Monday, October 05, 2009

The Role of Women in the Resurrection

Carracci's Holy Women at the Tomb of Christ

It is frequently asserted by theologians and scholars from across the spectrum that women played a prominent role in the resurrection of Jesus. Whether one understands the resurrection as a metaphor for newness of life, a spiritual resurrection of Jesus’ soul, or a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body, many agree that women played a central role in that original understanding.

I understand this position well because I have often made the argument myself. Our earliest Christian texts, both within the Bible and outside the Bible, depict women as having a central place in Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. Women are said to have been close followers of Jesus and to have helped finance his ministry; women are said to have been the only ones who stayed with Jesus at his execution; women are said to have been the first people to find the empty tomb and to see the resurrected Christ; and women held positions of authority and influence in the churches of Paul.

Taken together, these things indicate strongly that women played unusually significant roles in the birth of Christianity – unusual because of its placement in an era and region that was strongly patriarchal and in which women were second-class citizens not even considered reliable enough to testify in a trial.

This history, of course, has important and vital ramifications to theology. Even in the 21st century, there are still Christian churches, denominations, and institutions that do not permit women in ministry roles. The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, does not ordain women to be ministers or even deacons. The Roman Catholic Church does not allow women to be priests, bishops, or popes, and doesn’t even allow its male leaders to get married (perhaps women would distract them from their heavenly duties?). Many folks from among these denominations and churches regard women in ministry roles with derision. One website I found stated that “women preachers are all false prophets.”

So recognizing the important role women played, both during Jesus’ ministry, at his resurrection, and even into the early Christian era in the Pauline churches, is vitally important to modern theology. Paul couldn’t be more explicit when he refers to Phoebe, the carrier of his letter to Rome, as a “deacon” of the church. He couldn’t be more explicit when he calls Priscilla of Rome his “fellow worker” in Christ Jesus (implying that she is in an authoritative teaching role like he is). He couldn’t be more explicit when he says that the Roman church meets in her house, implying she is the leader of that church. He couldn’t be more explicit when he calls a woman named Junia an “apostle” – that is, a preacher or missionary. He couldn’t be more explicit when he refers to women prophesying – that is, providing theological guidance to congregations.

While none of that is invalidated by the discussion that follows, I want to look more closely at the common idea that women were centrally involved in the resurrection. Biblically-speaking, the Gospel writers all agree that women, and specifically Mary Magdalene, were the first to find the empty tomb. Furthermore, Matthew and John assert that Mary herself was the first person to see the risen Jesus.

This, as mentioned above, has led to common assertions that whatever the resurrection was – metaphorical, spiritual, physical – women played a central role. The argument suggests that it is inconceivable that male scribes in patriarchal 1st century Palestine would have written women into a story where they didn’t originally exist – especially one as theologically important as the resurrection – so their presence in these accounts must point to early and reliable tradition.

While I have frequently made this point myself, I recently read an argument suggesting that perhaps the story of the women at the tomb was, in fact, a literary embellishment. This came from scholar J.D. Crossan in his book, “The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately after the Execution of Jesus.” Crossan, by no means, suggests a diminished role of women in modern churches based on this historical reconstruction, but simply argues that the textual evidence lends credence to literary embellishment rather than “history remembered.”

First, it is important to recognize that while a person might commonly argue that “all four Gospels agree that women were involved in the resurrection,” in reality this is only a single source, and not four sources. It is an issue of confusing texts with sources. We have four texts agreeing that women were at the tomb (actually, we have five, if you count the Gospel of Peter). But only one source. That single source is Mark. Matthew and Luke both used Mark’s account as a primary source in creating their own accounts. And while John has traditionally been considered an “independent” source from the other three, scholarly trends of the last 20 or 30 years have started moving toward the conclusion that the author of John, in fact, used one or more of the other three. Having read the various arguments, I am fairly convinced that John is not independent of the other canonical Gospels.

So while all of the Gospels agree that women found the tomb, there is only a single source at play there – the Gospel of Mark.

So the obvious question is this: Did Mark base his story on some earlier tradition, either oral or written, or did he just make it up off the top of his head?

