Women in the gospels
Jesus and his apostles are the most frequently mentioned characters in the gospels where men seem to dominate. Yet a total of forty women are identified by their proper name in the New Testament and many other narratives involve unnamed women.
But numbers are not as significant as the virtues of the persons mentioned, and women are generally portrayed more positively than men. During the passion narrative the disciples fled but the women remained. After the death of Jesus the apostles cowered behind locked doors, while the women went to the tomb to anoint his body. There is no female Judas to betray Christ, no feminine Peter to deny him, and no pharisaical women to harass him.
The gospels often describe women as generous and hospitable: the widow who offered both coins, Martha and Mary who entertained Christ, and the women who provided for Christ and his disciples. The most esteemed person in the gospels, after Christ himself, is his mother Mary. While Joseph is presented as a man of virtue he is not revered as highly as Mary of whom Wordsworth wrote, “Our tainted nature‘s solitary boast.“
The portrayal of Mary Magdalene troubles some. The gospel says that she was possessed by seven devils, but the nature of those demons - illness, greed, lust, - is not indicated. Designating her as a prostitute is an arbitrary inference from the proximity of her name to the story of the sinful woman. What is definitively recorded is that she was faithfully present at the crucifixion, the first to the empty tomb and there commissioned by Christ to announce his Resurrection to the absent apostles, for which she is honored as the apostle to the apostles.
Many defiant men debated with Christ but were soundly defeated. When women spoke with him, the opposite was true. Two women bested Christ in debate! When he refused Mary’s request at Cana, she shifted the responsibility to him telling the servants, “Do whatever he tells you to do.” The
Canaanite woman reminded him to be merciful, “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master‘s table.“
By the standards of our age, women are underrepresented in the gospel narratives and entrusted less with leadership. But in the social milieu of that time, they are presented more honorably and given more voice than women in other contemporary literature.
The contributions of the women in the gospels has continued in Christian women through the ages. The early martyrs included many heroic women. The first American saints were Mother Cabrini and Elizabeth Ann Seton. Our greatest theologians, the doctors of the church, include Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux and Hildegard of Bingen.
In this Advent season when we wait with Mary for the birth of the One who is life itself, we should not forget the many Christian mothers who have also given life and nurtured faith.
Fr. Earl Meyer, St. Fidelis Friary, Victoria, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.