Women in the Heart of God (7)

The Data From the Historical Literature of the Apostolic Circle

[updated 12/21/96]
This period of time stretches from the writing of the first gospel to the finishing of the book of Acts.

The data of this period comes from the literary data, present in Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, and the Gospel of John. The historical writings of these members (or deputies) of the apostolic circle will reveal features of their authors' views on women in the church, by HOW female characters are used in the narratives. For example, are they portrayed as enemies, or evil, or examples of anti-virtue? What purposes do women's words and actions play in the text--and what might the level of detail (or lack thereof) reveal about how the early church understood them?

Even though most of the events we will use as 'raw materials' come from the pre-Church period (i.e. the earthly life of Christ), since it is being written down LATER THAN that period, it will be used to illustrate the perspectives of at least early church leadership (i.e. the apostolic circle). In the book of Acts we will have some "purely" historical elements to work with as well.

The gospels are primarily concerned with the life and mission of Jesus, of course, and so we should not expect a ton of data. But Matthew and Luke are especially striking in their use of female characters and 'mentions' in the text. We will largely concentrate on that data.

We can arrange this material under the following categories:

  1. Historical data from the Book of Acts.

  2. Literary data from the Gospel of Matthew.

  3. Literary data from the Writings of Luke (the Gospel of Luke and Acts).

  4. John's portrayal of Mary and Martha.


  1. Historical data from the Book of Acts.

    Here we can look at how women responded to the message of Christ and their roles/status in the Church once they became believers.


  2. Literary data from the Gospel of Matthew.

    Matthew's use of women characters is instructive, for it contrasts with many female images of the ancient world:

    The portrayal of women as positive models of religious virtue was rare in the ancient world. While the Gospels assume the patriarchal structure of Jewish culture, they do portray women in a remarkably positive and exemplary role....In fact, with only a few exceptions, women are used consistently in Matthew's story to educate the reader in fundamental values and insights that are to govern a life of discipleship. (WS:EWEC:432)
    This value on the role and contribution of women can be seen in several aspects of Matthew's work:

    1. The genealogy.

      The main thing to look for in a genealogy are the 'break-points'--those phrases that indicate some kind of discontinuity or change in the flow. These breakpoints are clues to the author's intentions.

      In Matthew's genealogy, there are several such breakpoints. The most obvious ones are the famous leaders that form the pivots for the 15-generation segments of the passage. [Matthew used a rounded-off version of the genealogies to facilitate memorization and learning. The 15-15-15 structure would have been easier to remember for early catechumens.)

      But other breaks occur in the mention of four women's names: Tamar (1.3), Rahab (1.5), Ruth (1.5), the wife of Uriah (1.6). Although there are perhaps more exemplary characters that could have been used, and even though Jewish sources spoke favorably about these women, it should be noted that "each of these women take initiative to overcome their powerless state and questionable circumstances to participate in the plan of God." (WS:EWEC:435). In other words, they each demonstrate that character of discipleship that is so important--"be faithful with little, and I will give you more". These women were singled out for their independent action (sage-like?) in difficult situations; requirements for a young church in a difficult period.

    2. Matthew either creates (or preserves) general 'pairings' of men-women in Jesus' teachings.

      For example, in chapter 13, Jesus' use of a man sowing a mustard seed (31-32) is paired with that of a woman making dough (33).

      And, in the Olivet Discourse, the warning that Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. (24.40) is immediately followed with Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.(v.41)

    3. But it is in the area of characterization of women, and their narrative uses by Matthew that are the most instructive.

      "It is generally recognized that there are five principal character groups in Matthew's story: Jesus, the disciples, the religious leaders, the crowds, and the minor characters...Minor characters are those who appear sparingly throughout the story and are depicted with varying degrees of insight into their person. Although in some scenes they seem merely to function as "props" to establish a setting, on certain other occasions, they serve as positive 'foils' against which to view the deficiencies of major characters. Thus minor characters often exemplify values endorsed and commended by Jesus and the narrator. Although they usually remain nameless and appear in only one scene, their importance for the overall story is not to be slighted because of the brevity of their appearances." (WS:EWEC:430,431)
      So, in the case of Matthew, we will see him using women to (1) portray attitudes of true discipleship; and (2) do this AS A CONSTRAST to those of the disciples(!).

      Let's look at a few passages in which these elements can be seen.

      1. In chapter 9, we have a "Pairing": the story of the Woman with the Hemorrhage juxtaposed to that of the Raising of Jairus' Daughter. Jairus is the socially-acceptable ruler, approaching publicly. The Woman is a social outcast, due to her long-standing disease, and approaches privately. But notice that they BOTH receive the desired healing, but ONLY the woman is commended publicly by Jesus, and ONLY the woman's inner thought patterns are revealed to the reader. Jesus' public commendation establishes her as a role model alongside other examples of active faith (e.g. 8.10; 9.2).

