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The Greatest Risk of All

The Three Marys at the Tomb by Peter Paul Rubens
On April 06, 2015

Christian theologians are known for stressing the importance and centrality of the resurrection. In fact, other than the deity of Christ and Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus could just as well be the most common of “common-denominators” across theological and denominational lines. Whether one turns to American evangelicalism or Eastern Orthodoxy, Grudem’s Systematic Theology or Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology, the statements of faith and mission from Wheaton Graduate School or Columbia Theological Seminary, the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Second Helvetic Confession, the resurrection is recognized as an unyielding, distinctive truth of the Christian faith.

The reason for this is obvious: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). The resurrection is too integrated and too important for the reality of Christianity to be compromised. If Jesus was not raised, then Jesus is still dead, and he therefore was never the “Christ” in the first place. And a false Christ means nothing less than a false Christianity.

However, even for how certain modern apologists (e.g. William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, et. al.) and historians (e.g., Wright) have established the historicity of the resurrection, we must still remember that events are only as good as the evidence they leave behind (and, of course, as meaningful as the broader context in which they take place). In the case of a resurrection event in the first century, the main (perhaps only) “evidence” remaining today is reliable witness (or “witnessing tradition”), as faithfully contained in the scriptures and as faithfully told by the church throughout history.

This means that the entire legitimacy of the Christian faith once rested in the hands of a handful of people, people who would have to successfully witness and transmit the reality of the original resurrection. The memory and experience of a few had to become the permanent memory and experience of the entire community—if Christianity was even to survive.

As many evangelical feminists/Christian egalitarians have stressed in the last quarter century, the ultimate origin of these gospel memories was not the large crowd of disciples that followed Jesus around, nor even the twelve apostles. The legitimacy of Christianity ultimately rested in the hands of an unlikely source: a few women.

This is an “unlikely” source because, as it has been said many times (see list of references in footnote 21 of Bauckham, Gospel Women, 270), “The Jewish woman was the mistress of the home, but was not qualified to appear as a witness in court” (Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 78). Out of all of the people in the first-century to entrust bizarre and world-changing news, entrusting it to a subcategory of people whose public witness was ipso facto disqualified seems, well, a bit risky. Considering, further, the overall negative assessment women received in the culture of the ancient world, it appears that entrusting women with the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection may have been the greatest risk of all.

Indeed, Jesus’ very own apostles initially dismissed it as an “idle tale” (Lk 24:11)! But even so, it was through the experience and testimony of these few women that the world would be ultimately be changed, because only they had experienced both the death (Mark 15:40; Matt. 27:55-56) and resurrection (Matt. 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-13) of Jesus. As Richard Bauckham powerfully notes:

“[The women’s] witness had a unique role because they alone witnessed the burial as well as an empty tomb, and so could vouch for the fact that the tomb they found empty was the one in which the body of Jesus had been laid. But, according to Matthew, Luke, and John, they were also qualified to testify “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18), just as the male eyewitnesses to the resurrection were. Using the word “apostolic” in this Pauline sense (1 Cor. 9:1), the women were apostolic eyewitness guarantors of the traditions about Jesus, and the Gospel stories about their visit to the tomb and encounters with the risen Jesus are the textual form eventually given to the witness that they must have given orally during the early decades of Christian life and mission. The names so precisely preserved by the Gospels show that the witness of the women was not known simply in a generalized form as that of an anonymous group, nor was it attached solely to the most prominent of these women disciples of Jesus, Mary Magdalene. Rather each of these named women, some better known to some of the evangelists, others to others, were prominent figures in the early communities, active traditioners with recognized eyewitness authority.” (Bauckham, Gospel Women, 188-189)

All of this makes a person stop and wonder: if the success or failure of Christianity and its spread originally depended upon the testimony of a handful of ordinary women, what could possibly prohibit them from passing on that very same gospel tradition to male Christians and the rest of the world today?

Christians have traditionally suggested that only men can be entrusted with the task of passing down apostolic tradition through the teaching of the church. But they have forgotten that this gospel “deposit” (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14) that they teach originates from the experience and testimony of female Christians. In simple terms, the Christian gospel is covered in women’s fingerprints. So when we hear “only men must handle this,” we should immediately be skeptical—just as I am skeptical when someone hands me a package and says it’s from Spain when it’s post-marked from Wichita. Furthermore, we should also be skeptical when we find eraser marks and other signs of tampering—just as we find in poor translations, church policies, laws, and behaviors that unjustly favor men. In short, the gospel has never been distinctively “masculine,” nor has its faithful handlers.

The oddity with which the resurrection and post-resurrection events have occurred intrigue theologians to the point of inferring a redemptive-historical or “biblical-theological” message. If Jesus, the cross, and the whole gospel story is really as significant as Christians say it is, then surely there is something significant and God’s choice of how the gospel is initially received and distributed. What exactly this might be is disputed. But scholars have rightly concluded intentionality—an arrangement established within the grand story in order to further symbolize the restoration that Christ brings to humanity, or to suggest something about the responsibility given to women regarding the proclamation of the good news, or perhaps to refute the Jews and their traditions once again (for the daughters of Eve can and should be trusted). Maybe there is a different purpose. But whatever the case, what is clear is that God finds no trouble in giving the absolute greatest responsibilities to the most unexpected, marginalized people.

The resurrection, then, stands as good news to the world, but in a unique way, it stands as good news for women. Entrusting the gospel to women by giving them first-look on Easter morning and presence at both the cross and the tomb indicates that a new era has been inaugurated—the era of the New Covenant. And it is in this New Covenant that “sons and daughters shall prophecy” (Acts 2:17), men and women together preach “the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31; cf. Luke 2:38), pray (Acts 1:14) and prophesy (1 Cor. 11, 14; cf. Eph. 4; Acts 21:9), and where “there is no male and female” (Gal. 3:28). 

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