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The Study
The story of a prophetess who was popular and controversial

Ask who Maximilla was

 Chiedi chi era Massimilla  DCM-004
01 April 2023

Female voices resonated strongly in Christian circles in Phrygia in the 2nd century AD. Amongst them all, a prophetess named Maximilla emerged. In the chorus of female theologians of early Christianity, she was a voice people listened to; she gathered many followers around her. Even after her death, her figure remained important in Montanist Christian circles, named after Montanus, perhaps a former priest of the goddess Cybele, who claimed to speak in the name of the Holy Spirit. The text is taken from the volume “Scritti apocrifi e scritti di donne tra primo Cristianesimo” [Apocryphal Writings and Women’s Writings in Early Christianity] edited by Silke Petersen, Outi Lehtipuu and Arianna Rotondo, in the series  “La Bibbia e le donne”[The Bible and Women], ed. Il Pozzo di Giacobbe.

In the portrait constructed by her opponents, Maximilla is depicted as a wild, ecstatic woman with a barbaric name, who had followed the prophet Montanus together with the prophetess Priscilla. She lived in style, covered herself with jewellery, and often wore make-up. It is understandable, therefore, that she left her husband to seduce honest Christians with her heresy. According to some rumors, she brought about an end to her “senseless” life.

This sampling of anti-heretical polemics shows that Maximilla’s opponents had to invent a lot to discredit this popular female prophet. For even if Maximilla had a large and loyal following for a short time, the richness of the content of her theology was effective for a long time. Shortly after her death, her followers requested charisms from the Church and left the traditional ecclesiastical communion.

The four logia (the sayings) of Maximilla offer a unique opportunity to understand the theological self-understanding of a prophetess of this early period. Beyond any polemics against her person, a picture of her emerges from her own words.

In her logion, reported by Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, in the Panarion, his monumental heresiological treatise, Maximilla presents herself explicitly in her prophetic role:

“The Lord has sent me as a disciple, a revelator, a hermeneutic of this suffering and of the covenant and the promise, compelled, willingly and unwillingly, that the knowledge of God may be made known”.

Maximilla communicates the mysteries of God that make His knowledge possible. In this she is a hermeneutic, that is, she recognizes something that she can translate or deduce. She interprets God’s mysteries for the benefit of others. She characterises the content of these mysteries of God as a promise and the fact that they are revealed through prophecy shows the coming of the New Covenant era. They lead to the end of the world, which will soon begin. Maximilla sees herself as the last prophetess in a series of prophets before the end of the world. “After me there will be no more prophet, but it will be the end of everything”.

This will happen after his death. With the end of the world, all the mysteries of God, which until then could be revealed by the prophecy of the New Covenant, will be fulfilled. Therefore, according to Maximilla, there is to be no more prophecy. Until then she sees the present as a time of sorrow, yet she does not oppose this experience of suffering, but instead consecrates herself to it as its disciple. She thus identifies herself with this dimension of the present life. It is not clear what the suffering she speaks of consists of, but it is plausible that she is referring to social pressures. Another possibility is her personal suffering, which she experiences as a result of inner oppression brought about by her opponents who want to discredit her as a false prophetess. By identifying with the suffering, Maximilla makes it clear that no form of obstructionism will be able to dissuade her from her role as announcer of the New Covenant. Maximilla lived this role with such force that she said she was compelled to fulfil it. Her will was therefore irrelevant.

No opposition prevented her from committing herself to the New Covenant; not even persecution within the church. To her opponents who consider her a false prophetess she opposed, as Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, reported in his Ecclesiastical History in these terms:

“Like a wolf I am kept from the sheep, but I am not a wolf: I am word, spirit and power”.

Using the evangelist Matthew (“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves”), her opponents within the Christian circle have described her as a wolf attacking sheep. However, Maximilla took up their words and turned the situation upside down: she is not a wolf, but is driven away from her sheep like a wolf, “persecuted”. In this way, she alluded to the “shepherds”, the ecclesiastical authorities who wanted to prevent her from fulfilling her role as a prophetess. Maximilla powerfully contrasted the Matthian image with Pauline language when she stated that she was not a wolf, but word, spirit and power. In doing so, she attributed the highest attributes of proclamation to herself, even going so far as to identify with them through a form of self-representation. Maximilla took up Pauline language several times in a subtle way. She identified with the apostle in his role as a preacher who, like her, was persecuted within the Christian community. Moreover, she saw herself in line with him as a preacher of the Word against all opposition, even that of her own will. In Maximilla’s time, it was no longer customary to be called with the title “apostle”, which belongs to past generations. The title of 'prophet', with which she is mentioned in Epiphanius’ Panarion, transfers the title of apostle to the time of the imminent end of the world.

