Would naming women as first witness-heralds to Jesus’ resurrection scandalize Christianity?
Clarifying the Question
Several sources—including all four Gospels—report that the women were first to see the evidences of Jesus’s resurrection, and to receive divine commission to tell the apostles (and indirectly the world).
So here is our question:
- In knowing how members of their 1st century Mediterranean society generally thought, could Christians anticipate that their gospel and apostles would face hefty disparaging from enemies and skeptics if these women were grafted in or otherwise used as first witnesses and initiating heralds of Jesus’s resurrection to the apostles and the world at large?
- Could Christians circulating this account expect the following: in the social world of persons that they hoped to convince of their resurrection message, the articulation of their resurrection story—with its initiating source—would be predictably met with excessive mockery, suspicion, and derision in virtue of that source?
Relevance: If we can answer this in the affirmative, it would play a positive role in helping show that...
- Christians would NOT want to invent women witness-heralds of their movement's central message, and so...
- wouldn't want to invent a story where women were the primary discoverers of Jesus's empty tomb and recipients of Jesus's first appearance (a message they were to deliver to the disciples). This would then help show the empty tomb proclamation was not a lie, and so that Jesus's tomb was in fact empty, which is ultimately evidence that...
- God did raise Jesus from death.
- Ched Myers: “these women now become the ‘lifeline’ of the discipleship narrative.… They are the true disciples.… This is the last—and, given the highly structured gender roles of the time, surely the most radical—example of Mark’s narrative subversion of the canons of social orthodoxy.” [Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Orbis, 1988), 396-7.]
Jews felt: women can't mediate for God & us
In 1st century Jewish thought, women were generally regarded as inappropriate or unworthy mediators of God’s word to men.
- E.g. Pseudo-Phil LAB 9:10 says Miriam’s righteous parents rejected her vision
- E.g. Pseudo-Philo, LAB 42:1-5 says Manoah rejected wife’s words (from an angel)
- E.g. Leviticus Rabbah 10:5
This is relevant because it means that, for Jews, any Christian-based honoring of women as God’s primary envoys in their origin story would by default be a source of mockery. So in the Gospel accounts, it was to their own cultural embarrassment that the first Christians—all Jewish—were largely forced to honor a gaggle of women as God’s chosen messengers to men. What's more, the revelation they were entrusted with was a centerpiece in the men's religious belief and preaching: the tomb-emptying resurrection of their own rabbi, and the very Son of God.
Men trusting women invites shaming
In 1st century Mediterranean thought, it could be rhetorically played as illicit or shameful in general for men to rely on women’s testimony as dependable evidence. Women ought not be sources of the men’s knowledge.
- In general, men being influenced by women could be a point of shame (e.g. in later Roman/Greek thought).1
- In general, women were considered unreliable witnesses.
- Setzer aptly cites Kate Cooper’s work on a widespread perception of the influence of women on men in the later Roman empire. Specifically, men were subject to rhetorical shaming if lured by women into embracing false ideas or betraying duty, which women were thought particularly apt to do. (It was allegedly part of what made them dangerous.) See Kate Cooper, “Institutions of Womanly Influence: An Aspect of the Christianization of the Roman Aristocracy,” JRS 82  150-64).
Demoniacs were deemed unreliable
Reputed demoniacs (or former demoniacs) were considered unreliable as witnesses. [Full page.] In 1st century Mediterranean thought, it could be rhetorically played as illicit or shameful for the apostles to rely on the testimony of reputed demoniacs (or former demoniacs) as evidence.1
- As a side note: There was something else that potentially counted against Mary’s credibility in that culture: her lack of a husband.