by Justin Rose
James, Peter, and the Beloved Disciple.
Phillip, Thomas, and Andrew.
Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot.
These, and other names, comprise the men whose chief role in Christian memory is the recollection of intimacy with Jesus of Nazareth. They are the faithful disciples who refuse to abandon Jesus (until his betrayal and arrest), the founding primates of the Church, and the martyrs who face the sword, the cross, the beasts, and the fire on account of their faithful witness. These so-called Twelve make up the totality of Jesus’ closest circle of students and followers.
Any attention to the gospel and the epistolary texts, however, reveal that Jesus’ company throughout his ministry was not exclusively male.
The scant attention to Jesus’ childhood is overtly characterized by the presence of his mother, Mary. The gospels make significantly more space for his friendship with the women in the sibling group of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There is also the anointing at Bethany, the exorcism of the Syro-phoenician woman’s daughter, and the woman Jesus meets at the well. Then, of course, there is the initial revelation of Jesus’ resurrection to the women at the tomb, which depict Jesus’ unusual affirmation of women and their proximity to his movement in first-century Palestine.
Despite these examples of the centrality of women in Christian origins, patriarchal institutions have acted through the centuries to suppress the memory of these women. Even in the text itself, we witness the creeping in of anonymity and belittlement of the women who Jesus most likely counted as close to him, as he did the Twelve.
In the biblical narrative (Mark 14), a woman enters the house where Jesus is dining with Simon the Leper and anoints his head with a jar of alabaster. Though she is scolded for this expensive display of honor, Jesus rebukes her male critics and declares that whenever the good news is proclaimed in the world, her story would be told in remembrance of her. From the very mouth of Jesus comes the spiritual and ecclesial promotion of this woman.
This sign-action the woman performs is a priestly and prophetic gesture; signaling the suffering, death, and burial of Jesus. It is also an allusion to the Hebrew Bible’s tradition of the anointing of kings of Israel, thus making the sign-action a foreshadowing of Jesus’ vindication by God and ascendancy to his future as Christ the King.
In Luke’s gospel, however, the woman who anoints Jesus is remembered not as a friend of Jesus, but as a sinner. This, it should be noted, is not an uncommon tendency in the zeitgeist of patriarchal narrativity. That is, patriarchy consistently seeks to demonize or “other” women whose narrative function deconstructs or alters “traditional” roles of women, especially in antiquity. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza points out in her book, In Memory of Her, that while Jesus, the head of the Church, champions the behavior and the memory of the woman who anoints him, her name is lost to us forever.
Another woman whose courageous engagement with Jesus in their patriarchal Greco-Roman context is relegated to anonymity is the woman with the daughter possessed by an unclean spirit. She is also known as the Syro-phoenician woman. (This biblical narrative is found in Mark 7:25-30 and paralleled in Matthew 15:21-28).
In this particular case, Jesus proffers a controversial response to her request that he deliver her daughter of this evil. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus says. While at first blush this might not seem the most compassionate of responses, it is in keeping with his earlier command that pearls not be cast before swine (Matthew 7:6). Jesus in the gospel texts, though radically inclusive, does caution his followers not to share the precious gospel so unguardedly with those who would have no use for it and thus corrupt it. Mark and Matthew provide this story perhaps as a warning for those early Jewish Christians who might take such advice as justification for their exclusion of the uncircumcised, the Gentiles.
In any case, the woman demonstrates remarkable sophistication as a student of the great teacher and, as any lover of pedagogy will note, does not simply accept Jesus’ rejection as correct. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
With this retort, the woman transcends the seeming daftness of the Markan male disciples and embodies the Matthean comparison of a Jesus follower to a faithful scribe. She is engaged with the divine teaching, wrestling with it, and allowing it to evolve into a helpful, nuanced part of Christian identity. This person, who exists outside the Torah sanctioned boundaries of inclusion, widens the table to make room for other Gentiles in the early Jesus movement. Her daughter is delivered of the unclean spirit and thus the work of liberation, which characterizes Christianity, is made universal.
At the heart of the Christian creed is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is precisely where the agency and leadership of Jesus’ women disciples comes into play. At this heart, we witness the timidity, the denial, the betrayal, and the failure of belief in Jesus’ closest male disciples. Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus. The twelve cannot remain awake during his agonizing vigil in the garden. Peter, upon whom the Church would be built, denies his messiah three times. Most of them flee before his execution. And finally, upon his resurrection, many are hesitant to believe the good news he had foretold. But, there is no account of abandonment by his women disciples. No betrayal. No denial.
Mary of Magdala and “the other Mary” were the first to learn of his resurrection, the first to witness his resurrected estate, and in Luke, the first to communicate the good news to the male disciples. In fact, in Luke’s redactional transmission of the account, a wealthy woman, Joanna, is added to the initial witnesses. His redaction is in keeping with Luke’s curious interest in powerful women, which probably says a great deal about the role of women in Christian origins.
So, what is the responsibility of the Christian who calls herself or himself a feminist when it comes to this problem of memory and of anonymity? Can our biblical texts be reclaimed so that the agency and leadership of early Christian women might take their places at the table?
Surely, the radical example of inclusion and table sharing in the life of Jesus and the call to participation in God’s proclamation that all things are being made new are sufficient validation for this endeavor. The observations that have been made here are merely at the surface of what is a massive reclamation and indeed reconstruction of Christian origins, which prioritizes the lived experiences of early Christian women in the beginnings, development, and missionary activity of the Church.
A Christian feminist has an obligation to the Church, to women, and to those at the margins of society in general, to “excavate” these anonymous disciples’ biographies.