Ian begins a new series this Saturday examining the ways in which Jesus differed from other religious leaders and rabbis. In this first part he examines the counter-cultural attitude Jesus took towards women and how this was later reversed by later followers in the late-first and early-second centuries.
In many ways Jesus was a genius; but in others he owed a great debt to his Jewish heritage. For me personally the evidence is extremely clear that Jesus was a Law-observant Jew. Not only do we have the testimony of Matthew, who presents Jesus as a Jewish rabbi — a view that is supported by Luke and John (only Mark presents Jesus as a Law breaker and an apostate). Furthermore, we have the fact that after Jesus' death and resurrection his disciples and immediate family established a community in Jerusalem that was strictly Law-observant (Elmer, 2006).
It is difficult to overcome the further evidence of Paul's letters, especially Galatians, that Paul's entire career was bedevilled by agents of the Apostle Peter and Jesus' brother James who invaded his Law-free communities arguing that the Gentile converts must be circumcised and obey the Law. If Jesus had not preached Law-observance, then we are forced to explain why his disciples and family so totally misunderstood him and remained Law-observant when Jesus had proclaimed freedom from the Law.
Nevertheless, it is also true to say that Jesus was unique, and that in many respects he had a peculiar take on the Jewish Law. Over the coming weeks, I would like to explore the ways in which the rabbi Jesus differed from other Jewish rabbis of his time. Our first instalment will consider Jesus' attitude to women, a subject that has been explicitly and implicitly canvassed in recent commentaries by Daniel Gullotta (2007).
The Egalitarian Jesus Movement…
While most New Testament scholars disagree about the finer details of the portrait of the historical Jesus that emerges from the four Gospels, all agree on one thing. Despite being a Law-observant Jew, Jesus reached out to those who either were, or had placed themselves beyond the pale — prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, divorcees, the demon-possessed, the sick, the infirm and possibly a few Gentiles.
Jesus did this both by offering forgiveness and healing as well as sharing table fellowship, which was forbidden between those who were Law-abiding and those who were either apostate or "unclean". The community that gathered around Jesus numbered few from among the righteous or the "high and mighty"; but rather the outcast and the sinner. Significant amongst the number of Jesus fellow diners at table were women.
This represents a significant departure from contemporary Jewish practice, which generally restricted contact between women and the wider society. In the cities of Palestine, Jewish women rarely left the house, and wore a heavy veil when they went to synagogue or to market — much as women in strict orthodox Muslim communities do today. In the farming communities, women worked the fields and tended stock, but never alone and never in the presence of men who were not directly related to them. No man would dare speak to any woman with whom he was not related as husband, son or brother. Women were forbidden to teach in synagogues, or even say the blessing at family meals.
By contrast, Jesus seems to have met regularly with women, called them into his following and eaten with them. There may even have been women present at the Last Supper, including I suspect Jesus' mother and some of the female members of Jesus' family. But, perhaps more significantly, there must have been other women as well, especially Mary Magdalene. Jesus certainly included women in his retinue and they clearly played a role similar to the Twelve Apostles. However, the exact nature of the role played by women in the Jesus movement is not completely clear from our Gospel accounts.
Paul presents us with our best evidence. Romans mentions Phoebe a "minister" or "deacon" from Cenchreae (Rom 16:1) and also Prisca who, along with her husband, Aquila, are notable co-workers with Paul (Rom 16:3; cf. 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19; Acts 18:2, 18, 26) — and we can only wonder why the wife is always named first.
We should not overlook Junia (Rom 16:7) who is both a relative of Paul and, amazingly, Paul calls her an "apostle". There are also Mary and the mother of Rufus, both prominent members of the Roman church (Rom 16:6, 13). We should not overlook Chloe, who was a "leader" of a church community in Corinth (1 Cor 1:11). Even the earliest Jerusalem church met in the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12).
Mary of Bethany…
While the egalitarian nature of Jesus' movement has not left a significant mark on the Gospels, there are two outstanding characters who buck the trend — Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene (Hearon, 2004). The first of this pair is probably best remembered from the incident in Luke's Gospel (10:38-42), where her sister Martha criticises her for sitting at Jesus' feet amongst the disciples rather than helping Martha tend the kitchen.
All-too-often this story about Mary and Martha, is cited as an exemplar of the necessity of balancing our inner and outer endeavours in God's name, represented by Mary and Martha, respectively. However, most homilists imply that we should be more like Mary than the Martha, focusing more on our inner life than our outer. But, I think that the comparison is a complete misreading of the Mary and Martha story (Lk 10:38-42).
By sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary is not taking on the role of a mystic or a monastic, but rather a disciple. The real point of the story is not about the active or the eremitical lives, but about gender distinctions and the call to discipleship.
Martha fulfils the traditional role of women by waiting on the men. But Mary usurps the traditional role of the menfolk by joining the Rabbinic circle as a disciple, for which Jesus commends her as having chosen "the better part" (Lk 10:42). The story is unique to Luke, and fits very well with his equalitarian attitudes. In the Lukan community, women probably played leadership roles equal to that of men.