The first option would seem to be the self-evident answer. Mark must have gotten his general information on Jesus from somewhere, and it is reasonable to assume that the story of the women at the tomb was included in that earlier source.

Crossan argues, however, for the second option – that the “women at the tomb” story was a creation of Mark. More specifically, he argues that it was a theological creation of Mark. In other words, it wasn’t just willy-nilly; Mark wasn’t making stuff up for fun. He was making a theological point.

The first bit of evidence comes from our pre-Markan accounts of Christianity. Many scholars, for instance, date the non-Biblical texts known as the Didache and the Gospel of Thomas to the middle of the 1st century, several decades before Mark. Neither of those documents, however, describes the resurrection at all, with women or without. We do, however, have one, and possibly two, resurrection accounts that predate Mark – the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Peter.

As to the Gospel of Peter, while most agree that it was written down in the 2nd century, a number of scholars argue that it contains early, pre-Biblical accounts of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. Some (namely Crossan) even go so far as to suggest that an early resurrection text – dubbed the Cross Gospel – is imbedded in the Gospel of Peter, and Crossan dates that hypothetical text to about 40 C.E., thirty years before Mark. Whether you agree with that hypothesis or not, the Cross Gospel does not include any women at the tomb. Instead, it is the Romans and the Jewish authorities – the enemies of Jesus – who find the empty tomb and who see the first vision of the risen Jesus.

As to the letters of Paul, there can be little doubt that they predate Mark or any of the other texts of the New Testament. Paul has very little to say about Jesus’ resurrection, but he does give a brief description of it in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15. He doesn’t mention anything about a tomb, but he provides a list of people the risen Christ appeared to. There is no mention of any women.

So our pre-Markan sources unilaterally fail to mention anything about women and the resurrection. If women played a prominent role in the resurrection, as is often asserted, and the Gospels of the New Testament reflect that tradition, shouldn’t we find the same tradition in our earlier sources? One would think yes, but the answer is no.

The second bit of evidence comes from a look at Mark’s overall theology. For years, theologians and scholars have pointed out that Mark tends to depict the disciples in a very negative light. In Mark, the disciples are bumbling and inept, never understanding despite continual clear instructions by Jesus. They don’t seem to get it when he tells them he will be executed and resurrected. When he enters the Garden of Gethsemane to pray before his arrest, Peter, James, and John – his “inner three” – fall asleep on him. Later, Peter denies knowing him, and all the disciples flee and abandon Jesus, never to be heard from in Mark’s text again.

Mark contrasts the lack of faith and general incompetence of the disciples – and specifically of Peter, James, and John – with a story of an unnamed Roman centurion who, at the foot of the cross, proclaims that Jesus is the son of God. The disciples never got it, but a pagan Gentile did.

Mark paints an equally negative portrait of Jesus’ female followers. He makes clear that Jesus had prominent female disciples, but those women are also depicted as not understanding and having a basic lack of faith. In his story of the women at the tomb, they go there not to look for the resurrected Jesus, but to anoint his body in a burial custom. Crossan points out that this may have demonstrated great love, but it did not demonstrate great faith. Clearly the women didn’t believe Jesus when he told them repeatedly that he would be resurrected after three days.

Furthermore, when the women are instructed by the heavenly messenger at the tomb to tell the disciples to meet the risen Jesus in Galilee, the women fail to do it, and instead flee in terror.

Like the story of the Roman centurion, the unbelief and disobedience of the women in Jesus’ inner circle is contrasted by the great faith of an unnamed woman at the house of a leper who, prior to Jesus’ arrest, anoints his body with expensive unguents. Jesus heaps praise upon her for her great faith, and predicts that her story will be remembered for all time. Why did this demonstrate great faith? Because she believed Jesus when he said he would rise after three days, so she anointed his body before his burial, knowing she wouldn’t have a chance to do so afterward because he would rise again.

Mark’s literary technique is clear: the male disciples, personified by the trio of Peter, James, and John, are inept and disbelieving. They are contrasted with an unnamed male pagan who asserts that Jesus is the son of God. The female disciples, personified by the trio of Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Joses, and Salome, are disbelieving and disobedient. They are contrasted with an unnamed female at the home of a leper who has great faith that Jesus will rise again.

