The women who come to the tomb so very early on that first Easter morning are given some prominence in the last two chapters of the Lukan account. After Jesus dies, the crowds return home, grieving the death of another Jew at the hands of their Roman oppressors (Luke 23:48). But all those who knew him stood at a distance. That group included those women who had followed him from Galilee – the whole group were watching these things (Luke 23:49).
We then hear the report of Joseph of Arimathea, the “good and righteous man” who had not gone along with the goal and actions of the Council. He requested Jesus’ body and put it in what was likely his family tomb. This was risky behavior and identified Joseph as a Jesus supporter. The women “from Galilee” were in no position to make such a request, but they did follow in order to see the burial spot (Luke 23:55).
When they knew where the tomb was, they turned back and prepared the aromatics and the myrrh for a proper burial. They accomplished this before sundown, when the Sabbath day began. The second half of Luke 23:55 appears to begin a new sentence. Even though they had done this work of preparation, nonetheless, they rested on the Sabbath according to the “commandment” (mitzvah: more in the sense of “practice” than of “obligation”).
The sentence continues into Luke 24:1. The women from Galilee rested on the Sabbath, but as soon as it was possible, on that new day, they brought the spices they had prepared. Thus, the women at the tomb are clearly identified in the Lukan account as those who had accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry. They were from Galilee and had trekked with him to Jerusalem. They were as qualified, in terms of experience and acquaintance, as any of the male disciples to bear witness to Jesus and his resurrection.
As was noted in a previous post, the Lukan author clearly feels the burden of relying on the witness of women – regarded as one of the weaker sources of testimony in the ancient world. Does the Lukan author appreciate the witness of these women, or is that author simply stuck with the brute reality that they got to the tomb first, and their testimony had to be supported in every way possible? Does the Lukan author value the witness of those women from Galilee or not?
Barbara Reid argues that the answer to this question is yes…and no…and yes. In biblical interpretation during the “first wave” of feminism, Reid observes that biblical interpreters found the Lukan author to be a friend of women. That positive assessment turned critical in the 1980’s and beyond. Reid has written extensively on this topic and notes that the Lukan account has no individual call stories concerning women. Women in Luke-Acts don’t engage in the actions of Jesus’ mission in the way that men do. Women receive Jesus’ compassion and commendation, but there are hardly any reports of what they do with such care and approval (see page 4).
Women seem to disappear from the Lukan radar screen in the Book of Acts. Even Tabitha, identified as a disciple, never speaks in the account. The only time in the Luke-Acts corpus that women are described as proclaiming or announcing Good News, no one believes them. Instead, that proclamation is regarded as “nonsense.” It appears, according to Reid, that even the ministry of teaching in Luke-Acts is restricted to male disciples.
Given all the data, Reid concluded in her book “that Luke disapproved of such women, that he was convinced that women and men have different ways of being disciples, and that he, like the authors of the Pastoral Letters, was intent on restricting the women to silent, passive, supporting roles” (page 5). In comparison with the other gospel accounts, and especially the Markan composition, the Lukan author seems to diminish the role, actions, and importance of these women from Galilee in chapters 23 and 24.
In her book (which Reid quotes in her article), she argues that a woman who reads Luke’s gospel will internalize the message that her witness will not be believed or credited as faithful and true. Women can remember what they witnessed, and Jesus’ words interpreting what they had seen. But it’s up to the men to put this testimony into shape and bring it to the public. In Acts, the process is completed, since it is the witness of men that is authoritative, and the empty tomb is not mentioned.
“Today our proclamation of Luke’s version of the empty tomb story can serve to ritualize the grief that Christian women have experienced for twenty centuries when their faithful and true witness is dismissed as ‘nonsense,’” Reid wrote twenty-five years ago. “It can remind us of the deprivation imposed on the whole Christian community when its female members are silenced. It can move believers to choose the better part,” she concluded, “by taking actions to ensure that the faithful preaching of women be heard and accepted in our day” (pages 5-6).
