Paul’s account of the resurrection leaves out the women

ImageIn N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope, he makes an interesting argument for the resurrection of Jesus: Paul cleaned up the story by 56 A.D. (CE). Paul’s account, in I Cor 15, is the first written account of the resurrection of Jesus:

For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; 4 and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures; 5 and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; 6 then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; 7 then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; 8 and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also.

The gospels tell a slightly different version:

Now late on the sabbath day, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled away the stone, and sat upon it. 3 His appearance was as lightning, and his raiment white as snow: 4 and for fear of him the watchers did quake, and became as dead men. 5 And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye; for I know that ye seek Jesus, who hath been crucified. 6 He is not here; for he is risen, even as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. 7 And go quickly, and tell his disciples, He is risen from the dead; and lo, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you. 8 And they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring his disciples word. 9 And behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10 Then saith Jesus unto them, Fear not: go tell my brethren that they depart into Galilee, and there shall they see me. (Matt 28)



M. J. Anderson’s marble sculpture of the witnesses of the empty tomb

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, that they might come and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, they come to the tomb when the sun was risen. 3 And they were saying among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the tomb? 4 and looking up, they see that the stone is rolled back: for it was exceeding great. 5 And entering into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, arrayed in a white robe; and they were amazed. 6 And he saith unto them, Be not amazed: ye seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who hath been crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold, the place where they laid him! 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you. 8 And they went out, and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them: and they said nothing to any one; for they were afraid. 9 Now when he was risen early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept. 11 And they, when they heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, disbelieved. 12 And after these things he was manifested in another form unto two of them, as they walked, on their way into the country. 13 And they went away and told it unto the rest: neither believed they them. 14 And afterward he was manifested unto the eleven themselves as they sat at meat; and he upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them that had seen him after he was risen. (Mark 16)


But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came unto the tomb, bringing the spices which they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. 3 And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 And it came to pass, while they were perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel: 5 and as they were affrighted and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? 6 He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, 7 saying that the Son of man must be delivered up into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. 8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returned from the tomb, and told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest. 10 Now they were Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James: and the other women with them told these things unto the apostles. 11 And these words appeared in their sight as idle talk; and they disbelieved them. 12 But Peter arose, and ran unto the tomb; and stooping and looking in, he seeth the linen cloths by themselves; and he departed to his home, wondering at that which was come to pass. (Luke 24)



Marysia Kowalchyk’s quilt of the women at the tomb

Now on the first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, while it was yet dark, unto the tomb, and seeth the stone taken away from the tomb. 2 She runneth therefore, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we know not where they have laid him. 3 Peter therefore went forth, and the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. 4 And they ran both together: and the other disciple outran Peter, and came first to the tomb; 5 and stooping and looking in, he seeth the linen cloths lying; yet entered he not in. 6 Simon Peter therefore also cometh, following him, and entered into the tomb; and he beholdeth the linen cloths lying, 7 and the napkin, that was upon his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then entered in therefore the other disciple also, who came first to the tomb, and he saw, and believed. 9 For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 So the disciples went away again unto their own home. 11 But Mary was standing without at the tomb weeping: so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; 12 and she beholdeth two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. 13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. 14 When she had thus said, she turned herself back, and beholdeth Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou hast borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. 16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turneth herself, and saith unto him in Hebrew, Rabboni; which is to say, Teacher. 17 Jesus saith to her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended unto the Father: but go unto my brethren, and say to them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and my God and your God. 18 Mary Magdalene cometh and telleth the disciples, I have seen the Lord; and that he had said these things unto her. 19 When therefore it was evening, on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. 20 And when he had said this, he showed unto them his hands and his side. The disciples therefore were glad, when they saw the Lord. (John 20)

Notice that in each of the gospels (except Luke) it is the women who see Jesus first, and are sent by Jesus to be the first witnesses of the resurrection. This is significant because of the status of women at the time. Shepherds of low status welcomed Jesus’ birth, women were commanded to be the first witnesses of his resurrection.

But not in Paul’s version in his letter to the Corinthians. In Paul’s letter there are no pesky women to upset the Corinthians. N.T. Wright contends that Paul cleaned up the story. Did he leave out the women because he knew he was writing to the Corinthians who might be upset if women were the first witnesses? Or did he clean up the story because women were upsetting as first witnesses to Paul, himself? 

ImageEither way, the veracity of the gospels is heightened by Paul’s omission of the story of the women discovering Jesus resurrected.  Stories that are handed down orally become softer and more acceptable as they are retold, like a rock that is rolled over and over in a stream until it is a smooth round stone. Any story that has uncomfortable details still attached to it is considered much closer to the original. The fact that the gospels all contain the details about the women being the first witnesses– inconvenient details– demonstrates that the gospels are early, (i.e. were written down fairly quickly, within 25 to 50 years of Christ’s death), not written down much later as some scholars prefer. 

Compare the Gospel of Peter (150 AD/CE):  The Gospel of Peter (so-called) contains a description of the resurrection event with two giant angels, a super-sized Jesus, and a talking cross emerging from the empty tomb, clearly a product far removed from the original story.

