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Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership

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CrossCurrents Journal, Volume 71, Number 1.

March 2021, University of North Carolina Press

Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership 

by Ally Kateusz, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019

Hardcover, 295 pages 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ursic, PhD 

In her compelling book, Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, Mary 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 6th century to constrain women’s religious leadership and to create a “false imagination about the past.” 

Kateusz’s work on a discipleship of equals was first hypothesized by Harvard professor Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1983, and she adds new discoveries and current scholarship to the conversation. Kateusz points out that today’s leading scholars are nearly unanimous that first and second century Jesus-followers gathered in small meal groups with rotating informal leadership, and she presents historical proof that some of these Jesus groups had female leaders. It is interesting to learn that a 4th 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): “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.  

The same 4th 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-n-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 little 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 when 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 spread around the Mediterranean. Shorter versions do not include these actions. Kateusz claims the longest version is the oldest and therefore the most reliable. She presents evidence of bishops and pope’s letters to show that during Late Antiquity (ca. 250-650) the church underwent ideological struggles over female gender roles as they sought to limit women’s participation in church leadership. Her analysis employs the newest research on redaction theory that upends lectio brevior portior that the shortest reading is the preferred reading. Studies of New Testament books in the last decade now conclude that scribes omitted more texts than they added. In addition, scholars working on extracanonical books claim that longest is oldest because later scribes would edit apocryphal texts considered heretical to make them more acceptable to orthodox editors.  

Kateusz then supports her argument with perhaps the most interesting contribution of the book – an analysis of art that these early Christian communities left behind. In this art we see Mary and other women with priestly vestments and their bodies positioned on the holiest altars in Christendom. Kateusz reads these occurrences in different geographical locations and eras as a whole, taking a macro-historical approach that Peter Brown and others have used in recognition of the travel and trade occurring during these centuries that allowed books and small art pieces to be easily transported.  

She also develops her framework using Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower in which the normative power structure is mapped onto the body for the purpose of control. Examples from church contexts include who stands and who kneels, who speaks and who is silent, who is present on the altar and who holds sacred objects. In her iconographic analysis, Kateusz examines body postures, liturgical vestments, liturgical objects, and body location. She compares the earliest images of Mary looking directly at the viewer with later images that show Mary with bowed head and lowered gaze. Early images of Mary also show her with raised arms, a gesture of prayer and liturgical leadership mentioned in Psalm 141 and early Christian church rites. There are even art images and supporting texts that show Mary with arms raised in front of the apostles. In terms of vestments, there is art depicting Mary and other women wearing the episcopal (bishop) pallium – a long white strip of cloth with an embroidered cross that was only worn when bishops officiated at Eucharist. Images of Mary wearing the pallium appear in the mid-sixth century when images of male bishops wearing the pallium begin to appear. There are also multiple images of Mary and other women holding liturgical objects - the chalice, the Eucharistic cloth, and censors. 

In addition, Kateusz reveals that before the era of iconoclasm there were more images of Jesus with his mother than images of Jesus by himself. While the pairing of Mary with the infant Jesus was important, there were also pairings of Mary with Jesus as an adult. In the 5th and 6th centuries, many types of artwork such as crosses, gospel covers, Eucharist chalices, medallions and wearable jewelry show Jesus on one side and Mary on the other. Sarcophagi show the promise of life after death with Jesus as the Good Shepherd and Mary with raised arms. 

There are also images of women in liturgical roles in the holiest locations of Christendom. A reliquary box dated to the 5th century depicts two women and two men with arms raised participating in a liturgy inside the sanctuary of Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. There are also pilgrim medallions of women censing Christ’s tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. These images are supported by the Typikon, a liturgical book for Easter Week liturgies in Jerusalem from the 9th or 10th century.  In addition, a liturgical scene from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople depicts a man and woman with arms raised flanking the altar table with a boy holding an open book and speaking, as if a bishop. This is supported with historical evidence that the consecrated virgin princess Augusta Pulcheria (399-453) became regent for her younger brother, Theodosius II, and her portrait was above the altar table in the second Hagia Sophia, and later removed by the patriarch of Constantinople. A century later, the Augusti Justinian and Theodora built the third Hagai Sophia, and in the Basilica of San Vitale they are shown holding the chalice and paten on either side of the altar.  

Finally, Kateusz presents art evidence for the possibility that at least three women in early Christianity were celebrated as bishops: Theodora, Cerula, and Bitalia. Pope Paschal I (817-824) commissioned large mosaics of his mother, Theodora, with the title Episcopa. Late 5th or early 6th century catacomb tombs of Cerula and Bitalia include frescos with their arms raised and flanked by open gospel books, iconography used to designate bishops. Cerula’s ornate image covers an entire wall and it can be seen on the cover of the book. Both Cerula and Bitalia are wearing short chausables and Cerula’s vestment is almost identical to a chausable worn by Pope Clement in an image with his arms raised as he officiates at Eucharist. Kateusz surmises Cerula and Bitalia’s art were not destroyed because they were below ground in the catacombs. Cerula’s image was also concealed with a large marble slab in front of it and was only discovered in 1977. Analysis of the image became possible after it was fully restored in 2011.    

Some may disagree with particular interpretations of art or text that Kateusz presents, but her overall argument that women participated in liturgical leadership in early Christianity is hard to deny. In fact, Kateusz states that to her knowledge no art has survived of only men at the altar table in any church through the end of Theodora and Justinian’s reign in 565. Her statement is extraordinary and deserves follow-up research. This art from early Christian churches challenges the argument that women were always forbidden from liturgical leadership in formalized church spaces. It reveals a false imagination about the past.  

Kateusz includes sixty-three art images to visually connect the reader with her commentary. Those with little background in the subject will still find the art fascinating, and four tables of redacted textual passages make her analysis easy to understand. For scholars, the book is a treasure trove with thirty-nine pages of references and fifty pages of notes. Finally, Kateusz and her publisher clearly want this research to be used as the hardcover is reasonably priced and the electronic version is free. In conclusion, Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership is a stimulating read and the author’s perspective on imagination and Christian history will make you think. Highly recommended. 

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