The Apostleship of Women in Early Christianity by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza from 'Women Priests'

The Apostleship of Women in Early Christianity

by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 135-140. Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza studied at the Universities of Wuerzburg and Muenster, earning a Licentiate in Pastoral Theology and a Doctorate in Theology. Her books include Die Getrennte Schwestern, and many books since then. An Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame, she was at the time associate editor of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal of Biblical Literature, and Horizons.

The Vatican Declaration and Commentary appear to assume that the Twelve and the apostles were essentially one and the same group of people (cf. n. 10). Since no woman was called to be a member of the Twelve, no woman received the apostolic charge. This conclusion is, however, not cogent if initially the terms the Twelve and the apostles were not coextensive but designated different leadership circles in early Christianity which only partly overlapped. It must therefore be asked whether women might have received the apostolic charge even though they were not among the Twelve. In the following we must discuss more carefully how the NT writers understand the function and the office of apostle and whether or not, according to the NT, women were entrusted with the apostolic function and office in primitive Christianity.

From the outset we can say that the NT writings contain several different conceptions rather than a singular interpretation of apostleship. They give us neither a clear definition of apostolicity nor a simple definition of apostle. While non-specialists may feel certain who the apostles were, the numerous exegetical studies of the last twenty-five years(1) demonstrate that the case is not at all so clear. There is neither consensus on the origin and derivation of the Christian designation “apostle” nor agreement on who belonged to the circle of the apostles in early Christianity. The use of the designation in pre-Christian Hellenism and Judaism does not explain the meaning of the term and its origin in early Christianity. The majority of scholars would agree today that neither the function nor the self-understanding of the Christian apostle can strictly be derived from the use of the “ambassador” term in Rabbinic Judaism, since the Jewish missionaries were never called “apostles” and use of the term is not documented for pre-Christian Judaism. The use and meaning of the designation “apostle” has a peculiar Christian origin and emphasis.

On the other hand the majority of scholars studying the problem agree that the generally assumed, popular understanding of apostleship limiting the circle and function of the apostles to that of the Twelve does not stand at the beginning of the development of the apostle-concept but at the end. In the Pauline letters, the oldest NT sources available to us, the term is still very fluid and not clearly defned.(2) These letters give evidence that Paul had a different understanding of apostleship than Luke. Moreover, Paul did not introduce the term and function but had found it already given in his tradition. Finally, the Pauline texts also indicate that many more apostles existed in early Christianity than we now know by name.

The following does not intend to trace the origin and development of the concept of apostle(3) in early Christianity but simply to list the different types and understandings of apostleship encountered in the NT writings. Only then can we raise the question of which criteria for apostleship the NT writers propose and whether women fulfilled these criteria and functioned as apostles.

1. Apostleship based on the resurrection appearance of Jesus Christ

The references to the circle of apostles in 1Cor 15:7 and Gal 1:17-19 understand the apostles to be a cohesive group that was in existence before Paul and lived probably in or near Jerusalem. Its claim to apostleship appears to be based on the resurrection appearances of Jesus. There is no way to decide definitely whether or not in the pre-Pauline tradition and Paul’s own understanding women were members of this circle of apostles in Jerusalem.(4) It is true that the masculine form of the noun is used, but the masculine form also permits a generic usage of the word. What speaks in favor of such a generic interpretation of the term is that the NT often uses masculine terminology in a generic sense to include and to address the female members of the community. Otherwise we would have to assume that most letters, sayings, and admonitions expressed in masculine terminology would not pertain to Christian women. In other words, the NT preaching and the gospel message would be inherently sexist, if we would insist that all masculine forms in the NT are restrictcd to males.

Since according to the canonical and apocryphal Gospels women are the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection and are sent to the male disciples to proclaim the Easter message(5) women could have been members of this circle of the Jerusalem apostles. This is suggested by the summary account of Acts 1: 14 The germ-cell of the primitive Church consisted of the Eleven, the women witnesses with Mary of Magdala,(6) and the mother and brothers of Jesus. According to 1Cor 15:5, 7 and according to Mark, Matthew and John, it was the Eleven, the women witnesses, and James the brother of the Lord who experienced a resurrection appearance and were witnesses to the resurrection. The summary description of Acts reflects traditions in which women were a part of the nucleus of the primitive Church. This is significant because Luke attempts to play down the qualification of the women disciples for apostleship (cf. Lk 24).

