“Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!
Ask Andrew 1 (2018): Jesus’ Women Disciples
We hear about the male disciples. Were there any female disciples?
The short answer is: Yes! Jesus had an exceptional number of female disciples.
To go into detail, it might be helpful to make a distinction in the terms we use:
A Disciple is a student, a follower of Jesus. Every Christian is a disciple.
An Apostle is someone sent out as a representative. The best English translation is an “emissary.”
The word “apostle” gets political, with the specific definition provided in Acts excluding women and most others, even the Apostle Paul! And when the church decided that “apostle” was a term to be equated with authority (as in “Apostolic Succession”), the idea that women might have been apostles was pushed firmly aside.
Jesus would have faced challenges with sending women out as apostles. It would be profoundly unsafe to send a woman or a pair of women into a middle-eastern town to preach and heal. However, we we cannot say that Jesus didn’t send women as apostles during his ministry. The original 12 that Jesus sent out are all named, and all men. However, Luke tells us that after that successful mission, Jesus also sent out 70 others in the same way. These are not named, and their genders are not mentioned.
If you consider “apostle” to be a job description, rather than the charged word we have turned it into, it seems inevitable that Jesus did send women out as apostles. How else would he have attracted so many to follow him in a culture that seriously disapproved? It makes sense that he would have trained them to go into those places where only women were allowed, to openly share their hopes of a world where women would be respected, and and to tell others about this Jesus: a prophet who had a new vision of God’s transformed world, where the last would be first.
Jesus’ ministry and women in general:
Jesus ministry was remarkable for the amazing number of women mentioned in the gospels. That’s hard to see by modern standards of equality, but for that age and place, it is true. By law and by custom, in Jewish culture and most of the other cultures in the Middle East, women were very restricted in what they were allowed to do and where they could go. They were very much under the thumb of male relatives.
In as many settings as possible, women and men were kept separate, and carefully avoided talking to each other on the street, unless they were family. Jesus obviously ignored these rules.
In one of our first looks at Jesus working we find him speaking to a mixed group in a room indoors. He refers to the group as his “mother and brothers and sisters.” This kind of mixing of men and women was not allowed in the temple, nor in the synagogues, nor even in early Christian churches. Men and women were separated by walls or screens. What Jesus did was very unusual.
The gospels record a lot of women who interacted with Jesus:
the woman who was healed by touching Jesus’ robe and was then proclaimed to be a model of faith
the Syrophonecian woman who challenged Jesus to extend his ministry to Gentiles
Jairus’ daughter brought back from the dead when previous prophets had only ever brought sons back from the dead
Also consider: a large percentage of Jesus’ parables feature women as the main characters: widows, bridesmaids, and homeowners are all featured. Again, this is remarkable for that era.
Jesus’ Disciples: This question specifically asks about Jesus’ disciples: the women who travelled with him, learned from him, and shared his ministry. There were many. Unfortunately, we don’t have names for most of them. They are recorded by Mark, Matthew and Luke as “and many others” who followed from Galilee.
Why are there so few names of women recorded? Just because Jesus was great at challenging sexism, it doesn’t mean that the people who wrote about him were as good. Significantly, even they couldn’t help but notice and record that Jesus had an exceptional number of women as disciples.
Luke records that these women travelled with Jesus and provided for him. This has often been interpreted to mean that the women did the cooking and laundry and so on. But it is a fact that there were women who came with Jesus who had the resources to pay for his ministry. That is exceptional too. In those days women with disposable income were incredibly rare. They had to outlive fathers, brothers, husbands and sons long enough to inherit, and they would have to resist all the pressures to marry men who felt they had a claim on the property or the woman in question. OR they had to have the kinds of characters and relationships that would allow them to have and spend resources while married, despite the laws of the time that made it illegal and a culture that made it scandalous.
Some names that we DO know:
Mary Magdalene: is the best known of the women who followed Jesus. She is recorded in all 4 gospels, and she is even central to the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.
