What role did women have in the Bible? … wait… before we clam up and fight as to whether women should speak in church, become elders, pastors, or maybe the Pope someday… lets reread, and maybe rephrase the question. What role did women have in the Bible’s construction? This may sound like an odd question considering that there is no book in the new testament called, The Gospel according to Miriam, or Joanna, but women seem to have a greater role than most realize.
If you read the Gospels, you will notice that named-women appear surprisingly frequently throughout Jesus’ ministry. We also see them at the cross, at his burial, and at the empty tomb. This prompts the question, why and how do we have stories about these women? It seems obvious that some were eyewitnesses, but how much is actually their testimony?
The Gospel according to Luke is the most helpful when examining the testimony of women. First of all, Luke by implication states that he is not an eyewitness. He describes that he has carefully investigated everything from the beginning, and taken an account of the testimonies of the first eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4). If you are like me you will wonder, “who are these first eyewitnesses?”
Scholars such as Richard Bauckham will suggest that there is a good possibility that a substantial amount of Luke’s eyewitness testimony came from women like Mary and Joanna (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Gospel Women). There are a few clues as to why: the literary technique of inclusio, and text’s internal evidence regarding Mary and Joanna’s knowledge of the ministry.
Inclusio is an ancient literary technique where similar ideas, or phrases bracket the beginning and end of a section.
Beginning: He is a Champion
He likes to play football
he wins MVP’s
He’s won multiple superbowls
End: He is a Champion
While we see this mainly in literary or rhetorical instances (see Hebrews: Christ as the perfect high Priest), we see this in ancient histories and biographies for eyewitness testimony as well. This means that a section will introduce a person, and fill the inner section with testimony or anecdotes from that person, and then close the testimony off by dismissing the individual in some way. A few biblical scholars today (Bauckham, Hengel) will claim that the Gospel according to Mark is largely the eyewitness testimony of Peter based on an inclusio of his testimony (for a non-Christian example of ancient eyewitness inclusio, see Lucian’s Alexander). In Luke, we seem to have multiple sources at work, but the main inclusio we see is with Mary and Joanna. Luke introduces the two in Luke 8:2-3 and last mentions them in Luke 24:11. While interesting and notable that there are two events (the ministry in Luke 8 and the empty tomb in 24) the women were possibly eyewitnesses for, why give them more credit? This comes from their disciple-like knowledge of Jesus’ ministry described in Luke 24.
The women go to the tomb where they find two shimmering men who claim that Jesus is not there. They tell the women,
“Why Do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'” Then they remembered his words.
Pay close attention to “remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee.” The two men move on from this statement, assuming and taking it for granted that these women obviously heard this before. So, let’s go to the original scene in Galilee
Luke 9:18, 21-22
Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him… Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
The section in chapter 9 shows that this specific teaching of Jesus was given to his disciples in private. The two men in chapter 24 suggest that these women were there with Jesus for this teaching. This means that there is a good possibility, that the women were responsible for the accounts of ch. 9: 18-26. Therefore, it seems safe to postulate that if Mary and Joanna were privy to this private conversation, they were present for considerably more.
Inclusio and the testimony from Luke 8 and 24 lead us to believe that some of the women we find in the gospel contributed a considerable portion of the eyewitness testimony we have.* While we cannot know this for certain, a strong case is available. At the very least we can remind ourselves of a few things today. Women are more than just stay-at-home moms and can play quite an important role in ministry. These women traveled with Jesus, participated in his ministry, served the poor, shared the gospel, and as a result put family life aside. These were not women who simply stayed at home. On the contrary, they were with Jesus through his ministry, and remained with him at the cross when the Twelve were too fearful, and most likely quite active in the rise of the early Church.
For further reading:
*By implication in the introduction, Luke used multiple sources. I am not saying that these women were authors, or the only eyewitnesses, just major contributors.