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Gospel Women, Studies of the Named Women of the Gospels by Richard Bauckham. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002. See here.

I read this 310 page book earlier in the year. It had been on my “to read” list for a while because I kept seeing it referenced in other books or articles. With such frequent references to it, I thought it was important I read it for myself!

This is an academic book and less accessible to the interested lay person. However, I consider myself a lay person and I got through it! It was worth the effort. Yes, parts may be overly scholarly but there is interesting content and fresh insight about the named women of the gospels – which includes several Old Testament women because they are listed in the genealogy of Jesus.

One reason this book contains fresh insights is that Bauckham did not want to rely on secondhand references (calling himself a “determined enemy” of such) and instead immersed himself in the actual ancient sources and evidence. Not everything relevant to understanding the New Testament historically has been discovered, and there are continually fresh resources from the ancient world becoming available. (page xviii in introduction)

In the four gospels, there are 15 named women, 3 of those from the Old Testament. My review will essentially involve highlighting content that I found particularly interesting. (Note these are just highlights, and there is much more food-for-thought than I can reasonably share in a review!)

Chapters 1 covers Ruth, and chapter 2 covers primarily Tamar and Rahab. Bathsheba is also included but because Matthew’s genealogy refers to her as “Uriah’s wife” (and not by her name) there is not a section about her. Rather she is discussed in the overview section of the 4 women in the genealogy.

In our day, the sinful or tainted natures of Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba can be emphasized too often in an unfair way. (Yet sometimes in a positive way simply to point out that God utilizes sinful and ordinary people in the outworking of his plan for this world.) Insightful comments from pages 24-25:

⇒ ⇒ “Strange as it may seem to modern commentators, no moral stigma was attached to these women in Jewish tradition. But that it should seem strange may say something about the patriarchal connection of women and sexual sin not in Jewish tradition but in more modern times. One might wonder if the argument should be turned around, such that the mention of these women calls attention not to their own sin but to that of their male sexual partners. While this would work well for Judah and David, it would not for Boaz and Salma. It is remarkable, however, that no commentators seem to notice that, if sin is to be found in the genealogy, there is much more notorious biblical sinners among the men than the women.”

[Another helpful book in this regard: Vindicating the Vixens, Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible. Review here.]

Chapter 3 is about Elizabeth and Mary. I appreciated these thoughts:

“In Elizabeth and her son the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament culminates, while in Mary and her son the new creation begins.” (page 58)

“Mary’s motherhood is celebrated not as a purely domestic and familial matter, but as her active role in a great act of God for the salvation of his people. Mary’s motherhood is of national and even world-changing significance.” (page 59)

Chapter 4 is about Anna. Luke 2:36 states that the prophet Anna was of the tribe of Asher. Most commentators on Luke pass right over her tribe without comment.  Anna is the only Jewish character in the New Testament who is said to belong not to the tribe of Judah, Benjamin, or Levi, but to one of the northern tribes of Israel. (noted from pages 77-78)  Much of the chapter delves into this oversight and explains why Anna’s membership in this tribe is not insignificant:

“Anna ensures that the community represented in the narrative is Israel as a whole, northern tribes as well as southern, exiles as well as inhabitants of the land. She ensures that the messianic hopes represented include those of the northern tribes and the exiles.” (page 98)

Chapter 5 is entitled “Joanna the Apostle” and perhaps you are immediately thinking: Who is that? I’ve never heard of her! (More below.) First, this is a lengthy chapter, at 90 pages, even though Joanna is only mentioned in 2 places in Luke (8:3; 24:10)!  But both of these verses are significant in their context in Luke. The mention of Joanna (and other women) in these verses form an inclusio (the bracketing off of a section) from the beginning to end of the Galilean ministry of Jesus, indicating that these women were constant companions of Jesus and his other male disciples during this time.

The verses state that Joanna is the wife of Chuza who was the manager of Herod’s household, and she helped support Jesus and the disciples financially. Much can be historically and culturally deduced from these facts. The chapter delves into things like the name Chuza, the position of being a steward (manager), the implications of being connected to the Herodian court, and ways that women, even in more patriarchal times, could have independent wealth to share. From these things we learn that: Joanna was part of the Herodian upper class of Tiberias and crossed a significant social gulf in becoming a follower of Jesus. Also, there was generally ill will (anger and resentment) felt by the ordinary people of Galilee towards Tiberias. The disciples traveling with Jesus were a diverse group: men and women, ordinary people and the poor, as well as the social elite.

Finally, Bauckham makes an intriguing argument that Luke’s Joanna is the same person as the apostle Junia that Paul refers to in Romans 16:7! You might think this is rather far-fetched, but this is an academic book, and Bauckham has a lengthy section explaining it as a reasonable possibility.

Chapter 6 is about Mary of Clopas, who is only mentioned in John 19:25, and once again more can be determined about her than you think. On a side note, in the gospels when a personal name/identification is used for a character (other than public figures like Pilate), it is because they were well known in the early church and the first readers of the gospel in question would have already heard of them. (noted on page 212)

Chapter 7 looks at Salome, and this name only occurs twice in the New Testament in Mark 15:40 and 16:1. Her name is more frequently mentioned in noncanonical sources and other early Christian literature – and these sources are considered.

Chapter 8, the final one, is another lengthy (and important!) chapter covering 85 pages, entitled: “The Women and the Resurrection: The Credibility of Their stories.” We have all likely heard that women being recorded as the first witnesses to the resurrection is an apologetic defense for the resurrection itself. That is, a story featuring female witnesses would be a poor apologetic, and that in turn paradoxically gives credibility to it! This chapter delves into this in a scholarly way, and I’ll bring this review to a close with some excerpts:

⇒ ⇒ “In these stories women are given priority by God as recipients of revelation and thereby the role as mediators of that revelation to men. Is this not part of the eschatological reversal of status, in which God makes the last first and the first last, so that no one can boast before God?” (Page 275)

“I conclude that there is no evidence to suggest that the role of the women in the resurrection stories has been depreciated or limited in the Gospel narratives…Where male prejudice against their credibility is explicitly evoked (Luke 24:11), this is so that it may be decisively overturned. Where readers may bring such prejudice to the texts, even though the texts give no pretext for doing so, again the effect of the narratives will be to refute and to reverse assumptions of male priority and female unreliability…Within the Christian communities themselves the role of women as witnesses was highly respected. There seems to be no evidence that it became less over time. It is one of a variety of striking aspects of early Christianity that belong to the counterculture nature of the Christian communities as societies in which God’s eschatological overturning of social privilege was taken very seriously.” (pages 285-286)

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