Many Christian institutions imply a uniform historical tradition of women in supportive roles; however, recent biblical scholarship reveals that women held many authoritative positions in the early Christian community. In Christian theology and biblical discussion, it is commonly perceived that women were not commissioned or given ministerial authority from Christ, but a deeper analysis of Mary Magdalene may challenge this theory. Many cast Priscilla, Lydia, and Phoebe in supportive roles in Paul’s ministry. Recent biblical scholarship reveals how these women were charged with ministerial authority as leaders of house churches, deacons, and missionaries. An analysis of these biblical women in the New Testament will reveal more clearly what vocations women filled.

St. Maria Magdalen. Paracletos Greek Orthodox Monastery, Anderson, SC, USA.

At the beginning of Luke, Mary Magdalene is one of “the certain women” who followed Christ but who then disappears from the explicit narrative until the end of Christ’s life, where in John and Mark, she is mentioned at the garden tomb. Although she is hardly mentioned during Christ’s ministry, Magdalene is present at the beginning of his ministry as one of the “certain women” traveling throughout “every city and village preaching.”[2] She is also present at the end of his ministry at his resurrection; therefore, it is evident that we are to imagine Magdalene and other women with the twelve apostles and Christ the entire duration of the synoptic gospels.[3] There is also evidence later in the New Testament of female missionaries and female leaders that assisted in spreading the gospel but are only given a verse or two when mentioned.[4] This lack of female representation in the New Testament contributes to why there is a significant gap in understanding women’s roles during Christ’s ministry and in early Christian communities.

In the few instances Mary Magdalene is mentioned, what she does in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is profound and paints her image as an important disciple of the Lord. In Mark 8:34, Christ explains that to be his disciple, he asks them to “take up his cross, and follow me.”[5] Magdalene and a few others were the only ones at Christ’s cross that followed him until his final moments demonstrating that she, along with those few others, were exceptional disciples of Christ.[6] She shows her devotion again at Christ’s tomb, “when it was yet dark” and early at a time where it was life threatening to be a disciple, and yet Magdalene stayed with the Savior.[7] Magdalene also qualifies as a disciple according to the gospel of Luke where he shares that discipleship meant accompanying Jesus and witnessing his ministry.[8] Biblical scholar Richard Bauckham uses Luke’s definition in Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels, to argue that women along with the twelve were with Christ when he traveled and preached the gospel, making them disciples, by Luke’s definition.[9] Discipleship was a title that women, specifically Mary Magdalene, like the twelve, held in Christ’s ministry according to the narrative of Luke and Mark in the synoptic gospels.

In the synoptic gospels, Magdalene can not only be interpreted as a devoted disciple, but an apostle as well. In 1 Corinthians 9:1, Paul claims his apostleship authority by reciting his vision of the resurrected Lord.[10] Mary Rose D’Angelo in Reconstructing “Real” Women From Gospel Literature: The Case of Mary Magdalene, explains that Magdalene’s delivered witness of the risen Lord in the book of John is a prophetic oracle that fits Paul’s criteria for apostleship.[11] In John 20:11-18, Christ’s first resurrected appearance was to Mary Magdalene when he commissioned her to preach the news of the living Son of God to the other apostles. Not only does this demonstrate Christ giving Magdalene ministerial responsibilities, but many have also interpreted this passage as Christ putting her in a higher position of authority over the other apostles.[12] John 20:18 justified the traditional interpretation of Mary Magdalene’s title, the “Apostle to the Apostles,” which dates back to the first century. This title was coined by several early Saints such as St. Thomas Aquinas in his Lectura Super Ioannis and St. Jerome’s commentary on the Book of Zephaniah who honored her the title, apostola apostolorum, or “Apostle to the Apostles” or, “supreme apostle.”[13] St. Jerome explains that “the risen Lord appeared first to women, and those women were apostles to the apostles [apostolorum…apostolas], so that the men were put to shame for not having sought out the Lord, whom the weaker sex had already found out.”[14] The historical scholarship of Mary Magdalene prompts us to consider that Christ gave her apostolic authority when she saw his resurrected self.[15] Disciple or apostle, Magdalene is seen as a significant and key player in Christ’s ministry in the New Testament that largely is misunderstood in Christian theology.