While Reid does not backtrack on this assessment, she offers a more developed and nuanced understanding in her 2016 article. In the Lukan account, once Jesus takes the stage, neither male nor female disciples have all that much to say. Both male and female disciples receive correction and reproof from Jesus. When big points get made by someone other than Jesus, those points are distributed evenly between men and women by the Lukan author. And the entire Gospel account is bookended by major testimonies from women, literally from the cradle to the grave and beyond.
Reid notes that in the Lukan gospel account, the women speak no more or less than the men. That changes in the Book of Acts, when Peter and Paul take on the great majority of the speaking parts. That being said, let’s stick with the gospel account for a bit longer.
Reid notes that Jesus’ own words were rejected, beginning in Nazareth. This is what happens often when a prophet speaks that which we don’t want to hear. “From this angle,” Reid argues, “the rejection of the words of the women who were at the tomb can be seen as a confirmation of the truthfulness of their declaration and an affirmation of their ability to proclaim the word faithfully” (page 20). These women link the ministry in Galilee with the cross, the burial, and the empty tomb. They possess and rely on the community memory of the whole journey.
So, the women are like the good soil in the Parable of the Sower. They hear the word. They remember it. And, according to the parable, they do it. “That the women at the empty tomb remember Jesus’ words (24:8) signifies not only that they were present when he spoke to the disciples,” Reid continues, “but also that they faithfully continue his mission of embodying God’s liberating mercy” (page 21). Their response is ongoing, not a one-off, as Reid notes. In Luke 24:10, their telling is in the imperfect Greek tense – past action that continues into the present.
“Placing the women’s names at the close of the account in 24:10,” Reid notes, “can be interpreted not as diminishing them but as following a protocol whereby the names of witnesses are given at the conclusion of their testimony” (page 22). The reliability of their testimony is then confirmed in the report of Cleopas and his companion (Luke 24:22-24). Finally, the women are positioned as faithful witnesses in contrast to those who refused to believe and regarded their testimony as “nonsense” (page 22).
Is the Lukan author a “friend or foe of women proclaimers of the word”? Reid is not sure. The Lukan valuation of the witness of women is ambiguous at best. “Rather than let Luke provide final answers,” she writes, “we can allow his text to stimulate valuable questions and point to issues that demand rethinking.” We can and should remember that women served as faithful witnesses and proclaimers in the gospel accounts. And this should form our own practice and reflection when it comes to the witness and proclamation of women in our churches now.
This may seem like a dead issue in some quarters of contemporary Christianity. But the preaching ministry of women is a live issue in American evangelicalism. It is producing numerous books and voluminous commentary. Those who advocate for the full and equal partnership of women in preaching and teaching in congregations are often subjected to public abuse, loss of jobs, and varieties of shunning behavior. The white male misogyny in such quarters is on full display.
That doesn’t leave us “old-liners” off the hook by any means. It is still statistically more likely in my own denomination for a woman to be elected bishop than to be called as lead pastor a large, multiple-staff congregation. Bishops serve “at a distance,” I think, and those who oppose women in ministry are less likely to be bothered by such an indirect female presence.
White, male, misogyny is part of the larger cultural package that generates and undergirds the system of White, male, supremacy. This conversation is not an antiquarian analysis of a text by someone who was a “product of his time.” While I don’t think Easter Sunday is the day to preach on such supremacy and misogyny directly, it is the time to uphold and celebrate the witnessing and proclaiming ministries of women in congregations in the strongest possible terms.
Christ is risen, and women were indeed the first – the first – to say those words.
References and Resources
Prince, Deborah C. (2012) “Resurrecting Certainty in the Gospel of Luke,” Leaven: Vol. 20: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol20/iss1/8.
REID, BARBARA E. “The Gospel of Luke: Friend or Foe of Women Proclaimers of the Word?” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 78, no. 1 (2016): 1–23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43900808.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.