According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Church Fathers, Byzantine hagiographers, and ancient Greek sermons from the fourth to the fourteenth century, the Samaritan woman—whose name is admittedly unknown at the time she spoke with Christ—went on to be baptized in water by the apostles, then in the Spirit, on the Day of Pentecost. A new name was then given to her: “Photini” (often “Photina”)—in Russian, Svetlana; in Western languages, Claire; and in Celtic languages, Fiona. Each of these names means “light” or “the enlightened one.” Following is her story according to the aforementioned historical sources:
Photini had achieved victory in leading her whole city to Christ. Fervently, she continued to tell all she met that the prophesied Messiah had arrived, and—in the midst of her interactions within the community of fellow believers while Christ was tried, murdered, and resurrected—she made a solid connection with the apostles. At her water baptism on the Day of Pentecost in the midst of Christ’s closest devotees, she was joined by her five sisters—Anatole, Photo, Photis, Paraskeve, and Kyriake—each of whom also received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and went out into the world to preach.
Time passed, and following the martyrs of Peter and Paul, Photini left the region surrounding Samaria on a missionary journey, making stops at many cities across the ancient world to preach the resurrected Christ every place her foot trod. As Roman Emperor Nero directed a sharp increase in the number of Christians persecuted and saw fit to murder any one of them he could find in horrible and painful ways, Photini and her son, Joseph, were in Carthage, Africa. Photini went to sleep one night like any other, and awoke with a new mission. Jesus Christ, she said, had come to her in a dream. Her next destination was to be Rome…
Meanwhile, in Attalia (Asia Minor), another of Photini’s sons, Victor, was rising in status as a military commander in the Roman army. He was a well-respected soldier amidst his peers, and his reputation as a devout man of the sword for Rome resulted in Roman Emperor Nero’s summoning him to work with Sebastian, an official in Italy. There, Victor’s central duty to his emperor as an official informant was to track down early Christians, a duty about which he felt great conviction. He had heard the story of how his mother had met this Messiah in person, and he had also come to believe in this Yeshua as the Son of God.
After he and Sebastian had formed a friendship, and Sebastian learned the truth about Victor’s mother and brother, Sebastian advised Victor to submit to the authority of the emperor lest he face the same terrifying deaths as Christians all around them. He promised Victor that he would be allowed to keep any monies belonging to the Christians he handed over to the authorities, and that he would write to Photini and Joseph, warning them to keep their faith a secret. Despite the offer of reward and the attempt to ensure the safety of his evangelist mother and brother, Victor unexpectedly responded that he, too, wanted to preach the Gospel. Shocked, yet resigned, Sebastian woefully admitted that such defiance against the emperor would only end in the death of all three of them, along with Photini’s five sisters.
Upon uttering these words, Sebastian felt a searing pain in his eyes, and when he opened them again, he discovered that he was blind. For several days, he lay in complete silence on his bed, contemplating the Christ while his servants stood helplessly nearby. When he finally spoke again on the fourth day, he declared that Christ was the true God, expressed his desire to be baptized in the faith, and revealed that Christ was calling him to help spread the Gospel. Immediately after he emerged from the baptismal waters, Sebastian regained his eyesight. His servants witnessed the miracle, converted on the spot, and were also baptized. Emperor Nero caught wind of the event and commanded that Victor, Sebastian, and the servants be brought to him to answer for their defiance in person.
Around this time, Photini arrived in Rome with her son Joseph, her sisters, and many other Christians from Africa. She had been informed that Nero was in possession of her son Victor and that the emperor was looking to arrest her, so before he could make his move, she led her entourage straight to his gates, preaching to crowds of people along the way who were awed and amazed by her willingness to proclaim a forbidden name in a city where such an act guaranteed execution. When Photoni and those accompanying her were led to Nero’s throne, he asked them, astounded at their boldness, why they had come. Photini answered that her purpose was to openly tell Nero about Christ. Without hesitation, the emperor asked the Christians if they were willing to die for their faith. Photini answered that, yes, they were happy to die for the sake of their beloved Christ.
