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Women in the Church: Part 7 – The Gospels and Acts

Having explored the subject of Women in the Church in the Pauline Letters, it is now time to turn and examine the relevant information from the Gospel Tradition, and in the book of Acts. I will be dividing this article according to the following outline:

  1. Sayings and Teachings of Jesus
  2. Jesus’ Interaction with Women (in the Gospel Narratives)
  3. Followers of Jesus in Gospel Tradition
  4. The Role of Mary
  5. Women in Luke-Acts

1. Sayings and Teachings of Jesus

There are actually very few sayings by Jesus involving women recorded in the canonical Gospels, and most of these are simply proverbial and tell us relatively little about his views on the position of women and gender relations. Women are featured in a couple of parables (Matt 13:33 par; Luke 15:8; 18:2-5) as stock characters. Two groups of sayings are perhaps a bit more significant:

(a) Traditional references to a woman’s pains in giving birth, symbolic of the suffering of the human condition—especially in association with the coming Judgment at the end-time (Mark 13:8, 17 par), which, in the Gospel narrative is set generally in the context of Jesus’ own suffering and death (cf. Luke 23:28-29; John 16:21).
(b) The illustrative image of the widow, again as a typical figure symbolizing human suffering and injustice—Mark 12:40-43 par; Luke 4:25-26; 18:2-5; cf. also Lk 7:12.

In several passages, Jesus addresses the topic of marriage, most notably in: (1) the sayings/discourse regarding divorce (Mark 10:2ff, par Matt 19:3ff; Matt 5:31-32; Luke 16:18); and (2) the case involving marriage and the resurrection (Mark 12:18-27 par). The latter passage seems to downplay the importance of marriage, to some extent; and, indeed, one detects an ascetic tinge in a number of Jesus’ sayings, such as Mark 10:29ff par; Matt 19:12. By all accounts, Jesus himself never married; and, according to the narrative context of Mk 10:29f, a number of his disciples had apparently left their families in order to follow Jesus (v. 28). In this regard, it is interesting to note an extra-canonical saying of Jesus which goes a step further in denying the significance of sexuality and gender distinction among believers. It is preserved in at least three sources—the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas saying 22; 2 Clement 12; and in Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 3.13.[92] (attributed to the “Gospel of the Egyptians”). Gosp. Thom. 22 is presumably the earliest occurrence (late-1st/early-2nd century):

Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to His disciples, “These infants being suckled are like those who enter the Kingdom.” They said to Him, “Shall we then, as children, enter the Kingdom?” Jesus said to them,

“When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter [the Kingdom].” (Translation by Thomas O. Lambdin)

This (purported) saying has similarities with mystic-ascetic and “Gnostic” thought, as attested, e.g., in the Gospel of Philip §73, 78, and Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 5.7.15 (citing teachings of the Naassene sect). In 2 Clement 12:5 the saying of Jesus is explained to the effect that a male believer should not look upon a female believer as a woman, that is, according to her sexuality or physical/biological gender (cf. Gal 3:28).

2. Jesus’ Interaction with Women

The Gospels record a number of episodes in which Jesus interacts with women. In some of these narratives he is depicted as disregarding or challenging certain social (and religious) conventions regarding the proper interaction of men and women—at least, the narratives may be read this way. Note, for example, the reaction of Jesus’ (male) disciples in Jn 4:27. Most significant, perhaps, is his friendship with Martha and Mary (the sisters of Lazarus, acc. to Jn 11:1-3); the authenticity of this relationship is confirmed by the fact that it is attested (independently) in at least two separate strands of tradition—Luke 10:38-42 and John 11:1-44; 12:1-11. The declaration by Martha in Jn 11:27 regarding Jesus’ identity (as Anointed One [Messiah] and Son of God) holds a place in the Fourth Gospel similar to that of Peter’s confession in the Synoptics (Mk 8:29 / Lk 9:20 / Matt 16:16). At the very least, this indicates that Martha (and Mary) were believers and followers of Jesus (cf. below).

Many of the episodes show Jesus responding with compassion to the poor and outcast elements of society—a familiar and popular theme in the Gospel tradition. This produced some degree of negative reaction, even scandal, from onlookers and opponents, much as his willingness to associate with “sinners” (Mk 2:15-17 par; Lk 7:39; 19:7, etc). These are the episodes of note (“par” indicates parallel narratives in the other Synoptic Gospels; negative reactions are indicated by the verses in square brackets):

