Richard Carrier Improbable Women

Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


11. Did No One Trust Women?

11.1 No Evidence Women Were a Problem

11.2 Testimony of Women Was Trusted

11.3 Why Mark Places Women at the Empty Tomb

11.4 Conclusion


11.1. No Evidence Women Were a Problem

James Holding argues that “if Christianity wanted to succeed, it should never have admitted that women were the first to discover the empty tomb or the first to see the Risen Jesus,” nor should it have “admitted that women were main supporters” or “lead converts.” But why should that be a problem? Holding claims it would be a “stigma” that Christianity would have to overcome. But he never makes any sense of this argument. There is no evidence Christians ever used any female testimony to promote the Gospelas Holding himself admits when he cites 1 Corinthians 15: the only evidence Christians actually appealed to when winning converts was the eyewitness testimony of men. Therefore, there would not have been any stigma to overcome, even if having women as witnesses would have presented one. And a closer look at the evidence does not support Holding’s contention that having women as witnesses was embarrassing, even if Christians had mentioned the fact when persuading others to convert.

To begin with, not only were the Gospels written long after Paul’s day (hence after Christianity was already spread across the Empire), but in the first hundred years (as far as we can tell) they were only available to mature converts. In that period there is no evidence anyone else heard of them or was able to read them, or that any specific content from them was used to convert anyone, beyond what is said by Paul in his letters, and the Christian missionaries in Acts, none of whom ever mention women in their sermons. Thus, already Holding cannot establish that there was a stigma to overcome, even if the involvement of women was a stigma. And once converted, no one would have left in disgust after hearing that women were involved. Holding presents no evidence anyone did. And in truth, the involvement of women in Christianity’s history was no greater than in the history of Israel, from Mariam to Sarah to Ruthand let’s not forget the Prophets Deborah (Judges 4) or Huldah (2 Kings 22:12-20), or Rachel the Mother of All Israel (Genesis 29-35). Yet Jews did not abandon their faith in disgust, because women took such a prominent role in their history, nor did Gentiles cease supporting or converting to Judaism at this news, either. So Holding’s argument is a wash even from the start.

Secondly, women were a major target of the Christian mission. Historians agree that “many more females than males were converting to Christianity in its first centuries,” and recognize “Christianity’s appeal to women as an important factor in its success.” Indeed, “in the first Christian centuries the new belief system used women and their position in the family/household environment to transmit and reproduce itself.”[1] This was true even before Jesus diedas Holding himself admits when he cites Luke 8:3 (and to that we could add numerous other examples: e.g. Mark 15:40-41)and certainly after, as Holding again admits by citing Acts 16:14-15 (and again to that we could add numerous other examples: e.g. Acts 17:4, 17:12).

Holding’s choice of Acts 16 is particularly apt, since it reveals a well-known truth about the early Church: it depended on the largesse and generosity of wealthy or revered female members. Paul openly admits this in Romans 16:1-4 (as well as 16:6 & 16:12), and in 1 Corinthians 16:19 and Colossians 4:15 Paul reveals that women of means were providing housing and meeting space for the Church. Would incorporating women into the story of the movement’s creation reduce or increase conversion by such women? Obviously, if anything, the latter. Indeed, it would have been a matter of honor to appease these women who risked their lives and property, deserving such prominent mention and praise from Paul, by placing women in the story deliberately, especially if the place they held was not important to establishing the truth of the Gospel itself and thus would do no harm. And that is exactly the place women take in the story: not a single item of the Gospel Paul preached depended on these women, and their role is consistently secondary and subservient. Christian women in the written Gospels all behave exactly as women ought to in the eyes of the Mediterranean cultures of the time (or otherwise got what they deserved, e.g. Acts 5:1-11). And no stigma could ever result from depicting women behaving exactly as men expected them to!

Holding might insist that having women as prominent converts and members of the Church would be embarrassing. But why would that be? Women were prominent in numerous other cults of the day. A great many priesthoods, some holding considerable prestige, were open only to women. Indeed, women were routinely worshipped: for there were numerous female deities who were widely revered. That caused no embarrassment. Nor did the admission of women into schools and philosophical sectsand by the Roman period, every major philosophical school admitted women, and we know the names of several prominent female philosophers. The Jews also held many women in respect, even in their own scriptures (as noted above), and as wealthy donors to synagogues, while some sects admitted women into worship exactly as the Christians did.[2] Even though many bigots certainly had a problem with this, there is no evidence any actual convert to Christianity had a problem with it, especially since men still controlled the Church, women in the Church still behaved as they were expected to, and no element of the Gospel “by which all are saved” depended on the testimony of women (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).


