Chapter 2: Topical Index
A distinct feature of John’s gospel is the high visibility of its female characters. A woman, Jesus’ mother, is the first person in the gospel to not only assert, but enforce, Jesus’ authority. Against Jewish custom, Jesus later speaks to a woman, in public—and she is a Samaritan woman to boot. Mary and Martha, the women of such prominent controversy—“Mary has chosen the better part” (Luke 10.38-42)—feature prominently, again with Jesus the Rabbi interacting directly with them in public. And, of course, there is the familiar figure of Mary Magdalene, a primary witness to the resurrection in all the gospels.
The unusual emphasis on female participation in all four of the gospels has been much commented on. In the social context of first-century Palestine, women were seen as unreliable witness, untrustworthy, and generally inferior beings. The prominence of women in the earliest church is regarded as a historical fact in many, typically skeptical scholarly circles because it is not the kind of detail anyone would invent—it would’ve been a mark against the Christians that the first witnesses to the resurrection were female.
John’s gospel is stark and plain in its emphasis on the female religious role. A woman tells Jesus what to do, disrupting even Jesus’ own timing. Women berate Jesus and question him. Jesus seems to treat them as equals, certainly as human beings of equal worth to men. It might be said that John’s gospel advances women beyond even the notable elevation of the synoptics. This increasing level of elevation becomes even more pronounced in later, non-canonical gospels, such as the Gospel of Mary, in which she is depicted berating the apostles for establishing such a rigid religion. But while later traditions elevated the female characters in order to challenge the apostolic tradition, the Gospel of John puts the familiar female characters on level ground with the early disciples; each gender has a distinct role.
Speaking broadly, Jesus treats the female characters in John’s gospel as a single type, familiar to us from the Old Testament: the Bride, or Zion. Throughout John, Jesus and his female followers—his mother included, for she too is a type of Zion, a figure of Jerusalem—wrestle with the issue of timing. Jesus’ mother pushes the wedding forward too soon; the Samaritan woman with five husbands and a sixth “friend” patiently waits for the coming Christ to resolve her problems; Mary and Martha lament Jesus’ late arrival, but celebrate when it turns out his arrival is quite timely, after all; the adulterous woman—an early interpolation into the main text of John—may also be seen as a type of Zion, a figure of an adulterous nation forgiven by the Bridegroom and released from her debt (comp. John 8.10-11, Jeremiah 3.1, 12-16, Isaiah 62.1-4). In John, the female characters all wrestle with issues of timing, of marriage and adultery, of waiting and longing, of disappointment, and failure, and restoration, reflecting the church’s self-awareness as a group created in response to the failure to keep the covenant, in response to God’s forgiveness for that sin, the redemption of Zion in the wilderness.