John 20: Why the women?

Why did Jesus appear to the women first after his Resurrection?

John 20 has the beautiful story of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, who at first mistakes him for a gardener. This comes after she discovers the empty tomb, and John awkwardly inserts a story of John beating Peter to the tomb in a footrace before the Jesus-gardener appearance to Mary Magdalene. From a narrative flow, it seems a lot more likely that the appearance comes directly after the discovery of the empty tomb; similar stories show up in the later ending of Mark as well as in Matthew. John’s version has more rich detail and some significant differences, but all four gospel writers seem likely to have drawn on the same tradition of women discovering the empty tomb, and the encounter with the risen Jesus also bears a lot of narrative similarities.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 15), which was written before the gospels, he lists off Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, and he doesn’t mention the women at all. While some might think that his oversight here is because he is a misogynistic pig (which I don’t think he is), and others think it is because those appearances were made up later, I side with those who think that Paul’s omission actually underscores the problematic component of the stories. Because in the culture of the time, women were not considered to be reliable witnesses. So if Paul is trying to briefly underline the historicity of the resurrection, it makes sense in his context to list off the appearances to men.

But it would also make sense, then, for the gospel writers to omit those stories, too. Instead they center the Resurrection narratives around those stories, most of all John, who speaks about providing reliable witnesses more than his fellow gospel writers. So the fact that these stories are somewhat unhelpful and embarrassing to the cause, and yet are retold, seems to lend more credence to their authenticity.

So why did Jesus show himself to them first?

The simplest answer, maybe, is that they were the ones who were there. While the gospel writers offer different reasons why this was the case, they are unanimous in telling readers that it was women who went to the tomb while the men were hiding out. John has one woman, Mary Magdalene, in his story; the others add other women disciples to the group. So if it was women who had the gumption and loyalty to go to the tomb, it would make sense that they would be the ones to see him.

Except nobody actually sees the resurrection itself in any of the stories. They see the empty tomb, usually with angels around, and then they separately meet Jesus. And Jesus isn’t stuck to the geography in his risen state: he walks with followers on the road to Emmaus and breaks into the room where his (male) disciples were hiding. So I’m not sure how compelling it is to say that Jesus appears to the women as a matter of location.

It could be that Jesus appears to them first as a way of rewarding them for being more courageous, more committed, than his other followers. He doesn’t say that in any of the stories, but it’s a possibility.

I think the most compelling answer is that the resurrected Jesus continues the pattern He set before his death. (Earthly Jesus? Jesus 1.0?) Because throughout the gospels, he spends most of his time hanging out with, talking to and healing people on the margins, people whose voices the society of the time didn’t value. So among his followers, almost all of whom were outcast, why not prioritize the ones who are further marginalized by their gender?

To state the obvious, most of organized Christianity has completely missed this point. Even today, many churches have a lot more allegiance to a patriarchal understanding of women’s roles than they do to Jesus’ lived example. So whether these stories of Jesus’ appearances to women are a reminder that it was women who took the first step in faith and women who first spread the Good News, or whether they are a reminder that God goes to the marginalized first, the Easter message needs rehearing for those who show up at Church, whether they come twice a year or run the whole thing.

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