- Amos 8:1-12 & Psalm 52
- Colossians 1:15-28
- Luke 10:38-42
Gospel: Jesus, Women and Discipleship
This week’s Gospel is a much-loved episode from Luke. Like the parable of the Good Samaritan that precedes it in Luke’s account, this story is found only in Luke and contributes to Luke’s representation of Christianity as a socially responsible movement that posed no threat either to Empire or privilege.
More recently, the story of Mary choosing to sit at Jesus’ feet — and the endorsement of her choice by Jesus himself — has been cited as a prime example of Jesus’ counter-cultural affirmation of women. Kathleen Corley (“Feminist Myths of Christrian origins” in the Burton Mack Festschrift, Reimaging Christian Origins ed. Elizabeth A. Castelli & Hal Taussig, 1996) has challenged this as a myth of Christian origins that functions as a foundational narrative for modern Christian feminism, but has little historical value. In Women and the Historical Jesus (2002:60), Kathleen Corley critiques the usual interpretation of this week’s Gospel scene:
In fact, later gospel portrayals of Jesus at meals do not show him taking a particularly radical stance. For instance, in the story of his meal with Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), Jesus does encourage Mary, who is seated at his feet. However, although such a position does indicate that Mary is receiving instruction, her posture reflects a more conservative, matronly role, and she remains silent throughout the scene. The more radical stance would have been to invite Mary to recline with him like an equal on a banquet couch, as Jesus does with Salome in the Gospel of Thomas (Thomas 61). In these Lukan stories Jesus does not appear radical in his relationships with women; it is the women who are bold, not Jesus.
This seems an opportune time to reflect on Jesus’ attitudes towards women and their possible place within his movement.
This week’s notes will also open up the possibility of exploring our engagement with the Gospel text by becoming more aware of our own lenses as well as those of Jesus and the evangelists.
One of the lenses that we may overlook at the top of our nose is the desire for Jesus to be perfect. Indeed, it is not so much a desire as an unexamined assumption. Many take it for granted that Jesus held and practiced pure wisdom, was free of prejudice, and in every sense a model human being. This is related to, but not the same as, the traditional doctrine of the sinlessness of Jesus.
NT scholar, Dennis Nineham, identified this bias even in radical Christology such as that developed by the “Myth of God Incarnate” theologians in the UK back in the late 1970s. In an epilogue to that collection of essays, Nineham critiqued the ways in which Jesus’ personal integrity and character were assumed even by radical thinkers. A couple of brief extracts might suffice to illustrate the point Nineham was making.
Nineham cites the Jewish scholar, C.G. Montefiore:
Jesus is to be regarded as the first great Jewish teacher to frame such a sentence. … yet how much more telling his injunction would have been if we had a single story about his doing good to and praying for a single Rabbi or Pharisee! [Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teachings, 1930:103]
We might find ourselves echoing the sentiments of W. Durant, a secular writer whose respect for Jesus is cited by Nineham:
Our own moral heritage and ideals are so closely bound up with him and formed on his example that we feel injured at finding any flaw in his character. [Caesar and Christ, 1944:561]
Nineham himself outlines the problems involved in our easy assumption of Jesus’ relevance and perfection:
Two things at any rate seem clear. First, it is impossible to justify any such claim on purely historical grounds, however wide the net for evidence is cast. … the second point … is that because of the cultural gulf that separates us from Jesus and his times, what moral perfection, or being ‘the man for others’, would have meant to him and his contemporaries might well be significantly different from what such phrases imply for us. We must therefore recognize that if the historical Jesus were to walk into the room …, the first disturbing impression might be not so much of his greatness as his strangeness. To say that, of course, is simply to state a fact about cultural change; it is not in the least to derogate from Jesus’ moral greatness or moral authority in his time. [Myth, 1977:195]
As the date of Nineham’s essay indicates, not to mention the earlier writers that he cites, this is not a new question. It has been known to NT scholars and theologians for more than a century, and lies at the heart of Kahler’s classic distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Most recently the sharp edges of this question have been pushed by the Jesus Seminar and Luke Timothy Johnson, respectively.
