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University of California Press
Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity / Edition 1

Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity / Edition 1

by Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Pamela J. Walker


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For nearly two millennia, despite repeated prohibitions, Christian women have preached. Some have preached in official settings; others have found alternative routes for expression. Prophecy, teaching, writing, and song have all filled a broad definition of preaching. This anthology, with essays by an international group of scholars from several disciplines, investigates the diverse voices of Christian women who claimed the authority to preach and prophesy. The contributors examine the centuries of arguments, grounded in Pauline injunctions, against women's public speech and the different ways women from the early years of the church through the twentieth century have nonetheless exercised religious leadership in their communities. Some of them based their authority solely on divine inspiration; others were authorized by independent-minded communities; a few were even recognized by the church hierarchy. With its lively accounts of women preachers and prophets in the Christian tradition, this exceptionally well-documented collection will interest scholars and general readers alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520209220
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/30/1998
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 395
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Beverly Mayne Kienzle is Professor of the Practice in Latin and Romance Languages at Harvard Divinity School, and Pamela J. Walker is Assistant Professor of History at Carleton University.

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Women Preachers & Prophets Through Two Millennia/Chritian

By Beverly Mayne Kienzle

University of California Press

Copyright © 1998 Beverly Mayne Kienzle
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520209220

Prophetic Power and Women's Authority
The Case of the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene)

Karen L. King

In every century, including our own, history records women exercising leadership in Christian communities, and in every century that leadership has been contested, beginning in the early church and continuing through contemporary battles over the ordination and ministry of women. Although there are important exceptions,1 in the first centuries the majority of the clear cases of women's leadership based their legitimacy on claims to prophetic experience.

Arguments against the public exercise of women's leadership over men, such as those in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, provide indirect evidence that women were in fact practicing public speech—otherwise why bother to prohibit them?2 We also have direct evidence concerning the Corinthian women prophets—Philip's daughters, Ammia of Philadelphia, Philumene, the visionary martyr Perpetua, and several leaders of the Montanist movement, including Maximilla, Priscilla (Prisca), and Quintilla. All these women were accepted as prophets and exercised authority within Christian groups. There is, however, one additional work that letsus see a woman actually exercising leadership and hear what arguments were made to support that leadership: the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene).

We knew nothing about the existence of the Gospel of Mary until extensive fragments of a Coptic translation and two additional Greek fragments came to light in Egypt during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.3 The first part of the work contains a postresurrection dialogue between the Savior and his disciples, among whom Mary Magdalene plays an important role.4 After the Savior departs, controversy erupts among the disciples over the veracity of a vision Mary had of the Savior. The work confidently confirms Mary's vision and her leadership role among the disciples in the face of challenges from other disciples, especially Andrew and Peter.

This paper was written during a fellowship year at the Harvard Divinity School in the Women's Studies in Religion Program. My sincerest appreciation for this support and for the warm cordiality of colleagues there. I would like to thank Constance Buchanan, the program director, and my fellow fellows, Denise Ackerman, Caroline Ford, Sri Padma, and Judylyn Ryan, for their encouragement, criticism, and support. I would also like to express special appreciation to François Bovon, Bernadette Brooten, Alan Callahan, Sarah Coakley, Helmut Koester, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza for their critical and constructive comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

In this essay I ask: What is prophecy? How does prophecy occur? Is prophecy a gendered phenomenon? What specific views support women's prophetic leadership? How are debates over prophecy centrally tied to conceptions of the nature of humanity and humanity's relationship to God? My main example is the Gospel of Mary . The issues surrounding women's prophetic experience in the Gospel of Mary were intertwined with early Christian attitudes toward the body and sexuality, ethical perspectives, and issues of authority and leadership. Moreover, Mary's prophecy directly impinged upon the interpretation of the teachings of Jesus and questioned the value of apostolic tradition.5 In short, at stake here are the central issues of early Christian theology and church organization that were under debate in the formative centuries of Christianity. The analysis below follows the lead of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in purposefully treating the work within the context of early Christian debates over authority and leadership.6 It presumes that prophetic authority and women's leadership were widely practiced, and it places the Gospel of Mary rhetorically within the controversies over those practices. Comparison with the works of Tertullian and others uncovers the ways in which prophecy, the body, ethics, and community organization are intertwined. In conclusion, I make some tentative suggestions about a complex of elements that may constitute a pattern of early Christian teaching and practice that was favorable to women's prophetic leadership and indeed to whose formation women may have substantially contributed.

