By Jess Holland and Matthew Boffey
On Saturday, they rested. But early Sunday morning, the women leaped into action. Motivated by love, they gathered spices and perfumes to honor the body of Jesus. Little did they know that Sunday morning marked a new day in human history.
God chose a small group of women to share the greatest news of all time. Why?
Jesus was different
Let’s first begin by looking more broadly at the role of women in the Gospels and how Jesus interacted with them.
One thing we see immediately is that Jesus valued and respected women. For example:
- He loved his mother, Mary, caring for her even while he was dying on the cross (John 19:26-27).
- He showed kindness to the woman at the well when even she saw no value in herself (John 4:1-42).
- He rebuked the disciples and defended the woman who poured expensive perfume on his head, honoring her faith and humility (Mark 14:1–11; Luke 7:36-50).
We also know from the Gospels that many of Jesus’ followers were women. They traveled with the disciples, financially supported their ministry, and served Jesus however they could.
Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means (Luke 8:1–3).
The Gospel accounts also tell us that some of the same women who followed Jesus were present during his crucifixion. David Rhoads writes:
The narrator [Mark] tells us that ‘Mary the Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, along with many other women’ had been serving Jesus, had followed him in Galilee, and had gone with him up to Jerusalem.
Indeed, these women continue the discipleship character role. Apart from Jesus’ mother Mary and Herodias, these are the only other women to be named and, like the twelve, they have an ongoing role in the narrative, albeit brief.
They take risks by being at the crucifixion and by going to the grave, and they show their willingness to serve by buying spices and going to anoint Jesus. The women minor characters in particular exemplify the way of discipleship amid the failure and absence of the twelve.1
So we know that women were an important part of the budding discipleship community, but why did Jesus appear to them and not any of the twelve disciples?
An Unlikely Source
We can’t know for sure why Jesus appeared first to the women and not the men, as the Scriptures do not say why.
But we can infer a reason.
First, note that all four Gospels affirm that women were the first to see the empty tomb and encounter an angel or angels (Matt 28:5-8, Mark 16:1–8, Luke 24:1-8, John 20:1ff). Matthew and John also affirm that Jesus appears to the women after these encounters.
This unanimity of detail is significant. The accounts all align.
But more significant, and indeed puzzling, is why Jesus chose this unlikely source for spreading the news.
It is well known that women’s testimonies carried little if any weight in the ancient world:
The exclusion of women from courts was normative… Courts were made by men for men. Babylonian, Egyptian, and Canaanite women did not go to court, nor did Greek women even in later times. Roman women could give testimony in court but could not be witness to a will.2
Joel Green, in his commentary on Luke, affirms this as a reason for the disciples’ disbelief of the women’s testimony:
The dismissive response [is explained by the fact that] those doing the reporting are women in a world biased against the admissibility of women as witnesses.3
So then why would the gospel writers include these details? Wouldn’t readers of the Gospels have the same response? And why wouldn’t Jesus appear first to the men, so that the testimony of his resurrection is more widely accepted?
Probably for this simple reason: to squelch accusations that the accounts were fabricated.
If the apostles fabricated the resurrection, they certainly would not have written that women witnessed it first.4
Michael Licona elaborates:
The main argument posited for the historicity of the appearance to the women, and the empty tomb for that matter, is that the early Christians would not have invented the story, since the low view of women in first-century Mediterranean society would raise problems of credibility. Bauckham provides evidence that in the Greco-Roman world educated men regarded women as “gullible in religious matters and especially prone to superstitious fantasy and excessive in religious practices.” A number of Jewish sources indicating the low view of women in Jewish culture may likewise be cited, although those from the Talmud are admittedly later. We may also note Luke 24:11.
Precisely because of the low view of women in antiquity, many see the appearance to the women, and to Mary Magdalene especially, as historical given the criterion of embarrassment. It seems unlikely that the Evangelists, especially Mark, would either invent or adjust existing testimonies to make the women the first witnesses of the risen Jesus if that is not what was remembered in the earliest traditions. Why fabricate a report of Jesus’ resurrection that already would have been difficult for many to believe and compound that difficulty by adding women as the first witnesses? If Matthew originated the story of the appearance to the women disciples, it seems far more likely that he would have depicted men as being the first to see the risen Jesus, especially if Mark did not provide such an appearance in his Gospel. Why not list Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, and avoid the female issue altogether? Thus, as Bauckham assesses, the reason for the report’s lack of credibility in the first century is a reason for its credibility in the twenty-first: “Since these narratives do not seem well designed to carry conviction at the time, they are likely to be historical, that is, believable by people with a historically critical mind-set today.” Accordingly the most plausible explanations for the inclusion of women witnesses in the resurrection narratives is that the remembrance of the tradition was so strong and widespread that it had to be included.5
Imagine the scene in court.
Accuser: You’re making this whole story up. You just want to start a conspiracy.
Apostle: If I wanted to start a conspiracy, why would I choose unreliable witnesses? I’m not looking to cross my t’s and dot the i’s. I’m looking to tell the truth.
By subverting expectations, the story stands out.
Indeed, everything about Jesus’ death and resurrection was unique: Betrayed by a friend. Rejected by his people. Silent before his accusers. Forgiving his killers. Then rising from the dead?
The whole story is incredible; why stop with the witnesses?
The apostles affirm that women were indeed the first witnesses, because that’s how it really happened. Throughout the whole story of redemption—from barren women giving birth to waters parting to boys taking down giants—God does the unexpected.
As the saying goes, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Jesus took those whose word society said wasn’t trustworthy in court and made them the most reliable witnesses to the greatest event in history. He went against the societal norms of the day to show that he came to seek and save all who were lost, women included. And, in Christ, men and women are absolutely equal (Galatians 3:28).
- David Rhoads, et al., Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Fortress Press, 2012).
- Judith S. Antonelli, In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997).
- Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series (Eerdmans, 1997).
- Tom Constable, “Notes on Matthew.”
- Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010), pg. 349.