Easter Sunday Meditation: The Surprising Egalitarianism of The Resurrection
This interpretation can be read as secularly or religiously as you prefer. I am not formally educated in theology, or anything else for that matter. My opinions are more than likely heretical and lacking important context. Feel free to correct me in the comment section, I enjoy it. I am reading the Bible with an open mind and the aim of extracting whatever wisdom I can. This is a personal meditation and nothing more.
In the spirit of Easter Sunday, I thought it best that we focus on some elements of the resurrection in today’s meditation. Specifically I want to examine the New Testament’s relationship to women and egalitarianism. I know that isn’t an association that people typically make, but Easter is about renewal: give it a chance.
That modern people would view the religion’s value system as stifling is predictable, and probably not completely unfounded. Christianity is an ancient worldview after all. We shouldn’t be surprised that its adherents hold traditional values. The real surprise of the New Testament is how egalitarian it appears to be relative to the time in which it was recorded.
First we need to address this doozy penned by the Apostle Paul:
As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says
Ouch. Why am I writing this again?
I’m not going to engage in apologetics for a text that was written two-thousand years ago. “Inerrancy” (the idea that the bible is without error or fault) is a very strange way to interpret the Bible. The Gospels themselves are contradictory, and likely originated as pamphlet-like manuscripts intended to communicate the broad strokes of the Jesus story to a wide audience. The authors themselves would probably scoff at the idea that their works were completely accurate.
We should note that Corinthians isn’t a Gospel. It is a letter from Paul the Apostle to the community of early Christians residing in Corinth. He is attempting to repair rifts that have emerged in the young church, and specifically calls himself out for his own prior mistakes. In the Gospels, The Apostles annoy Jesus all the time with their misinterpretations. Paul isn’t supposed to be perfect.
I’m far more interested in examining the spirit of the text than picking it apart legalistically. What could be more foolish than interpreting a book literally when the main character refuses to teach in anything but parables and metaphors?
To find the egalitarian spirit of the New Testament, we can look to Matthew’s account of the resurrection:
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
Believe it or not, this passage is a very strange choice on the part of the author. Remember that the Gospels are like marketing materials for Jesus. The word “Gospel” wasn’t even a religious word prior to Christianity. “Gospel” can be translated to “Good News” and would have been used in the context of nationalistic press-releases. (Ie: the birthday of an emperor, the inheritance of a throne, etc.)
Matthew’s choice to name two women as the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection was the complete opposite of what he should have done to maintain his credibility. In Jewish legal code at the time, the testimony of women was worth nothing. Only a man could stand witness in a court of law.
Stranger still is the choice of women: One (Mary Magdalene) was formerly possessed by demons. The other is the dead man’s grieving mother. Even in our “enlightened” present day, they might not be the ironclad witnesses you would want on the stand. Matthew is trying to start a religion with their testimony. Why would he choose to lead with the report of two women when he could have easily skipped ahead to Jesus appearing to the Apostles?
Amazingly, the other Gospels share the same narrative. Despite contradicting each other on other important points, each author names women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb. Whether we interpret the story literally or not, this is part of the egalitarian inheritance of the Christian faith.
Why would the authors of the Gospels tell the story in this way?
Egalitarianism is not typically associated with religion. We modern people tend to view Christian values on sexuality and marriage as repressive to women, but that perspective is in many ways a marker of how thoroughly the Christian value system has permeated our culture.
Ancient, urbanized cultures generally treated women as property to be used and discarded. There is no gentle way to say it: sexual slavery was the norm for a massive proportion of women throughout history. Roman men were often able to “put their wives aside” whenever the relationship proved inconvenient, freeing themselves up for wealthier or prettier partners. Romantic “love” was at best viewed as a byproduct of a good relationship, and at worst as a foolish distraction.
Outside of marriage, prostitution was ubiquitous to the point that it was regarded as a public utility like water or electricity today. Cities literally built brothels with taxpayer money. Ancient people saw the grievous harm to women firsthand. Single mothers with no support, children with no opportunity to escape poverty, and women who “age out” of the profession left with nowhere to go. Christianity was in many ways a response to that reality.
Women were the often the first converts of the early church because they wanted to be treated as more than sex objects. Christians elevated marriage as a divine pact rather than a legal contract to be discarded on a whim. By treating relationships as the union of two equal souls, they set in motion the cultural ideals that have made love and mutual respect the basis of marriage today.
Westerners are so far removed from the evils of sexual commodification that they tend to see all Christian moralizing as harmful and degrading to women. Only time will tell the consequences of that cultural shift.
The wall between moralization and victimization will be torn down and reconstructed by every generation. We’re certainly not going to find the final iteration in my Sunday ramblings. I hope this meditation has provided you with some value. I think the best way to close is with a verse that we can all benefit from remembering, Christian or Atheist:
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
I’m writing a meditation on scripture and other wisdom literature every Sunday. If you enjoy them and would like me to continue publishing in this format, let me know in the comment section.
Stories are an incredibly effective way to communicate ideas that are difficult or impossible to explain “logically.” I am hopeful that publishing these thoughts will open a dialogue with others interested in this sort of analysis.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible
Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz