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Women in the Gospels: The Early Years

July 23, 2012
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The first stories in the gospels which involve women in a significant way are the birth narratives.  Now, even the most blatant misogynist would have to admit that women have a place in a birth narrative.  Indeed, the most common way for a society to systematically mistreat women is for that society to view women as nothing more than baby-making machines.  However, the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are not entirely focused on Jesus’ birth and these additional side-stories may have something interesting for our purposes.

Matthew’s narrative is the easier one to deal with both because it is shorter and because it has much less to say about Mary.  Most of the action in Matthew’s narrative is focused on Joseph.  In fact, Mary is entirely passive in the narrative.  She is engaged to be married, she is found to be pregnant, she is taken home, she is not “known by” Joseph, she is seen by the Magi, she is taken to Egypt, and then she is taken back to Israel.  Were someone to claim that Matthew was a misogynist and you were to try to refute it based on the treatment of Mary in the birth narrative then your evidence would be slim.  It would primarily consist of the fact that Matthew mentions that the Magi see Mary as well as Jesus (why is it important to establish that Mary was there?) and that Matthew, while he is quite capable of referring to Mary as “the child’s mother” also mentions her name several times in these few verses rather than leaving her mostly anonymous.  (Since Matthew also refers to Jesus as “the child” and Matthew is clearly not anti-Jesus I do not consider the fact that Matthew calls Mary “the child’s mother” from time to time a significant slight.)  If one were to draw conclusions about the role of women from these verses it would be most natural to assume that a man is the leader of his home as every decision in this story is made by Joseph.  There is actually so little material concerning Mary in Matthew’s gospel that it would be nearly impossible to discern why we need to know who she is if we did not have the other gospels.

Luke’s narrative is more substantial. It is also significantly more focused on the female characters, sometimes in ways that are unfavorable to the men in the story.  The first section of the narrative that focuses on a woman is Gabriel’s announcement to Mary.  Unlike Zechariah (who receives news that he will have a son from Gabriel just sentences earlier), Mary receives this astonishing news with puzzlement but not doubt.  She is favored, the servant of the Lord.

Mary’s next action is to visit Elizabeth.  Elizabeth receives her visitor by exclaiming “Blessed are you among women!”  Elizabeth also blesses Mary’s child and then specifies that Mary is blessed because she believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her.  Again, Mary’s faith is contrasted to Zechariah’s doubt – Zechariah who is probably sitting in on this entire conversation unable to speak up because he has been struck mute for his doubt.  Mary then sings a hymn praising and thanking God for this blessing He has given her.

Just in case you think the contrast between Mary (the teenage girl) and Zechariah (the respected elder and priest) is incidental the next scene features Zechariah singing a hymn much like Mary’s.  However, for this to happen Elizabeth first needs to be faithful to the Lord and argue with the neighbors about the baby’s name.  When Zechariah supports his wife in writing, naming the child as the angel instructed, he is finally able to speak.  The fact that Mary and Zechariah both sing similar hymns so close to one another on the page is probably a sign that we should consider their different responses to Gabriel.  Indeed, after this point the narrative shifts away from Zechariah and Elizabeth and never returns to them.

Luke also focuses on Mary when telling the story of Jesus being born.  Compared to Matthew Luke gives Mary three actions in verse seven alone: she gives birth, wraps the baby, and places him in a manager.  When the shepherds come by Joseph is not entirely neglected – the shepherds “found Joseph and Mary” – but it is Mary who remembers and thinks about all these things.  Joseph’s mental state is ignored.

When Jesus is brought to the Temple and Simeon prophesies over him both Mary and Joseph are amazed but Simeon directs his next comments to Mary and even comments on her future emotional state – “a sword will pierce your own soul”1.  Directly on the heels of this appears another interesting female character, the prophetess Anna.  She also prophesies over Jesus but her words are not recorded.  Still, the fact that she is both a woman and a prophet is notable.  Unlike the priests the prophets are called directly by God and so God must be comfortable giving a woman the authority to speak His words to the people.