In that literary technique of Mark, a threefold theological implication to his readers is also clear. First, just because you come from a community claiming authority of one of Jesus’ inner circle, that doesn’t mean you have superiority or authority over others – after all, even Jesus’ own inner circle were inept, disobedient, and disbelieving. Second, even if you feel inept and undeserving of God’s grace, be comforted because even Jesus’ own companions were like you. Third, don’t feel unworthy if you were never a part of Jesus’ inner circle; after all, those outside of the inner circle, like pagans and humble, anonymous women, were exalted above and beyond even the inner circle.

In that literary and theological context, it makes perfect sense why Mark – despite the patriarchal society in which he lived – might have written women into a resurrection scene without any pre-existing tradition to support it.

The third and final bit of evidence is the way Mark’s account was used by later writers. It is clear from Matthew, Luke, and John, that they were basing their story of the women at the tomb solely on Mark – and not on some other oral or textual tradition.

Matthew’s account follows Mark’s almost word for word. He does, however, clearly see a problem with Mark’s negative portrayal of the women, and with the fact that there are no resurrection scenes in Mark’s account. So where Mark’s women flee from the tomb in “terror and amazement” and don’t tell anyone, Matthew’s women go with “fear and great joy” and immediately tell the other disciples – exactly as they were instructed to do. Where Mark’s women are disobedient, Matthew’s are obedient right to the letter, even going so far as to “run quickly” after being told to “quickly” go tell the disciples. Also, where there is never any resurrection appearance in Mark, Matthew has the women meet Jesus on the road, and later has the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee. Finally, where Mark’s women are demonstrating unfaithfulness by going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, Matthew’s women are simply going there to “look at the tomb,” as though to check to see if he’s risen yet. Throughout the entire scene, it is clear that Matthew is “fixing” Mark’s account – changing disobedience into obedience, unfaithfulness into faithfulness, and adding in resurrection appearances.

Luke’s changes mirror Matthew’s. The women find the tomb, but instead of disobeying, they go to tell the disciples. There are also extensive scenes in which the risen Jesus appears to the disciples (though never to the women, as in Matthew).

John’s account diverges the most from Mark, but it is clear that John was using the accounts of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Mary Magdalene is again the central character, and although no other women are mentioned by name, Mary does use the word “we” when discussing the discovery of the empty tomb, implying other women were there with her. John borrows Luke’s story about Peter running to the tomb and looking inside to see the “strips of linen” discarded there. The general negativity of Mark is retained by John when Mary Magdalene doesn’t understand that the empty tomb means Jesus has risen – she believes his body has been stolen. When she finally sees Jesus, she still doesn’t get it, mistaking him for the gardener. Finally, John refers to Matthew’s account when he has Jesus instruct Mary not to “hold on” to him. In Matthew, when Mary and the other women met the risen Jesus, they “grasped his feet” and worshipped him. Since John doesn’t say anything about Mary attempting to touch Jesus, Jesus’ words only make sense in the context of Matthew’s story.

Taking these three accounts together, there is no textual evidence suggesting that a different oral or textual tradition was used by Matthew, Luke, or John in forming their “women at the tomb” stories. Luke and Matthew relied exclusively on Mark, and John relied on all three.

Thus, the three lines of evidence – the internal literary and theological clues from Mark, the total lack of any suggestion about women at the tomb in any existing pre-Markan sources, and the exclusive reliance of the later Gospel writers on Mark’s account – all suggest that Mark developed the story on his own.

Having said all that, and having presented the argument, I am still not sure where I stand. On a personal level, I very much like the idea of women having a central role in the resurrection. It helps negate a lot of stereotypes so common in Christian churches. But as a historian and essayist, I have to make sure that my personal biases don’t interfere with any neutral historical conclusions that I embrace. I may like the idea of women being involved intimately in the resurrection, and of that historical fact being imbedded in our existing accounts, but just because I want it to be true doesn’t mean that it is.