Nero, incensed by the failure of his attempted intimidation, ordered the Christians’ hands to be smashed by iron rods for an hour. The order was carried out while Photini calmly quoted from the Psalms, and by the end of the hour, not one of the believers had been injured, nor did any of them feel any pain in the process. Nero ordered a second hour of torture, and it, too, failed. A third hour was charged to the soldiers, and still, no harm befell the believers. Mystified, Nero sent the men to prison and the women to the imperial court, where the emperor appointed his daughter, Domnina, to tempt Photini and the rest of the women in her company to deny their Lord in exchange for riches. A denial of faith for worldly gain by the most faithful and supernaturally shielded Christians would send a strongly demoralizing message to followers everywhere.
Domnina led the group to a royal chamber, where they were seated upon thrones of pure gold. In front of them was a table with beautiful dresses, jewels, and all the money they would need to live lavishly for the rest of their lives. It was all free for the taking. The only price they had to pay was a denouncement of the Christ. As Photini explained why these luxuries were not a temptation in light of what she had been called to do, Domnina responded with further questions. Her servants, numbering a hundred, likewise stood nearby to hear the testimony of the Samaritan woman at the well. Before long, a sorceress was brought into the assembly to serve the guests food that had been secretly poisoned. In that setting, Photini, her sisters, and the other believing women with her led Domnina, her hundred servants, and the sorceress all to Christ. They carried out baptisms for the whole assembly, and afterward, Domnina commanded her servants to take the riches upon the table and distribute them to the poor throughout Rome.
Outraged by this development, Nero had his men heat up the furnace and throw in Photini and the other women. For seven days, the fire raged on, but not a hair upon their heads was singed. When the doors were opened on the seventh day and the believers emerged unharmed, Nero lined them up for poisoning. Photini stepped forward and offered to be the first to drink the poison so that the power of God could be shown through her once more. Her companions followed suit, and though they drank the poison to the last drop, each one survived.
Beaten at his own game, Nero demanded that the believers be thrown into the prison and remain there with Victor, Sebastian, Joseph, and the men who had come to Rome with Photini. She and the women with her went willingly, and dwelt there for three years. During her incarceration, word spread that believers of Christ were being held there whom no one could harm, and curious Romans flocked to the cells to hear their preaching in person. Each time a man or woman came to believe in the Messiah and Son of God through Photini’s prison ministry, praise broke out within the walls of the prison, and before long, the building dedicated to isolation and misery became no less than a church where Romans could hear the Gospel from the mouth of the woman whose life had been forever changed when she met the Christ in Sychar.
Nero’s anger rose like never before by the end of the third year as he saw residents of his own city giving their lives over to the work of Jesus Christ. He summoned all his prisoners and ordered all but Photini beheaded.[i] That day, after the stamp of God’s glory had already been placed upon the city, everyone in Photini’s troupe was martyred. Photini was brought to Nero and given one last chance to deny her Lord after seeing his success in beheading everyone she loved. Photini, considering her loved ones’ martyrdom as a crown of glory, refused.
In a final, wrathful act of irony, Nero told his men to throw the famous “living water” preacher into a deep well.
THEOLOGIAN: JESUS HIMSELF STARTED THE FIRST WOMEN’S LIBERATION MOVEMENT
Photini had met Christ at a well in Sychar. She met Him again via a well in Rome, circa AD 66, as her earthly life at last came to an end.
As a result of her spiritual strength and determination, Photini was referred by historians and Church Fathers in the first four centuries as isapostolos, “equal to the apostles,” and she is frequently listed alongside the preeminent Peter, James, and John.
As stated prior, the account of Photini outside the Johannine narrative is extrabiblical and noncanonical, so it should not be considered to hold the same authority as Scripture. However, to a Christian, no historical writing holds the same authority as Scripture, yet many historical documents are true. Regardless of whether or not a person decides to believe what the historians and Church Fathers wrote about Photini, nobody can take away the truth of John 4, wherein the Samaritan woman was documented as the first preacher, evangelist, and revivalist of Christ—and it was Christ, Himself, who transformed her into that role.
Despite the naysayers, the Word is clear: Women can be preachers!
Christ created one.
Yet, the woman in Sychar wasn’t the only woman Christ sent. Why does Mary of Magdala so often get overlooked? Was she not also sent by the Messiah?
In fact, she was.
Mary Magdalene was known to the semi-early Church (after the tenth century) by the title “Apostle of the Apostles,” due in part to her being the central messenger (present with other women) commissioned by Christ to inform the apostles of His rising in Luke 24:10 and John 20:10–18. Other more obvious reasons for this entitlement have to do with the function she performed for Christ in person.
This title was not the norm until around the twelfth century, but it appeared as early as the writings of Hippolytus of Rome (AD 170–235). To this day, in Catholic churches, she is still known as an “apostle.” Many voices on the supporting side of the “women as leaders” discussion from Protestant denominations have, in recent years, called Mary Magdalene an “apostle” as well. The reasoning behind this is due to the meaning of the Greek apostolos: literally “one [who is] sent.” In New Testament application, the “one sent” refers to a person commissioned by Christ to go and tell others that He, the Son of God, has risen. In John 20:10–18, we read the following:
Then the disciples went away again unto their own home. But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, “Woman, why weepest thou?”
She saith unto them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.”
And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, “Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou?”
She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, “Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.”
Jesus saith unto her, “Mary.”
She turned herself, and saith unto him, “Rabboni”; which is to say, “Master.”
Jesus saith unto her, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.”
Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.
Jesus, after His death and in the flesh, sent Mary Magdalene to go and tell the apostles that He had risen. Pope John Paul II said of this momentous charge (italics in original):
From the beginning of Christ’s mission, women show to him and to his mystery a special sensitivity which is characteristic of their femininity.… The women are the first at the tomb. They are the first to find it empty. They are the first to hear “He is not here. He has risen, as he said.” They are the first to embrace his feet. The women are also the first to be called to announce this truth to the Apostles. The Gospel of John emphasizes the special role of Mary Magdalene. She is the first to meet the Risen Christ.…
Hence she came to be called “the apostle of the Apostles.” Mary Magdalene was the first eyewitness of the Risen Christ, and for this reason she was also the first to bear witness to him before the Apostles. This event, in a sense, crowns all that has been said previously about Christ entrusting divine truths to women as well as men. One can say that this fulfilled the words of the Prophet: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” [Joel 2:28]. On the fiftieth day after Christ’s Resurrection, these words are confirmed once more in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, at the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (cf. Acts 2:17).[ii]
Pope John Paul II is certainly not the only one to make this connection. There is a revival of Mary Magdalene’s “Apostle of the Apostles” title within Protestant churches all over the US. However, in order to fully appreciate this outstanding label, we need to address who Mary Magdalene really was.
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WAIT… A WOMAN PREACHING IN A CHRISTIAN CHURCH… WHAT DOES GOD THINK ABOUT THAT?!
To the mass population of today’s Church, Mary Magdalene is viewed as a repentant prostitute. In almost every movie made about Christ’s ministry years, she is the woman caught in the act of adultery reported in John 8:1–11. Christ told that woman—who is unnamed in the Johannine account and not by any stretch of the imagination identified as Mary Magdalene—to “go, and sin no more,” the emphasis for this study being the word “go.” Mary Magdalene was heavily involved in Christ’s ministry and kept company with Him frequently, so the idea that Christ would suddenly send her off on her way, though gently so, doesn’t add up if He’s speaking to someone He regularly walks beside. Likewise, there is no shred of evidence anywhere in Scripture that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, a harlot, a loose woman, or anything else of this sort.
