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Vail Daily column: Women played leading roles in resurrection drama

Jack Van Ens

Mark, Matthew and Luke record women appearing ahead of anyone else at Jesus’ empty tomb. The Gospel of John adds an independent account of who stood first in line. “Mary Magdalen came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb” (John 20:1).

Why did this appearance of a woman as first responder puzzle Jesus’ contemporaries?

When Jesus was crucified, males authored their own lives, but women had their plots edited by men. Married women could neither own property nor sign a contract. In the eyes of the law, a woman was feme covert, “a woman covered by a man.” Their testimony wasn’t recognized in most Jewish courts of law.

Conservative biblical scholars point to women’s presence at the empty tomb as key evidence that proves the resurrection accounts are literally true. Murray Harris, a conservative professor of Bible at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, expresses why women who first saw the empty tomb add legitimacy to the biblical narrative. No one would invent the story of Mary Magdalene being the first responder, argues Harris, “given the fact that in Jewish law of the time a women’s testimony was unacceptable except in a few circumstances. This would have been the kiss of death. A fabricator would have had Peter or the disciples at the tomb (first).”

No eyewitnesses pinpoint what caused Jesus’ tomb to become empty. No person saw Christ’s resurrection. But this lack of eye-witness accounts doesn’t mean narratives of Christ’s resurrection are pious fiction, like Santa Claus tales.

Ethicist Allen Verhey, who taught at Duke Divinity School, wisely observes: “The stories, surely, are not the sort of history that an Enlightenment historian would like, but we may be confident about their substantial reliability. The Evangelists were not attempting to provide an archivist’s report; they were proclaiming the gospel (good news of Christ’s resurrection), but they were proclaiming the gospel because they were convinced that Jesus had been raised and the tomb was empty” (“The Christian Art of Dying: Learning from Jesus”).

That is, those who wrote the resurrection accounts didn’t first report on Jesus’ empty tomb and then deduce that God resurrected him from the dead. Believers who formed the early Christian Church harbored a conviction, an irresistible hint regarding what’s humanly impossible — that Christ lived and died and lived again. Their overly vivid imaginations didn’t conjure this tale.

Early Christians felt Christ’s spirit animating their lives. His power helped them surmount their troubles. It invigorated life with purpose because believers trusted what they couldn’t prove: That goodness wins over evil. Christ’s followers acted as if God defeated death. This conviction impelled them to walk in Jesus’ sandals. Trust in the resurrection shaped their Christian identity, which, in turn, created the Church’s witness.

Saint Augustine admitted it’s difficult to believe in Jesus’ physical resurrection. He wrote that “on no point does the Christian faith encounter more opposition than on the resurrection of the body.”

Some Christians reject bodily resurrection as intellectually naive. They interpret biblical accounts of Christ’s rising as metaphors, declaring the truth of what Jesus stood for survived his death. Those who treat the resurrection as poetry believe Jesus lives in his followers’ aspirations. “You ask me how I know he lives?” questions a venerable hymn’s lyrics. “He lives within my heart.” For progressive Christians, Jesus’ rising from the dead means he comes to life in peoples’ minds and spirits.

The church functions for these Christians as Christ’s resurrection body, rather than a reconstituted corpse that vacated an empty tomb. Progressive Christians interpret the heart of resurrection faith as a poetic hope, not a literal record of Jesus’ beating death’s odds.

However Christ’s resurrection is interpreted — as metaphorical or actual — remember the significant part women play in this drama. Their role is integral to the story. Relegated to second-class status in ancient society, biblical accounts of the resurrection treat women in a first-class way.

Respect those pushed to life’s periphery — the poor, the disenfranchised, the un-or-underemployed with dignity. Help the helpless.

In 1848, women espousing various takes on Christ’s resurrection nurtured a common conviction. No longer would they tolerate their rights denied in America. Gathering on July 19 and 20 at the Wesleyan Methodist Church of nearby Seneca Falls N.Y., Elizabeth Cady Stanton and four other women called for a Women’s Rights Convention.

These women provoked men to leave their comfort zones. Cady Stanton’s witty mind and tart opinions puckered men’s smugness that took-to-granted guys had the final say in court, in owning property and in casting votes.

Women made a deft move at the Seneca Falls Conference. They adapted Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence to their equal rights causes in 1848, which started the feminist revolution. In the Declaration of Sentiments approved at the Seneca Falls Convention, women edited Jefferson’s storied prose. It read: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Women’s resurrection power achieved rights in voting, testimony in law courts and in owning property. Such saucy spirit needs live in us this Easter Day.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com).


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