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Published Date: October 31, 2021

Published Date: October 31, 2021

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Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27–38

The story of the woman who had seven husbands has traditionally been interpreted by focusing on the thoughts, words, and intentions of the male characters only, namely, the Sadducees and Jesus. Commentators have questioned the motivation of the Sadducees in bringing this problem to Jesus, and Jesus’s response has been seen as merely a defence of bodily resurrection and a correction of the Sadducees’s limited understanding of the Scriptures.

The question itself (whose wife shall she be?) has been discounted as irrelevant to the meaning of the story, a reductio ad absurdum, much like the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In fact, however, this question and the light it shines on the life of the silent, unnamed woman holds the key to understanding this passage. What is life like for this woman; what does it mean to be like an angel; what will life be like in the resurrection; when does resurrection life begin?

This article will argue that a feminist interpretation of this passage can answer these questions. In so doing, it will be made clear that, in the kingdom of God, women are not to be viewed or treated as property, and also that the “emancipation” of one part of society must not mean the subjugation of another. This story, properly understood, emphasises the equality of men and women in God’s sight, the love of God, the power of the kingdom, and the qualities of resurrection life.

The Portrayal of Women in Luke-Acts

Over recent years, with the advent of feminist theology, there has been considerable debate concerning the portrayal of women in Luke-Acts. Opinions are diametrically opposed, with some commentators believing Luke-Acts to champion women’s rights, while others decry the books as an example of how women were subjugated in the early church. What follows is a brief summary of some of the arguments. I have grouped them under four sub-headings (although there is some overlap): women portrayed as equal to men, women given prominence over men, the ambivalence of the text regarding women, and the silencing and subordination of women.

Women Portrayed as Equal to Men

Jocelyn McWhirter states that, according to Luke, Jesus and those who bore witness to him were prophets in the OT tradition.1 Greg Forbes and Scott Harrower agree, pointing out that, as the Pentecost event was the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s prophecy that “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . .” (Joel 2:28 NRSV), it stands to reason women would both preach and prophesy. In fact, Forbes and Harrower argue that whenever female witnesses of the gospel are mentioned in Luke-Acts, they are to be viewed as “full-orbed disciples without qualification.”2

Indeed, women’s participation in the life and fabric of the early church is evidenced by the fact that “the whole community” came together to elect the seven who would ensure the wellbeing of their society’s widows (Acts 6:1–6) and that Paul chose Priscilla and Aquila, a married couple, as his ministry team at Ephesus. Both Priscilla and Aquila are noted as having the authority to correct Apollos when they discerned his lack of understanding of the Way (Acts 18:24–26).

Women Given Prominence over Men

For some, Luke’s gospel is the “women’s gospel.” This view has largely been based on the two “bookends” of the Jesus story—the Annunciation to Mary and the witness of the women at the tomb. Luke has a special emphasis on the poor and marginalised, and it can be argued that, as examples of these groups, women do play a prominent role. Indeed, Jesus’s interactions with women would have been a scandalous breach of social convention and a challenge to first-century gender boundaries.3

Luke emphasises women’s equal standing in God’s eyes by often pairing them with, or contrasting them to, male characters. For example, Mary believed and rejoiced at her Annunciation (1:26–38), whereas Zechariah doubted (1:8–20); both Anna (2:36–38) and Simeon (2:25–32) recognised Jesus as the one foretold by the prophets; an unnamed woman provided Simon the Pharisee with a lesson in humility and hospitality (7:36–50); a widow had to leave herself penniless (21:1–4) while the scribes devoured her home (20:45–47); and the women who went to the tomb believed in Jesus’s resurrection (24:1–10), whereas the apostles thought it to be “nonsense” and an “idle tale” (24:11).

Ben Witherington, for example, considers Luke-Acts liberating and positive in its portrayal of women.4 Other commentators are less effusive. Constance Parvey, for example, while acknowledging stories featuring women are more numerous than those featuring men, maintains the reason for this was didactic: the stories were a way of instructing female converts, and the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38–42), in particular, showcased the roles now available to women.5 Mary D’Angelo agrees, stating the Martha/Mary story was used to encourage women in the church to consider what they may be called to do in response to the gospel.6

The Ambivalence of the Text Regarding Women

Many commentators consider Luke-Acts ambivalent towards women, a fact which Rosinah Gabaitse argues contributes to the polarised opinions regarding the portrayal of women in these books.7 D’Angelo sees this ambivalence (for example, the proliferation of stories including women versus the seemingly restricted roles they were able to fulfil) as Luke’s way of reassuring the Roman authorities this new Christian sect did not pose a threat to the political status quo or encourage “un-Roman” practices.8 Gabaitse agrees, adding Luke’s ambivalent treatment of the role of women in the fledgling church was to be expected given the constraints inherent in a patriarchal society.9