  • Healing of the women with a discharge of blood (hemorrhage)—Mark 5:25-34 par
  • Healing (exorcism) of the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman—Mark 7:24-30 par [note the exchange in vv. 27-28]
  • Healing (resurrection) of a widow’s son—Luke 7:11-17
  • Healing of a crippled woman—Luke 13:10-17 [v. 14]
  • Discussion with the Samaritan woman—John 4:1-42 [v. 27, a woman and a Samaritan no less!]
  • Response to the “adulterous” woman—John 7:53-8:11 [vv. 3-5] (an authentic tradition, if not part of the original Gospel)
  • Response to the “sinful” woman who anointed him—Luke 7:36-50 [vv. 39ff]
  • Response to the woman who anointed him at Bethany—Mark 14:3-9 par in Matt [vv. 4-5]; in John 12:1-8 the woman is identified as Mary, sister of Lazarus (the precise relationship between the two version, as well as Lk 7:36-50, remains much debated). Later tradition conflated the two figures—Mary and the “sinful” woman—with Mary Magdalene (also healed by Jesus according to Lk 8:2, and cf. below).

3. Followers of Jesus

By all accounts, the first followers of Jesus (those called by him) were all men. This is certainly true with regard to his closest disciples, the circle of Twelve in early Gospel tradition (Mark 3:13-19 par; Acts 1:13, 16ff). These were the men whom Jesus sent out, on at least one occasion, to preach and work miracles in his name (Mk 6:7-12 / Matt 10:5-15 / Lk 9:1-6; 22:35ff). This is the fundamental meaning of the word apostle, from a)poste/llw (“set/send forth”); and the Twelve were closely identified with this title in early Tradition (Mk 3:14; 6:30 par; Lk 22:14; Acts 1:2, 25-26, etc). Luke records a separate tradition (or version) where Jesus sends out a group of 70 (or 72) disciples on a similar mission (10:1-12); most likely these also were men, though this has to be inferred from the context. This limitation of discipleship and missionary work to men may simply be a product of historical circumstance, since the idea of itinerant female preachers and healers traveling about would have been shocking indeed to the cultural sensibilities of the time. And yet, we do have at least one notice that there were women followers of Jesus, in Luke 8:1-3, where it is stated that Jesus passed through the cities and villages “proclaiming the good message of the kingdom of God…”

“…and the Twelve (together) with him, and (also) some women th(at) had been healed from evil spirits and infirmities… who served/ministered to them [i.e. Jesus and the Twelve] out of the (thing)s under their (control) [i.e. their goods/possessions]”

These women are identified as: (1) Maryam {Mary} called Magdalene, (2) Ioanna {Joanna} wife of Chuzas, (3) Susanna, as well as “many others”. It would seem that their service was more or less limited to material aid and support. This same tradition is confirmed by (and may actually derive from) the notice in Mark 15:40-41. Indeed, the women followers of Jesus play an important role in the Passion and Resurrection narratives, part of the earliest Gospel narrative, and attested variously in all four Gospels (the Synoptics and John):

  • There were women standing a distance away, watching the crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 15:40-41, par Matt 27:55-56; Luke 23:49; also John 19:25). It is said that they had come with Jesus from Galilee, where they had helped in the work of ministry (Mk 15:41, cf. above). Mark and Matthew single out three who will take part in the next episode—Mary Magalene, Mary mother of James (and Joses), and Salome. Luke likewise mentions the first two (Lk 24:10), while John records a different set of four (or three) women who stand nearby: Mary (Jesus’ mother), Mary’s sister and/or Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
  • At least some of these women continued watching as Jesus was taken down from the cross, to see where he would be buried. Each of the Synoptics narrates this somewhat differently:
    Mark 15:47: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of (James and) Joses saw where Jesus was buried
    Matt 27:61: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting opposite the tomb
    Lk 23:55-56: The women followed and saw where/how he was buried, then returned to prepare spices and ointment
  • According to Synoptic tradition, Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of James/Joses came early the next morning to see the tomb (Matt 28:1) and anoint the body (Mark 16:1-2; Lk 24:1). Mark mentions a third woman (Salome), while Luke may indicate the presence of others as well (Lk 24:10). The tradition(s) recorded in John differ in that Nicodemus brings the spices, etc to anoint Jesus before his burial (Jn 19:39-40) and Mary Magdalene is the only woman said to come to the tomb that morning (Jn 20:1ff).
  • The women (as variously mentioned): (a) see the empty tomb, (b) are greeted by angel(s) announcing the resurrection, and (c) encounter the resurrected Jesus. This common outline is old and reliable, but the specific details in the narrative (Mk 16:1-8, [9-11]; Matt 28:10; Luke 24:1-10; John 20:1-2, 11-18) vary to an astonishing degree, and are actually extremely difficult to harmonize intelligibly (for those who wish to do so).
  • The women (or certain of them) report the empty tomb and the resurrection to the other disciples, including the Twelve (Matt 28:10, 11, 16; Luke 24:9-12, 22-24; John 20:2ff, 17-18; [Mark 16:9-11]).

