Thanks to books and movies like Hidden Figures, about the female African American mathematicians, engineers, and programmers vital to NASA’s success during the early years of piloted space flight, we are discovering that women made crucial—but invisible—contributions throughout the history of science.
Take Elizabeth Williams (1880-1981), one of the first women to graduate from MIT with an honors degree in physics. She could write in cursive with her right hand while simultaneously solving calculations with her left! Astronomer Percival Lowell hired her to help search for the mysterious Planet X. He then published her complex calculations in 1915 in a book titled Memoir on a trans-Neptunian Planet under his name, without giving her any credit. In 1930, Clyde W. Tombaugh used her work to first spot Pluto.
Vera Rubin (1928-2016) was eight months pregnant when she delivered her first scientific paper before an audience of skeptical astronomers. When she came to work at Palomar Observatory in the San Diego area, she discovered there were no restrooms for women, so she cut out the silhouette of a figure wearing a skirt from a sheet of paper and taped it on the door of one of the men’s restrooms, announcing, “There you go; now you have a ladies’ room.”
While studying the Andromeda Galaxy, a disk-like galaxy that spins around and around like a record, Rubin discovered that the outside spins around much faster than predicted, indicating there is more mass than had to that point been observed. She realized this was proof for what had previously been considered a crackpot theory. Dark matter—invisible, but powerful—existed! Despite the groundbreaking nature of her work, Rubin was never awarded a Nobel Prize.
It was no different in biblical times. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish expert on the New Testament and one of my favorite writers, points out that after the crucifixion in Mark’s Gospel he casually mentions “the women looking on from a distance,” including “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.” She adds they had “followed him when he was in Galilee and ministered to him” (Mark 15:40-41). In other words, we have to keep in mind that the women are there all the time, contributing to the action, whether they are mentioned or not.
This is true in all the Gospels. Only in the stories of the resurrection are the women in plain sight. But they are still ignored!
Can I have a word with you? Four words, really. Deep dawn. Eureka! Starshine! Malarkey.
According to Luke, “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them” (Luke 24:10) arrived Easter morning in literally “the deep dawn.” So, it’s not just a case of “Where are we?” but “When are we?” It’s that time-murky moment when night is past, but it’s still stumble-bunny dark. The stars and planets are still visible. Night is passing but day has not yet begun.
In those days people wrapped the dead in layers of cloth and strong-smelling spices, and laid the body on a stone slab in a cave, which was then blocked with a large stone. They’d return the next time there was a death in the family, stuff the cloth with the bones (the rest of the body would have rotted away) into a stone box known as an ossuary, then store them permanently in a niche in the cave.
Jesus had been hastily buried by Joseph of Arimathea after his crucifixion. Now a group of women came to finish the task.
It was dangerous to be associated with Jesus, even in death, so the women were probably doing their best to be quiet. I assume they brought lamps, but lamplight can blind you to things outside its circle of light, so I’m also sure that, grief-stricken, uncertain exactly where they were in Jerusalem, they probably stumbled, scraping a toe or two, startling each other when they bumped into one another accidently, followed by brief screams and nervous laughter.
The story begins with the women in the dark. We too often find ourselves walking in the dark, even in broad daylight!
The women must have been wondering how they would remove the large stone that covered the cave. Once they arrived at the tomb, they found the stone rolled away. The Greek word for find is the same word from which we get “Eureka!” That’s an exciting moment, but it’s also scary. Someone got there before them? Who?
Then they entered. Things were dark. And creepy. It was a tomb, after all. Tombs are supposed to be dark and creepy.
Then they found—once again, Eureka!—no body. What happened? Had someone stolen Jesus’ body? The same people who moved the stone? Why? Were they even in the right tomb?
Good morning, starshine!
LOOK! says Luke emphatically, breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to us. Without warning, two men “in dazzling clothes” stood in their midst. The word translated as dazzling is built from the root “astra,” or star. A star exploding in their midst! A bright, blinding light is shining in the darkness when, without warning, the two men—angels?—were simply and suddenly there.
That had to be a heart-stopping moment. The women were vulnerable, defenseless, and frightened to the point that they collapsed to the ground. Yet somehow they managed to hear what was said to them, and not only remembered it, but also connected this message to what Jesus said about himself.
This is what’s truly staggering. They then took a coherent report to the apostles! And what happened next? Did the apostles ponder the mystery, or make suggestions why the tomb was opened and where the body might be?
No. The apostles dismissed their story out of hand as “an idle tale.” The Greek word means “balderdash,” “humbug,” “nonsense,” and “malarkey.” Simply unbelievable.
In all four Gospels the women are the first to experience the empty tomb, the first to hear the good news of the resurrection, the first to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ—and they’re told that it’s nothing but malarkey.
But we know it’s true.
This is the most important word of all. In the wake of astounding events, the women at the tomb—faithful, and present; facing fear, danger, heart-stopping surprises, and an extraordinary truth—are not believed.
Is this surprising? For basically the whole of recorded history, women victims of violence, emotional assault, rape, incest, mutilation, and murder have not been listened to by men. In many cases these women remain historically nameless, forgotten except for the artifacts discovered by archaeologists interested in bypassing “The History of Great Men” in order to recover their lost lives of creativity and purpose.
And now, on the fulcrum of history, when Death is about to give way to Eternal Life, darkness to light, despair to hope, who are the messengers who bring this good news?
The least, the lost, the last, the ignored, who are about to become the first—even if the evangelists don’t seem to have taken notice of them most of the time.
This is where we live—with the testimony of an empty tomb from the marginalized women who are not believed by those in authority. This is our witness.
A final thought: I hope when the risen Jesus stood in their midst the women got an apology from the apostles!
Frank Ramirez is pastor of Union Center Church of the Brethren in Nappanee, Indiana.