While D’Angelo and Gabaitse seem to classify this as an apparent ambivalence, other commentators such as Turid Seim and Gail O’Day see it instead as a real ambivalence. Seim, for example, states that, while Luke silences his female characters, they nonetheless continue to speak through the stories Luke crafts.10

The Silencing and Subordination of Women

Our final group sees Luke-Acts as dangerous, arguing that while the texts include stories about women, the women themselves are silenced, subordinated, or misrepresented. Linda Maloney and Elizabeth Smith, for example, refer to three lectionary texts set down for the Year of Luke—the sinful woman (Luke 7:36–50) who, they say, is shown in a less favourable light than her counterpart in Mark and Matthew; Martha (Luke 10:38–42), whom Jesus rebukes when she complains about her sister Mary; and the widow seeking justice (Luke 18:1–8), whom they say is often portrayed as strident and overly-assertive. Maloney and Smith conclude that this negative and inconsistent portrayal of women is “insidious.”11

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza also investigates the story of Martha and Mary, suggesting that in portraying Martha as having been rebuked by Jesus, Luke was, in fact, seeking to diminish the leadership role women exercised in the early Christian church to that of the seemingly more subservient Mary.12 She also states Luke would have known of women who were prophets, teachers, leaders, and missionaries in the early church, but chose not to depict them.13 Jane Schaberg echoes this sentiment, stating that in Luke, women are portrayed as the models of “subordinate service” who are excluded from power and denied significant responsibilities.14

As mentioned earlier, Luke-Acts has elicited varied and strong opinions regarding the portrayal of women and their level of involvement in the early church. Personally, I am unable to agree with the two “extreme” views—that Luke-Acts is akin to a feminist manifesto, or it was a means of subjugating women and limiting their ministry in the early church.

The argument is entirely plausible that Luke had to fashion his documents so as not to antagonise a conservative patriarchal society or the Roman authorities. It is also evident Luke recognised the courage, humility, intelligence, tenacity, and curiosity of women, albeit in subtle ways.

It is also interesting to consider the work of Barbara E. Reid who, some twenty-five years ago, wrote a book on Luke’s Gospel.15 At that time, she made the following three conclusions: While women were portrayed as being healed and forgiven by Jesus, nothing was said about their discipleship, with the exception of Luke 8:1–3. While both men and women were present at Pentecost, it was only the men who were said to have been filled with the Spirit or directed by the Spirit. And Luke’s use of the term “to explain” rather than “to teach” to describe Priscilla and Aquila’s interaction with Apollos may have been a deliberate choice to restrict the teaching ministry to male disciples.

However, Reid now believes there were some limitations in her approach, including only examining texts dealing with female characters, separating chs. 1 and 2 from the rest of the Gospel, and concentrating on the ways Luke restricted women while overlooking more positive portrayals.16 After studying Luke as a whole, rather than focussing on individual stories, Reid now argues both men and women are largely silent in Luke’s Gospel.17 Both male and female disciples are corrected by Jesus and are both just as likely to make significant christological and/or theological statements,18 and in Luke men and women seem to have equal speaking parts, although this changes in Acts when Paul and Peter take centre stage.19

Reid also identifies the following as noteworthy when considering Luke’s treatment of women and their ministry: At the tomb, women are portrayed as faithful, persistent hearers and proclaimers of the word.20 The male disciples’ poor reaction to their witness was a typical response to the words of a prophet, thereby affirming their role as witnesses;21 this, together with the stories about Elizabeth and Mary, emphasises the importance of women’s ministry.22 And the fact the women remembered Jesus’s teachings (Luke 24:8) indicates their participation in Jesus’s mission of liberating mercy.23

Finally, there is the question of whether Luke was writing as an historian, a theologian, or both.24 Was it Luke’s aim to simply set out an historical account of Jesus’s ministry and the birth and evolution of the early church, or did he describe current situations, more often than not featuring women, to make a theological point? If, as I believe, the latter is true, then rather than branding the widow as strident and bossy, for example, perhaps Luke was commenting on the societal context that made it necessary for her to act in such a way. Perhaps the “sinful” woman was never meant to be an object lesson of repentance and humility. Maybe Luke’s aim was instead to shine a light on the self-righteous, exclusive mindset of Simon the Pharisee and, by extension, the religious authorities of the day. Rather than silencing or side-lining women, Luke used them and their plight to highlight the historical inequities of the time and make a theological point.

Luke’s Portrayal of Jesus

Luke’s Jesus had come to instigate a revolution, but not a revolution whereby the ruling elite became downtrodden as a result of the marginalised claiming what was rightfully theirs. Jesus’s message was that there were to be no outsiders in God’s kingdom.25 However, this message of equality and equity proved threatening to the religious and political leaders of the day who jealously guarded their status and power. This hard-heartedness, and a fanatical focus on the letter of the law (Luke 6:1–11), could not only result in the dramatic reversal of fortune described by Mary (Luke 1:51–53) and Jesus (Luke 6:24–25), but ironically (and tragically) could lead to self-exclusion from God’s kingdom.

