Jesus is often a mirror. If we lean toward socialism, he becomes a socialist. If we believe in women’s equality, he becomes a feminist. If we believe that marriage should be open to non-heterosexual couples, he becomes pro-gay marriage. Whatever we are for, Jesus is for. Whatever we are against, Jesus is against. This Jesus is as malleable as he is anachronistic. As Paula Fredriksen cautions, “The historical Jesus of Nazareth was never and can never be our contemporary. To drape him in garments borrowed from current agendas while asserting that these agendas were actually his only distorts and so obscures who he was.” As the last century or so of “quests” for the historical Jesus has demonstrated, the task is difficult enough without us muddying the waters with modern socio-political concerns.
But there is another mistake that some make regarding Jesus: dehumanization. This problem is particularly acute among those who hold to high Christological views. James McGrath in his recent book What Jesus Learned from Women (Cascade Books, 2021) does his best to re-humanize Jesus by taking seriously the words of Luke 2:52 – “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (NRSV). In the course of 322 pages, McGrath ponders what it meant for Jesus to “increase” in both wisdom and maturity. This entails that Jesus learned. The pertinent question then is this: From whom did Jesus learn? Most of us would immediately point to male voices: Joseph, religious authorities (cf. Luke 2:46-47), and so on. But what about women? Did Jesus learn from them? McGrath’s answer is a carefully and cogently argued yes.
What Jesus Learned from Women considers eleven women that likely influenced Jesus in one way or another, beginning with Mary his mother, continuing to his grandmother, and meandering through various narratives in the Gospels before ending with Joanna. Each chapter opens with some historical fiction, a “what if” kind of storytelling that pieces together what may be gleaned cautiously from the Gospels as well as the available historical record in the form of archaeology and other sources. At times, McGrath’s reconstructions seem fanciful, but as he notes in the introduction to the volume, “Nothing exposes the implausibility of a historical reconstruction more quickly than the attempt to turn that reconstruction into a narrative” (p. 8). I’ve never considered that historical fiction can serve such a role, but he is certainly on to something. No one reading a novel about the Second Punic War would find it plausible that Hannibal flew F-15s over the Alps. We are sensitive to anachronism and historical fiction can certainly play a role in mitigating it.
Some chapters upon initial reading seemed far too speculative to be useful. For example, ch. 3 focuses on Jesus’s grandmother, a person who no doubt existed but who is not once mentioned in the canonical Gospels. To discover her, we must turn to the Protoevangelium of James, a text that McGrath acknowledges contains details that “may not be factual” (p. 50). While I found the speculative framework of the chapter less than compelling, its contents offered some fascinating insights. For example, McGrath devotes a few pages to examining whether Jesus could have been exposed to theatrical performances at some point in his life. The Synoptics present him as a storyteller but in our readings of these pericopes Jesus is often a flat character. “How might it change our perception if we imagine Jesus not merely reciting a verbal parable about a man with a speck in his eye, but performing it as a skit, perhaps with assistance from his apprentices?” McGrath asks (p. 64). Given the proximity of Sepphoris to Nazareth as well as the fact that the former possessed an outdoor theater, it seems plausible Jesus saw performances on occasion, and this ended up affecting his style of teaching. That he was a charismatic preacher is clear. Whence this charisma? Perhaps the theater!
These kinds of tidbits and tantalizing possibilities punctuate What Jesus Learned from Women. Another example can be found in ch. 11 on Joanna, a character who appears in the Gospel of Luke. According to Luke 8:3, she was the wife of Chuza, a steward of Herod. McGrath floats the possibility that Joanna of Luke’s Gospel is the same person as Junia from Romans 16:7, a relative of Paul. If this connection holds, then Paul would have known someone who had direct knowledge of Jesus. I had never thought of this and reading this chapter was eye opening and provocative. It made for a good read.
McGrath’s greatest contribution in What Jesus Learned from Women isn’t the learned historical fiction prefacing each chapter or even his analysis of both the history of the period and the texts that describe them or even his well-reasoned case that Jesus learned from women. Rather, his greatest contribution is his bibliography which is dominated by the works of female scholars. It is to my shame that so many of the authors he cites were unknown to me. Because biblical studies is a male-dominated space, it is easy to overlook or to be unaware of women who work in the field as well. McGrath’s bibliography is a one-stop shop for scores of works by women who may otherwise go overlooked, at least by amateurs like me.
The bibliography alone is worth the recommendation to readers, but it is not the only reason this work deserves to be read. McGrath offers a far more human Jesus than we are likely to find in many works on him, and center stage are the women who came into his life that must have influenced who he was. The New Testament is dominated by men and male readers often overlook this fact. The Gospel writers “often left women in the shadows and on the sidelines without noticing they were doing so” (p. 9). Still, their stories deserve to be told and McGrath’s work is an important contribution to that endeavor.
 Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 270.
 Unless otherwise noted, quotations of biblical texts will be from the New Revised Standard Version.
 McGrath acknowledges that Gospels contain material that is less than the unvarnished truth but nonetheless has real historical value: “Very early stories that have been fabricated, distorted, and/or heavily overlaid with symbolism are nonetheless valuable to historians because they tell us what impression Jesus and his interactions with women made overall” (p. 11). Cf. E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 58-63.