GOD 101: Sign Stories And Women In The Christian Testament, and the lesson of source and orbit

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Sign Stories And Women In The Christian Testament, and the lesson of source and orbit Julia Marks

(The following text is taken from Mary & Martha: Women in the World of Jesus, by Satoko Yamaguchi)

Given the context of the Greco-Roman world, it is interesting to look at sign stories involving women in the Christian Testament.  There seem to be many sign stories in which women must have been involved but are invisible.  For example, women, who are generally invisible in most biblical texts, were undoubtedly included among the “crowd(s)” (see, for example, Mark 6:34; Matthew 14:14; Luke 9:11; John 6:2).

Thirteen sign stories contain specific mention of individual women.  Two are the unexpected conceptions by Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptizer (Luke 1:5-25), and by Mary, the mother of Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38).  Another is the account in which Jesus’s mother is the mediator of Jesus’s wine sign at a wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11).  Two other stories tell of signs related to Jesus’s resurrection — the empty tomb of Jesus found first by Mary Magdalene (John 20:1; Mark 16:1-6; Matthew 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-12) and the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18; Mark 16:9-11).

The other nine stories tell of healings:

1.  Peter’s mother-in-law: Jesus’s performance, with the mediation of disciples, to heal Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31; Matthew 8:14-16; Luke 4:38-39);

2.  Jairus’s daughter: Jesus’s performance, with the mediation of her father, to heal his daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43; Matthew 9:18-19, 23-25; Luke 8:40-42a, 49-56).

3.  A woman with a hemorrhage: Jesus’s performance, at the woman’s own mediation (by reaching out and touching), to heal her (Mark 5:25-34; Matthew 9:20-22; Luke 8:42b-48).

4.  Syrophoenician (or Canaanite) woman’s daughter: Jesus’s performance, with the mediation of her mother, to heal her daughter (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28);

5.  The raising of a widow’s son: Jesus’s performance, without being asked, to restore the son’s life (Luke 7:11-17);

6.  A woman with a spirit of infirmity: Jesus’s performance, without being asked, to heal her (Luke 13:10-17);

7.  The raising of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary: Jesus’s performance, with the mediation of the sisters of Lazarus, to restore their brother’s life (John 11:1-44).

8.  The raising of Tabitha, a disciple: Peter’s performance, with the mediation of the disciples, to restore her life (Acts 9:36-43);

9.  A slave girl with a Pythian spirit: Paul’s performance, without being asked, to heal or exorcise her (Acts 16:16-18).

We should note that, as was the case in Greco-Roman stories in general, healing stories predominate.  However, these stories do not follow the same pattern.  Stories in the Christian Testament do not feature the occasions of a woman’s betrothal, conception, or disability in order to safeguard her place and role in the patriarchal household.  Although two stories do relate to conception, they do not serve to reinforce the patriarchal households.  Rather, they function to undermine patriarchal households.  In Elizabeth’s story, her husband is powerless (Luke 1:19, 59-63).  Similarly, Mary appears as an unwed mother (Mark 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38), and the women are allowed to stay together on their own (Luke 1:39-44, 56).

Indeed, healing stories in the Christian Tradition affirm the affectionate concern of supplicants for their family members, but they do not serve to reinforce either stereotypical women’s roles or the patriarchal household.  A father can become a supplicant, and not for a son, but for a daughter.  A mother appears as a supplicant for a daughter and actually argues against Jesus, a teacher, and Jesus accepts her argument; both of them ignore the patriarchal social codes of gender and social status.  In another story a man becomes a supplicant not for his own mother, but for his mother-in-law.  This tendency to depart from traditional roles may reflect the earliest Christian ethos that did not share in the patriarchal ethos of Greco-Roman households but that instead strongly affirmed familial relationships.

In the entire Christian Testament, however, there are no accounts of sign-working specifically attributed to women — not even to Mary Magdalene.  Does this mean that there were no women sign-workers either in the reign-of-God movement or in the earliest Christian movements?  This does not seem logical.

As noted above, religious leaders in the Greco-Roman world were expected to perform signs and wonders, and the Christian Testament texts tell us that means for vindication of their God and their teachings.  Since there is firm evidence of women’s leadership and their presence as “prominent among the apostles” (Romans 16:7), it is reasonable to assume that these women were also expected to perform signs and actually did.