Understanding the roles of women in the early Christian communities, such as leaders of house churches, can help expand the place for women in Christian theology. House churches were a space where communities could gather and worship in a house where, in some instances, women would host, plan, and preside. Biblical Scholar Margaret Y. MacDonald in The Religious Lives of Women in Early Christianity, identifies women such as Priscilla, Lydia, Mary Magdalene, and Nympha as leaders of house churches in the early Christian community.[16] As Carolyn Osiek and MacDonald explain in A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity, women were instrumental in all aspects of the house church, which included hospitality, patronage, education, communication, social services, evangelization and missions. She writes, “Women were expected to independently manage their households, with or without a husband. Therefore, to step into a Christian house church was to step into a woman’s world.”[17] Priscilla and her partner Aquila are a particularly interesting pair to examine: in Acts and Romans, Priscilla and Aquila travel with Paul to build local church communities suggesting their being an important missionary companionship in Pauline Christianity.[18] Many scholars have noted the fact that Priscilla is listed before Aquila in Romans 16:3 and Acts 18:18, 26, which suggests that Priscilla was of a higher status than her partner since normally, in antiquity practice, it would list the man’s name first before the woman.[19] Pauline Christianity references a variety of women who were vital to Paul’s ministry and to the expansion of Christianity. The leader of house churches evidently entailed ministerial responsibility.

If we look closely at the Pauline epistles, we can also find Phoebe as not just a servant of the Church of Cenchreae but as a deacon. Paul named Phoebe a “deacon” or “diakonos,” translated from the Greek as bishop or presbyter.[20] The term “deacon” is also the same term used to describe male office holders who formed various branches of the early Christian community in the second century, which implies Phoebe as having some form of ministerial authority in the Cenchreae church community.[21] The first few verses of Romans 16 suggest that Paul and Phoebe are working closely together in their mission in Cenchreae as Paul is relying on Phoebe’s sphere of influence.[22] Her position as deacon implies ministerial authority given by the apostle Paul. Unfortunately, male translators changed Phoebe’s office from deacon to “servant” or “helper” in the King James Version, New International Version, the New English Bible, Contemporary English Version, and the American Standard Version of the Bible, eliminating the possibility of her having ministerial authority. Phoebe became known as a servant rather than a deacon.[23] Fortunately, there are feminist scholars who continue to recover women like Phoebe in the Bible that have been misunderstood.

There is also evidence of female missionaries and female apostles that assisted in spreading the gospel but are only given a verse or two when mentioned.[24] For instance, the female missionary companionship of Euodia and Syntyche in Phil 4:2-3, is particularly notable because it notes women as “laboring” with Paul “in the gospel” implying them as being a part of the evangelizing mission of non-believers in the Philippians.[25] Similarly, in the book of Romans when Paul begins his ministry, he lists ten women who were fundamental to the expansion of his mission in Rome. Junia, being one of these esteemed women, was honored with the title of apostle, given by Paul, along with her partner Andronicus.[26] According to Paul’s definition of apostleship in his letters, Junia witnessed the resurrected Christ, received a commission, and performed miracles, signs, and wonders.[27] Throughout the New Testament, women are seen as leaders during the Christian movement and were fundamental in spreading the gospel. Reclaiming and bringing attention to these roles in conversation, worship, and everyday studies is essential to recover women’s status in contemporary religion. Despite the limited female representation in the New Testament that contributes to the misunderstanding of women’s roles in the early Christian community, we can see that these women held significant authority in building up the church.

Regrettably, the depictions of female leadership in the New Testament have been obscured by translators who did not believe it was possible for women to hold these positions as noted in Phoebe. Junia, the apostle, was recast as a man in the Greek text with the name “Junias.”[28] The first to question Junia’s gender was an archbishop in the thirteenth century and identified Andronicus and Junias as men of note among the apostles.[29] This mistranslation was a part of his influential and long-standing Bible translation in 1522. Nympha, with her title as leader of a house church in Colossians, was also altered to be a man because of copyists who felt “uncomfortable about a woman leading a house church.”[30]

In addition to these problematic discoveries, there are also instances in scripture where the Roman Empire may have played a role in suppressing women. Texts such as, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.” or, “Wives, be subject to your husbands,” biblical scholar Frances Taylor Gench in, Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts identifies these texts as “textual harassment” that require more digging to understand their purpose.[31] She explains how this writing is prescriptive rather than descriptive writing, meaning, the author is prescribing his [translators and interpreters of the text were solely men at the time] ideal, what men and women’s duties should look like, rather than describing what is actually happening.[32] Considering the historical context at the time, the public image of the Christian church was at stake with the Roman Empire. It is possible that for the church to survive, the family values and standards had to align with the Romans. This meant that women had to be seen as confined to the social norms at the time. Therefore, Gench argues that these tyrannical statements in the Bible were interpolations, meaning, they were imputed later by an author, to cover up women’s presence in the church so as to align the Christian communities with Roman patriarchal standards.[33] If the Romans influenced scripture, we can consider other things that may have been written out, such as the ordination of women in these authoritative roles, or the apostolic charge given to other women in Christ’s community. The lack of female representation and the ambiguous image we are left with because of mistranslations and misinterpretations, require us to further the historical and theological discussion of the scriptures so as to truly understand a woman’s vocation.

