Myrrh-bearing Witnesses  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

In the Eastern Orthodox calendar today is the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women.   Several women disciples of Jesus came to his tomb to properly anoint the body, which had been hastily sealed up so as not to violate the sabbath.  In first-century Palestine this was women's work.  However, they became the earliest witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus, which was definitely not women's work.  In the ancient world women were almost universally considered too flighty and prone to hysteria to be trusted as witnesses.  This issue is addressed by NT Wright in his magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress 2003), who paradoxically advances it as proof for the historicity of the resurrection.  The excerpt is found on pp 607-608.


Even if we suppose that Mark made up most of his material, and did so some time into the late 60s at the earliest, it will not do to have him, or anyone else at that stage, making up a would-be apologetic legend about an empty tomb and having women be the ones who find it.  The point has been repeated over and over in scholarship, but its full impact has not always been felt:  women were simply not acceptable as legal witnesses.  We may regret it, but this is how the Jewish world (and most others) worked.  The debate between Origin and Celsus shows that critics of Christianity could seize on the story of the women in order to scoff at the whole tale; were the legend-writers really so ignorant of the likely reaction?  If they could have invented stories of fine, upstanding reliable male witnesses being first at the tomb, they would have done it.  That they did not tells us either that everyone in the early church knew that the women, led by Mary Magdalene, were in fact the first on the scene, or that the early church was not so inventive as critics have routinely imagined, or both.  Would the other evangelists have been so slavishly foolish as to copy the story unless they were convinced that, despite being an apologetic liability, it was historically trustworthy?

...It is easy to imagine that, when a tradition was established for use in preaching to outsiders, stories of women running to the tomb in the half-light would quietly be dropped, and a list produced of solid witnesses who could be called upon to vouch for what they had seen.  It is not easy at all--in fact, I suggest, it is virtually impossible--to imagine a solid and well-established tradition, such as that in 1 Corinthians 15, feeling itself in need of some extra stiffening  in the first place, or, if such a need was felt (why?), coming up with a scatter of women on a dark spring morning.  The stories may all have written down late in the first century...But we must affirm that the story they tell is one which goes back behind Paul, back to the very early period, before anyone had time to think, "It would be good to tell stories about Jesus rising from the dead; what will best serve apologetic needs?'  It is far, far easier to assume that the women were there at the beginning, just as, three days earlier, they had been there at the end.

This entry was posted on Sunday, May 8, 2011 at Sunday, May 08, 2011 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



Isn't there a tradition of bones that ooze oil in the Orthodox churches as "myrrh-bearing"?

May 21, 2011 at 4:42 PM

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