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On Making Bishop Theodora Male


Image: Allykateusz.org Bishop Theodora, far left



Sylvia: Ally, in your talk, “Making Bishop Theodora Male”, you mention that much more information has been emerging on women in high priestly roles during ancient times. For centuries we have been told there weren't any women leaders and this has been used to explain why women aren't allowed to preach in church. Who is making these discoveries?


Ally: A variety of scholars and archeologists have published useful articles on likely women leaders during the last several decades, and increasingly so recently. Evidence of women in high priestly roles is more rare and often not clearly identified as a woman bishop, for example, a burial of an early medieval woman wearing a large square cross ornament was discovered in England a couple years ago, and even though it was said that she was an important religious leader, it was not said that the cross ornament looked like an encolpion, which if worn by a man would identify him as a bishop. 


Sylvia: So, even with these illuminating finds, they aren't giving credit where credit seems to be due. Using the example you just gave--they have not announced that this female person they discovered had likely been a Bishop; which would be an incredible thing to let people know about. Why do you think the fact that women held these positions back then isn’t made general public knowledge or taught about in schools? Most people that I share this information with are surprised by it. They simply assume that there weren't any female Bishops because if there were, they would have heard about them.


Ally: The male church hierarchy has worked very hard to cultivate our false imagination of the past as a time when only men served at church altars. Considerable evidence, written and iconographic, demonstrates otherwise. 


Sylvia: How was Bishop Theodora made male? What is the story? 


Ally: Her name and title appear twice, once engraved on a column identifying her as Pope Paschal’s mother, and again on the mosaic. In the mosaic, the word EPISCOPA remains, but the RA was replaced with gold mosaic pieces to blend with the background, which made her name into the masculine THEODO. This sort of erasure of women leaders is how the church hierarchy cultivates our false imagination of the past. 


Sylvia: This is incredible that this coverup and change of gender isn't talked about more and isn't part of common knowledge now. The same was done with the female Apostle Junia--they added an "s" to the end of her name to make her sound male and "Junias" was not even a male name that existed during ancient times. It's good that scholars and archeologists are bringing these things to our attention now, so we can start the conversations. Thank you for all of your important work on the topic.


Cultural Historian, Ally Kateusz, PhD, is a Research Associate at the Wijngaards Institute of Catholic Research in London. Her writings can be found in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and in the Journal of Early Christian Studies, and many others. Her book Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.


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