In his Gospel, Luke portrays Jesus as compassionate, a friend to and advocate for the poor and the outcast. Jesus’s “radical inclusiveness”26 of the marginalised is evidenced by his reaching out to outcasts (4:33–37, 5:12–16), tax collectors (5:27–32, 19:1–10), sinners (7:36–50), and women (13:10–17, 21:1–4).

Among these is the hypothetical woman who had seven husbands. Although nameless and voiceless, she succeeds in demonstrating the disconnect between the worldview of the Sadducees and the economy of God’s kingdom. Luke describes the scene as follows:

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For they no longer dared to ask him another question. (Luke 20:27–40 NRSV)

To decide whether a feminist interpretation of this passage is feasible, we first need to consider the political and social landscape of the time.

The Political Landscape

Palestine in the first century CE was under the control of the Romans. Luke sets the political scene early on by informing his readers John the Baptist was conceived “in the days of King Herod of Judea” (1:5), when Emperor Augustus had decreed a census (2:1, 3) and Quirinius was governor of Syria (2:2). John the Baptist began his ministry “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene” (3:1 NRSV). While the accuracy of Luke’s chronology has been a matter of some debate,27 the fact remains that Palestine was a Roman vassal state, with a mixture of Roman and Judean law applying at the time.

The Sadducees

In Galilee, Rome had appointed a puppet government, presided over by Herod Antipas.28 The Sadducees were supporters of this government and had no sympathy for anyone who challenged the status quo, as that challenge would result in their own freedom, power, and influence being curtailed.29

The Sadducees and Pharisees were the two main groups of Jewish authority and influence. Although usually mentioned together, they were politically and religiously quite different. Two differences between them are most noteworthy. The Pharisees were not an overtly political group and were content to accommodate any government which allowed them to carry out their ceremonies. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were mostly leading priests and aristocrats who collaborated with local authorities, including those representing Rome. As such, the Sadducees would not have wanted to risk antagonising the Romans as that would have endangered their comfortable existence.

The Pharisees accepted the Scriptures and the myriad of regulations as stipulated in the oral and ceremonial law, whereas the Sadducees accepted only the written law of the OT, stressing only the Books of Moses. The Pharisees believed in the coming of the Messiah, resurrection, angels and spirits; the Sadducees did not.30

Women in the First Century CE

It is, of course, impossible to make a blanket statement regarding the place of women in the first century CE. Then, as now, a variety of factors needs to be taken into account, including geography, social status of the family, the overall view regarding women in any given society, and the prevailing religious traditions and beliefs.

For example, at the time Luke-Acts was written, the education of women was important in Rome, Egypt, and Asia Minor, whereas in Greece and Judea it was considered less important to educate daughters.31 Women in Asia Minor and Macedonia were able to wield religious influence, while women in Egypt were influential in both politics and religion. This was less true in Greece and Rome.32 Even though women were given some education and had some right to inheritance in the Roman Empire, daughters were less favoured than sons and were more likely to be exposed (that is, abandoned) as infants.33

It is generally accepted that, in first century Palestine, men from the ruling elite were involved in politics and the management of their estates, whereas their wives were responsible for domestic affairs and childrearing.34

Of course, things were different for the lower classes, especially for those living on the margins: the sick, the poor, the orphan, and the widow. Life for a widow with no family was precarious. The government provided no social security system. If they had a skill, they may have been able to fend for themselves. However, if the widow was young, this skill could be hazardous as she risked being taken advantage of (e.g., Ruth 2:8–9). Those who could not provide for themselves were dependent on the generosity of others (e.g., Acts 6:1).

In addition to these challenges, a childless widow was still expected to fulfil her duty to her deceased husband should he not have offspring from any other woman. This resulted in her being married to a brother-in-law in order to produce an heir. Since there was no requirement that the brother-in-law be single, the possibility of friction in the family was considerable. This practice was known as a levirate marriage.

