This now is the final guest post by blogger and New Testament scholar, James McGrath, based on his book What Jesus Learned from Women. Are you interested in more? Buy the book! As you’ll see here, it gets onto important ground, with intriguing hypotheses that you probably have never heard before! Many thanks to James for making these posts for us.
It is almost impossible for modern readers of the New Testament to come across the word “demon” and to not think of The Exorcist and other depictions of the phenomenon of “demon possession.” Ancient people certainly attributed what we today would categorize as psychiatric conditions or mental illnesses to demons. However, these are but a small subset of the ailments that they thought of in these terms. We see this in the stories about women in the Gospels. In no instance are we presented with a woman whose symptoms are specified to have been like those of the Gerasene demoniac who was said to wander among tombs and inflict harm on himself (Mark 5:1-20). Sometimes the ailment is unspecified, as in the cases of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and of Mary Magdalene. In other stories we hear of symptoms that do not naturally bring demons to mind for a modern reader. One example is yet another woman whose name we are not told, so that she is sometimes simply called the “bent woman” (Luke 13:10-17).
Whether we think of physical ailments like osteoarthritis, or the kinds of mental characteristics and behaviors that could be more naturally associated with demons in our minds, they afflict women more frequently than men. The stresses that women bear in patriarchal societies combined with the risks of childbirth in a society without medicine make it unsurprising that so many women in Jesus’ time felt the need for healing.
I think that the “bent woman” and Mary Magdalene provide some indication of how these women (and many others) experienced healing in connection with Jesus. Healing, then as now, is an art that is learned. When the Gospel of Luke says that Jesus faced criticism for healing the bent woman on the Sabbath, Jesus referred to her as a “daughter of Abraham.” That isn’t a common phrase in literature. When it does occur, as for instance several times in IV Maccabees, it refers to the mother of seven sons who encourages them to embrace martyrdom rather than compromise their allegiance to God and Torah. The woman Jesus healed probably didn’t have to do anything quite so heroic in relation to male ideals of heroism. She had probably just sacrificed and worked incredibly hard to give birth to and raise the next generation of Abraham’s descendants. Luke depicts Jesus as recognizing the heroism in that. If he had healed a male war hero on the Sabbath there would probably have been no criticism of Jesus even if the same objection had occurred to the leader of the community. Jesus paid enough attention to women to notice the inequities in how they were treated.
We know astonishingly little about Mary Magdalene’s story, given the way her place in the story has taken on mythic proportions. Some have tried to make her out to be a prostitute, even though there isn’t even the slightest evidence of that. Others have made her the wife of Jesus and the mother of his children (who, in one version, become the kings of France) even though there is still less evidence of that. When the post-New Testament sources discuss Mary’s authority, there is no hint that her claim to know what Jesus taught is rooted in a romantic relationship with him, nor do those who oppose her influence claim anything other than that she is a woman, questioning whether Jesus would have entrusted his secrets to her and not to his male appointees. Even the reference in the Gospel of Philip to Jesus loving her more than his other disciples and kissing her frequently does not either offer evidence that they were married or lovers and so this was to be expected, nor that they were none of the above and so this requires explanation and defense. Instead, it is simply stated. My surmise is that Mary was older than Jesus and that he kissed her the way one might greet an aunt or a close family friend. She was a friend and likely a mentor, as well as a supporter and provider.
She also suffered from some intense ailment, or perhaps from multiple symptoms, indicated by the reference to seven demons. Jesus said that if one casts out a demon and does nothing further, there is a risk that it will come back with seven friends and make things worse than they were before. Mary probably sought help with her ailment(s) on multiple occasions from healers and exorcists. Each time she probably experienced some relief. Each time the symptoms returned, perhaps worse or with new ones added.
For there to be cure and wellness rather than temporary healing, the root causes of illness need to be addressed. For many women, the unfairness of their situation, the change of status as they were passed from being considered the property of their father to being considered the property of another man, all led to suffering on many occasions. While we cannot go into the ways that Christianity experimented with gender egalitarianism and other things that reduced or alleviated some of the stresses that woman (and slaves and others) experienced in that time and place, Jesus seems to have had a sense of how women suffered, why they did, and how to cultivate a community that removed and remedied at least some of the stress factors.
For this to have been so, he must have listened to and learned from women. He learned that to effect long-term cure it required addressing the root causes of suffering. That required the creation of a new community in which people who were marginalized and burdened could experience welcome and support.
If there is a message in this, a point I hope that readers of this blog post and/or of my book What Jesus Learned from Women take away with them, it is that this seemed miraculous, and to many today seems miraculous and an indication that Jesus was something more than human. My question is whether that reaction isn’t sad, even heartbreaking. Why should women be put under such stress that it causes them to behave in ways that the society then declares demonic? Why should paying enough attention to women’s stories and experiences to craft an alternative be something so outside the norm that it is judged super-human, rather than a characteristic that seems part and parcel of what we might expect from human males?
My book wrestles with many issues. A human Jesus who learns and the influences on him. Patriarchy and gender inequity ancient and modern. I may be wrong about some and perhaps many things. I only hope that the topics I bring into focus will get more attention in the future than they have up until now.