The story of Jesus as we have it in the gospels was written by men and, as far as preparation for church leadership has traditionally been concerned, for men.
But according to Professor Joan Taylor from King’s College London, dig a little deeper and you find the reality of the life of Jesus was far less male-dominated than we have often been told.
Take Mark, the earliest of the gospels. Throughout, women are rarely mentioned (and they speak even less), and you get the impression that Jesus chose to surround himself exclusively with other men.
But then you get to the end, at the crucifixion, and you find an acknowledgement that “many” women had been a part of his ministry all along, from Galilee to Jerusalem (the verses are Mark 15:40-41, if you want to look them up).
For Professor Taylor, that’s a clue — a huge clue.
“You have to go back to the beginning of the Gospel of Mark and reimagine just about every scene with women in it,” she said.
But it’s not mere guess work. Professor Taylor says hints are right there in the New Testament, and when combined with historical context — including fresh archaeological finds — they paint a very different, but more accurate, picture of women in Jesus’ ministry and the life of the early church.
The female disciple you’ve doubtless heard of is Mary Magdalene
In Luke, Mary is introduced as having been cured by Jesus of “seven demons”.
Professor Taylor says it’s hard to say much substantial about her, given the limited (and inconsistent) evidence in the New Testament.
There’s no hint in the gospels of the later tradition that she was a prostitute. But what the evidence does point to is the idea that she became very important to Jesus.
Crucially, we know she came to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, normally the job of a deceased person’s close female relatives or wife.
“She felt a responsibility to Jesus that indicates something about their relationship,” Professor Taylor said.
Then there’s her name, literally MarytheMagdalene, which Professor Taylor says is a likely reference to the Aramaic term magdal (meaning “tower”). That indicates Jesus gave her a nickname akin to when Simon was renamed Peter, meaning “rock”.
So all up, despite Mary’s elusiveness, we get the sense that she was a core female disciple.
So why isn’t she more prominent in the gospels? Embarrassment, basically.
“It’s obvious that there’s so much unease about Mary Magdalene, even in the New Testament,” Professor Taylor says.
An example of how this plays out can be seen in the post-resurrection accounts.
In John, Mary alone is the first to witness Jesus at the tomb, which Professor Taylor sees as the core story.
But in Matthew, she’s with another woman (“it’s not just quite enough to see him on her own”) and in Luke it’s men alone who see Jesus after his resurrection.
Even more mysterious, but just as curious, is Joanna
Joanna is introduced in Luke as “the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza”, and she too became a follower of Jesus after being cured of disease.
It’s a tiny reference, but it represents a scandal. Herod Antipas, for context, was the ruler of Galilee. So Joanna has just gone from being a lady of court to suddenly being on the road with Jesus.
As Professor Taylor asks, “What just happened?”
The same passage in Luke says Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and other women helped support Jesus and his disciples “out of their own resources”.
That means not only were these women out on the road with non-relative men (“extremely weird”, Professor Taylor says, in the context of first-century Judaea), but they appear to have played a hands-on role in the movement.
Professor Taylor has seen the impact of telling the story of Jesus through a different lens
One 13-year-old girl who watched her documentary was inspired to become a church minister; another young woman, to become a scholar.
“If I can reach out to those young women who might not have got this message from anywhere else, then it’s really, really worthwhile doing,” she said.
But while her message might be controversial to some, it’s not controversial to scholars.
Following the rise of feminism and the work of biblical scholars including Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Ally Kateusz, Professor Taylor says there’s now a more nuanced view of women in Jesus’ mission.
She says many men in biblical studies are also working hard not to fall into the traps of previous generations of scholars. But still the field is largely male-dominated.
“We have to be aware of the unconscious gender bias that we all have, we actually all have in our society. We can’t be ignorant of it,” she said.
Part of the problem is the fact that many people get into biblical scholarship via training for the priesthood — and in the Catholic Church and elsewhere, that’s still a male-only domain.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that in Christianity, facets of the church which were designed to not upset the social fabric of the Roman world have been exported into the modern world,” she said.
For her, the message should instead be one of love and equality.