Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Women Witnesses – Visions of The Resurrection of Jesus

Posted by NT Wrong on September 25, 2008

The canonical Gospels all include stories of women who see the resurrected Jesus. Why women? In a world in which the opinions of men were much more greatly esteemed than those of women, why all these stories about women seeing the resurrected Jesus?

The simple explanation must be that it was in fact women who had the earliest visions of Jesus. Women followers of Jesus, not men, were the first to experience visions of Jesus after his death. And it is these stories which became central to the vision reports of the resurrected Jesus which were later incorporated into the gospels.

In the first century AD, women had limited roles to play in preaching and public speaking. But when it came to visions, vision reports, and prophecy, women had a special position. In fact, visionary experiences are, across many cultures, one of the limited number of ways that a woman can express herself religiously with authority. In her study of medieval visionary experiences (Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism), Grace Jantzen considers this is the major explanatory factor for the high proportion of women visionaries. Any authority women claimed for themselves would require a very special validation in the face of male hegemony — and a prime validation was a vision of the glorified heavenly Jesus.

“Given all the other restrictions on women, along with the expectations of the time, it is not at all surprising that women might be more open than men to visionary experiences in the first place, make more of them when they occurred, and use them as the basis for their authority as teachers of authority and spirituality.”
– Grace Jantzen, 169

A study by Jerome Kroll and Bernard Bachrach, of 134 vision reports from the 8th-12th centuries, demonstrates how visionary experiences were an opportunity for the downtrodden, oppressed, poor, and women to express themselves. Some 49% of visionaries, in their large survey, were either men without rank or women, despite the literature being read by a small elite of the population. Similarly, the majority of leaders in the Nineteenth Century Spiritualist Movement were women.

Female visionaries thrived in the earliest Church. The fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy in Acts 2.17-18 stresses both men and women as recipients. Philip’s four daughters prophesy (Acts 21.9). In Luke 2.36-37, the prophet Anna lives in the Temple and is the first to preach about Jesus — to all in Jerusalem. In addition, the Corinthian women prophesied (1 Cor 11.5). Furthermore, a number of Gnostic sources testify that Mary Magdalene was a significant visionary in earliest Christianity (Epiphanius, Pan 26.8.1-3; Pistis Sophia; Gospel of Mary). Also, Juvenal attests to a ‘priestess’ in Jerusalem in the first century AD who acted as a dream interpreter (Satires 6.542).

So, while it was rare for women to write religious works in the first century AD, women were well represented as visionaries. The religious pattern across many cultures, as well as the particularities of the earliest Christian Church point in the same direction: if a vision report existed, there was a fair probability that women would be behind it.

What does this mean for the Gospel accounts? As the resurrection accounts are likely derived from vision reports, it was not unexpected, and in fact was quite likely that the vision reports should derive from women.

So, we should turn the popular apologetic on its head. Some popular Christian apologists have claimed that the stories of sightings of the resurrected Jesus by women must be factual:

“Given the second-class status of women in first-century Palestine and their inability to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court, it is amazing they should appear here as the discoverers and chief witnesses to the fact of Jesus’ empty tomb, for so unreliable a witness was an embarassment to the Christian proclamation.”
– William Lane Craig, Jesus’ Resurrection, 177.

The contrary conclusion should now be made. Due to the fact that visionary experiences comprised one of the few ways for women to express themselves religiously in the first century AD — they were restricted from public leadership and even giving witness in a public court — these stories probably derive from women’s visionary experiences. Paul might have been successful in removing the first, female vision accounts of the resurrection from his list of ‘post-resurrection appearances’. But the Gospel writers have preserved these accounts — even as they have attempted to make them secondary to other accounts attributed to various men in the gospels. So we see that the explanation of the gospels’ resurrection accounts in terms of vision reports has the greater historical evidence and greater explanatory power.

See also:
Part One: The Resurrection of Jesus as Mass Hallucination
Part Three: Resurrection: From Visionary Ascent to Vision Of Ascent

7 Responses to “Women Witnesses – Visions of The Resurrection of Jesus”

  1. steph said

    The women in Mark were witnesses to an empty tomb (rather than a resurrected Jesus) and they told no one out of fear… Is not a simple explanation that the empty tomb tradition was known only to “unreliable witnesses” and had no genuine eyewitness support?

  2. ntwrong said

    In Mark 16.1-8, the women are described as seeing an angelic figure, not merely an empty tomb. And there’s nothing much to fear about an empty tomb in itself. So, the earliest recorded account is not quite as mundane as merely seeing an empty tomb — it involves supernatural events from the very beginning, and some supernatural fear. Even Jesus is somehow being mysteriously transported to Galilee, where it is promised he will meet the disciples.

    So, a visionary experience is a fine explanation for a supernatural story. Both the ’empty tomb’ and the angelic figure were only ever ‘seen’ in the mind of a woman – in the visionary experiences of Mary Magdalene, follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who had claimed to be the Son of Man who would ascend to heaven like Enoch. Mary saw a vision of what Jesus always had described he would do. Jesus’ death triggered her vision.

  3. steph said

    or the man dressed in white, who was probably an angel, provided Mark with the authority the women didn’t have for an empty tomb and the risen Jesus. For Mark, the women told no one out of fear because nobody would believe them, because Mark did not know who first had the visions.

  4. There is another possibility (explored in my book): the women are mentioned because they wouldn’t be rounded up and/or prosecuted for going to the tomb, whereas men might be, if they went hoping to move the body. On this scenario, they went hoping to undo the dishonor that had been perpetrated against Jesus, but found the body already gone. To tell the story without giving away what they had gone there to do, they only mentioned women going to anoint the body.

    This doesn’t mean I think they did move the body. If they went hoping to do so, they were apparently too late.

    But if only women went, it may be because the male disciples were already on their way to Galilee.

  5. ntwrong said

    There’s so many plausible historical possibilities. And nobody’s thought it necessary to invoke ‘it can only be a miracle!’ yet.

  6. steph said

    According to Mark, the only witnesses to the empty tomb, told no one. James, do you believe that there was an empty tomb?

  7. I won’t claim a higher degree of certainty about the story in Mark than I think the evidence justifies – I have a lot of uncertainty about it, in fact. But I will say that, since I think the evidence in Mark suggests Jesus was buried in a nearby tomb used to bury those executed nearby, I suspect that the tomb is unlikely to have been empty, regardless whether Jesus’ body was still in it or not.

    One question I have been wondering about is how those buried in such a common tomb were identified so that families could reclaim bones a year later and place them in an ossuary in a family tomb. Does anyone know of information about that particular aspect of Jewish burial practice in this period?

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