2. A postles—charismatic missionaries



It appears that a second group of apostles did not so much base their apostolic claim on a resurrection appearance as derive it from their missionary success The apostles of the Hellenistic missionary field appear to have been itinerant preachers whose proclamation was confirmed by mighty signs and wonders. The so-called “super-apostles” or “false apostles” or the “other apostles” against whom Paul might be polemicizing in 1Cor 9:5 and to whom he certainly refers in 2 Cor 10-13, probably understood themselves in such a way. They seem to have placed special emphasis upon missionary success as the legitimization of their apostleship. They travelled from city to city, relying on the communities for their support and for letters of recommendation. They appear to have travelled with women missionaries or as missionary couples (1 Cor 9:5).(7)

Paul does not dispute their claim to apostleship as itinerant missionaries for he calls himself and other co-missionaries apostles in the same sense. Such missionary apostles were Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14), Timothy and Silas (1Thess 2:6f.) and Andronicus and Junia (Rm 16:7). Just as Paul emphasized in his dispute with the Jerusalem apostles that he too has seen the risen Lord so he insists vis-a-vis the super-apostles that he can claim for himself the signs and visions of an apostle (1Cor 2:4; Rm 15:19; 2 Cor 12:1-7). Paul acknowledges that the apostle has the right to refrain from working for a living. Yet he emphasises that he himself consciously has not made use of his right.(8) For Paul apostleship is not proved by exclusive claims and rights but by the fruits of the missionary work (1Cor 9:15-18). Its decisive mark does not consist in signs and mighty speech but in the conscious acceptance and endurance of the labors and sufferings connected with the missionary task (1Cor 4:8-13; 2 Cor 11-12). Andronicus and Junia,(9) mentioned in Rm 16:7, fulfill these criteria of Pauline apostleship. They had become Christians even before Paul and they had suffered prison for their missionary activity. They probably were Hellenistic Jews who had become highly respected among the apostles and are fellow prisoners of Paul.

3. Apostles of the Churches

2 Cor 8:23 and Phil 2:25 mention “apostles of the churches,” who appear to be most similar to the emissaries of the Jewish community.(10) They are the official messengers or delegates of the Christian churches of Macedonia (2 Cor 8:23) or of the church at Philippi (Phil 2:25); Paul recommends them highly. A woman appears to have had a similar role in the church at Cenchreae. In Rm 16:1 Phoebe is called the diakonos of the church at Cenchreae and she too is highly recommended by Paul. In NT Greek the title diakonos means not primarily “servant” or “deacon” but “herald” or official messenger.(11) The term, however, is almost never used for charitable service 1Cor 3:5, 9 indicates that Paul uses this term exchangeably with synergos (12) (i.e., missionary co-worker). Moreover, 2 Cor 11:13 documents that Paul uses the titles apostolos and diakonos interchangeably to address the same circle of persons. It can therefore be assumed that the diakonos title characterizes Phoebe as official messenger and missionary apostle of the church at Cenchreae. Since the diakonos title can be used interchangeably with the apostolos title she is characterized as fulfilling the function of an apostle of the Church. Like other missionaries and apostles she has received a letter of recommendation.

4. The Lukan understanding of apostleship

A very late stage in the development of the apostle-concept and function is found in the Lukan writings.(13) Luke not only identifies the apostles with the Twelve but also spells out criteria for apostleship. To become one of the twelve apostles it is necessary to have accompanied Jesus from his baptism to his ascension and to become a witness to his resurrection. According to Luke’s traditions women have fulfilled these criteria and functions of apostleship. Women accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem (Mk 15:40f.) and they were the first disciples to receive the resurrection message (Mk 16:7) and to have seen the Lord (Mt 28:9f.; Jn 20:18). Why then does Luke limit apostleship to men (Acts 1:21)? The answer might lie in his identification of the apostles with the Twelve. Luke was aware that women fulfilled the conditions for apostleship. However, he was also aware that according to tradition no women were members of the Twelve. Thus he felt compelled to give the women disciples a preeminent place equal to that of the Twelve (Lk 8:1-3), while not calling them apostles and deemphasizing their resurrection witness (24:11.34). It becomes apparent that Luke’s theological redaction had to formulate maleness as an additional criterion for apostleship because of the peculiar Lukan understanding that the circle of the apostles was co-extensive with that of the Twelve. It is, however, extremely significant that in the Lukan writings the twelve apostles fade from the picture once the Gentile mission is under way. Moreover, Luke’s theological conception of apostleship as limited to the Twelve has no historical foundation, since the Pauline letters indicate that the circle of apostles was much wider in early Christianity, and that even in Paul’s time apostleship was not yet clearly defined and limited. Finally, later writings still know of apostles as itinerant missionaries (Rev 2:2; 18:20; Didache 11:6).

In summary: A careful study of the NT writings demonstrates that different types and understandings of apostleship were present in early Christianity. Whereas the Pauline writings attest to a wider circle of apostles, Luke considers the Twelve to be the apostles par excellence. The Pauline letters know of two types of apostles. Whereas the Jerusalem type bases its claim to apostleship upon a resurrection appearance of the risen Lord, the itinerant missionary type derives its claim from the success of missionary work. In connection with these different types of apostles the NT writers spell out the following criteria for apostleship.

1. Apostles must be witnesses of the resurrection.

2. Apostles must be witnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus.

3. Apostles must be sent to missionary work and exhibit the charisma necessary for this work.

In arguing with his opponents at Corinth and in Galatia, Paul stresses that on the one hand he experienced resurrection appearance and that on the other hand he was sent to do missionary work and has proven himself an outstanding missionary. The requirement of personal involvement with the earthly Jesus and his ministry seems not yet to have been a necessary criterion for apostleship in Paul’s time, since in no way could Paul have fulfilled this criterion. The NT writings however indicate that women fulfilled all these criteria of apostleship. Women accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, they were the primary witnesses of the resurrection, and they were outstanding missionaries in the early Church. On biblical grounds it would be easier to prove that Paul was not entrusted with the “apostolic charge” than to demonstrate that women were excluded from apostleship.


