Women as Witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus: Affirming the Reliability of the Gospels

Yesterday was Easter Sunday. As I sat with my family in our church’s worship service, we heard the familiar story of the Jesus’s empty tomb on the first Easter morning. I was struck once again by something that is so familiar it is easy for me to overlook. I’m talking about the fact that women were the first to discover the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Resurrection of Christ
and Women at the Tomb
by Fra Angelico (1440-1442)

The priority of women as witnesses to the resurrection is found in all four of the biblical gospels. Each gospel focuses on different aspects of the narrative, but all the gospels agree that women played a starring role early on Easter morning. They were the first to learn that the tomb of Jesus was empty. They were the first to hear the good news that Jesus was risen. And they were the first to be told to share this news with others.

Women, therefore, were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus in two senses. On the one hand, they were the first to see evidence of the resurrection. On the other hand, they were to the first to be told to pass on the good news that Jesus was risen.

If you’re familiar with the Easter story, the centrality of women in the narrative is something you might easily take for granted. But such familiarity can keep us from noting a couple of striking implications of the role of women in this story. I would like to draw your attention to these, one in today’s blog post and the other in my next post.

The Fact of Women Witnesses Underscores the Truth of the Easter Narrative

I believe the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus are historically true. I believe they describe what happened after Jesus was actually raised from the dead. Now, I realize that resurrections aren’t commonplace. I understand why open-minded people, not just skeptics, might doubt the veracity of the gospel accounts. Many have argued that Jesus was not raised from the dead and that the stories of the resurrection were made up by Christians in the first decades after his death.

This is possible, of course, though I’m not persuaded that it’s true. One reason I don’t believe the “Christians made up the stories of the resurrection” argument has to do with the prominence of women in these stories. You see, in the world of Jesus, the testimony of women was not highly regarded. In fact, in Jewish culture women were not generally authorized to be witnesses in the judicial courts. Similarly, the patriarchal system of the wider Greco-Roman culture devalued and disparaged the word of women. (For a scholarly discussion of this cultural situation, see this article by New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham.)

Thus, if the earliest Christians were making up stories about the resurrection of Jesus, it’s highly unlikely that they would have featured women as their first witnesses. This would not make any sense at all. And, even if somehow these women-centered stories were told at first, we would expect that they would soon have been “corrected” by Christians who wanted to exclude the liability associated with women witnesses, unless the first Christians had a strong commitment to passing on the truth faithfully.

Of course, the fact that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus does not provide ironclad proof that the resurrection actually happened. But it does suggest that the “Christians made it all up” argument is unconvincing. Moreover, the priority of women in the Easter narratives also suggests that something unexpected and amazing was happening only hours after the crucifixion of Jesus.

In my next post, I’ll investigate another intriguing implication that follows from the fact that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.

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