Women at the Tomb
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the more crucial, core ideas of the Christian faith, and without it, Christianity might have never gotten off the ground. The original Jewish followers of Jesus were expecting a triumphant, mighty Messianic warrior who would conquer the power of Rome. Instead, they got a humble, gentle-spirited teacher who showed compassion to numerous Romans, and who ended up being killed by them. To their minds, Jesus was essentially a failed Messiah. But the Resurrection changed the story; it changed their sense of what enemy Jesus came to defeat - the forces of sin and death themselves - and affirmed that God recognized Jesus’ mission as a success. Jesus was not a failed Messiah; he is the Savior of the world.
And so in 1 Corinthians 15, we find St. Paul stating strongly that the Christian faith would be empty without the doctrine of the Resurrection. “But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-20 NLT)
Paul also notes (in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8) that after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples, and to “more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive.” But there is more to the story of this Resurrection than just the brothers.
Several weeks ago, we studied the genealogy of Jesus, which includes the names of women who were shunned by society and chosen by God to be the great-grandmothers of his son. Throughout his ministry, we’ve seen Jesus reach out to the marginalized in society, whether they’re lepers, tax collectors, women, or the disabled. Women welcomed Jesus into their homes, pled with him on behalf of their families, and listened at his feet to his teaching. While most of the disciples fled in terror, John writes, “standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25). As Sayers notes, women were the last ones at the Cross, and they were the ones who prepared Jesus’ body for burial and laid him in the tomb.
And then, returning to the story of the Resurrection once more, we find that women are the first ones there. Reread the accounts, and this time pay attention to which women are there, and how they’re treated: Matthew 28:1-17; Mark 16; Luke 24:1-12; and John 20:1-18. The first thing you’ll probably notice is that the gospels don’t all give the same details. Matthew names Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (poor thing!); Mark mentions Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome; Luke speaks of the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee, naming Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James specifically; and John only talks about Mary Magdalene. They’re also fuzzy on whether the women see Jesus before running back to tell the disciples, or afterwards. You may have noticed these inconsistencies throughout the gospel accounts we’ve studied; they’re typical of eye-witness accounts recalled decades later, where important details remain consistent but minutia and chronology fluctuate somewhat.
(Actually, this is the kind of frantic, disoriented panic we should expect from people on the day when a person they knew came back from the dead.)
Two things, however, remain constant: the women see Jesus before the rest of the disciples, and the disciples don’t believe them. This is especially prominent in Luke, where it says that when the women told the disciples what had happened, “their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11 NIV). The disciples assumed that the women were hysterical, or imagining things. Even after Peter saw the empty grave for himself, they didn’t believe – not until Jesus appeared among them that night.
Christian author Sarah Bessey wants to change that. Paraphrasing famous feminist Rebecca West, she says that “Feminism is the radical notion that women are disciples too.” In an effort to change Christian perceptions of feminism – and what it means to be a Christian and a feminist – Bessey wrote Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women.
Bessey opens her first chapter with a quotation from Are Women Human?, an essay by Dorothy Sayers, a novelist and friend of C. S. Lewis. “Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross,” Sayers writes. “They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them… who took their questions and arguments seriously.”
In Jesus’ time, women were not considered reliable witnesses. They were classed with slaves, children, and the mentally handicapped as being unable to give reliable testimony, and they could not even represent themselves in court. And yet Jesus chose women to be the first witnesses to his resurrection, and to proclaim the good news to others. Not only that, but the fact that Luke consciously chooses to include this detail about women being the first witnesses does a lot of bolster the authenticity of the resurrection story: if the early church leaders were colluding to create a fabricated myth, they wouldn’t be so fuzzy and inconsistent on the details, and they wouldn’t make their first witnesses be a set of people who would not be taken seriously in their society. If the gospels were made up stories, we would expect a group of men to first find Jesus alive. Presenting women as the first witnesses of the resurrection is only a viable option if that is what actually happened.
“Jesus’s resurrection,” writes theologian N. T. Wright, “is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.”
When no one believes women, Jesus does. When others urge them be silent, he encourages them to learn and to speak. When everyone else assumes that Messiah has failed his mission, an angel reveals the truth of the resurrection to women, and sends them as the first preachers of God’s victory over sin and death. If God saw fit to challenge the attitudes of society towards women in those days, what might he say about our world today?
- Women are the first people in the Bible to testify of Jesus’ resurrection, but they are not always taken seriously. How does this compare to today? Are women taken more seriously/seen as equals in the proclamation of the message of Jesus? What has your Christian experience showed you about this? Have you known female preachers or Bible teachers?
- If Jesus was proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven in his life, death, and resurrection - a Kingdom “not of this world” - then why do the men involved in the proclamation of this new Kingdom seem to so strongly reflect the biases and cultural norms of their society? Is this a contradiction? Does this say anything about how God communicates with humanity?
- Read Luke 24:14-35. Why do you think the disciples walking to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus until he broke bread? Do you think Jesus actually looked different, or was it some kind of trick? Or something else? Why? (See Mark 16:12 also.)
- Luke 24:27 says “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (NIV) Unfortunately, Luke did not record for us the details of that speech. What Old Testament passages can you think of that point forward to Jesus?
- Mark 16 contains possibly the shortest report of the resurrection. If you are using basically any translation besides the KJV or NKJV, your translators will note that the earliest available manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20, meaning that they may have been added later. (Don’t worry about that right now - many of the things reported in this section of Mark 16 are also reported by the other gospels.)
- Try reading Mark 16 as if it were really a short ending - just verse 1 to verse 8. The women run away from the tomb because they are confused and frightened by what they have seen. What kind of effect would this have on your experience of the story? Do you find this ending to be dramatic? Mysterious? Incomplete?
- What do you think about Mark 16:9-20 not being in the earliest manuscripts that archaeologists have discovered? Does that shake your faith in the Bible? Or does it not bother you? Why or why not? Can you find some other passages in the New Testament where some manuscripts don’t have certain passages? Read John 20:1-11. Why would Mary Magdalene have such a strong, negative emotional reaction to finding out that Jesus’ body had been apparently stolen from the tomb? Do some research on Mary’s background to find out why Jesus was so important to her.
- Read Paul’s account of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. Why do you think he does not make reference to the women who went to the tomb? Are there cultural reasons for this?
- Read the rest of 1 Corinthians 15. What point is Paul making about Christianity and historical fact? Christianity and evidence? At his moment in history, did Paul think that the resurrection of Jesus could be proven or defended with evidence?