Although the first astronauts were all men, crews going into the skies these days often include both men and women. The Space X Crew 5, which launched to the International Space Station on October 6, 2022, consisted of two men and two women, and one of the women was the commander of flight.
It is, of course, a good thing that such opportunities and responsibilities are open to both sexes, but historically speaking, it has taken a long time to get there.
That seems jarringly clear in another “going into the sky” moment. We’re talking about the ascension, when Jesus was taken up through a cloud into the heavens. As those who witnessed this phenomenon stood, dumbstruck, staring into the sky, two heavenly messengers, specifically identified as men, spoke to them saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” The original Greek underlying “Men of Galilee” is andres Galilaioi, literally, “men, Galileans.” Unlike the Greek word anthropos, which is usually translated as “people,” andres denotes males only.
Is the text telling us that there really were only men present at the ascension of Jesus? It’s possible, of course, that only the apostles were there at that moment, but we know from the gospels that there were women who followed Jesus, and some who traveled with Jesus and the Twelve and provided material support for them. For example, Luke 8 reports: “[Jesus] went on through one town and village after another, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, … and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who ministered to them out of their own resources” (vv. 1-3).
What’s more, this reading from Acts goes through verse 14, which plainly states that as the apostles devoted themselves to prayer, they were “together with certain women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
So, there’s a reasonable likelihood that there were also women disciples who witnessed the ascension, but if so, why didn’t the angels include them in their instruction to not continue staring into the heavens? Was it that the women were already moving on?
We can’t know, but the contemporary Israeli-born historian Tal Ilan points out that according to sociologists, young, revolutionary movements often attract women because they are anti-establishment, and that these movements search for and accept followers wherever they can find them. Ilan says that the Jesus movement fits that definition. But she adds that as these movements transition to established religions, they “often shed either their female following or at least leadership roles accorded to women, in favor of becoming more acceptable to the ruling patriarchal ethos of the broader society.” If that’s the case, the implication is that the Acts text may have been masculinized sometime after its original composition. It’s certainly possible because the oldest manuscripts of Acts known to exist date back only to the fourth century and textual fragments only to the third century. We don’t have the original manuscript at all.
There is room to consider whether that masculinizing occurred in other places in the New Testament as well. Bible scholar Amy-Jill Levine, who is a Jewish professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, says that when reading the New Testament, we sometimes need to read the women back into it. As an example, she tells of reading the gospel of Mark and getting all the way to chapter 15 (out of a total of 16 chapters) before finding an explicit statement about women following Jesus. She’s referring to 15:40-41, which reads, “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, who followed him when he was in Galilee and ministered to him, and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”
Did you catch that? There were women who had followed Him since early in His ministry – “[back] when he was in Galilee” – and “many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” There were women there the whole time, but Levine notes that the way Mark states it – and so late in his gospel – gives the statement an offhand feel, as in, “Oh, by the way, there were women who followed Jesus, too.” That led Levine to go back through Mark and “fill in” the women. Here are a few examples:
- In 1:21, when Jesus “entered the synagogue and taught,” there would have been women among the audience.
- In 1:34, when He “cured many who were sick with various diseases,” some of the healed would have been women.
- In 6:44, after the miraculous feeding of a large crowd, Mark says, “Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.” It’s Matthew who tells the rest of the story in his account of the same event: “And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:21, italics added).
There are more examples we could give, but those are enough to illustrate how we need to read women back into some Scriptural accounts. And that includes even New Testament accounts of negative reactions to Jesus. In the Nazareth synagogue, for example, the audience took offense at Jesus, and Jesus was not able to do much healing of the sick because of the unbelief of the people, which would have included both women and men (6:1-6).
None of this is meant to pick on Mark, for he also gives us some important stories about women, including:
- the “woman who had been suffering from a flow of blood for twelve years,” whom Jesus healed (5:24-34);
- the Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, who asked Jesus to heal her daughter who was afflicted by an unclean spirit and verbally sparred with Him when He said His mission was only to the Jews (7:24-30); and
- the woman of Bethany who anointed Jesus’ head with nard in the days before His crucifixion (14:3-9).
Okay, that’s the case that there were both men and women at the ascension. And the liftoff of Jesus was so mind-blowing that we suspect everyone present was still looking skyward.
But so what?
Well, for one thing, they knew that most good things rise. Preacher and professor Theodore Parker Ferris wrote, “The heavens always fascinate people. … The early Christians looked toward heaven because they believed Jesus was there. Though their sight might have been inaccurate according to our standards, their insight was indubitably sound. … They knew that all good things go up, never down. Prayer was good and prayers went up like smoke rising from bowls of incense. Jesus was good – radically and wonderfully good. When he no longer went about his accustomed ways, they knew that he had gone up, that he had ascended, because he was supremely good.”
But what these witnesses to the ascension were about to discover was that Jesus’ mission hadn’t left. When the angels asked the witnesses why they continued to stand there looking up toward heaven, they were speaking rhetorically. The response they were seeking to elicit was: “Right, we have a mission to carry on until Jesus returns. Let’s get going.” There was no implication that they could take the place of Jesus, but that within the limits of their human ability, they should do their best.
In any case, we know that the “mission” that was “launched” was to be crewed by both women and men because Paul names members of both sexes in his various letters. Read Romans 16, for example, where Paul mentions 29 people who have been workers for Christ in the church in Rome. More than a third of the people on the list are women, and one of them, Junia, is even described as an apostle (v. 7).
And we, whether we are female or male, should do our best for Jesus within our human limits as well. We should not focus too long on what we cannot know, such as the time or means of Jesus’ return or why it remains in a future we cannot see but must trust in. In the meantime, we should use our gifts as Jesus’ followers to do the work of God in the world as we find it.