So, as we approach this week’s Gospel we most likely have a hermeneutical lens that predisposes us to assume that Jesus was not only a significant spiritual figure, but a moral giant whose sympathies far outpaced those of his own time. For example, we rarely entertain the idea that Jesus lived in a society that embraced slavery and that he may have owned slaves himself. Perhaps of more relevance, we mostly assume that Jesus had “modern” views on the dignity of all persons and that he would have practiced some affirmative action in favor of women and other minorities.
This week’s Gospel seems to affirm that assumption.
Jesus is visiting with two sisters, Mary and Martha. Luke does not link them with the Bethany household, that also included Lazarus, but simply presents them as householders in a particular village as Jesus makes his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. These two women make Jesus welcome, and he accepts their hospitality. Were they inn-keepers, or simply supporters of the Jesus movement who chose not to go on the road with Jesus and his followers? Martha busies herself with the tasks involving in offering hospitality, whether as inn-keepers or associate members of the Jesus movement; but Mary settles down at Jesus’ feet to pay attention to his instruction as a teacher of wisdom. Martha snaps, and asks Jesus to send Mary in to help with the work. Jesus affirms the responsibilities Martha has embraced but also the value of the choice Mary has made. There is no resolution to the episode. Its unresolved tension is not unlike many of the parables told by Jesus. Luke leaves the reader to ponder further how they will express their discipleship: in the kitchen or in the study?
At the very least, then, Kathleen Corley seems correct in her faint praise of Jesus’ response. This is no hero of women’s emancipation, but a sure-footed teacher drawing each woman a little deeper into her own journey of discovery. And he does not offer to make the coffee, either!
John P. Meier
In the third volume of his ongoing historical Jesus project [A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 3. Companions and Competitors. Doubleday, 2001], John P. Meier offers some views on the “unclear boundaries” of discipleship and the participation of women in the Jesus movement. He begins with the following statement of the question as it engages us:
In our reconstruction of the historical situation of Jesus’ public ministry, should the designation “disciples of Jesus” be restricted to those 1st-century Palestinian Jews who fully met the stringent requirements [of being called by Jesus, joining his itinerant band, and risking danger and hostility] listed above? To put the question more pointedly from our contemporary viewpoint: because only males are specifically depicted as summoned to discipleship by Jesus and because only males are specifically called “disciples” in the Gospels, should modern historians likewise restrict the term to males when describing the historical conditions of Jesus’ ministry? Naturally no one would object if modern writers engaged in homiletics or hermenutics should stretch the term “disciple” to include all present-day believers. But if we are intent on a sober historical reconstruction of the 1st-century situation, scholarly integrity would seem to demand that we follow the usage of our sources. Do our sources favor or undermine the view that the committed female followers of Jesus were considered disciples during the public ministry? (p. 73)
Meier is defining his terms of reference narrowly: women followers as “disciples” during the public ministry of Jesus; not at the crucifixion, not in the post-Easter period and not in the Christian communities that formed afterwards. He is aware of the recent tendency to construct too grand an edifice on a narrow biblical base, and (characteristically) cautious in what he seeks to establish. (He would doubtless call this “sober historical reconstruction” or even “scholarly integrity,” as if more adventurous inquiry is reckless and lacking in integrity.)
Problems in the recent debate over women in the ministry of Jesus and in the modern church often stem from pressing the few references beyond what they can tell us. This over-exegeting of the texts available is often fueled in turn by a desire to answer larger questions of relevance, questions that we do not treat here because they never entered the minds of the evangelists. (p. 74)
It might be asked whether biblical scholarship that excuses itself from questions of faithfulness and justice in the present simply because those were not questions in the minds of the authors is anything more than a religious variant on Nero’s legendary fiddle playing while Rome was aflame? Do we study the texts for historical information, or for wisdom relevant to our questions?
Within the conservative terms of reference that he has designed for himself, Meier offers several insights of real value. He has no doubt that Jesus had devoted female followers, but is puzzled by the failure of the Gospel tradition ever to give them the description, “disciple.” His solution is not driven by a recognition that the Gospels are late texts that reflect confict over authority and a gradual repression of women relative to the emancipation they enjoyed in the primitive Jesus movement. Rather, Meier thinks that the reality of women’s involvement in the Jesus movement (ca. 28-30 CE) simply got ahead of the available terminology and went unmentioned.
