Women and the Resurrection Story


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Women have suffered under the dominion and control of males since the beginning of recorded history. The culture 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 are shifting 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 of strength for survival naturally led to a “might makes right” code of living, and that translated into 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. The story is different in the western world, where a feminine spring has emerged. In other areas of the world and in other cultures, however, 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 is seen today still in Muslim countries where Sharia law prevails: a woman’s testimony is discounted in court. For testimony to be considered reliable in court, it must come either from two men or one man and two women. (See here for an explanation) The testimony of just one woman, or even two women, is not considered reliable as a matter of law.

A similar rule prevailed in 1st century Palestine where women were not even eligible to testify in a Jewish court of law. Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian, explains that not even the witness of multiple women was considered reliable “because of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (See here)

Thus, the discussion brings us to the relevance of 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 woman, not even multiple women, were considered credible in a Jewish court of law, but the Gospels indicate that women found the empty tomb and reported they say Jesus alive. Let that sink in.

Who would make this stuff up?

Why would anyone in the 1st Century want to rely on the testimony of women for the evidence of the resurrection ? That just 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 if 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. 28:1Mark 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 24:10John 20:18)

lightstock_74415_xsmall_user_7997290The centrality of women in the resurrection story is should not be under emphasized. This also suggests how important and central women were to the ministry of Jesus. There are at least two points that I draw from this fact: 1) one is the credibility of the biblical account ; and 2) another is the respect for woman shown by Jesus.

First, the simple report of the initial evidence of the resurrection made by women suggests that the accounts are credible precisely because no one making the story up would think to identify women as the first witnesses of the event. Not in 1st Century Palestine. Anyone making a story up would use men as the initial witnesses, and they would likely be the main characters in the story – like Peter.

If the accounts were all 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 viewed, legally, as unreliable?

If people were concocting a story they wanted others to believe in that time, they would not have chosen women to be the first and most prominent witnesses. In fact, Celsus, a 2nd-century critic of Christianity, questioned the resurrection exactly because it was witnessed by a “hysterical female”. (From Jesus Outside the New Testament)

The biblical account rings true because it is candid. Given the culture of the time, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would have made it up.

The “greatest” of the disciples (Peter) denied Jesus when the chips were down, not once, but three times. Women were the ones who stuck by with 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 reported his resurrection to the disciples… and, the men were off hiding while all this took place.

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 1st or 2nd century 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 in 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! The fact that the biblical accounts make a point of mentioning them is significant.

Mary Magdalene, of course, is well known. She 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; and 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 only in the respect given to women by Jesus and fact that their significance is reflected the biblical account of his life, but also 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 1st Century.

The resurrection story is incredible, of course. 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.

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One Comment on “Women and the Resurrection Story”


  1. […] [4] See for instance, Christianity: The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Women, by Sue Bohlin published by Probe Ministries at bible.org March 16, 2010; How Jesus Viewed and Valued Women by James A. Borland, published at Crossway.org March 8, 2017; Our Pro-Woman, Complementarian Jesus by Kevin DeYoung, published at gospelcoalition.org February 15, 2016; and Women and the Resurrection Story. […]

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