Women have suffered under the dominion and control of males since the beginning of recorded history (and before no doubt). The culture in the US today, though, is much different than at any other time in history. Women have gained status they have never before had, As an example, about 65% of all college students in the US are women. The political, cultural and societal winds have shifted toward equality.
Most of the world, however, is not even close to that benchmark yet. In Muslim countries, in particular, women continue to be treated in ways that more “western” sensibilities consider backward and even barbarian. But, the historical subjugation of women is not just a Muslim thing; it has been very widespread and pervasive going far back in time.
This may seem like an odd backdrop to the resurrection story, but women and the resurrection story are forever intertwined in one of the most progressive and remarkably dignified ways in ancient literature.
Whether viewing history through an evolutionary lens or a historical lens, the reason for male dominance is, perhaps, easily understood. Before technology and the comforts of modern life, strength was the key to survival. Survival of the fittest is a truism whether one accepts evolutionary theory as an explanation of human existence or not. Survival in the ancient world required the strength to ward of beasts in the wild and threats from other people groups. Because men are (generally) stronger than women, men dominated and women were subservient.
Not that all men are stronger than all women; it’s just that the average man is stronger, and perhaps more aggressive, than the average women. The dependence on strength for survival naturally led to a “might makes right” code of living, and that translated into civil governance even as civilization grew more sophisticated. History is the story of civilizations conquering and being conquered, and the vestige of that historical thread continues today.
Women are still relegated to subservient status in many areas of the world, bolstered by political, philosophical and religious justifications. In other areas of the world and in other cultures, men still have more rights than women, and women are still subject to a largely male dominated culture and society.
One link to that past evident today still in Muslim countries where Sharia law prevails is that a woman’s testimony is discounted in court. For testimony to be considered reliable in a Sharia court of law, it must come either from two men or one man and two women. (See here for an explanation) The testimony of just one woman is not considered reliable as a matter of law, and the testimony of one man is considered more reliable than two women.
A similar rule prevailed in First Century Palestine where women were not even eligible to testify in a Jewish court of law. Josephus, the First Century Jewish historian, explains that the witness even of multiple women was not considered reliable “because of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (See here)
So, what does this have to do with the resurrection story? The Gospels that describe the death and resurrection of Jesus reflect a very curious thing, given the history of male dominance and poor regard for the testimony of women: the first recorded witnesses of the empty tomb and of the risen Christ were women!
Think about it. Not even multiple women were considered credible witnesses in a Jewish court of law, but the Gospels report that women found the empty tomb and reported that they say Jesus alive. Let that sink in.
Who would make this stuff up?
No one making up a story in the First Century would use women as proof that Jesus rose from the dead. That doesn’t make sense… unless, of course, they were just reporting what happened.
There is much more evidence of the resurrection than the initial reports of the women at the tomb, but let’s focus on the women here. The fact that the report of the women was left in the official record is significant.
The fact that women first reported the empty tomb and the risen Jesus is just the beginning of the historically and culturally radical way the New Testament views women.
The New Testament reports that the women remained near Jesus after he had been taken away by Roman guards, while the men abandoned him. Not even Peter, one of the closest followers of Jesus, stayed true to Jesus when the chips were down.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary wife of Clopas, were there at the cross when Jesus was crucified. (John 19:25) Mary the mother of James and Salome were also there. (Mark 15:40) When the Romans sealed the tomb with the “great stone”, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” were there. (Matt. 27:61) The two of them and Salome were also the ones to go back and check the tomb. (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1) Mary Magdalene was the one to report the empty tomb to the disciples. (John 20:1) Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women also reported to the disciples that Jesus was risen from the dead. (Luke 24:10; John 20:18)
The centrality of women in the resurrection story cannot be over emphasized. It suggests suggests at least two important points. First, is the credibility of the biblical account. The resurrection story may have been discounted in the First Century because women reported it, but it becomes more believable looking back because we know they wouldn’t have made it up.
If the accounts were fabricated in the generation following the death of Jesus (or much later as some claim), who would think to put women in such a prominent role? Why would they use women as the ones who reported the empty tomb and the first encounter with the resurrected Christ when the testimony of women was considered legally unreliable?
The biblical account rings true because it is candid. Other candid aspects of the reports involve the central players, like Peter, the “greatest” of the disciples. Peter denied Jesus not once, but three times. Women were the ones who stuck by Jesus through the “trial”, the death on the cross and after. Women were the ones who took care of the body and reported the tomb empty. Women were the ones to whom Jesus first appeared, and they reported his resurrection to the disciples. Meanwhile, Peter and the other men were off hiding.
These accounts don’t read like a made up story; they read like an attempt to report what actually happened, embarrassing details and all. Anyone making up this story in First or Second Centuries would not have claimed the men were cowering in fear while the women boldly stuck by Jesus.
And that brings me to the second point: “Jesus radically affirmed the full dignity of women and the vital value of their witness.” (Five Errors to Drop from Your Easter Sermon) “Jesus rejected the idea of male superiority and its double standard of morality by the manner in which he related to women…. [a]nd he included women in his ministry even though he was aware that cultural limitations would restrict their ministry to a degree in his day [citations omitted].” (Chinese Women in Christian Ministry)
Woman are given respect and exalted status by Jesus and the New Testament accounts that was not recognized by the culture at the time. In fact, it has taken centuries for similar recognition of women to be granted.
Yet, Jesus had many women followers!
Mary Magdalene was the Galilean woman (likely from the town of Magdala on the west bank) who Jesus delivered from demons. (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9) Joanna was the wife of Chuza, the manager of the household of King Herod. She, along with one called Suzanna and others, provided financially for Jesus. (Luke 8:3) Many other women were mentioned as followers of Jesus.
The significance is not just in the respect given to women by Jesus and their centrality in the biblical account of his life; it’s in the fact that such respect was so counter-cultural. We tend to think in our modern American society that Christianity is mainstream, but it was anything but mainstream in the First Century.
In a modern, secular society that views everything through a scientific lens, many reject the resurrection out of the gate because “miracles don’t happen”. If God exists, and He created the universe, however, is it really all that far-fetched? The biblical account bolstered by testimony of women, claims matter-of-factly that the resurrection happened.
Peter wrote that he and the other eye witnesses of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection did not tell “cleverly devised stories”. (2 Pet. 1:16, NIV) Those eye witnesses included women whose testimony was critical. Though Jesus appeared to more than 500 after his death (according to Paul (1 Cor. 15:5-8)), he appeared first to women who reported what they saw to the men.
The significance of the centrality of women in the resurrection story might escape us if we are not paying attention. The fact that women were in the middle of it all is a major statement of God’s view of women as well as the authenticity of the Gospel accounts.