What is Prophecy?

In early Christianity, the term prophecy referred to a direct communication of the Deity to the prophet or through the prophet as medium. But beyond this simple definition, authentic prophecy encompassed a wide range of experiences that were not always distinguished. Prophecy might have interpreted the past, spoken to the present, or predicted the future. Prophetic inspiration could have been auditory or visionary or both. It could have occurred while someone was awake or through dreams during sleep.7 It could have been ecstatic, or not.8 It could have been remembered by the prophet after the trance, or not. It could have occurred while the prophet's soul or spirit was in the body or out of it. Sometimes it involved a spiritual journey while the body itself lay suspended in a stupor. At other times, the Spirit was understood to speak directly through the mouth of the prophet. The personality of the prophet was sometimes present, sometimes obscured by the divine presence.

The prophet played a variety of leadership roles. Usually the prophet had only an informal role, but a few churches seem to have had an official office of prophet.9 The prophet provided guidance, interpreted Scripture, commanded, and declared. Often the prophet was the recipient of instruction and then passed that divine instruction on to others.10

Prophetic citations appear in early Christian literature as pithy oracles, and in narrative accounts of visionary experiences or ecstatic journeys.11 Because of the variety of prophetic speech in early Christianity, clear distinctions were not always made among the functions of teaching, prophecy, prayer, and speaking in tongues, and their accompanying roles of leadership. One of Paul's projects in Corinthians seems to have been precisely to introduce these distinctions, but he was apparently not very successful.12 In the Didache , for example, the prophet not only provides instruction but also performs the Eucharist and leads prayer. In the second century, Tertullian understood the prophet to play a variety of roles, including revealing prophecy, interpreting Scripture, and directing discipline within the community.13 Once a prophet's knowledge of God was acknowledged, her status as a teacher was ensured. Even where the role of teacher had become more formalized, it was still connected with prophetic inspiration.14

In the Gospel of Mary , it is Mary Magdalene who plays the role of the prophet.15 She receives a vision of the Lord and assumes the roles of comforter and teacher to the other disciples, admonishing them to be resolute. She turns their hearts toward the "Good" so that they begin to discuss the words of the Savior.16 In the Berlin Codex, the content of her speech is described as a revelation of "what is hidden." She is thus clearly functioning in the role of the prophetic revealer to the other disciples.

Mary clearly remembers her vision, since she is able to recount it later, and there are no indications of a state of trance or possession distinct from sleep. The dream was both auditory and visionary in that she not only saw the Savior but also heard him.17 Indeed they were able to converse, and the dream account consists primarily of a dialogue between Mary and the Savior.18

Prophetic experience in the Gospel of Mary has at least two distinct functions: to forge a relationship between the human and the divine,19 and to claim legitimacy for the work's teaching. The appeal to prophecy implies a claim to the truth and the authority of the teaching of the Savior as it is interpreted by the Gospel of Mary , the legitimacy of Mary Magdalene's leadership role, and the text's theory about how visions are seen. Each of these claims was contested in the context of inner-Christian controversy.

How Does Prophecy Occur?

Mary has a vision in which she asks the Savior, "'Lord, how does a person who sees a vision see it—[with] the soul [or] with the spirit?' The Savior answered, 'One does not see with the soul or with the spirit, but with themind which exists between these two—that is [what] sees the vision and that is w[hat . . .].' "20 (At this point the text unfortunately breaks off into an extensive lacuna.)

This passage is interesting in that it is the only case in antiquity I am aware of in which the question of how a vision occurs is discussed in the context of the vision itself. Usually the question is raised in philosophical discussions, where the assumed context is the school. The Savior's conversation with Mary also resembles a pedagogical discussion between a teacher and student. Here, however, the authoritativeness of the answer is not dependent upon mere human wisdom, but is based on divine revelation, since the teacher is the Savior. It may be that the author of the Gospel of Mary thought to gain more authority for its viewpoint by making the answer come from divine revelation. Putting the answer on the lips of the Savior also attests to how serious the author thought the issue was; he or she did not want to leave the answer to the vagaries of human controversy. What are those issues?

