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They Came, They Saw, They Told: Witnesses to a Miracle

An excerpt from The Characters of Easter by Dan Darling

Published on:
March 4, 2021
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6 min.
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We should not dismiss the significance of who it is cast in the role of discovering and announcing Jesus’s resurrection. A handful of ordinary women, deputized to announce the news that made all of creation, from Eden, groan in anticipation. 

Today it may not seem so strange that women were the first to see the empty tomb of Jesus or that women were the first ones to announce the empty tomb to the rest of Jesus’ followers. But in the first century Greco Roman world, women were not the messengers the world would trust to bear important news. Women were not trusted as witnesses, in a court of law, in the court of public opinion, in important deliberations. 

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And yet the gospels all record women beholding and telling, seeing and sharing, weeping and waiting as the promise of salvation history, whispered by the Almighty to the first woman back in the Garden, came to fruition that Sunday morning. It wasn’t Pilate, the feckless governor who allowed the injustice of Jesus’ death to happen or the apostles, who fled in fear or the Roman guards who fainted as death suffered its final blow and the cold corpse of Jesus raised in victory. 

No, it was this band of women who discovered the most important square footage in all of human history. Commentator Leon Morris lauds their courage: “Against the background of the failure of the male disciples the devotion and the courage of the women shine out.”[1]

An Apologetic for Resurrection

There is a deep significance that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women. It’s significant in two ways. First, the gospels record a kind of unbroken chain of eyewitness testimony from the time of Jesus’ arrest all the way through his resurrection, with names included that could be historically verified. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, whose exhaustive study, The Resurrection of the Son of God is perhaps one of the most significant examinations of the evidence, remarks: “The women are prominent in all of the gospels: they saw Jesus die, watched his body being laid in the tomb, discovered the tomb empty and encountered an angel or two.”[2]

There is a deep significance that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women.

Another scholar, R. T. France concurs: “They are therefore the guarantee that when the tomb is found to be empty there has been no mistake: these same women saw him die and saw where he was buried; they would not have gone to the wrong tomb.”[3] Richard Bauckham notes the “scrupulous care in which the gospels present the women as witnesses.”[4] In particular, Matthew’s account in which Mary, Jesus’ mother, Salome, and “the other Mary” are named as present from death to resurrection. 

The law of Moses required the presence of at least two witnesses to verify a story (Deut. 19:15) and yet the gospels not only say “many women” were present but name at least five! This is part of an overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence Luke would later describe as “many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3). Later Paul, the former skeptical Pharisee, would conclude after his investigation that over 500 witnesses saw Jesus alive after his death (1 Cor. 15:6). 

There is a second reason the testimony of the women is crucial to believing the reality of the resurrection. It’s a counterfactual proof, but in the first century, the testimony of a woman was not considered valid evidence. Justin Taylor and Andreas Köstenberger explain the way women in the first century were treated:

In the first century, women were not even eligible to testify in a Jewish court of law. Josephus said that even the witness of multiple women was not acceptable “because of the levity and boldness of their sex.” Celsus, the second-century critic of Christianity, mocked the idea of Mary Magdalene as an alleged resurrection witness, referring to her as a “hysterical female . . . deluded by . . . sorcery.”[5]

So even though today, by modern standards of scholarship, the witness of these many women in seeing Jesus both dying on the cross, buried, and then risen is a hard-to-refute piece of evidence for the readability of the gospels and the historicity of the resurrection. 

The fact that women’s testimony was not received in the first century is also another piece of evidence. Why? Because the gospel writers and the apostles and disciples who gave their lives in response to Jesus’ resurrection would not have put forward the inadmissible evidence of female witnesses if they were fabricating a story. They would not have built their story based on the word of women. 

