When I picked up this book and looked through the table of contents to see which biblical women James McGrath wrote about, I admit I made some hasty judgments. What will be he—A learned man — add to what I have learned, studied, preached, and taught over the past 40 years about these gospel women? Also, I thought he better not make Jesus “the exceptional Jew,” portraying Jesus as good while passing off all other Jews as bad! Then, when I flipped through the chapters and saw that every scholarly review is preceded by an imaginative fictional account, I wondered if the book was going to be schmaltzy.
As if he could read my (nasty) thoughts, McGrath confronts each of these biases head-on in the book’s introduction. He argues that male scholars should explore women in the scriptures because studies of women have been marginalized instead of normalized. In most pulpits and study groups in church basements and living rooms, the masculine perspective that has lived through history is repeated. Men and women should do the purse, argues McGrath. He notes that he surrounded himself with academic women and conversation partners to refine his own thinking.
He also clearly identifies the potential pitfall of making Jesus the exceptional Jew. “Denigrating Judaism to uplift Jesus will simply not be enough. Jesus was a Jewish man in a Jewish context, and it is quite implausible to think in terms of Jesus versus Judaism. McGrath follows his own advice on this matter throughout the book. On the contrary, he makes Jesus the exceptional man.
As for the stories fictionalized from the point of view of evangelical women, some are better than others. Each of them frames the scholarly ideas from the book about a biblical woman with a unique voice that shows what may have influenced her life when she first met Jesus. A scholar who gives a voice to a woman can be problematic. But in these sections McGrath seems to have relied heavily on the chorus of academics and readers who helped write the book, and their comments have no doubt paid off.
McGrath makes connections between various texts to give readers new perspectives and to evoke appreciation of New Testament women. For example, his approach to the woman at the well (John 4: 1-42) is not to portray her as an adulterous sinner who is rejected by everyone in her city. If she was, he asks, why would everyone follow her to meet Jesus? Instead, McGrath describes her as the real person behind Jesus’ hypothetical teaching in Mark 12: 18-27, Matthew 22: 23-32, and Luke 20: 27-38.
In these three passages, the Sadducees ask Jesus which woman would be a woman after the resurrection from the dead if she had been given seven times in Levirate marriage. The Gospel of John does not have this meeting between the Sadducees and Jesus. But there is the story of the Woman at the Well, and McGrath argues that she was in a levirate marriage, having been given to one brother after another until no siblings were left for. marry her legally. This interpretation evokes Judah, who failed to provide for the needs of her daughter-in-law, Tamar, after the death of her husband without leaving an heir.
McGrath approaches this possibility from several scriptural, scholarly, historical, and cultural perspectives. For example, he writes: “For the Sadducees it was a simple puzzle, a trap with which to try to trap him. For Jesus, what was perhaps most disturbing about these Sadducees was not their denial of the resurrection, but their use of the scenario they described as if it was a mere thought experiment and not of a story of deep tragedy and loss. McGrath offers his reading of the story gently, letting readers decide whether they will receive it. His approach here, as throughout the book, is open and not coerced, aimed at maintaining the integrity of the Scriptures as gift received by the Holy Spirit to guide and inspire each person.
Mary Magdalene also suffered from an interpretation that was not very learned and yet accepted by many readers of the Gospels. McGrath notes that in the 6th century Pope Gregory mistook the town’s sinful woman (Luke 7: 36-50) for Mary Magdalene. Citing the story of seven demons expelled from Mary Magdalene (Luke 8: 2) and interpreting them as the seven deadly sins, Gregory argued that she had to be either a prostitute or a sexually sinner.
With this sexualized interpretation of Mary Magdalene’s sin has come the visualization of her as a prostitute in classical art throughout history, and more recently in motion pictures and sensational fiction. McGrath’s purse on Mary Magdalene isn’t particularly new, but it does offer an illuminating picture of what demons meant in his culture and portray how quickly and how much sin in women is sexualized. Such misogynistic interpretations have become the gospel for many, ending further investigation into who New Testament women may have been and why it matters to us.
To counter the idea that because Jesus was divine he did not need to learn anything from anyone, McGrath repeatedly points out that unless Jesus was able to learn, he was not. truly human. In addition to naming what Jesus may have learned from each of these women, McGrath argues that we also have something to learn from them. By offering us new perspectives and creative connections, he helps us create new lenses for seeing evangelical women.