In my previous post, I shared a bit about my experience with the gender roles controversy and emphasized the need for careful resolution of the tension we find among the biblical texts that relate to women in the church. I now wish to examine some of the Scriptural evidence pertaining to the status and responsibilities of women in Jesus’ pre-ascension ministry. (In part 3, I’ll deal with Paul’s epistles.)
We certainly shouldn’t minimize the fact that The Twelve—the dozen men Jesus hand-picked to be his principal learners and leaders—were all men; that is significant. But, we also cannot ignore the fact that there were others, including women, who learned and ministered under the direction of Jesus. They were part of his travelling entourage (Luke 8:1-3), carried out duties that would eventually be done by deacons and deaconesses, and, as we will see later, some were collectively referred to as disciples, as well. This was extremely counter-cultural! As Dr. Ben Witherington puts it: “For a Jewish woman, the possibility of being a disciple of a great teacher, of being a travelling follower of Jesus, of remaining single ‘for the sake of the Kingdom,’ or even of being a teacher of the faith to persons other than children, were all opportunities that did not exist prior to her entrance into the community of Jesus.”
Jesus turned both the religious and social norms upside down, and where women were concerned, His actions were undeniably equalizing. Recall the account of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). As far as the Jews were concerned, Samaritans were unclean half-breeds, and moreover, Jewish men were not supposed to speak to strange women in public. What does our Lord Jesus do? He sits down with a promiscuous Samaritan woman out in broad daylight at the town’s common water well and has one of the most important theological discussions recorded in John’s Gospel. He explicitly identifies Himself to her as the Messiah! She abandons her water jar and runs into the town to tell everyone who will listen—and many believed based upon her testimony (4:39). A woman was the first evangelist to Sychar in Samaria.
I wish I knew her name.
Throughout my latest study of women in the Gospel narratives, what has surprised me is realizing how often I’ve made a mistaken generalization instead of carefully identifying who the Gospel writers meant to include when they used the word “disciples” in any particular passage. When I’m reading along and come to the phrase “the disciples” or “His disciples,” my mind automatically registers that as “The Twelve.” I know there were more disciples than The Twelve; I’m just saying that when I’m reading the Gospels, my brain defaults to the exclusive circle all too often as I’m trying to rush forward to the main point of the passage (shame on me).
There’s one particular cross reference that I really like. The synoptic Gospels record Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection. For example, in Matthew 16:21 we read, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Compare this to Mark 8:27-34, where a distinction is made between what Jesus says to the disciples (including the death/resurrection prediction) before he calls the general crowd to him. My point is, the Scripture tells us that the disciples were the ones that he spoke his prediction to (he voiced this prediction several times, and it should be noted that at least once it was to The Twelve, exclusively). But then notice what happens immediately after his resurrection, when the prophecy has come true. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women (“the women who had come with Him from Galilee”—Luke 23:55) set off to embalm Jesus’ body:
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. (Emphasis, mine.)
Take note: the angels tell the women to recall what Jesus told them would happen. This indicates that when Jesus foretold to “his disciples” his betrayal, death, and resurrection, the women were included in that group. The women ran back to tell The Eleven (Judas is gone) about what the angels had told them at the open, empty tomb. Women were the first to discover and proclaim the Gospel of the Lord risen.
Women, whose testimony wasn’t of much worth in that culture, were entrusted by God with the most important message in all of human history, and they delivered it to the men who had been closest to Jesus.
And the men thought they had made it all up.
I wonder if there was ever an “I told you so.” ;-)