The Aim of Levirate Marriages

The institution of levirate marriage is found in Deut 25:5–10. “Levirate” derives from the Latin word levir, which means “brother-in-law.”35 The aim of levirate marriage was at least threefold. Firstly, it provided a line of inheritance, ensuring property would remain within the family. Secondly, it ensured a deceased male’s “name” was not “blotted out of Israel” (Deut 25:6). For the Israelite male, the perpetuation of his name was a means of securing his continued personal existence and immortality through the life of his son.36 As such, a son fathered by a levir would be considered to belong to the deceased husband. Lastly, it also provided for the deceased’s continuing welfare in the hereafter as it was a son’s responsibility to perform ancestral rites on his father’s behalf.37

It should also be acknowledged that levirate marriages did afford the widow a certain degree of comfort. By remaining in her husband’s family, she had a level of security and the family had an extra pair of hands to look after children, administer and maintain the property, and perform household duties. A levirate marriage could also save the widow from the shame of barrenness. The extent of the social stigma attached to a woman not bearing a child can be gauged by the practice of the wife supplying her handmaid to her husband in the hope the handmaid would bear him a child,38 and the provision for a man to have multiple wives in the event his first wife was barren.39

Notwithstanding the above, Dvora Weisberg points out the tension between a woman viewing a levirate marriage as a means of gaining security and the man feeling it was a threat to his own financial interests.40 It is also important to keep in mind that any benefit to the widow was of secondary importance.

The Question

So, the question is posed: a man, who has six brothers, dies leaving no children. In accordance with the levirate law, his brother marries the widow, but he also dies leaving no children. So too, the remaining five brothers. In the end, the widow herself dies. If there is a resurrection, whose wife will she be, for she had been married to all seven brothers?

The aim of the question may simply have been to cast doubt on the whole notion of resurrection, thus making it, and by extension the Pharisees, look absurd.41 However, as the Pharisees and Sadducees often asked Jesus what they considered unanswerable questions, it may also have been a ruse to trap Jesus into saying something controversial,42 or to suggest he was insane, irrelevant, or dangerous.43

Like many of Jesus’s interactions with the Pharisees and Sadducees, his response is cryptic. Indeed, it seems he is not answering their question at all. However, it has the effect of putting the Sadducees in their place (Luke 20:39–40). What was it in Jesus’s response that chastened the religious authorities so effectively? Why were they afraid to ask him any more questions? Was it because, by praising Jesus’s answer, the scribes had embarrassed the Sadducees and called their understanding of the Scriptures into question? Was it because the Sadducees realised the danger posed to their power and lifestyle if Jesus’s “vision” were to become reality? Or was it because Jesus’s response held a mirror up to their hypocrisy and they did not like what they saw?

Before answering these questions and the question of whether Jesus’s words lend themselves to a feminist hermeneutic, let us review some more traditional interpretations of this passage.

Various Interpretations of the Passage

Interpretations of this passage have mostly dealt with the Sadducees’s question on face value or as a reductio ad absurdum instead of considering the message being imparted by the nameless, voiceless woman.

For example, Jerome (fourth-fifth centuries) and Calvin (1509–1564) believed Jesus was challenging the Sadducees’s view that any life after death would merely be a continuation of present life and would, therefore, require marriage to ensure human propagation.44 Calvin also stated children of the resurrection would be like angels because they would no longer be subject to “infirmity and corruption.”45 Cyril of Alexandria (fourth-fifth centuries) believed those driven by “fleshly lust” marry and are given in marriage, whereas those worthy of the resurrection will eschew all bodily pleasure and thereby be like the angels.46 Matthew Henry (1662–1714) also believed marriage was a “preservative from sin and a remedy against fornication.” For him, being like angels meant people would no longer be plagued by the “delights” of their senses.47

More recent scholars agree Jesus was attempting to correct the Sadducees’s mistaken view on bodily resurrection,48 a concept which would render marriage redundant.49 They also believe Jesus is attempting to teach that resurrection life would be radically different to life as the Sadducees knew or wished it to be.50 Amy-Jill Levine suggests the Sadducees are endeavouring to trick Jesus into condoning a woman having multiple husbands.51

Alan Culpepper suggests that, for modern audiences, Jesus’s words on marriage could be either comforting or disturbing.52 For those who have experienced domestic violence, the words would be comforting. For those who have enjoyed happy marriages, not being married in the resurrection may be disturbing.

Mary Ann Beavis finds the parable unsettling from a feminist viewpoint, for there seems to be no inherent criticism of levirate marriage in the parable. On the other hand, she criticises the “naïve anti-Judaism” of some feminist scholars whom she believes overstate the plight of Jewish widows and the extent to which levirate marriage was enforced.53

The Passage and Its Place in the Gospel

William Barclay describes Luke 20 as “the day of questions,” during which Jesus is faced with question after question designed to trap him.54 In this chapter, Jesus is asked by whose authority he is “doing these things” (a probable reference to Jesus’s “cleansing” of the temple, 20:1–8). Next came the question regarding the payment of taxes (20:20–26) and the issue regarding resurrection (20:27–40). Jesus had his own questions—a question regarding John’s baptism (20:2–8), his pointed question to the scribes and chief priests regarding the wicked tenants (20:9–18), and his question regarding David’s son (20:41–45).

