The First Mary (Part 3)
Jesus "amongst women"
Details of who actually wrote the gospels and when they were written may be in dispute, but we can be confident about one thing: the authors were all male. Followers of Jesus they might have been, but even the most enlightened of men would have found it difficult to resist the cultural conditioning of the time. They lived in a society where men were regarded as the ‘standard model’ of Homo sapiens. Women were essentially invisible.
This phenomenon is evident in the gospel accounts of one of Jesus’ miracles, when he transformed a few scraps of food into a feast for the multitudes who had followed him into the wilderness.According to Mark, Luke, and John, there were 5,000 men to be fed. But they did not mention women, even though it is unlikely to have been an exclusively male gathering. Only in Matthew’s gospel do we read that “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children”. So at least 10,000 famished souls could have been there that day but, to the authors of the gospels, only the men really counted.
Notwithstanding this blind spot, the gospels contain enough references to individual females to suggest that some women did attract the attention of the authors. Zebedee’s wife, the mother of James and John, is one example. She pulled Jesus aside one day to ask him for a favour. She wanted him to keep a special place “in your kingdom” for her two boys. While her cheeky request annoyed the other apostles, it did not knock a feather out of Jesus. Besides, Zebedee’s wife was one of his closest female allies, those women who stuck by him to the end.
Jesus encountered lots of women during his wanderings through Israel, whether it was the young daughter of Jairus whom he brought back to life, or Peter’s mother-in-law whose fever he cured when he saw her lying sick in bed.He was kind and attentive to them all.
Sometimes Jesus’ dealings with women were so unconventional that even his closest male companions were dismayed. The story of his conversation with the woman at the well illustrates that, for Jesus, rules were made to be broken.Although we are told that the disciples “marvelled that he was talking with a woman”, it was not just her sex that was problematic.
Firstly she was a Samaritan and therefore part of an ethnic group that was shunned by the orthodox Jews around Jerusalem. If another gospel author is correct, Jesus appears to have supported this policy because he warned his disciples to steer clear of Samaria when he sent them out to preach.Secondly the woman at the well was sexually promiscuous, although this only emerged during the recorded conversation with Jesus. According to the gospel account she had five ex-husbands and was now living with a man to whom she was not married. This was another black mark against her, given that Jesus is reported elsewhere as having expressed strong disapproval of anyone who even thought about having sex outside marriage.
These two factors – the woman’s cultural origins and her colourful sex life – should have been enough to warrant Jesus’ condemnation when he discovered them; except he knew it all from the start.
Jesus met the woman in a Samaritan town and must have realised immediately that she was a local. When they started chatting, it was Jesus who informed the woman that he was aware of her sexual history. Whether this is an example of Jesus’ preternatural gifts or his deductive reasoning is unknown. What is abundantly clear from the gospel account is that Jesus never once rebuked or slighted the woman. On the contrary he was tolerance itself in his exchanges with someone whom his critics back home would have branded a pariah and a harlot. The Samaritan woman herself was so impressed by Jesus that she became a de facto apostle, telling people in her city about the coming of Christ.
Jesus displayed a natural tenderness and understanding towards women that was unusual for men at the time. As another biblical expert has observed:
Jesus set a standard for the place of women in the community that the early church, functioning in Greco-Roman and Jewish surroundings, found hard to maintain.
Yet Jesus selected twelve men to be his disciples or apostles. All the gospel writers agreed on this – Matthew, Mark and Luke even named the twelve, and there was not one woman among them.What is perhaps less clear to the casual reader of the New Testament is that Jesus valued his female followers as highly as those twelve men.
Jesus was surrounded by a group of strong and loyal women who were independent and affluent enough to support him and the apostles financially. We are told that - among “many others” - they included Mary Magdalene and a woman named Joanna who was the wife of a senior official at King Herod’s court.In light of the focus on men that we see in the example of the feeding of the multitude, the fact that the gospels mentioned these women at all is remarkable. As one biblical scholar asked:
In what other scenes in the Gospels might there have been women present even though they are not mentioned…at the Last Supper or at the Transfiguration…?
Whatever about these events, another that was almost as significant did include Jesus’ female followers, even though none of the four gospel authors mentioned their presence. Through a close reading of the gospel of Luke, the researcher cited above concluded that Mary Magdalene and some other women must have been there when Jesus predicted his own arrest and crucifixion.Jesus made the prophecy during an intimate moment that he shared only with his closest companions. Elements of it are also mentioned in Matthew and Mark.
Mary Magdalene and her friends may not have been officially-designated apostles like Peter and John, but Jesus accorded them all the same level of trust and friendship. As I wrote in Part 2, those female companions repaid Jesus’ trust when they turned up at his crucifixion. The gospels tell us also that Mary Magdalene, either alone or with one or two of the other women, was the first of Jesus’ followers to meet and speak with him after his resurrection.Although the gospel writers differed on the detail of what happened next, all four agreed that Mary Magdalene then went to the male apostles and told them that Jesus had risen from the dead.
As the first witness to the resurrection Mary Magdalene has been honoured since the Middle Ages with the title ‘Apostle to the Apostles’.
We should be grateful to have these insights into Jesus’ relationships with the females around him. He made no distinction between the men and women who offered him their love and support. Whatever the reason may have been for Jesus choosing only men to be his designated apostles, it was not because he regarded males as inherently superior to females - quite the opposite perhaps, given that the resurrected Christ showed himself to a woman before he appeared to any man.
In that context it is plain that what Warner characterised as the “troublesome” nature of Jesus’ behaviour towards Mary his mother had nothing to do with her female sex.He saw her, not as an ally like Peter or Mary Magdalene, but as an opponent who would scupper his mission if she could. Yet she was still his mother and he would never have dishonoured her. This, I believe, explains his Cana ‘miracle’. Mary wanted it so, as a dutiful son, Jesus did what his mother wanted.
More in Part 4.
Matthew 14:13-21. Mark 6:32-44. Luke 9:10-17. John 6:1-13.
Matthew 20:20-28 and 27:55-56.
Luke 8:40-56. Matthew 8:14-15.
R. Alan Culpepper, ‘Contours of the historical Jesus’ in Jan van der Watt (ed.), The quest for the real Jesus (Leiden 2013), p. 78.
Matthew 10:1-4. Mark 3:13-19. Luke 6:13-16. John 6:67-70.
Damian Bruce, “Mary Magdalene: The forgotten apostle” (Senior Sophister Dissertation, Trinity College, Dublin, 2005), p. 16.
Ibid, pp. 15-6.
Luke 9:18-22, Matthew 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-30.
Matthew 28:1-10. Mark 16:9-11. John 20:11-18.
Marina Warner, Alone of all her sex: The myth and the cult of the Virgin Mary (New York, 1976), p. 15.