(RNS) They were among the first to believe in the teachings of a carpenter's son from Nazareth, and the first to witness his resurrection.

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 but neglected in the Christian tradition," said theologian Tina Beattie. "In the Gospels we don't hear about what women did in terms of marriage and motherhood; we hear about them as disciples. Church tradition has completely neglected that, and overemphasized the roles played by men." Beattie seeks to give the women their voice in her new book, "The Last Supper According to Martha and Mary: A Meditation" (Crossroad Publishing). The book is an imaginative reconstruction of the days preceding the Last Supper from what Beattie takes to be the perspective of 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 who followed Jesus, recognizing their world as followers of Jesus. I'm trying to correct the imbalance in the way the story has been told." For the women, embracing Jesus and his teachings meant enduring "a rough 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 the men in the group, only Luke, Martha observes, "does notice women and children, at least more than some of the others do. He listens when we speak and he respects us as disciples and not just cooks and housekeepers."

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

Jesus had no illusions of male superiority, "reinstating women to a position of equality which was quite radical for his time," she said. "Jesus was initiating a radical new social vision that we haven't begun to grasp -- a vision of equality in which the last will come first," added Beattie, whose book includes a woman named Lydia who tutors Jesus in pre-Christian religions and Greek philosophy.

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

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

"Many of the early Christian converts were pagan women, and they did keep alive some of the practices of their own religions," Beattie pointed out.

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

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

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

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

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

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