Women as Witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus: Affirming the Importance of Women

In my last post, I considered one implication of the prominence of women in the narratives of Jesus’s resurrection. Given the extent to which the testimony of women was devalued in the Greco-Roman-Jewish world of the first century A.D., the fact that the stories of Jesus’s resurrection feature women affirms the historical reliability of the accounts. It would have made no sense for the earliest Christians to have invented stories in which women played such a primary role as witnesses to the resurrection. Fabricated accounts would surely have given this role to men. The existing accounts must have been based on stories that were believed by the earliest Christians to be true, in spite of the cultural hurdles posed by these stories.

“Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener” by Rembrandt, 1638. (Christ wears a very stylish hat.)

But this is not all we can draw from the role of women in the oldest accounts of the resurrection. We can also see how the divine choice to use women as primary witnesses affirms the importance, indeed, the authority and dignity of women.

Yes, I am assuming that it wasn’t just an accident that women were the first to discover that the tomb of Jesus was empty and that he was no longer dead. I believe that God specifically chose to make known the good news of Easter to several of the female followers of Jesus through what they observed with their eyes, through the testimony of angels, and through the words of Jesus as well. I don’t believe all of this was merely accidental. Rather, I’m convinced that God chose woman as the first witnesses in part to affirm their importance, their value as witnesses, not to mention their value as human beings. In a culture that said “The witness of women doesn’t count” God was saying, “On the contrary, the witness of women is essential and trustworthy.” In a culture that tended to minimize the value of women, God was upholding, honoring, and empowering women to be the first to share the good news of Easter. Women were the first evangelists, the first divinely-called witnesses to the resurrection.

It is striking to me that the women who discovered the empty tomb were instructed specifically to tell Jesus’s other disciples that he was risen (Matt 28:7, 10; Mk 16:7; John 20:17). The women were told to pass on truly and authoritatively what they had seen and heard to a group of people in which men were prominent. The women received a mixed response. Luke reports that the disciples did not believe the women “because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Lk 24:11). To be sure, the specific good news proclaimed by the women witnesses was utterly unexpected and hard to believe. But I wonder if the fact that it was delivered by women rather than men added to its unbelievability.

I do not think we can build a case for the full empowerment and leadership of women simply from the role they play in the resurrection stories.  Yet we shouldn’t minimize the importance of what this role says about women. Yes, women were authorized by the Lord to be the first proclaimers of the good news of the resurrection. Yes, women were deemed worthy by God to serve as trustworthy witnesses in a culture that denied them this role. Yes, we rightly sense that the surprising role of women in the early Easter narratives shows that God is doing an altogether new thing through the risen Christ, and that this new thing will involve the transformation of all things, including gender roles. But I don’t want to read more into the Gospel texts than is there. At the same time, I don’t want to miss the full significance of the dramatic and disruptive way God at first chooses to make known that Jesus is risen. And, as a man, I do want to be open to the ways God wishes to speak to me today through women as they bear authoritative witness to who God is and to what God has done and is doing through Christ.

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