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Women as Witnesses to the Resurrection: A Striking Implication

April 19, 2022 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Luke 24:9-12 (NRSV)

Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Focus

The gospel stories of Jesus’s resurrection have some surprising features, in addition to the most obvious surprise. One of these surprises has to do with the prominent role of women as witnesses to the resurrection. In a culture in which the testimony of women was not taken seriously by men in power, the fact that the Easter stories feature women is a compelling reason to believe they are historically reliable.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

I have been familiar with the Gospel accounts of the resurrection since I was a young boy. I heard them in church every year. I studied them in Sunday school. I learned to read them in Greek when I was in graduate school. I’ve preached on them more than 60 times. I spent hours and hours poring over them while writing my book on the reliability of the Gospels. The stories about what happened on Easter morning are some of the most familiar to me in the Bible. Perhaps that’s true for you, too.

Because these stories are so familiar, for many years I took for granted certain aspects of the stories that should have been more surprising to me. I could even take for granted the fact that Jesus rose from the dead rather than being shocked, amazed, or skeptical. But there are other features of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection that should awaken us with wonder. I want to talk about one of these features today—and tomorrow, as well.

I’m referring to the prominent role of women in the story of Easter. The women who followed Jesus had already shown exceptional loyalty to him in the days right before Easter. Whereas many of Jesus’s male followers deserted him when he was arrested and crucified, “the women who had followed him from Galilee” remained with him to the end (Luke 23:49). These same women also followed along when Jesus was buried in the hope that they could anoint his body for burial in the traditional way (23:50). Then, on Easter morning, several of the women went to the tomb in order to care for the dead body of Jesus (24:1). There, they discovered that Jesus was not in the tomb (24:3). Two men “in dazzling clothes” – angels, according to Matthew – appeared to the women, telling them that Jesus had been raised from the dead just as he had predicted (24:5-8). So the women went and shared this news with the eleven closest disciples of Jesus (24:9). Luke identifies these women as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them” (24:10). Unfortunately, the male disciples of Jesus didn’t believe what the women reported. “These words seemed to them an idle tale,” Luke tells us (24:11).

I expect the main reason the male disciples rejected what the woman told them was the incredibility of what they reported. People just don’t rise from the dead. People do, however, become confused and say things in error. Sometimes they even lie. Whatever was going on with the women, the male disciples assumed they were not accurately representing what had actually happened.

It’s likely, however, that something else motivated the men to discount what the women had told them: gender bias. You see, in the culture of the time, the testimony of women was not considered to be trustworthy. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, commenting on the common legal practice of his day, writes:

But let not a single witness be credited, but three, or two at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex. . . . (Antiquities, 4:219, William Whiston translation).

Therefore, it’s likely that the male disciples of Jesus were inclined to reject the testimony of the women, not only because of its inherent incredibility but also because it came from women.

Jews weren’t alone in their low estimation of the believability of women as witnesses. The Romans shared this prejudicial viewpoint. Consider the case of Celsus, one of the most vehement second-century Roman opponents of Christianity. Tim Keller summarizes one of Celsus’s strongest arguments against the Christian faith this way:

Christianity can’t be true, because the written accounts of the resurrection are based on the testimony of women—and we all know women are hysterical. And many of Celsus’ readers agreed: For them, that was a major problem. In ancient societies, as you know, women were marginalized, and the testimony of women was never given much credence.

Now, because the Gospel accounts of the resurrection have been so familiar to me, and because I don’t share the first-century bias against women, it never occurred to me until I was in my thirties that the role of women in the Easter stories had staggering implications. I’ll talk about one of these today and the other tomorrow.

Critics of Christianity commonly argue that the early followers of Jesus made up the stories of his resurrection. Perhaps, it is alleged, they had some transformational spiritual or emotional experiences after Jesus had died, from which they concluded that he was somehow still alive in spirit. So, they made up stories about his resurrection to represent their experiences and beliefs. But surely the bodily resurrection stuff was simply make-believe.

This argument seems reasonable at first, given the unlikelihood of someone rising from the dead. But if you keep in mind how men in the ancient world, including the Jewish world of Jesus, tended to disparage the testimony of women, then the fact that women figure so prominently in the Easter narrative as witnesses is compelling evidence in favor of the historical reliability of that narrative. There’s just no way the first Christians would have made up Easter stories featuring women as their prime witnesses. A fictitious story would sure have starred Peter and the other male disciples, maybe also some Jewish leaders or Roman soldiers. Therefore, the best explanation of the centrality of women in the stories of Jesus’s resurrection is the fact that women were indeed central. And this suggests that the stories are historically authentic.

Of course, there are other facets of the resurrection stories that also make no sense unless they’re true. For example, Jews in the time of Jesus were not expecting their Messiah to die and rise again. The first Christians wouldn’t have made up the resurrection to impress their fellow Jews. Moreover, when you consider the wider Greco-Roman world into which the early Christians brought the good news of Jesus, you realize that resurrection of the body was at best a strange foreign idea and at worst something repugnant. No thoughtful first-century Greek would have been dazzled by the bodily resurrection of anyone. So, the more you study the world in which early Christianity was formed, the more you’ll come to see why the best explanation for Christianity’s birth and life was the fact of the resurrection.

I realize that what I’ve written today is not what one usually expects in a devotion. But I do believe that the more we recognize the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s resurrection, the more we’ll be encouraged to take to heart, not only the factuality of the resurrection, but also its life-changing implications. In tomorrow’s devotion, I’ll consider another of these often-overlooked implications. For now, let me encourage you to consider the following questions.

Reflect

How confident are you that the resurrection of Jesus really happened? If you are quite confident, why is that? If you’re not, why not?

When you think about the way people in the ancient world regarded women, does it make sense to you that the Gospel stories would not have been made up to feature women so prominently?

In what area (or areas) of your life would you most like to experience the reality and power of the resurrection?

Act

Once again, let me suggest that you read one of the short online articles in Resources on the Resurrection. One features Tim Keller, the other N. T. Wright.

Pray

Gracious God, you know that we live in a world in which resurrections are uncommon at best. You also know that we tend to think of life in scientific terms, and this leads us to wonder about the resurrection stories. Sometimes our wonder turns into doubt or even rejection of the stories.

So help us, Lord, to think rightly and wisely about what we read in Scripture, including the stories of the resurrection. By your Spirit, help us to believe what is true, even when it’s hard to believe.

May the resurrection be far more for us than just something we believe. May it be something we experience through the power of your Spirit in our lives each day. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Jesus’ Death and Resurrection (Matthew 27-28)


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