Events in Australian society over recent weeks have seen the emergence of a powerful hashtag: #IBelieveHer.
The announcement of Grace Tame as Australian of the Year for 2021 set in train a dramatic series of events. Grace’s testimony to the abuse she has suffered is powerful. Her appointment to this role validates the stories of countless survivors with similar stories.
Since Australia Day, it has been fascinating, and disturbing, to see how the announcement of this particular Australian of the Year has set in train a powerful and disturbing sequence of events in Australian public life. Sexual abuse, and especially male mistreatment of females, has been in the news each day since then.
The announcement about Grace Tame was soon followed by the testimony of Brittany Higgins, about being raped in Parliament House. This was another key catalyst in the public discussion of sexual abuse and misogyny in our society. In contrast to the shocking and shameful characterisation of her testimony by a Federal minister, her public words invited the clear response: #IBelieveHer.
The turmoil swirling around these revelations soon encompassed a matter that, apparently, had long been a widely-known secret in the corridors of Parliament House and amongst the media in the national capital. That secret started to leak into public awareness; rumour and supposition spread.
When the then Attorney General eventually spoke publicly, identifying himself as the subject of the rumours, we were offered the options: believe him, with his emotionally theatrical presentation of denial; or listen to the testimony of the sadly-deceased woman, as she grappled with her recollection of events in 1988, and attested to friends of her abuse by him at that time. The opportunity arose, once more, to consider our response; and many have responded with heightened intensity: #IBelieveHer.
And in the ensuing weeks, many other females: members of parliaments, parliamentary staffers, public figures, and private individuals, have borne testimony to their experiences of harassment, discrimination, and abuse. Each of them invites us to consider whether #IBelieveHer.
In this context, it is sobering for us to read and reflect on the Gospel texts which provide the underlying narrative for The Easter Story, which we remember and reflect on each year at this time.
The earliest of our Gospels affirms that women were involved with the movement started by Jesus. They were present, they experienced life on the road with him, they heard his words and saw his deeds; and they remained faithful until the very end.
In his beginning of the good news about Jesus, Mark reports:
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40–41)
The passage raises questions: how do we know about what happened to Jesus on the cross? Do we attend to, and give credence to, the testimony of the women? Do we respond, #IBelieveHer ?
Just a few verses later, Mark provides the first account of the scene at the tomb, where a group of female followers of Jesus were the first to discover that the tomb was empty. He ends the scene with the women fleeing, and the abrupt observation that “they said nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8). Was that because they feared that nobody would believe them?
However, others who report this scene feels that this ending is quite inadequate—after all, we do have a story about that empty tomb encounter, so surely someone there must have spoken about it?
With that in mind, in his book of origins, Matthew modifies the story, even as he repeats it: “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” (Matt 28:8) And the silence of the text about how this news was received, invites the unspoken question about their testimony: do #IBelieveHer ?
In narrating his orderly account of things being fulfilled, Luke provides a more nuanced account of the scene, more directly reflecting an awareness of the strong patriarchal context of his day. Why would men believe this report from the women? Would not the typical response be that this was simply women, gossiping, repeating hearsay, even causing trouble??
Luke notes: They remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:10-11).
The male apostles (identified so by the same author at Acts 1:13) clearly did not believe the women. #IBelieveHer appears not to apply here.
So Luke continues: Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. (Luke 24:12)
Male authorisation of female claims was still needed, even in this Gospel where women appear to have a stronger voice. Those male leaders did not respond with #IBelieveHer, until they were able to see and experience for themselves. In the house where they gathered in Jerusalem, them men at last believe the women—because one of their own had validated their words.
The latest of the four canonical Gospels locates this response of disbelief at the empty tomb, rather than in the house in Jerusalem. In this Gospel, the book of signs, Mary has come by herself to the tomb, found it empty, and returned to tell Simon Peter and the beloved disciple of this news.
As a result, John notes:
Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed. (John 20:3–8)
Yet again, the males were required to inspect and authorise the claims of the women. In this Gospel, “seeing is believing” (see John 1:39, 46, 50; 4:29; 4:48–53; 6:30: 7:3; 9:15–17, 25; 11:9; 11:34–40; 12:21; 20:25–27). #IBeliveHer was conditional on male affirmation. They saw; we believe. Yet we take the story of Mary, in the garden, seeing Jesus, as part of our “Gospel truth”. It is clear that believers affirm: #IBelieveHer—even when the early male leaders did not!
