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.
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”
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.