For They Were Afraid

I don’t normally make a habit of blogging in the middle of the night, but sometimes an idea grabs you in its teeth and won’t let go until you’ve done something about it. In this case, it’s my relationship to the women of the passion narratives of the gospels.

I can’t, and won’t, make the intellectually fallacious arguments that the bible is in any way feminist or progressive.  It isn’t, and I find most feminist theology tedious and hard to digest.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the stories we do get of women in the bible – particularly the new testament – don’t grab me in a really visceral way. They do – possibly precisely because there is nothing intrinsically feminist about their stories, but rather they mirror my continued struggles with sexism today. In each of the passion stories (save one), despite large theological differences, there is one common thread: the women were the first to know, and the men did not trust them.

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Martha and Mary Magdalene – Carvaggio

Mark 16:

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

In Mark’s version (the earliest attested gospel), three women go to Jesus’ tomb to anoint the body: Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James and Salome.  When they find the tomb empty and hear the astonishing words of the angel, they flee. They’re the first to hear of the resurrected Christ, and yet say nothing to anyone.  These are the last words of Mark’s gospel. Obviously, at some point, someone must have cracked, or otherwise Mark’s gospel wouldn’t have been written. All the same, I understand exactly why it was written this way.  How often do women, armed with a powerful truth, keep silent because of fear? I know I’ve done it. I’ve probably done it this week. Fear of being laughed at, fear of being ignored, fear of being disbelieved, fear of silencing, often in very permanent ways. 

Mark has always been my favourite gospel to read, probably because it’s very human. The women at the end have shouldered a heavy burden of grief – they know it, and they’re getting on with their lives, even if it means handling the body of a dear friend, because someone has to do it. They’re not hiding in a locked room somewhere, like Jesus’ male disciples. 

You go on, because you must. I can’t stop myself from seeing misogyny anymore than I can stop myself from blinking. It’s a bad bargain, because when fear stops up your throat and locks your tongue, the truth festers inside until you can’t help but scream it or perish. If you manage to say out loud, “That’s a sexist thing to say,” or “That attitude is hurtful to women,” or even just a flabbergasted, “You fucker, why would you do something like that?” you’re met with resistance. Anger. Fear. Silencing. Worse, you’re met with nothing. No acknowledgment whatsoever that you’ve done anything other than bow your head and go on. Because you must.

Luke 24:

Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

“We know it’s true because a man did it.” Sometimes, as a feminist, you’re so grateful that someone put it into words other men will listen to, you’re willing to forgo the frustration that countless women have attested to it already. Stay silent, because you’re afraid.  Speak up, and they don’t believe you. In the game of he said, she said, he prevails. 

Though Matthew and Luke stem from the same sources (Mark and an unwritten, theorized Q gospel), their passion narratives differ. Matthew’s gospel has a punchier, action-movie feel to it. An angel appears to the women, telling them to tell the others that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Why, we don’t know, because Jesus himself immediately appears to them, and says the exact same thing. (A big budget picture, this one.) 

The eleven do go to Galilee, where Jesus meets them, as he said, but the consistent flow is lacking. For one, there’s an anti-semetic little interlude where the high priests and elders bribe the soldiery to tell everyone the disciples stole Jesus body “(a)nd this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” Which is darkly funny when you consider that all the passion narratives save this one are about how you can’t believe everything you hear. So while Matthew’s gospel makes no mention one way or another of whether the disciples when to Galilee because they believed the women’s story, or they went because they had nothing to lose, it’s easy to see why the author wanted to avoid conflating the silly, non-Christian Jews who believe any old lie they’re told with the followers of Jesus who believe in the resurrection. From a narrative standpoint, the omission makes sense. From a comparative reading standpoint, it stands out like a sore thumb. It’s entirely possible the disciples just ended up in Galilee independently of anything the women might have said – we don’t know. 

I can’t put my finger on why this version unsettles me. Erasure, perhaps. Every other passion narrative takes such pains to mention, however briefly, the women’s actions and reactions to the empty tomb, that this one rings extra hollow. It’s possible I just really hate Matthew’s gospel. (I do.) Maybe the author’s favourite drum to bang was the rather infamous anti-semitism (this is also the gospel that has the Jewish people claim the blood of Jesus on their heads), it super-ceded the cultural norm of ignoring and erasing women. Not a terribly comforting thought.

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Mary Magdalene at the Tomb (I was unable to find information on the artist of this one. If you know, please tell me!)

John 20:

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.

 

Peter is a dope, it is known. But similar to the story in Luke, he has to see what Mary said to believe it. And all he really knows is the body is gone. Later:

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 

(Author of John, don’t think I don’t see you reusing Matthew’s wording about the Jews.) Basically, it’s like the author couldn’t decide which to use: Luke’s story where the women are not believed until the men see it for themselves, or Matthew’s where the women ostensibly tell the disciples something, but Jesus takes it into his own hands and appears to them just to make super sure they know it’s true. 

Here’s the craziest thing about all these, and why these stories are keeping me up tonight: this is about someone LITERALLY COMING BACK FROM THE DEAD. The women did not speak because they were afraid, or they were not believed because their story was so flipping crazy-sounding. That’s shitty, in and of itself, but not unusual. But Jesus appears to the men, and they believe and speak in tongues and hug snakes and all sorts of cool things I am given to understand happens after the resurrection.

For us – for me, anyway – we can speak openly about sexism. We can give examples, name facts and statistics, tell our stories. Violence against women can literally happen in front of people – some of the things i have experienced were not without witnesses. It’s not a once in a lifetime occurrence. It happens all the time, in public and in private. Everyone can and should be able to see it, at least once in a while.

And yet.

Somehow, the thought that there still remains violence against women, slurs and sexual harrassment, and disbelief in competence, and wage gaps, and the feminization of poverty, and continued internalization of misogyny BY women is more incredible than someone coming back from the dead is mindblowing. People, good people as well as terrible ones, think this.  It keeps me awake at night.

They did not tell anyone, for they were afraid.  God help me, I’m afraid. I’m afraid to speak up, and I’m afraid to remain silent. 

 

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