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Bringing the Bible’s women out from between the lines

25 March 2022

Helen Bond and Joan Taylor are on a mission to make Jesus’s female disciples visible. Interview by Ed Thornton


Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem, a 19th-century fresco in Sint Joriskerk, Antwerp, Belgium

Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem, a 19th-century fresco in Sint Joriskerk, Antwerp, Belgium

WHAT was the social position of women in Jesus’s time, the part they played in the household or wider society?

Joan Taylor: It’s really important to understand the gendered world of the first century, and be careful not to export that world into the present day and think that’s an essential part of the Christian message.

There wasn’t a great deal of mixing between the genders. If you were well off as a woman, you had more freedom, you were sort of almost considered an honorary male, and certain great women would be complimented for their masculinity — you know, they could think straight!

She could show courage — the Empress Livia, for example, great queens like Cleopatra, or the Jewish queen Salome Alexandra. If you were well to do, you had some of the attributes of masculinity in the ancient world.

But for a poor village woman, or an enterprising businesswoman in the merchant world, there were all sorts of things to negotiate in terms of gender.

Why do you think women have been overlooked in the Church’s past, and who has done the overlooking?

Helen Bond: The main reason is that Christianity emerged in a patriarchal time. And, even without wanting to forget about the women, people just told the story as the story of what men were doing. It was a story of what men were doing and how men were spreading the message.

But there were some reasons why women’s contributions were minimised. Partly because it wasn’t always good for Christianity to admit that there had been lots of women there at the beginning. Pagans tended to think that a religion that had too many women in it was a bad thing.

And, once Christianity realised that it was there for the long haul, and that the end of the world wasn’t coming quite so fast, it then really tried to adapt to the world around it and to fit in. It developed hierarchies, and, of course, they were male hierarchies. And that has just been perpetuated, I think, by 2000 years of male biblical scholars.

JT: We have focused on a particular anti-Christian writer, a philosopher called Celsus, who writes about how awful Christianity is in the second century.

We only know his writings from how the Christian scholar Origen, in the third century, responded to Celsus. But it’s clear that one of the things that Celsus said about Christianity was that it was founded on the witness of “a delirious woman”, and it was a sort of religion that only would be believed in by women, slaves, and small children. And that kind of criticism means that Christians have to adopt a defensive position.

There are clues within the text, but you don’t see the clues to the women because it’s like a light is being shone on the men to say: “OK, look, these are good, brave men here that we’ve got in our story, and they’re important.” This is a story that is going to be approved of in a very patriarchal world.

This is now established in the academic world, but did you feel that there was a need to communicate this more widely to the laity and the wider world beyond the Church?

HB: Yes, massively so. A lot of this has been talked about in academic circles since the 1980s or so. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza was one of the early pioneers in this. In academic circles, I think it’s generally well known that there were quite a lot of women around Jesus.

But I do think there are some Churches that don’t particularly want to hear this. We’ve got lots of new evidence in the book, too; but the basic ideas do go back a few decades, and I think are pretty well established.

You have the New Testament material, but also some extra-biblical sources you draw on. Did you detect any differences between the Gospels in how women are portrayed?

JT: We really wanted to focus on the actual women: to show that these were disciples of Jesus, and try and get into the stories of these named and unnamed women and contextualise them and do some work in terms of giving us a broader picture of who these women were.

But before we get to that point, we have to do a background on what the Gospels are, what they’re doing, how they’re presenting gender.

But you’re right that the Gospels do present gender in somewhat different ways; we’re talking about how men behave, how women behave, what are the right ways of being for men and women.

You can compare and contrast them to some degree, because we know that the Gospels had a particular order of composition: Mark was written first, and then Matthew and Luke some time later, and John was written last: that’s the standard understanding. Matthew and Luke used Mark in their own composition, and John, it’s increasingly understood, used Mark as well, and probably also Luke, and even Matthew.

So, it’s very useful for us to remember that composition order, because you can look at how a story is portrayed in Mark, for example, and then how it’s portrayed in Matthew, then Luke, and then John, and see there are subtle changes.

