Text Study for Luke 24:1-12 (Part Three)

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).

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

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

Hearon, Holly. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-6.

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.

Text Study for Luke 24:1-12 (Part Two)

“Take the risen Christ out of the NT,” write Hageman and Beker in their Proclamation commentary, “and the rest of the story is meaningless tragedy” (page 5). Some homiletics instructors warn that it is a rookie preaching mistake to spend time on Easter Sunday “proving” or “demonstrating the truth of” the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead on that first Easter. Yet, the veracity of the resurrection event seems to be a central concern for the Lukan author – not only in chapter 24, but throughout the body of Luke-Acts.

The group of women who witnessed the empty tomb, heard the admonition from the angels, and remembered Jesus’ own words (Luke 24:8) returned from the tomb and reported what they had seen (and not seen) and heard to the eleven apostles and all the rest of the company of disciples (Luke 24:10). “And these words appeared, in their judgment,” the Lukan author notes, “to be nonsense, and they refused to believe them.” (Luke 24:11, my translation). The Lukan author uses the rest of the chapter to demonstrate that the resurrection of Jesus was anything but nonsense.

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I have found, over the years, that many of my folks came to Easter services hoping precisely for some reassurance that the bodily resurrection of Jesus has really happened. It continues to seem, as it has from the earliest days, that reports of Jesus risen from the dead may in fact be nothing but nonsense. We live in a material world, governed by relatively unchanging and reliable physical laws. A story about a process or event that seems to violate these laws and the worldview upon which they rely – such a story needs a bit more than trumpets and lilies to make it seem plausible (much less certain).

Deborah Prince notes that concerns about the veracity of Christian resurrection claims are as old as the purported event itself. We find evidence in Matthew’s gospel that guards were rumored to have been bribed to support the story. Paul acknowledges in First Corinthians that this resurrection business seems ridiculous to Gentiles and offensive to Jews. Questions about the resurrection animate conflicts in the Jewish community, according to the reports of Luke-Acts.

Prince reminds us that the controversy not only continues but increases in the centuries following the first Easter Sunday. She quotes the words of third-century pagan skeptic, Celsus, in his debate with Origen of Alexandria. Celsus describes the women as hysterical females who were probably hallucinating or engaging in wishful thinking. Or more likely, Celsus argues, the witnesses fabricated the resurrection story in order to impress and manipulate people.

She notes that many scholars have seen an apologetic agenda in the Lukan account – a desire to defend and even prove the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ. “Although the precise definition of the genre of apologetic literature and its relationship to Luke-Acts is still highly debated,” Prince writes, “it cannot be denied that in some way and to some extent Luke is concerned with assessing the truth of his narrative to his audience” (page 26). We can see that in the first verses of the Lukan account, where the author asserts the intention to establish the “truth” for Theophilus.

Prince examines how the Lukan author may have demonstrated the reliability of the Gospel account in ways that met first-century standards for veracity. Witnesses were critical to the demonstration of a report’s truthfulness. The more ancient the witness, the greater was the credibility. In the Lukan account, the “fulfillment” of Jewish scriptures functioned as an inventory of ancient and therefore highly credible witnesses. More recent witnesses were also used, although if they stood to gain from the witnessing, their testimony was of less value. Women, children, and slaves were, by legal definition, unreliable sources of credible testimony.

The Lukan author, therefore, has an immediate credibility gap. “The Christian traditions of Jesus’ resurrection depend upon unreliable witnesses,” Prince reminds us, “women and friends, both of whom testify voluntarily. Their social status would not assist their credibility, nor would their character, which is never explicitly described in any positive way up to this point in the narrative” (page 28). The Lukan author needs additional rhetorical weight to shore up the testimony of these eyewitnesses.

First, there is the testimony at the tomb itself. The two men in shiny clothes remind the women of Jesus’ words – where, we readers know, Jesus described how his ministry fulfilled scripture. The women then “remembered these words” (see Luke 24:8). The apostles and the rest of the disciples regard the report of the empty tomb as nonsense. That’s why it’s important that Peter runs to the tomb to verify the women’s report (and one of the reasons why it is likely that Luke 24:12 was part of the original Lukan account).