John recounts another, more personal, more profound story, focussed solely on Mary of Magdala, who later encounters a man in the garden. Uncertain of his identity, she thinks he is the gardener. It takes only one word from the man to persuade her that he is, indeed, Jesus:
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). (John 20:16)
This story ends, as the earlier accounts do, with a woman testifying to the male (and presumably other female) followers of Jesus:
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:18).
For a fine account of what we can glean from the testimony of women to the Risen One, see Amy Orr-Ewing’s article at https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/march-web-only/believe-women-rzim-ravi-zacharias-easter-gospel.html
This passage has led Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza to famously describe Mary as “the apostle to the apostles”. (See https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/elisabethschusslerfiorenza/publications/“mary-magdalene-apostle-apostles”) And clearly, in this Gospel, and throughout Christian history, the response to this story has been: #IBelieveHer.
#IBelieveHer. This is the logical deduction to draw from each of these narratives—at times, in counterpoint to the males in the story, but eventually, in relation to each account, with assurance that the voice of the females is acceptable, trustworthy, believable. #IBelieveHer.
And other Gospel narratives contain stories in which women are placed alongside men as experiencing the ministry of Jesus (most notably, Luke 8:1–3; John 11:20–27; Mark 1:29–31; and many other scenes), as well as accounts where the word of a woman was heard and believed: for instance, the woman of the Samaritan village (John 4:39–42); the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany (Mark 14:3–9 and parallels); and the Syrophoenician woman in the region of Tyre (Mark 7:24–30), whose pushback against Jesus convinces him! In these stories, also, our response is: #IBelieveHer!
Of course, the passages noted above with women as the key protagonists raise the question: who told the evangelists about these incidents? Are they based on eye-witness testimony? Are they historical narratives, attested from the very beginning? Or are they stories developed and expanded over time, imaginative recreations of what is assumed to have taken place, shaped as stories for later generations?
In reconstructing “the historical Jesus”, scholars developed a number of criteria for assessing whether sayings and teachings in the Gospels were likely to have been authentic—that is, spoken by the historical Jesus himself. (See a simple listing at https://www.westmont.edu/~fisk/articles/CriteriaOfAuthenticity.htm)
One of these criteria was “dissimilarity”: does the saying sit uneasily, both with Judaism of the time, and in terms of what we know about the early church? The same criteria can be used, by extension, to consider narrative accounts in the Gospels: they are more likely to have been authentic if they reflect “dissimilarity”. Why would an author create something that sat uneasily within the worldview of the day?
On this basis, placing weight on the testimony of women might be seen to be as close as we can get to an authentic account. There is an argument that women were not regarded as valid witnesses—a passage in the Talmud (Shavuot 30a) interprets Deut 19:17 as requiring males only to be witnesses.
וְעָמְדוּ שְׁנֵי-הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר-לָהֶם הָרִיב לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לִפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַשֹּׁפְטִים אֲשֶׁר יִהְיוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם.
And they shall stand the two men, who have them the conflict, before God. Before the priests, and the judges, that will be, in those days.
Deliberately casting doubt on the testimony of women (Mark 16:8; Luke 24:11; John 20:3–8) would be a counter-productive move, if that testimony was to serve as the earliest account of what happened to Jesus. More likely than not, this was a tradition received and valued as plausible, perhaps even historical.
Indeed, feminist theological reflection on these and other narratives moves away from the “kyriachal” nature of these male-generated criteria, and into a “hermeneutic of remembrance” in which the voices of women—present, but often diluted, softened, or hidden in the final,form of the biblical text—are valued and accorded primary significance.
(See a useful discussion of the hermeneutics of remembrance, focussed on the writings of Schüssler Fiorenza, at https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/opth-2020-0117/html) In this approach to the texts, we read carefully and listen attentively, to hear the voices of ancient women, and respond affirmatively: #IBelieveHer.
At any rate, however we assess these early narratives, the way they have been handled throughout the ensuing two millennia is clear: #IBelieveHer. That is how we deal with the narratives of cross and resurrection that we receive in the scriptures. #IBelieveHer. And that principle is surely valid and valuable to guide us in life today. #IBelieveHer.