11.2. Testimony of Women Was Trusted

Nevertheless, Holding argues that “a woman’s place was in the home, not the witness stand,” but that has no relevance to his argument. Just because it was unseemly for a woman to appear in court does not mean her testimony was not trusted. Confusing the two is a popular error made by numerous Christian apologists. In actual fact, the evidence proves quite the opposite of Holding’s assumption that “women were regarded as ‘bad witnesses’ in the ancient world.” The evidence does not support such a blanket distrust of female testimony, but shows instead that female testimony was often trusted, even in a court of law.

Of course, it is already improper to argue from courtroom decorum to everyday credibility. The Gospels are not court documents. They are, at best (in the case of Luke), histories. Not the same thing. And when it came to this context, of using women as sources for historical claims, there is no evidence of distrustany more for women than for men of comparable status or condition.[3] Josephus, for example, has his entire account of the heroic sacrifices at Gamala and Masada from no other source than two women in each caseyet shows no embarrassment at this. Josephus often forgets to tell us who his sources were for a particular story, yet here he goes out of his way to report his only sources were women. That makes no sense, unless Josephus regarded his sources as quite respectable, and therefore actually worth mentioning, which is quite the opposite of a woman’s testimony being an embarrassment.[4] Of course, as a snob himself, Josephus may have scoffed at the testimony of humble women, just as he would that of humble men, but such elite snobbery was more widely disdained than emulated (as we shall see in Chapter 12, and have already seen in Chapter 2).

Otherwise, even the Gospel of John attests to how readily the testimony of a woman could be accepted: “many of the Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the account given by the woman who testified” to his psychic powers (4:39). Of course, when a pretentious bigot harrumphed at such a thing, he could always invent male testimony to replace a woman’s, exactly as later Christians did.[5] But when Luke (and Luke alone) has the men doubt the women because what they said sounded “silly,” we cannot assume this was because they were women, rather than because their story was in itself incredibleif men had reported it, they may have been thought just as silly. Already for dramatic reasons it was necessary to paint the disciples as both ignorant and hopeless, in order to make their return to the faith all the more “miraculous,” and therefore all the more persuasive and glorious. But since none of this is in Mark or Matthew, Luke is probably contriving here: at best, he is appealing to elite skeptical values (and snobbery) by inventing the kind of evidence they expected. There was no need of this kind of evidence to persuade the masses (as we saw in Chapter 7 and will see again in Chapter 13).

Finally, since there was (then as now) a lower standard for history than for law, the fact that a woman’s testimony was accepted even in law refutes Holding’s argument a fortiori. Holding quotes Malina and Neyrey, who claim that “In general Greek and Roman courts excluded as witnesses women, slaves, and children,” and “according to Josephus” women “are unacceptable because of the ‘levity and temerity of their sex’.”[6] But Malina and Neyrey made a serious mistake here (which in turn betrays the fact that Holding is ill-qualified to assess the value of his sources for ancient history). In support of their claim, not only do they cite scholarship that is literally a hundred years old (!), but their sources aren’t even relevant. Two of their three sources pertain only to Classical Athenswhose conclusions therefore do not apply even to the Hellenistic, much less the Roman era. Their third source doesn’t prove what Malina and Neyrey claim, but something quite differentnamely, that it was unseemly to compel a respectable woman to appear in court, or to let a woman act as a lawyer. Instead, the very same evidence proves a woman’s testimony was sought in court and was as valid as any man’s, and that in fact many women did engage themselves as lawyers, and even won their cases![7]

For example, in his trial against Verres, Cicero calls several women as witnesses, and shames Verres for having forced him to compel respectable women to appear in court to testify against him.[8] His objection is clearly against disturbing women of station, and the shock of women appearing and speaking in public in a traditionally male venue, not against trusting a woman’s testimonyto the contrary, Cicero certainly trusts them, that’s why he is calling them to testify! We even have actual court documents from the time of Jesus and Paul that include summaries of female testimony given at trial.[9] Examples aside, Roman law was quite explicit in permitting women to swear oaths and testify in court.[10] In fact, they could even represent themselves at trial, and until the time of Christ could advocate on behalf of others as well. Valerius Maximus lists several famous cases where women took others to trial, spoke in court, stood as witnesses, and wonindeed, he titles an entire chapter: “Women Who Conducted Their Own Cases before Magistrates on Their Own Behalf or Others.”[11] This was regarded as scandalous, of course, necessitating the standardized Praetorian Edict (issued every year) to include a prohibition against women representing others in court (beginning sometime in the first century A.D.)yet even this expressly allowed women to continue representing themselves, as defendants or (in most civil and even some criminal cases) as prosecutors.[12]

So the claim that women could not testify in Greco-Roman courts is completely false. In every instance, the situation is clear: what men objected to was women taking the role of men in traditionally male spheres, not women being trusted as witnesses. That is why the prohibition created in the 1st century (which did not become permanent for yet another hundred years) only sought to ban women from acting as lawyers, but not women testifying in court, or even defending themselves or prosecuting their own cases. And that is why Cicero regards it as shameful to have to summon proper ladies from the quiet of their homes to make his case, but not to have women giving evidence, or trusting what they say. So it was at least mildly shocking for a woman to speak in public, or appear in court. But that had nothing to do with whether she was believed when she did.