There is a lot of speculation about Mary Magdalene, linking her romantically to Jesus. We can’t rule it out, although many scholars suggest that Jesus ran a celibate ministry, which was common for religious movements predicting the end of the world. Our tendency to try to make her a love interest is a sign of our own hang-ups around powerful women who are not dependent on men. Why can’t she simply be an important disciple?
And as many preachers before me have pointed out, Mary Magdalene was NOT a prostitute. She is noted for having seven demons cast out of her.
An unnamed woman disciple poured expensive perfume over Jesus feet before his crucifixion. In John’s gospel, she is identified as Mary, presumably the sister to Martha and Lazarus, since it happened in their house in John’s version. This has led to confusion between the two Marys, and with another, unnamed, woman, a “sinner”, in a totally different setting, who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried his feet with her hair. This confusion, once again, is a sign of our religious issues with women who stand out.
Mary Magdalene is recorded as being with Jesus right through from Galilee to the crucifixion and the tomb. All four gospels name her as one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. John’s gospel names her as the first person to see the risen Christ, in the garden. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas names her as one of Jesus’ best students, full of more insight and wisdom than the others.
Just to confuse us, there were at least 4 other Marys who followed Jesus:
Mary the Mother of Jesus (really, does your own mother count as a disciple?)
Mary the Mother of James the Younger & Joses (as recorded by Mark), or James & Joseph (as altered by Matthew, or merely James (as trimmed by Luke)
Mary the wife of Clopas. Clopas was probably another disciple, but we don’t know for sure.
Mary and Martha (identified as sisters of Lazarus in John’s gospel): they are recorded as both disciples and friends. They are different from the others in that they are shown to be living in a house in Bethany that Jesus visited, instead of travelling around with him.
Joanna was with Jesus right from Galilee, where Herod ruled, all the way through to his tomb. She was obviously a woman of stature, since her husband was king Herod’s senior manager. Equally obvious is the fact that her husband couldn’t tag along with Jesus without losing his position. Joanna had the courage to leave her comfortable existence in the palace and become a disciple. Her husband must have respected her enough not to have her dragged back home in disgrace, which he could have done under the law, or restrict her financial support of Jesus. She was clearly impressive, and I wish we knew more about her.
Salome was another woman who followed Jesus from Galilee, and came to his tomb.
Suzanna was a disciple of Jesus in Galilee. We can presume that she was with him into the days of the early church, or Luke wouldn’t have known her name. More to the point, he probably recorded her name because he expected others to recognize her.
Sister of Mary: in other words, Jesus’ aunt.
Mother of the Sons of Zebedee: ie: the mother of the apostles James and John. She personally asked Jesus for promotion for her sons as Jesus’ most trusted followers. Whatever unfulfilled ambitions she may have had for her sons, she was staunchly there when Jesus died.
Without these women, Jesus’ ministry would never have happened. They provided for the disciples out of their own resources, and we have tended to dismiss that as less important work. But think about it: they had the money, they handled the bills. Today we would call them the finance committee or the trustees, although John’s gospel identifies Judas Iscariot as the treasurer.
And isn’t it easy to imagine those former fishermen getting all keen about learning to preach, and running around healing and proclaiming that God is coming, while leaving the women to ask the practical questions like: “where are we all going to camp tonight?” and “who’s going to feed these 5000 people?”
Of course, that last paragraph is gender-role stereotyping too, and the gospels resist that as well. Remember Mary and Martha? Martha organized the meal and house while Mary sat and learned?
The male disciples all fled when Jesus was convicted and sentenced to death. Only the women were brave enough to attend his execution. Only the women were brave enough to go to the tomb to prepare his body, even though Jewish law requires strict gender segregation for that job. Men have to prepare the bodies of men for burial, and women have to prepare women. It was a man’s job, by law, yet they were the only ones ready to step up and do it. That’s why they were the first to find the empty tomb: they were strong enough not to cut and run when things got dangerous.
Yes, Jesus had women disciples. I would argue that he had women apostles, too.
Without them, we wouldn’t be here. There would be no Christian church