One remarkable component in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ physical Resurrection is the role of women as the first discoverers of the empty tomb. The absurdity of the situation doesn’t register with our modern egalitarian ears as it would have to a first century Palestinian Jew. Most of us today have been brought up to believe in the equality of all people in political, economic, and social life. However, this is not the case for the Jewish audience which first heard the claims of a vacant burial site where Jesus’ corpse had been interred. Given the low status of women in the social-cultural contexts of the first century Jewish world, it is extremely significant that the Gospel authors actually own up to the fact that women were the initial witnesses of Jesus’ empty tomb. While there existed positive roles for women in ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman society, the general view of women was that they were second-class citizens.
Josephus (a first century Jewish historian) reflects the Jewish practice that women should not be allowed to testify in a court of law as their word was absolutely worthless. He shows us this cultural sensibility of his day when he writes, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the inconstancy and presumption of their sex” (Antiquities 4.8.15). He goes on to equate the quality of a women’s testimony with that of a “ignoble slave.” One rabbinical prayer which Jewish men recited each day included an expression of thankfulness to God for not making him a slave, a Gentile, or a woman (Berachos 60b). Similarly, a rabbinical text called the Talmud chides, “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Sotah 19a).
Given this low view of women and their inability to give legal testimony, how extraordinary is it that women are the first discoverers and chief witnesses of the empty tomb of Jesus? If the account of the empty tomb were a later invention made-up to bolster the story of the early Christians, it would have certainly had Jewish men as the first witnesses. In fact, the first known pagan written challenge to Christianity was made by Celsus in his writing, The True Word (c. A.D. 175). In this writing, Celsus discounts the claim of Jesus’ resurrection (citing the Christians’ account of the empty tomb) because he says that an hysterical female was the witness to Jesus’ resurrection, referring to it as mere female gossip. Remember, Luke’s Gospel tells us that even Jesus’ male disciples did not believe the initial report of the women (Lk 24:10-11, 22-24).
Fully knowing this obvious weakness of the empty tomb story, all four Gospel writers seems to be people of integrity, demonstrated in their willingness to be faithful to all the facts. They accurately recorded what was for them a very embarrassing and awkward fact (the women’s testimony). Yet, this internal evidence of authenticity from the New Testament gives us one more good reason to trust the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ empty tomb.