This story is recounted in each of the three synoptic Gospels. Of the three, the account is slightly longer in Luke, however, each evangelist describes roughly the same interaction. Notably, each evangelist recounts the story immediately after the question of whether it is acceptable to pay taxes to Caesar; we will return to this point later.

Jesus’s Response

Interestingly, Jesus’s response in Luke is considerably more polite compared to the other two accounts. In Matthew, Jesus says “you are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt 22:29 NRSV), while in Mark, he challenges them by asking “is this not the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” (Mark 12:24 NRSV). This flash of frustration may well have been a reflection of how Matthew and Mark, Jews writing for mostly Jewish audiences, felt. How could the very people who had been gifted with the “oracles of God” (Rom 3:2) be so blind to what the Scriptures taught and foretold? Luke, on the other hand, was a Gentile, writing to a mostly Gentile audience, so he may not have felt this situation so keenly.

As mentioned above, Jesus does not seem to address the Sadducees’s question at all. Instead, he talks about “this age” and “that age,” about angels, burning bushes, and the patriarchs. In fact, Jesus was challenging the very basis from which the Sadducees saw life, God’s grace, God’s power, the kingdom of God, and the nature of God’s relationship with his people. And he begins by looking at the concept of marrying and being given in marriage.

Marrying and Being Given in Marriage

As noted above, levirate marriage was mandated in Deuteronomy. What is of importance when endeavouring to understand Jesus’s response to the Sadducees’s question is the terminology and grammar used in Deuteronomy and by Jesus in his response (as related by Luke).

In Deuteronomy, it is quite clear that the brother “takes” the widow in marriage (Deut 25:5). In Luke, the terminology used is “to marry” and “to be given in marriage.” The man “marries” (from the Greek gameō  , “to lead in marriage, to take a wife, to give a daughter in marriage”), whereas the woman is “given in marriage” (ekgamiskō  , “to give in marriage, to give away in marriage,” as in a daughter). Importantly, the word “marry” is in the active voice, while “given in marriage” is in the passive voice. In other words, the man acts by marrying, but the woman is passively given in marriage.55

A more literal, albeit archaic, rendering of vv. 28–31 would read:

And they questioned him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife, and he is childless, his brother should take the wife and raise up children to his brother. Now there were seven brothers; and the first took a wife and died childless; and the second and the third took her; and in the same way all seven died, leaving no children. . . .”

This is clearly more reflective of the mood in the Deuteronomic passage. Indeed, J. J. Kilgallen states Luke’s version of the story emphasises the successive marriages were forced and the woman had no choice in the matter.56 He believes this uncovers the Sadducees’s view that, were there to be a resurrection, the woman would still be obliged to be a “passive breeder” even in the afterlife. In his commentary on Mark’s version of the story, Warren Carter is scathing in his comments that levirate marriage “ensures the woman’s body and reproductive capacity serve male values, and provides no space for the woman’s agency, choice, will or even well-being.”57

Ayelet Seidler also highlights an interesting wordplay in the Deuteronomy passage. In v. 7, the levir, up until now referred to as “the dead man’s brother,” becomes “the man.” In contrast, however, the woman is always referred to as “the dead man’s wife.”58 This recognises the man as a person with his own personality and desires, whereas the woman remains someone’s property.

Luke’s Placement, Jesus’s Point

It is here that the point of Jesus’s response and Luke’s placement of the story, immediately following the question about paying taxes, takes on its full meaning. Luke tells us the religious authorities are trying to prove Jesus is a danger to both the religious (Luke 20:1–8) and the political (Luke 20:20–26) systems of the day.59 So they ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. If he says “yes,” Jesus would prove himself to be a traitor to the Jewish cause. By saying “no,” he would incur the wrath of Roman law. Again, instead of answering their question directly, Jesus requests to see a coin and then asks his own question—whose image is on it. The image is that of the Roman emperor, so Jesus states, what belongs to the emperor should be given to the emperor, but what belongs to God should be given to God.

Immediately following this interaction, in all three synoptic Gospels, comes the question of the resurrection. The implication is clear: just as the coin is imprinted with the emperor’s image and so belongs to the emperor, men and women both reflect the maker’s mark. They are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:26–27) and belong to God alone. The reason they shall neither marry nor be given in marriage in the resurrection is that, in the resurrection, women, made in God’s image, will cease to be property.

Jesus then further challenged the Sadducees by likening the children of the resurrection to angels (v. 36), in which the Sadducees also did not believe.

Angels

As noted earlier, some commentators have suggested Jesus’s comments simply mean that, because in the resurrection people will no longer die, there will no longer be a need to marry and procreate.60 This is overly simplistic and often implies a negative view of human sexuality.

Kristian Bendoraitis believes the resurrected, like angels, are somehow associated with God in the heavenly realm.61 Augustine agreed, stating that part of that angelic life would include seeing God face to face.62 Augustine also believed God was revealed through the created order, principally through the good angels.63 Therefore, one aspect of being like angels would seem to be that both men and women would reveal something about God and what life would be like in God’s kingdom.