Even the one exception proves the rule: women were not qualified to be witnesses to a will under Roman Law, but not because they weren’t trustedrather, because under the law you could not be a witness to a legal action that you were not yourself qualified to undertake. Since a woman could not attest her own will, she could not attest anyone else’s will. But even this was not set in stone: Augustus established criteria by which a woman could gain legal emancipation, and be free of any guardian. Since emancipated women could then make their own wills, they probably could have testified to the wills of others, too.[13] Moreover, a woman’s incapacity to write her own will had nothing to do with her incompetence as an eyewitness, but with the perception that a woman was subject to bad judgment in making decisions. Once again these are different things.

So we must distinguish not only between objections to a woman’s reliability as a witness, and objections to a woman appearing in a courtroom, but also between trusting a woman to testify to what she has seen, and trusting a woman to use good judgment in deciding what to believe from hearsay or persuasion. These are not at all the same thing. Hence evidence of scoffing at the latter (which one can certainly find in antiquity) cannot be used as evidence of scoffing at the former. Yet the standard Roman manual on legal principles and procedures dispels even that judgment:

That which is commonly believed, namely that women are very liable to be deceived owing to their instability of judgment and that therefore in fairness they should be governed by the authority of guardians, seems more specious than true.[14]

Gaius then catalogues evidence that women were perfectly competent, and could even sue their own legal guardians. Even so, we can find many attacks on women as gullible dupes. But gender by itself never comes up as grounds for distrusting what a woman says she saw.

So much for the Gentile perception of women as witnesses. What about the Jews? Palestinian Jews were certainly more hostile to women than their more enlightened Gentile peers, but Hellenized Jews are another storyand even in Palestine, the snobbery of the Pharisees found plenty of opposition from other sects, and the masses. So caution is in order when drawing conclusions from Pharisaic lawsince Christianity banked its popularity on opposing that very law. Christianity preached to those who thought this very law, which exceeded the Torah by adding the opinions of men to the commands of God, was the problem, not the solution, and therefore it didn’t matter if Christianity included elements in its stories that the more snobbish of Pharisees would have objected to. To the contrary, thumbing their noses at the corrupt Pharisees and their oppressive laws was exactly the Christian strategy for winning recruits from like-minded Jews among the disgruntled masses.[15]

Nevertheless, even the Pharisees did not regard the testimony of women as inherently untrustworthyto the contrary, even under their stuffy law a woman’s testimony could carry the same force as a man’s. Rather, just as for the Romans, it was courtroom propriety most Jews were concerned with. All statements against women appearing in court were based on perceptions of how a woman ought to behave, and on the need to separate male and female social spheresit was not based on disdain for their competence to testify. In fact, Torah Law contains no prohibition against women even appearing in court (and most Jewish sects rejected all law but Torah), while Mishnah Law specifically did not include women in its list of those unqualified to testify (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 3:3). Even under Talmudic interpretation “women are admitted as competent witnesses in matters within their particular knowledge,” especially “for purposes of identification” and “in matters outside the realm of strict law.”[16] In fact, since we find no blanket distrust of female testimony in pre-Talmudic legal sources, what we find in the much-later Talmudic record may not have been common in the 1st century.

As it happens, historian Judith Wegner finds exactly the opposite of what Holding claims. Just as in Roman law, “the Mishnah’s framers grant women the right to bring and defend a lawsuit,” and “the sages acknowledge both a woman’s mental competence and the reliance to be placed on her oath and testimony.” Their “assessment of a woman’s ability to give a truthful and accurate account reflects their recognition that her mental and moral capacities resemble those of a man.” Though, as for Romans and Greeks, it was unseemly for a woman to appear and speak in public, her testimony could be delivered by a male representative. That is why “the list of intrinsically incompetent witnesses makes no mention of women,” and there are many cases on record where the testimony of women was accepted, even under oath.[17] Rather, most objections to a woman testifying were based on principles of modesty, not a lack of trust. As the Talmud puts it (b.Gittin 46a), some Rabbis held that “a man should not mind the indignity of his wife appearing in court,” while others held that “a man is averse to subjecting his wife to the indignity of appearing in court.” Obviously, this debate only makes sense if it was legal for a woman to appear in court.