Religious principles are ingrained into society’s culture and morals. For centuries, the meaning behind Eve being created second has been used to confine women in the restraints of a patriarchal society. Religious institutions’ understanding of how Christ “structured” his Christian community and texts such as, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” has been used to justify male hierarchies.[34] It is uncertain whether claiming this historical biblical scholarship would change patriarchal institutions because of centuries rooted in tradition. However, the scholarship may be a necessary move towards deconstructing these institutions and patriarchal mindsets in Christian theology. Scholar of Theology, Elizabeth Johnson said of Magdalene, “In rendering her visible, women also become visible.”[35] Unveiling the women of the New Testament can be the source for liberating women in having opportunities, a voice, and a position in religion and society.


[1] New Testament: King James Version, (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), Luke 8:2; John 20; Mark 15-16
[2] Ibid., Luke 8:1-2.
[3] Ibid., John 20; Mark 15-16.

[4] Ibid., Romans 16; Acts 18; 1 Cor. 16; Phil. 4.
[5] Ibid., Mark 8:34; D’Angelo 114
[6] Ibid., John 19:25
[7] Ibid., John 20:1
[8] Luke 8:1-3, 6:17, 7:11.
[9] Bauckham, Richard, “Johanna the Apostle” in Gospel Women of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003) 112.
[10] 1 Cor. 9:1, NRSVUE.
[11] D’Angelo, “Reconstructing ‘Real’ Women in Gospel Literature,”: The Case of Mary Magdalene,” Women & Christian Origins, (Oxford University Press, 2010), 111.
[12] John 20:11-18; Matthew 28:10-11 NRSVUE; D’Angelo, “Reconstructing ‘Real’ Women,” 111.
[13] D’Angelo, “Reconstructing ‘Real’ Women,” 106; Brandon L. Wanless, “Apostle to the Apostles.” The Sacra Doctrine Projects: Thomistica; A Site for Academic Study of St. Thomas Aquinas, (Sacra Doctrina Project, 22 July 2019),; Backes, O.Praem. Dimminger, “Apostola Apostolorum” 66-71.
[14] Wanless, “Apostle to the Apostles,” 67.
[15] Inter Insigniores: “The Attitude of Christ”
[16] MacDonald, Margaret Y. “The Religious Lives of Women in Early Christianity,” Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts,” (Catholic University of America Press, 2005) 641.
[17] Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald, “A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity.” (Minneapolis: MN Fortress Press, 2006), 163.
[18] Romans 16:1-5, NRSVUE; Acts 18:18-19, NRSVUE.
[19] Margaret Y. MacDonald, “Reading Real Women Through the Undisputed Letters of Paul,” in Woman and Christian Origins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 204.
[20] MacDonald, “Undisputed Letters of Paul,” 208.
[21] MacDonald, “Undisputed Letters of Paul,” 207-208.
[22] Romans 16:1-5.
[23] Gench, Frances Taylor, “Beyond Textual Harassment” in Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts: Reflections on Paul, Women, and Authority of Scripture, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015) 141; Romans 16:1-33 Ibid., 2; 1 Timothy 2:15; Ephesians 5:22-24.
[24] Romans 16; Acts 18; 1 Cor. 16; Phil. 4.
[25] MacDonald, “Undisputed Letters of Paul,” 204-205; Phil. 4:2-3.
[26] Romans 16:7.
[27] MacDonald, “Undisputed Letters of Paul,” 210; 2 Corinthians 11:4-6, 13, 12:11-12, 29; Macdonald, “Undisputed Letters of Paul,” 209-210.
[28] Macdonald, “Undisputed Letters of Paul,” 209-210.
[29] Gench, “Beyond Textual Harassment,” 149.
[30] MacDonald, “Undisputed Letters of Paul,” 210.
[31] Gench, “Beyond Textual Harassment,” 2; 1 Timothy 2:15; Ephesians 5:22-24.
[32] Gench, “Beyond Textual Harassment,” 5.
[33] Gench, “Beyond Textual Harassment,” 12.
[34] 1 Timothy 2:12.
[35] Mercuri, Joanna. Truth About Mary Magdalene Could Open Doors for Women in the Church, Scholar Says. (Fordham Newsroom, 16 Apr. 2015),


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NRSVUE. National Council of the Churches of Christ. 2021. Acts 1, 18:18-19.

NRSVUE. National Council of the Churches of Christ. 2021. 1 Corinthians 9:1, 16.

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NRSVUE. National Council of the Churches of Christ. 2021. Matthew 28:10-11.

NRSVUE. National Council of the Churches of Christ. 2021. Philippians 4.
NRSVUE. National Council of the Churches of Christ. 2021. Romans 16:1-5, 33.

NRSVUE. National Council of the Churches of Christ. 2021. 1 Timothy 2:15.

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Bauckham, Richard. “Johanna the Apostle” in Gospel Women of the Named Women in the
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Margaret Y. MacDonald. “Reading Real Women Through the Undisputed Letters of Paul.” in
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MacDonald, Margaret Y. “The Religious Lives of Women in Early Christianity.” Women in
Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts. (Catholic University of America Press, 2005). 641.

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