Publications: Articles - Biblical
The contribution of women in the Post Resurrection stories as described by the Gospel of St John
One of the primary tasks of the Church today should be to study the contribution of women in the New Testament as this will not only shed light on how women aided in communicating the gospel message of Christ in a rather patriarchal society – as was the first century CE – but will also bring to the foreground possible roles and functions for women in the Church today.
It is interesting to note the significant role that women play in the post-Resurrection accounts. In the Orthodox tradition, the second Sunday after Easter is dedicated to the Myrrh-Bearing women who were the first to see Jesus after His Resurrection according to the synoptic gospels, while on the fourth Sunday after Pascha we commemorate the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well leading to the evangelisation of the Christian message to the Samaritan towns. This paper, however will not examine the Orthodox lectionary to evaluate the positive role it ascribes to women but will take a close look at the gospel of St John since it portrays women in a very positive way. In fact, the gospel according to St John features women in a more prominent light than the synoptic gospel traditions.
In fact a comprehensive study of the contribution of women in the fourth gospel would a entail a close study of the following women:
• The Mother of Jesus (Jn 2:1-12);
• The Samaritan woman (Jn 4:4-42);
• Martha and Mary, especially Martha's confession of faith at the raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-44) and the anointing at Bethany/ Martha serving at the meal (Jn 12:1-8);
• Mary Magdalene's discovery of the empty tomb (Jn 20:1-2) and the first to behold Jesus after His Resurrection (Jn 20:11-18).
Being so vast a topic, this paper will concentrate on only two women's contribution, namely Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan women since they are remembered during the festive post-Resurrection period of the Church's calendar.
MARY MAGDALENE - Jn 20:11-18
In St John's gospel, Mary Magdalene is the first person to meet the living Christ after the Resurrection (Jn 20: 15-17). Not only does she receive the first post-Paschal theophany but she is given the apostolic commission to announce the glory of the risen Lord to the disciples. According to St John: "They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, „I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God..”
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her." (John 20:13-18). The significant function that Peter has in the synoptic traditions, in that he is attributed with being the first to see the risen Christ is now given to a woman by the name of Mary Magdalene in the fourth gospel. It is she who is instructed to go and tell the disciples of Jesus' Resurrection. Unlike the synoptics, where it is the myrrh-bearing women who are given the specific message to proclaim the risen Christ to the apostles, in St John's gospel it is to Mary Magdalene alone.
In St John's gospel it is also a woman who responds to Jesus with a saving confession of faith parallel to the confession of faith by Peter in the synoptic gospels. The answer to the ultimate question of "who do you say that I am?" is given by a woman in St John's gospel, whereas, in the synoptic gospels by Peter. In the synoptic gospels Jesus is presented as doing all the signs that the Old Testament Scriptures said that the Messiah would do. At the very centre of the synoptic gospels, is the quintessential question that Jesus asked His disciples as they were walking on the
way to Caesarea Philipi, "who do people say that I am?" (Mk 8:27). And the answer to Jesus' question in all three gospels is given by the apostle Peter who responds with "You are the Messiah" (Mk 8:29). In the gospel of St John, however, it is a woman who makes the fundamental declaration of faith regarding the Messiahship of Jesus. Martha says to Jesus: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:27).
The contribution of Martha in the Johannine community is analogous to Peter's role as a representative of the apostolic faith. If one is to see these words as the theological climax of St John's gospel, it is significant that they are offered by a woman. Just as Martha gives the confession of faith in St John's gospel, so too, it is a woman who is the first to witness the Resurrection. It is, in fact most striking that St John's gospel has a woman announcing the Resurrection as women in Jewish law were considered unreliable witnesses. To Mary Magdalene is entrusted the role of announcing to the disciples that Jesus has risen from the dead. And it is for this reason that she is revered in both the Western and Eastern Christian traditions not only as "equal to the apostles" (ijsapovstolo") but also as "the apostle to the apostles" (apostola apostolarum) (ajpostovloi" ajpovstolo").
THE SAMARITAN WOMAN – Jn 4:4-42
The account of the Samaritan woman's encounter with Christ at Jacob's well is one of the most poetic passages in the Johannine gospel showing not only the personal journey of a woman's faith but also her response which will others to Christ as well. It is this Samaritan woman who will take the message of Jesus beyond the narrow confines of Judea to the people of Samaria who were considered outcasts in first century Judaism. Only after the Samaritan woman has made the personal acceptance of faith, will she be able to communicate it to her fellow people as well. Slowly the woman will make her faith journey from simply perceiving Jesus as Ioudaios, Kyrios and Prophet to making a Chistological statement about Him as Messiah. Not only has a personal faith in Jesus begun to shine within her, but she becomes an apostle "leaving all things" (symbolised by the water jug) and becoming a witness to the person and truth of Jesus to her fellow country men and women.
St John uses this woman to show that faith and worship in God transcends exterior acts of devotion on particular mountains (Mt Gerizim or Jerusalem) to a real encounter with God the Father. At best holy mountains are a means to an end – the end being Christ Himself. According to St John, it is a Samaritan woman who contributes to the initial belief of "many" Samaritans: "Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman.s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:39). It is through this woman that many believe in Jesus as the Messiah.
It is important to note that the woman acts as an instrument for the people to receive the word of God. After having met Christ Himself, the Samaritans say: "They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.” (John 4:42). According to St John, true disciples do not show themselves, but bring others to Christ after which they themselves fade away (cf especially John [the Baptist] Jn 3:27-30). Once again we can see what an active role women take in St John's gospel. It is a woman who establishes the Christian Church in Samaria with its first converts. Like many other women, she too is a significant figure in the Johannine community contributing to the rapid spread of Christianity.
It is for this reason that she is called "apostle" and "evangelist" in the Orthodox Churches. Furthermore, the Byzantine hagiographers developed the story that the name of the Samaritan woman was St Photini who had five sisters and two sons. She is said to have travelled the Roman Empire preaching the good news of the Messiah's coming, death and Resurrection. It is even said that she was the one to convert Nero's daughter, Domnina to the Christian faith which ultimately brought about her death by fire. Furthermore, in its dismissal hymn, the Orthodox Church addresses this prayer to the woman who was exalted by Jesus when He sat by the well in Samaria and talked with her: "Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, all-glorious one, from Christ the Saviour you drank the water of salvation. With open hand you give it to those who thirst, great martyr Photini, equal to the apostles, pray to Christ for the salvation of our souls."
In the fourth gospel, Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan woman are only two examples of recipients of Jesus' most fundamental self revelatory acts. Mary Magdalene is the first to witness the Resurrection of Christ and to take this message to the disciples of Jesus. The Samaritan woman, upon accepting Jesus in her life, plays a major role in not only giving witness to the gospel to a whole Samaritan town but also converting it. These gospel passages, written nearly two thousand years ago help significantly in reminding an often male dominated society that an authentic Christian anthropology will recognise the distinct charisms and vocations of both men and women, which is definitely found in the fourth gospel so unsparingly.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College