How then should we interpret this absence of women’s sign-working stories?  Two major explanations seem possible.  First, the general tendency of male-centered material selection was to filter out stories of women, including those telling of women’s sign-workings.  Second, competing religious propaganda, which presented leaders as powerful divine sign-workers, promoted a kyriocentric (hero-centered) message.  Stories of the miraculous and powerful were appropriated from various sources and attributed to leaders, enhancing the leaders at the expense of other active participants in the movements.  As a result, the gospels portrayed only Jesus as the ever greater sign-worker, and the Acts recounted the stories of signs worked by Peter (for example, Acts 3:1-10, 9:32-35, 9:36-42) and Paul (Acts 14:8-10, 16:16-18, 20:7-12).  Other male participants were rendered as shadowy figures or otherwise marginalized, and women as leaders and sign-workers disappeared from the canonical texts.

Here endeth the written text.

I don’t think that feminist theologians understand what they do to God when they write things like the above.  If scripture does not have examples of women performing signs and wonders, then it is logical to assert that scripture just dropped out these instances for the sake of its male-obsessed orientation.

That in the light of her own argument that states that the New Testament is just the opposite of being male-obsessed.

And that in the light of the incarnation: probably the most illogical theological statement of all time.  A homeless baby as God.

And that in the light of God himself: for finding reason in the works of God is akin to trying to roll up all the yarn that has ever been produced in this world.  It just isn’t there.

And I should know.  I’ve been working with God all my life.  And while, yes, there is reason in the study that I do, it’s the reason of God.  Learning about God is really learning to learn: learning that the upside-down-inside-out is really the norm, and that standing on one’s head is really the way to get to the store and back.

God is just not logical in the way we so desperately want him to be.  Just read the Bible.  Start at the first page.

And women, even in Genesis, are not set aside, or invisible.  In fact, I think of them as God’s anti-heroes.  But that’s a subject matter for another day of writing.

Here is my lesson of source and orbit:

Between two people in a relationship, one takes the role of the orbit and the other, the source.  The orbit is the one that gathers energy in and brings it to the source, who, in turn, transforms this energy into that which maintains them both.

This lesson always made me think of the old song about the man bringing home the bacon and the woman frying it up in the pan.

Energy in.  Energy transformed.  Energy out.

One out in the world, seen; the other, not in the world, unseen.  At least in their roles toward life-sustaining energy.

I bring this up because, like the above, I have noticed statements about how only weak men resent strong women.  Or all women have what it takes to be strong.

And, again, like the above, I wonder what women think they are doing to the world with their arguments.

The writing above states, very clearly, that to have value, one must perform signs and wonders.  And, more importantly, the signs and wonders one performs must be seen and recorded by others.

There is no “unseen” dimension in this woman’s mindset.  There is the seen, and that is all that is good in the world.

And imagine a world in which every single person is strong.  At least, only the strong people in the world are the good ones.  Anyone else is weak and bad.  Sort of like in 1984.

Weakness is wrong.  Being unseen is wrong.  And since women are right, they have to be seen and strong.

In the feminist’s mindset, there is only this one way.

Which pretty much leaves God out of the feminist picture of the world.  Because in God, there is black and white.  There is weak and strong.  There is seen and there is unseen.  In fact, there are all the opposites.  All there together.  All having its own value.

In fact, as far as we know, the unseen signs and wonders, or even the signs and wonders never performed,  are the most significant in the universe.

The way of the unseen is the way of the mystic.  And it is the mystic’s work to try and explain the unseen to the rest of the world.

I am severely aware of the distinction between the seen world and the unseen world.  And when I am “in flight,” I feel as though I am walking between  the two worlds, using the strengths of one world to perceive and function in the other.

And vice versa.

But, for me, there are very clear demarcations between the two.  And the two only connect through God-provided-for doors.  To burst from vision to reality, for me, would be only to confuse the subject matter at hand, and to invite chaos into my life.

I know.

I’ve done it.

So the value in signs and wonders is not that they are noticed, applauded, and recorded by those around you, it is in their reflection of and respect for God.  And it is the acknowledgement that what is unseen can be just as (if not more) valuable than what is seen.

Just as sometimes it is far more beneficial in our spiritual growth to be weak, rather than strong.


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