In fact, we know this because Jesus’ disciples didn’t believe Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary and the others. Luke says, “But these words seemed like nonsense to them and they did not believe" (Luke 24:10). And N. T. Wright argues that this is why you don’t see Paul name the women in his account of the resurrection account in 1 Corinthians 15, because this would not be convincing to a first century Greco-Roman world: “Clearly some even in the early days saw their presence as an embarrassment when announcing the gospel to a skeptical audience. Had the gospel stories been invented in the post-Pauline period, then, the likelihood of the women playing such a prominent role would be reduced to nil.”[6]

But even more than serving as proof that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, the presence of women at the cross and the empty tomb as early and faithful evangelists in this new movement God was building in the church tells us something about the upside-down nature of God’s new creation. 

The empty tomb is Eden come full circle.

The empty tomb is Eden come full circle. The Bible tells us that Satan cast his dark shadows near that forbidden tree in the garden, exploiting the innocence of a woman, and thus ushered in the curse of sin. In a world where death and destruction reign, sin marbles its way into the human experience, setting the cosmos on a violent and disruptive course. Meant to live in compatible harmony, women would conflict with men often fulfilling God’s macabre prediction that “he will rule over you.” In other words, men would use their strength, not in defense of women, not to protect women, not to build up women, but to put them down, sometimes through laws and structures and often through violence. 

Misogyny would not have and will not have the final word, however. For it would be through the offspring of a woman that God would move through human history to rescue his creation. The painful labor in childbirth, once a curse, would now birth the salvation of the world in Jesus and it is to women that God would first announce that resurrection has happened and the has been defeated. Women, essential for human existence and the first messengers of God’s new creation. 

Christianity is saying that even though sin has pitted men against women, there is another day coming when men and women will be restored to their original, fully flourishing, side-by-side purposes. God has restored new creation patterns in Scripture, where men no longer use their strength against women, but in Christlike love, lead empowered by the Spirit of the Second Adam. And women are empowered as heirs of Eve, heirs of those first witnesses, living out God’s original, flourishing vision of womanhood. 

God loves, values, and prizes women. And so should we.

In the church today there is much conversation, some helpful, some harmful, about the role of women. But while we may disagree on the roles, we can agree that God often uses women as bearers of the good news of his resurrection around the world. The list is nearly endless of those who have, like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the two Marys, and others, shared the news of the gospel to skeptical audiences: Lottie Moon, Gladys Alward, Fannie Crosby, Henrietta Mears, Harriett Tubman, Catherine Booth, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Joni Eareckson Tada, and so many more. 

It’s fashionable to see Christianity as repressive to women, judged by modern standards, but true students of history and Scripture understand how radical, how progressive the biblical vision of complementarity and mutual love laid out in Scripture really was for its time. Even the ways in which the church is often judged by her peers is rooted in an ethic about women that originated in the gospel story and spread throughout the world. God loves, values, and prizes women. And so should we. 

This Easter, we honor the witnesses of the Easter miracle by listening to their words and believing that Jesus is not in that tomb but is ascended to the Father in victory over sin and death. Like Mary, we should listen to the voice of the one who says, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? Jesus is risen as he said” (Luke 24:5–6). 

Daniel Darling
Daniel Darling is the director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement and the bestselling author of several books. He contributes at publications including Christianity Today, Homelife, InTouch and others.

Excerpted from The Characters of Easter: The Villains, Heroes, Cowards, and Crooks Who Witnessed History's Biggest Miracle by Daniel Darling (Moody Publishers, February 2021). Used by permission.

[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992).

[2] The New Testament in Its World, 318–319.

[3] “The Gospel of Matthew (The New International Commentary on the New Testament): France, R. T.: 9780802825018: Amazon.Com: Books,” accessed June 26, 2020, https://www.amazon.com/Gospel-Matthew-International-Commentary-Testament/dp/080282501X.

[4] “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony - Richard Bauckham - Google Books,” 49, accessed June 26, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/Jesus_and_the_Eyewitnesses.html?id=zcVVp_YD4w4C.

[5] Andreas J. Köstenberger and Justin Taylor, “Five Errors to Drop From Your Easter Sermon,” ChristianityToday.com, accessed June 26, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/april-web-only/five-errors-to-drop-from-your-easter-sermon.html.

[6] The New Testament in Its World, 319.

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