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Holy Women in John's Gospel

by A. Katherine Grieb

When I visited the cave chapel at the monastery at Meteora in Greece, I remember being struck by the walls of paintings of saints: half of them were men, half were women. What would biblical interpretation be like, I wondered, in a community that assumed that roughly half of the communion of saints—past and present—were women? What if women’s leadership was uncontested as it may have been in the group of early Christians who carried forward the stories about Jesus in the gospel we call John?

The idea that we might learn about women’s leadership roles in some of the early Christian churches goes back to Raymond E. Brown’s The Community of the Beloved Disciple (written in 1979) and to the pioneering writings of Adela Yarbro Collins, Bernadette J. Brooten, Sandra M. Schneiders, and Elisabeth Schluessler Fiorenza in the early 1980s. These writers challenged us to imagine communities where women’s leadership might not have been remarkable. Certainly the church described in John’s gospel, like that of the Pauline epistles, assumes the leadership of capable and holy women as apostles and role models for hearers and readers of the scriptures.

We’ll look at the leadership of two such women, Mary and Martha of Bethany, who are featured in John 11–12. If we had space and time, we would also explore Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose introduction at the wedding at Cana and reappearance at the end of the passion narrative, provides a maternal framework for the gospel; the Samaritan woman of chapter 4 who becomes the first evangelist; and Mary Magdalene, the “apostle to the apostles” of the Lord’s resurrection.

The Rev. Dr. A. Katherine Grieb is professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria.

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