Why were women the first to discover the Resurrection?

About the year AD 50, towards the end of his second missionary journey, Paul founded the church in Corinth. A few years later, perhaps while staying in Ephesus that he received disconcerting news of jealousies, rivalry, and immoral behavior within the new Church. Being at heart a Rabbi, Paul writes them a letter – or epistle to tell them how to live as a community following the teachings of Jesus the Christ. Paul wrote it – or at least most of it through scholars argue that the verse admonishing woman to remain silent and not ask questions in public (1 Corinthians 14:34–35) was added at a later date by someone other than Paul. This verse also goes squarely Luke’s story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) where Jesus commends Mary for choosing the “better things” by being part of his discussion group.

Tonight’s reading is part of Paul’s expression of his Doctrine of Resurrection which runs in the first eleven verses of this chapter. It is the earliest account of the Easter story in the New Testament. Paul’s account predates first gospel telling of the resurrection – found in the Gospel attributed to Mark – by about 20 years. But his telling of the Easter story also conflicts with the all four of the Gospels.

Paul writes: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (St. Peter), then to the twelve.” But that’s not how tonight Gospel, the one attributed to Matthew, tells this story. Nor is it the Easter story of Mark, Luke, or John.

All four of the Gospel resurrection stories tell us a woman or women were the first to discover Christ’s resurrection. Mary Magdalene plays a central role in several of these texts. So why does Paul omit any mention of the role women played in the first Easter? That’s an interesting question.

The Hebrew Bible is a book primarily written by men, for men, and about men.[1] First century Jewish culture was, like the Greco-Roman society which surrounded it, highly patriarchal. Mary Magdalene was both a disciple of Jesus and the first witness to the resurrection. Yet one Gospel tells us some of the men at first refused to believe Mary’s Easter story because “she made no sense.” How many women here tonight have had their words dismissed with a similar statement or sentiment?

Likewise, until recently, most scholars overlooked the women found in the ministry of Jesus. Scholar Karen L. King, Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard University’s Divinity School, tells us “the stories of women we thought we knew well are changing in dramatic ways. Chief among these is Mary Magdalene, a woman infamous in Western Christianity as an adulteress and repentant whore. Discoveries of new texts from the dry sands of Egypt, along with sharpened critical insight, have now proven that this portrait of Mary is entirely inaccurate. She was indeed an influential figure, but as a prominent disciple and leader of one wing of the early Christian movement that promoted women’s leadership.”[2] Why the disconnect between the role of Mary as we now know it and the patriarchy that envelopes so much of Christianity today? Perhaps this stems from the difference between Paul’s theological beliefs and those of Jesus the Christ.

Fifteen of the 27 books in the Christian Bible are, in one way or another, directly tied to Paul.[3] These 15 books include eight epistles that Paul actually wrote, six he most likely did not write, and the Acts of the Apostles which was largely written about Paul.[4] Paul centered his belief on the restriction: he preached that all who accepted the Easter story would be admitted to the Kingdom of God when it arrived.[5]

In contrast, Jesus predicted God would soon destroy evil and establish the kingdom of God here on earth.[6] His is a more radical – and a more dangerous – message to preach. It is one of the reasons why the Romans crucified Jesus: he was too dangerous to the status quo to be allowed to live.

Jesus did not expect to establish a stand-alone church carrying his name. He did not invite people to gather and worship him.

Jesus asked people to follow him, to literally leave their homes and jogs and families, to follow him and walk with him as he taught and healed and prayed.

Jesus came to teach people how to live a good life. People followed him because he taught them how to lead a good life. Not how to get into heaven, not how to avoid hell, not how to use incense or chant on key. Jesus taught people how to live a more authentic life, how to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer to reality in their time and place.

And Jesus opened his ministry – his teaching and his heart – to all who would follow him. He opened his way to uppity women and much-hated tax collectors; to unclean or ill people avoided by most reasonable folk; to the poor as well as the rich, to those excluded and untouchable by society’s “best people.”

Jesus broke with Jewish tradition and opened his community of followers to women. He took meals with women and men, taught women and men together in a single group, and gave leadership positions to women.[7]

Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene to make clear his commitment to including women in places of leadership within the community that would evolve into the Christian Church. This was an intentional act by a radical rabbi who wanted to make clear his rejection of the restrictive roles forced on women by the surrounding patriarchal society.

This Easter, if we are to follow the Jesus who rose from the dead, we must follow him on the path which offers equality and equity to all: regardless of gender or age or race or religious belief or sexual orientation of undocumented status.

This is the core commitment we make in following Jesus, the one we reaffirmed in repeating our Baptismal vows, the one calling us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. On this teaching hands all the laws and the prophets, this is the light that illumines our way forward. On this holy night, may this light of Christ flows from this sacred space into our lives and out into our world.

Let us pray. Sanctifier of time and space, maker of dancing quarks and ancient quasars, of energy and element, of woman and man, queer and straight, white and black, native American and Asian, Muslim and Hindu, agnostic and atheist, evangelical and Episcopalian, God of the undocumented worker and the children whose parents have been deported to another land, We call on you to hear our prayer. Blessed are you, God of Gods. Your saving love endures forever; your holy light pierces the cold darkness of death and chaos; you cut a covenant of life with your creatures, which no evil can overcome. May the glorious radiance of resurrection dispel the shadows in our lives and conform us more closely to your risen Christ, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor, praise, and glory. May the church say: Amen!


[1] Women in Ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible, Susan Ackerman, Oxford Online Encyclopedias, http://religion.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-45 @ 3/31/2018 12:42 PM

[2] Women In Ancient Christianity: The New Discoveries, Karen L. King, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/women.html @ 3/31/2018 12:50 PM

[3] Christianity Without Paul, @  http://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/christianity/2004/04/christianity-without-paul.aspx#qiuFkrxTOywxehUj.99 3/31/2018 1:00 PM

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Interestingly, St. Paul also gave leadership roles to women – many of his Epistles are addressed to women who hold leadership positions in the churches he has established.


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