The question of how prophecy occurred was of concern to early Christian theologians because the answer implied a particular view about the nature of God and humanity, and about their relationship—and there were, as will be seen, serious theological and practical implications involved in how that relationship was defined.21 Those issues are exposed by comparing the Gospel of Mary with the views of Tertullian, an African theologian of the late second and early third century.

Both Tertullian and the Gospel of Mary highly valued women's prophetic experiences. There the similarity ends. For Tertullian, the self is a dyadic being composed of body and soul in unified relation.22 For the Gospel of Mary , the self is triadic, composed of body, soul, and mind.23 For both Tertullian and the Gospel of Mary , however, the term spirit signifies the divine presence.

Tertullian argues strongly against anthropologies of the self that, on the one hand, confuse the mortal soul and the divine spirit, or, on the other hand, divide the soul from its ruling function, the mind. In doing so, Tertullian wants to maintain a strong differentiation between the human and the divine and a relatively unified view of the self.24 The Gospel of Mary is more interested in emphasizing the link between the human and the divine as the basis of hope for salvation, and it sees the soul in the body as a self divided against itself.

Tertullian argues that the soul is corporeal (having form, limitation, length, breadth, and height).25 It is shaped in the form of the human body and even "has its own eyes and ears owing to which people see and hear the Lord;26 it also has other limbs through which it experiences thoughts and engages in dreams."27 To support his point, Tertullian relies not only on arguments from the physician Soranus and Stoic philosophers;28 his clinching argument comes from a vision of the soul by a woman prophet. During church services she experienced ecstatic visions and after the service reported them to themen leaders, who examined them to determine whether they were true. Once she saw a soul in bodily form that could be grasped by the hand.29 Tertullian cites this vision as prophetic proof that the soul is corporeal.30 Because the soul is material, the resurrection of the believer is, for Tertullian, a bodily resurrection—that includes both the material body and the material soul.31

These material souls even have gender, which they receive simultaneously with the flesh "such that neither substance controls the cause of sex."32 Sexual differentiation is thus natural to the soul's very existence, and gender differences and gender hierarchy are inscribed by Tertullian onto the soul itself. It is therefore no surprise to learn that Adam's soul was more complete than Eve's, according to Tertullian.33

In contrast, the Gospel of Mary argues that the most fundamental self, the soul, is not material but spiritual in nature. According to the Savior, the soul's attachment to the body is the cause of sickness and death.34 This perspective does not mean, however, that the body is considered to be evil or that the work points toward ascetic practices. Indeed, if the soul is in proper relationship to God, the disturbing passion that wracks the body will be overcome. Ultimately, however, the body will not be saved or resurrected. The story of the soul's rise in Mary's vision emphasizes this point. While the soul ascends to its immortal rest, the material body returns to its root.35 As with Tertullian, it is a woman's prophetic vision that establishes the truth of this teaching.

The Gospel of Mary also does not consider souls to be gendered; sexuality and the gender differences inscribed on the body belong to the material nature that must ultimately be transcended. Gender differentiations are therefore illusory insofar as they are inscribed on bodies that will cease to exist.

Important moral perspectives come into play here. For both Tertullian and the Gospel of Mary , sin clouds the divine nature of the soul, dimming its perception of God; only the pure soul may commune with God—and even then only because of the intervention of the Spirit. Their understandings of what constitutes sin, however, are quite different. For Tertullian, sin is the transgression of moral laws; moral reflection, therefore, focuses on determining correct behaviors. For the Gospel of Mary , sin is "adultery"—that is, the improper mixing of matter with the divine soul. Such mixing results in sickness and death.36 Moral reflection focuses on interior spiritual development as a way to overcome physical pain and death. For the Gospel of Mary , it is the teaching of the risen Savior that brings salvation; whereas for Tertullian, the resurrected Jesus ensures the physical resurrection of the believer.

