For my first assignment in my Women in Christianity class, I chose the option to create a creative interpretation of some of the text we read in class. I wrote a short story inspired by the women mentioned in Luke 8:1-3 and the gender politics and tension of money and women’s authority in the church. What follows is the explanation and analysis I had to provide with my creative interpretation.
Also, at the bottom I included a gallery of a couple mock-ups I worked on during break of Mary Magdalene for a series in oil paints on Saints.
A Masculine Monopoly
The most revolutionary religious movement transcending thousands of years was personally funded by women, who get three sentences of recognition. Luke 8 mentions the women who accompanied Jesus while he was on a ministry tour. He notes the infamous Mary Magdalene with her signature tagline of demon possession, Joanna, in association with her influential husband, and Susanna, who would probably have been introduced as “just Susanna, no tagline.” These women, along with “many others,” Luke states, “provided for them (Jesus and the disciples) out of their own resources.” Though Luke does include these women as an integral part of the ministry, at least in acknowledging their presence and donation, gender politics are still at large. The women are associated with former sins (Mary Magdalene), dependent upon their marital status (Joanna), or only mentioned once—here in Luke 8—and never again (Susanna). They are not labeled as disciples—a position of spiritual authority—but rather as an accompaniment.
My short story explores the tension that quite possibly could arise when women are the main providers and supporters of Christ’s ministry, but denied authority over their donation. Though Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ favorite, she still wasn’t even in charge of the money she gave so readily—Judas Iscariot was (John 12:6). Moreover, some believe that Judas Iscariot stole money from the ministry. Jesus didn’t encourage women teaching or having authority over men, though women were his main benefactors (as seen in Luke 8:1-3). As one of those benefactors, what would it be like to navigate these gender politics? What would a woman do if she didn’t have the authority to manage the money she provided, especially if the authority was becoming tainted? I chose to create a bizarre modern day scenario that would dramatize this tension of gender politics.
My short story focuses on the helplessness of women with stake and influence within a society or ministry, but who are denied the ability to act in a position of authority. Mary Magdalene is represented as Maggie, and Joanna as herself. Priscilla is included because she was an essential part of Paul’s ministry monetarily. Paul is a character, but does not actually appear. His association with Priscilla provided a great source of tension between Maggie and Paul and Priscilla, when Maggie blames him. Mary Magdalene’s tainted past could have possibly made her suspicious of Paul because of his past. The premise that Paul would have stolen any money is actually somewhat Biblically inaccurate. His ministry was mostly funded by the churches he wrote to (Phil. 4, 1 Cor. 9 and 16, Rom. 15), but the triangle I created still provided great tension. Since Judas Iscariot is rumored in the Bible to have stolen money from the ministry (John 12:6), he too appears in my short story, and is eventually decided upon, accurately, as the guilty party. I chose not to include Susanna in the story because she wasn’t as strong of a character as Priscilla could be.
Mary Magdalene is a frequent character in the Bible and a dominate character in my story. Next to Jesus’ mother, she is his “beloved,” which one would believe would give her a good deal of authority. But instead, Jesus entrusts her money to the man who later betrays him. As a woman who did live a former life of sin, it is redeeming of Jesus to give her worth and value as his “beloved” but, still, she has little authority over the men by which she is surrounded. This is seen in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, when Mary brings her story to the disciples, who recognize her importance to Jesus (Gospel of Mary Magdalene 5:5-7), but then deny the validity of her teaching solely based on her gender (9:4). Perhaps this is why her testimony is not even included in the traditional canon.
In my story, I chose to give Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Priscilla each a position of authority in a fictional company owned by Jesús Christos (representative of Jesus Christ). These gender politics are played out in the fact that Christos does not let women speak in his meetings. He does come to both women in the story in search of their monetary help, and does help them conquer addictions, but he still asserts a manly authority over them by not giving them voice. This is not to say that the character of Christ, or Christ himself is misogynistic—he is very kind to the women—but the women are seen as helpers, not on equal footing of authority with men, rather, beside them and silent.
Paul and Judas also play an important part. Regarding Paul’s past as a prosecutor of Christians, it’s possible that some Christians may have doubted his trustworthiness, thus making him an easy target for embezzlement accusations. Also, the tension that could have existed between Paul and Mary Magdalene (as seen in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene) possibly could have made Mary Magdalene want to point a finger at him. That’s why Maggie suggests Paul in the story.
Luke associates each of the women with a sexual sin. Even though these women are socially and spiritually redeemed by Jesus, they are still tied to sins of the past. Mary Magdalene is not introduced as simply Mary Magdalene, but rather identified by the one “from whom seven demons had gone out.” Joanna is identified not by her own self, but rather in association with her husband. This can be seen as cultural. Joanna’s identity is found in her husband, not in herself. Luke reminds the reader, even before he elaborates on each of the women’s former lives, that they had all been “healed of evil spirits and disabilities.” He could have stopped there, but instead he includes their specific sins, as though they could not be recognized without them. Their sins are, in Luke’s eyes, necessary in identifying them. It is believed that the women who accompanied Jesus provided for him out of gratitude for healing them.