      2. The story of the Canaanite woman--a social and cultic 'outsider'--is also set up as a foil. This foreign woman calls Jesus "Son of David"--an acknowledgment of His messianic authority. But, Chouinard points out:
        Such an insight in the context of Matthew 15 is clearly intended as a foil against which are heightened the "blindness of Israel's leaders" (15:14, 24; see 2:1-4), and the lack of perception among the disciples (15:16ff). (WS:EWEC:440)
      3. In the all-important Passion Narratives, women again play a decisive role in modeling the elements of true discipleship.

        • The woman who anoints Jesus for His coming burial (26.6-13), is contrasted with the disciples: "While the disciples struggle with the reality of Jesus' imminent passion, this women is portrayed as understanding the necessity of the passion and responding accordingly." (WS:EWEC:441).

        • In the final scenes of the story, women assume a role that should have been played by the disciples. They were present at the Cross (27.55, vs. The fled-disciples), present at the burial (27.61), and the first to learn of the resurrection (28.1-7).


          Certainly, the prior actions of the women ("follow" and "serve him") and their presence at such critical junctures in the story (i.e., crucifixion, burial, and resurrection) establishes that these women should be viewed as authentic disciples, though they were not counted among the twelve. (WS:EWEC:442).
      4. The details in the resurrection account show the women as foils, contrasting with both the soldiers and with the disciples.

        In the first case, both the women and the soldiers are hit with 'fear', but whereas the soldiers are incapacitated (28.4), the women are prompted to action by the words of the angel. And, both the women and the soldiers are witnesses at first, but the soldiers are reduced to silence by bribes (28.15).

        In the second case, the women respond later to the Risen Christ with worship, but the disciples, when confronted by the same Risen Lord, respond ALSO with 'confusion' (28.17: When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.).

      Clearly, the women followers of Jesus function as post-resurrection models of discipleship.

  3. Literary data from the Writings of Luke.

    Luke has an altogether different purpose in mind as he places women characters and their scenes into his combined Luke-Acts history. Whereas Matthew used women primarily as foils against the various other characters--with a special emphasis on their exemplification of the traits of true discipleship, Luke will use the mentions of women as demonstration of their integral part of the Kingdom of God. In other words, his use of women characters and situations will be 'natural'--an obvious main component in the plan of God.

    This will show up in a number of ways: in the frequency of 'mentions', in the use of men-women pairings, on the legitimacy of focusing on their 'inner life', his recounting of their contributions to the early church, and his linking them up with the Apostle Paul.

    Once we have looked at this data, we will ask the oft-asked question--"why?" Why such a significant attention on women--WITHOUT 'drawing attention' to that fact?

    But..... "WHY?"...Why did Luke make such a point of including women so extensively in his writings?

    There are three elements to understanding this--one is very widely accepted, one has only recently been articulated in the scholarly community, and one is my OWN 'pet heresy' (smile)...

    1. Luke wrote his works with an obvious women readership in mind. (commonly accepted view)

      There is a simple solution to the problem of why Luke's gospel contains more stories about women than the others: Luke was writing for an audience wherein women were numerous...The evangelist seeks to capture the attention of the female portion of the audience. (Davies, in WS:WLT:190)
      What is interesting to me about this position is that Luke's works are addressed to a man named "Theophilus". In the Graeco-Roman culture of the day, Theophilus would probably be expected to 'publish' Luke's writings (see BREC:102). When this fact is combined with the historical and sociological insights into the makeup of the early church--largely female (ROC, chapter 5)--we can understand this clearly.

      In the earliest days of the expansion of the Church, women were more likely to become Christians than men--which is true in modern religious movements as well--(ROC:100), and that the early church attracted an "unusual number of high-status women" (ROC:107). Many of the extra-biblical records indicated that there were many, many mixed marriages, in which generally it was the woman who was a believer and the husband, not. Secondary conversions (in which one spouse influences the other to accept the faith) were common in the young church, and women had a much higher status in the Christian subculture than in the pagan culture of the day (ROC:107-111).

      If women were as prevalent and important to the early church as the sociologist Stark argues (ROC), then it makes perfect sense for Luke to make sure that the readers of his work (to be circulated by Theophilus, perhaps himself a secondary convert?) understand that men and women are both integral to the life of the church.

    2. The second possible reason for Luke's high usage of women--esp. without drawing attention to that fact--is that he sees it as a fulfillment motif of Is 40-66. Recent literature on Lukan writings (as reviewed by Allen Black in WS:EWEC:463ff), draws attention to Luke's immersion in Isaiah 40-66. Black argues that the programmatic usage of Joel 2 in Acts 2 gives us the key. The references to 'sons and daughters' in the prophecy of Joel, echoes the SIMILAR PAIRINGS in Is 43.6-7; 49.22, and 60.4!