These views about the fundamental character of human beings are reflected in their views of how prophecy occurs. Tertullian held that all souls have some measure of original goodness on the basis of which they can prophesy.37 The experience of prophecy signals the restored purity of the soul fromits corruption by sin after it has embraced the Christian faith.38 Prophetic experience occurs when the soul steps from the body in ecstasy.39 Ecstasy ("the departure of the senses and the appearance of madness") is common to sleep, and Tertullian associates this state with dreaming. Not all dreams, however, are prophetic. Dreams can come from three sources: demons, God, and the soul itself.40 In prophecy, the soul is moved by the divine Spirit from without,41 and it is clear that, for Tertullian, this movement from without is manifest in ecstasy.42

The primary difference between Tertullian and the Gospel of Mary concerns the participation of materiality in the visual experience. For Tertullian, the material self is able to perceive the Divine if it is purified of sin, although the purified, material soul's senses, including the mind, are dimmed while experiencing the vision. For the Gospel of Mary , however, it is not the soul that sees the vision, but the mind acting as a mediator between the sensory perceptions of the soul and the divine spirit. The bodily senses themselves obscure the capacity to perceive divine things. But because the mind is not associated with the senses, it is not dimmed by the presence of the Spirit.43

The Gospel of Mary clearly agrees with Tertullian that only spiritually advanced souls have visionary experiences. Mary, for example, is praised by the Savior because she has not "wavered" at the sight of him.44 The Savior ascribes Mary's stability to the fact that her mind is concentrated on spiritual matters. Mary has clearly achieved the purity of mind necessary to see the Savior and converse with him. The vision is a mark of that purity and her closeness to God.45 Note too that her stability is in marked contrast with the contentious fearfulness of the other disciples.

Tertullian and the Gospel of Mary differ in their conceptions of the fundamental nature of the person (whether one is corporeal or incorporeal), the character of sexual differentiation and gender roles (whether natural or illusory), and the role of the mind in human relationship to God (whether dimmed or potent). They do, however, share some beliefs: that only the pure can see God in visions, that attachment to the body dims the spiritual comprehension of the soul, and that visions are authoritative for Christian teaching and practice.46

Their differing attitudes toward the body are directly tied to valuations of traditional Mediterranean patriarchal gender roles. For Tertullian, these roles are based in nature; for the Gospel of Mary , they are illusory. Their attitudes toward the role of women as prophets fit their respective perspectives. Because gender is irrelevant in the Gospel of Mary , it is possible to imagine Mary taking on the role of Savior at his departure, engaging in public instruction of the other disciples. In Tertullian, where the subordination of women is understood to be a fact of nature, the woman prophet had no speech during the public community gathering, but her visions were examined by maleelders after the "people" had left. It was up to them to determine the authenticity and truth of her revelations. Her prophetic experience was highly valued, but her role as a public leader was not.47

Is Prophecy a Gendered Phenomenon?

We are now in a position to ask if prophecy in Mediterranean antiquity was a gendered phenomenon. The answer is clearly no if we mean that prophecy was restricted to women. It clearly was not. But the answer is yes in consideration of a number of other factors, including social status, sexual status, and the conception of prophecy as penetration of a person by the Spirit.

Social Status

Prophetic experience affects the social status of women and men differently. Women are not more given to ecstatic experience than men, but the social-political contexts of their experience differ.48 The best study to date for an early Christian context is that of Antoinette Clark Wire on the Corinthian women prophets. The exercise of prophetic gifts affected differently the status of the men and women who joined the Corinthian community. The status of women of all classes, she argues, shows a rise, while the status of elite males may have suffered a decline.49 We can speculate that the status of lower-class males, especially slaves, would also have been enhanced.

Although there is much less information to work with sociologically in the Gospel of Mary , within the narrative it seems clear that Mary's status in terms of wisdom, power, honor, and gender is high. One reason that Peter opposes Mary is that her leadership lowers his gender status, and he is not willing to accept that loss.

A second point concerns the moral aspects of ecstatic prophecy. Wire identifies two different ethical orientations in the Corinthian community: "The ethics fostered [by the women prophets] are release from external authorities and communal expression of divine authority, not the ethics of self-discipline and community order."50 In 1 Corinthians, Paul, on the other hand, is extremely interested in bringing order and discipline into the Corinthian community. In a similar vein, Tertullian objected to the lack of order in certain Christian communities, which he considered to be heretical.51 In these churches, roles were not formalized or permanent; rather the movement of the Spirit determined the functions members performed at various times. In practice, this apparently meant that women sometimes performed all the functions of church leadership: "Just so the women heretics, how bold! For they are to teach, to discuss, to perform exorcisms, to give hope of cures—perhaps even to baptize."52 In both 1 Corinthians and Tertullian, the call for order and discipline in distinguishing among roles coincides with the marginalization of women and their subordination to male control.53 In contrast, an ethic similar to that of the Corinthian women prophets appears in the Gospel of Mary . Here sin is understood not as right and wrong actions in the material world, but in terms of spiritual development conceived as turning one's self toward the Good. Moreover, in the Gospel of Mary , the Savior goes out of his way to warn the disciples against constraining themselves by laying down any rule or law beyond what he appointed for them. Like the Corinthian women prophets, the Gospel of Mary fostered an ethics of "release from external authorities and communal expression of divine authority." The different ethical attitudes toward order and discipline by Paul and Tertullian on the one hand, and by the Corinthian women prophets and the Gospel of Mary on the other, correlate with positions that would give each the highest social status relative to the other. The freedom of the spirit opened more possibilities for the exercise of women's authority and leadership than did the order and discipline ethics of Paul and Tertullian.

