Raised from Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts
Greg W. Forbes and Scott D. Harrower
Published by Pickwick Publications in April 2015, 245 pages.
Women are frequently mentioned in the two-part narrative we know as Luke-Acts. These women are the focus of a newly published book, Raised from Obscurity, written by two Australian scholars: Greg Forbes, lecturer of Greek, Hermeneutics and New Testament at Melbourne School of Theology, and Scott Harrower, lecturer of Theology and Church history at Ridley College in Melbourne. Forbes and Harrower state that “Luke has a remarkably positive and rich view of women who are believers of the God of Israel and Jesus as Lord.” (p.1) This statement is demonstrated and proven many times in their book.
Methodology and Background Information
The methodology used in Raised from Obscurity is explained in chapter one. Forbes and Harrower have meticulously studied the narrative of Luke-Acts and they have explored
“three literary and theological elements which relate to women as players in the divine drama that Luke describes. These elements are (i) the characterization of women in the narrative, (ii) narratival claims made concerning such women, and (iii) theological claims concerning women that arise directly or indirectly from the narrative.” (p.8)
The method works extremely well. The authors make numerous statements based on Luke’s writings (including more than a few points that I have missed in past readings of Luke-Acts), and they make sound and inspiring theological statements firmly based on the text.
Before launching into commentary on the biblical text, chapter two provides background information on women in ancient Jewish society and women in the Greco-Roman world. The authors explain that Luke-Acts is “an intensely Jewish document.” (p.20) They also explain that the original recipient of Luke-Acts, Theophilus, was “a person of relatively high standing in the Greco-Roman world, and it is in this milieu which provides his foremost frame of reference.” (p.21) Chapter two is written with both contexts in mind.
In recent decades there have been significant advances in our understanding of the attitudes towards women and their place in ancient society, and I was impressed with what Forbes and Harrower included in chapter two. The information in these fifteen pages makes a useful and informative introduction on the subject of early Jewish and Greco-Roman women.
Chapters on Luke’s Gospel
Chapter three is a study of the Jewish women in Luke’s infancy narrative (Luke 1:5-2:52), namely Elizabeth, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Anna the prophetess. I have never given Elizabeth much thought before, despite that fact that she is a prominent character in Luke’s gospel. My lack of consideration has been remedied by this book. I found many of the theological statements in response to Elizabeth’s story inspiring. For example, in a work where being filled with the Spirit and prophecy are two key themes, “Elizabeth is the first person in the narrative to be filled with the Spirit, she is also the first person to prophesy.” (p. 41) And, by identifying and calling the unborn Jesus “Lord”, “Elizabeth becomes a proto-disciple and anticipates the response of those who will later recognize and respond to the divine identity of God’s Messiah.” (p.42) (More about Elizabeth here.)
Understandably, Forbes and Harrower have devoted many pages to the character of Mary. I would like to have read more than the two and half pages on Anna, though.
Chapter three closes with several insightful statements, including this:
“The women characters in the infancy narratives . . . serve as a bridge between the ministry of women in the OT and the developing roles of women in the early church. In the former time female involvement was occasional and proportionally small. In the infancy narratives women are front and center in the events of God’s saving purpose.” (p.63)
Chapter four investigates Luke 3:1-9:50, a section of scripture where Jesus’ identity gradually unfolds, and it looks at how Jesus relates to the women mentioned in the text. At the beginning of this chapter, several pages are devoted to highlighting certain aspects of the person of Jesus and the nature of his ministry. Then there are several pages about being a true disciple of Jesus, where the faith, obedience, and character of Simon Peter and Mary the mother of Jesus are compared. Mary is portrayed as a disciple par excellence.