Finally, it is Mary who is most active when Jesus disappears to engage with the teachers of the Law at age twelve.  It is she who asks Jesus what he is doing and at the conclusion of the stories of Jesus’ childhood (which occurs right after this) we are again told that Mary is remembering these things.

However, Mary largely disappears from the gospels after this point.  Luke never mentions her again and Matthew and Mark tell only one story (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:21-35) in which she appears with Jesus’ brothers and Jesus uses the opportunity to say that his family is anyone who does God’s will.  This story is somewhat confusing as Mark tells us that Jesus’ family has decided that he is crazy.  This does not match well with the other information we have about Mary but it is also unclear how involved Mary is.  She shows up, but was this her idea or did the rest of the family say, “Come on Mary, we’ve all decided and you need to come with us”?  At worst, it seems that Mary is (like a lot of people) not getting it and being overprotective.    Besides this story only John, who tells no birth narrative at all, mentions her during the time of Jesus’ ministry.  One of his mentions, when she is standing at Jesus’ cross, is short and tells us little more than that Jesus still has time to think of his mother while he is being crucified.  The other story, the wedding at Cana, is more substantial.

John has not introduced Mary at all at never refers to her by name in his gospel2.  Instead, he tells us that Jesus and his disciples and mother are attending a wedding.  Specifically, Jesus and his disciples have been invited and his mother is there.  This may signal that Mary is helping out, something that would make sense of the fact that she is involved in the logistical issues of the wedding and gives orders to the servants.  However, when the wine runs out Mary brings Jesus into this mess.  He protests (“My hour has not yet come”) and she ignores his protest, continuing on to instruct the servants to follow Jesus’ orders.  Shortly thereafter we have the first of the signs in John Jesus’ miraculous transformation of one hundred and fifty gallons of water into wine3 prompting his disciples to believe in him.  Obviously, Mary’s role in this is fairly important.

While Mary is often a mostly-invisible character in the gospels, when the focus is on her she is an important figure.  Her thoughts about her son are important, her faithfulness to God is important, and her willingness to push social boundaries (she does not shrink from being found pregnant out of wedlock and she doesn’t hesitate to push her son the rabbi into fixing a problem with drink deliveries) has profound ramifications.  What’s more, we know that she was important in the early Christian community as she is mentioned in Acts 1:14 amongst the women and Jesus’ brothers who join with the apostles in prayer in the time period between the Ascension and Pentecost.

In Luke’s gospel we see a bit more relevant to the question of women in the gospels as a whole (since Mary is unique amongst women).  Luke’s contrast between a teenage Mary and her faithful obedience and the priest Zechariah and his poorly-thought-out questioning of Gabriel is probably deliberate, introducing one of Luke’s themes in which Jesus welcomes the “wrong” people.  Both Elizabeth and Anna come off well as well and Anna’s role as a prophetess is worth noting.

Within the birth narratives there is little discussion of “traditional” gender roles4.  Joseph makes some leadership decisions for his family but that’s both culturally appropriate and not commented on.  Instead, the actions that receive comment or implicit comment are ones that do not fall cleanly within any normal division between male and female roles.  However, within these tasks women are clearly involved in actions that are appropriate to God’s Kingdom.  Indeed, for their time period some of these actions are probably a bit shocking with a bit too much initiative.


[1] “Heart” not “soul” is common here.  The word is the same word used for “soul” and so soul is technically accurate.  However, our modern notions of souls don’t always line up with the Biblical usage of this word and so “heart” may capture the thought better.

[2] To be fair, there are a lot of Marys in the gospels and this may just help the reader keep them straight.

[3] The volume estimates could be lower, but there’s at least 100 gallons of wine showing up at this party.  It’s good wine, too.  The exegetical difficulties of squaring that with verses instructing one not to get drunk should not be ignored.

[4] By which people generally mean “traditional within our society”, having little idea of what traditional within New Testament Israel looks like.

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