A third way in which prophecy affected the social status of women and men differently concerns social gendered roles. For both the Corinthian women prophets and the Gospel of Mary , the practice of women's exercise of authority is tied to attitudes that did not define women's identity in terms of their roles in marriage and motherhood.54 Since the identity and status of men were defined less in terms of their sexual roles than were women's identity and status, these attitudes would have had less impact on their social status.55

Public Roles and Sexual Status

The second way in which prophecy can be considered to be gendered concerns the public roles of the prophet.56 In speaking, preaching, teaching, and praying aloud in the presence of the whole community, women's sexual status was evaluated differently than men's.

Our ancient sources, whether Christian or other, often explicitly note the sexual status of women in discussing their prophetic experience, while such observation is rare for men prophets. Moreover, this attention consistently plays a rhetorical role and forms a clear pattern: When women's prophetic status is positively valued, their sexual purity is emphasized, often by pointing out that they were virgins, chaste widows, or even occasionally devoted wives.57 But when a writer opposes a woman, her sexual status becomes an explicit basis for condemnation.58 One particularly clear example is Tertullian's condemnation of the prophet Philumene. After twice calling her a "virgin" and affirming that she had a "vigorous spirit," he then dismisses her completely with the unsubstantiated charge that later she "became an enormous prostitute," thereby closing the entire discussion on a note of indisputable moral finality.59 Tertullian can make this charge seem plausible because he associates her "erroneous" teachings with penetration by evil spirits and hence sexual pollution.60 Such examples of sexual condemnation could easily be multiplied.61

This rhetorical move—condemning a woman prophet on the basis of sexual immorality—points to a wider and more problematic issue. Because of the wide acceptance of their authority as messengers of the gods in antiquity, prophets and their prophecies potentially had enormous power to direct people's lives, political events, and public opinion.62 Prophecy represents a dramatic claim to authority, both for the prophet and for the message. Hence serious issues of power and authority were at stake in distinguishing true from false prophets.

For Christians, the rhetoric was clear: true prophets were inspired by divine agency; false prophets were inspired by the devil and his demons.63 In practice, however, distinguishing the two was trickier. The problem was that it was not possible to tell the difference on formal grounds. The task was to gaze beyond the seeming of things to discern the true nature and essence of both prophet and prophecy. The ideal way to discern the truth of a prophet lay in seeing whether the prophecy came true or not. When this possibility was not available (either because the prophecy was not a prediction or because it was too soon to tell), criteria64 centered on the moral character of the prophet65 and whether the content of the prophetic message was found to be palatable (that is, whether it conformed to one's interpretation of scripture and tradition).66

In the case of women's prophecy, the judgment about a woman's moral character was determined by whether she conformed to the established social gender roles of wife and mother and kept silent in church assemblies.67 In the cases of the Corinthian women prophets, the virgin daughters of Philip, the Montanist women prophets, and Perpetua, there seem to be good warrants for supposing that at least some women prophets withdrew from their roles as wives and mothers. One aim of the opposition to their public leadership involved restoring women to these roles. It is not a coincidence that 1 Timothy links its condemnation of women's public speech with a call for women to bear children in order to ensure their salvation.68 The judgment of moral character led to a double bind for women: in order for women's prophecy to be considered authentic, women needed to give up its public practice. The ambiguity and tension we witness in many of the sources reflect the contradictions of this dilemma.