Maximilla is profoundly involved as a person in her prophetic role in all the logia; only in the logion of the call is her figure placed at a distance, but she is nevertheless presupposed as present in the relational formulation: “Do not listen to me, but listen to Christ!”.

This logion fits into the Christological aspect of Maximilla's theology that had not yet been addressed. She understood Christ as the one who proclaims the mysteries of God. When she speaks as the Spirit of God, she conveys the words of Christ. Moreover, Christ, as Kyrios, is the one who sent her as a messenger. Maximilla does not emphasise her gender in any of the existing logia. On the contrary, the grammatical use of masculine forms is striking: she states that after her there will be no more prophetes (prophet). The corresponding feminine form should be prophetis (prophetess). This reading is also attested in certain manuscripts, but as a lectio difficilior the masculine form should be original. Finding only the male form would not be too surprising, since Maximilla uses this term to refer to a collective of prophets, in which there could also be male candidates. Nevertheless, Maximilla does not choose any female form when she describes her roles as defender (airetistes), revealer (menytes) and interpreter (ermeneutes). According to the usage of the koine, the common, Greek language would have had the possibility of feminising these nouns with a feminine article. [...] When Maximilla presents herself with masculine attributes, she gives strength to herself. This is demonstrated by [Silke] Petersen's (German theologian and biblical scholar and one of the editors of the volume, ed.) observations on ancient texts that (“at least mythologically”) speak of transcending gender boundaries. Masculinity in them represents a desirable condition of strength, while femininity a problematic and vulnerable one. The quotation from Origen (a Christian theologian, philosopher and exegete who died in 254 A.D.) quoted by [Silke] Petersen, who sees feminine and masculine as social categories, clearly shows this position:

“For with God there is no distinction of sex, but because of the difference of spirit someone is designated as a man or a woman. How many women are not counted by God among strong men, and how many men are not to be counted among weak and lazy women?”

Maximilla does not only clothe herself with male attributes. Others - in this case her opponents within Christian groups - also attribute the metaphor of the wolf to her. The wolf is not particularly suitable as a metaphor for denouncing femininity, but expresses strength and danger. The self-representation that Maximilla opposes to the image of the wolf (see above) has as its central element pneuma (spirit), which again, according to Petersen's observations, is very present in ancient texts, especially in direct connection with the masculine. Thus, Maximilla is no less strong than her opponents, led by the male bishops Zoticus of Comana and Julian of Apamea. On the contrary, Eusebius states that these men could not match his spirit.

It is difficult to trace similar declarations by other ancient women who bore male attributes, as few of their self-affirmations have come down to us. At the end of the 2nd Book of the Sibylline Oracles (from 180 A.D.) the prophetess chooses feminine forms as her self-denunciation, uttering prophecies of doom against herself. The prophetess insults herself with distinctly feminine attributes such as “poor”, “fool” and “bitch”, each expressed in the feminine gender. In line with Petersen's observations on gender transformation, it is precisely her weak side that is at stake here. Mary in her hymn of praise (Luke 1:48) does not describe herself as a prophetess, but presents herself in relationship with God. Luke puts the self-designation of “servant” into Mary's mouth in a decidedly feminine form (c. 80-100 AD). Proba, a Roman aristocrat and poetess, who presents herself as a seer in her Biblical Centon (384 AD), chooses the Latin term vatis to refer to herself. Vatis is both masculine and feminine and is a common nomen. On the pagan side Apollo speaks through the priestess Saturnila, “servant of the temple”, a common nomen. Didima’s oracle on the priesthood of Artemis is pronounced by the “lord himself” and the goddess. The “goddess” is thus named after the female gender. Maximilla with her distinctly masculine form is therefore unparalleled in the meagre source material of self-declarations of ancient women.

Even if not as a self-designation - which remains uncertain - I nevertheless place the martyr Perpetua alongside Maximilla. Shortly before her martyrdom, Perpetua in her well-known and final vision becomes a man (facta sum masculus), fighting against her aggressor, the great and strong Egyptian, whom she then defeats in a duel.

Beyond the male self-designations, Maximilla's logion shows how she is able, as a prophetess, to reproduce the words of the male Christ. Even of this there is no concrete parallel in early Christianity, as we have no documentation that has come down to us. We find only one mention of the prophetess in Tertullian, in his De Anima, where it is said that she communicates with angels and sometimes even with the Lord. However, it cannot be deduced from Tertullian's description whether the Lord also speaks through this prophetess. In the pagan system of oracles, on the other hand, there are several parallels to the fact that a male god can speak through a female medium, as the example of Saturnila, through whom the male deity Apollo speaks, had already shown.

Protestant theologian and historian of early Christianity, Ruprecht-Karls University of Heidelberg.

For ease of reading, in agreement with the Italian editor, we have removed the references of the quotations, which are in the book. For the same reason we have added some clarifications on the quoted authors by putting them in brackets.