It can be said that Mary Magdalene (and other of the women) were the first to see the resurrected Jesus, and the first to preach the Gospel (i.e. announce the resurrection). Understandably, this has been a popular point to make by modern-day preachers, in relation to the question of the role of women in the Church. The point is dramatized even further by the tradition of the disbelief of the disciples (including the Twelve) at hearing the news ([Mark 16:11, 14]; Luke 24:11). This detail is likely to be authentic (on objective grounds), since the later tendency was to downplay anything which cast the apostles in a negative light (but see how it also enhances Peter’s role, Lk 24:12 cf. Jn 20:3ff).

According to Acts 1:14, women were together (along with Jesus’ mother Mary) with the Twelve in the ‘upper room’ following Jesus’ ascension, and may have been present (at the historical level) in the post-resurrection scenes in which Jesus addresses and commissions his followers (Matt 28:16-20; Luke 24:33-49, 50-53; John 20:19-29). Acts 1:4-11 seems to assume only the Twelve (Eleven), as also in Mark [16:14-20]. In 1 Cor 15:6, Paul mentions an appearance by Jesus to more than 500 disciples, which certainly would have included a good number of women (cf. below). Somewhat surprisingly, Mary Magdalene does not seem to be part of early Christian tradition (outside of the resurrection accounts) and is not mentioned in the book of Acts.

4. The Role of Mary, Jesus’ Mother

Of all the women in Christian Tradition, (the Virgin) Mary, mother of Jesus is by far the most prominent. And yet, it is quite surprising how little she appears in the earliest strands of tradition. In the core Synoptic tradition, she hardly appears at all, briefly in one episode (Mark 3:31ff par); otherwise, she is only mentioned in Mk 6:3 / Matt 13:55. She has a somewhat larger role in two scenes in the Gospel of John—the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:3-5) and with the women and the ‘Beloved’ disciple at the cross (Jn 19:25-27). The latter episode presumably has greater symbolic meaning, perhaps suggesting that Mary is now the “mother” of the disciples (i.e. the Church). Of course, she is central to the Infancy narratives in Matt 1-2 and Luke 1-2 (as well as in later extra-canonical Gospels), and this would be the primary basis for the subsequent Catholic/Orthodox veneration of Mary, already evidenced in the so-called Proto-Gospel (Protevangelium) of James (early-mid 2nd century).

It is the Lukan narrative in which Mary plays the most prominent role, in several significant scenes:

  • Lk 1:26-38—The Angelic announcement of Jesus’ coming conception (and birth), indicating how she has been favored by God (v. 30), and will be touched by the presence and power of God (vv. 35-37)
  • Lk 1:39-56—The visit to Elizabeth, who utters the inspired blessing (vv. 42-45), and which is the occasion/setting for the oracle by Mary (in a few MSS it is by Elizabeth), the so-called Magnificat (vv. 46-55)
  • Lk 2:1-20—The birth and visit of the Shepherds; most significant is the statement in verse 19 that Mary “kept all these utterances [i.e. by the shepherds, etc] (close) together, throwing (them) together in her heart”. This shows her in the process of considering the meaning and significance of Jesus’ birth and the wondrous events associated with it.
  • Lk 2:22-35ff—The encounter with Simeon set in the Temple precincts, in the context of fulfilling the purification ritual (following childbirth), etc (vv. 22-24). Such details are brought out, in part, to show the faithfulness/devotion of Joseph and Mary in religious matters (vv. 21, 39, 41ff, 51). A portion of Simeon’s oracle is directed to Mary (v. 35, cf. my earlier note for more detail).

We may also mention her role in 2:41-51, which contains at least one important point of emphasis—that Jesus’ natural (family) relations are subordinate to his relationship to God (the Father), cf. the juxtaposition in vv. 44, 46, 48, and Jesus’ famous statement in v. 49.

According to some commentators, Luke’s version of the episode in Mark 3:31-35 par has been (re)interpreted to show that Mary, along with Jesus’ natural family (brothers, etc), are among those who believe and follow him (cf. the separate note on Lk 8:19-21). Whether or not this view is correct, Mary is clearly depicted as a believer in Acts 1:14, where she appears together with the Twelve (Eleven) apostles, other women followers, and (notably) Jesus’ brothers (at least some of them). Interestingly, Mary is not mentioned by name elsewhere in the New Testament, being referenced only indirectly in Gal 4:4 (cf. also Rom 1:3), and possibly the scene in Revelation 12 (vv. 4b-6).