Even though Peter confirms the report of the empty tomb, that’s all that is certain at this point in the narrative. “In only two verses, Luke is able to acknowledge the unreliable status of the women witnesses,” Prince argues, “and at the same time offer the first corroboration of the women’s testimony, while continuing to leave the disciples and the readers unsure of the truth” (page 29).

Therefore, the Lukan author provides additional witnesses and testimony. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus add their voices to those of the women. In addition, sometime after his sprint to the empty tomb, Peter (Simon) encounters the Risen Jesus. His testimony seems to be accepted without question. In the Emmaus Road story, the witness of Jewish scripture is added once again to the argument. Nonetheless, this is still not enough testimony to meet the Lukan standards for reliability.

The empty tomb and the missing body have been seen and verified by Peter. Jesus has appeared on at least two separate occasions. Both Peter and the Emmaus couple have identified him as the Lord Jesus. Yet, when Jesus appears directly to the apostles and the rest of the disciples, they still wonder if they are seeing a ghost. They are both joyful and not believing (verse 41). Jesus requests a snack and eats it in front of them.

“In these verses the ancient expectations that the spirits of the dead cannot be touched and cannot eat,” Prince writes, “are employed to prove that the Jesus before them is not merely an image of his living presence” (page 29). This physical evidence is amplified and supported by additional teaching from the Jewish scriptures. Prince notes that this time the scriptural witness includes the Psalms as well as Moses (Torah) and the Prophets.

“With certainty finally attained through the presentation of multiple witnesses, both contemporary and ancient,” Prince writes, “the disciples are now prepared to act as witnesses to the world, which they have in fact been doing throughout Luke’s narrative” (page 30). The Lukan author has met the standards of credibility for a first-century document and buttressed the testimony of the women, the weakest element of the evidence, in the first-century evaluation.

Prince draws several implications from her study. The emphasis on the resistance to easy belief on the part of the disciples perhaps matches the same resistance in the Lukan community and among contemporary Christians. Because the first witnesses were hard to convince, that means they were not pushovers, ready to fall for the first “idle tale” to come their way. We, who have our own doubts, are not the first ones to struggle with the credibility of the resurrection accounts in the gospels, nor will we be the last. An easy acceptance of the astonishing news of God’s victory over death is perhaps a sign of an unexamined faith rather than a sign of a secure faith.

“As educated readers, like Luke and his audience,” Prince writes, “we do not need to be content with easy and pat assertions that gloss over real concerns of reliability. Rather,” she continues, “we can be assured by Luke’s narrative that the truth of Jesus’ resurrection has been deemed credible by the ever widening and diverse testimony of those who experienced Jesus alive” (page 30). Yet, that isn’t where the Lukan author ends the account.

Instead, we move on to the Book of Acts and further experiences of the resurrected Jesus in the lives of the early believers and in the witness of the Church. “Just as the first disciples slowly grew in their conviction that Jesus was alive and recognized the reality of his presence with them through the opening of the scriptures and the breaking of bread together,” Prince concludes, “so Luke insists that those to whom he writes, both then and now, are likewise presented with multiple opportunities to witness for themselves the reality of Jesus’ living presence through our lives in Christian community” (page 30).

The Lukan account provides witnesses for the two necessary and sufficient conditions (in N. T. Wright’s argument) for proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. Those two conditions are the empty tomb and experiences of the living Jesus. “The early Christians did not invent the empty tomb and the ‘meetings’ or ‘sightings of the risen Jesus in order to explain a faith they already had,” Wright argues. “They developed that faith because of the occurrence, and convergence, of these two phenomena” (page 707).

Therefore, the Easter Gospel is not merely an historical report. Rather, it is a promise based on both the witness and experience of Christians for over two millennia. That promise is that we, too, can and do meet the risen Christ in the gathered body of believers, in the Spirit-driven interpretation of scripture, in the breaking of the bread, and the mission of the Gospel in the larger world.

The Lukan author invites us to echo the words of the disciples in Luke-Acts, that “we, too, are witnesses of these things.”

References and Resources

Hearon, Holly. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-6.

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.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

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