Today is day 4 of my series on Jesus and Gender. Make sure to catch up with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 if you missed those posts! We’ve discussed how Jesus treated women with radical dignity and kindness, we’ve talked about his close female friends, and today we’re going to look at the women who were his disciples.
Although we are most familiar with The Twelve Disciples, all of whom are men, Jesus had more than just 12 disciples, and these disciples included women. (Also, from Woman in the World of Jesus: “The logic from which the male composition of the Twelve would exclude women from high office or role in the church would likewise exclude the writers and most of the readers of this book, for there were no non-Jews among the Twelve. Unless one would argue that “apostolic succession” is for Jews only, it cannot be for men only.” (125))
Jesus had a large group of followers who went with him all over Israel, learning from him and following in his ways. According to Luke 8:1-3: “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
While women at this time were permitted to travel in the company of men, they were required to spend the night only with their relatives—here it is obvious that as they travel from city to city, the women are traveling along with the men, breaking social custom in a very progressive and scandalous way. Secondly, these women had resources under their own control at a time in which women were generally not permitted to inherit property or control money. So not only did Jesus have women among his disciples, but they were transgressing social norms and acting as the bankers of the whole operation!
And these women weren’t just hangers on; they were actually ministering with Jesus! According to Frank and Evelyn Stagg in Woman in the World of Jesus: “It is significant that women did have an open and prominent part in the ministry of Jesus. Luke’s word for their ‘ministering’ is widely used in the New Testament, including by Paul in reference to his own ministry. Its noun cognate, diakonos may be rendered ‘minister,’ ‘servant,’ or ‘deacon.’” (123)
One of these women was Mary Magdalene. Nowhere in scripture is she identified as a prostitute or even a great sinner. Mark says that Jesus drove seven demons out of her—today we might say that he healed her mental illness. From Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s The Women Around Jesus: “We may imagine that this cure took a similar course to other healings: Jesus touched her, perhaps embraced her, made her get up, like Peter’s feverish mother-in-law or the person possessed by demons. He spoke to her and she had a tangible feeling of nearness and contact. As he spoke, the spell left her. She again became herself, free to feel and decide, free once again to experience the world around her, free to enjoy herself and to learn to live again. But she did not return to her old ways. She left her rich hometown of Magdala, even though she would always bear its name. For her, being healed of her illness became salvation.” (68)
Another woman mentioned among these disciples is worth considering: Joanna, wife of Chuza, who was an officer in King Herod’s court. She is described here having been healed by Jesus, after which she began traveling with and supporting Jesus financially, and she is later present at his crucifixion, and, in at least one gospel, at his resurrection. Jesus was seen as a political enemy of the political establishment, a revolutionary threatening to overthrow the government, and here, the wife of a government official is hanging around with and supporting this revolutionary and traitor of the state, helping to support him financially. It’s possible that Joanna’s husband had died and left her widowed and in control of his estate, but it’s also possible that she had left him, with or without his blessing, to follow Jesus.
These women disciples were with Jesus to the end, present at the crucifixion, in some cases acting with more bravery and loyalty than The Twelve, who fled and feared for their own lives. From Mark 15:40-41: “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.” –In Mark’s account, the oldest of the four gospels, the disciples are not present at the crucifixion—they run away after Jesus’ arrest and are not said to have returned. Similarly, in Matthew’s account, the disciples have run away and only the women are present at Jesus’ death. From Luke 23:49: “But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” John 19:25-27: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time, this disciple took her into his home.” Even as he suffers pain and death, Jesus is surrounded by the women who followed him, and he is exhibiting concern for their welfare.
And these women weren’t just there at Jesus’ death, but played a very special role in the events of the Resurrection. In Matthew, after his resurrection, Jesus chooses to appear first to two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary (possibly Mary of Bethany)” Jesus trusts them to go and tell the men that he is risen, even though at this time, women were considered so unreliable that they couldn’t even testify in court. Still Jesus trusts them with this important news. In Mark’s account and in Luke’s account (which also names Joanna), the disciples do not even believe Mary Magdalene/the women. In John, Jesus only appears to Mary Magdalene, and she calls him “Rabboni” which suggests her status as one of his students. According to The Women Around Jesus: “Mary Magdalene may be regarded as the first apostle. She was the first to proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ.” She was considered an apostle, someone commissioned by Jesus with a special mission or message, up to the Middle Ages.
So, not only was Jesus radically inclusive of women in even his most passing encounters, not only did he have close personal friendships with women, but he had women among his disciples and even accorded them the honor of being the first people in the Bible to preach what we know as the gospel, the good news of his resurrection. Tomorrow we’ll look at the women who were apostles, deacons, and prophets–leaders in the early church.
The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel
Woman in the World of Jesus by Frank and Evelyn Stagg.