As it happens every Easter season, various scholars and skeptics weigh in on whether or not Jesus was actually raised from the dead. Bart Ehrman’s latest book How Jesus Became God is a case in point. Writing as a historian, he questions many of the gospel remembrances of the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. His conclusion is that the gospels are not reliable, historical witnesses. But is this really the case?
A careful reading of the four evangelists’ remembrances of the resurrection does indeed reveal many different emphases and details. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, tells us that a great earthquake occurred as an angel of the Lord descended and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. The Gospel of Mark, on the other hand, tells us that a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe was inside the tomb to announce Jesus’s resurrection. The Gospel of Luke tells us that two men suddenly stood near the women in dazzling apparel and John’s Gospel reports the discovery of the linen wrappings abandoned in the empty tomb.(1)
There are many other differences in the retelling of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, and this should be expected from different testimonies. No two people report exactly the same details about any event or happening! But, there is one feature that is the same in all four gospel testimonies: the resurrection announcement is made first to the women who followed Jesus (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 23:55-24:5; John 20:1). Many reasons have been offered as to why women serve as the immediate witnesses to the resurrection: the women stayed with him through the crucifixion, so he appeared first to those who stuck with him to the last; women traditionally carried out the burial rituals in first century Judaism, so they were witnesses by default. Others suggest that the first women witnesses represent Jesus’s elevation of the status for women of the first century and for women in general.
While all of these are plausible, historical reasons, there is another strategic, indeed, apologetic reason why the women were the first witnesses. In the first century, the testimony of women was not counted as credible. In both Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, and the Talmud a woman’s testimony is considered unreliable at best. “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment.”(2) The Talmud states that “Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer)…. This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman.”(3) No man in the first century would give credence to a woman’s testimony.
Given that a woman’s testimony was not credible, why would the gospel writers report them as witnesses; indeed, the first witnesses for the resurrection? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to offer some credible, male testimonial?
Anglican priest and physicist John Polkinghorne answers this question with a resounding, “No!” He writes: “Perhaps the strongest reason of taking the stories of the empty tomb absolutely seriously lies in the fact that it is women who play the leading role. It would have been very unlikely for anyone in the ancient world who was concocting a story to assign the principal part to women since, in those times, they were not considered capable of being reliable witnesses in a court of law. It is surely much more probable that they appear in the gospel accounts precisely because they actually fulfilled the role that the stories assign to them, and in so doing, they make a startling discovery.”(4) In this sense, the women offer very strong historical evidence for the testimony that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
Of course, the biblical narrative confirms the unexpected choice for chief witnesses to God’s great action in history. God chooses those whom we least expect in ways that are profoundly remarkable: Deborah, the first woman judge over Israel; Gideon, the least and the youngest in his tribe and family chosen to defeat the Midianites; David, a simple shepherd boy to be the king of Israel; Rahab and Jael, non-Israelite woman who help defeat Israel’s enemies; and finally, tax-collectors, fishermen, and women, Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Martha, and Joanna as key witnesses to the ministry of Jesus. In the biblical narrative, God chooses those we might be tempted to overlook or ignore—those who were the last and the least in their society—to bear witness to the great work of God.
While historians like Bart Ehrman may fail to see the forest through the trees, the unexpected witnesses documented throughout the Bible offer a compelling vision. Something remarkable happened in the life of Jesus and women were the first witnesses. Their testimony offers an unexpected apologetic for every generation of seeker.