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Theonoe and Myrte: Prophetesses in Corinth

Theonoe and Myrte: Prophetesses in Corinth

The Apocryphal Corinthian Correspondence

This morning I read a short letter which claims to be from the elders of the church at Corinth, written to the apostle Paul, concerning Gnostic teachers. I also read the longer reply known as Third Corinthians. Both letters are authentically ancient; they were originally written in Koine Greek, probably in the early second century AD.[1]

Scholars doubt that the letters were genuinely written by either the Corinthian elders or Paul respectively.[2] They are considered apocryphal and do not have the authority of Holy Scripture. Nevertheless, the letters are sound in doctrine, and they shed some light on the church in the second century.

The Prophetess Theonoe

The names of the five elders who supposedly wrote to Paul are given in their letter. They are all men’s names, with Stephanas‘ name mentioned first (cf. 1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15-18). Most churches by the end of the first century and early second century had only male elders.[3] But one woman is mentioned in their short letter: Theonoe.[4]

Apparently Theonoe had the gift of prophecy and the elders took her revelations seriously, as shown by this statement: “For we believe, as it has been revealed[5] to Theonoe, that the Lord has delivered you [i.e. Paul] out of the hand of the lawless one (or enemy).”

From this one sentence we can infer that Theonoe had a ministry somewhat like that of Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:8-9) or of Agabus (Acts 21:10-12). The ministry of another woman prophet in Corinth bears a closer resemblance to the ministry of Agabus.

The Prophetess Myrte

Myrte (or Myrta) is a female prophet mentioned in a fragmentary Coptic manuscript, “Fragment 9”, included in the apocryphal Acts of Paul. According to the narrative where she appears, Paul had come and preached at Corinth but was now leaving. The church fasts and prays, and a man named Cleobius prophecies that Paul will be martyred in Rome. Then Myrte prophecies, also about Paul’s impending martyrdom, but in a more encouraging way. Her prophecy is recorded but because of the damage to the manuscript we only know bits of it.

But the Spirit came upon Myrte so that she said unto them: “Brethren . . . and look upon this sign, that ye . . . For Paul the servant of the Lord shall save many in Rome, so that of them shall be no number, and he will manifest himself more than all the faithful. Thereafter shall . . . . of the Lord Jesus Christ come . . . . a great grace is . . . . at Rome. And this is the manner wherein the Spirit spake unto Myrte.[6]

Myrte’s positive prophecy has the result that “everyone took the bread, and they were in joy . . .”[6]

The Apocryphal Acts of Paul

The collection of documents known as the Acts of Paul mentions several female ministers, most notably Thecla of Iconium. The apocryphal Corinthian correspondence was at some point also included in the Acts of Paul. Some works in this collection may well be fiction, or contain fictional elements, but it is possible the stories are based on real people living in the first and early second centuries, who were well known to the Church. Whatever the case, the Acts of Paul tell us more about the viewpoint of its second-century writers than about the historical Paul.

The letter of the Corinthians and “Fragment 9” are just two of many early Christian documents that show women were active in prominent speaking ministries in the first and early second century church. It also shows that their ministry was accepted and respected, and indeed that the ministry of women was not regarded as unusual.


Endnotes

[1] The letter of the Corinthians to Paul and Third Corinthians, collectively known as the Apocryphal Corinthian Correspondence, are contained in Papyrus X of the Bodmer Papyri. This papyrus dates to the third or fourth century. The Greek text of Bodmer Papyrus X is halfway down this page. 
See Floyd V. Filson “More Bodmer Papyri”, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 25, No. 2 (May, 1962) 50–57, esp. p.54, for more information on Papyrus X.

[2] The Syrian Church and the Armenian Church regarded the letters as canonical in the fourth or fifth centuries, and translations of the letters were included in their Bibles. These Churches later dropped the letters from their canons. The apocryphal Corinthian correspondence was also translated into Coptic and Latin at an early date. The Coptic Heidelberg Papyri, which dates to the sixth century, contains the letters and includes them in the Acts of Paul. The letters are also “included in some late medieval Latin New Testament manuscripts.”
Gerard Luttikhuizen, “The Apocryphal Correspondence with the Corinthians and the Acts of Paul”, The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, Jan N. Bremmer (ed) (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1996) 75–91, esp. p.75.

[3] Only a few early Christian groups had women among their elders after the first century. Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 375) said about the Montanists, a late second century Christian group, “They have women bishops, presbyters [i.e. elders], and the rest; they say that none of this makes any difference because ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female.’” Panarion 49.2.5 (cf. Gal. 3:28). Epiphanius disapproved.

[4] Theonoe is pronounced “thee-yoh-noh-ee”, and rhymes with “Chloe”.

[5] ἀπεκαλύφθη from ἀποκαλύπτω.

[6] “The Acts of Paul”, The Apocryphal New Testament, M.R. James translation and notes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924)  http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/actspaul.html

Image of Coptic papyrus, page 15, from Carl Schmidt, Acta Pauli. Aus der Heidelberger Koptischen Papyrushandschrift Nr. 1, Leipzig 1905 (Nachdruck Hildesheim 1965) http://www.rzuser.uni-heidelberg.de/~gv0/Papyri/ActaPauli/ActaPauli.html


Related Articles

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Philip’s Prophesying Daughters
Church Cultures that Include and Exclude Women Leaders
Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in a Nutshell
Unity and Equality in Ministry (1 Corinthians 12)

Posted December 15th, 2015 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Women in Ministry, , , , , , , ,

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5 comments on “Theonoe and Myrte: Prophetesses in Corinth

  1. The name “Theonoe” may mean something like “mind of God”. She may be another prophet with a significant name.

    • Marg says:

      Yes, I was meaning to mention something like that. Thanks for bringing it up.

      Here’s what Plato says (through the voice of “Socrates”) in a discussion about the goddess Athena.

      The ancients seem to have had the same belief about Athena as the interpreters of Homer have now; for most of these, in commenting on the poet, say that he represents Athena as mind (νοῦς) and intellect (διάνοια); and the maker of her name seems to have had a similar conception of her, but he gives her the still grander title of “mind of God” ἡ θεοῦ νόησις, seeming to say that she is a ἁ θεονόα; here he used the alpha in foreign fashion instead of eta, and dropped out the iota and sigma. But perhaps that was not his reason; he may have called her Theonoe because she has unequalled knowledge of divine things (τὰ θεῖα νοοῦσα). Perhaps, too, he may have wished to identify the goddess with wisdom of character (ἐν ἤθει νόησις) by calling her Ethonoe; and then he himself or others afterwards improved the name, as they thought, and called her Athena.

      Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes Vol. 12, Harold N. Fowler transl.(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1921) paragraph 407.

  2. […] Marg Mowczko wrote on didaktikos in 1 and 2 Timothy and Theonoe and Myrte from the apocryphal Corinthian correspondence. […]

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