… during his public ministry, Jesus indeed had committed women followers, but there was literally no feminine noun that could be used to describe them; there was no noun that said “female disciple(s).” (p. 78)
We are left, then, with something of a paradox. Did the historical Jesus have women disciples? In name, no; in reality — putting aside the question of an implicit as opposed to an explicit call — yes. Certainly the reality rather than the label would have been what caught most people’s attention. The sight of a group of women — apparently, at least in some cases, without benefit of husbands accompanying them — traveling around the Galilean countryside with an unmarried male who exorcised, healed, and taught them as he taught his male disciples could not help but raise pious eyebrows and provoke impious comments. As it was, Jesus was stigmatized by his critics as a bon vivant, a glutton and drunkard, a friend of toll collectors and sinners (Matt 11:19 par.), a demoniac or mad man (Mark 3:20-30 parr; John 8:48). A traveling entourage of husbandless female supporters, some of whom were former demoniacs who were now giving Jesus money or food, would only have heightened the suspicion and scandal Jesus already faced in a traditional peasant society. Yet, scandal or no scandal, Jesus allowed them to follow and serve him. Whatever the problems of vocabulary, the most probable conclusion is that Jesus viewed and treated these women as disciples. (p. 79f)
Here we see that Meier has worked his way through to an outcome that fits with the consensus of liberal society, and we have Jesus as a sensitive new age guy who enjoys and respects women; but presumably has no sexual interests. Unfazed by scandal he affirms the women’s right to participate in the Kingdom movement, and he treats them the same as his male followers. Sober scholarship has its rewards?
Enter Kathleen Corley, once more. Corley is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, with a long interest in women in the NT and early Christianity. In Women and the Historical Jesus she takes issue with several of the assumptions that underlie the consensus view of Jesus the modern man with advanced views concerning women.
Corley observes that studies of women in early Christianity often use a narrative also seen in other fields of research into Christian origins. The Jewish and pagan environment is cast in negative terms, often with significant anti-Jewish stereotyping. A “time of pristine origins” is then proposed, after which one discovers a period of decay during which emerging catholicism reverts to pre-Jesus (and sub-Christian) cultural patterns. Variants of this self-serving narrative are known from other areas, including some contemporary studies of church growth and mission issues. In many cases the hypothetical pristine era (always associated with Jesus) turns out to be remarkably similar to the “new” model now being proposed by the “researcher.”
Kathleen Corley has done everyone a service by cutting through this clutter with an eyes-wide-open analysis of the actual situation of women in the Roman empire, including Jewish women in Palestine. This is not the place to review her argument in detail, but the following gives a sense of where her research leads.
The evidence indeed suggests that in first century Judaism women lived lives similar to those of their gentile counterparts, and that a monolithic view of Jewish women’s experience based on a few sources is no longer possible to maintain. (p. 20)
After reciting numerous areas of private and public life where Jewish women were active in the time of Jesus, Corley cites in some detail the evidence from the conservative religious community at Qumran.
… women and children represent over thirty percent of all burials so far excavated at the Qumran site. These burials are not on the periphery of the regular graveyards as has previously been proposed, but are interspersed throughout the major gravesites. … the presence of women and children among those buried at Qumran has gone long ignored and unexplained. And yet, the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls mention the presence of women and children in certain assemblies and liturgical celebrations, and regulate marriage and sexual intercourse … The Qumran texts further attest to the ability of women to give judicial testimony in corporate assemblies, and contain elaborations of stories of heroines of the Hebrew Bible … (p. 25)
Corley’s summary of the situation of Jewish women during the lifetime of Jesus is as follows:
… it must not be forgotten that the movement initiated by Jesus was both Jewish and Palestinian. Both Jesus’ teaching and the social configuration of his movement further illustrate the cultural diversity present in the Greco-Roman world and first century Palestine. This belies simplistic attempts to label Jesus, or Palestine more generally, as either “Jewish” or “Hellenistic.” While it seems likely that Jesus associated relatively freely with women, the pervasive presence of women in Jewish, Roman and Hellenistic societies generally serves to undermine the contention that this is a special characteristic of Jesus’ movement or an outgrowth of his message of the Kingdom of God. The constituency of Jesus’ movement may rather be seen to reflect changes in the later Hellenistic society, or the social constituency of which he was a part. (p. 26)
In chapter two of her book, Corley discusses the working women in the Gospel of Mark; with a special focus on Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Joanna. A few snippets from her discussion seem worth including this week as they lift the veil of anonymity from the women whose stories are often obscured in the NT — even if only by our distance from their world.