It is important to note the link between Jesus’s comments concerning angels and his previous statement affirming “they will neither marry nor be given in marriage.” Jesus did not say “they,” the men, would be like angels, but both those who married and were given in marriage would be like angels. As Maria Aquino points out, the patriarchal socio-religious laws of the time stated that, because they were not circumcised, women were in a perpetual state of impurity, and therefore could not belong to the holy people of God.64 Jesus turns this notion completely on its head, stating unequivocally that both men and women would be like angels.

Note also Jesus’s words that “those who are considered worthy for a place in that age” (my emphasis) will be like angels. The benefits of the kingdom are not something to be yearned for at some future time, after death. The benefits of the kingdom are available now. Indeed, Jesus himself proclaimed that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15 NRSV), and that he had come “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NRSV). When Jesus identified himself as the suffering servant, the one sent to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18–19a), he also proclaimed that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21b NRSV). It is clear that, for Luke, the kingdom of God is all about human transformation, individual and societal.65

Jesus’s resurrection had far greater implications than his being raised from the dead. It implied that the cause he embodied had also triumphed over death. As A. M. Hunter points out, the resurrection was an eschatological act of God every bit as new and amazing as creation.66

So, what does it mean to be like angels? It means having a personal, intimate relationship with God. It means living in a society where it is acknowledged that everyone is made in God’s image and treated with the respect that demands. It means no one is excluded, and no one goes without. It means being a partner with God and working towards bringing to fruition God’s vision of the future. As Claus Westermann says, angels represent God’s possibilities and are the means by which God’s word or act touches the earth.67

This was a blow to the beliefs of the Sadducees who assumed (as did the Pharisees) that any resurrection or coming of the Messiah would simply affirm the status quo and set existing societal norms in concrete.68

And finally, it meant relationship with God and the benefits of the kingdom not only transcended death but were fully realised “in that age.” To make this point, Jesus refers to God’s ongoing relationship with the patriarchs.

Patriarchs and Matriarchs

Jesus now cements his arguments on the resurrection by appealing to the testimony of Moses—an authority he knew the Sadducees could not discount or refute.69 Moses testified that, at the burning bush, God had identified himself as being “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod 3:6 NRSV). For them to still be children of God, they must still be alive and able to be in relationship with God.

God chose Moses to lead the Hebrews out of the bonds of slavery into the freedom of a full, intimate relationship with God, a relationship that would see the creation of a society based on justice, equity, and equality. Jesus, the new Moses, came to do the same. That God craves such a relationship is evidenced by God revealing his name to Moses (Exod 3:13–16). In the ancient Near East it was believed that knowing someone’s name, even that of a god, gave them a degree of power over that person. God disclosing his name to Moses implies intimacy and a willingness to make himself available and vulnerable.70

God had a relationship with, and worked through the lives of, Moses and the patriarchs to bring about the kingdom of God. However, as Walter Brueggemann points out, God’s self-identification to Moses might well have added:

I am the God of Sarah, the God of Rebekah, the God of Rachel. I am the God of the old ancestral stories, the one who came upon the hopeless old people and gave them children and new life, the one who came among wandering sojourners and promised them land, the one who came where life was all closed down and promised them a future they could not imagine or invent for themselves.71

This sentiment is borne out when we consider that God renamed not just Abram, but Sarai as well (Gen 17:5, 15). A change of name in the Bible indicates a new phase in that person’s cooperation with the divine purpose.72 Abraham was to be fruitful, the father of many nations. But Sarah would be blessed by God (stated twice in v. 16), would be the mother of nations, and kings and peoples would come from her. As Terence Fretheim points out, Sarah did not benefit from God’s promises simply because she was Abraham’s wife, but rather she was a participant in the covenant in her own right.73

Just as the angels live in the heavenly realm, so too do the patriarchs and matriarchs—they are alive in God. God’s relationship with people does not end when they die; instead, the relationship is everlasting and personal.74 And, as Jesus’s words implied, that relationship is not limited by a person’s gender. Both men and women are made in God’s image, so all have equal standing before God.

Conclusion

Regardless of the Sadducees’s motive in bringing this question to Jesus, they certainly got more than they bargained for. While Jesus did not answer their question, as such, his response was a lesson in the power and love of God, the economy and breadth of God’s kingdom, and the availability of the benefits of resurrection life in the here and now.

The Sadducees’s question highlighted some aspects of their world view: the acceptability of women being considered property and expected to passively acquiesce to the wishes of male family members; the belief (indeed hope) that the kingdom of God would be business as usual, except for a few improvements such as enemies being overthrown and delights multiplied;75 that death curtailed God’s ability to continue relationships; and that God would allow that to happen.

