There’s Something about Mary Magdalene

“The apostle to the apostles.” That’s what Bernard of Clairvaux called her. And though her name has been sullied by fads in fiction and shoddy scholarship as of late, she deserves a place of honor in Christian history. Mary of Magdala, no doubt, has been called many things. But she is best known for declaring the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples that first Easter morning. And she is rightfully listed among the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ saving work. That also makes her a defender of the gospel. After all, Mary Magdalene was present during a great deal of Jesus’ ministry, saw Jesus die, witnessed his burial, and was the first to see him alive again after his resurrection. In today’s court of law, Mary Magdalene would be considered an expert eyewitness. And in the church we give thanks for her apology (defense), and the rather unlikely source of veracity that she provides in the historical account of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.saint-mary-magdalene

In his meticulous book on the Gospels, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham makes the point (quite convincingly I might add) that the people named in the Gospels were: 1) well known in the Christian community at the time the Gospels were written; 2) still alive at the time of writing and were well known members of the church (such as Mary Magdalene); and 3) ongoing witnesses to the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We see this last point demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul cites over 500 eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, stressing that many of them were still alive. What’s more, each of the synoptic Gospels repeatedly mentions Mary Magdalene by name as an eyewitness.

Bauckham writes, “In the Synoptic Gospels the role of the women as eyewitnesses is crucial: they see Jesus die, they see his body being laid in the tomb, they find the tomb empty. The fact that some of the women were at all three events means that they can testify that Jesus was dead when laid in the tomb and that it was the tomb in which he was buried that they subsequently found empty…it could hardly be clearer that the Gospels are appealing to their role as eyewitnesses.” [endnote 1]

Bauckham then goes on to mention one more noteworthy point, namely, that in each of the Gospels’ accounts two or three women are mentioned, thus meeting the Torah’s stipulation for eyewitnesses (Deut. 19:15).

It is easy for us, living in the 21st century, to take this simple fact for granted. But a woman’s status in society in the first century is radically different from the 21st.

Unlike today, in the first century, women couldn’t simply walk into a courtroom and give testimony, practice law and the like. Both the Talmud and Josephus are abundantly clear on the value of a woman’s testimony in the court of law. It was considered inadmissible and it was downright improper for them to speak. Their testimony was even considered to be on the same level as a robber. Roman society treated women no differently, and far worse in many cases.

In clear contrast to the sitz im leben of the first century, Jesus’ treatment of the women who followed and listened to him (and those he came into contact with throughout his ministry) was uncharacteristically respectful and dignified. What’s more, Jesus bestowed great honor upon many women who accompanied him and the disciples. This is clearly seen in the eyewitness accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels themselves. It was women, not men, who were the first to see Jesus after he rose from the dead.

What’s the significance of the women’s role as eyewitnesses? Christian apologists Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, both of whom are experts on the issue of Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead, explain it well in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus:

“Given the low first-century view of women that was frequently shared by Jew and Gentile, it seems unlikely that the Gospel authors would either invent or adjust such testimonies. That would mean placing words in the mouths of those who would not be believed by many, making them the primary witnesses to the empty tomb. If the Gospel writers had originated the story of the empty tomb, it seems far more likely that they would have depicted men discovering its vacancy and being the first to see the risen Jesus. Why would they not list the male disciples of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and avoid the female issue altogether? If the account of the empty tomb had been invented, it would most likely not have listed the women as the primary witnesses, since in that day a woman’s testimony was not nearly as credible as a man’s.” [endnote 2]

In his magnum opus of legal apologetics, Tractatus Logico Theologicus, renowned Lutheran apologist, John Warwick Montgomery, also mentions what can be called the “unbelievability” factor:

“…the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter morning [is] accepted by the great majority of critics because that discovery by women would have been so unlikely a fabrication in the context of a male-dominated 1st century Judaism.” [endnote 3]

And finally, in an interview with apologist William Lane Craig, recorded in his book The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel records this helpful observation:

“Women were on a very low rung of the social ladder in first-century Palestine. There are old rabbinical sayings that said, ‘Let the words of the Law be burned rather than delivered to women’ and ‘Blessed is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.’ Women’s testimony was regarded as so worthless that they weren’t even allowed to serve as legal witnesses in a Jewish court of Law. In light of this it’s absolutely remarkable that the chief witnesses of the empty tomb are these women who were friends of Jesus. Any later legendary account would have certainly portrayed male disciples as discovering the tomb – Peter or John, for example. The fact that women are the first witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly explained by the reality that – like it or not – they were the discoverers of the empty tomb! This shows that the gospel writers faithfully recorded what happened, even if it was embarrassing. This bespeaks the historicity of this tradition rather than its legendary status.” [endnote 4]

This aspect of the women’s testimony has also been identified as the factor of embarrassment. For example, the disciples are routinely depicted as missing the point, not listening to Jesus, saying foolish things, or worse (betrayal, denial, etc.). In Peter’s case this is especially important as it parallels the issue of the women at the tomb. For example, Peter’s attempt to detour Christ from being crucified (Matt 16:21-22) and then publicly renouncing any association with Jesus (Matt 26:69-74) is openly admitted, even though it raises the question of Peter’s wisdom and integrity. It would have been easier to omit or alter such details for the sake of spreading the gospel message.

In other words, if the disciples – or the Gospel writers – were trying to fabricate the story as passable, plausible, and true in the eyes of their first-century cultural critics, they would’ve been more likely to exclude the women’s testimony as well as any embarrassing, self-implicating comments and events. The fact that they include both of these items in their recounting of the events lends credibility and integrity to the historical veracity of their statements, as well as to quality and character of the eyewitnesses who report them.

To be sure, this is not the only piece of evidence that we can use when building a positive case Jesus physically rose from the dead. But on the other hand, as eyewitness accounts, the testimony of the women should be not underestimated either. As we give thanks to God for the faith of Mary Magdalene (whom we commemorated on Monday) we also give thanks to the role she played as an expert eyewitness. She was not only an apostle to the apostles, but also remains both an apologist for the church and the world to this day. For like all good apologists she points us to the crucified and risen Christ, to her Savior and ours.

We sing Your praise for Mary,

Who came at Easter dawn

To look for Jesus’ body

And found her Lord was gone.

But, as with joy she saw Him

In resurrection light,

May we by faith behold Him,

The Day who ends our night!


For All the Faithful Women – LSB 855:11


Endnotes —

[1] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses…

[2] Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, p. 73. 2004.

[3] John Warwick Montgomery, Tractatus Logico Theologicus. Verlag fur Kultur und Wisselschaft, p. 81, 2005.

[4] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p. 217-218. 1998.

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