Jesus, growing, learning: a review of ‘What Jesus Learned from Women’

Jesus, fully divine, was yet also fully human. So we affirm: in creeds, in songs, in sermons and prayers. As fully human as each one of us, Jesus—like us—grew and developed, broadening in his understanding and deepening in his maturity over the years. This growth into maturity took place as Jesus learnt. He was exposed to new experiences, offered different perspectives, given fresh insights, and so, as he learnt, he grew.

Indeed, we read this claim quite explicitly in scripture, in the only place in our canonical Gospels that explicitly deals with Jesus as a growing child: “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40), and then, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:52).

If we accept this claim—consistent with the creeds and articulated in scripture—then it is quite legitimate to ask, “from whom did Jesus learn?” Perhaps from scribes in his local synagogue, as he grows and develops in his understanding of Torah. Perhaps from others of his age in that setting, as they delve deeper together, sharing insights about their customs and scriptures. And perhaps from members of his own family, as a young child, encountering new things each day as he grows.

In all of this, Jesus is “one who in every respect … [is] as we are” (Heb 4:15). He was fully one of “the children [who] share in flesh and blood, [who] himself likewise partook of the same things” (Heb 2:14), who “in the days of his flesh … offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb 5:7). His full humanity must surely also mean that he learnt from his interactions with all manner of people in his life.

Including women. Including his mother, and perhaps his grandmother, if she was still alive during his childhood. Including the feisty Syrophoenician woman he encountered near Tyre, as well as the sisters of Lazarus whose home he visited in Bethany; and including Joanna and Mary of Magdala who followed him faithfully, as well as other women whom he encountered at various times during his travels in Galilee and Jerusalem. Jesus learnt from each of these women.

This is the thesis that is proposed, explored, and advocated in detail by North American biblical scholar, James McGrath, in his most recent book, What Jesus Learned from Women (Cascade Books, Oregon, 2021). The book has twelve chapters, and deals with the interactions between Jesus and a dozen women, with conclusions drawn about what Jesus learned in each instance.

If the notion of Jesus, the human being, needing to learn and grow, is problematic for a reader with a strong theology of Jesus as “fully divine”, then the claim that this learning was from women is sure to antagonise those who lay claim to the (unbiblical) notion that women ought not to teach men. But of course Jesus developed, of course Jesus learnt, and of course he learned from women.

In the 16 page Introduction to this book, matters of method in interpreting biblical texts are canvassed. In the 10 page Conclusion, a summary is provided as to “what Jesus learned from women”, and some pointers for other possibilities to explore are offered. If you don’t want to read the whole book, dip into these bookends. But the book is most certainly worth reading in full!

Each of the intervening chapters begin with a creative monologue, from the perspective of the woman in the encounter or another woman closely involved. These creative monologues draw heavily on what we know, from decades of scholarship, about the cultural customs and religious practices of Judaism at the time when Jesus lived in Galilee.

What follows, in each chapter, is a careful discussion of the key issues identified in those monologues. The chapters show thoughtful interaction with contemporary scholarship, with judicious use of footnotes enabling Dr McGrath to engage in the more technical interactions with other scholars. Indeed, there is a comprehensive bibliography of 26 pages at the end of the book, signalling that the author has canvassed other scholarly views most thoroughly.

This book is readable and engaging. The scholarly foundations of James McGrath’s thinking are evident, but these do not, for the most part, impair the flow of the writing or the stimulus of ideas canvassed. Indeed, because I’ve known James in person for many years, I feel confident to say that the book is equally as engaging and enjoyable as the enthusiastic and energetic author is, himself.

That’s not to say that every detail is amenable to my own predilections and beliefs about various aspects of the biblical texts that are explored. I don’t think that chapter 3, that pins a lot on what a fanciful second century document claims about Jesus’s family (Joseph and Mary, and her parents Joachim and Anna), really works–at least, not for me. Nor am I taken by the harmonising down into one incident of the various accounts of the woman who anointed Jesus, dealt with in chapter 7—although I do quite like the notion that the woman, in this incident, functions as a divinely-inspired prophet, foreseeing with clarity the fate of Jesus.

In the longest chapter, treating perhaps the most well-known woman in the life of Jesus (apart from his mother), my willingness to run with the creativity of the opening monologue and the claims that then followed in the ensuing 30 pages, was severely tested. I was minimally persuaded by reliance on abstracted explanations and hypothetical extrapolations from some isolated sections of the late second-century Valentinian gnostic work, the Gospel of Philip.

The kiss that Jesus gave Mary of Magdala, referred to in that work, must be read, I believe, not as a physical act, but as a spiritual claim: Mary was loved more than the one identified as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in John’s Gospel. The distinctive connections of salt and Jonah with Magdala seem too far fetched to me; was not salt, for instance, widely-used in the ancient world? And yet, the proposal about the relative ages of Jesus and Mary, the economic context of Mary, and the explanation of how the demons left her, have some attraction.

When I arrived at the final substantive chapter of the book, dealing with Joanna, wife of Chuza and one of the witnesses to the empty tomb, I was well-schooled in the McGrath style of beginning with a creative, dramatic-style monologue (in italics) followed by a careful, academic-style analysis of what the ancient texts (biblical and others) report. By the end of the chapter, I was thinking: why was not all of this in italics? That is to say: this whole chapter felt like a free-wheeling historical drama set in the ancient world, not a closely-argued forensic analysis of the character.