Using the hypothetical woman with seven husbands, Jesus enumerated the consequences of Moses’s interaction with God at the burning bush: God is a God of relationship, a relationship not even death can destroy; both men and women are made in God’s image and equal participants in the covenant; the kingdom of God has come near, the benefits of the kingdom—justice, equity, and equality—are available now, not only after death; in the resurrection, both men and women will, like the angels, see God face-to-face.

The Sadducees were an influential group who were content with the status quo and who feared any measure of societal reform would impact their own wealth, status, and comfort. In a few short sentences, Jesus brought them face-to-face with their hard-heartedness. Like the authorities who were ready to stone another nameless woman (John 8:3–11), they left, not daring to ask him any more questions.

So, does this passage lend itself to a feminist interpretation? Yes, it does. However, as N. T. Wright points out, Jesus did not come to offer a left-wing alternative to a right-wing government, or vice versa.76 He came to bring about a whole new world. We must not substitute misogyny with misandry. The invitation to participate in the benefits of God’s kingdom is never withdrawn. Did the elder brother finally participate in the celebration of his prodigal brother’s return (Luke 15:11–32), or did Simon the Pharisee see the woman who had taught him so much about love and hospitality in a new light (Luke 7:36–50)? We are not told, because the door must always be left open for someone to choose life over death, freedom over bondage, and love over hatred.

Notes

1. Jocelyn McWhirter, Rejected Prophets: Jesus and His Witnesses in Luke-Acts (Fortress, 2013) 11.

2. Greg W. Forbes and Scott D. Harrower, Raised from Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts (Pickwick, 2015) 203–5.

3. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress, 2001) 86.

4. Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 1998) 337–38.

5. Constance F. Parvey, “The Theology and Leadership of Women in the New Testament,” in Religion and Sexism, ed. Rosemary Radford Reuther (Simon & Schuster, 1974) 141.

6. Mary Rose D’Angelo, “Women in Luke-Acts: A Redactional View,” JBL 109/3 (1990) 448.

7. Rosinah Mmannana Gabaitse, “Contextual Reading of Luke-Acts with Pentecostal Women in Botswana,” ch. 7 in Luke-Acts, ed. James P. Grimshaw, Texts@Contexts 4 (T&T Clark, 2019) 144.

8. D’Angelo, “Women in Luke-Acts,” 443.

9. Gabaitse, “Contextual Reading of Luke-Acts,” 144.

10. Turid K. Seim, “The Gospel of Luke,” in Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Commentary, ed. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (Crossroad, 1994) 2:761.

11. Linda M. Maloney and Elizabeth J. Smith, “The Year of Luke: A Feminist Perspective,” Currents in Theology and Mission 21/6 (Nov 1994) 416–18.

12. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “A Feminist Critical Interpretation for Liberation: Martha and Mary: Luke 10:38–42,” Religion and Intellectual Life 3/2 (1986) 21–36.

13. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (Crossroad, 1983; 2nd ed., SCM, 1995) 50.

14. Jane Schaberg, “Luke,” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe (Westminster/John Knox, 1992) 275.

15. Barbara E. Reid, Choosing the Better Part?: Women in the Gospel of Luke (Liturgical, 1996).

16. Barbara E. Reid, “The Gospel of Luke: Friend or Foe of Women Proclaimers of the Word?,” CBQ 78 (2016) 6.

17. Reid, “The Gospel of Luke,” 1.

18. Reid, “The Gospel of Luke,” 6.

19. Reid, “The Gospel of Luke,” 18.

20. Reid, “The Gospel of Luke,” 1.

21. Reid, “The Gospel of Luke,” 20.

22. Reid, “The Gospel of Luke,” 6.

23. Reid, “The Gospel of Luke,” 21.

24. For an extensive discussion on this topic, see I. Howard Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian (Paternoster, 1970).

25. Kylie Crabbe, “A Sinner and a Pharisee: Challenges at Simon’s Table in Luke 7:36–50,” Pacifica 24 (Oct 2011) 247; Robert C. Tannehill, “Should we Love Simon the Pharisee?: Hermeneutical Reflections on the Pharisees in Luke,” Currents in Theology and Mission 21/6 (Nov 1994) 433.

26. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” NIB 9:22.

27. Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1971) 39.

28. Kenneth R. Himes OFM, Christianity and the Political Order: Conflict, Cooptation and Cooperation (Orbis, 2013) 44.

29. Michael Fallon, The Gospel According to St Luke (Chevalier, 2007) 300.

30. Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 511.

