“Say My Name” — Anonymous Women in the Bible

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by Tim Widowfield

First half of the 17th century
The Wedding at Cana, Simon de Vos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During my mother’s last few weeks, I read to her from the Bible. Picking around, I looked for the most comforting passages. As she slipped in and out of consciousness, I tried reading from the Sermon on the Mount, but it wasn’t helpful. In the end I read mostly from the Gospel according to John, especially where Jesus speaks directly about hope, life, light, and the resurrection.

“In my father’s house, there are many mansions.”

To me, John seems the most “Christian” of all the gospels. By that I mean, if I were a Christian and had to choose only one gospel to survive after an asteroid hit the Earth, I would probably pick John. Yet it has quite a bit missing when you compare it to the Synoptics.

For one thing, like Mark, there’s no nativity story. But we can live without that. It also lacks the parables and exorcisms that litter the landscape in the other three gospels. However, in return we get the so-called “signs,” and we gain the long discourses in which Jesus explains himself.

And we get these verses that I read to my mother, over and over again, as she lay dying:

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (John 14:2-3, KJV)

You could still make a good case for Matthew. With it, we get a family tree and an exciting birth legend. We also get the name of Jesus’ mother, something John omitted. Yes, as odd as it sounds, John never got around to telling us Mary’s name. We know her only by her relationship to men.

Our Blessed Lady of Whoever

She appears to be a woman of some substance, since she commands the servants at the wedding in Cana to “do whatever he tells you.” But she has no identity outside her relationship to her son. Try to imagine Christianity with an anonymous mother of Christ. It’s no easy task.

Mary is by no means unique in this respect. After the Great Flood, we learn that all humans on Earth today came from one family: Noah and his sons — Shem, Ham, and Japheth. However, none of their wives, the four women from whom we all supposedly descended are worth mentioning by name.

There are many others. You can find a comprehensive list of anonymous women at BibleGateway.com. The examples that seem really egregious to me occur in New Testament narratives. It’s especially odd when a named man is juxtaposed with one or more unnamed women. Consider, for example, the story of Jairus’ daughter. On the way to heal the anonymous girl, Jesus heals an anonymous woman.

You may wish to remind me that Jesus healed anonymous men as well, and that’s true. But as I said, the fact that we know the name of Jairus, but nobody else in the story seems curious. Consider, as well, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. She has no name, and neither does her daughter. The author of Mark’s gospel “remembered” the story, but seems to have forgotten these “superfluous” details. The name of Peter’s wife must also have disappeared from the Rich Oral Tradition™, because Eusebius didn’t know it either.

We’ll never forget . . . uh . . . that woman

More striking is the story in Mark 14:3-9, when an unnamed woman anoints Jesus. When others around him protest, he tells us:

She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.

Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her. (Mark 14:8-9, KJV)

Jesus predicts that for all time to come, all over the Earth, people will never forget good old What’s-Her-Name.


In the end we can explain the phenomenon of women with disappearing identities as either a blessing or a curse. Apologists will likely tell us that what these women did is far more important than their names. They sought no fame, only the privilege of serving God. We should no doubt strive to be more like them.

But the more likely reason authors did not see fit to assign names to so many women, even those who played pivotal roles in the narratives, arises from the ancient view of women. The “fair sex” in most ancient cultures had a status slightly above children. As they saw it, women were imperfect humans, fit for reproduction and raising children, but not much else.

They had no rights. They had no legal standing. After all, what’s the Biblical punishment for rape?

. . . then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days. (Deut. 22:9, ESV) 

So you see, the real victim in a rape is the poor father who is embarrassed by the ordeal. The fact that modern people in the West continue to embrace a religion that condoned slavery and treated women as chattel certainly demonstrates the elasticity of the human mind.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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11 thoughts on ““Say My Name” — Anonymous Women in the Bible”

  1. That was a wonderful thing to do for your mother. It’s easy to forget just how inferior the status of women was in all societies previous to the 20th century. What accounts for the great moral progress we have made since Thomas Jefferson falsely claimed all MEN are created equal? But wasn’t Jesus of the gospels, whether real or mythical, a significant step towards that goal?

