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Women in the Ministry of Jesus

In my previous post I tried to show that women – contrary to what one might think – were quite prominent in the ministry and churches established by Paul. One naturally wonders why that might be, given the fact that women came to be silenced in later Christian traditions (continuing on in some rather notable circles today). One answer for why women played important roles in the life of the early church is that they may have played an important role in the life of the historical Jesus.

As readers of this blog know, it is not an easy matter establishing what actually happened in Jesus’ life. Historians need to apply historical criteria to all of the traditions that survive about Jesus: independent attestation (if a tradition is independently attested in multiple sources, it is more likely to be authentic); dissimilarity (if a tradition cuts against the grain of what Christians would have wanted to say about Jesus, it is more likely authentic); and contextual coherence (any tradition that cannot make sense in a first century Palestinian Jewish context is unlikely to be authentic).

Unfortunately, most of the studies of women in early Christianity have been less than rigorous when it comes to applying these (or any!) historical criteria to the traditions about Jesus that describe his involvement with women. We ourselves should not fall into the trap of accepting traditions as historical simply because they prove convenient to an agenda that we happen to share, feminist or otherwise. So, in light of our criteria, what can we know about Jesus and women?


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Jesus’ Association with Women
Women in the Churches of Paul



  1. cheito
    cheito  July 28, 2013

    “all of his male disciples had fled”. Dr Ehrman I have understood according to john 18:15-16: and John 19:25: That Simon Peter followed Jesus, and also another disciple followed Jesus also. And that the other disciple was known to the high priest, and that he entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest, but Peter was standing at the door outside. Also that John the disciple, or the disciple whom Jesus loved, was at the foot of the cross along with Jesus mother, her sister and Mary Magdalene. So why do you affirm that “all of his male disciples had fled”? It’s evident that this disciple whom Jesus loved did not flee and was not in hiding.

    NOTE: I personally don’t accept Mark as reliable. So I don’t quote from it.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 28, 2013

      Yes, most scholars of the NT do not find the Gospel of John’s account to be historically plausible.

      • cheito
        cheito  July 28, 2013

        There’s nothing plausible about The resurrection of Jesus Christ. However I believe it. And when I read the gospel of john I feel peace whereas when I read Mark or Matthew I don’t.

        • cheito
          cheito  July 29, 2013

          Dr Ehrman I meant to say that there’s nothing plausible or reasonable, according to human reasoning, that a person like the lord Jesus Christ could be real or that He truly died and rose from the dead. You say that, “most scholars of the NT do not find the Gospel of John’s account to be historically plausible”. Obviously some one wrote this book of John, just as someone wrote the other synoptic Gospels. I accept the Gospel of John because I believe that the person who wrote it was an eyewitness. And I accept his testimony as truth. It may be that the author of John was speaking in the third person in John 19:35 just as Paul did in 2 Corinthians 12:3.

          As for Mark and Matthew I have many reasons why I don’t accept these books as reliable.

          Life itself is a mystery! Man can’t figure out how he came to be. Yet any reasonable person can’t deny that he or she exists. Just because humans can’t explain life’s origin doesn’t mean that there’s no explanation.

          Also Space and time are infinite. And if we are able to physically see: infinity it’s before our eyes in the skies. Space and time have no end and we can not comprehend how this could be: yet it is!

          I believe the same is also true for God who was never born and will never die. How could such a being exist? It’s not plausible. Yet just as man can’t figure out infinity and infinity exists; I believe the same is true for God. God is like infinity: no beginning and no end! And He exists.

          • Avatar
            Elisabeth Strout  August 1, 2013

            Dear God, how do you deal with this kind of comment, Dr. Ehrman?! The reason, the logic, the intellectual caliber – how does one stand it?!

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  August 1, 2013

            Well, it helps to know that we’re all human and are restricted in what we think by our time and place….

  2. Avatar
    billgraham1961  July 28, 2013

    If early Christians were committed to elevating women, what does that say about present Christians who want to subjugate them? I think that is a question worth exploring.

  3. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  July 28, 2013

    There’s the theory that one of the reasons for the success of Christianity in the Roman Empire is that ‘religious education’ at the time was primarily the domain of the mother (religious beliefs were transmitted by the mother). And it seems that Christianity appealed especially to women, for various reasons. What do you make of this, Bart?

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 28, 2013

    But about the women and the tomb…I know you don’t believe Jesus’s body was ever in a tomb. Given that, do you still think the fact that all versions of the “legend” feature women has some significance?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 28, 2013

      Yes, I’ll be dealing with this in my book on How Jesus Became God; possibly I’ll post on it here in the meantime.

  5. Avatar
    ben.holman  July 28, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman,

    What do you make of this claim made by scholars (for resurrection-apologetic reasons) that women’s testimony wouldn’t have been accepted by people because apparently it was devalued in Jewish Legal settings (and perhaps the culture in general)? I mean, obviously, we can imagine Mark easily having reason to invent low-status women discovering the empty tomb, but what of the premise of the argument itself?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 28, 2013

      It’s a long answer, but I’ll try to post on it. (BTW: if Mark could plausibly have made it up, so too could have earlier conveyors of the tradition!)

  6. Avatar
    Marko071291  May 21, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    It’s not directly related to this topic, but I hope you’ll find time to answer. Given the fact that in our earliest Christian documents (Paul’s epistles) we see the term “apostle” being used in a broader sense, not just the Twelve (Paul even calls Junia apostle!), is it possible to deduce criteria by which one was an apostle in Paul’s eyes? In one of his interesting podcasts, M. Goodacre claims that for Paul the main criteria without which a person couldn’t be an apostle was the appearance of the risen Jesus. In other words, without seeing a risen Jesus person couldn’t be called apostle. What are your thoughts on that?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2019

      Yes indeed. He appears to think that anyone who had a vision of the resurrected Jesus and was commissioned to spread his message was an apostle.

      • Avatar
        Marko071291  May 22, 2019

        I don’t know if I asked you this before, but did you ever consider when did the term Apostle came to be seen as a term for Jesus’ twelve disciples? Maybe it was there from the start in Peter’s or John’s eyes but we can’t know about it since we don’t have their writtings. On the other hand we see that some Christians did question Paul’s apostolic status. It’s a interesting question. Hope you will give your thoughts on that – if not in the comment, maybe in some of the future posts!

        • Bart
          Bart  May 24, 2019

          I think the term apostle was probably used of the twelve ealry on, as soon as he sent them out on a mission — so during his ministry?

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