The stories of women in the New Testament are well known. At least that’s the way it seems. We know about Mary, the mother of Jesus—and Mary Magdalene. We’re also familiar with the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery. But in reality, we know very little about these biblical women. In this interview, BYU’s Camille Fronk Olson discusses her career and then explains what we do and don’t know about female New Testament figures.
Learn more about women in the New Testament by reading Camille Fronk Olson’s book.
Why did Camille Fronk Olson make the study of scripture her profession?
The first encouragement came from serving a full-time mission when I was 21. I began to sense the power associated with using the scriptures to teach.
That inclination was then significantly bolstered when I was hired to teach seminary fulltime soon after I returned from my mission. I was the only woman hired to teach fulltime seminary in the Church at the time and I felt a responsibility to succeed so as to not discourage future female hires.
That meant doing a lot of scripture study to prepare for classes every day. Along the way, I discovered that the scriptures spoke to me personally in my unique situation in ways that I did not find elsewhere.
Scriptures became a lifeline for me.
What led her to write books about women of the Bible?
I began teaching a class on Women in Scripture the year I taught institute near the University of Utah. Every time I taught the class for institute and later at BYU, I learned more through research—and questions from students.
I also recognized that as a woman I saw different details and asked different questions of the scriptural text than my male colleagues. This was particularly evident when it came to stories involving women in scripture.
That’s when I knew I wanted to write a book about women of the Bible, but I also knew I would have one crack at it and wanted it to be meaningful for more than a quick read.
I had been teaching and researching women in scripture for nearly twenty years when I finally began to write the book. When the manuscript was already lengthy before I completed my goal for Old Testament women, I knew I would need to write about New Testament women in a succeeding volume.
As with most ambitious projects, it was a process.
What was involved in the research process?
Fortunately, during the time I was becoming aware of teaching women of the Bible, other female scholars in the field were researching and writing, too. I read a lot of books and articles seeing the huge array of approaches one could take, and the variety of insights and conclusions that scholars made.
I found primary sources about women in antiquity most interesting, but also rarer and subject to opinion because they were nearly always written by men. Better understanding the historical and cultural context was extremely helpful. I am a visual learner so being able to appreciate what life would have been like for women anciently engendered more sympathy and less judgmental attitudes when teasing out details of a story.
Exploring word meanings in biblical languages from which our English Bibles were translated often offered fresh insights. Of course, teachings from latter-day prophets including the Joseph Smith Translation were invaluable.
Is there a common theme played by women in the Bible?
I don’t see a common theme or role for Biblical women. What I do see is the capacity of Biblical women to make significant contributions to God’s work even when in very limited or restricted circumstances.
In that way, I guess women are frequently rescuers—often of the men who lead. Even when many women were marginalized in their societies, they seemed to see more, hear more, and therefore learned and could teach more than if they were always in the forefront of the action.
Their limitations did not prevent them from progressing and contributing in significant ways.
What New Testament woman most stands out to you?
Naturally the women we know most about stand out more than those we receive only a glimpse of, such as Mary the mother of Jesus, Elisabeth the mother of John the Baptist, the woman at the well, and the woman who touched the Savior’s hem.
Even then, we know very little about any of them.
I can’t wait to talk to Lydia, Priscilla, Phebe, and many other women who were instrumental in spreading the gospel after the Resurrection of Jesus.
Did Mary Magdalene help support the Savior’s ministry?
Luke 8:2-3 suggests that not only Mary Magdalene, but Susanna, Joanna, and other women “ministered unto [Jesus] of their substance.” (The Greek word “others” in the scripture is feminine suggesting that these all were women who ministered of their substance).
We aren’t told what “substance” they contributed, but that women, individually and collectively, did indeed follow Jesus as disciples and supported His work with their donated goods.
Was New Testament possession similar to modern mental illness?
Several cases where Jesus exorcised evil or unclean spirits that possessed a person are recounted in the Four Gospels. The early assumption was that the person was possessed due to disobedience to God or sin. Then the idea of mental illness emerged to explain why some people were possessed.