In actual fact, the Rabbis disputed such things as whether a single woman’s testimony was enough in certain casessince usually the testimony of even two men was requiredbut even here the Rabbis were evenly split: some said a single woman’s testimony in certain circumstances was trusted, while some said she needed a second witness (man or woman) to corroborate her account, as would be expected even of a man.[18] Clearly such a debate makes no sense unless the testimony of women was otherwise allowed in court under the same rules as men’s. In a similar vein, the Talmud says:

Wherever the Torah accepts the testimony of one witness, it follows the majority of persons, so that two women against one man is identical with two men against one man. But there are some who declare that wherever a competent witness came first, even a hundred women are regarded as equal to one witness … but when it is a woman who came first, then two women against one man is like half-and-half.[19]

This does mean a woman’s testimony was valued less than a man’s, but only by some, and even then only when it contradicts a man’s testimony (especially testimony already taken before any women came forward). Otherwise, even these more bigoted rabbis accepted a woman’s testimony in all other respects, and apart from those few who took such a view, everyone else held a woman’s testimony as equal to a man’s, and even capable of refuting a man’s testimony under the same rules applied to men. At least this was so for every case where the Torah allowed the testimony of a single witness, as would be sufficient in any case outside a court of lawlike testifying to finding a tomb empty (since this did not involve condemning someone who claimed not to be guilty of a crime, which was the reason for requiring two witnesses, to outweigh the contrary testimony of the suspect who, as his own witness, denied the charges).

The only evidence authors like N.T. Wright offer to the contrary fails to relate to the issue of trusting testimony in court, and this is a common problem with Christian apologists: they often don’t check their sources, or the context, before proclaiming something that suits their agenda. Look at Wright’s only evidence:

(1) Mishnah, Shabuot 4:1 only pertains to a special kind of oath established by Leviticus 5:1. For women can take every other kind of oath, even those taken at trial (Mishnah, Shabuot 3:10-11, 5:1, 7:7-8). But in this one limited case, to take the “oath of testimony” is to swear that you know of no sin committed by a particular person (ibid. 4:3-13)in order to fulfill the law that if you know of a sin they have committed and don’t report it, you are guilty (like an accomplice after the fact). Because of that law, party A can demand party B take an oath that party B has not violated Leviticus 5:1 with respect to party A, therefore this would be testimony that party A has not sinned (and party B then becomes liable if they conceal a sin they know party A committed). For whatever reason, you could not compel a woman to take such an oath. This does not mean a woman’s testimony to something she did see was not admissible, but that a woman could not swear to have not seen a particular person sin over a given period of time. Since “those who are not suitable” to bear witness in court are distinguished as a separate category of those disqualified from an “oath of testimony,” clearly the reason women were exempt from the law had nothing to do with being unsuitable. More probably it had to do with the assumption that women (who ought to be good little girls and stay in the home and not gossip) could not be expected to have sufficient direct knowledge of their neighbor’s affairs. Otherwise, in all other criminal matters the Shabuot says a woman’s oaths and testimony are admissible. Indeed, in the Talmudic commentary on this law, the Rabbis ask “do only men and not women come to court?” as if it was surprising that women didn’t also come to court, and the response is only that “it is not customary for a woman to go to court,” not that they did not or could not, nor anything to do with the value of their testimony.[20]

(2) Mishnah, Rosh Hashshanah 1:8c says of various scofflaws that “all evidence that cannot be received from a woman cannot be received from” these scofflaws either, with regard to testifying that the new moon was seen, which implies (at the very least) that women were not qualified to testify to the moon being new (i.e. fully dark yet not in eclipse). Since witnessing the new moon called you to the duty of traveling to the Temple to report it, even to the point of violating the Sabbath if necessary (ibid. 1:3-2:3), this entailed taking a public religious role (including remaining in the Temple for a whole day and sharing a communal meal with men: ibid. 2:5), which all no doubt entailed a boldness that was unseemly for a woman. At the same time, witnesses were interrogated on minute astronomical details (2:6-2:8), suggesting that significant technical knowledge was necessary for your testimony to count, knowledge a woman was not supposed to have, and certainly was not expected to have.[21] Since the evidence that women could testify in court on nontechnical matters is clear and unambiguous, the law regarding new moons has no relevance to the role women played as witnesses in early Christian tradition. In fact, nowhere does the Talmud ever say women were disqualified because they weren’t trusted. Even where the Talmud says women were sometimes disqualified as witnesses, it never says whyexcept in one case: there, the rabbis conclude that a woman’s testimony is to be trusted when she actually saw what she testifies to, but is not to be trusted when she only inferred that something had happened (b.Yebamot 114b-115a), which fits the view already noted above that, for many, a woman’s judgment was inherently questionable, but not her honesty.

