“Theios Aner” and the Praiseworthy Woman

In addition to virtue, another way that early Christian literature depicts “praiseworthy women” is with the Christological “theios aner,” which is based on “a doctrine [coming] from Hellenism [that] strongly influenced the Hellenistic Jews of the Diaspora who later became Christians.”[1] The Christian belief in “theios aner,” then, is distinctly aretalogical,[2] having originated in the Christian interpretation of Jesus as being “a ‘divine miracle-man’ demonstrating his divine character by acts of power.”[3]

For those that believed in the “theios aner,” divine character and acts of power weren’t limited to Jesus as interpreted in early Christian literature, but, instead, Christian tradition “proclaim[ed] that [because] a divine power was operative in Jesus of Nazareth [it was] consequently [evident] in those who followed him [so that] through faith in him, his admirers too acquire[d] the same power to exorcize, perform cures and so forth.”[4] What this means is that, when “praiseworthy women,” as admirers and followers of Jesus, had faith in Jesus as Christ, early Christian literature represented them as vehicles of divine power. This, of course, was similar to the Judaic tradition of the spirituality of women,[5] but in early Christian literature, the spirituality of women had more divine resonance, where they become more than just the spiritual influences in the Judaic home, but become spiritually-divine representations of Jesus as Christ in the Christian community.

Two examples of the “theios aner” in early Christian literature are in “The Gospel of Mary” of c. 100s C.E. and “Acts of Paul and Thecla” of c. 150-200 C.E. “The Gospel of Mary,” as supposedly authored by Mary Magdalene, dates from the second century and seeks to “convey a closeness between Mary [Magdalene] and Jesus that some of the other disciples may have found enviable.”[6] This closeness, then, is perpetuated through the notion that “Christ [came] to her in a vision to impart special knowledge and honor”[7] not afforded to the disciples. More importantly, this special knowledge and honor can be construed as the embodiment of the “theios aner” in Mary Magdalene, by which she “claims [in the text] to have a continuing experience of Christ.”[8] The potency of Mary’s experience of Christ, as imparted in the text, solicits conflict from Peter and, in the end, allows for another disciple named Levi to postulate, in reference to the ineffable “theios aner” in Mary, “if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you to reject her.”[9]

The worthiness of Mary as a “praiseworthy woman” is, then, also evidenced in Thecla from the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” which was written in Greek in the latter half of the second century. In this text, as with Mary Magdalene in “The Gospel of Mary,” Thecla is transformed by her experience in Christ but as it is translated through the teachings of Paul. In response to Paul’s teachings of chastity as part of the role of a Christian in order to receive salvation, Thecla is “convinced to renounce her impending marriage and commit herself to a life of witness.”[10] By making this choice, Thecla is condemned by her fiancé and her mother to be “burned as an example to other women who follow Paul.”[11] What ensues, however, is evidence of something miraculous occurring within Thecla due to “her fierce commitment to purity and faithfulness”[12] that can only be described as the “theios aner.” As a result, Thecla has become deified as a patron saint of the early church and Mary Magdalene, though her reputation as being likewise has been disputed throughout tradition,[13] the “theios aner” motif in early Christian literature represents a means of propaganda[14] to advance the New Testament church message about the recognition of women as prophetic figures.[15]

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[1] Refer to Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company), 424.

[2] The concept of aretalogy is a recitation of the virtues of a hero, deity, or holy man in Hellenistic literature. Refer to Walter Liefeld, “The Hellenistic ‘Divine Man’ and the Figure of Jesus in the Gospels” (Presented to a seminar at Evangelical Theological Society, 1973), 196.

[3] Refer to Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company), 425.

[4] Ibid., 426.

[5] Women in Judaism embodied an atoning force stronger than the traditional altar especially when they were wives within the domestic seclusion of their families. This same spiritual influence was not only within the woman as mother in the home, where rabbis considered a child a Jew only if the child’s mother was a Jewess, but for the woman in relation to a man, where “if a pious man marries a wicked woman he will become wicked, but if a wicked man marries a pious woman, she will make him pious.” Refer to Ben Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity (New York, NY: Cambridge University press, 1990), 6.

[6] Amy G. Oden, In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 17.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.; Ibid, 20.

[10] Ibid., 21.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Western tradition mistakenly identifying her with the repentant sinner spoken of yet left unnamed in Luke 7:37-50. Ibid.

[14] Walter Liefeld, “The Hellenistic ‘Divine Man’ and the Figure of Jesus in the Gospels.” (Presented to a seminar at Evangelical Theological Society, 1973), 203.

[15] Refer to Linwood Urban, A Short History of Christian Thought (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995), 377.

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