… the presence of women among Jesus’ followers was a controversial characteristic of his movement. Mark 2:14-17 records both that Jesus was accused of reclining at table with “tax collectors and sinners” (the latter is a euphemism for “prostitutes”) and that a group of women “followed and served” Jesus throughout his entire ministry (Mark 15:40-41). … The descriptions of these women suggest that at least Mary Magdalene and Salome came from the lower classes of antiquity, and were either working women, hired servants, slaves or runaway slaves. (p. 27)
Nearly 50% of the women in second temple Palestine were named either Mary (Mariamne) or Salome. … This reinforces the likelihood that Mark preserves the earliest and best list in terms of reflecting the Palestinian situation of Jesus, naming two Marys and one woman named Salome. (p. 32)
About these women Mark tells us little. Mary Magdalene is the most fixed name of a woman disciple in the tradition. … Rather than identifying her by the more common means of a male relative, Mary’s name indicates that she came from Magdala, a village on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, about three miles north of the city of Tiberius. The identification of Mary with a particular geographical location puts emphasis on the character of that location, rather than on her family, her father or a husband as a means of identifying her. Magdala was one of the better known fishing towns along the Sea of Galilee, and was known to Josephus by the name Tarichea, meaning “salt fish.” Josephus also mentions that the city had a hippodrome, which indicates its Hellenistic character. Since Mark records that many of Jesus’ first male followers came from the ranks of fishermen who worked along the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:16-20), and that Mary Magdalene was with Jesus from his earliest travels in Galilee (Mark 15:40-41), it is quite likely that Mary Magdalene was a fisherwoman herself. (p. 32f)
Women among the working poor practiced many trades in antiquity; women could be shopkeepers, butchers, innkeepers, weavers, waitresses, shoemakers, prostitutes, professional mourners and musicians, or fishers. In rural areas women could run farms with their husbands, engage in a trade, or run inns in their homes; in towns and cities women shared the responsibility of managing small businesses. (p. 33)
The realities of life for lower class women contributed to the elite perception and devaluation of their character, and led to the stereotyping of lower class women as promiscuous, whether this reputation was realized in the form of prostitution or not. The association of Jesus with both working class women and at least one woman of a higher position could further explain the tradition associating him with “sinners/prostitutes” (Matt 21:31-32). Despite her standing, a woman like Joanna might well have been labeled a whore for her association with other women and men beneath her station. (p. 33f)
The association of Mary Magdalene with demon possession serves to connect her to frequent tomb visitation and the contact with spirits of the dead (necromancy). In Mark, this devalues her witness to the resurrection, and functions to bar her from any connection to the Twelve … However, given that in antiquity possession by gods or spirits was associated with creativity and prophetic powers, any such narrative portrayal of Jesus’ women followers would be problematic. In view of the reports that Jesus himself was thought to be mad (John 8:48; Mark 3:20-21) and possessed by a demon … this charge of demon-possession places Mary Magdalene not in the category of Peter and the Twelve, but that of Jesus, or even John the Baptist (Q 7:33). Since men with such characteristics were commonly labeled as prophets, this charge against Mary Magdalene strongly suggests that she might be identified not merely as a follower of Jesus, but as a prophet who was later demoted by an early Christian tradition that also demoted John. Jesus, John, and Mary would then have all exhibited similar behavior at an early point in their lives. Although she is likely only one of many to have received exorcism from Jesus’ hand, Mary’s prominence in early Christian tradition sets her apart from others merely healed by Jesus. If indeed she was a prophet similar to Jesus and John, her words and sayings either were simply lost, or were incorporated into the Jesus tradition itself. She too began her life in a Galilean village, as a fisherwoman from the village of Magdala, who fished alongside the men on the shores of the Sea of Galilee as did many of the working women of the area. Fisherwoman or not, such a working class woman was one of the several kinds of women who joined Jesus and his retinue. (p. 34f)
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
- Come as you are
- The Lord is my shepherd
- Pentecost Prayer
- God gives us a future
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.