(3) The Babylonian Talmud has two passages in the Baba Kama (88a, 114b) concerning an unusual case when a woman and a child testified to the origin of a swarm of bees. Rabbi Johanan ben Broka (early 2nd century A.D.) says their testimony was trusted, and asks “Are, then, a woman and a minor qualified to be witnesses?” To which Rabbi Jehudah responds: “This case was when they ran after it, and the two in question had showed him the place where the swarm of bees was coming from, but they were not called as witnesses.” The actual question, therefore, is not answered, but is dismissed as irrelevant, since the case in question was not a trial (and yet, notably, their testimony was trusted). Wright and others take the context to imply, however, that a woman’s testimony was not admitted in a court of law. But that does not follow. The question pertains to the testimony of two witnesses, one of whom is a minor, and comes from a specific case involving a woman and a boy. Since normally two witnesses are required in a court of laweven when they are menJohanan is asking whether a child (normally disqualified) can count as a second witness, especially in conjunction with a woman (probably a relative, and the testimony of mutual relatives is sometimes not admitted). So nothing can be deduced from this as to any general legal standing of women as witnesses in a court of law. To the contrary, only a few sections earlier in the Baba Kama there is a discussion of what to do when a woman is summoned to court and does not appear (she is charged with contempt of court).

That exhausts all the evidence N. T. Wright produces, yet clearly these passages do not establish any disqualification for female testimony in general or in any way relevant to early Christianity. And against these vague and irrelevant passages we have the clear and relevant passages from the Mishnah and Talmud proving women were qualified as legal witnesses. Though there is evidence in the Talmud (and only the Talmud) that some Rabbis did not permit the testimony of women in a court of law in some cases, that same evidence proves that a woman’s testimony was nevertheless often permitted and routinely trusted.

What about Malina & Neyrey’s quotation of Josephus? In fact, that confirms everything I have been saying. When Josephus summarizes the law of testimony, he says two or more witnesses were always required to establish a fact at trial, and then says “there shall be no testimony of women, because of the levity and boldness of their gender.” Then he says slaves should not be allowed to testify because they were likely to lie.[22] It is notable that this is not the reason he gives for excluding women, and therefore he does not mean women were untrustworthy. Unlike slaves, Josephus is saying that women should not appear in court simply because it was unseemlyessentially saying that women were liable to giggle or scold or otherwise violate the proper demeanor of the court. Therefore, even this passage from Josephus offers no support to the view that the testimony of women was not trusted. As we saw above, Josephus certainly trusted the testimony of women. And the Talmudic and Mishnaic evidence confirms their testimony was trusted in court as well, even as much as a man’sjust as it confirms the view that women appearing in a courtroom was improper. But that is not the situation in the Gospels.


11.3. Why Mark Places Women at the Empty Tomb

Holding finally argues that “it would have been much easier to put the finding of the tomb on the male disciples,” if there really was a discovery of an empty tomb.[23] But as we’ve seen, there would not have been any great need to do this if the drama of the narrative made putting women in the scene more appropriate to the message intended by the author, and if this addition also increased its appeal to female converts. In other words, Holding’s premise is false if creating evidence of a historical fact is not what Mark was doing. And there is sufficient evidence to believe that, in fact, inventing a witness is not what Mark was doing. Subsequent authors (like Luke) apparently believed he was reporting a historical fact, but I do not believe Mark thought he was.[24]

The first and foremost reason Mark has women first at the tomb, and first to learn the truth, is to fulfill the very gospel itself, that “the least shall be first” (Mark 9:35 & 10:31). That is the whole point, not only of this particular narrative, but of the entire gospel. And Mark declares from the outset that he is writing a gospel, not a history (Mark 1:1). Notice how the parables of Jesus are chock full of this theme, of “reversing” the readers expectations.[25] And notice how Mark records with definite approval Christ’s program of concealing the truth behind parables:

“The Mystery of the Kingdom of God is given to you, but to those who are outside everything is produced in parables, so that when they watch they may see but not know, and when they listen they may hear but not understand, for otherwise they might turn themselves around and be forgiven” …

And with many parables like these he told them the word as they were able to hear it, and he did not speak to them without a parable, but in private he explained everything to his own disciples.[26]

This is a clue to the reader: the truth is being concealed behind parables, and only explained to insiders, in secret. One may balk at the notion, but Holding cannot prove this is not what Mark was doing with his entire gospel. And since the central theme of the gospel was reversal of expectation, contrary to Holding’s assumption, having women first at the tomb is exactly what Mark would invent, to carry through the gospel message that the least shall be first.

In other words, the empty tomb story may well be a parable all in itself, whose meaning does not lie in whether it actually happened, but in what the narrative teaches you. And the fact is, Mark’s gospel is full of similar and quite blatant reversals of expectation: James and John, who ask to sit at the right and left of Jesus in his glory (10:35-40), are replaced by two thieves at his crucifixion (15:27); Simon Peter, Christ’s right-hand man who was told he had to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow” (8:34), is replaced by Simon of Cyrene (a foreigner, the exact opposite of a discipleand from the opposite side of Egypt no less, a Jewish symbol of death) when it comes time to truly bear that cross (15:21); instead of his family as would be expected, his enemies come to bury Jesus (15:43); even Pilate’s expectation that Jesus should still be alive is confounded (15:44); and contrary to all expectation, Christ’s own people, the Jews, mock their own savior (15:29-32), while it is a Gentile officer of Rome who recognizes his divinity (15:39). Thus, it is simply more of the same when Mark decides to say it was the male disciples who abandon Christ (14:50 and 66-72 vs. 14:31), while it was the “least” among them, mere lowly women, who attend his death and burial, who truly “followed him,” and continue to seek him thereafter (15:40-41, 15:47, 16:1). Indeed, Mark ends his gospel with the mother of all reversals, with the women fleeing in fear and silence, and not delivering the good news (16:8), the exact opposite of the “good news” of the “voice crying out” of the “messenger who will prepare our way” with which Mark began his gospel (1:1-3). All of this sure looks like literary license to me. It is brilliant fictiondeeply meaningful, but fiction nonetheless.[27]