31. Forbes and Harrower, Raised from Obscurity, 28.

32. Forbes and Harrower, Raised from Obscurity, 28.

33. Forbes and Harrower, Raised from Obscurity, 29.

34. Thomas J. F. Stanford, Luke’s People: The Men and Women who Met Jesus and the Apostles (Wifp and Stock, 2014) 189.

35. Dale W. Manor, “A Brief History of Levirate Marriage as it Relates to the Bible,” ResQ 27/3 (1984) 129.

36. K&D 1:423; Millar Burrows, “Levirate Marriage in Israel,” JBL 59/1 (March 1940) 31.

37. Samson O. Olanisebe, “Levirate Marriage amongst the Hebrews and Widow’s Inheritance amongst the Yoruba: A Comparative Investigation,” Verbum et Ecclesia 35/1 (2014) 3.

38. For example, Sarai gave Hagar to Abram (Gen 16:1–2), Rachel gave Bilhah to Jacob (Gen 30:4), and Leah gave Zilpah to Jacob (Gen 30:9).

39. For example, Elkanah had two wives. Hannah was (seemingly) barren and his younger wife Peninnah was not (1 Sam 1:1–2).

40. Dvora E. Weisberg, “The Widow of our Discontent: Levirate Marriage in the Bible and Ancient Israel,” JSOT 28/4 (2004) 405–6.

41. Michael Card, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement (InterVarsity Press, 2011) 226.

42. Manor, “A Brief History of Levirate Marriage,” 140.

43. Walter Brueggemann, The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power and Weakness, ed. Charles L. Campbell (Fortress, 1996) 145.

44. Robert J. Karris OFM, “The Gospel According to Luke,” NJBC 713; John Calvin, “A Harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke Vol. III, James and Jude,” trans. A. W. Morrison, in Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Eerdmans, 1978) 30.

45. Calvin, A Harmony of Gospels, 31.

46. Roger Pearse, “Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, (1859) Sermons 135–145,” Ethereal Library, https://ccel.org/ccel/pearse/morefathers/files/cyril_on_luke_13_sermons_135_145.htm.

47. Matthew Henry, “Luke 20,” Ethereal Library, https://ccel.org/study/Luke_20?width2=-1#.

48. Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 512.

49. Fallon, The Gospel According to Saint Luke, 301.

50. Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary (IVP, 1974) 291.

51. Amy-Jill Levine, “Matthew,” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed., ed. C. A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Westminster John Knox 2012) 475.

52. Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke, 390.

53. Mary Ann Beavis, “Feminist (and other) Reflections on the Woman with Seven Husbands (Mark 12:20–23),” in Hermeneutik der Gleichnisse Jesu: Methodische Neuansätze zum Verstehen urchristlicher Parabeltexte, WUNT 231 (Mohr Siebeck, 2011) 617.

54. William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, Daily Study Bible (Saint Andrew, 1955) 253.

55. Contra Seim, “The Gospel of Luke,” 2:759, who argues that the middle form of the verb “to marry” (gamizontai) has the effect of making the woman the subject of the sentence; that is, she permits, or does not permit, herself to be married. However, given the prevailing culture of the time and Luke’s overarching theme of Jesus bringing good news and freedom to the poor and oppressed, this nuance of the middle voice is unlikely.

56. J. J. Kilgallen, “The Sadducees and Resurrection from the Dead: Luke 20:27–40,” Bib 67 (1986) 479.

57. Warren Carter, “Mark,” in Wisdom Commentary, vol. 42, ed. Sarah J. Tanzer (Liturgical, 2020) 339.

58. Ayelet Seidler, “The Law of Levirate and Forced Marriage—Widow vs. Levir in Deuteronomy 25.5–10,” JSOT 42/4 (2018) 445.

59. Brueggemann, The Threat of Life, 145.

60. Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” 389; Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 511; Fallon, The Gospel According to Luke, 301.

61. Kristian A. Bendoraitis, “Behold, the Angels Came and Served Him”: A Compositional Analysis of Angels in Matthew (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015) 161.

62. Elizabeth Klein, Augustine’s Theology of Angels (Cambridge University, 2018) 86, 89.

63. Klein, Augustine’s Theology of Angels, 112.

64. Maria Pilar Aquino, Our Cry for Life: Feminist Theology from Latin America (Orbis, 1993) 145.

65. Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel, rev. ed. (Liturgical, 2015) 9–10.

66. A. M. Hunter, Introducing New Testament Theology (SCM, 1957) 60.

67. Claus Westermann, God’s Angels Need No Wings, trans. David L. Scheidt (Fortress, 1979) 12, 58.

68. Manor, “A Brief History of Levirate Marriage,” 140.

69. Card, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement, 226.

70. John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, rev. ed. (IVP, 2007) 55.

71. Brueggemann, The Threat of Life, 19.

72. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” NIB 1:459.

73. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” 459.

74. Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 511.

75. Morris, Luke, 291.

76. N. T. Wright, “A New World,” in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough, 2003) 386.

Photo by lucas mendes on Unsplash.