Another mistake frequently presented in movies, educational materials, and sermons is that Mary Magdalene and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair is the same woman. That woman—also unnamed and known only as “a woman in the city, which was a sinner” in Luke 7:37—has a reputation of being a prostitute as well. Here, too, Christ says, “go in peace” (verse 50). (Another instance of this is in John 12, and that woman is named Mary of Bethany, not Mary of Magdala.) Why that reputation exists for this anonymous woman is a whole other issue we won’t address herein, but because that is her reputation, and because so many in the past have asserted (incorrectly so) that she is the same person as Mary Magdalene, Mary has been deemed a prostitute.
Mary Magdalene is not the same woman as these two others, even if “the cartoons tell me so,” and the proof of that is how she is referenced elsewhere. Scripturally, she is known by name (a great honor for a woman in that day, by the way, since so many women were never directly identified), and these other two women are not. Mary Magdalene’s name appears more often in the New Testament than any other female except for Mary, the mother of Christ. Furthermore, the title “Mary of Magdala” says a lot. Most men and women in the Bible are referenced by whom they’re related to (“son of,” “daughter of,” “sister of,” and so on), not by the city or town they come from, unless they are prominent, well-known, and respected patrons within the social community of that city or region. The fact that the Gospel writers included her name in connection with “Magdala” insinuates that she was likely a highly esteemed patroness or business woman in the fishing commerce “on the northeast bank of the Sea of Galilee. She left her home to follow Jesus, and it is believed she was among several well-off, independent women who financially supported Jesus’ ministry.”[iii] Because of the importance of Mary Magdalene’s role in Christ’s earthly ministry, the writers of the Gospel would have every reason to clarify her identity in these two other scenes had they been her. Yet the Church has turned her into a woman of the street. (This is most likely due to the infamous twenty-third homily delivered by Pope Gregory the Great on September 14, 1591—which pointed to Mary Magdalene’s ointments at the tomb as proof that she used expensive perfumes during promiscuous activities prior to meeting Jesus. These ointments also associated her with the foot-washing scenes. The fact that she had expensive perfumes could simply mean that she was a wealthy patroness, a woman of upright earnings who enjoyed pretty smells. It’s amazing the leaps we make…)
Another interesting cultural fact finally being taught today is that women were not allowed to be legal witnesses at that time (which explains why the disciples didn’t initially believe Mary Magdalene when she told them what she had seen). A woman’s word at the scene of a significant event was immediately disregarded. So this not only shows a radical move on Christ’s part in choosing a woman as His first witness (He could have appeared anywhere and to anyone in His first appearance), it also argues for the authenticity of the Gospels that the story was documented to have women in this position, because if the Gospel writers were attempting to invent a credible story, they would have said that Christ appeared to a man. Luke 8:2 tells us that Christ cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene at the start of their association, which adds a layer of credibility as well, because again, if the Gospel writers wanted to devise a brilliant resurrection tale out of thin air, they probably wouldn’t have chosen to assign a witness who had previously been demon-possessed.
Though one might find a case of demon possession as a reason to flinch away from Mary Magdalene as the first “bearer” of the Good News, it’s actually her reputation as a prostitute that does the most damage for women today, as Professor Barbara Bowe relates: “Women looking to the Bible for inspiration already have limited choices of female role models. When we suddenly cut Mary Magdalene off at the knees and turn her into some kind of evil sex pervert, we deprive men and women, but especially women, of a figure with whom they can identify.”[iv]
The next logical question, once we remove Mary Magdalene’s muddied reputation, is what she and the other women in Christ’s company would have been doing for Him. Many have the idea that these women were cooking or cleaning for their Lord and His disciples. As much as this imagery may paint a derogatory picture in the minds of most contemporary feminists, it’s not an inappropriate assumption, simply because that was the role women were given at this time. However, I assure you, there is more to the women in Christ’s circle than brooms and cookies.
