,” (Rom. 16:7). It is important to note the deceptive way in which the ESV (and many other translations) renders this verse. The Greek translated “well known to the apostles” is episemoi en, which is better translated “They are prominent among the apostles.” Even many opponents of women’s ordination concede this rendering of the Greek. The best rendering of episemoi is “eminent” or “prominent,” and en refers to something “fixed,” “stamped,” or “in” something else, not known to another group. Thus, they were “in” or “among” the apostles, apostles themselves. Even Piper and Grudem must begrudgingly concede that had Paul intended to communicate these two were simply known to the apostles, he would not have used “apostles” in the third person, excluding himself from that group (Recovering Biblical, 80). Far more likely he would have included himself in the statement. “They are well known to us,” or “well known to the other apostles also.” Some have raised a question about whether this name is in fact actually Junias, a masculine name; the trouble is that, so far as anyone is able to determine, the name Junias simply does not exist. There is no record of such a name ever being used at any period of history. A number of Church Fathers also accepted Junia as a female apostle, including Origen (who suggested Junia could have been one of the seventy-two disciples Jesus commissioned). John Crysostom, no fan of female bishops (or women in general), was even forced to concede the point: “Oh how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle,” (Homily on Romans, 31).

Clearly, women could be apostles in the New Testament, and their ability and freedom to do so was defended until at least the end of the sixth century by various people and factions. In the case of Junia and the translation of Romans 16:7, a presupposition that a woman couldn’t possibly be an apostle has influenced the way some evangelical translations (like the ESV) render the passage. They have, in essence, altered the translation because “Paul couldn’t have really meant that.”

Having looked at female apostles, we will now turn to female prophets, pastors, and church leaders.

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