Another argument N.T. Wright makes is that previous Jewish messiahs had been killed and their followers scattered. This was a primary motivation of the Sanhedrin to have Jesus killed: to stop his movement. None of the other dead messiahs had resurrection myths attached to their names. Jesus stands alone as the only messiah of the Jews who is supposed to have risen from the dead. Why? Because the Jewish people were not expecting a death, burial and resurrection. That was not in their consciousness at all. The gospels say clearly that none of the witnesses were expecting a resurrection, and found the resurrection difficult to believe. The anti-resurrection argument, that the apostles created a resurrection myth because of their great longing for Jesus, contradicts the history of all the other messiahs that were killed and their followers did not come up with resurrection stories. 


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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11 Responses to Paul’s account of the resurrection leaves out the women

  1. John Doe says:

    Great stuff. It’s sad that inerrantists miss these kinds of points when they treat the Bible as being written by the Holy Spirit through automatons. These things can strengthen one’s faith in Jesus. Inerrantists (like those in churches of Christ) anchor their faith on inerrancy instead of on Jesus. Sad. Great post.

  2. Hi John (and please give my greetings to Jane), It is truly frightening to move from a position of inerrancy to a position of “inspired by the Holy Spirit, but not inerrant.” That is an impossibility to imagine from a fundamentalist’s point of view: “How can the Holy Spirit inspire someone and not control their output enough to produce inerrant scripture?” Yet as a fundamentalist I had no problem accepting that the translation of the scripture might be wrong, or even the copy of the Greek text might be inaccurate. I had no problem believing that the preacher might be wrong, or one of the songs we sang might have unbiblical lyrics. The second scary thing is: “If the Scriptures are not inerrant, how do I tell what to believe and practice?” That really is only scary until you realize that Jesus’ message is simple and straightforward. It doesn’t take a lawyer or a linguist to understand that I need to treat my neighbor as myself, and everyone is my neighbor.

  3. Jenny says:

    Good point. I never noticed this case, but it had always bothered me that Paul appeared to try to silence women, including those known to have the gift of prophecy.

  4. Hi Jenny, Please also read my posts on “It is a shame..” and “I permit not a woman” for more on Paul’s attitude toward women. My view is that Paul was the most progressive writer of antiquity in his attitude toward women receiving an education.

  5. Lauren says:

    Oh WHERE was this blog nine years ago when I left the CofC? You’re doing good work here. Such good work. Thank you for it.

  6. ao says:

    I love N. T. Wright’s work on the resurrection. It saved my faith.

    I agree with exchurchofchrist on Paul’s attitude towards women. In 1 Cor. 15, Paul’s passing on a tradition that he says was handed down to him, so I doubt that the removal of women from eyewitness list originated from him. Plus, Paul has no problem with female apostles (like Junia), female evangelists (his “co-laborers in Christ”, like Euodia & Syntyche, or Priscilla), and female prophets (like the women in 1 Cor. 11:5).

    So of all the options–(1) The tradition removed women before it got to Paul, (2) Paul removed women from the tradition for his own comfort, (3) Paul removed women from the tradition for the Corinthian’s comfort–I think (2) is the least likely. In fact, some scholars postulate a 4th option, which is also possible: (4) Paul wasn’t aware of the traditions that included the women, which is related to option (1). We tend to picture that Paul had the canonical gospels in front of him when he wrote his own letters, or we assume that the Holy Spirit imprinted everything in those canonical gospels into Paul’s mind. But nowhere does the Bible say that that’s how inspiration works.

  7. Thanks for the info. on the women and the resurrection. The C/C has done a grave injustice to the women of our fellowship. Jeremiah 31:31-34 says that God will make a new covenant with Israel. I WILL WRITE IT ON THEIR HEARTS AND IN THEIR MINDS!!! He said he was going to DOWNLOAD the New Covenant to our heart and mind. He never said he would make a hard copy! I was recently ask by an elder, “if I believed the N.T. was the Inspired word of God?” I answered, WHICH VERSION? They ask me to leave. Incidently, no one can prove that the N.T. was written in Greek!!!!!! Catholic tradition! The originals are not in existent! We are not under law but Grace. Rom. 6:14

  8. whattopick18 says:

    Is there any way to send a p.m. to a blogger? I have some questions for someone who has left the CoC after being in it a long time.

  9. John says:

    I am not sure what to make of St. Paul’s omission in Corinthians, but I would be cautious in reading too much into it. In the living Tradtion of the Church, the role of these women has never been discounted. The Orthodox Church entitles St. Mary Magdalene as “Equal to the Apostles.” The second Sunday after Holy Pascha is the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women. As that was last Sunday for us, the sermon and subject is still fresh on my mind.

    • Mark says:

      Many people believe that Paul is the primary author of Christianity and of the gospels, John Mark and Luke having been his disciples, and Matthew copying his gospel from Mark. Others believe the gospel accounts were written so long after Jesus’ death (29 AD) that they can’t be reliable. But if either of those are so, why does Paul give such an abbreviated account of the resurrection, that leaves out the women, in 56 AD? (Very early) N.T. Wright’s point is that the gospel accounts must be much earlier than 56 AD, or from a completely different source than, Paul. He believes that Paul is not the primary author of Christianity, and that the gospel accounts are so contrary to what the people’s custom was, that they must be reliable and early.

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