journey post 30: Women at the tomb of Jesus … and the rest of the story
Most Americans know the story of the women—whether they believe or not. But, most do not know the rest of the story.
“The Three Marys” by Henry Osawa Tanner (1910)
I knew the story: I grew up going to church. Most of my generation went at least for Christmas and Easter. Every Easter, we heard it again….
Early on Sunday morning, some women are making their way to the tomb to anoint the body. They’re worried about access. “Who will move the stone?” But it’s open when they get there. Going inside, they are face to face with men who appear as angels in glistening robes: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen just as he told you!” Shaken, confused but joyful, they run back to tell the other disciples. Peter and John race to the site. John, “the kid,” waits at the entrance in deference to the older and slower Peter. And the rest, as they say, is….
History? Yes, most definitely.
Many know another part of the story, about a woman named Mary Magdalene. There are several Marys mentioned in the New Testament; this Mary was one of the disciples of Jesus, the young rabbi who rescued her from a life for which those who thought themselves upright dismissively labeled her a “sinner.” She was a strong woman whose devotion to the man she expected to be the Messiah is portrayed in a tender vignette. Like the other disciples, her hope had been crushed by the condemning verdict of the religious leaders and the iron fisted justice of Rome. As she wandered away from the tomb, she spied a man she assumed to be the caretaker: “Please, sir, if you have taken my Lord away, tell me where you have laid the body, so I can return it.” Mary, obviously, had not yet comprehended what she had just seen and heard inside the burial cave.
The man looked at her and quietly uttered her name: “Mary.” She knew his voice at once. “Rabboni!” she cried. When her joy was finally under control, he instructed her to go back and tell the others.
Growing up, we knew that the touching story of the women was, indeed, great story, more so that part about Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus in the garden. But history? I know something about that, for history was my first love and a large part of my training, digging for evidence in the days before internet. I related before that looking for evidence of the resurrection was a big part of my struggle to find the truth about Christianity. But the story of the women at the tomb, the first eyewitnesses, was not on my—or anyone’s–radar in 1970. They were simply other witnesses, right?
Wrong. In all honesty, I did not realize until a few years ago just how important their story is to the credibility of Christianity. It even helps to explain the rapid spread of this new religion during the first two centuries after Jesus’ death.
You know about the women, but do you know the rest of the story?
If the question sounds familiar, you may be thinking of radio newsman Paul Harvey. I first heard him traveling around California with my parents in the 1950s, and listened to him most every day in the 70s. That question was the “hook” he used to grab our attention in anticipation of some unknown—but very important aspect—of an otherwise commonly-known story. His hook would keep listeners hanging as he went to commercial break, (which this is, sort of). His “rest of the story” would provide a new appreciation for something that may never have been given much thought.
Radio newsman Paul Harvey
If you don’t consider yourself a Christian and you question the Gospel accounts, especially if you consider these stories to be inventions, whether by design or by delusion, then it’s time to take a second look and consider….
It makes all the difference in the world that the first eyewitnesses mentioned in the Gospel accounts were women instead of men. Not only does it buttress the case for the credibility of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; it may also help people understand that Christianity is not anti-woman, as many have claimed in the decades since World War II.
So here it is: In biblical times, women held an inferior status in society to men.
What! You’ve got to be kidding, Walt! No surprise here. What else you got?
Here is what you may not know: a woman’s inferior status was institutionalized in the legal system. A woman’s testimony was not allowed in court—not admissible as evidence, simply because of her status. Let that sink in for a moment.
Then look at all four Gospel accounts. Their story is there, right up front, included in every one. No right-thinking man of the time would have included those nice stories—simply because they would have undermined the credibility of the entire Gospel. But the writers did not withhold that information—they did not put some male-centric spin on the story. The women are there, in your face, so to speak.
Jesus did a lot more than be nice to women, and his religion has done more to elevate the status of women than any other—even if some who call themselves followers do not act like it. He welcomed them as disciples, which was a definite no-no in their culture at the time: women weren’t considered capable of learning, you understand…. Jesus challenged a lot of assumptions that were contrary to the law of God. If you read the Gospels with this in mind, you see it everywhere—and he taught his disciples to do the same. The very definition of a disciple (or, apprentice), involves one who not only “learns” but who adopts the thinking and doing of the master. Even Paul—often dismissed as a misogynist (hater of women)—spoke in glowing terms of their shared status as fellow “sons” (an adoption term) of God.
The subject of women’s “place” in Christianity will come up more in these posts, I’m sure. I wanted to bring it up now in one of the first posts on the resurrection, before getting on to more of the history. Yes, history. Perhaps now that you know the “rest of the story”—that it was not thrown in to tug at your emotions—you might also be thinking, perhaps, that there’s more to this Christian thing than meets the eye.