Crossan makes a powerful argument that strikes deep at the notion that there must have been an earlier source for the “women at the tomb” tradition. His argument digs at the foundational assumption that says that no 1st century male writer would have added women into an important story when there was otherwise no historical basis for doing so. In fact, one of the hallmark arguments among Christian apologists for the reliability of the Gospel stories is that they depict women in prominent resurrection roles. Since it seems self-evident that no male in the 1st century would have added such a story where none existed, the argument says that the stories must reflect a level of historical truth. I have long generally agreed with this assertion.

Yet Crossan has adequately shown how and why such a male writer might have done just that. He illustrates persuasively the literary and theological aspects of Mark’s Gospel. By writing women into the resurrection scene, Mark was not elevating women into a position of prominence; instead, he was using that scene to demonstrate that Jesus’ inner circle of both men and women were generally inept, unfaithful, and disobedient, as this served his greater theological theme.

I do have some reservations, however. First, while the argument about Mark’s literary techniques is a persuasive one, I don’t think I can call it “final.” Crossan demonstrates how negativity can be read into the scene of the women at the tomb (unfaithfulness and disobedience), but I am not sure I am convinced that this negativity was Mark’s primary goal in that scene. Other scholars have argued that this scene was liturgical in nature, based on oral tradition of women mourners at the tomb, and of the belief that Jesus had been resurrected in accordance with the Jewish scriptures. While it’s true that the women are technically being unfaithful by coming to anoint his body in a burial ritual despite his promise to rise again, and while it is true that the women are technically being disobedient by not immediately going and telling the disciples what they have seen, I am not sure that Crossan has convinced me that this was legitimately the intention of the writer of Mark. Although I count Crossan among my favorite New Testament experts, I have frequently felt that he sometimes reads between the lines a bit too much, looking for evidence that doesn’t really seem to be there. I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t another example of that.

As a rebuttal to that, however, it seems undeniable that Matthew saw the same negativity in Mark that Crossan has seen, because Matthew clearly “fixes” those negative portrayals.

Second, Crossan makes a good point that there is no evidence of any “women at the tomb” stories prior to Mark, but it’s also true that we have extremely few sources of any resurrection stories at all prior to Mark. Paul gives very few biographical details about Jesus or the circumstances of his resurrection. He does give us a list of those Jesus was said to have appeared to, and he does say that this was the tradition given to him in Jerusalem very early on, but it’s certainly possible that Paul simply left out any reference to women out of misogyny or perhaps because he was having trouble with female prophets in Corinth (as deduced from the content of other parts of the letter). As for the Cross Gospel, that is an extremely contentious hypothesis, as I indicated above, and the majority of scholars reject it. If the Cross Gospel did exist, then Crossan’s point is bolstered, because women don’t figure in the resurrection. But if it did not exist, then Crossan’s point is weakened, because it leaves us with only one pre-Markan source for the resurrection, namely the letters of Paul. That’s not much to go on considering that we are talking about 40 years of tradition prior to Mark. There were most certainly a lot of texts and oral traditions going around during those years that we no longer have access to. So just because there is no longer any existing evidence for pre-Markan stories of the women at the tomb doesn’t mean those stories didn’t exist in the first century.

In the end, whether Crossan’s argument about the “women at the tomb” story is correct or not, there can be no question that women were central figures in early Christianity, both during Jesus’ life and during the rise of Christianity after his death. Thus, whether their role in the resurrection itself was historical or legendary, that does not change the fact that women’s diminished role in Christianity, beginning in the late 1st century, was a product of male-dominated human institutions, and not any divinely-mandated secondary status of women.

1 comment:

Gary said...

Western society has been indoctrinated with the belief in the reality of invisible ghosts and ghouls for 2,000 years. So if you already believe in the schemes and whims of ghosts, the idea that a ghost man walked out of his grave is not too far out of your range of possibilities.

However, I believe that today, fewer and fewer people accept a worldview that involves ghosts and ghouls, especially among the younger generations. I think that this is why we are seeing steady, year after year, declines in membership and baptisms in all Christian denominations, including the flagship of evangelicalism, the Southern Baptist Convention.

To a growing number of people today, the belief that a good ghost and a bad ghost are battling each other for control of your brain and your "heart" is just silly, ignorant nonsense.

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