5. Women in Luke-Acts

Many scholars and commentators have noted that, generally, the Gospel of Luke gives more attention to women. In addition to the expanded role of Mary in the Infancy narratives, etc (cf. above), we may point out the following episodes or details unique to Luke:

  • The role of Elizabeth (Lk 1:5-7, 13, 18, 24-25, 36, 39-56, 57-60ff), set parallel to Mary (part of the wider John/Jesus parallel in the narrative); she, like her husband Zechariah (vv. 67-79) is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and utters a prophetic announcement (vv. 42-45). In a few manuscripts, she is also the one who delivers the Magnificat (vv. 46-55).
  • The mention and description of Anna (2:36-38), a (female) prophet, just as Simeon was inspired to utter a prophetic oracle. They both are aged figures, frequenting the Temple precincts, representative of the righteous/pious ones of Israel (i.e., the Old Covenant) who are looking forward to the coming redemption (vv. 25, 38).
  • Sayings, parables and healing miracles involving women (cf. above)—Lk 4:25-26; 7:11-17; 13:10-17; 15:8-10; 18:2-5. As indicated above (section 1), such episodes in the Gospel tradition tend to relate to human suffering and injustice, which often afflicts women who are in an especially vulnerable position (widows, etc). Luke gives greater emphasis to matters involving the poor/outcast and what today we would call social justice. To these we can add the scene of Jesus being anointed by a “sinful” woman (7:36-50), seemingly a parallel version or ‘doublet’ of Mark 14:3-9 par; John 12:1-8, but with many important differences. Note also the scene on the way to the cross in Lk 23:28-29.
  • References to Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed Jesus—Lk 8:1-3; 23:49, 55-56; 24:1-12, 22-24—which, for the most part, Luke inherited as part of the wider Gospel (and Synoptic) Tradition (cf. above).

When we turn to the book of Acts, right away we see women, including Jesus’ mother Mary, among the close followers of Jesus waiting together in Jerusalem, in the ‘upper room’ (Acts 1:13-14). Women are certainly to be counted among the 120 who are likewise gathered together (1:15ff), and present when the Spirit comes upon them all on the day of Pentecost (2:1-4ff). This interpretation of the scenario is confirmed by the use of Joel 2:28-32 in the great Pentecost sermon-speech by Peter which follows (2:14-36, vv. 17-21). In that Scripture God declares that (in the last days)

“…I will pour out from my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters will prophesy…”
“(yes,) even upon my (male) slaves and my (female) slaves will I pour out from my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy…”

The implication is clear: God gives out his Spirit upon all believers equally, male and female alike, regardless of socio-economic position (i.e., even upon slaves). The implications of this equality are not really followed through in the narrative of Acts, but they are dealt with, to some extent, by Paul in his letters (cf. the earlier articles in this series, esp. Parts 1 and 3 on 1 Cor 11:2-16 and Gal 3:28). The only female prophets specifically mentioned in the book of Acts are the daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9). There are also several passages where believers are distinctly referenced as “men and women” (5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2; 22:4; cf. also 17:4, 12). These references should not be limited to men and their wives—they are unquestionably to be read in the more general sense of male and female believers. Several of the verses refer to men and women sharing together in the persecution faced by believers (8:3; 9:2; 22:4). Elsewhere in the narratives, there are a number of episodes where specific women are involved; in at least some of these, we can infer that they likely played a significant role in the spread of Christianity and the establishment of churches:

  • 9:36-42—The disciple Tabitha/Dorcas, who was healed from a serious illness by Peter
  • 12:12ff—Mary the mother of John Mark, whose house apparently was used as a meeting-place for believers (a house-church? cf. Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15)
  • 16:11-15—Lydia, who along with other (prominent) women of Philippi, became believers during the missionary work of Paul and Silas (and Timothy, etc); she apparently hosted Paul and his companions in her house for a time (v. 15)
  • 17:34—Damaris, a woman specifically mentioned, apparently one of the few converts during Paul’s brief (and turbulent) stay in Athens
  • 18:2ff, 18, 26—Priscilla (or Prisca), with her husband Aquila, was a leader/minister in the churches of Corinth (1 Cor 16:19), Ephesus (cf. 2 Tim 4:19), and then (apparently) back in Rome (Rom 16:3). They hosted congregations in their house, and were close companions of Paul. Priscilla was a capable enough teacher in the faith to instruct Apollos “more accurately… (about) the Way [of God]” (Acts 18:26); the extent to which she may have done this in consort with her husband would seem to be of relatively little importance. However, it appears to have been troubling enough for the author/editor(s) of the “Western” version of Acts (D gig syr copsah arm al), that her name was either omitted from the text or placed after her husband’s (cf. the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary [2nd edition], pp. 413-14). Some traditional-conservative commentators today might sense the same difficulty.

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