Two billion people, from Kalamazoo to Timbuktu, will celebrate Jesus’ resurrection this Easter. That’s astonishing.
Seriously, think about it: either the Empty Tomb is the most impressive April Fools’ joke of all time, or… something actually happened to convince Jesus’ earliest followers that he really was alive again.
Two thousand years later, I’m a believer too. And one of the primary reasons why is the startling testimony of some very courageous women—women, mind you, who were not initially believed (Luke 24.9-11).
So, is there a connection between the death and alleged resurrection of a first-century Jewish rabbi and the bold and brave sisters that Time magazine recently dubbed the Silence Breakers?
Yes, I think there is.
Women in the Ancient World
Practically speaking, we know about Jesus of Nazareth because of two things: his community of followers and the stories they told about him.
Those stories came to us through four ancient documents, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While their accounts agree and disagree on minor details of Jesus’ life and ministry, one of the most surprising areas of unanimous agreement is the primary role of women in the resurrection reports (Matt. 28:1-10, Mark 16:9-11, Luke 24:1-11, John 20:11-18).
In the ancient world the testimony of a woman was not allowed in a court of law. First-century historian Josephus infamously said it like this: “From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and flippancy of their gender.”
Roman, Greek, and Jewish men of this era disagreed on all manner of things, but one of the areas on which they regularly agreed was the inferiority of women. And it’s precisely that—men’s shamefully low view of women in the ancient world—that makes the women’s critical role in the resurrection stories all the more remarkable.
Simply put: If a group of men in the first century wanted to make up a believable story about someone rising from the dead, they would not have chosen women as primary witnesses. But in every account of Jesus’ resurrection (all of those accounts written by first-century men), women are the first and cornerstone eyewitnesses of the event.
Considering Jesus and Women
When you look at Jesus’ life as a whole, especially his groundbreaking interaction with women, maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that it was to women he first appeared on Easter morning. Think about it:
- Jesus was raised by a mother whose reputation was debated from the start (i.e. Was Mary really a virgin?, Was Joseph the biological father?, Maybe it was a Roman soldier?, etc.).
- Jesus was raised by a father who did not initially believe his bride-to-be (Matt. 1.19), a conviction Joseph clearly regretted later, and something that would have surely helped shape his son’s radical perspective.
- Jesus’ longest conversation in the gospel records (and one with immense theological significance) is with a woman—and his twelve disciples, keep in mind, were “astonished” by his interaction with her (John 4:27).
- Finally, even though the twelve disciples were men, they were not Jesus’ only disciples, as Luke makes clear when it describes Mary of Bethany as one “who sat at the master’s feet” (Luke 10.39), a first-century way of indicating a teacher-student relationship (for example, see Acts 22:3).
With this and much more in mind, Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957)—the first woman to graduate from Oxford University, and a brilliant writer, poet, and playwright—described Jesus’ interaction with women like this: “Perhaps it is no wonder that women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there has never been such another.”
The Apostle to the Apostles
According to the gospel record, Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus alive again after his crucifixion. She was the first to be commissioned with the good news of his resurrection. She was the first to tell his “brothers” that they, too, would see him soon (John 20:17-18).
Mary Magdalene was, in this sense, the “apostle to the apostles”—an honor that she alone bears, as the very first preacher of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
Because of this, at the express wish of Pope Francis, the celebration of Saint Mary Magdalene was recently elevated in the Catholic Church to the rank of Feast. The vital and historic significance of this act is that it affords Mary Magdalene “the same rank of Feast as that given to the celebration of the Apostles.”
Or, to put it in less religious terms, the church is finally beginning to acknowledge what Jesus knew from the start: that a woman’s voice is just as important, powerful, and believable as a man’s.
Two thousand years on, in an era of fierce reckoning with the female voice, perhaps it is time for us to seriously reconsider Mary Magdalene’s central and astounding claim—that Jesus of Nazareth, once dead, is now alive.
POSTSCRIPT: Christians have failed miserably at times in our relationship to women—and in view of Jesus, there is no excuse—but for a truly insightful take on Jesus’ incredible impact in this area, I highly recommend John Ortberg’s Who Is This Man? and Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist.
And for a brilliant, historical, and inspiring look at the resurrection, see N.T Wright’s Surprised By Hope.