The narratives involving Galilean women, which are studied in chapter four, include the raising of the widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17); Jesus being anointed by a sinful woman (Luke 7:36-50); Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and the many other women who supported Jesus (Luke 8:1-3); Jesus’ true family (Luke 8:19-21); and the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the woman with a haemorrhage (Luke 8:40-56). These narratives show that “there is no restriction on the inclusion of women amongst God’s people aside from forgiveness by Jesus and a response of faith. Furthermore, the women followers of Jesus are understood to be true disciples . . .” (p.91)
The calling and mission of the seventy disciples is unique to Luke’s gospel (Luke 10:1-24). In chapter five, Forbes and Harrower compare the ministry of the Twelve (Luke 9) with the ministry of the Seventy, pointing out the seemingly greater success of the Seventy, success that “brought joy to Jesus and to God (‘through the Holy Spirit’)” and initiated “the beginning of the complete overthrow of Satan’s rule.” (p.104) Forbes and Harrower claim that women disciples were included in the Seventy, and that “the women share the proclamation role of the mission together with the male disciples.” (p.105) They also claim that “the women are equal participants in the mission at every level.” (p.106)
Several pages are then devoted to Mary and Martha. Their discipleship is explored, and idiomatic and obscure terms in the biblical text are discussed. One of the propositions the authors draw from the narrative about Mary and Martha is that “for Jesus, women in God’s kingdom are no longer solely defined by socially regulated roles.” (p.108) Other women discussed in chapter five are the Queen of Sheba (Luke 11:31) and the crippled woman healed on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). The parables of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:7-10) and of the Judge and Widow (Luke 18:1-8) are also discussed.
Chapter six focuses on Luke 19:29-24:53. I was surprised that the discernment of the servant girl in the courtyard (a minor character in Luke 22:56f) is looked at and discussed just as thoroughly as the actions of the women who were witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. There are a few interesting surprises in this book, and occasionally I wondered if the authors overstate a few of their claims. Their strong narratival and theological statements about the women disciples and their role in the resurrection narrative, however, are not overstated.
Chapters on the Book of Acts
138 pages into the book we reach Forbes and Harrower’s treatment of Acts. Fewer women are mentioned in Acts, so there are fewer pages and fewer chapters on Acts in their book. The authors suggest reasons for the more background role women play in Acts. They also provide an interesting short discussion on the possible purpose(s) of Acts.
Some of the women discussed in chapter eight of Raised from Obscurity include Mary the mother of Jesus, along with the other unnamed women who were part of the 120, who met together in the upper room, helped to chose Matthias as the replacement of Judas Iscariot, were present at Pentecost, and received the Holy Spirit (Acts chapters 1 and 2).
The women discussed in chapter nine include Sapphira, “the only female protagonist in Luke-Acts who is portrayed negatively” (p.159) (Acts 5:1-11); Tabitha/Dorcas, the only woman specifically called a female disciple (mathētria) in the New Testament: she is compared and contrasted with Ananias (Acts 9:10 cf. 9:36-42); and Mary (the mother John) and her servant Rhoda, whose ministries and characters are explored in some depth (Acts 12:12-17). Some of my favourite Bible women, Lydia (Acts 16:14ff), Priscilla (Acts 18:18-28) and the daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9), are the subjects of chapter ten.
Luke-Acts and the Gender Debate
Forbes and Harrower begin their book with a quote from feminist scholar Barbara Reid who believes Luke had a patriarchal ideology and that “his intent was to suppress the roles of women in the church.” (p.1) Forbes and Harrower are critical of Reid’s interpretation. Interspersed throughout their book are brief critiques of the views and interpretations of Reid and other feminists scholars who have failed to see Luke’s positive regard for women disciples. Apart from these few criticisms of a few feminists, the authors have not made decisive statements about complementarianism or egalitarianism, yet they have written their book with the debate on the roles of women in the church and in the world in mind. Their hope is that “all sides of the debate will include insights from Luke-Acts into their respective theologies.” (p.218) I hope so too.
Raised from Obscurity is an excellent resource for scholars, students, and ministers, etc. I recommend it highly. It has helped me to better understand the broader themes in Luke-Acts, as well as appreciate Luke’s theology of women: that female followers of Jesus are genuine disciples and partners in mission at every level; that they are capable interpreters of salvation history and reliable witnesses of the resurrection; that they are preachers of the gospel and leaders in the early church. Raised from Obscurity also shows a diversity of the women in Luke-Acts who defy stereotypes: women may be regnant queens (Luke 11:31; Acts 8:27) while others may be desperately poor or outcasts (Luke 21:3; 8:43). By highlighting every woman in Luke-Acts, however, none of these women remain obscure.
 Note that Barbara Reid’s belief regarding Luke’s ideology has changed. Dr Reid explains the reasons for this change in her 2017 lecture Mary Magdalene and the Women Disciples in the Gospel of Luke. This lecture is available on YouTube here.
 These few sentences are adapted from the publisher’s blurb.