I’m a confirmed sceptic about the identification of Joanna with Junia (the apostle named in Rom 16:7). It comes from the work of one scholar, known for his dramatic hypotheses, and not substantiated by other scholarly work. The Nabatean origins of the name Chuza seem to rest simply on one inscription noted in an 1898 archaeological work. The possible relationship of Paul to the family of Chuza and Joanna (perhaps Andronicus and Junia?) does not seem to be demonstrated, at least to my thinking. It’s a creative chapter, but it’s relationship to history is tenuous (like the Star Wars saga that McGrath alludes to at the end of the chapter).

However, a number of the other chapters have strong persuasive power, at least to me. It is clear that the Mary who is depicted in Luke’s Gospel expresses views strongly consistent with key teachings of Jesus (compare Luke 1:46–55 with 4:16–21 and 6:20–26). Was this because the same person authored these passages? (as is most often assumed by scholars). Or was it because Mary in fact taught her son Jesus these central scriptural insights when he was a young child? (as James McGrath advocates in chapter 2). The possibility is enticing, and plausible.

I am also persuaded by the chapters which explain what Jesus learnt from the woman he encountered beside a well in Samaria (chapter 4) and the Syrophoenician woman in the region of Tyre (chapter 5). The way that each of these encounters is reported in the Gospel narratives (the former in John, the latter in Mark and Matthew) provides clear validation for the claim that Jesus did, in fact, learn significant things from each of these women. It seems to me that the discussion in these chapters does a fine job of amplifying what is in the text. And the encounter by the well in Samaria gave the inspiration for the wonderful artwork on the cover of the book, by Indianapolis artist Macey Dickerson. (See https://www.maceydickersonarts.com/)

And, despite my earlier comments about the historical implausibility of the chapter on Joanna, I found the brief discussion of the “intersectional” nature of life for people such as Saul/Paul and Joanna/Junia, living with two names that signify their two cultures, two languages, two places of being. That dynamic is so important for contemporary living in the global society.

The “thickest” chapter, in my view, is the chapter dealing with the young woman who was “presumed innocent”. We know her in Christian tradition as “the woman caught in adultery”—a story told in a section of text that is missing from the earliest manuscripts of John’s Gospel, and also floats into Luke’s Gospel in other manuscripts. The chapter draws from passages in Hebrew Scriptures and rabbinic texts to shed light on the scene. Who knew that dust on the mosaic floor in the Temple could be such a vital clue to this reconstruction?

Dr McGrath reconstructs the scene develops a thesis about what took place in a detailed, well-researched argument which is quite rabbinic in style and character. In the end, the chapter offers a creative interpretation that I find at once persuasive in many aspects—yet enticingly unresolved. Did Jesus learn from this woman the importance of not judging, and the imperative of not assuming one person is any more “without sin” than any other person?

Perhaps the most interesting claim that is made in this book is nestled into a footnote in the consideration of “two suffering daughters” in chapter six, relating to the woman who had bled for 12 years and the twelve year old daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader (Mark 5:21–43). Noting that the world of the time was a strongly oral society, Dr McGrath proposes that the written Gospels “may well have served as memory aids for those who reflect stories about Jesus in Christian communities”.

Functioning in this way, those who used these written narratives may well have elaborated and expanded on them, drawing from what they knew as people of the time, and responding to questions from those hearing the stories. This fits very well into what we know of ancient (and, indeed, modern!) Jewish practices of storytelling.

We know that the Pharisees (and Jesus), and the rabbis in later centuries into the modern era, were masterful storytellers, using exaggeration, expansion, elaboration, and dramatic techniques to “get the point across”. And ancient synagogue congregations were not at all like the sedate, restrained congregations of contemporary Protestantism—schooled not to interrupt or ask questions! Synagogue gatherings were hectic, bustling, noisy events.

So what does this mean, then, for the whole enterprise that has developed, of careful, meticulous, written scholarly examination of each and every word in the biblical texts? Are we overegging the enterprise in our zealous focus on minute details, given the hypothesis that the texts were simply the springboards for more expansive and creative storytelling? As someone who thrives on that scholarly enterprise, I am stunned by this possibility. But it bears further consideration.

Yet the suggestion that the written text formed the basis for a more extempore, elaborated account of each story involved, is an enticing prospect. And we know that it can work, since the book itself shows how the biblical text can generate a fuller story, offered in the creative monologues at the start of each chapter (and at the end of some).

That’s one of the great gifts of this book—along with the theological affirmations that Jesus was human, and thus did learn from other human beings; and that, in fact, he did learn from women at multiple points throughout his life. For establishing the reality of these insights, through this book, we are most grateful to James McGrath.

*****

Postscript: I have read this book in company with a group of friends, from three continents, meeting once a week online to discuss a chapter at a time. It’s one of the gifts of the pandemic—we have learnt to be agile in the way we function online. It’s meant we can draw together people who are geographically dispersed—including, in this case, the author himself! It’s been a great way to explore a whole host of ideas that have emerged within the book, or during our conversations about it.

See also https://www.insights.uca.org.au/new-book-to-explore-what-jesus-learned-from-women/ and https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2021/03/what-jesus-learned-from-women-insights.html where James McGrath engages in conversation with Jonathan Foye about the book.

The book can be ordered from https://wipfandstock.com/9781532680601/what-jesus-learned-from-women/

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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