I thought I would share here on the blog a few brief questions and answers I wrote about my new book for the purpose of providing interested journalists with a press kit. I also observe with considerable delight that my book is available just in time for Women’s History Month. I suspect that some readers of this blog might have connections with universities, seminaries, churches, and other organizations that would be interested in hosting a talk by me about what Jesus learned from women, especially this month but not necessarily. If so, let me know! Here are my questions and answers. Did the answers surprise you?What other questions do you have about the book or the process of writing it? Let me know!
What Jesus Learned from Women:
An Interview with James McGrath
Q: Let’s start with the title and “what Jesus learned.” How can you claim that he learned when he was God? Is this another book denying the divinity of Jesus? A: This book isn’t about the divinity of Jesus at all, either for or against. For those who affirm the historic creeds of Christianity, Jesus is fully human and not merely fully God. Whether or not one is inclined to reevaluate and revise beliefs of past generations, and whether one’s basis for doing so is historical critical investigation or prioritizing the Bible as supreme authority, there should be agreement that Jesus was a human being and that as such he learned. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52). The Bible itself says that Jesus learned. The instinctive desire to deny that Jesus learned, to treat him as though he were an omniscient deity merely dressed up as a human being, is actually problematic from the perspective of historic Christian orthodoxy, as well as from the perspectives of biblical authority and of historical investigation.
Q: So if we grant that Jesus learned, what if I’m not persuaded that he learned from women? Do we really have evidence for that?
A: I believe we do. First, all it takes is accepting that Jesus was a genuine human being who learned for it to be automatically true that one of his earliest teachers and formative influences would have been his mother. We do not need to rely on inherent probability alone on this point. The Gospel of Luke not only tells us that Jesus learned, but depicts Mary’s perspective and how Jesus’ was similar on key points. Luke thus conveys to us that Jesus learned from his mother, and even gives us a hint of what he learned and how that was reflected in what he taught. There are many more stories in which we see Jesus learning from his encounters and conversations with women. Mary and Martha of Bethany, the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syrophoenician woman, and many more.
Q: In some of the examples you just mentioned, we do not even know the names of the women. If the biblical authors didn’t tell us that basic information, can we really expect them to provide enough information to allow us to conclude about their influence on Jesus?
A: That question gets at the heart of the subject, why I wrote the book, and why I wrote it the way that I did. The Gospels, like so many ancient texts, do not give us women’s perspectives as fully as they deserved. Sometimes they are not narrated at all. Modern historians and commentators have a choice: we can perpetuate the silencing of ancient women, or we can dare to creatively go beyond what the sources say explicitly, taking what the texts do say and what we know about that time and place as our starting point.
Q: Creatively going beyond what the sources say makes it sound as though you are engaging in speculation, writing historical fiction rather than history. Is that a fair description?
A: The book does contain some actual historical fiction as I seek to narrate the stories of these women from their perspective. There is also creative filling in of gaps in our record. That is not something that is absent from any historical investigation. When historians connect the dots between the few archaeological remains that have survived, or ask about the broader political realities behind decisions of kings and denunciations of prophets, there is a filling in of the gaps. When we insert a cross of a particular shape into how we envisage New Testament narratives that do not specify such details, that is not inappropriate. Indeed, it is necessary and inevitable. The key is to fill in what we don’t know based on what we do know, and to allow what we know to serve as a guide and framework for seeking to go further. Doing that is appropriate, and indeed is unavoidable in all historical investigation of the ancient world.
Q: You have spoken a lot about history and historical reconstruction. Is this a book just for historians and specialists in New Testament?
A: I do think the book offers the kinds of detailed discussions that scholars and students look for. The book is also for people in churches and book clubs who are interested in subjects like the Gospels, historical Jesus, Jewish-Christian relations, women in ministry, feminism, patriarchy, and so on. I got feedback on the book from scholars, clergy, and my Sunday school class, among others, and believe the result is accessible and interesting for a wide audience, even if some may skim past certain detailed discussions of evidence in places.
Q: How did you, as a man, dare to think you were in a position to write a book that seeks to tell women’s stories, as well as the story of how Jesus learned from women?
A: It is too often the case that racism is viewed as a problem that its victims should solve, that patriarchy and gender discrimination are issues women must tackle. On the contrary, it is crucial for addressing issues like racism and other forms of discrimination, for promoting feminism, that the historic perpetrators be involved in the effort to change things. It is important that books about women in the Gospels not only be written by women, about women, for other women. Time and again as I worked on the book I found riches of scholarly insight that had been written by women and ignored by men in my field. That is one of the issues the book seeks to address. While writing, of course, I sought input from women as readers and their feedback was crucially important in making the book what it is. I knew I needed to listen and learn, even as I was discovering that Jesus did. It is my hope that the book will not only offer compelling historical conclusions and narrative interpretations, but that it will help male readers of the Gospels recognize our own positionality and perspective and ways in which we have misread the text. I hope it will help male scholars see how we have contributed not only to the silencing of ancient women but the neglect and marginalization of our contemporaries, including but not limited to our colleagues in our field.
Q: So was Jesus a feminist?
A: It depends what you mean. There is certainly a level of egalitarianism in Jesus’ teaching that was not simply a given in ancient patriarchal societies. Neither is it universal in modern societies including our own. Jesus might be described as a first-century Jewish feminist. If one is going to say that he was a feminist at all, it is crucial to put it that way. We need to acknowledge that his perspective was an ancient one and will be different from our own. We also need to work against the tendency of some to try to elevate Jesus by denigrating Judaism. In order to take Jesus fully seriously as a human being, we need to recognize him as a person who was part of his own time, a person with a particular culture, heritage, and upbringing. When he participated in debates about how to interpret and apply the Torah, for instance, it was not as someone who stood over against Judaism but precisely as a Jewish participant in Jewish discussions.
Q: Are there any important discoveries that you made while researching the book that can stand independently of your central point? To put it another way, if someone has reservations about Jesus learning from women, should they read your book anyway, and if so why?
A: My answer is definitely “yes” and not just because I want people to read my book and hear me out. In investigating the story of the woman accused of adultery in John 8, I found a plausible explanation of why Jesus was “writing on the ground” that to my knowledge no one has ever proposed before. I discuss Jesus’ cultural and geographic context from many different angles, including the fact that he uses terminology drawn from the realm of theater in a manner that is noteworthy. There are aspects of the stories about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and how they found the place where the Last Supper would be held that emerged from the approach I take in the book, but which I think can stand independently and deserve to be considered independently of my central argument.
Q: Any final thoughts to share?
A: This book turned out to be much longer than I anticipated, and included a chapter I didn’t expect to be able to write because I didn’t think there was enough to go on. The stories of the women Jesus met taught me, challenged me, and changed me in ways that surprised me and made even extremely familiar stories about Jesus come alive in ways I never anticipated. I am eager to share this experience with readers of the book. I am persuaded that we have missed a lot that is there in the Gospels because we have not asked about what Jesus learned and who he learned from. Even those of us who take Jesus’ humanity fully seriously have neglected this. Whether I am right or wrong about any individual conclusion, this topic deserves more attention than it has received in the past. I hope that readers will benefit from exploring it even as I have!