We are now in a position to address the question of why every prominent stream of theology and practice within early Christianity that supported women's leadership was sharply opposed, even decried as heretical. Insofar as women based their legitimacy on prophetic experience, the so-called "dampening of the prophetic spirit" in the history of Christianity coincided with the exclusion of women from positions of leadership. Although this phenomenon cannot be reduced to a single cause, such as the formation ofcanon,69 one element (among others) that came into play was basing the evaluation of the authenticity of a prophetic utterance on conformity to patriarchal social gender roles. Such evaluation inscribed patriarchal values onto early Christian communal practice so as to exclude women's legitimate exercise of authority.

It is therefore interesting that this issue is not raised by the Gospel of Mary . Its view that authority is not gendered may have excluded such considerations, so that the Gospel of Mary does not provide an expected patriarchal position, even to contest it.

Ruth Padel has also argued that in early Greek thought, because a woman's body has more openings than a man's, it was considered to be more permeable, making women more susceptible to the entrance of spirits.70 To my knowledge, this conceptuality is nowhere explicitly present in early Christianity. In the case of the Gospel of Mary , the dissociation of prophetic experience from the body may have excluded it by definition. Nonetheless, the continued emphasis in other texts on the sexual purity or impurity of women prophets may carry this conceptuality subliminally.71

Indeed, although no one in the Gospel of Mary accuses Mary Magdalene of sexual immorality, the early portrait of Mary as a prominent disciple was almost fully eclipsed in Christianity by the later portrait of Mary as the repentant prostitute. This revised edition of Mary's story was secured by identifying her with the sinner in Luke 7:36–50 and the adulteress in John 8:1–11. These identifications laid the foundation for the portrait of the Mary so well known from medieval and Renaissance times as the repentant whore, the "Venus in sackcloth," the counterpoint to the virgin mother of God, the representative of fallen female sexuality redeemed.

Penetration and Feminization

Padel's observation also leads us to the third way in which prophecy can be viewed as a gendered phenomenon.72 Prophecy is sometimes understood as the penetration of the body by a spirit, and thus was sometimes conceived and expressed in sexual terms. As a consequence of a system of heterosexual gender symbolization in which the penetrator is symbolically masculine and the penetrated is symbolically feminine, the penetrated body of the prophet could be understood to be either feminine or feminized. Literature of the Roman period is replete with imagery of divine marriage, impregnation, erotic entry, and seduction,73 and Tertullian uses the metaphor of marriage to speak of the Christian reception of the Spirit.74 Origen also discusses the operation of the Spirit in prayer with sexually penetrating language.75

Cross-culturally a common pattern among polytheistic societies is that men are "married" to female divinities, women to male divinities.76 In a monotheistic tradition where God is envisioned almost solely in male terms, the understanding of possession as marriage or erotic penetration can potentially pose special problems because it implies that women are the natural complements to a male God and that men are implicitly feminized and/or involved in homo-erotic relations.77 Both the polytheistic and the monotheistic patterns presume a heterosexual perspective.

One masked way in which this phenomenon may be appearing in the Christian works considered here is as a competition for the attention of God. Wire has suggested that part of Paul's arguments for the women Corinthian prophets wearing veils included a conception of sin as competition for God's glory. The women prophets apparently did not feel this threat.78

In the Gospel of Mary , the portrayal of male anxiety about competition among the disciples for the Savior's affection may belong to this perspective. Peter is happy to concede that the Savior loved Mary "more than other women," but he cannot bear the thought that the Savior may have loved her more than he loved the male disciples.79 In suggesting that this competition is due to males being threatened by a woman for the favor of a male God, some may think that I am reading too much into the work. Indeed, it has been argued that gender is not an issue in the work at all.80 Yet whether or not the presentation of gender conflict in the text was consciously intentional, it may nonetheless be significant that the portrayal of the conflict fits the patterns of ancient gender conceptuality so fully. We do not need to ascribe conscious intent in order to suggest operative cultural patterns.81

Sarah Coakley has astutely pointed out that this kind of gender conceptuality does not work when prophetic experience is understood not as penetration of the Spirit but as the flight of the soul out of the body.82 Only the former implies the feminization of the prophet and the prophet's loss of self-control. It may be that the avid rejection of ecstatic experience by writers such as the fourth-century bishop Epiphanius is directly tied to the rejection of the implications of sexual penetration and the feminization of the prophet. At any rate, the gendered character of prophecy needs to be qualified according to the particular type of prophetic conceptualization being considered.

