New Testament scholar, blog member, and blogger with his own blog on topics you may be interested in, James McGrath, has given us one post already about a woman whom the apostle knows, Junia – who he calls his own “relative” — who may well have been involved with Jesus in his ministry. This comes from his most recent book.
James has agree to provide us with a couple more guest posts, based on the book. This is interesting stuff! It should make you think. Here’s the next one.
There are two individuals that are the go-to examples for those who entertain the possibility that Jesus was a real human person influenced by other people. They are included in my book What Jesus Learned from Women, and in many ways served as the stepping stone and gateway to discovering that the same may be said of other people and stories in the Gospels.
Perhaps the clearest example of a woman who must have influenced Jesus is his mother. There’s no way to claim that Jesus was a real human being yet to deny Mary’s role in bringing him up. We don’t need to remain at the level of presuppositions, however. Luke is the only Gospel to explicitly tell us Jesus learned, that he “grew in wisdom.” Luke is also the only one who attributes a speech to Mary (the Magnificat) that claims to offer us a glimpse of her outlook. Luke then goes on to depict Jesus’ teaching as emphasizing the same points his mother did about God’s concern for social justice, blessing the poor while sending the rich away disappointed. That doesn’t prove that this was historically the way things really were, of course. But it is nonetheless noteworthy that modern readers tend to miss this even as a point at the literary level.
The other classic example is the Syrophoenician woman. While some debate just how insulting Jesus was to the woman, even calling someone a puppy dog while other people are children is not a compliment. The woman offers a clever retort and apparently changes Jesus’ mind. I think we see the impact of that elsewhere in Jesus’ life in what were presumably later events and sayings (the Gospels don’t give us things organized chronologically as they happened, as we see clearly if we compare them). Jesus was later able to envisage non-Jews actually eating at the same table with the Patriarchs of Israel, and not merely catching crumbs from their table. He even told a parable in which a rich man is criticized for not allowing the poor man Lazarus at his gate to eat the crumbs that fell from his table, and in which dogs care for Lazarus more than the rich man does (Luke 16:19-31). Can we really read these stories together and not see development in Jesus’ thinking, and even humble self-criticism?
So far, so good. But if we turn to other stories in the Gospels, asking if we can see something similar occurring, we suddenly begin to notice things we may previously have overlooked.
When Jesus is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, the author mentions that the disciples did not ask her what she wanted, nor did they ask Jesus why he was talking with her. If this were his usual practice, the narrator would not have said that. This woman who doesn’t go to fetch a husband to let the men do the serious talking, but discusses theology and places of worship with Jesus, has a transformative impact on him.
When Mary sits at Jesus’ feet to learn with the men and Martha complains that she isn’t helping with the duties of the household that were felt to be women’s responsibility, Jesus doesn’t say that Martha ought to know his expectations and be sitting there too. Instead he says that Mary has chosen something better and he won’t take it away from her. It is her initiative–a response, no doubt, to something she saw in his teaching and attitude that made it seem appropriate to dare to do that, but still her initiative.
If the small glimpses of Martha we get in Luke and John are any indication, we may surmise that she didn’t simply let the matter drop at that. If women do their customary duties and also learn and engage with Jesus’ in his mission as men had been doing up until that point, they will be working twice as hard, unfairly burdened with the lion’s share of responsibilities. It is not enough to say women may learn. To be fair, it is also necessary that men must serve. We do not have to wait until the “deacons” of the later church to see this put into practice. With the possible exception of slaves, fetching water was part of the responsibilities of women in that culture. When Jesus tells the disciples to look for a man fetching water in order to know where to find the place where they would celebrate Passover together, they were looking for a man doing a task the culture of the time placed on women’s shoulders. They were looking for someone who was following the way of Jesus’ teaching, and it was a way influenced by the sisters from Bethany.
We also have a story in John 12 about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, showing incredible humility. In the chapter before this, Mary of Bethany washes Jesus’ feet. Jesus humbles himself in relation to his disciples the way one of his disciples who was not a slave in her household had nonetheless humbled herself.
We might debate the precise details or even the overall historicity of any of these stories. When we see a pattern across multiple Gospels, however, it indicates something about the impact and impression Jesus made, whether conveyed in a true story, a factual story with fictional elements, or a creative composition nonetheless influenced by Jesus’ life, teaching, and influence.
We could tell just from the classic and obvious examples that Jesus learned from women. When we look to see whether this is more broadly true, we find that it is. The fact that this theme emerges in so many different places across the Gospel traditions suggests that there is a historical core to this recurrent element in early Christian storytelling.