There is a similar story in the Fourth Gospel (Jn 12:1-8). Here, again, we find Martha serving the men and Mary anointing the feet of Jesus, for which she is indicted as a prostitute by Judas. And, here again, Jesus commends Mary's ministrations. Mary's actions are paralleled in the next chapter during the Johannine Last Supper (13:1-38), where Jesus washes the feet of the disciples as an example of true discipleship and service (Jn 13:14).
The canonical records concur that Mary is not remembered for being a mystic or some eremitical guru, but one of Jesus' disciples — all the more remarkable for the fact that she was a woman. A similar point can be made even more strongly with regard to Mary Magdelene.
There is little doubt that Mary Magdalene originally figured as a central figure in the Jesus story. Several factors certainly point towards this.
First, she was amongst a circle of women disciples who supported Jesus' mission financially (Lk 8:2); which means she was a wealthy patron (probably a widow) of the Jesus movement. But her involvement went further. She was even present at the cross (Jn 19:25); at the empty tomb (Mk 16:1 and parallels); and amongst the first to proclaim the resurrection (Lk 24:10; Jn 20:18).
Second, Mary seems to have been amongst the first to receive a post-resurrection Christophany. It is interesting to note that the Fourth Gospel has a special take on Mary, even suggesting that she was in fact the first to receive a visitation from the risen Jesus (Jn 20:14-17). This suggests a far greater role in the proclamation of the early kerygma than our extant records represent (Chilton, 2005).
Third, a piece of speculation about the origins of Mary "surname" may have a bearing here too. The name "Magdalene" could refer to Mary's place of origin, "Magdala". But Magdala has never been found by archaeologists. The name "Magdalen" can, however, mean "high tower" in Greek, which may be significant.
Simon was nicknamed "Petros" (Aramaic: "Cephas") because he was seen as the foundation stone of the church (Matt 16:18). Therefore, it is not beyond the bounds of imagination to speculate that Mary may have been nicknamed "Magadalen" (Luke 8:2) because she came to be seen as a "tower of strength" within the early Jesus movement (Haskins, 2005).
Fourth, the Gospels are late and derive from communities far removed from the scenes in which Mary must have played her important role. Even our earliest Gospel, Mark, dates from some thirty or forty years after the Christ event and, moreover, it was written for a community (Rome) for whom Mary would have had little significance. However, she does emerge as a principle character in apocryphal gospels favoured by second-century Gnostic groups in Rome.
Similarly in John, again written very late and influenced by a form of proto-Gnosticism, she figures with some significance — which might be explained by the Fourth Gospel's clear links to the earliest Jerusalem church. Still her role is secondary and minor. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas even suggests that Mary can only get into heaven if she becomes a man. So it seems unlikely that there was a Magdalene community, or even that the Johannine community was in any way especially connected to the Magdalene.
The evidence is overwhelming. Women played a significant role in the early Jesus movement, including fulfilling leadership roles. This remains so, despite the fact that in the late first and early second centuries, the Church entered the era of the apologists who were desperate to present the Church as conservative and non-threatening. In this era the importance of women in the early Jesus Movement was downplayed. In the process, the women whose financial support, dedication and discipleship brought them into the inner circle of Jesus' closest associates, and who were amongst the first to believe in and proclaim the Good News, were lost between the cracks of the new Christian conservative platform.
It was probably not intentional, but it is regrettable nevertheless. The original starring roles played by the likes of Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdelene survive only in tantalising hints here and there, and especially in the Fourth Gospel.
Still, even these few echoes of past prominence remains, as Daniel Gullotta (2007) has rightly pointed out, a credible indictment of the current Catholic practice of selecting only celibate males to fulfil the ordained ministry. Furthermore, the practical reality is that in many, if not most parishes, woman are already fulfilling roles once reserved for the priest — as readers, Eucharistic ministers, parish administrators, catechists, and pastoral ministers.
Those opposed to the ordination of women would argue that the prominent women in Jesus' retinue or Paul's communities were not called to priestly ministry. The roles allotted the two Marys in the Gospels are not tolerant of a reading that suggests they shared equal status with the Twelve Apostles. Paul does designate Junia as an apostle, while Prisca and Chloe are similarly viewed as leaders of churches in Rome and Corinth, respectively. But Phoebe alone bears a title that will later be seen as an official office, "Deacon", which touches on a current possibility.
Back in 2002, the International Theological Commission met in the Vatican, under the presidency of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, to discuss the possibility of reinstating women to the deaconate. Little more discussion of the issues has been pursued since. But for those who support the ordination of women, this could be a good first step. Certainly it has the benefit of at least recreating one office that was in the past open to women, which few parties could deny. It is known that in the first centuries there were female deacons in the Eastern Church, but whether they existed in the Western Church is a controversial issue among Catholic scholars.
I have spoken elsewhere about my suspicion that the renewal of the permanent deaconate will no doubt have a profound effect on the shape of ministry in the future Australian church. I think the same could be said if we were to raise women to the office of deacon, along with the married men we are already calling to this office. It must be remembered that this was how the Anglican communion first introduced women to the ordained ministry. Perhaps the lobby should shift its focus from women priests to women deacons. One step at a time!
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2007 Ian Elmer