So, given Mark’s narrative agenda, regardless of the actual facts, the tomb has to be empty, in order to confound the expectations of the reader, just as a foreign Simon must carry the cross instead of Peter, a Gentile must acknowledge Christ’s divinity instead of the Jews, a Sanhedrist must bury the body, and women must be the first to hear the Good News. But there is another reason to suspect the women are an invention: their names. Salomê is the feminine of Solomon, an obvious symbol of supreme wisdom and kingship (and the builder of the Temple), and wisdom was often portrayed as a feminine being (Sophia). Mariam (Mary) is the sister of Moses and Aaron (Micah 6:4, 1 Chronicles 6:3, Numbers 26:59) who led the Hebrew women in song after their deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 15:20-21), which represented the Land of the Dead in Jewish symbolism. Magdala is a variant Hellenization of “tower,” the same exact word transcribed as Magdôlon in the Septuagintin other words the biblical Migdol, representing the borders of Egypt (and hence of Death). The Hebrews camp near Migdol to lure the Pharaoh’s army to their doom (Exodus 13:1-4), after which “they passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness three days” (Numbers 33:7-8) on their way to the “twelve springs and seventy palm trees” of Elim (33:9). “Mariam the mother of Jacob” is an obvious reference to the Jacob, better known as (you guessed it) Israel. So the two Marys represent Egypt and Israel, and (on the one side) the borders of the Promised Land and the defeat of death needed to get across, and (on the other side) the founding of a new nation, a New Israelboth linked as sisters of Moses (the first savior) and Aaron (the first High Priest), and mediated by Wisdom, manifested here as a symbol of supreme kingship and the building of the Temple.[28]

This seems a highly improbable coincidence, there being exactly three women, with exactly these names, which evoke exactly those scriptures, and triangulate in exactly this way, to convey an incredibly convenient message about the Gospel and the status of Christ as Messiah and miraculous victor over the Land of the Dead. What are the odds? Maybe you are not as impressed by all these coincidences as I am. But you don’t have to agree with my theory here. The only thing that matters is that it cannot be ruled outthere is evidence for it (Mark expressly approves of concealing deep symbolic meanings behind narratives, and the names and events of his narrative fit the deeper meaning of the Gospel with surprising convenience), and no evidence against it. It therefore provides an available motive to invent a visit to the tomb by women, especially these particular women, which forbids us from assuming the Christians would instead have invented a visit by men first. We cannot demonstrate that they would. For inventing a visit by women carried even more meaningful symbolism, and was even more in accordance with the Gospel message itself.


11.4. Conclusion

Ultimately, Holding has not demonstrated that the admission of women into the Church or its core traditions presented any obstacle to its actual scale of growth in its first hundred years or beyond. His claim that women were widely devalued as witnesses is false. Both Gentiles and Jews trusted the testimony of women, both in and outside the courtroom. And his assumption that Christians would sooner have invented a male visit to the empty tomb is unjustified: such a place in the story had no bearing on the Gospel itself, every element of which was based on the testimony of men; the prominent and important role women played in the success of the Church, especially women of means and station, would have strongly urged including women in the story, especially when their role was not crucial and conformed perfectly to the expectations of their society; and Mark had strong and evident reasons to specifically place women and not men in his empty tomb storywhich is the first anyone appears to have heard of an empty tomb, much less any role of women as witnesses, long after the Church had already spread throughout the Empire. Finally, there is no evidence Mark’s gospel, or the story it contains, was ever used to win converts in the first hundred years, and no evidence either Mark or his story were widely known even within the Church itself in that period. Ditto for Luke-Acts. Therefore, there is no sense in which having women in the Church or its founding myths would have presented any difficulty for the original Christian mission.


Buy Not the Impossible Faith! Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed

Now available as a book, fully updated and reorganized. This is the definitive edition of “Was Christianity Too Improbable to Be False?” Even better than online, improved and revised throughout. Available at Amazon


Back to Table of ContentsProceed to Chapter 12



[1] Gillian Cloke, “Women, Worship, and Mission: The Church in the Household,” The Early Christian World, ed. Philip Esler, vol. 1 (2000): pp. 422-51 (quotes from p. 423). For more on women in the early expansion of the Christian church, see Chapter 18. Note, also, that women could even hold the office of deacon within the Church (Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-13, esp. 3:11; and Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96.8).

