Women at the Resurrection

Famously, the Gospels recount that the first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ were his female followers. Less famously, Paul’s account of Christ’s resurrection appearances record no women among those who witnessed these events in 1 Cor 15:1-7. Why this discrepancy? There are two apologetic explanations commonly invoked: the accounts of the female witnesses were suppressed by Paul because Jews don’t trust women, and as a Jew Paul doesn’t trust women.

This explanation holds that the Gospels, though written later (by Jews!), report the fact that women were the first witnesses, while Paul, claiming that he received this tradition within a few years of the actual event, suppresses this fact. This apologetic argument wants to insist on the necessary accuracy of Paul’s claims with respect to the resurrection and post-resurrection appearances, while admitting that they are factually inaccurate with respect to the female witnesses.

It is sometimes claimed that Jewish women were not allowed to testify in trials, which is one reason that Paul excludes the traditions about women as the first witnesses. Even if this were true, the rules of a trial are not exactly applicable to the issue of whether or not women’s testimonies are trusted outside of a trial. John 4:39 says that, “many Samaritans in the city believe in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Furthermore, in Greek and Roman society, women were not only permitted to testify, but often their testimonies were sought. There were some taboos about forcing respectable women to testify, but the issue was not that they were not to be trusted, only that it was unseemly to force women into a court of law because it was a public space occupied by men. Again, the hesitancy about putting women in public legal space would not be reasons to not listen to the testimony of women in other circumstances, nor does it say anything about the supposed untrustworthiness of women in Greco-Roman society.

Well, Samaritans, Greeks, and Romans would accept as credible the testimony of women both in and out of courts, but what about Judeans? One problem in making claims about the first century Jews is the lack of sources from this period. The New Testament and Josephus are the primary sources, and neither contains information about some ban on women at trial. The Mishnah represents the legal tradition of a minority group of Jews, some of whose traditions may go back to the first century, but it is not codified until 200 CE, long after the time of Jesus. Nevertheless, San 3:3 lists those who are excluded from testifying in trial, and women are not on that list.

Another historical problem faced in trying to determine what was and wasn’t acceptable in “Jewish” trials was what authority (if any) such trials actually had in the first century, let alone what the rules were. We simply don’t have the sources to confidently make claims about the status of women in such trials, or if they were even a common enough occurrence to have regular rules. But again, the rules of trial are not necessarily relevant in why Paul does not include appearances to women in his list in 1 Cor 15.

Does Paul distrust the testimony of women? Some may cite 1 Cor 14:34-35: “women should be silent in the churches.” This passage is highly contested in scholarship because it floats around in different manuscripts. It does not follow directly on anything said before, and if you take it out the passage still makes sense, suggesting that it is a later scribal addition into the text. Further, this passages seems to directly contradict 1 Cor 11 where Paul gives the rules for when women can pray and prophesy in church. Finally, even if authentic, this passage says nothing about the reliability of a woman’s testimony, only rules about whether to speak in church, none of which would on its face offer an explanation for why Paul would knowingly suppress traditions about Jesus’ appearances to women. Paul himself frequently praises women leaders of house churches, his female “co-workers,” a female apostle, and a female deacon in Rom 16. In Gal 3:28, Paul declares that there is no distinction between male and female in Christ. Paul’s statements on gender are complex, but to claim that Paul did not value the testimony of women, so much as to suppress the stories of female witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, is wholly out of character for him.

What then is the status of 1 Cor 15 relative to the gospel accounts? Which is more historically trustworthy? On one hand, Paul claims that he received this tradition early on, directly from those who experienced the events. On the other hand, the stories of the women as the first witnesses seems (to some modern interpreters) an unlikely thing to “make up.” But, what we see is that it is not a choice between two options, appearances to women or no appearances to women, since the gospels themselves do not bear witness to a single, harmonious account of such appearances. 1 Cor 15 instead offers one tradition among many, none of which agrees, even when they are directly aware of another tradition, as in the case of the synoptic gospels.

In the account of 1 Cor 15, we have the following list of post-resurrection appearances:

The “twelve”
500 brothers and sisters (some claims that these are all males, though the Greek masculine plural here can signify both males and females)
the “apostles”

This account is different in every respect from any of the gospels, both in the order and in the persons. The closest overlap is Paul’s tradition of an appearance to the “twelve,” which seems to correspond to the synoptic gospel tradition of an appearance to the “eleven,” but even this is not an identical tradition between Paul and the gospels. John never specifies the number of disciples who experienced the post-resurrection appearances.

