Our devotional lives depend on the imagination. A rich imagination prospers our emotional and spiritual foundations. We connect personally to a God/Spirit who comes to us in forms that arouse our yearnings or our curiosity. Why then is the contemporary imagination, pertaining to Jesus Christ, sometimes rather fixated on the maleness of Jesus? It was otherwise for early Christians.
Here is a report — from the second or third century — about a vision of the female Christ, which came to a female prophet. We learn of this vision from a church writer and heresiologist Epiphanius.
To be clear, the vision of a female Christ that Epiphanius reports may not be a literal and accurate report. This church writer may have been defaming and slandering the group, against whom he argues, by imputing to their female leaders a vision of the female Christ. Nevertheless, the passage is intriguing and may speak to the actual devotional practices of early Christians.
Epiphanius of Salamis, Cyprus (c.311-403) put together a book called Panarion (literally: Medicine Chest), in which he makes a collection of heresies (figuratively: diseases) and orthodox truths (figuratively: medicines). He writes about the Montanists, a group which adhered to the teaching of the prophet Montanist, and Maximilla and Prisicilla, two female prophets. They lived in the mid-second century in the area of Phrygia (in modern day Turkey).
Their movement, at its inception, was called the New Prophecy, and went through a number of iterations during the several centuries of its lifespan. Besides accepting females as leaders and prophetesses in their movement, the group were millenarian, who supposed that heaven would come to earth in the Phrygian city Pepuza. [See below for a link to more writings about the Montanist movement].
In one report Epiphanius argues against a certain off-shoot of this movement, called the Quintillianists. Their prophetess had a vision of Christ as a woman. Although Epiphanius does not favor this group – he conceives them to be heretics – we, as modern people, are free to examine the matter from their side. In any case, we have evidence, here, of the visionary richness of the early Christian movement.
Here’s the report from Epiphanius, Panarion 49.1:
- … The Quintillianists or Priscillianists say that either Quintilla or Priscilla (I am not sure which one, but one of them), as I mentioned before, slept in Pepuza and Christ came to her and he slept next to her and it happened this way according to the misled woman: “Christ came to me dressed in a white robe,” she said, “in the shape of a woman, instilled into me wisdom, and shared with me how that this place is holy, and that Jerusalem will come down from heaven here.” And, because of this, even down to this day, they say, that certain women and men also are initiated there on the site, so that those people can wait for Christ and see him [themselves]. They are women in this group whom they refer to as prophetesses.
**Tertullian (155 – 240 CE), the North African Christian theologian, was an adherent to the New Prophecy. Later writers, of which there are a great number, argued voluminously against the Montanists. For a comprehensive set of documents, see Montanist Archives
***For female Christ images see: Art that Dares