Sometimes these subtle changes adopt a more defensive position, which I think one can see in Matthew particularly; in other cases, perhaps a less defensive position, which you can see maybe in parts of John, where there are more women and they do more stuff.

ANNA COXHelen Bond and Joan Taylor

HB: The author of the pastoral epistles is trying to use the legacy of Paul to tell them what women ought to be doing.

But there is another strategy, too: the adding in of passages. Earlier on in chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians, Paul says that women can prophesy as long as they cover their heads. And then suddenly, in chapter 14, there’s this passage that seems to be saying completely the opposite, and that women ought to be silent in the churches.

That’s probably an interpolation. It’s probably somebody in the late first century, maybe even slightly later, who is reading these Pauline letters and doesn’t quite agree with the great man, and so adds something into the margin, and at some point what was in the margin gets put into the text.

As you go later and later, you get more strident attempts to limit women and to limit their activities within the churches.

How would you present a female version of the Last Supper with Jesus?

HB: We would argue that there were women there at the Last Supper anyway, that we don’t believe Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting, massive effect though it has had on our mental picture of these things.

In Mark’s Gospel, he says that two disciples went to prepare the Passover, and then Jesus comes with the 12 male disciples. Presumably, these two disciples who have gone to prepare the Passover are still there. It does suggest that it’s more than just this 12.

I think it’s very, very likely Mary and Martha from Bethany. Perhaps they were even the ones who went and prepared the Passover, anyway, because Jesus is staying with them. It would be very strange if Jesus was staying with them for Passover and then, when he goes to eat the meal, he leaves his hosts behind.

We also know that Jesus came to Jerusalem with many women. That’s what Mark says, and all the Gospels back that up: the idea that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem with many women who have come from Galilee and know him well, know his message. They’re full disciples, just like the men are.

People like Susanna, and Joanna, Salome, and lots of Marys — there’s always lots of Marys. Mary Magdalene, too, of course. We know the names of quite a lot of these. And some of them we just know the names of their children, too: Mary, the mother of so-and-so. But probably a whole gaggle of women, at least a dozen women.

Do you think there have been periods in the Church’s history when women’s contributions were welcomed and recognised? Or is the present day as good as it has been?

JT: I don’t know if the present day is! I’d like to restore some of the things that were happening in the first century.

Let’s get to the first century. We’re trying to create an image of what was really happening in the Jesus movement and those that followed in the Pauline churches. You’ve got to remember that the Jesus movement was a movement that was expecting the transformation of the world, something that was really radical in terms of a changed reality, where the Kingdom of God was going to come.

On the basis of prophecies like Joel 2, where your young men and young women are going to dream dreams, and old men and old women, they’re going to have this force of the Holy Spirit prophesying, creating part of this new reality. And we see that in Acts 2, where Joel’s prophecy is realised.

And so really, in the first century, I think you’ve got patterns of behaviour that were more radical than we have today.

I’m interested in your views on the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, and whether it’s receptive to these ideas.

JT: The Anglican Communion has an advantage over maybe some other Churches in that it is very diverse, and it’s founded on the idea of a shared worship, without being too fierce in terms of theologies.

One of the great strengths of any religion is when it allows diversity, that it allows freedom to explore and go in different directions and people following their hearts and their truths. I think there always has to be space for rethinking, for learning, for re-energising in any faith community, and I certainly think it’s there within the Anglican Communion.

We were also aware that a lot of women’s history doesn’t get written down: it tends to be oral. It’s what women are telling one another: it’s women’s stories, women’s poems, women’s hymns — material culture, too, perhaps.

We were not just looking at written things, but looking at traditions — that there was a cave here dedicated to Salome, perhaps; or at the site where Mary of Bethany’s house was, where the guest house was — and looking at these traditions, like the ones that Celsus keeps going.

It’s just a tiny little glimpse, but some of these things suggest that there’s another history here that the texts themselves have let slip. And there are these tiny little echoes, perhaps in the oral world, too.

Dr Helen K. Bond is Professor of Christian Origins and Head of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. Dr Joan Taylor is Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London. Women Remembered: Jesus’ female disciples is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-52937-259-5.

Listen to a longer interview on the Church Times podcast.

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