Short ending: An angel, not Jesus, appears to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome;
long ending: Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene (Jerusalem),
two other disciples (in the country),
to the eleven (location unknown, but likely Jerusalem)

Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, the “other” Mary (Jerusalem);
the eleven disciples (Galilee)

Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “other women” see empty tomb, but not Jesus;
Cleopas and another walking to the village Emmaus (outside Jerusalem);
the eleven with the two returning from Emmaus (walks with them from Jerusalem to Bethany)
Apostles for 40 days (Jerusalem)
Stephen (Jerusalem)
Saul (Road to Damascus)

Mary Magdalene sees empty tomb and gets Peter and beloved disciple;
Peter and the beloved disciple leave, but Mary stays and Jesus appears to her (Jerusalem);
same day appears to some of the disciples (Jerusalem);
a week later appears to some disciples including Thomas (Jerusalem);
the disciples (Sea of Tiberias in Galilee)

The differences among these accounts is significant, and they cannot be harmonized. They do no even all bear witness to the supposed fact that women were the first to see Jesus, since Luke records no such thing (which ending of Mark did he change?). The failure of Paul to record stories of Jesus’s appearances to women is not a result of misogyny, any more than the gospels failure to record any one of Paul’s tradition of appearances is evidence that they are suppressing evidence. It would be inaccurate to claim that Paul differs from a unified gospel tradition, since the gospel tradition is already quite varied.

What then is the best explanation for why we have so much variability in the accounts of the resurrection? I am not arguing that one is more “accurate,” only that they are all just traditions and that as such they represent the interests of the authors and communities that produce them. These records are not evidence of what really happened, but evidence of how different authors and communities remembered the past. (Salome was there! Joanna was there! Peter was the first to see him! There were those two random disciples, one of them I think was named Cleopas but the other one I can’t remember, yeah, they saw him too!) Unfortunately, none of these accounts offers an unmediated view to the past, but that is because such an unmediated view is not possible. All we have is numerous, divergent traditions.

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  • Kevin Barney

    Very interesting; thanks, TT.

  • Julie M. Smith

    Nice post. Two thoughts:

    (1) Adding to your ‘Paul wasn’t rejecting female testimony’ idea is the fact that the entire set up to 1 Cor is messengers from the house of Chloe. Now even if they are all male, they are presumably acting under *her* authority to deliver *her* message, and Paul obviously considers that reliable.

    (2) I’m wading through Bauckham’s _Jesus and the Eyewitnesses_. He posits that the res. witnesses mentioned by each author are those that the author personally could confirm were eyewitnesses, hence the discrepancies between the lists. I am not convinced by his ideas, but it is an interesting approach and has made me think more about the issue.

  • Clark

    I’m sympathetic to (2) Julie although I’d balk a little at “confirm.” Rather I suspect that there were simply different groups each of which had their own traditions of whom was visited. There would have been some overlap but it wouldn’t be that surprising that one group had influence from one set of witnesses and an other group had contact or influence from yet an other.

    The reason I don’t like “confirm” is that implies the verification of the tradition whereas I suspect that didn’t happen. That is there might well be people said to have seen Jesus who were later introduced traditions.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/ TYD

    Great post, TT, thanks!

    Best wishes,


  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Thanks all for the comments!

    I’m totally with you on 1. I find the argument that Paul doesn’t include women’s testimonies because he doesn’t think women are worthy of testifying totally ridiculous. It is more likely that he just didn’t know them.
    I think that Baukham’s thesis is problematic. It doesn’t explain a number of features of the resurrection accounts like 1) the numerous anonymous witnesses–if the authors wanted to restrict their lists to only the people they had personally spoken to, why not actually put their names? 2) the existence of groups of witnesses–if Matthew and Mark trusted Mary Magdalene enough about her account of seeing Jesus, why not her account of who was with her that day? 3) the discrepancies in the accounts of what people actually saw–Luke doesn’t say that the women were witnesses; 4) the discrepancies in the order/location of the appearances; 5) the fact that Paul doesn’t claim to have spoken to each of these groups about the appearances, only that he received this tradition (paradosis); 6) the literary dependence of the gospels on earlier texts–why would the authors rely on eyewitness accounts alone in this instance, and on texts for so much of what else they say?

  • John Mansfield

    “Furthermore, in Greek and Roman society, women were not only permitted to testify, but often their testimonies were sought. There were some taboos about forcing respectable women to testify, but the issue was not that they were not to be trusted, only that it was unseemly to force women into a court of law because it was a public space occupied by men.”

    According to Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome, “even witnesses were routinely tortured [in Roman courts] unless they were from the elite.” The unseemly forcing mentioned above would have been of a painful sort.