(RNS) They were among the first to believe in the teachings of acarpenter's son from Nazareth, and the first to witness hisresurrection.

But even with ringside seats to the labor pains of Christianity,women in Christian history largely have been pushed to the sidelines."I'm surprised at how often women are mentioned in the Gospels butneglected in the Christian tradition," said theologian Tina Beattie. "Inthe Gospels we don't hear about what women did in terms of marriage andmotherhood; we hear about them as disciples. Church tradition hascompletely neglected that, and overemphasized the roles played by men."Beattie seeks to give the women their voice in her new book, "TheLast Supper According to Martha and Mary: A Meditation" (CrossroadPublishing). The book is an imaginative reconstruction of the dayspreceding the Last Supper from what Beattie takes to be the perspectiveof Martha and Mary of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus.

"My approach was, what does this mean for the women who were there?"Beattie said. "It's trying to make a connection back to the women whofollowed Jesus, recognizing their world as followers of Jesus. I'mtrying to correct the imbalance in the way the story has been told."For the women, embracing Jesus and his teachings meant enduring "arough time of it," Beattie said. Tongues wagged wherever they traveled,their easy socialization with male disciples arousing much suspicion.But the disciples' own circle was no more welcoming at times. Of themen in the group, only Luke, Martha observes, "does notice women andchildren, at least more than some of the others do. He listens when wespeak and he respects us as disciples and not just cooks andhousekeepers."

"There are comments about (sexism) in the Gospels -- like when MaryMagdalene witnesses the resurrection the male disciples laugh at her,"Beattie said. "Women didn't always have a very easy time with the maledisciples."

Jesus had no illusions of male superiority, "reinstating women to aposition of equality which was quite radical for his time," she said."Jesus was initiating a radical new social vision that we haven'tbegun to grasp -- a vision of equality in which the last will comefirst," added Beattie, whose book includes a woman named Lydia whotutors Jesus in pre-Christian religions and Greek philosophy.

"That's an imaginative interpretation on my part," she said. "But Idon't think it's impossible. Certainly in Jesus' time there were veryeducated Greek and Roman women, a lot of whom formed part of the earlychurch. I think when we read the Gospels closely we see that when Jesushas a conflict it seems to revolve around the male figures, but he seemsto have an intuitive understanding with women."

That understanding included a healthy respect for the wishes offemale converts who wanted to merge Christianity with their originalfaiths, Beattie said. Lydia is one such convert, but when Peter accusesher of idolatry Jesus is untroubled.

"Many of the early Christian converts were pagan women, and they didkeep alive some of the practices of their own religions," Beattiepointed out.

"Jesus didn't say the women had to abandon their traditions andtheir beliefs. Although the early church set up face against them,there's no suggestion in the Gospels that they particularly botheredJesus. He had an incredible acceptance of people."

The story of Martha and Mary also gives a glimpse of the human sideof their male colleagues, men who make the air "thick with their belchesand farts and snores," men who want to fight like "real men," as Peterdeclares. They are also men terrified in the uneasy hours beforeJesus' arrest. Though Jesus has given them comfort and consolation onmany occasions, "now, when his need is so great, they have nothing togive," Mary notes.

As the fateful hour nears, Jesus himself seems "forsaken by thatinner peace, that sense of being at one with himself," she observes.The two sisters are not without their own flaws. Martha disagreeswith Jesus that Christians should pay taxes to the Roman Empire, andadmits she sometimes wants to "shout at Mary for being so outrageous.Her child was born in a stinking stable ... Mary seems convinced in thedepths of her being that she cannot be wrong."

Mary even acts on her physical desire for Jesus, readying to offerhim her body at the book's end.

"I wanted to portray them as ordinary human beings with humanweaknesses and fears," Beattie said. "They had an incredible love forJesus that helped to resolve the doubting times, but that didn't make itany easier. They were being asked to accept some things that at thetime seemed almost impossible to accept."

Beattie said her book is "filtered through modern perceptions," butthe ancient story is not so far removed from the lives of women today."I think some of what Martha and Mary went through often happenstoday -- women still have to struggle to be recognized," she said
. "Ifthe Christian tradition had been honest about women in the Gospels, we'dhave a very different church today. What Jesus wanted to initiate was aradical new social vision of equality, in which the last will come first-- we haven't begun to fully grasp that idea yet."