Let’s look at Scripture: “And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance” (Luke 8:1–3). The word “ministered” here is translated from the Greek diekonoun. In various instances throughout the New Testament when this word is used in reference to the actions of the apostles, it can mean serving a table, but it can also mean, as deacons, diakonos, the ministry of the spoken word. Christ, Himself, uses this word in Luke 22:27, when He refers to Himself, “I am among you as he that serveth.” Luke specifies that these women were “dieko-nating” (“ministering,” “supporting”), if you will, to Christ from “their substance” (hyparchonton), meaning their own financial resources. These women, if we visit the words diekonoun and hyparchonton to the fullest extent of their potential meaning, were monetarily sponsoring Christ, and assisting Him with words, possibly even teaching in His absence what they had learned from Him.
If Mary Magdalene was a prostitute earning money from a forbidden bed, we can be assured that Christ wouldn’t allow that tainted money to sponsor His ministry. Let it be known, once and for all, that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. I know that the account of “harlot Mary” has immense profundity as a story of redemption, but we don’t need to add that brand of sin to her to appreciate the seven demons that held her steadfastly before Christ delivered her. She was still redeemed by Him, and she went on to be known as an apostle to the early Church as well as today’s Church in many Christian sects.
But the central reason I mentioned Mary Magdalene is not for the celebrated title others have given her throughout history. I want to funnel what we’ve discussed so far into a better understanding of what Christ did the day He appeared to her at the tomb.
As stated earlier, women in Christ’s day were not recognized as legitimate witnesses. So when Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene, making her the first person to see and experience His resurrected presence, He was directly challenging this cultural norm. He did not choose to appear to a man, nor did He tell the women to track down a man for Him. He simply told the women to go and tell the men. He trusted the message of His resurrection, the foundation of the Gospel, to a woman first.
Jesus Christ, the Radical of radicals, in this moment, reversed and dispelled forever the notion that a woman can’t be trusted with His message, and that they can’t deliver it to a man.
Those who oppose women teaching in a church might argue that Christ didn’t explicitly order Mary and the women to run through the streets preaching, but He wouldn’t have done that anyway, because all the disciples and apostles were told to wait for the Holy Spirit’s outpouring (Luke 24:49). When that occurred on the Day of Pentecost, the women did run through the streets preaching. So no, He didn’t turn them into preachers at that moment, and it would be at the least a desperate claim to say that He did. It’s not about whether Jesus suddenly transformed these women into preachers, teachers, or pastors. It’s about the fact that the very first humans on the planet entrusted by God, Himself, in person with the “Christ is risen” message were women.
Why did He choose to appear first to women? Perhaps He was making the statement—setting a new precedent—that Jesus Christ trusts women with the truth of His story. Add to this the reality of women preachers on the Day of Pentecost, and the identity of each woman as God the Father made her in her mother’s womb with unique gifts, and we have the entire Trinity working together to release women ministers upon the earth in these last days, as Joel 2:28 prophesies!
This prophecy was, as Peter identified, fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, and the time has come for this truth to be applied to the modern Church. God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ, Himself, has equipped women for such a time as this.
Arise, women. Leave your waterpots behind at the well and go forward into your own Sychar. Lost souls are depending on it.
UP NEXT: Created He “Them”
[i] Note that there is a popular variation of the story here. According to some historians, the men were taken out to be crucified, and they hung there four days. When Nero’s servants went to see if the believers were still alive, they were blinded upon their arrival. It is said that angels appeared and released the believers, who thereafter took pity on Nero’s servants and prayed for their eyesight to be returned. Their prayers were successful, and the servants escorted the men back to prison where they awaited further judgment, but not before they converted to Christianity and were baptized.
[ii] Pope John Paul II, “Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on the Dignity and Vocation of Women…” La Santa Sede Vatican, last accessed August 17, 2017, https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1988/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_15081988_mulieris-dignitatem.html.
[iii] Heidi Schlumpf, “Who Framed Mary Magdalene?” US Catholic, last accessed August 17, 2017, http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/200806/who-framed-mary-magdalene-27585.
[iv] Professor Barbara Bowe, as quoted by: Ramona V. Tausz, “Mary Magdalene, Feminist Icon?” last accessed August 17, 2017, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/07/mary-magdalene-feminist-icon.