I have just enjoyed watching Helen Bond and Joan Taylor presenting the Channel 4 programme ‘Jesus’ Female Disciples: The New Evidence’ (which you can watch on demand if you missed it). Both are widely respected professors in the academic community around New Testament studies, Helen at Edinburgh and Joan at King’s College, London. Joan has most recently come to popular attention because of her book What did Jesus look like? which I reviewed last week.
They began by exploring the mention of Mary Magdalene in Luke 8:
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8.1–3).
Their exploration began by debunking the assimilation of Mary Magdalene with the ‘sinner’ of the preceding episode in chapter 7, who anointed Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The identification of the two figures is without any good reason—it is highly unlikely that Luke would have put these two together in some coded way, since he is certainly not trying to protect Mary’s reputation. After all, he says that she was delivered of ‘seven demons’ by Jesus. The first time this identification was made with any authority was by Pope Gregory I (‘the Great’) in 591, when he also assimilated these two figures with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. The problem with this kind of reading was highlighted in the programme by noting (from evidence from burial ossuaries) that around a quarter of women in the region were probably called Mary—something which explains the gospels writers’ habits of identifying each ‘Mary’ by an epithet or mention of their nearest male relation.
Joan Taylor suggested that ‘Magdalene’, related to the term migdal meaning ‘tower’ in Aramaic, might not have been a references to Mary’s home town of Magdala or Migdal Nunya (the exact site is debated), but as a nickname meaning ‘towering one’, suggesting her own strength and personality. The programme did not mention it, but in fact this suggestion is not new but goes back to Jerome (hardly known as an advocate for women’s ministry!):
“Mary Magdalene received the epithet ‘fortified with towers’ because of her earnestness and strength of faith, and was privileged to see the rising of Christ first even before the apostles” (letter of St. Jerome translated by Susan Haskin, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor, p. 406)
This observation is behind the title for Mary of ‘apostles to the apostles’, which became popular in the 12th and 13th centuries arising from the observation that she was the one (in the account in John 20) who was both a first witness of the empty tomb and the one who went to tell the apostles. I am not sure whether Joan’s argument here is persuasive in relation to etymology, but it certainly highlights the important of Mary and the other women. Richard Bauckham, in his ground-breaking Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, has a section on the women at the cross and the tomb (pp 48–51), and he highlights the continuity and multiplicity of the women at the two events in Mark’s gospel, which appears only to serve as reassurance that they were indeed plausible eyewitnesses to both events; Mark uses the terminology of ‘seeing’ (thought to be a more reliable ground for testimony in the ancient world than ‘hearing’) seven times, and includes not just the terminology of ‘noticing’ (horao and eidon) but of ‘carefully noting’ (theoreo) (Second Edition, p 522).
Joan and Helen went on to explore the significance of Mary, Joanna and Susanna ‘and many others’ (Luke 8.3) been the ones who bankrolled Jesus and the disciples, and who were therefore essential to the early ministry of Jesus in Galilee. The programme narrator announced dramatically ‘their theories could overturn centuries of scholarship’—an odd claim to anyone who has looked at these texts at all carefully, since the importance of women in the ministry of Jesus, especially in Luke’s gospel, is a commonplace of scholarship. What I think it might ‘overturn’ is widespread popular views; I suspect many ‘ordinary’ readers of Luke’s gospel have passed over these verses without really realising their significance. Lynn Cohick explores this group in her Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (pp 309–320) where she makes some interesting observations. The first is the use of the term diakoneo to describe the nature of the support given by the three women, linking it to the important ministry term diakonos elsewhere in the NT. The second is to note that mixed male-female groups were not uncommon in first-century Judaism, thus contradicting another popular argument that Jesus was a nice egalitarian on the side of women, in contrast to the nasty patriarchal Jewish culture of Jesus’ day—a stereotype in an opposite direction which is equally unhelpful, and which was seriously undermined some years ago by Bernadette Brooten’s study of inscriptional evidence for women as synagogue leaders.
Come to the book launch for my new commentary on the Book of Revelation on Thursday April 19th.
Patronage is one thing; authority to teach and lead is another. So the next move for the programme was to look at Mark 6.7 and Jesus’ sending the disciples out ‘two by two’ to preach the kingdom and proclaim its reality by healing and deliverance. Joan claimed that the unusual phrase used here duo duo was an allusion to the account of the animals entering the ark ‘two by two’ in Gen 6.19 (repeated in Gen 7.2, 7.9, and 7.15). The implication would then be that the disciples were sent out not in pairs themselves, but in pairs with female disciples of Jesus, who shared in the ministry of teaching and healing. Despite the ecstatic claims of the narrator, this does not seem to me to be at all persuasive. The phrase does occur in some manuscripts in the parallel passage at Luke 10.1, but this is most likely as an assimilation to Mark 6.7. The phrase occurs nowhere else in the Greek Old Testament—but it does come in Sirach 33.15 (must closer in time to the gospels) where it refers to the dualities of the world made by God, which are in opposition to one another. The importance in Mark 6.7 is much more likely to be related to the need for two witnesses to agree for their testimony to be accepted (in line with Deut 17.6), and the fact that there are two (or perhaps three) pairs of brothers amongst the Twelve. If there is an allusion to Noah’s ark, it is only in the sense of a new era beginning with the coming of the kingdom.