In my story, all the women are handicapped by their former lives. Maggie follows the stereotypical lifestyle of Mary Magdalene, rumored since the 14th century to have been a wealthy former prostitute (“Mary Magdalene”). Jesus healed Mary Magdalene of her sins, and in return she provides for him monetarily. In the same way, Christos heals Maggie of her addictions and she gives him her fortune. Since Luke lists Joanna as one of the women who “had been healed of evil spirits,” it is assumed that Joanna also was possessed. Therefore, she is driven to insanity in my story, does drugs, and is also healed by Christos and gives away her fortune.
Priscilla is not associated with any sexual sins or demon possession, but some (mostly Lee Anna Starr) believe her to be the author of Hebrews, discredited because of her gender. Thus, in the story she is not credited with the work she is due as a lawyer at Hebrews Law Firm. In Acts 18, Paul writes that Priscilla and Aquilla came to Corinth “from Italy… they had left Italy when Claudius Caesar deported all Jews from Rome. Paul lived and worked with them, for they were tentmakers just as he was” (Acts 18:1-3). For modernity’s sake, I made them Arab, possibly the most relevant and controversial kind of foreigner in modern America. In the aftermath of 9/11, many Arabs have been racially discriminated against and labeled as untrustworthy. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission statistics show a marked increase in claims alleging discrimination based on Muslim faith since 2001, according to a 2011 report by the US Department of Justice. The label of “foreigner” gave Priscilla a disadvantage similar to Maggie and Joanna.
Though a rather feminist interpretation (defined as a concern for the promotion and dignity of women in society), the ironic climax of my story is that the women’s authority, though present, is mute. The title and punchline, even, allude to that famously bad joke: “Wanna hear a joke? Women’s Rights.” The Bible does not mention any of the women in Luke 8:1-3 standing up and teaching in place of the male disciples, or holding any position of authority. Though they hold monetary stake in the ministry, they are not allowed control or say. This is foreign to our society because today money is power. By creating a modern day situation, the reader, due to their cultural context, would be confused as to why the women didn’t stand up for themselves. Today’s society is much more feminist and would have encouraged those women to do something to assert their authority (blackmail, withdraw, sue). But that is not true to the text, and thus baffling to our modern society.
The great debate of our generation, then, is how to biblically give women authority in the church. Though women may not be given direct authority, Christ’s acceptance of monetary provision does make him dependable upon them, which gives them another kind of authority (Schaeberg 376). A revisionist approach could easily label Jesus’ action of accepting help from women, but not giving them authority, as cultural rather than theological. A liberal interpretation would allow the modern leader to support women’s authority in the church through the progressive revelation of co-ed authority in the church. Schaeberg, though, argued “unlike wealthy women who may have contributed financially as well as otherwise to the early phases of a movement in which they were historically full members, the women in Luke-Acts are inadvertently described as supporting a non-egalitarian system that subordinates and exploits them” (376).
Even a full understanding of the text leaves Christian feminists confused about their rightful position in the church. Rejectionists can’t reject the lack of voice women had in the Bible compared to men. Loyalists become confused when one puts authoritative women like Deborah or Priscilla next to MaryMagdalene. Sublimationists would want to find an overall balance in the Lord’s feminine and masculine characteristics, but the Lord is more often identified with male characteristics—Jesus comes to earth as a male, not a female. Liberalists can easily read beyond the gender stereotypes, but it would be inaccurate to ignore them.
My short story does not by any means offer a solution to the tension of co-ed authority. It merely recognizes, as Schaeberg says, a non-egalitarian system that subordinates women. That cannot be denied as few women today are leaders of men in their church communities. A 2010 survey by Faith Communities Today found only 12 percent of congregations identified a female as the principle leader of their congregation. Though women may have more authority in the church today due to liberalism, there is still an air of submission, which is biblical, but should also be balanced with the loving submission of men by providing women with a safe community in which they can voice their thoughts and opinions as part of a healthy community of believers, regardless of gender.
“Facts on Growth: 2010.” Http://faithcommunitiestoday.org. Faith Communities Today, 2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.
“The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene.” The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene. The Gnostic Society Library, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.
Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Print.
Jones, Madelynne. So Mary Magdalene, Priscilla, and Joanna Walk Into a Bar… N.p.: Self-
published, 2014. Print.
“Mary Magdalene.” Bible Gateway. Bible Gateway, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
Schaberg, Jane. “Luke.” (n.d.): 363-80. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
United States. Department of Justice. Confronting Discrimination in the Post-9/11 Era: Challenges and Opportunities Ten Years Later. US Department of Justice, 19 Oct. 2011. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.