Where are the Women in The Reign of God?

I sometimes get this question from readers: “Why are there no female characters in your comic?” As the writer, I was acutely aware of the lack of strong women protagonists or even side characters in THE REIGN OF GOD. A recent review of the book in Inheritance Magazine pointed this out strongly, so I felt compelled to explain it in more detail here.

 

No Church without Women

One thing should be stated clearly at the start: Women played very important roles in Jesus’ ministry and in the leadership of the early church.
Women supported Jesus and even became his followers. They were the only disciples who witnessed his death. It was women who found the grave empty, becoming the first believers of the risen Christ. Mary Magdalene was thus the first true Christian and apostle. Her importance is confirmed through non-canonical gospels, giving me reason to believe that she became an influential friend of Jesus and spiritual leader.
Important women in the church are mentioned by name in the letters of Paul. My favorite historian-theologian, Prof. Joan E. Taylor argues that disciples traveled and ministered as male-female pairs. She also writes about evidence for female priests in the early church. Bernard D. Muller says that the Gospel of Luke and Acts were written by a female author from Philippi.

All of these are important pieces in the puzzle of Christianity’s origin, and I am very eager to tell about it. However, the story and characters have not progressed to that point. THE REIGN OF GOD is a huge story, and it has only begun with this first book. The characters are still steeped in patriarchal structures to which they know no  alternative.

 

Painting the Patriarchy

The conservative rural Judea of Jesus was set up to keep men in charge and women dependent. Think of a country like Afghanistan and you’re probably not too far off the map. Women were in a vulnerable social position, only allowed to exist in relation to male family members or patrons. If married (=traded off to labor and provide male offspring, if they happened to survive childbirth), they would count as the husband’s (a.k.a. “their master’s”) property.
The gospels hint at their situation back then: When a sick woman doesn’t dare to speak openly to Jesus (Mark 5:25f); or when the male apostles are perplexed that he talks to a woman in private (John 4:27), an ostracized person who had been handed down as a wife like an old shirt.

In the comic, I must depict those customs. When Jesus visits farmers, he talks with men while women are in the background, having to serve quietly. Unrelated women and men hardly mingle in public. They typically stand apart, building their own groups. During a campfire, women are standing afar, while men are making themselves comfortable near the fire. Women are not allowed to stand close to Pharisees.
Look at what happens to the old woman who catches Shimon stealing. Immediately, men take over the situation  and speak on her behalf. The wife who leads her sick husband to the Jordan calls him “My lord,” as it was the custom, and is much younger than him.

It is against this backdrop that Jesus and his attitude toward women will come as a shock in the books that will continue the story.

 

Jesus is not ready yet

The gospels tell us that Jesus had a very unusual attitude toward women. It was not free of conflict, but he learned to associate with them in a relatively liberal way, enough to upset his contemporaries. He even did something that was absolutely unheard of in antiquity: to accept women as disciples.

I am looking forward to portraying these female apostles and other women as flesh-and-blood characters, but story-wise Book 1 is not there yet at all. We’re in the wilderness of the Jordan, far from villages where women played important roles. Jesus has no disciples, he is not even a teacher in his own right. He is still a disciple of John, the focus of Book 1—and there is no record of John calling women “disciples.” By showing the group around John as a “brotherhood” I can continue to develop a contrast between these two teachers and their followers.

 

John’s Message as the Beginning of Liberation

The gospels record that John’s message appealed to “toll collectors and whores.” (Whore, as I explain in the book’s notes, was not just a term for prostitutes, but for any woman transgressing socio-sexual norms at that time… ).
Over the course of Book 1, I have tried to show how John’s message of God’s grace brings a liberating spirit to the people. In the last chapter, women and men are dancing and praising together. It’s then a young woman with her baby who stands in defiance of a powerful priest, acting as spokesperson for the whole crowd: “John is the Messiah.” She has been empowered.

This happens at the end when lots of people are making a pilgrimage to John. However, I don’t believe that initially many women could have ventured on some desert road to visit John for a day trip—they would hardly have been allowed to leave the village without a male companion, let alone stay the night in the wilderness with strangers. Unfortunately, the story requires most of the book to be set in that wilderness.

 

Staying Outside the Camp

The same goes for the other main setting of the book: the Roman army camp during the Siege of Jerusalem. There were simply not a lot of women in the camp, and the story focuses on the general’s headquarters and the soldiers’ prison. I suspect a lot of prostitution was happening outside the walls, but that was irrelevant to the plot.

I am not happy to say that at this point I have to stave off the entrance of main women characters (among them Jesus’ mother and sisters, and Queen Berenice) to the next books… but I do that in the hope that their impact will be more powerful through it. I am quite excited about it to be honest, not least because I’m pro-feminism and continue to learn and unlearn heaps through the ecofeminist church assembly I’ve been attending.

 

Rewriting History

The treatment and standing of women in Christianity today is a critical issue. It cannot be brushed over or defined in its completeness by some few Bible verses. Sadly, the church has gradually downplayed and then erased the memory and legacy of the women who kept the early Jesus movement afloat. A recent thesis paper, for example, demonstrates how scribes edited  Mary Magdalene’s identity in the gospels to water down her significance.
I personally don’t believe that the Bible paints a coherent or consistent picture of gender relations. Some of them are quite questionable, or outright repulsive. If we do refer to the Bible, we need to carefully review the historical context, discuss, and ask what values are worthy emphasizing. Artists, historians, and ministers are obliged to rectify the voice and authority of female apostles and leaders, support gender justice, and highlight the female attributes of the biblical God.

I hope THE REIGN OF GOD can contribute to the discussion in some way, but probably more clearly as more of the story is being revealed in the future.

 

Great Reads:

Flora Carr, TIME Magazine: The Real Reason Mary Magdalene is Such a Controversial Figure
Richard Bauckham: Gospel Women—Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels 

References:

Bernard D. Muller: Was the author of Luke’s gospel and Acts of the Apostles a woman living in Philippi (a Roman colony in Macedonia)?
Elizabeth Schrader: Was Martha of Bethany Added to the Fourth Gospel in the Second Century?
Joan E. Taylor: ‘Two by Two’: The Ark-etypal Language of Mark’s Apostolic Pairings

What do you think?

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