Apostle to the apostles
May 1, 2023
In the Christian scriptures, there are two identified titles for followers of Jesus: disciples and apostles. Disciples are followers of Jesus. It is a very expansively defined role. Anyone who follows Jesus, his way, and his teachings, and believes in him is a disciple.
An apostle is defined with a bit more stringent criteria and in two different ways in the biblical tradition.
Paul is the first to speak about apostolic requirements outlining two main aspects necessary. In Pauline understanding, an apostle
- Had to be a witness to the risen Jesus
- Had to receive a command to proclaim a message from a divine source (called a commission)
Luke and Acts hold a more restrictive understanding of the criteria of apostleship:
- A person had to be a man
- Had to be with Jesus from the time he was baptized in the Jordan
- Witnessed the resurrected Jesus in the 40-day period of time between his resurrection and ascension (Mary Magdalene by Lesa Bellevie).
In this later definition, the term apostle is limited to the 12 men called to follow Jesus and to Matthias, elected to replace Judas.
Paul’s expansive (and remarkably inclusive) definition allowed for himself, Andronicus, and Junia to be named as apostles. It also opens the door to include Mary of Magdala to be among the apostolic leaders.
The third-century theologian Hippolytus of Rome named women (and Mary) as apostles; however, for centuries to follow, the institutional church favored the strict criteria of apostleship outlined in Luke, using the “12-men measure” as a foundation for a male-only priesthood. Thus, Mary Magdalene’s apostolic title and ministry were downplayed. Finally, some 2,000 years after Hippolytus’s statement, Pope John Paul II referred to Mary Magdalane as “apostle to the apostles.”
Many things led to a recovery of her place as Apostola Apostolorum, apostle to the apostles. Believers and theologians within the Christian church demanded she be seen rightly as a witness and faithful follower of Jesus who was equal to the apostles. Another element was the discovery of non-canonical texts and writings that revealed women in leadership in the early community and the Gospel of Mary, which was part of the Codex Berolinensis 8502 (Berlin Codex) found by German scholar Carl Reinhardt in 1896. These gave traction to the recovery of placing Mary in the circle of leadership and authority as a witness, teacher, and leader. Significant in recovering her status as an apostle has been rectifying her reputation, undoing the 1,500-plus years of thought that she was a prostitute.
Mary Magdalene is seen by some as equal to Peter in her leadership in the early Christian way. She most certainly holds a more significant place than most of history has afforded her. Our exploration of Mary Magdalene reminds us that we are in a continual state of learning, discovery, and correction. Our context shapes humans, but, with the Holy Spirit’s wisdom, study, and a questioning faith, new discoveries of ancient truths are found. Who Jesus chose to be amongst his followers is a continual surprise and revelation. Thanks be to God for the holy women who witnessed, saw, and shared the Risen Christ. Thanks be to God for the holy men who received this good news and came to believe it.
Prayer: Gracious God, thank you for the gift of scripture that teaches and draws us closer to you, to the Risen Christ and the Way. Give me a listening heart, a questioning faith that I may come to understand and be transformed by you. Thank you for all of your apostles who witness and share what they have seen. Alleluia. Amen.
Photo: Giovanni Pietro Birago, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons