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Women in the Jesus-Movement

April 9, 2018

Last night in the UK, Channel 4 aired a TV documentary on the evidence of women’s involvement in the ministry of Jesus and the earliest Jesus-movement, featuring Professor Helen Bond (New College, Edinburgh) and Professor Joan Taylor (Kings College London), available here.  On the whole, and for the popular TV audience for which it was prepared, the programme was interesting and informative.  The main point was (quite rightly) to bring to the foreground the place of women among Jesus’ followers and in early Christianity thereafter.

For many (most?) TV viewers of the programme, the named women who were highlighted (from Luke 8:1-3, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Salome), and the references to many other women followers as well, were perhaps new things to consider.  And, of course, with scholars in any discipline, I’m always grateful when the popular media take account of my subject area.

Professors Bond and Taylor performed their task well, combining some serious discussion of key texts, Greek words, and archaeological data with the sort of “light touch” necessary for TV.  One could quibble about this or that particular item, such as Professor Taylor’s proposal that Greek wording in the reference to Jesus’ followers sent out “by two” in Luke 10:1 (ἀνὰ δύο δύο) intentionally echoed the Greek text of Genesis 7:9, which portrays the animals entering Noah’s ark “two by two, male and female.”  Professor Taylor suggested that the phrasing in Luke perhaps meant that Jesus sent out his followers in (unmarried) male/female pairs.

We do have Paul’s reference to other apostles and “the brothers of the Lord” travelling about with their wives (1 Corinthians 9:4).  But in the ancient cultural setting it would have been quite another matter for unmarried male/female pairs to travel about without generating suspicions and accusations.  And among the accusations against Jesus in the Gospels, we don’t have reflection of that sort of scandal.

But, also, the textual data aren’t quite so simple.  For one thing, the manuscript witnesses are actually rather strongly divided over the variant readings in Luke 10:1,  ἀνὰ δύο δύο or ἀνὰ δύο.  The editors of the Nestle-Aland Greek NT indicate their lack of confidence as to which is to be preferred by printing the first reading and putting the second δύο in square brackets.

The δύο δύο reading, however, may well be the prior one, for it reflects a Koine idiom attested in various other instances as well.[1]  The other variant, ἀνὰ δύο, is somewhat more “Atticizing” and may have been preferred by some readers of Luke as a bit more elegant.  But, in any case, the δύο δύο variant isn’t really remarkable, and for ancient readers wouldn’t necessarily comprise an allusion to the Genesis passage.  So, on grammatical grounds, too, I don’t find Professor Taylor’s proposal persuasive.

Such quibbles aside, the larger force of the programme is, in my view, to be applauded:  Women, many women, were among Jesus’ followers, made substantial contributions (both in effort and finances) to his ministry, and continued to exercise important and leading roles in earliest Christian circles.

TV producers, of course, have to make grand claims to generate an audience.  But it should be noted that the recognition that women were important in Jesus’ ministry and earliest Christianity is hardly new or surprising, at least in scholarly circles.  I think immediately of Witherington’s 1988 volumes, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, and Women in the Earliest Churches.[2]  A few years earlier (1983), there appeared perhaps one of the most widely noted books of the late 20th century, by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, which likewise highlighted the place of women.[3]  As well, there were studies pointing to evidence of women leaders in early Christianity, such as the sort of archaeological data treated in the TV programme.[4]  So, for several decades now scholars have been producing studies of the matter.

But there is hardly a place for footnotes in a TV programme, and, as I say, for most viewers the observations presented were new, perhaps startling.  So, Professors Bond and Taylor performed a useful service in dissemination of scholarly findings, and presented a commendably sane and educative programme.  It’s so nice to have this sort of programme, instead of the sometimes zany ideas that get TV time.  Congratulations to my two colleagues, and may there be more TV programmes of similar quality.


[1] E.g., J. H. Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Vol. 1: Prolegomena (3rd ed.; Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1908), 97; and see also Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, 172-73.  The expression δύο δύο appears also, for example, in Mark 6:7, where it specifically refers to the Twelve sent out in pairs, and note also similar constructions in Mark 6:39 (συμπόσια συμπόσια = “in groups”) v. 40 (πρασιαὶ πρασιαὶ = “in bunches”).

[2] Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); idem, Women in the Earliest Churches, SNTSMS 59 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[3] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1988).

[4] Ross Shepard Kraemer and Mary Rose D’Angelo, eds., Women and Christian Origins (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity:  Epigraphical and Literary Studies, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000); Linda Belleville, Women Leaders and the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).  Earlier, Bernadette Brooten pointed to similar evidence of women in ancient Judaism: Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, Brown Judaic Studies 36 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1982).  But note also Kathleen E. Corley, Women and the Historical Jesus:  Feminist Myths of Christian Origins (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2002).

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  1. john mitrosky permalink

    Larry, I was wondering if you have an opinion to share on endnote 25 specifically, in Marcus Borg’s chapter 5, “Jesus, the Wisdom of God — Sophia Become flesh”, in his small book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time? If you do not have this book, I can quote you the endnote in a reply. It is just rather a long endnote involved with Q interpretation and Sophia, which, of course, I hope is relevant to your post since Jesus may have seen himself and John the Baptist as “children of Sophia, or female wisdom.”.

    • John: I don’t have Borg’s book. He tended more to engage in his own effort at promoting his own preferred kind of spirituality today. Let’s take any further discussion of the matter “offline.”

  2. Hugh Scott permalink

    Professor Hurtado,
    I watched this TV programme, whose main aim, as you say, was to stress the presence and the roles of women in the New Testament. Quite so.
    However, I cannot quite share the general approval of the programme which you express in your last paragraph. I acknowledge that to put the whole topic into a one-hour session was asking a lot, but the credibility of some of the claims made by the presenters suffered from the lack of an overall discussion of the roles of women, whether as single family members or as wives or as independent business-women in the Greco/Roman/Egyptian/ world, and,possibly quite differently in the Palestnian Jewish world, Two claims seemed to me to be exaggerated: one, that today’s better understanding of the role of women calls for a complete rewrite of the story of Jesus and the origins of Christianity, and two, that Christianiy mightn’t have happened at all if the financial, nurturing role of the gospel women had not been present. While acknowledging that the women’s role needs emphatic reassessment and enhanced appreciation, the New Testament overwhelmingly reports that the main role in the propagation of the gospel of Christ.was carried out by dedicated male missionaries.

    • Hugh: Your first complaint is adequately answered in your comment–they couldn’t deal with everything, and the focus was on women among Jesus’ immediate followers, not comprehensive survey of women in the Roman world.
      As for your final statement, given the male-dominated world of the time, it’s not surprising if males were quite important in dissemination of the early Christian message. But don’t overlook other data: e.g., the role of women in teaching other women and their children, the various women named by Paul as “co-workers”, etc. I’d say that the balance of perspective requires much more attention to women in early Christianity.

  3. Larry, thanks for these comments. I offered an analysis of several of the points in my blog yesterday:

    I think you are right about ‘duo duo’; it is rather straining at the text to see male/female pairs referenced, and no real need to do this ‘secretly’ when women are prominent elsewhere in the gospels.

    I also cite Richard Bauckham’s work, particularly from Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Lynn Cohick has some comment on the catacomb illustrations in her recent book, though not in all that much detail.

  4. With apologies for self-promotion, there is also my big book Gospel Women: Studies on the Named Women in the Gospels (2002).

  5. Professor, I see that KJV and D-Rheims among other translations opted for the “two by two” reading. Do know any details about how this variant became common? (I’m not recommending either rendering; just wondering.)

    • We can’t discuss translations. The issue is what the Greek wording was and what it meant.

  6. Prof Hurtado, there was a textual argument dame saying that “Magdala” is just as much a character epithet (tower) as a home town was also based on the use of the definite pronoun (ἡ as in Mt 15.27 Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ ). So that, as we have Simon the rock, and Thomas the twin, we have Mary the tower.

    My Greek is rubbish. Is the use of the definite article significant in how her name is recorded?
    Thanks for your time.

    • Colin: The term translated “Magdalene” (μαγδαληνη) is often thought to distinguish this Mary (there were several in the NT) as from “Magdala,” often thought to have been a small village on the west coast of Lake Galilee. But no Magdala is mentioned elsewhere in the NT, Josephus or other sources of that day. “Magdala” may derive from the Hebrew word, migdol (“tower”). So Prof. Taylor suggested that “the Magdalene” may reflect a nickname (perhaps given to her by Jesus) and referring to her as “a tower” or “towering” or something such. I find this a bit of a stretch. Jesus is referred to as “the Nazarene” (Greek: Ιησους ο ναζαρηνος, e.g., Mark 10:47), which is commonly taken as referring to his hometown of Nazareth. The Greek construction is similar.

      • Thanks. And just to correct my above typo. I meant to write “there was a textual argument made …” I hadn’t meant to write “dame”

        A Freudian slip = when you say one thing but mean your mother

      • Magdala (Migdal Nunayya, Aramaic, meaning “tower of the fish,” Greek name Taricheae, meaning “fish salting factories”) was a large and important town, which dominated the fishing industry on the lake, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about 9 miles south of Capernaum. Ongoing excavations there are the current excavations that are the most important for study of the Gospels and the historical Jesus. They can also be visited by tourists and are beginning to feature on the pilgrim/tourist trail. A major book, which I have edited, is forthcoming in the autumn: Magdala of Galilee: A Jewish City in the Hellenistic and Roman Period (Baylor University Press). In the meantime, see Richard Bauckham and Stefano De Luca, “Magdala As We Now Know it,” Early Christianity 6 (2015) 91-118.
        The synagogue, discovered in 2009, was the first synagogue within Galilee from before 70 CE to be discovered (two more have been identified since). It has received lots of publicity, along with the extraordinary engraved stone “table” found in it, about which I have written.
        Josephus refers to Magdala by its Greek name Taricheae, which was actually his HQ in Galilee.
        Joan Taylor’s alternative understanding of “Mary the Magdalene” is fully refuted in the book, together with her doubts about the location of Taricheae.

      • Thanks Richard. I’ll make sure I order the book for the Redcliffe College library. We have a module on Mission and Gender, and this sort of information is important background to that.

  7. Robert permalink

    I think you’ll find that Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s book was first published in 1983 (not 1988) and that Ben Witherington III’s contribution was, at least in part, a reaction against the work of Fiorenza and other feminist scholars of Christian origins.

  8. Torrance, Iain permalink

    Very interesting, Larry

    From an iPhone

  9. Professor Hurtado,

    Yes it was an interesting programme (with some nice scenery also). I did wonder about ,the ‘two by two’ claim about the disciples . I think it was suggested that there were other choices of wording available to the author of the Gospel if he simply meant ‘in pairs’ rather than meaning to specifically remind of the reference in Genesis.? Maybe it would have been useful to hear the occasional comment in the programme from academics with other views on the points raised.
    The programme is still available for a month or so to see on the Channel 4 website:

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