      What this would mean for us is that Luke's use of men-women pairings was designed to show his readers that the fulfillment of the ages had come. In other words, the promise of men-women working together in the kingdom of God had been inaugurated in history--in the apostolic church.

    3. The third possible reason for Luke's high usage of women--esp. the pairings in the Gospel--is my own sorta 'twist.' I think it possible and maybe even likely that the Gospel of Luke (and not Acts) was basically authored by Mary herself, and incorporated into Luke's two-volume work without radical re-write.

      My support for this is thin, but not non-existent.

      We DO have one reference in history--the strange work entitled Debate between a Montanist and an Orthodox (see discussion in WS:WLT:238-239). In this work the "Orthodox" explicitly says that Mary wrote the Gospel of Luke but had it published under his name! This document is a 4th century document, with links to Asia Minor--very early and very close to sources(!).

      The contents of Luke would obviously accord well with this:

      1. Much of the material of the Infancy Narratives would have had to come from Mary ANYWAY!

      2. The amount of detail accorded to those events would fit well.

      3. The emphasis on Mary's "inner states" would fit.

      4. Even the difference in the pairing-styles between the Gospel and Acts would be explained.

        Mary, the author of the Magnificat, was thoroughly Hebrew, and shows this in the parallelisms in her Song. If she had constructed a narrative of events, it would likely have had a basic parallel structure (i.e. a 'pairing' in the case of men/women) as well. Luke, on the other hand, as a Gentile, would not have written such a structure when the material was largely HIS contribution (i.e. Acts). He would have kept her piece largely intact (save for redactional needs), and the pairings in HIS piece would have been historical versus literary.

        It is important to note that there is NO commonly accepted view of why the pairings are different between the Gospel and Acts--so my proposal is not at least AGAINST some mainstream position (smile).

      5. Even the non-sentimentalizing of motherhood in 8.19-21 would make MORE sense if written by the mother herself. Once she had become a believer in Jesus, the traditional mother/son relationship would have paled in significance compared to the one she envisioned in Luke 1.47--"Redeemed/Savior"! Written by others, this might have appeared as a 'put-down' of an admittedly important person in the early church (Acts 1.14).

      So, if Mary were a 'first-draft' author of significant parts of the Gospel of Luke (researched by him, remember, cf. Luke 1.1-4!), frequent mentions of women and the style of pairings would all make sense.

    In any event, we can infer that Luke was both REFLECTING a significant female involvement in the early church, and EXPECTING a significant female readership in his intended audience.


  4. John's portrayal of Mary and Martha.

    We have noticed elsewhere that the Jesus of John's gospel had significant interaction with women. Here I want to simply to note the functions of the passages about Mary and Martha in the narrative. To do this, I want to quote a non-Christian JEWISH scholar, who has analyzed these passages.

    In discussing the John 11.1-44 passage, Adele Reinhartz says (WS:WLT:179):

    The passage depicts Mary and Martha as Jewish women who live independently with their brother in Bethany. Fully integrated into the Jewish community, they nevertheless have a close enough relationship with Jesus to call on him in time of trouble. Furthermore, at least one of them, Martha, has a rather sophisticated understanding of his identity and his significance for those who believe in him. But the evangelist apparently writes not only to record an important event in the life of Jesus but also to speak directly to his audience. In using Martha to represent a true disciple who attains the profound understanding of resurrection that he wishes his community to share, the evangelist also is creating a strong role model for the women members of the church. Such a model authenticates both their membership as women and their right--like Martha's--to "ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you".
    And, after analyzing the other passages in which Mary and Martha play, she summarizes (WS:WLT:181):
    It is consequently not only the particular roles ascribed to Martha and Mary in the fourth gospel but also the crucial juncture at which they appear that compels us to take them seriously both as characters and as vehicles for Johannine theology. In portraying Mary and Martha in acts of serving and anointing, Jn 12:1-7, like the other pericopes we have explored, presents the sisters as disciples. That they hosted a dinner for Jesus, at which others of his inner circle were present, implies that the sisters or women like them were also part of, or close to, this inner circle.


The book of Acts yielded important historical data about women in the early church--they responded favorably and widely to the Gospel message. And, once they became a part of the Christian community, they were considered believers, disciples, followers of Paul. They played important roles as prophets and as church leaders, with a special emphasis on their patronage of the young church.

This young church did nothing to suppress women in the literature--rather, they incorporated women characters into the earliest of the writings. Matthew and John used women characters as examples of the virtues required in true discipleship (often as foils against the male disciples), and Luke consistently highlights their basic membership in, acceptance by, contribution to, and leadership among--the young Church.

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