Female prophets: a lost legacy?

This is the fourth in a series of articles on non-canonical writings. Previous installments can be found here.

By Deirdre Good

The 5th Century BCE playwright Euripides explains the connection between women and prophecy through one of his female characters:

“And in matters concerning the gods, for I consider these matters to be the most important, we women have the greatest share. For in the temple of Phoebus (Apollo) women prophesy the thoughts of Loxias (Apollo) and around Dodona’s holy foundations by the sacred oak, it is the female sex which conveys the thoughts of Zeus to any Greek who seeks them. Also, as to those rituals which are performed for the Fates (Moirai) and the nameless Goddesses (Eumenides), it is not holy for men to participate in them: all of them flourish in the hands of women. This is how the case for women stands in their dealings with the gods. ”

Menelippe, the speaker, is defending herself against detractors by pointing out the role of women as prophetic priests and oracle for the gods at Delphi and Dodona.

In post-exilic Israel, there were also women prophets. Judith is a prophet to whom knowledge is divinely imparted after her prayer (11:17-18). Job’s daughters are praised for their ecstatic hymnody in the 1st C BCE Testament of Job and their oracles are recorded. Female prophets at Corinth, in Egypt, and in Asia Minor mentioned in the New Testament, and after, inherit these prophetic mantles.

In a letter to the Corinthians written in mid-first century CE, Paul urges that female prophets at Corinth prophesy in the public assembly with a head covering, “because of the angels.” Paul recognizes women’s personal and public experience of the spirit, but his concern is that it seem unintelligible to outsiders. We can reconstruct something of their beliefs from Paul’s letter. They call themselves “spiritual ones,” whose speech to God and each other was in the “tongues of angels.” Perhaps their experience was focused on Sophia, Wisdom, whom Paul identifies carefully in the letter as Christ crucified–the object, never the subject of his proclamation. Perhaps they focused on separation from one’s spouse in order to practice celibacy as a state of spiritual receptivity.

Scholars have suggested that the Corinthian women experienced something similar to Philo’s 1st Century CE description of the community of Therapeutai or Therapeutrides in forming a monastic community near Lake Mariotis outside Alexandria in Egypt. Yearning to have Sophia as their true companion, these men and women renounced their spouses and property to become virgins. Their common worship includes the formation of two choirs, one of the men and one of the women, singing antiphonally. Then, “having drunk the strong wine of God’s love, they mix and both together become a single choir set up of old beside the Red Sea in honor of the wonders there wrought,” singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving to God their Savior, “the men led by the prophet Moses and the women by the prophetess, Miriam” (Philo, The Contemplative Life 85-7). It is possible that Corinthian women were attracted to ecstatic prophetic experience in a local worshipping community as a protest against the Emperor Augustus’ “family values” campaign designed to increase the population of the Roman Empire.

The author of the book of Revelation at the end of the first century CE criticizes a female prophet in the community at Thyatira he names Jezebel. She seems to have believed that eating meat sacrificed to other gods was no problem. Her condemnation by John, the author of Revelation, shows that there were a variety of opinions on the subject; whether her community was impoverished and needed food or whether she thought that idols were of no consequence we cannot say. She clearly had disciples whom John calls “her children” whom he threatens to strike dead. Rather than disagreeing with her attitude to pagan Rome, John makes the attack personal. Calling her Jezebel not only vilifies her and obscures her identity but also legitimates calling down divine vengeance down on her. We cannot gauge the effect of John’s words.

Besides the female prophets identified in Thyatira by John the seer of Patmos, we find four prophesying daughters of Philip in Acts 21 who move to Hierapolis in Asia Minor with their father. In the mid-second century, a movement called the New Prophecy or Montanism after its founder Montanus, swept through Asia Minor, North Africa and even to Rome. Oracles of Montanus, Priscilla, Quintilla and Maximilla are preserved in the attacks of their opponents Tertullian and Hippolytus. “Hear not me, hear rather Christ” said Maximilla. Priscilla claims warrant of the Paraclete of John’s gospel, “Appearing in the form of a woman, radiantly robed, Christ came to me and implanted Wisdom within me and revealed to me that this place [Pepuza] is holy and that here Jerusalem is to come down from heaven.” Scholars surmise that supporters of Montanism might be derived from Johannine communities, particularly women who disagreed with the author of the Fourth Gospel. Epiphanius says, “they acknowledge the sister of Moses as a prophetess as support for their practice of appointing women to the clergy.” Like the author of Revelation, the church fathers deployed the rhetorical strategy of attacking the morals of women leaders: Maximilla was not a virgin; followers were accepting money for personal gain.

Female prophets in early Christianity are not all obscure. Luke identifies Mary, the mother of Jesus as a prophet. Her first reaction to the angel’s message is to “consider in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.” She follows the angel’s response with a query: “How will this be since I do not know a man?” Receiving a satisfactory answer, and a confirmation from Elizabeth’s pregnancy, she sings a song of praise to God in thanksgiving for the angel’s message. We call this song the Magnificat from its opening words, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” It has connections to the song of the prophet Miriam in Exodus 15. Mary’s prophetic abilities are recognized outside the New Testament in a second century text called the Protevangelion of James. This is her vision:

And so (Joseph) saddled his donkey and had (Mary) get on it. His son led it and Samuel brought up the rear. As they neared the three-mile marker, Joseph turned around and saw that she was sulking. And he said to himself, ‘Perhaps the baby she is carrying is causing her discomfort.’ Joseph turned around again and saw her laughing and said to her, ‘Mariamme, what’s going on with you? One minute I see you laughing and the next minute you’re sulking.’ And she replied, ‘Joseph, it’s because I imagine two peoples in front of me, one weeping and mourning and the other celebrating and jumping for joy.’ (17.5-9)

Maria is Mariamme, a Miriam figure, when she is momentarily identified as a seer. In this scene alone, Mary is portrayed as one visited by a revelation that serves as the counterpart to Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2.34, “a sword will pierce your own soul also.” Only here does the Protevangelion of James reassign to a female figure prophetic insight that Luke attributes to a male character.

Female prophets from Greece to Israel, from North Africa to Rome were enthusiastic, creative, spontaneous and spiritually committed, crossing rational and spiritual boundaries in private and public settings. Why has Christian tradition never endorsed women prophets unreservedly? What voices have we lost? When women are positively valued as prophets, as in the case of Mary in Luke, or the four daughters of Phillip in Acts, they are chaste and virginal. When they are criticized, their behavior is described as sexually suspect. According to Luke, once Mary becomes a mother, she ceases to be a prophet. Paul recognizes female prophets at Corinth but is alarmed by them. In Revelation, and the assessments of the New Prophecy by the Church Fathers we see a rhetorical strategy of linking prophecy to sexual behavior. What would it be like if Christian tradition welcomed the voices and actions of women prophets?

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. She keeps the blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

Past Posts