  2. Some of the most impressive women in the old testament are from the stories of Saul’s family, especially Rizpah. The stories seem to be told to show up David as just a nasty piece of work in human terms but in the eyes of God a beloved messiah.

  3. To me, John seems the most “Christian” of all the gospels. By that I mean, if I were a Christian and had to choose only one gospel to survive after an asteroid hit the Earth, I would probably pick John.

    I would disagree.

    John M. Hull is an unsighted biblicar scholar, and so he writes as a disabled person about the sick people at the pool of Bethesda. For Hull, Jn 5.14 makes sense if ‘Jesus shared the belief that they were all there because of some sin”.

    But Hull’s rejectionism is most clearly outlined in this statement concerning John: ‘the simbolism made me feel uneasy and I soon came to realize that this book was not written for people like me, but for sighted people. No other book of the Bible is so dominated by the contrast between light and darkness, and blidness is the symbol of darkness.”

    (Hector Avalos, The Bad Jesus, p. 289)

  4. Please, do not forget the other women who have no place in the NT, such as Queen Boudica of Londinium, around 60 CE… and all the European goddesses, Venus-Aphrodites, Juno-Hera, etc…
    Another success of the Arabic peninsula henotheistic tribes.

  5. Much depends on whether the human female is regarded more as a unit of industrial production and even military destruction than as a mother, wife or companion.

    1. I think that it is possible but not strictly necessary to assume that ”the debates were created not for jewish but christian listeners” (even if sometimes the pharisees and scribes allude to Jewish-Christian enemies of Paul).

      If you see the ‘Jesus’ in Mark as allegory of Israel who dies and rises in 70 CE (Clarke Owens docet), then you may see the religious leaders as allegory of the historical pharisees (as Josephus) giving their ideological support to Zealot cause (and therefore condemning Israel to a sure defeat against Rome). James S. McLaren argues that the pro-Zealot pharisees were to coin the slogan of war ‘Only God is Master!’, and not ‘Judah the Galilean’.

      For example, I propose these parallelisms between the prophecies of Mark 13 and the Passion, Death and Resurrection of ‘Jesus’ both in the fiction and in the historical defeat of Israel in 70 CE.

  6. Could it be that the Revelations (Book of John) was originally recollections of John the Baptist’s prophesies? (Not John of Patmos’ or some other John.) Could have the Book of John also contained John’s collected divination methods, which means his directions on how to heal and know the future (as well as the past)? Could it be that the earliest collectors of John’s teachings knew who John was and there was no need to specify him as John the Baptist. This knowledge would have existed several centuries before the canons were completed.

    Then, after secrecy overtook the early Christian movement, what John was doing had to be hidden. Nobody could know the divination secrets after he was killed, or that he was teaching others how to heal and divine information about the future and past. What was that? He wasn’t the only healer? So many things had to be changed — the fact that the Nasoreans weren’t celibate, they didn’t circumcise, they didn’t worship a god (which takes away his title ‘only begotten son of god), and their patriarchs weren’t Moses and Abraham.

    There had to be a name change and another story, which would effectively hide who John was. Enter the canons, which are largely myths from other religions. The name change was quite appropriate — Jesus, which is Greek for ‘God Saves’ — and he became god in the flesh, savior of all mankind. The stories were exaggerated beyond belief (many of which have had to be retracted), he was given followers, he was given a mother and a favorite female follower, and they were all presumed celibates, as his immaculate conception leads people to believe. Nevermind that celibacy has never been part of the Mandaean (Nasorean) custom. And why are there so many Marys in the New Testament? Mary Haii means ‘the most high be with you’ in Mandaean Aramaic. It is a greeting! Is it possible that the writers who wrote the story of Jesus didn’t know what Mary Haii meant?

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