The body-denying tendency of the Gospel of Mary seems to reject a sexual conceptuality for prophetic experience in its creation of an ungendered space around prophetic inspiration. Mary is not feminized by her vision, because she is not penetrated nor does she lose control. Her experience is one of mind, acting as a mediator between the spirit and the soul. Her authority is buttressed by tying it to a rejection of a penetrating sexual model of prophecy.

Views that are Enabling for Women's Leadership

We are now in a position to hazard an answer to the question: What specific views contributed to enabling women's leadership within early Christian communities in the Mediterranean world?

The most significant factor seems to have been the attitude toward the body. Rejection of the body as the location of the self was accompanied by a rejection of the value of the patriarchal social gender roles inscribed on the bodies of men and women. For women this meant two things: First, a woman's identity and spirituality could be developed apart from her roles as wife and mother (or slave), whether she actually withdrew from those roles or not. Second, she could exercise leadership on the basis of spiritual achievement apart from gender status and without conforming to established social gender roles. Hence attitudes toward the body were central determiners of women's public leadership. The attitudes in the Gospel of Mary that rejected or devalued the body in relation to the spirit (or soul) opened up ungendered space, in which leadership functions were exercised on the basis of spiritual achievement and prophetic inspiration.83

Contemporary readers may feel ambivalent about this position. Although Tertullian linked sexual differentiation inseparably to a system of hierarchical patriarchal gender roles that contemporary feminism rejects,84 his theology placed a high value on the body and gave marriage and childbearing positive signification, as some forms of contemporary feminism would like to do. The Gospel of Mary supports women's leadership but at the cost of women's bodies, insofar as women's power was achieved through the transcendence of gender and bodily sexual differentiation altogether. If women exercised legitimate leadership only at the price of their identity as women and the valuing of their own bodies, there would seem to be little here of value for contemporary women except yet another narrative of loss.

This conclusion would, however, be incomplete for two reasons. First, it is true that the Gospel of Mary attempts to resolve conflict over authority by arguing for the ideal of a common humanity based on the transcendence of bodily distinctions. In so doing, the work erases the political significance of real differences of class, gender, and ethnicity in antiquity. But transcendence is not bought at the expense of ignoring or erasing awareness of injustice and suffering. Instead, the ideal of transcendence is tied to a sharp criticism of social injustice and illegitimate domination. In Mary's vision of the rise of the soul, spiritual power is depicted as the empowerment of the enslaved soul in its (successful) battle against the forces of ignorance, jealousy, lust, wrath, and illegitimate domination.85 The work's resolution of conflict ties the erasure of difference to the simultaneous elimination of injustice and suffering. Transcendence and justice are linked, so that authority is based on spiritual maturity rather than bodily differentiations.

Second, whether controlled by men or not, women's prophetic speech was highly valued in early Christian movements and contributed to the construction of early Christian teaching and practice. By placing the teaching of the Gospel of Mary side by side with the theology of the Corinthian womenprophets.86 the Montanist oracles, and Perpetua's prison diary, it is possible to discern shared views about teaching and practice:

Theological reflection centered on the experience of the person of the risen Christ more than the crucified Savior.87 Jesus was understood primarily as a teacher and mediator of wisdom rather than as ruler and judge.

Direct access to God is possible for all through the Spirit. The possession of the Spirit is available to anyone. Those who are more spiritually advanced give what they have freely to all without claim to a fixed hierarchical ordering of power. An ethics of freedom and spiritual development is emphasized over an ethics of order and control.

Identity as a Christian is constructed apart from gender roles, sex, and childbearing (with or without actually abandoning these roles). Gender is itself contested as a "natural" category in the face of the power of God's Spirit at work in the community and the world.

In Christian community, the unity, power, and perfection of the Spirit are present now, not just in some future time.

These elements may not be unique to women's religious thought or always result in women's leadership, but as a constellation they point toward one type of theologizing that was meaningful to some early Christian women, that had a place for women's legitimate exercise of prophetic leadership, and to whose construction women contributed. If we look to these elements, we are able to discern important contributions of women to early Christian theology and praxis. These elements also provide an important location for discussing some aspects of early Christian women's spiritual lives: their exercise of leadership, their ideals, their attraction to Christianity, and what gave meaning to their self-identity as Christians.


Excerpted from Women Preachers & Prophets Through Two Millennia/Chritian by Beverly Mayne Kienzle Copyright © 1998 by Beverly Mayne Kienzle. Excerpted by permission.
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