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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