WHO were the women who travelled with Jesus, and stood at the foot of the cross? What can we learn about the earliest female followers who spread the gospel? Can we recover the stories of disciples such as Priscilla, Salome, Mary Magdalene, and Phoebe? These are the questions raised by Professors Joan Taylor and Helen Bond in their new book, based on research for their 2018 television programme, which brought the women of the New Testament and the Early Church into sharper focus.
They are keen to share their scholarship with a wide audience, as they work through the sources — from archaeological remains to apocryphal and Gnostic writings, and close reading of the critics of the new faith.
They argue strongly, for example, that “when texts tell women to be silent or to learn submissively”, we can be sure that some women were not doing this. Female followers were speaking out, active as missionaries. Taylor and Bond pay attention to the nuances of language — considering words such as diakonos. Traditionally, this has been translated as “minister” or “deacon” for male believers, but implied “service” — food preparation or other domestic ministrations — when associated with women, lessening their authority. The authors encourage us to rethink our understanding of disciples such as the sisters Mary and Martha, and the parts played by women in Jesus’s circle of friends and followers.
Chapter by chapter, the authors piece together the evidence that has survived about named and unnamed women. They demonstrate the richness and range of female activity in the first-century churches. We read about Joanna, who was wealthy enough to provide for Jesus and his close friends out of her own purse. Then there are Salome “and many other women” who travelled with Jesus to Jerusalem. Taylor and Bond unravel the tangled stories of the women who anointed his head and feet.
Finally, they guide us to Rome, and the 11 women named by Paul in his letter to the congregations there, including Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, “who has worked hard in the Lord”, and Junia. Along the way, we discover more details about women’s dress, their status in the synagogues, and the multiple meanings of pornai — usually translated as “prostitute”, but an insult that encompassed any “wayward woman”. When it was applied to the women who ate and walked with Jesus and the Twelve, this cast a shadow over the whole group of believers.
The book’s style is readable and engaging, opening up the complex and fluid status of women in the Early Church. It helps us to understand the alternative narratives of texts such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary. The only downside to this careful unpicking of the legends is that some of the mystery is stripped from the more colourful saints’ lives. We sometimes miss the accretions of medieval and Counter-Reformation art and hagiography. Taking us back to the sparse snippets of the early sources leaves us, at times, with only the faintest whispers of the lives of the hopeful women who spread the Good News.
As the authors say, “for some, this will be inspiring.” But, for others, their retelling of these stories “will be deeply disturbing”.
Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is a cultural historian with an interest in Victorian and 20th-century Britain.
Women Remembered: Jesus’ female disciples
Joan Taylor and Helen Bond
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30