Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Where Are The Female Witnesses In Acts?

It's often noted that the gospels' claim that Jesus' tomb was found empty by some of his female followers is unlikely to have been fabricated. The culture of that day held the testimony of women in much lesser esteem than the testimony of men, and the male disciples are made to look bad in contrast to the women.

Notice that the reasoning here doesn't just apply to the empty tomb accounts. The women also are prominent in the accounts of the crucifixion and burial, and they're sometimes referred to as the first witnesses of the risen Jesus. The prominence of women in all four contexts (death, burial, empty tomb, and resurrection) is highly unlikely to have been made up.

But I want to focus on something else. Luke gives us our earliest church history, covering roughly the first three decades. In that church history, he gives a lot of attention to male witnesses (Peter, John, Stephen, Philip, Paul, Apollos, James, etc.). Where are the female witnesses? They're in his gospel, so why aren't they in Acts?

To see the significance of this point, think of how critics sometimes approach the issue of the lack of female witnesses of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8. It's sometimes suggested that Paul doesn't mention female witnesses because he doesn't know of any. I would argue that he doesn't include them for other reasons, such as how little people in Paul's day trusted the testimony of women.

Regardless of what we make of the lack of female witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15, Luke can't be accused of being ignorant of embarrassing and unusual details in the accounts of Jesus' death and resurrection. So, if he avoids those details in relevant contexts in Acts, that's significant evidence of the embarrassing and unusual nature of those details. It's evidence that the details wouldn't have been fabricated by the early Christians.

The female witnesses in Luke's gospel seem to be included among the women referred to in Acts 1:14, but they're not even named, and their role in that one passage in Acts is relatively minor. They never serve as witnesses of Jesus' death, his burial, the empty tomb, or the resurrection appearances in Acts. Instead, men like Peter, the other original disciples, and Paul have those roles. Jesus' death, his burial, the empty tomb, and the resurrection appearances come up often in Acts. Appeal is frequently made to Peter and others as eyewitnesses in those contexts (2:14, 2:32, 3:15, 4:20, 5:32, 10:39, 10:41, 13:31, 22:15, 23:11, 26:16). The women, by contrast, are never appealed to, and Luke never records any instance of their addressing the public on those issues the way men like Peter and Paul do. Even lesser men, like Philip and Apollos, are more prominent than the women.

Acts gives the impression that some of the details about Jesus' death and resurrection in Luke's gospel were difficult for the early Christians. The difficulties could easily have been avoided if the early Christians were just making up stories (have men be the earliest witnesses of the empty tomb, for example). Instead of avoiding the difficult details, they didn't mention them much and placed more of a focus on less difficult themes. It's unlikely that the difficult details were fabricated. The prominence of women in the events surrounding Jesus' death and resurrection was a matter of public fact that couldn't be ignored. But their prominence was deemphasized by giving more attention to less problematic witnesses.


  1. How do you know (1) the women were particularly active after the resurrection, (2) the actions of the women were important enough to merit inclusion in Acts, or (3) the actions of the women were known to Luke? Alternative explanations are plausible.

    1. Jayman,

      None of the three objections you've brought up are relevant to what the women had done prior to the history recorded in Acts. I mentioned four significant contexts in which the women were prominent before that time (Jesus' death, burial, empty tomb, and resurrection appearances). Luke mentions some of the women's roles in those contexts in his gospel, so he can't be said to be ignorant of the subject, as I mentioned in my initial post. (Remember how I contrasted Luke with Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.) Acts often appeals to witnesses of events prior to the timeframe when Acts begins, so the absence of any appeal to the female witnesses when discussing the contexts mentioned above is significant.

      Your objections are more relevant to why the women aren't mentioned as active witnesses during the timeframe Acts narrates. But even if we were to agree with your objections, you're only providing a partial response to my argument. The other part of my argument, outlined in the paragraph above, would be unaffected.

