Menu iconFilter Results
Topics: Complementarianism, Egalitarianism, Eikon

Should We Consider Mary the First Apostle?

April 29, 2024

Editor’s Note: The following article is Part III of a response to Christianity Today’s April 2024 cover story on gender and appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Eikon. Parts I and II can be read here and here.

One of the glorious and beautiful truths of—and legacies of—biblical Christianity is Christianity’s effect in history of ameliorating the various sufferings seen in the world. as Tom Holland has recounted in his one-volume church history, Dominion, Holland was somewhat surprised at how Christianity changed the world into which it arrived. Christianity led to the amelioration of much of the suffering and brutality of the ancient world. A beautiful and serendipitous discovery indeed by Holland. And Christians should rejoice at how Christianity—from its earliest moments—encouraged (indeed commanded Christians to treat woman with love, especially as seen in the husband-wife relationship, where husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and gave himself for her (Ephesians 5:25). So, we should not be surprised to see in the pages of the New Testament women right there alongside men in numerous passages.

McNutt’s and Peeler’s Christianity Today essay, “The First Apostle,” was intriguing to read. When I was asked to write a response to the essay, I was happy to do so. The more I have read the essay in writing a response, I have had to work at the best way to respond. I should say, Jennifer Powell McNutt is a friend, while I don’t believe I know Amy Beverage Peeler. The difficulty of writing a response is for two related reasons: (1) I think there are actually two essays (or theses) here; (2) I think there is something of an equivocation or ambiguity in how the word “apostle” is being used. The “Mary” being considered here is Mary Magdalene, and not Mary the mother of Jesus, or any of the other myriad “Marys” in the New Testament.

Here is what I take to be the essays/theses to be:

  • Mary Magdalene is a blessed woman, had the honor of being close to Jesus and to being one of the first persons to see the risen Jesus, was told by Jesus to share the news of his resurrection/ascending, and was able share the good news of the resurrection of Jesus.
  • Mary Magdalene should be considered the “first apostle”.

Few (no?) Christians would quibble about the thesis “a.” If one reads the four gospels, Mary Magdalene appears at a number of places—including at the death of Jesus, as well as coming to the tomb and being told by Jesus to go share that he has risen (or “is ascending”—Jn. 20:17) (Matt. 28:5-10; Mk. 16:1, 6; Lk. 23:55-56, 24:4-10; Jn. 19:25; 20:1-18).

But many persons would wonder if it is necessary, or wise, or accurate to affirm thesis “b”: that Mary Magdalene should be considered the “first apostle”.

These two oscillating theses I think can be seen in relation to the second main issue of concern I have: something of an equivocation or ambiguity about the term “apostle”. What is an apostle? In the New Testament, the criteria for being an apostle appear to be two-fold:

  • Those who had known Jesus in his earthly ministry as well as seen the resurrected Jesus (Mark 14:28; 16:7; Matt. 26:32; 28:16; Luke 24:36-53; John 20:19-29; 21:1-4; cf. Acts 1:1-3; 1 Cor. 15:5)
  • Those had been called or appointed or chosen, who would be given authority, and who were sent for a special purpose.
  • Called/appointed/chosen: Matt. 10:1; Mk. 3:14; Lk. 6:13; Lk. 9:1; Acts 1:2
  • Given authority: Matt. 10:1; Mk. 3:14; 1 Thess. 2:6 (apostleship seems to denote authority to make “demands”; cf. 1 Cor. 9:3-14)
  • Sent for a special purpose: Matt. 10:5; Mark 3:14; Lk. 9:2 (cf. Acts 1:7

Additionally, the New Testament explicitly designates the twelve disciples as “apostles” (Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 3:14-19; Luke 6:13-16. The twelve apostles are explicitly said to be chosen (Luke 6:13; Acts 1:2) or appointed (Mark 3:14). The New Testament can speak of “the twelve” some thirty-four times, with thirty of those occurrences being the twelve disciples or apostles. The other occurrences of “the twelve” speak of the patriarchs (Acts 7:8), tribes (Mt. 19:28; James 1:1; Revelation 21:12), or gates (Revelation 21:21). Matthew 19:28 also speaks of “twelve thrones”.

Paul, of course, is also an apostle (Acts 14:14; 1 Cor. 15:9; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1;1; 1 Tim. 1:1; 2 Tim. 1:1; Titus 1:1). Paul is an apostle “untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8, ESV), for his call did in fact come from Jesus, but Paul’s witness to the resurrected Jesus (like other apostles) came from the risen and exalted Jesus) (unlike the other apostles) (Acts 9:3-6; cf. Acts 22:10 and 26:16-17).

The circle of apostles may have centered in, indeed seems to have certainly centered in, the twelve and Paul. But there is no reason to limit apostles to the twelve and Paul. James the brother of Jesus is called an apostle (Gal. 1:19; cf. 1 Cor. 9:5). In Romans 16:7 Andronicus and Junia are either a part of the apostles or are well-known to the apostles. Silvanus (1 Thess. 1:1) may have been an apostle (1 Thess. 2:6). Paul’s apparent distinction between “the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5) and “all the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:7) may also point to a broader group of apostles. Finally, Jesus Christ himself in Hebrews 3:1 is called “the apostle and high priest of our confession”.

In short, when McNutt and Peeler suggest that Mary Magdalene is the “first apostle,” this requires an equivocation on the word “apostle”. There is a kind of linguistic elision going on here, it seems to me. If being an “apostle” entails the kind of criteria outline above, then Mary Magdalene is certainly not an “apostle,” for she does not meet the criteria above. However, if being an “apostle” simply means being a witness, even a witness whom Jesus “sent” in some way (Matt. 28:5-10; Mk. 16:1, 6; Lk. 23:55-56, 24:4-10; Jn. 19:25; 20:1-18), then Mary Magdalene would be an apostle. But in this more attenuated sense of “apostle,” the logic of McNutt and Peeler’s essay is that—ultimately—every Christian is (or can be) an apostle. And I was not surprised when McNutt and Peeler reach this conclusion by the end of the essay (speaking of Mary Magdalene):

She is a redeemed sinner whom the Spirit of God empowered to follow Jesus and whom Jesus himself commissioned to tell the good news of his return to life on Easter morning.

The final words of the essay follow from the logic of the essay:

As we encounter her image, let us use it as a mirror to see ourselves and what we, by God’s gracious power, can become: apostles, sent to tell the good news of the Resurrection.

Again, if “apostle” simply means one who is “sent” to share the gospel, then of course every Christian is an “apostle”. But if “apostle” is interpreted against the whole matrix of the New Testament, then every Christian is most certainly not an apostle.

Perhaps it is fitting to end by turning to the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul. Paul believes in the importance of the apostles and the prophets. Indeed, in Ephesians 2:19-20 Paul can write that the “household of God” itself is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” Christians are indeed being “built together” (Eph. 2:22), but Christians like you and I are not the foundation itself. Paul asks a question in 1 Corinthians 12:29. He poses a straightforward (albeit rhetorical) question: “Are all apostles?” The obvious and expected answer is obvious: no. We are all witnesses, ambassadors, followers of the Lord Jesus. But we are not all “apostles”. When the logic of our argument places us in opposition to the Apostle to the Gentiles, we should think twice about how we got into such a position.

Did you find this resource helpful?

You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.

Donate Today