The truth is, we do not know the reason or cause, if any. Nor are we told if all those “possessed” were due to the same basic reason.
All we can conclude is that many people were not healthy—physically, spiritually, emotionally—and Jesus healed them. In this way, each of us needs the Great Physician’s healing for numerous reasons.
Was the woman caught in adultery a setup? Where was the man?
This story—found only in John 8—explains the motive of the scribes and Pharisees who brought the “woman taken in adultery” to Jesus. They were “tempting him, that they might have [a reason] to accuse him” (verse 6).
Their motive suggests a setup, as you describe it.
They thought this case would force Jesus into siding either with Roman law or the law of Moses and thereby bring down accusations by either the Jewish populace or their Roman occupiers.
Your question concerning the whereabouts of the man involved in this case of adultery is key to understanding the answer Jesus provides. He reveals he is aware that the penalty for adultery under the law of Moses is stoning—but that only the two witnesses can first cast a stone at her (see Deut. 17:7 in the footnotes).
But He adds a hint that he knows who the man (or men) was involved in this very case when he tells the witnesses “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (verse 7).
In other words, if one or both witnesses were not complicit in adultery with this woman, they could legally commence the punishment. But these two witnesses “convicted by their own conscience” because they were equally guilty, left as did the others in the crowd.
Under the law of Moses, no one else could first cast a stone by way of punishment.
What can we learn from Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well?
More lessons than we have space for here can be derived from the Samaritan woman at the well. To suggest one or two: This woman, whose name is not given, personifies the lowest and most marginalized in society—she is a foreigner to the Jews, a woman, and she lives with a man who is not her husband.
Yet she succeeds in deciphering the divine identity of Jesus as the Messiah.
Jesus leads her with His questions to depend on the Spirit to inform her, because the Holy Spirit best teaches us the truths of eternity. This woman then becomes the catalyst to bring her entire Samaritan village to believe in the teachings and mission of Jesus.
The manner in which she was viewed by society was no longer relevant. Her testimony proved trustworthy and powerful.
Why do you think Jesus first appeared to a woman after His resurrection?
I don’t think the divine decision was between appearing to a man or a woman first. I think it had most to do with the first disciple to put themselves in a position spiritually to be able to recognize the Resurrected Christ.
Rather than running away after seeing the empty tomb like the women and later two of the apostles did, this time Mary Magdalene lingered at the empty tomb. In her state of pondering and quietly seeking, the Resurrected Savior appeared to her.
I wonder how many more spiritual experiences we would enjoy if we learned to linger and ponder after asking the Father for insight.
How can the way Jesus treated women impact the way men treat women today?
Jesus seems to have viewed women as individuals—rather than an entity that is not a man. For the Savior, women every bit as much as men were individuals with agency to decipher truth, to follow or reject Him, and to minister to others or not.
He spoke directly to women as though He clearly saw them, rather than speaking about them to men. He trusted willing disciples, male and female, with divine truths and gave all those who were willing and believing important and difficult assignments.
His approach appears to have brought out the best in all His disciples.
What was your favorite part of writing this book?
I love immersing myself into a different time in my attempts to understand everyday life in that era. Therefore, any detail I learned about customs, laws, survival, or examples of women’s lives in the Roman Empire, whether they be Jew or Gentile women, was exciting and meaningful.
I wanted to be able to close my eyes and visualize any of these women in her historical setting.
I wanted to imagine that I could be her friend.
Subscribe to receive an email each time we publish new content.
- Come Follow Me 2023 Resources
- Women of the Old Testament
- Who Was Mary Magdalene?
- Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Have the New Testament?
- What’s the Relationship Between Women and the Priesthood?
Women of the New Testament resources
- Women of the New Testament (Deseret Book)
- Women and the World of the New Testament (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- Women in the New Testament World: Essentials of Biblical Studies (Oxford University Press)
- Women in the Bible: Artwork Featuring Eve, Sarah, Tamar, Mary, and Key Female Figures (Yale Bible Study)
- Stately Women of the New Testament (BYU New Testament Commentary)