Book review: Jesus Through the Eyes of WomenWritten by Subby Szterszky
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If the women who followed Jesus could tell you what he was like, what would they say?
Jesus’ treatment of women was revolutionary. That’s why they flocked to him. Wherever he went, they sought him out. Women sat at his feet and tugged at his robes. They came to him for healing, for forgiveness, and for answers. So what did women see in this first-century Jewish rabbi and what can we learn as we look through their eyes today?
Those are the questions posed on the back cover of Rebecca McLaughlin’s book, Jesus Through the Eyes of Women: How the First Female Disciples Help Us Know and Love the Lord. Going beyond a standard survey of women in the New Testament, McLaughlin’s work explores how these women saw Jesus and what their perceptions have contributed to our understanding of him.
Throughout the Gospels, women are key eyewitnesses of Jesus’ birth, life, death, burial and resurrection. As McLaughlin explains, it’s through their eyes and interactions with Jesus that we see and experience some of the most vital and beautiful truths about our Lord.
Jesus seen through six lenses
The bulk of McLaughlin’s book examines the lives of the named and unnamed women in the Gospels and groups them into six categories based on their interactions with Jesus. Each category corresponds to a lens through which the women saw the Lord, which in turn casts light on some aspect of who he is.
The first lens is prophecy, focusing on the testimony of the three women associated with Jesus’ birth. The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, a young woman still in her teens, to tell her she would bear God’s Son who would be the promised messianic descendant of David. When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, the older woman was filled the Holy Spirit and uttered a prophecy about the unborn Jesus. It was the first human prophetic utterance since Malachi predicted the coming Messiah, 400 years earlier. Mary in response sang her exuberant Magnificat, recognizing the prophetic fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and his offspring. When the infant Jesus was dedicated at the temple, a prophetess named Anna began to speak about him, becoming the first evangelist in the New Testament.
The second lens is discipleship, illustrating the fact that many of Jesus’ disciples were women, some of whom travelled with him while others stayed where they lived. Among the former were a group of wealthy women who accompanied Jesus and financially supported his ministry. Included in their number were Mary Magdalene who figures prominently throughout the Gospels; Joanna the wife of a royal official and likely the source of information about Herod’s court; and Susanna, the mention of whose name suggests she was a well-known follower of Jesus. By contrast, Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha never ventured far from their hometown but were among Jesus’ closest friends. Jesus revealed to Martha that he was the resurrection and the life, and he allowed Mary to sit at his feet and learn from him, a role reserved exclusively for men by rabbinic tradition.
The third lens is nourishment or provision, in which several women interacted with Jesus around the symbolic themes of food and drink. At the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus listened to his mother and turned hundreds of litres of water into fine wine, anticipating his own eternal wedding feast with his people in the new creation. His longest recorded private conversation was with a Samaritan woman at a well, whom he gently but firmly led to faith by offering her living water and telling her the secrets of her heart. This woman then became the first non-Jewish evangelist to her own people. Whilst Jesus was travelling in the region of Tyre and Sidon, he was met by a Gentile woman who begged him to heal her daughter, humbly accepting any crumbs that Jesus, the bread of life, would give her. Jesus responded by commending her great faith and granting her plea.
The fourth lens is healing and follows a trajectory of four women whom Jesus healed. The first was Peter’s mother-in-law, who was suffering from a high fever. Jesus touched her hand, and she was instantly restored to health and activity. The stories of the next two women are intertwined: a twelve-year-old girl on the brink of death, and a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years. The girl’s father, Jairus, begged Jesus to come and save his little daughter. But on the way, the woman came up behind Jesus, touched the edge of his robe and was healed of her chronic bleeding. She had been an outcast because of her condition and hoped to meld back into the crowd, but Jesus drew her out, called her “daughter” and assured her that her faith had made her well. Meanwhile, the young girl had died, but Jesus went with her parents and raised her up with a gentle word. Jesus healed the fourth woman of her disability on a Sabbath and called her a daughter of Abraham, equal in rights and dignity with the sons of the kingdom.
The fifth lens is forgiveness, portrayed in two beautiful, lyrical accounts of “fallen women,” as earlier societies would have labelled them. In the first, Jesus had accepted an invitation to dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. During dinner, a woman known as a sinner in the community, perhaps a prostitute, came and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, kissing and anointing them with perfume. Simon was scandalized, but Jesus told him that the woman was expressing her great love for him, because he had forgiven her many sins. In the other story, the Pharisees dragged a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and asked him whether she ought to be stoned to death. Jesus turned the tables on them, saying the one without sin should throw the first stone. After they had all shuffled out, Jesus forgave the woman and told her to sin no more.
The sixth lens is life, or more specifically the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus which is the source of our spiritual life. In all four Gospel accounts, women are at the forefront as the eyewitnesses to these events. While Jesus’ male disciples fled and hid and denied knowing him, the women stayed with him as he died on the cross. They participated in his burial and observed the tomb where he was laid. On the third day, they were the first to the tomb and to see that it was empty, and they were the ones to whom the angel revealed that Jesus had risen. This was the same group of women who had accompanied Jesus on his travels and financially supported his ministry, along with several others, including his mother Mary at the foot of the cross. Mary Magdalene is the most prominent among this group of women, present throughout in all four Gospel accounts. She was the first person to see the resurrected Lord and to speak with him. She was also the first to share this news with the male disciples, in effect becoming an apostle to the apostles.
