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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