It is not disputed that women were viewed as inferior beings in the ancient world.
The first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo, wrote what scholars understand to be the common view of women in the ancient world. He held that there are two kinds of souls: the masculine soul and the feminine soul. The masculine soul was devoted to God, while the feminine soul was gullible and dependent on corruptible objects.1
Jewish men praised God in their daily prayers, thanking him that they were not born a gentile, a slave, or a woman. Several Greek philosophers were also known to thank Tyche (the Greek goddess of fortune or luck) that they were not born a beast, a woman, or a barbarian.2
In other words, women were viewed as gullible, fickle, inferior, pitiable beings.
Even in the Jewish Temple practices, we can see the major divide between the worth of men and women.
Yahweh, of course, dwelt in the Holy of Holies. Moving outward was the court of priests where the altar was, the court of men, then the court of women. The outermost court was the Court of Gentiles, which was open to anyone. The placement of these courts in relation to the Holy of Holies was no mere coincidence. The mediation between God and humanity took on a hierarchical nature which ran from High priests to the other priests to men to women to gentiles. The closest a Jewish woman could get to the presence of God was just barely closer than the gentiles.
The word of a woman was, at the very least, questionable.
So, it is no small detail that in every gospel, it is women who first discover the empty tomb of our risen Savior. It is not inconsequential that women are the first to proclaim the Gospel.
Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza aptly calls Mary Magdelene,“The Apostle to the Apostles,” for it was to her that the risen Christ first revealed himself.
Origen even noted the response of Jewish doubters to the testimony of the women. According to him, “The Jew” says,
“That while alive he [Jesus] was of no assistance to himself, but that when dead he rose again, and showed the marks of his punishment, and how his hands were pierced with nails: who beheld this? A half-frantic woman…” (emphasis mine)3
Indeed, even Luke records what would have been a natural response by the disciples: “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Lk 24:11).
But, the gospel is nonsense to those who don’t believe. What better way to reveal just how upside down and inside out the Kingdom of God is than to have a woman be his first apostle. To utterly reject the barriers of the world’s societies. To usher in God’s Kingdom through the “least of these.”
No doubt, responding to that early Jewish prayer, Paul declares the outrageously glorious truth that in Christ the walls of the Temple are torn down—there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no “male and female.”
This is what the resurrection accomplishes. The veil is torn and all may enter in.
On Easter morning we wake up with the disciples, still mourning the death of the supposed Messiah. We pick up our containers of perfume and oil with Mary Magdalene and the other women and walk to the tomb—defeated.
Then, we see Jesus. We will praise him. Our mourning is turned to dancing, our sadness into laughter.
But, before we rush off to the locked room full of distressed disciples…before Thomas sticks his hands in the holes from Jesus’ wounds…before we run down the road to Emmaus…before we eat fish for breakfast with Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee…before we watch in awe as he ascends into the clouds…
Let’s remember the women who didn’t run from the cross when the guards hung Jesus’ beaten body from it. The women who accepted whatever dishonor would come upon them for caring for the body of a crucified, cursed man. The women to whom Jesus said, “Go, tell the others!” The women who obeyed. The first apostles of the liberating Gospel of the risen Christ.
The first to proclaim, “Christ is risen!” To which the chorus of disciples responded, “Christ is risen, indeed!”
- cf. Philo, Laws 3.178 found in Hanson and Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 24. ↩
- Richard A. Burridge, “Discrimination” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics ed. J. B. Green (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), writes “…Jewish men thanked God in their morning prayers for three blessings: God did not make them a gentile, a slave or peasant, or a woman (t. Ber. 7.18; y. Ber. 13b Menah 43b). Similarly, various Greek philosophers are credited with the statement of gratitude that they were born ‘a human being and not a beast, a man and not a woman, and a Greek not a barbarian’ (Diogenes Laertius, Lives 1.33; Plutarch, Mar 46.1; Lactantius, Inst. 3.19.17).” ↩
- Origen, Contra Celsus 2.55. (read here) ↩