[2] See Richard Carrier, “What about Women?” in Reply to McFall on Jesus as a Philosopher (2004) and the sources cited there, as well as “Women in Cult” and “Women in Philosophy,” The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1996): pp. 1624-26. For a Jewish sect that admitted women, see Philo, On the Contemplative Life 90 and Questions and Answers on Genesis 4.74 (Philo in fact praises this, rather than frowning on it). For women as supporters of synagogues, see William Horbury, “Women in Office,” The Cambridge History of Judaism, vol. 3 (1999): pp. 388-401; and Bernadette Brooten, “Inscriptional Evidence for Women as Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue” Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 20 (1981): pp. 1-17. On Jewish women receiving positions of authority and prestige in mainstream sects, see Peter W. van der Horst, “Conflicting Images of Women in Ancient Judaism,” Hellenism-Judaism-Christianity: Essays on Their Interaction, 2nd ed. (1998): pp. 73-92.

[3] For example, the oft-cited passage from Origen, Contra Celsum 2.59-60, does not show Celsus objecting to Mary’s testimony because she was a woman, but because she was not of sound mind; hence Celsus dismisses the testimony of Thomas and Peter on exactly the same grounds.

[4] Masada: Josephus, Jewish War 7.399. Gamala: Josephus, Jewish War 4.81. For Masada, Josephus lists their qualifications the same way he would for a male witness: one is an elder, the other is famously sensible and well-educated with respectable connections (we can assume the five children who survived would not have made useful witnesses even if they were trusted). For Gamala, the qualifications of the two women in this case: they were the granddaughters of an eminent man.

[5] John 20 and Luke 23-24 both add multiple male witnesses to the empty tomb, a fact not attested by Mark or Matthew. They probably preserve the female witness because Mark had already established the tradition, and they could not deviate too far from that. But it was only when the resurrection belief changed into a rising of the flesh that the empty tomb would become an important piece of evidence, and thus only then that male corroboration became necessary. See Note 11 in Chapter 3.

[6] Bruce Malina & Jerome Neyrey, Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (1996): p. 82.

[7] The only three sources they cite are: Robert Bonner & Hansen Harrell, Evidence in Athenian Courts and Public Arbitration in Athenian Law (1905): pp. 27-28, 32; Robert Bonner, Lawyers and Litigants in Ancient Athens: The Genesis of the Legal Profession (1927 – which makes this their most recent source, at 75 years obsolete!): pp. 185-88; and A. Greenidge, The Legal Procedure of Cicero’s Time (1901): pp. 482-83.

              More recent scholarship has established that although Athenian society considered it unseemly for a woman to appear in court, women could and often did testify through a male proxy, and such testimony was taken under oath outside of court and considered as valid as any man’s. See Michael Gagarin and David Cohen, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law (2005), pp. 150-51. As we shall see, this reflects the same sentiment found even in the more liberal Hellenistic and Roman periods: there was no widespread distrust of women, merely a chauvinistic expectation that proper women do not appear in public, least of all in a distinctly male domain (like a court of law), a consideration wholly irrelevant to the story in Mark’s gospel.

[8] Cicero, Against Verres 2.1.94 (the testimony of women is approved again at 4.99).

[9] A papyrus from 49 A.D., copied from an official government archive, shows that a woman’s testimony was entered into the court record, a sworn affidavit with her signature was accepted, and a ruling was made that relied on both: Jane Rowlandson, ed., Women & Society in Greek & Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (1998): § 91 (pp. 117-18) = P.Oxy. 1.37 (Egypt, 49 A.D.). A papyrus from 10 B.C. shows a woman was able to testify in a suit against her husband for divorce on a charge of wife-beating and squandering her dowry: ibid. § 257 (pp. 324-25) = BGU 4.1105 (Alexandria, 10 B.C.).

[10] Digest of Justinian 22.5.18 says “women have the right to give evidence at trial”; cf. also Digest of Justinian,,,, etc.

[11] Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 3.8.6, 8.2.3, and 8.3.

[12] Digest of Justinian (cf. 3.1.2-3). Section 48.2 only prevents women from directly bringing criminal cases to court (and even then it lists several exceptions, and unlike today, many crimeslike theftproduced civil rather than criminal charges anyway). See the discussion, with numerous examples of women acting as lawyers in Roman courts during the Republic, in: Richard Bauman, “Women in Law,” Women and Politics in Ancient Rome (1992): pp. 45-52.

[13] See the relevant entries in Adolf Berger, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law (1953), esp. “coemptio fiduciae causa” (p. 393), “femina” (p. 469), “ius liberorum” (p. 530), “matrona” (p. 578), “meretrix” (p. 581), “testamenti factio” (pp. 732-33), “testis” (pp. 735-36), “tutela mulierum” (p. 748).

