Campus & Community

Women Priests, Vegetarianism – An Early Christian Manuscript Holds Some Surprises

7 min read

François Bovon has spent many years peering into the mists that shroud the early history of Christianity. His investigations have shown him something that might surprise nonscholars – that even in the religion’s infancy, when the first generation of Christians were spreading the faith, diversity of belief was already the norm rather than the exception.

“The usual view is that in the beginning was unity and then schisms developed. Now we have to say that in the beginning there were several communities that differed significantly from one another,” Bovon said.

Bovon, the Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion at the Divinity School, has made a major contribution toward clarifying our picture of the early Christian world with his publication of a 4th-century text describing the acts of the apostle Philip. The manuscript describes a community of celibate vegetarians in which both women and men functioned as priests.

Bovon and his colleague Bertrand Bouvier of the University of Geneva discovered the manuscript in a monastery library on Mt. Athos in Greece.

That they found the manuscript at all is a testimony to Bovon’s finely honed detective skills. While examining a catalog of the monastery’s holdings, the Swiss-born scholar noticed that a Greek word in the title of a manuscript was plural rather than singular.

“Only one letter, and yet it makes a great difference.”

The word was praxeis, meaning “acts. The word jumped out at Bovon because most of the other known manuscripts chronicling the career of the apostle Philip record only one praxis or “act,” that of Philip’s martyrdom

“It was an invitation to me, to find out what was behind that plural.”

Philip is mentioned several times in the New Testament, but little is known about him from canonical sources. But there is more information about Philip and other first-generation Christian missionaries in a body of literature known as The Aprocryphal Acts of the Apostles, comprising stories that were eliminated from the New Testament by 4th-century editors.

Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have tended to preserve these accounts, even though they do not have the status of sacred scripture. This is because the apostles (except for Judas Iscariot) are also saints, and in order to celebrate their feast days, the churches needed information about their lives on which to base ceremonial and iconographic traditions.

But these apocryphal texts have themselves been subject to editing by Church authorities in order to bring the liturgical and theological elements in line with orthodox doctrine. The revisions tend to leave out passages that reveal the diversity of practice and belief that characterized early Christianity.

“As scholars, we would like to go back before these revisions were made,” Bovon said.

Recovering this earlier narrative of Philip’s ministry involved something very much like a journey through time. The monastic community of Mt. Athos is a world unto itself, residing on a narrow, rocky peninsula that reaches into the Aegean like a bony finger. At its tip is Mt. Athos, a peak of white marble 6,670 feet in elevation.

Along the coast are some 20 Orthodox monasteries that govern the peninsula as an autonomous theocracy. There are no automobiles, little electricity, and by a 1060 edict of the Emperor Constantine Manomachos, which is still in force, neither women nor female domestic animals are permitted to set foot on the monasteries’ territory.

There is evidence that the first Christian hermits arrived at Mt. Athos in the 7th century, driven out of Constantinople by the Muslims. According to legend, however, the place became a sacred sanctuary in 49 A.D. when a boat bearing the Virgin Mary was blown off course and landed on its shores. At the time, the peninsula contained many pagan shrines, but upon Mary’s arrival, these spontaneously crumbled, and a stone statue of Apollo spoke out, declaring itself to be a false idol.

Bovon found the manuscript describing Philip’s exploits in the Xenophontos monastery, founded in the 10th century. The manuscript was copied in the 14th century, but the original text dates from the fourth century and itself reflects earlier traditions.

These traditions are different in many ways from later Church practices. For example, instead of the Eucharist with its ceremonial consumption of bread and wine, Philip’s fellow Christians simply sat down to a common meal of vegetables and water. Church leadership was democratic rather than hierarchic, and men and women served equally as priests. In fact, the manuscript describes Philip and the apostle Bartholomew traveling from town to town with Philip’s sister, a woman named Mariamne. Bovon believes this woman to be Mary Magdalene.

The community described in The Acts of Philip also seemed to follow ascetic practices more extreme than those reflected in New Testament sources. The group insisted on strict vegetarianism and sexual abstinence among its members.

“The asceticism was not just a moral issue,” Bovon said. “They believed that living a pure life was a way to better communicate with God.”

According to Bovon, the historical Philip along with Stephen and other disciples represented a distinct group of early Christians composed of Greek-speaking Jews centered in Antioch, whose mission was directed largely toward the pagan world. These are the so-called Hellenists of the canonical New Testament book of Acts. Scholars have identified two more groups active in Jerusalem, one led by Peter and another by James, the brother of Jesus. A fourth group, based in Edessa in ancient Syria (now part of Turkey), was led by Thomas, who, according to legend, later traveled to India. Other more radical groups have left traces of their doctrines as well.

For Bovon The Acts of Philip is one of many noncanonical early Christian writings that exhibit a fascinating diversity of practice and belief. The author of The Apocryphal Acts of John, for example, describes Christ dancing with his disciples. The Gospel of Nicodemus and the fragmentary Gospel of Peter assert that during the three days between his crucifixion and resurrection, Christ was in the next world preaching to the dead.

Another rich source of information on early Christianity is the collection of Coptic writings known as the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, found in Egypt in 1945. Believed to represent a branch of Christianity called Gnosticism, which stressed salvation through knowledge, the Nag Hammadi manuscripts comprise gospels, prayers, sermons, and theological treatises which, like The Acts of Philip, represent a viewpoint “very distant from mainstream Christianity.” These apocryphal writings not only throw light on the origins of Christianity, they can be valuable for understanding early Christian art as well. Bovon regularly takes his students on field trips to the Museum of Fine Arts, where he identifies and interprets art works based on noncanonical Christian sources.

A French translation of The Acts of Philip by Bovon, Bouvier, and Frédéric Amsler, a former research assistant and doctoral student of Bovon at Geneva, was published in 1996. In 1999 Bovon published with Bouvier and Amsler a critical edition of the Greek text in the series Corpus Christianorum. It was followed by the publication of Amsler’s dissertation, a commentary on The Acts of Philip, in the same collection. A general study, The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, co-edited with Ann Graham Brock and Christopher R. Matthews, was published in 1999 by the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions.