Helen Bond & Joan Taylor in Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy SepulchreCredit:Channel 4 Rev Dr Ian Paul, a New Testament scholar and member of the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, said it is “relatively unlikely” there were women bishops in the 5th century as there was is no documentary evidence.He said: “The image of Cerula is significant for several reasons—the Chi-Ro symbol above her head, the open gospels with flames, and the oranspose in which she is ‘lifting holy hands in prayer’.“We find similar things from the third-century Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome—but there the female figure is also wearing a stole, the garb of priestly office. Cerula does not have this, so though clearly a person of influence, it seems to me unlikely that she is a priest or bishop, and we have no written evidence of women having such an office at this time.“For Roman Catholics, patristic practice will be important since the tradition is seen as authoritative for the contemporary church. For myself as a Protestant (and former Roman Catholic), what is more important is what the New Testament says, since that shapes what is means to be an ‘apostolic’ church.”In Romans 16.7, St Paul mentions a couple Andronicus and Julia, who are ‘outstanding amongst the apostles’, so Paul appears to have no problem with women exercising church-planting, teaching apostolic ministry. Looking at evidence of Jesus’s female disciplesCredit:Channel 4 Helen Bond & Joan Taylor in St Peter’s SquareCredit:Channel 4 When the first woman bishop, the Right Reverend Libby Lane, was consecrated in 2015, it was hailed a “completely new phase” in the Church of England’s history.The legislation followed decades of argument over women’s ordination and remains controversial.But academics now claim that a fresco unearthed in an Italian catacomb proves that women were acting as bishops in the early Christian church.The 5th century image of a woman named Cerula, found in the catacomb of San Gennaro, Naples, shows her surrounded by open, flaming Gospel books, which are thought to be symbolic of the role of a bishop.Academics said the discovery was “incredibly significant” evidence that women held senior roles in the early Christian church and could mean that millions will have to rethink the origins of their faith.The revelations are made in a programme, due to be aired on Channel 4 next weekend, which also suggests that Jesus had many more female disciples than was previously thought. In the catacomb, NaplesCredit:Channel 4 Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily Front Page newsletter and new audio briefings. Bible experts Helen Bond and Joan Taylor visited the catacomb in Naples, where, in the early 3rd century, the Christians began to bury their dead and pave the walls with frescos.The wall paintings, hidden for 1,000 years, were rediscovered in 1971 and recently restored. Cerula was painted in the late 5th or early 6th century and is depicted in the praying position, hands raised, with the “chi-rho” symbol of Christ over her head.Crucially, she is surrounded by open volumes of all four gospels, suggesting that she had real influence and responsibility.Dr Ally Kateusz, an expert in early Christian art, told the programme: “That’s really extraordinary, because bishops were associated with the gospels.“Bishops, and bishops only, had open gospel books placed over their heads during their ordination ritual. “The flames of the holy spirit would come out of the gospels and inspire the bishops in their preaching.” Dr Luca Badini, directo r of research at the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, said nothing similar had been discovered before.“It was known that women bishops were preaching at that time but very little evidence exists of it,” he told the Sunday Telegraph.“There are still some people who argue on the basis of tradition, stating that they can’t allow women to minister because it’s never been done before, but of course, that’s not true.”Ms Bond noted that the fresco had been created relatively late in the period but said: “These women bishops didn’t just turn up out of nowhere, there is a back story that will date back to the earliest followers of Jesus.”She added: “Any appeal to historic precedent that says Jesus did not choose women is clearly wrong.”She said it was local churches that stopped women preaching, decisions that were gradually adopted more widely. “But we see with this text the same tension between early practice and later tradition. For a long time, the female name Junia was changed to the male ‘Junias,’ to hide the possibility of women as apostles—despite the complete lack of textual evidence, or the existence of the male name Junias in any other context.“Elsewhere in Paul’s writings, he appears to treat women and men equally as proclaimers of the apostolic gospel—just as Mary was the first announce the resurrection of Jesus to the Twelve on Easter morning—something that supports the idea of women exercising ministerial authority in the church today.”Dr Badini highlighted a second fresco in the same location of a woman bishop called Bitalia, which was not preserved quite so well but featured similar symbols.He said the timing of their creation was significant as they preceded a letter written by Pope Gelasius to southern Italian bishops in the late 5th century to complain that women were ministering at holy altars.At some point thereafter, the pope’s demands for such women to stop their work were obeyed, the programme claims, and women’s senior roles were scrapped.