The churches of the Byzantine tradition venerate various classes of saints.  These are particularly remembered during the prothesis, the preparation of the bread and wine for the Divine Liturgy. The current liturgical text used in one of these churches provides for the commemoration of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), the angels, John the Baptist and the prophets, the Apostles, bishops, martyrs, monks, charitable workers and the mother and father of St. Anne. One class of saints conspicuously absent is the Equal to the Apostles.

In Catholic and Orthodox theology, the Apostles were the first bishops.  Current bishops in these and other churches claim their authority from apostolic succession. Their episcopacy was conferred on them by other bishops, who had their office conferred on them by other bishops in an unbroken chain going back to the Apostles themselves.  An example of this occurs in the Acts of the Apostles, where the remaining eleven apostles elect Matthias to replace Judas.[1]

However, there are other prominent people who have helped spread the Gospel as much as if not more than the Apostles or their successors.  These became known as Equal to the Apostles. Many of them were women, who could not become bishops in orthodox Christianity.  Some of the more prominent are:

  • Mary Magdalene.  There has been a lot of nonsense written about Mary Magdalene in recent years claiming without a shred of evidence she was the wife of Jesus.  It is incontrovertible Mary was a significant force in the spread of early Christianity.  The Gospel of Luke states Mary Magdalene and other women of the time provided for Jesus and the Apostles out of their own resources. [2] Mary is a central figure in the Crucifixion and Resurrection narrative.[3]  She figures prominently in later apocryphal writings as a close collaborator of Jesus.
  • Photini.  This is the name traditionally ascribed to the Samaritan woman at the well who had a very enchanting discussion with Jesus. The Bible does not provide the name of the woman.  Photini means “Enlightened One”, a very astute description of her character.  She returned to her village and began to speak of Jesus as the Messiah.  Photini may have been the first to proclaim Jesus was the awaited Messiah.  The Bible also points out many were converted because of her actions. [4]
  • Constantine and Helena.  Constantine was the first Christian Emperor.  At the time he became emperor only a small percentage of the Empire was Christian.  At his death, Christianity was on its way to becoming the state religion.[5] Constantine sent his mother Helena to the Holy Land where she found many of the sites associated with the life of Jesus and found the True Cross.[6] Constantine was not a member of the church hierarchy, so the title Equal to the Apostles is particularly appropriate for him.
  • Cyril and Methodius. The brothers who were sent as missionaries to Slavic countries.  They were partially responsible for Christianizing Eastern Europe.
  • St Patrick.  Everyone is familiar with the story of St. Patrick, the evangelizer of Ireland. 

This is just a partial list of the saints called Equal to the Apostles.  All of them have feast days on the liturgical calendar.  They are a diverse group of men and women who have had a positive influence on Christianity and helped it spread throughout the world.

[1] The final selection of Matthias was done by lots.  Some wags suggested this system should be used today for the selection of bishops. I leave such snarky comments for others to treat.

[2] Luke 8

[3] For instance, see the Resurrection narrative of John.

[4] John 4

[5] That did not happen until later.  Constantine favored Christianity but allowed the practice of the traditional religions.  Those who wanted to advance in societal status could clearly read the handwriting on the wall.

[6] Historians dispute many of these assessments, but the view being presented here is that of the early church.  Many scholars and skeptics point out the brutal murder of Constantine’s wife as an example of how he could not be a saint.  Constantine was baptized on his deathbed.  I leave this discussion to others.