The testimony of women
Unlike other belief systems born in the ancient world, the truth claims of Christianity aren’t based on myths and legends outside of history. They’re founded on actual events witnessed by real people who told others about them, who then recorded them for future generations.
At the same time, it would have shocked the original readers, both Jew and Gentile, that so much of the Gospel accounts relied on the eyewitness testimony of women. In both Greco-Roman and Jewish society, women were seen as overly emotional, gullible and superstitious, given to what was derided as “religious hysteria.” Their testimony was considered unreliable and inadmissible in courts of law.
Nevertheless, God persisted in choosing women for pivotal roles in his drama of redemption, and as crucial eyewitnesses to it. Women bookend the story of Jesus, from the poor rural teenage girl who bore him, to the woman who’d been oppressed by seven demons and was the first to meet the risen Lord and tell others about him. Along the way, women of diverse backgrounds encountered Jesus, were changed by him and testified to their experience of him.
Drawing on the work of New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, McLaughlin makes the case that the Gospel writers highlighted the names of these women because they were well-known followers of Jesus. They were not only eyewitnesses to the events surrounding them, but their testimony would have been trusted by the early faith community.
McLaughlin summarizes: “The women among Jesus’ disciples are noted for their faithfulness, and each of the Gospel authors depends on the testimony of women at vital points in their accounts. In fact, if we worked through the Gospels in our Bibles and cut all the scenes not witnessed by women, we would only lose a small portion of the texts. If we cut the things that only women witnessed, we’d lose our first glimpse of Jesus as he took on human flesh and our first glimpse of his resurrected body. The four Gospels preserve the eyewitness testimony of women. The central question of this book is, ‘What did Jesus look like through their eyes?’”
Jesus and women, then and now
“From the earliest evidence we have about the composition of the church to our best data today,” McLaughlin writes, “it seems that Jesus has always been more attractive to women than to men.”
McLaughlin backs up this claim with a survey of historical and contemporary information. From the outset, opponents of Christianity disdained it as a religion for women. The 2nd-century Greek philosopher, Celsus, scoffed that Christians “want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonourable and stupid, only slaves, women, and little children.” The Roman governor Pliny the Younger, writing to the emperor Trajan about the new faith, noted that he’d tortured “two female slaves, who were called deaconesses.” Records of a church raid in North Africa during the Great Persecution between AD 303 and 313 document the seizure of about five times more items of women’s clothing than of men’s. In the years prior to the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 337, there are records of 40 Christians from the senatorial or upper class, two-thirds of whom were women.
Why were women – even wealthy, socially connected women – drawn to Christianity? Roman society was built around dominance and the exercise of power: the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, masters over slaves, men over women. Far from being recognized as equal persons under the law, women were considered the property of men, who could use them any way they saw fit.
But Jesus flipped that cultural script on its head. As the God who created all people in his image, Jesus taught that every person – male or female, rich or poor, slave or master, Jew or Gentile – possessed equal dignity and value. He welcomed them all with the same respect, kindness and compassion. And his followers were expected to do the same.
“This ethical reversal, based on Jesus’ words and actions,” McLaughlin observes, “made Christianity especially attractive to women in the ancient world and formed the basis of our modern belief that women are fundamentally equal to men. Far from being antithetical to women’s rights, Christianity is their first and best foundation.”
Through two millennia of church history and right up to the present, Jesus continues to hold a special attraction for women. According to a 2015 report, more women than men across the world identify as Christians, particularly in China where the church is growing faster than almost anywhere else. Women around the world are far more likely to attend church weekly, pray daily and read the Bible for themselves than men. And it all stems from the way Jesus treated women from the beginning.
McLaughlin concludes: “The four New Testament Gospels tell multiple stories of Jesus relating to women. Poor women. Rich women. Sick women. Grieving women. Old women. Young girls. Jewish women. Gentile women. Women known for their sinfulness. Women known for their virtue. Virgins and widows. Prostitutes and prophetesses. Looking through their eyes, we see a man who valued women of all kinds – especially those vilified by others. Indeed, the way that Jesus treated women tore up the belief that women are innately inferior to men: a belief that was pervasive in the ancient world. We should not be surprised, therefore, that women have been flocking to Jesus ever since.”
Jesus promised that once he had been lifted up, he would draw all manner of people to himself. As Rebecca McLaughlin eloquently argues, much of what we know and love about Jesus, we see through the eyes of the women who first knew and loved him. For this, we owe an eternal debt of gratitude to these, our elder sisters in the faith.
Sources and further reading
Rebecca McLaughlin, Jesus Through the Eyes of Women: How the First Female Disciples Help Us Know and Love the Lord, The Gospel Coalition, 2022.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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