Women without names

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This page is part of the [[>Jesus Database]] series and relates to 216 Simons Mother-in-Law.

There are always fresh ways of understanding the scripture that we hear in church. This morning I want to share with you simply one of a good number of ways of reading the scripture. I introduce these ways of reading the scriptures to the students in my classes in the Brisbane College of Theology. I say introduce because a good proportion of the students arrive in the class quite ignorant (or let me be more gentle – quite unaware) of a whole range of ways of reading the scriptures that have been used (certainly by scholars) for the last 30 years.

This morning I want to open a feminist window into the room of today’s gospel. Now the word feminist evokes a whole range of responses. Let me give two simple definitions of what I understand a feminist reading of the bible contributes.

  • Feminism believes that women matter.
  • Feminism believes that women matter as much as men.

When we pick up today’s gospel reading, feminist bells begin to ring. For example, a person is more likely to be remembered if their name is remembered. We know the names of those who are nearest or dearest to us. Names matter. We experience, sometimes, a sense of disappointment when our name is overlooked or forgotten.

Let me give you a statistic. The Old Testament contains a total of 1,426 names of which 1,315 are the names of males and 111 are the names of females. The percentages are 91% and 9%. [1] Does that not tell you who really matters in the world and the writings of scripture. I venture to say that the percentages in the New Testament would be about the same.

Take, for example, this morning’s gospel. We are probably over familiar with the story. I want to focus on only 3 verses. Let me read them to you again.

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with   James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told (Jesus) about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her,     and she began to serve them.

Four men are named in these 3 verses (or five because Jesus has been named earlier – 1:25). The only woman mentioned in these 3 verses is not given a name. Yet the story is told because of that very woman’s encounter with Jesus. But she is nameless. She is simply Simon’s mother-in-law.

This account reminds us of another fact. There is another woman, implied in this story, who is never named in the gospels or in the wider New Testament writings. I refer to Simon Peter’s wife.

There is a second interesting point to pick up in this story. It concerns a Greek word which I will unpack for you. The word is diakonew. We get the English word deacon from it. The same word (it is used both times as a verb) occurs in 1:13.

Let me read to you how this same word is translated in the Revised Standard Version on those two occasions.

And (Jesus) was with the wild beasts and angels ministered to him.
And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she served them.

Is it best translated served or should it be ministered? If Peter’s mother-in-law had ministered to Jesus, that would have become a model of ministry. Consistency of translation would effect women’s recognition and public role in the church. If the translations had been reversed, would that have meant that Simon’s mother-in-law (who ministered) was superior to the angels (who served)?

A New Testament scholar named Mary Ann Tolbert gives further insights into this part of Mark’s gospel. She writes about the social conventions of that first century period.

Women of honorable families were often encouraged or even required to remain in the private realm of the house to protect their modesty (i.e. to restrict their potential contact with males outside the family unit or ([contact with] “shameful” females) and thus their husband’s or male kinsman’s reputation…. But at this point conventional behavior ceases, for Jesus, a male outsider to the family, goes to the sick woman and touches her, and the fever flees from her. Moreover, she responds to this irregular action by ministering to them. [2]

Feminist study of the scriptures opens not just one window but a number of windows into the world and message of the gospels. If we believe that women matter, then there are insights and challenges that feminist readings of the Bible present. Take the obvious question:

  • How would the Christian faith be shaped if 90% of the people named in the Bible were women?

It is striking that all four canonical gospels, in their opening chapters, relate Jesus to both significant and insignificant women. Let me remind you of the other  3 instances.

1. Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus names Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, mentions Bathsheba as the wife of Uriah and Mary. [We note that 90% of the names in the genealogy are of men – 47 out of 52.]

2. Two women – Elizabeth and Mary – are main characters in the opening two chapters of Luke
3. In John Jesus’ mother (who is never given a name in John’s Gospel) plays a key pastoral role at a wedding in Cana, the scene in John’s Gospel of Jesus’ first public action.

Whatever brings us fresh awareness of the dimensions of the gospels is to be welcomed. I believe that opening feminist windows into the gospel rooms, on balance, brings a freshness that can invigorate the life of the church. Those windows are worth opening.


1. Carol L. Meyers, “EVERYDAY LIFE – Women in the Period of the Hebrew Bible” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe eds, Westminster/John Knox, Louisville, 1992, 245.
2. Mary Ann Tolbert, “Mark” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, 266-267.