1. For surveys of research cf. H. Mosbech, “Apostolos in the New Testament,” StTh, Vol. 2 (1948), pp. 166-200; E.M. Kredel, “Der Apostelbegriff in der neueren Exegese,” ZKTh, Vol. 78 (1956), pp. 169-193, 257-305: J Roloff, Apostolat, Verkündigung, Kirche (Gütersloh: Mohn, 1965), pp. 9-37; R.Schnackenburg, “Apostles Before and During Paul’s Time,” in Gasque Martin, Apostolic History and the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) pp. 287-303; R.E. Brown, Priest and Bishop, Biblical Reflections (New York Paulist Press, 1970), pp. 47-86; C.K. Barrett, The Signs of an Apostle (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972); J.A. Kirk, “Apostleship since Rengstorff,” NTS, Vol. 21 (1975), pp. 249-264.

2. Cf. H.Greeven, “Propheten, Lehrer, Vorsteher bei Paulus,” ZNW Vol. 44 (1952/53), pp. 1-43; D. Georgi, Die Gegner des Paulus im 2. Korintherbrief (Neukirchen: Vluyn, 1964), pp. 42f.; R.Schnackenburg, “Apostles,” p. 289.

3. K.H. Rengstorf, TWNT, Vol. I (1933), pp. 406-448 (=TDNT I 407-447); L. Cerfaux, “Pour l’histoire du titre Apostolos dans le Nouveau Testament,” Rech SR, Vol. 48 (1960), pp. 78-92 and J.A.Kirk

4. On the basis of this text it should therefore not be argued that the NT writers give a secondary position to the appearance to a woman or to women and that women were not “official” witnesses of the resurrection. The distinction between “official” and “unofficial” witness to the resurrection appears to reflect our contemporary church institutions and to project our situation back into the first century.

5. According to the critical criteria of historical authenticity, women were the primary witnesses to the resurrection. The criterion of distinctiveness or dissimilarity maintains that those NT materials can be considered to be historically authentic that are dissimilar to well-known tendencies in Judaism or in early Christianity. In the Judaism of the time women probably were not admitted as official witnesses. Moreover, because of apologetic reasons the early church played down the Easter witness of the women disciples (cf. already Lk 24). the criterion of distinctiveness would indicate that the women’s witness is probably historically authentic. Secondly, the criterion of multiple attestation also speaks for the historicity of the women’s witness, since all four Gospels know that women disciples first received the message of the resurrection. This knowledge likewise can not be due to a widespread Church practice of the time. Finally, the criterion of cohesiveness supports the historicity of the women’s witness, since this tradition about the resurrection witness of women coheres with the information of the Gospels that in his itinerant ministry women disciples accompanied Jesus, contrary to the customs of the time.

6. The most prominent of the women must have been Mary of Magdala, since all four Gospels transmit her name while the names of the other women vary. The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel according to Mary and the Pistis Sophia understand her leadership as co-equal to that of Peter, who sees her as a rival. The tradition calls her “apostle to the apostles.” This title is accepted by the statement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission: Part III. In my writings I have consistently pointed out the importance of Mary of Magdala: cf. E. Schüssler, Der vergessene Partner (Düsseldorf: Patmos, 1964), pp. 57-59; E. Schüssler Fiorenza, “Feminist Theology as a Critical Theology of Liberation,” in W. Burkhardt, ed., Woman: New Dimensions (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), pp. 48-50; “Die Rolle der Frau in der urchristlichen Bewegung,” Concilium, Vol. 12 (1976), pp. 3-9.

7. Their self-understanding and ministry appears to have been patterned after the itinerant ministry of Jesus. Cf. G. Theissen, “Itinerant Radicalism. The Traditions of the Jesus Sayings from the Perspective of the Sociology of Literature,” Radical Religion Reader: The Bible and Liberation (Berkeley, 1976), pp. 84-93.

8. Cf. G. Theissen, “Legitimation und Lebensunterhalt: Ein Beitrag zur Soziologie urchristlicher Missionäre,” NTS, Vol. 21 (1975), pp. 192-221.

9. See essay by Bernadette Brooten on the woman apostle Junia, pp. 141-144.

10. Cf. Rengstorf, op. cit.

11. Cf. J. Gnilka, Der Philipperbrief (HThNT X, 3; Freiburg: Herder, 1968), p. 39.

12. See essay by Mary Ann Getty on synergos, pp. 176-182.

13. G. Klein, Die Zwölf Apostel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1961), pp. 202ff. maintains that the apostleship of the Twelve had its origin in Lukan theology. J. Roloff, op. cit., p.232, argues that Luke used existing traditions to develop his theological concept.

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