Mary and Early Christian Women

Hidden Leadership

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Ally Kateusz
  • New York: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , March
     312 pages.
     Open Access.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


From the beginning of Mary and Early Christian Women, readers will sense that the time has come to rebuff the specious admonishment “Be submissive, like the Virgin” that has been oppressive to many little girls and women. Author Ally Kateusz now challenges Christian traditions—including modern Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic—to disempower the distorted image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “as an unhealthy feminine ideal of obedience and self-sacrifice,” created by subtle and heavy-handed scribal customs of silencing women’s authority (1).

The purpose of this book is to rediscover Mary’s authority as an apostle, high priest, and bishop depicted in early Christian iconographic and textual evidence and to reclaim the importance of women’s leadership in the liturgy, including the actual presence of gender-parallel officiants, practiced from the early Christian era.  Kateusz intensely argues that Jesus’ mother was not portrayed as a submissive woman but as a liturgical leader in the early Jesus movement. Especially, upon rediscovery of early Christian literature and art, depictions of Mary “with an upright posture and a direct gaze,” found in inscriptions on so many artifacts and texts of early Christian times, represent her as one of the greatest women’s leadership role models and one of many female apostles who preached, healed, baptized, prayed, and officiated liturgical ceremonies (1).

It is quite striking that Kateusz’s analysis attempts to reverse the “centuries-old text-critical criterion lectio brevior portior (prefer the shorter reading),” used as the old New Testament rule of thumb of early Christian texts (22). Her critical and comparative redaction analysis is largely based on early Christian literature and visual images that illustrate enormous patterns of gender-equivalent authority collected around the Mediterranean. To prove women’s authority, including Mary and other women’s liturgical leadership, she predominantly engages twenty-one narrative elements across eight recensions of the Six Books that “describes Mary sending out women evangelists with books.” (47–48).

This book is composed of eight chapters that will satisfy readers’ curiosity and readily involve its arguments. In chapters 1, 2, and 3, Kateusz’s research methodology and framework direct the innovative progression of her analysis of Mary and early women leaders’ authority. In chapter 1, Kateusz attracts readers with the presentation of Mary’s background in extracanonical gospels as well as with her perspective on breaking the false imagination of the past over Mary and hidden early Christian women leaders. In chapter 2, she suggests reversing the problematic old rule of thumb and the necessity of redaction analysis of Mary’s liturgical leadership. Redaction critics’ rediscovery of markers about women’s authority facilitates readers’ imagination of the historical scenes of early women using censers and incense.

In chapter 3, Kateusz discusses the importance of intertextual analysis on the longest narratives about early women apostles, which turns upside down the predominant idea that only men were apostles and church leaders in early Christian times. The author defends “the extracanonical rule-of thumb for narratives of women leaders [as preachers and baptizers]: longest is oldest, or longest is preferred” (50). She uses four women leaders as examples—Mariamne, Irene, Nino, and Thecla—described in the longest or oldest manuscript fragments of the Acts of Philip, Acts of Thecla, Life of Thecla, Xenophontos 32, Old Syriac Gospels, and the Life of St. Nino. The strength of this discovery powerfully supports her arguments that these women leaders were visible and common as apostles who washed, sealed, or baptized other people including men and women (64).

In chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7, Kateusz analyzes Mary and other women in many art forms and ancient literature to fully identify her and other women’s authority as high priests and bishops. In chapter 4, the author discusses how, in opposition to the message of 1 Timothy, Jesus’ mother as described in the Six Books practices her leadership by raising her arms to pray, speaking prayers, and having authority over men. This is similar to the temple high priests as described in Sirach 50:19–21; Leviticus 9:22; Deuteronomy 10:8; 23:20, 1 Chronicles; and Luke 24:50. Chapter 4 analyzes diverse works of art, including altar apses in basilicas, paintings, mosaics, monastery frescoes, Eucharistic handkerchiefs, and so on. In chapters 5–7, Kateusz examines women’s authority as portrayed in the Marian iconography of pairing mother and son in early Christian arts as well as the Life of the Virgin and its antecedents. In these chapters, readers will also rediscover the historical records of gender-parallel officiants at the ritual meal, representing women’s clerical authority in Christian ministry.

In chapter 8, readers are urged not to miss the historical dilemma of “silencing some of the oldest memories of biblical and apostolic women who held ritual and community leadership roles” (184). The author criticizes the lack of some modern scholars’ imagination about ancient gender roles and argues that deliberate institutional censorship functioned to silence such women’s leadership. However, she powerfully reclaims women’s authority in liturgy based on her presentation of numerous discoveries in historical materials.

This book will inspire Christian scholars, ministers, and congregations to rethink their perspectives on gender roles in Christianity. Upending intentional historical omissions or distortions of historical records, this book will assist in breaking the prevalent misperception that early church women leaders were rare. It will challenge readers to fully acknowledge that women have been integrally present throughout Christian history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

JungJa Joy Yu is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Institute of Globalization and Multicultural Studies at Hanyang University, South Korea.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ally Kateusz is research associate at the Wijngaards Institute of Catholic Research in London. She is a cultural historian whose work focuses on religion and gender. Her research has been published in the Journal of Early Christian Studies, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, as well as other venues, and has won prestigious awards.


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