[14] Gaius, Institutes 1.190-91.

[15] Like many other Jewish sects, Christianity sold itself as specifically anti-Pharisee: Mark 2:18, 2:23-28, 3:1-6, 7:1-23, 10:2-12; Matthew 12:1-45, 15:1-14, 19:3-12, 23:1-36; Luke 5:30-33, 6:1-11, 11:37-54, 14:1-6, 16:14-18, 18:9-14; John 5:9-16; etc. In several previous chapters I have already argued for the general theme of Christianity opposing the corrupt elite and advocating for the common man.

[16] From “Witness,” Encyclopedia Judaica (1971), vol. 16: p. 586.

[17] Judith Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah (1988): pp. 119-127. Even the lengthy Talmudic lists and discussions of disqualified witnesses never mention women (e.g. b.Sanhedrin 24b-27b), except one “anonymous” opinion that opposed allowing women to testify in capital cases (ibid. 27b; perhaps opposing their testimony in other cases, too, though none are specified). I suspect this may have been because this gave women an unacceptable power over men (since her testimony could then condemn a man to death) or gave her a male role in society (if condemning anyone to death was seen as a man’s job). At any rate, the Talmud does not say what the reason was, much less that it was because a woman couldn’t be trusted.

[18] On the requirement of two witnesses (regardless of gender): Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15; Matthew 18:16, 26:60; John 8:17; 1 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19; Hebrews 10:28. On women testifying in court, see: Mishnha, Ketubot 1:6-7, 2:5-6; Yebamot 15:1-16:7; Eduyyot 3:6; and also: Talmud, b.Kiddushin 65b, b.Yebamot 88b, b.Sotah 31b (and Mishnah, Sotah 6).

[19] Talmud, b.Mas. Sotah 31b.

[20] Talmud, b.Shebuot 30a. As before, the objection is to propriety, not trustworthiness: “Do not women ever come to court?”to which the rabbis reply, “You can say it is not usual for a woman [to do this], because ‘all glorious is the king’s daughter within’ [Psalms 45:14].” In other words, it was unseemly for a woman to leave the home and appear in courtbut it was still legal. Hence the next section (30b) discusses a case where a woman appeared in court.

[21] This must be the law Holding had in mind when he declared: “Women were so untrustworthy that they were not even allowed to be witnesses to the rising of the moon as a sign of the beginning of festivals!” But the law in no way says the reason for disqualification was that women were untrustworthy, nor is the context just any rising of the moon, but a very technical observation of lunar phase (after all, when exactly is the moon officially “new”?). And the law concerned not just any legal testimony, but a very particular religious duty that it would have been improper for a woman to undertake.

[22] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 4.219.

[23] Again, Holding’s argument requires the presumption that Christians were wanton liars who only told the truth when they couldn’t get away with lying. But if we assume instead that Christians were honest, at best all this argument could achieve is evidence that there was an empty tomb, which would not establish that there was a resurrection. See, for example, Richard Carrier, “Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day” (2002), which has been significantly updated in Richard Carrier, “The Burial of Jesus in Light of Jewish Law,” Jeff Lowder & Bob Price, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus beyond the Grave (2005): pp. 369-92. And see Richard Carrier, “The Guarded Tomb of Jesus and Daniel in the Lion’s Den: An Argument for the Plausibility of Theft,” Journal of Higher Criticism 8.2 (Fall 2001): pp. 304-18, which was substantially updated in Richard Carrier, “The Plausibility of Theft,” Jeff Lowder & Bob Price, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus beyond the Grave (2005): pp. 349-68.

[24] The following evidence and argument summarizes what I present in more detail in Richard Carrier, “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb,” Jeff Lowder & Bob Price, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus beyond the Grave (2005): pp. 105-232. There I also detail how the empty tomb narrative in Mark is constructed from Psalms and the Jacob’s Well narrative in Genesis, as well as passages from Ezekiel and 2 Chronicles, in a way that produces powerful symbolic rather than historical meaning, and how the narrative parallels the burial liturgy of the Orphic mysteries.

[25] For example: Mark 4:30-32, 7:15, 10:29-30, 10:44, 12:1-11; also: 8:35, 10:30.

[26] Mark 4:11-12 & 4:33-34. A parabolê is a “comparison” or “analogy” and thus is not the truth itself, but something that shares relevantly similar properties to the truth. A historical narrative that conveys the truth only in its structure, and by analogy to stories and ideas in scripture, for example, is thus a parable: the meaning is hidden and has to be figured out (or communicated in secret). So to treat the story as a historical narrative is to miss the very point. We discussed the common role such a device played in ancient culture in Section 10.2 of Chapter 10.

[27] See also Richard Carrier, “Review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark” (2000).

[28] I document these symbols and more in the forthcoming work cited in Note 24.

Copyright ©2006 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Carrier. All rights reserved.