What Jesus Learned from Women: The Sabado Interview

What Jesus Learned from Women: The Sabado Interview August 14, 2023

In connection with my book What Jesus Learned from Women I was interviewed for an article that appeared in the Portuguese magazine Sabado. The title is “As mulheres mais importantes na vida de Jesus.” I thought it might be of interest to share the interview itself, of which only snippets end up being utilized in a given article. So here are the journalist’s questions and my answers:

Who were the most influential women on Jesus’s life? Why? How would you describe them?

I suspect that Jesus’ mother should probably be at the top of the list, as would be true of any other individual. No one who comes into someone’s life later can compete with that early formative influence. After Mary, perhaps the unnamed Syrophoenician or Canaanite woman who appears in the Gospels should be listed next. She is the only person in the Gospels who is depicted as winning an argument with Jesus, and the way she does so demonstrates both cleverness and self-restraint. Jesus insults her when she is seeking healing for her daughter, yet she manages to keep her repose and come up with a response that persuades Jesus to change his mind.

Was their importance hidden by the church? Why?

The importance of women was not so much hidden as ignored by those whose patriarchal cultural assumptions and personal views led them to focus on men’s roles. In some cases they were neither hidden nor ignored but had their authority and importance directly challenged. Other than misogyny (or perhaps I should say as one of the forms it sometimes took) a major motivation for downplaying the leadership role of women in the early Christian movement and eliminating it in their own time was a concern for the reputation of Christianity. People who consider themselves Christians have throughout history sought to show that Christianity supports major cultural values when in fact there were elements in its texts and teachings that challenged those values. In seeking to make Christianity “respectable” they robbed it of its essence and its power.

What are the new discoveries about their lives?

In the process of working on my book What Jesus Learned from Women I discovered many things, some of which I will mention in other answers. The main thing that unites the book was discovering how many stories we have in which women took the initiative and had an impact on Jesus. For instance, when Mary of Bethany sits at Jesus’ feet as a student, Jesus doesn’t defend her action by saying that she is doing what he taught women to do. He praises her initiative. Jesus was clearly the sort of person that made one feel they could do that, but it is as a result of women like Mary of Bethany choosing to act and influencing Jesus that results in him inviting and encouraging others to do likewise.

Jesus always accepted women in his life? He treated them differently?

My book is about the fact that that Jesus was shaped by positive female influences from early on, but also throughout his life. And so the “always” needs to be qualified in the sense that we see a certain openness that reflects his upbringing but also change and growth in his life and the movement around him over time.

Was Mary Magdalene an apostle? Do you believe they had a special relationship? How would you describe her? Who was Mary Magdalene? A rich woman?

Mary Magdalene is called “the apostle to the apostles” by some ancient Christian authors because of how she is depicted in the New Testament as being the first to encounter the risen Jesus and then telling the male apostles. Jesus chose a symbolic group of twelve apostles to indicate that his movement was about the restoration of Israel with its twelve tribes, and those twelve were men. But the word translated “apostle” simply means someone who is sent, an emissary or ambassador, and Jesus sent out more than those twelve. It has been suggested that, when Jesus sent out representatives in pairs they would have been male and female since when it came to activities like baptizing it would have been considered inappropriate to have physical contact between men and women. There is thus reason to think that Jesus may have had many female apostles. What we know about Mary is that she was a wealthy patron who supported Jesus’ movement. She sounds like she is older than Jesus and someone that Jesus viewed as a friend and mentor.

What was the importance of Joanna? Joanna was rich and powerful and that helped Jesus work? Why did a powerful woman like her risk her life to follow him? Were these women courageous?

I didn’t think I was going to include a chapter about Joanna in my book, because she is given a brief passing mention in the Gospel of Luke. Then I encountered the suggestion that she might be the same person as Junia, an apostle mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Romans. I was initially skeptical of the suggestion, but as I pulled on the threads I realized that the information we have about Joanna and Junia connects up naturally to provide a fuller picture of a courageous woman who was married to Herod Antipas’ property manager and presumably faced suspicion or even hostility within the household of Herod the tetrarch, and presumably took risks to inform Jesus when Herod was actively seeking to apprehend him. The Gospels inidicate that experience of healing as well as the impact of Jesus’ teaching were among the factors that attracted rich and powerful women to support and join Jesus’ movement.

How would you describe Susannah? What we know about her?

Alas, Susannah only gets one mention in the New Testament, listed alongside other women like Mary Magdalene and Joanna. I wish we knew more. At least we are told her name, which ancient male authors regularly neglected to do when writing about women. Clearly she was someone who was well known in the movement so that just having her name on a list would be meaningful to the readers of the Gospel of Luke.

What is the importance of Martha and Mary? What do we know about them? Jesus treated them differently? Who was Mary of Bethany?

Mary and Martha of Bethany were sisters, perhaps with Martha as the head of household. I have already mentioned Mary taking the initiative of sitting alongside male students of Jesus to learn. Martha objected since she was being left to take care of the traditional female responsibilities related to feeding guests and showing hospitality. I am sure that afterwards she pointed out to Jesus that if women are expected to continue shouldering those burdens alone while also being invited to learn, that is deeply unfair. I am convinced that just as Mary influenced Jesus’ view that women should learn, Martha influenced Jesus’ view that men should serve.

Libbie Schrader Polczer has done important work on the possibility that the Gospel of John did not originally feature Mary and Martha of Bethany but Mary Magdalene. The manuscript evidence is intriguing and I’ve been reading her work with great interest. I’m still pondering this and may have to adjust my views in light of her research!

Salome was a kind of a nun, devoted to Jesus? What do we know about her?

We don’t get a portrait of nuns in the New Testament, so I suspect that this idea reflects later tradition about Salome. In the New Testament she is, like Susannah, someone who is merely mentioned in passing. This indicates she was well-known, but the Gospel author doesn’t tell us why or how.

Why did Jesus choose women to be the first witnesses of his resurrection?

The New Testament is actually less than unified on this topic, and I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about Jesus choosing women to serve in this role. What I will say is that the women deserve the credit. The reason they find the empty tomb is that, unlike the male disciples who fled and went into hiding, Jesus’ female followers and supporters are there at the cross and then go to the tomb, hoping to undo the dishonor of his burial without anointing. It is because of their courage that they are present at these key moments when male members of Jesus’ movement were not.

In your opinion which of the women had the most importance in Jesus’s life?

It definitely has to be his mother. No other woman’s influence can ever compare. The Gospel of Luke depicts Jesus’ teaching as echoing themes we first encounter on the lips of Mary in the Magnificat, so the Gospel of Luke emphasizes Mary’s decisive influence on her son. I think from a historical perspective that’s the right answer to your question.


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