It is curious that upon rising from the dead the Lord appeared to Mary Magdalene and other women before appearing to the Apostles, His chosen witnesses. It is even stranger that He sent the women to the Apostles as witnesses, given that women were not considered valid witnesses at that time. Indeed, the Apostles do resist their testimony, considering it fanciful. While this behavior makes many modern people wince, it is not presented as a way of approving those reactions, but in order to highlight the curious fact that the Lord would send the women to the Apostles.
A common modern tendency (and I would say error) is to interpret the Lord’s actions sociologically and with a kind of revolutionary meaning. Many today prefer to see the Lord as an ancient version of a 1960s radical, so that in sending the women He was dismissing and overthrowing the social order of the time. They then continue by claiming that the Lord was pointing toward our far more “enlightened” times and would have us go even further, by ordaining women for example.
Aside from the radical revolutionary elements, the sociological interpretation has some validity. The Lord is in fact bypassing the norms of His day in sending the women to the Apostles.
But it is refreshing and enlightening to consider the action of the Lord theologically and spiritually as well. This seems a more likely purpose of the Scripture than as a sociological commentary or a tool for cultural revolution.
In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas considers the meaning of Jesus sending the women, summarizing the interpretation of others and adding his own thoughts. St. Thomas’ teachings are presented in bold, black italics, while my comments are shown in plain red text. The sections shown below are all from the Summa Theologiae Part III, Q. 55, Art. 1, Obj. 3.
St. Thomas’ replies to an objection that it was not in fact fitting for Christ to appear first to the women and then send them to the Apostles. Thomas records the objection to his teaching as follows:
Objection 3 … Now [the apostles] bore witness by preaching in public: and this is unbecoming in women, according to 1 Corinthians 14:34: “Let women keep silence in the churches”: and 1 Timothy 2:12: “I suffer not a woman to teach.” Therefore, it does not seem becoming for Christ’s Resurrection to be manifested first of all to the women and afterwards to mankind in general.
The stated objection is not without merit and should not simply be dismissed as misogynistic. The texts referenced from First Corinthians and First Timothy are underreported today, likely because they make modern people uncomfortable and because many commentators dismiss them as merely cultural artifacts.
But in these writings, St. Paul (and the Holy Spirit who inspired him) does not appeal merely to custom or culture. He gives a theological reason for the inappropriateness of women giving the official teaching of the Church in the Liturgy and other such gatherings. He writes, For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Tim 2:13-14).
In this passage, St. Paul is reflecting the teaching of Genesis, which describes the roles of Adam and Eve in the first sin differently: When confronted by the Lord, Eve responds, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). But the text says that Adam’s response was “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen 3:11).
So Eve was deceived and then was able to tempt Adam. This is at the heart of why St. Paul says that a woman should not teach officially in the Church. Although politically incorrect today, Paul argues that women are generally more easily deceived by the evil one. Also implicit in the Genesis text, a woman (perhaps through her beauty) can unduly influence men, who are often weak in this regard.
This sort of reflection elicits many objections today, both rational and emotional, but the sacred texts from St. Paul and Genesis should not be simply set aside as cultural artifacts. They are also theological reflections and deserve our attention. I have written more on this topic here: How is Adam’s Sin Different from Eve’s?.
St. Thomas makes an important distinction and shows why, despite the texts of Scripture, the objection does not hold in this case. He writes,
Reply to Objection 3. A woman is not to be allowed to teach publicly in church; but she may be permitted to give familiar instruction to some privately. And therefore as Ambrose says on Luke 24:22, “a woman is sent to them who are of her household,” but not to the people to bear witness to the Resurrection.
Thus the objection is set aside in this case because although a woman should not give magisterial teaching in the sacred assembly, it is certainly fitting that she should witness to and give instruction within her household.
St. Paul also mentions many women (Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Apphia, Mary, Persis, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Priscilla, Euodia, Syntyche, Phoebe, and Junia) participating in extended roles of service and in the work of evangelization. Outside the liturgy and other modes of official teaching, St. Paul’s teaching of women remaining silent does not seem to apply.
St. Thomas here reminds us of an important distinction. While a woman is excluded from giving the official teaching in the liturgy, in the familial setting she is still called to be among those who teach and bear witness. St. Thomas implies that the Apostles and first disciples form a family, hence there is no violation of the norms.
St. Thomas then turns his attention to another reason that it was fitting for the women to see Christ first and then to announce this to the Apostles:
But Christ appeared to the woman first, for this reason, that as a woman was the first to bring the source of death to man, so she might be the first to announce the dawn of Christ’s glorious Resurrection. Hence Cyril says on John 20:17: “Woman who formerly was the minister of death, is the first to see and proclaim the adorable mystery of the Resurrection: thus womankind has procured absolution from ignominy, and removal of the curse.”
Here is a great reversal of the order of Original Sin. Whereas Eve was deceived and then enticed her husband, now woman is offered the opportunity to see first and then to call man back from darkness and sin to behold the grace of the resurrection glory.
St. Thomas then adds a third teaching:
Hereby, moreover, it is shown, so far as the state of glory is concerned, that the female sex shall suffer no hurt; but if women burn with greater charity, they shall also attain greater glory from the Divine vision: because the women whose love for our Lord was more persistent—so much so that “when even the disciples withdrew” from the sepulchre “they did not depart” [Gregory, Hom. xxv in Evang.]—were the first to see Him rising in glory.
Love more quickly lays hold of the beloved than does mere affinity or friendship. The intensity of the women’s love described in the scriptural account makes them more tenacious and the Lord rewards such love, sending them to men of the family of disciples. Indeed, many a man has been saved unto the Lord by the devotion of his wife and her constant call for him to join her at the Lord’s feet.
Beyond theology, it is a culturally observed phenomenon that women are more naturally spiritual and intense than men. And while this may have disposed Eve to be too willing to succumb to the deceiving appeals of Satan, it is also what made Mary Magdalene and the other women more able to see him first.
Here, then, are some reflections, popular or not, on the sending of the women to the Apostles. The reflections are not devoid of sociological or cultural elements, they are rooted more richly in the world of spirituality and theology. To those who consider such reflections antiquated or even obnoxious, let me counsel contemplation and consideration rather than reaction. Often, the challenging and upsetting teachings of Scripture have much to teach us.