The way German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer told it, Jesus’s disciples deserted him when he was crucified; he died alone and friendless. That version of events is bound to be repeated this Easter, in Christian churches far and wide. And yet, as Christian activists and writers like Elizabeth Esther have been pointing out on Twitter, this isn’t accurate. According to the scriptures, faithful women, including Jesus’s mother, Mary, and Mary Magdalene, were present when Jesus was crucified, and they remained to take care of his body in the tomb. The women were the ones to whom his resurrection was announced.
In other words, women are crucial to the story of Easter: the resurrection of Jesus Christ after the crucifixion. Yet as a woman raised in the evangelical church and someone with a degree in theology, I spent a long time unaware of the significance of these, and many other, vital female figures.
I misunderstood Mary Magdalene, who is back in the public eye with the release of a new film bearing her name, starring Rooney Mara in the titular role. Like many, I had absorbed the idea that she was a former prostitute, a repentant sinner. This isn’t true. Mary Magdalene, who traveled with and was healed by Jesus, and who announced his resurrection to the other disciples, has been conflated with other women in the Bible, including an unnamed woman — often seen as a prostitute — who wept at Jesus’s feet and anointed his feet with oil in the gospel of Luke. This misconception matters, because the way cultures and institutions view religious women shapes theology and practice.
Sandra Glahn, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, a conservative Christian institution, researches the way women’s stories have been forgotten or misrepresented throughout history. She pinpoints a critical shift during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Reformation, believed that every Christian was a saint and capable of reading scripture and understanding God. Attempts to address the hierarchy and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church set in motion events that effectively emptied the monasteries — and the nunneries. Glahn explained that pre-Reformation, there were two avenues for Christian women: They could become wives, mothers and agrarians, or they could become nuns. As nuns, they would copy religious texts, write plays and poetry and engage in conversations about religion. Within one generation of the Reformation, there were far fewer women taught to read and translate scripture. Generally speaking, within Protestantism, women weren’t translating religious texts, and female religious figures weren’t recognized to the extent that men were.
“If women aren’t at the table, it’s going to change the way women are viewed. And there needs to be a lot more scholarship tracing why so many of these stories of women have focused on sexual immorality.”
Sexual offenses have been attributed to women in the Bible to diminish or discredit them — Mary Magdalene is one example, but there are so many others.
In the Old Testament, King David, one of the most famous kings of Israel, sees a woman named Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop. He desires her and has sex with her; she gets pregnant. King David eventually has her husband killed in battle, and Bathsheba becomes one of his many wives. A basic understanding of cultural norms in Biblical times, as well as the power dynamic between a male king and his female subject, make it clear Bathsheba did not have the ability to consent to sexual activity. And yet, in Christianity today, there is resistance to calling David’s actions rape. Instead, Bathsheba is often portrayed as a temptress.
Glahn pointed to the story of the Samaritan woman, found in the New Testament, as another example. In the gospel of John, Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman at a well. The story is famous because Jesus contradicted all sorts of cultural norms by conversing with a gentile woman. Jesus tells the woman he’s aware of her situation: She has had five husbands, and the man she now lives with is not her husband. The woman calls Jesus a prophet, and he reveals to her that he is the Messiah.
This is a revolutionary text; it shows us that Jesus revealed himself as Messiah to a woman. But in my evangelical background, along with many other sects of Christianity, the Samaritan woman is seen as an example of sexual immorality — someone who has had many partners and multiple divorces, and lives with a man outside marriage. Glahn and scholars like Lynn Cohick point out that this woman was probably elderly, and that she had likely been widowed multiple times. Chances are she was living with a man as a concubine in order to have food and shelter.
Perhaps another reason religious stories about women have been downplayed or misunderstood is that we don’t know how to deal with their complexity. When she was younger, my daughter often asked to turn to the book of Esther in her children’s Bible. Esther is portrayed as a woman who won a city-wide beauty pageant to become a queen and stop a plot to kill her fellow Jewish people.
Reading this story to my daughter made me cringe. Feminist scholars and theologians have pointed out what lies beneath the popular story. (Esther successfully saved her people; her feat is the basis for the Jewish holiday Purim.) Esther didn’t win a beauty pageant, as I had been taught when I was young — she was trafficked and earned the king’s favor through sexual activities. Author Sharifa Stevens told me how the suppression of Esther’s Jewish name, Hadassah, has parallels to the African American experience in the United States; Esther had to try and pass for another ethnicity in order to be seen as human. The king is not a fairy-tale prince, a fact that’s most noticeable when we look at the other woman named in the book of Esther: Vashti, the first queen of Ahasuerus.
Stevens wrote a chapter on Vashti in the book “Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible,” which was edited by Glahn. At first, Stevens didn’t want to write about this figure — Vashti doesn’t speak a single word in the Bible. In popular Christian culture, Vashti is often seen as a disobedient wife. Some religious commentaries describe her as a violent, jealous heathen, the enemy of Esther. The book of Esther opens with the story of Vashti refusing the order of her husband, the king, who demanded she appear in front of his drunken party guests with no clothes on. When she says no, she is cast aside. The king is encouraged to set up a competition to find a wife who will please and oblige him in every way.
Because, Stevens told me, the people writing the commentaries on the book of Esther had more in common with the king than with Esther or Vashti. Stevens said Vashti’s defiance is a commentary on the nature of power and empire, and how both lead to abuse.
Reclaiming the stories of female religious figures starts with more scholarship from diverse communities. As increasing numbers of women and people of varying races, ethnicities and sexual orientations interpret foundational religious texts, we can expect to see more work deconstructing inaccurate narratives about women. Catholic scholar Lucetta Scaraffia has been on a mission to see women valued in both the scriptures and the structures of the Catholic Church. Last year, according to a New Yorker article, Scaraffia said, “Why don’t we become a nuisance in every place where women are not present? I am leading a war against the patriarchy of the Church.”
There are so many instances where women in religious contexts have been ignored, undercut or profaned. Demanding a closer look at their significance will ultimately grant people of faith a richer understanding of their traditions.
Growing up, I never heard sermons celebrating women like Mary Magdalene. Hopefully, my daughter will.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled actress Rooney Mara’s name.