      But I don't see how your objections overturn either part of my case. The reference to women in Acts 1:14 seems to include the women in question. They were present at that point. And what they had witnessed, often as the primary or only witnesses, was highly significant in the context of Acts (as I documented). Every one of the Twelve was active and mentioned as a witness (Acts 2:14). Are we to believe that every one of the women just happened to not serve as a witness for reasons not having to do with how their gender was viewed in that culture? That seems to be an unlikely coincidence. The contrast between the participation of every one of the Twelve and the lack of participation by any of the women is stark. The cumulative effect when you take the rest of Acts into account is even starker. The more often male witnesses are appealed to, while highly relevant female witnesses aren't, the harder it is to dismiss the role of gender in that contrast.

      You refer to how explanations other than mine are "plausible". My argument depends on which explanation is best, even if other explanations are possible. While it's possible that the women collectively became significantly less active after the events at the close of Luke's gospel, all of their later actions happened to be unknown to Luke (while he was so aware of the actions of so many male witnesses), etc., that sort of scenario isn't the most likely one. And even if such a scenario had occurred, it wouldn't explain the other aspect of my argument that I've summarized in the first paragraph of this post.

    2. My comment was intended to only address the women in Acts. I agree that in the first-century the word of a woman was generally taken less seriously than the word of a man. I agree that Acts 1:14 seems to include the women and that what they had witnessed was important.

      I also think your explanation is plausible. But it is merely one of a number of plausible explanations. I don't think we have enough evidence to give even a probable explanation as to why the women are not mentioned more in Acts. Sometimes, due to lack of evidence, even the best explanation cannot be considered likely.

      We might also ask why the brothers of Jesus (mentioned in Acts 1:14) are not mentioned more? James, in particular, seems to have been one of the most significant figures in first-century Christianity and a witness to the resurrection but, for whatever reason, Luke does not tell us all that much about him. It can't be because James was a woman. Luke must have had other reasons to omit things.

      You are correct that the Twelve are mentioned but very infrequently (1:26; 2:14; 6:2). Many of them are not mentioned by name. Presumably the did more than we know now but their deeds were not recorded.

    3. Jayman,

      My argument hasn't been dependent on women being the only group or individual given less attention for some reason. I agree that some of the original disciples receive less attention than others and that the brothers of Jesus aren't given much attention. (However, the Twelve are addressed much more than you've suggested. In addition to the terms "eleven" and "twelve", you have to look at other terms, like "apostles" in 2:37, 2:42, 4:33, 5:12, 5:29, 8:1, etc.) The people you've cited are far more prominent in Acts than the women are, even in contexts where the women were the only, the first, or the more prominent witnesses of the events being addressed in Acts. The women may be less prominent than other individuals in Acts for the reason I've argued, even if people like Matthew and Jude are less prominent than others in Acts for some other reason. If your objection is primarily about a distinction between a best explanation and a probable one, then I don't think that's much of an objection.

      You've agreed with me that "the word of a woman was generally taken less seriously than the word of a man", and that aspect of the society would be influential in the events of Acts. How would it not be? If you agree with me about the point I made in the first paragraph of my previous response to you, as you apparently do, then how would that sort of refraining from citing women's testimony due to gender not be accompanied by a refraining from having them speak as witnesses due to gender? I think the two are so closely related that they go together. It would be hard to accept the one while not accepting the other. If Peter refrains from mentioning the female witnesses due to gender, then his choice to be a spokesperson for Christianity while the women aren't (in Acts 2, etc.) probably is due to gender as well, even if other factors also were involved. If Acts gives us a widespread pattern of men's testimony, while female witnesses are less prominent or ignored even where their testimony was comparably or more evidential, it's unlikely that such a lengthy pattern would occur only for reasons other than gender.

  2. The gospel of Luke seems to include stories that only Mary would know the details of. Suggesting that Luke may have interviewed Mary, or received tradition of stories attributed to Mary. The genealogy of Luke might be that of Mary. Yet, Luke doesn't attribute this material to Mary (directly or indirectly). Maybe because Mary was female.