This for me was a point where the programme strayed from looking carefully at what the texts of the gospels actually say, to treating the gospels as a code which needs deciphering—and there is simply no need to do this in relation to the importance of women in Jesus’ ministry. Alongside Mark’s emphasis on the women as witnesses at cross and tomb, and John’s focus on Mary Magdalene as apostle to the apostles, we might look at Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching about disciples in Matthew 12.46–50, where he explicitly includes women (‘my sisters’) amongst his disciples. (We need to note here the flexible use of the terms ‘disciple’ and ‘apostle’, which at some points have a narrow focus on the Twelve, but at others both terms are used much more widely.) This matches Luke’s account of Jesus’ specific affirmation of Mary of Bethany taking the role of disciple, by sitting at his feet, in Luke 10.42, part of Luke’s general and widely-noted emphasis on the importance of women, of which the mention of Mary, Joanna and Susanna as financial supporters is just one part. This theme not only shapes Luke’s explicit mention of women (including the role of Priscilla in Acts 18 as co-founder of the church in Ephesus and the lead teacher of Apollos), but the implicit affirmation that comes from his record of male-female parallels in both his narratives and the teaching of Jesus (as highlighted by Mark Allen Powell in his introduction to Luke):
We might add to that the reference in Romans 16 to many women seen by Paul as both prominent and apostolic (including Junia, ‘outstanding amongst the apostles’ Rom 16.7) as well as his description of the gifts of the Spirit given in 1 Cor 12 and 14 without any regard for gender differences. Given that women are relatively prominent in the gospels, why would there be any need for ‘coded’ references such as that claimed in Mark 6.7? It is also worth noting how sharply this contrasts with much gnostic literature; the Gospel of Thomas includes this conversation:
Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.
(For an overview of all the key texts in relation to women and ministry, see my Grove booklet Women and Authority: the key biblical texts.)
In the second half of the programme, Joan and Helen moved away from the texts of the first century to the archaeological evidence of the patristic period. The suggestion that catacombs in Naples might depict a woman bishop in the sixth century caught the eye of pre-programme publicity, and I made this comment in the Sunday Telegraph piece about it:
The image of Cerula is significant for several reasons—the Chi-Ro symbol above her head, the open gospels with flames, and the oranspose in which she is ‘lifting holy hands in prayer’. We find similar things from the third-century Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome—but there the female figure is also wearing a stole, the garb of priestly office. Cerula does not have this, so though clearly a person of influence, it seems to me unlikely that she is a priest or bishop, and we have no written evidence of women having such an office at this time.
For Roman Catholics, patristic practice will be important since the tradition is seen as authoritative for the contemporary church. For myself as a Protestant (and former Roman Catholic), what is more important is what the New Testament says, since that shapes what is means to be an ‘apostolic’ church. In Romans 16.7, St Paul mentions a couple Andronicus and Julia, who are ‘outstanding amongst the apostles’, so Paul appears to have no problem with women exercising church-planting, teaching apostolic ministry.
But we see with this text the same tension between early practice and later tradition. As recently as 1927, the female name Junia was changed to the male ‘Junias,’ to hide the possibility of women as apostles—despite the complete lack of textual evidence, or the existence of the male name Junias in any other context. Elsewhere in Paul’s writings, he appears to treat women and men equally as proclaimers of the apostolic gospel—just as Mary was the first announce the resurrection of Jesus to the Twelve on Easter morning—something that supports the idea of women exercising ministerial authority in the church today.
(For a careful exploration of the ordination of women in the patristic era, see the Priscilla Paper by Darrell Pursiful.)
The programme ended where it had begun, in St Peter’s Square in Rome, wondering why the statues of the saints atop the basilica included no women—and visually recreating it with the women added back in. But for the Roman Catholic Church, what the New Testament texts actually say is only one part of the story; tradition, in the sense of both the teaching authority of the Church, and the power of habits and history, also play an important part in the Church’s attitude to women, so the statues are not going to be moved any time soon.
I am aware of the need of producers of the programme to ‘spice it up’ with claims that scholarly insights are ‘new’ when they have been around for some time—but some of the things here will be new to many of the programme’s viewers. There is also no need to argue that women were ‘equally’ important numerically; you don’t have to suppose that women led in equal numbers to believe that women can lead equally. But it was great to see Joan and Helen bringing serious scholarship to bear in a popular programme on a Sunday evening—and we could do with more of this.
Larry Hurtado also commented on the programme on his blog, and he appears to agree with my comments about the duo duo in Mark 6.7. In the discussions, Richard Bauckham makes the following comment about Magdala:
Magdala (Migdal Nunayya, Aramaic, meaning “tower of the fish,” Greek name Taricheae, meaning “fish salting factories”) was a large and important town, which dominated the fishing industry on the lake, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about 9 miles south of Capernaum. Ongoing excavations there are the current excavations that are the most important for study of the Gospels and the historical Jesus. They can also be visited by tourists and are beginning to feature on the pilgrim/tourist trail. A major book, which I have edited, is forthcoming in the autumn: Magdala of Galilee: A Jewish City in the Hellenistic and Roman Period (Baylor University Press). In the meantime, see Richard Bauckham and Stefano De Luca, “Magdala As We Now Know it,” Early Christianity 6 (2015) 91-118.
The synagogue, discovered in 2009, was the first synagogue within Galilee from before 70 CE to be discovered (two more have been identified since). It has received lots of publicity, along with the extraordinary engraved stone “table” found in it, about which I have written. Josephus refers to Magdala by its Greek name Taricheae, which was actually his HQ in Galilee.
Joan Taylor’s alternative understanding of “Mary the Magdalene” is fully refuted in the book, together with her doubts about the location of Taricheae.
Come to the book launch for my new commentary on the Book of Revelation on Thursday April 19th.
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