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Published Date: January 30, 2007

Published Date: January 30, 2007

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The Discipleship of Women

In recent years, much discussion has centered upon the role of women disciples as they encounter the person of Jesus. The word “disciple” (mathētēs), related to the verb “learn, study, practice” (manthanō), means “the one who directs his mind to something,”often in the sense of a learner, apprentice, or pupil. In the Greek philosophical world, the term designated a devotee of a philosopher, one who would continue the intellectual link with the teacher (adherent). While many argue for exclusively male disciples due to the fact that Jesus’ twelve disciples were all male, we can respond that all disciples were also Jewish. This, then, leads to the important question of implication: Does this mean that all Gentile disciples through the ages, male and female, are to be excluded from participatory discipleship? Certainly not!

The term “disciple” in first-century Judaism signifies an adherent or follower of Scripture, and, in particular, one who follows the tradition or interpretation of a rabbi. The individual disciple follows and represents the tradition espoused by a rabbi. In the more formalized Mishnah of a later era, almost every chapter includes a saying, “Rabbi X says . . . .” While great respect was accorded to the leading rabbis, discipleship was tradition- and cause-centered or perhaps school-centered (Hillel, Shammai); interest was not primarily in the teacher himself. Rengstorf notes,

He who would follow the Law in all things cannot do without the constant instruction and guidance of the rabbi. Only the rabbi, on the basis of his familiarity with the materials of religious law, can say for certain what is right in individual cases. Hence, the pious ideal is that all Jews should be occupied in the Torah and its exposition and application, so that they can and will do what is right in a given situation. The fulfillment of this ideal is expected in the Messianic Age.2

Jesus becomes the rabbi who enters most effectively into personal relationship with the disciples, male and female; relationship attracts their allegiance to him. There is something so impressive about Jesus that the potential recruits readily join themselves to him. The deep sense of the disciples’ personal attachment to Jesus clearly differentiates this relationship from the Jewish pattern of rabbi/disciple. While a rabbi’s knowledge, cause, and method attracted Jewish disciples, Jesus’ disciples were attracted by the person of Jesus. They were drawn irresistibly by the wonder of his person when they trusted him. Women as well as men are drawn to him and become attached to his person, words, and works.

The gospel writers narrate various stories of dramatic encounters of women and men with Jesus. Clearly, they do not craft their message as systematic and analytical teaching; rather, they tell stories of how Jesus interacted with people at various levels. This article will focus upon how Jesus affirmed women either directly or indirectly, through word or action or both, in initiating and conducting teacher/learner (disciple) relationships.

Two women “model disciples”—birth annunciations

Luke’s gospel presents two intertwining annunciation stories of two women of faith, Mary and Elizabeth, as they participate in the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. They encounter the angel Gabriel, the Spirit, and each other as they share in the wonder of the Jesus event. As “model disciples,” the two women voice their heartfelt joy and acceptance of their new roles. At the outset, we note the pairing of female stories in a union of their faith responses. They affirm their receptivity and excitement surrounding the Jesus event; the female persons’ reception generally bests their male counterparts’, i.e., Elizabeth over Zechariah and Mary contrasted with Zechariah. (See Figure 1.)

Luke features these two women when they receive God’s word and relate to each other in the light of the joyous news from above. The news is mediated through angels or the Holy Spirit. Two women are intertwined in the focus upon divine redemption. According toLuke 1:6, Elizabeth is a “kinswoman” (distant cousin?) of Mary. In an unmistakable manner, Luke affirms the role of women through their songs of faith.3 In the birth narratives, stress falls upon prophetic inspiration that marks the arrival of the new age, often expressed in Luke–Acts by the verb “fill” or “fulfill” (pimplēmi).4 In Matthew, Old Testament quotations are found in the fulfillment passages. They are restatements of earlier prophecies and fulfillments, now in the service of the wonderful new event. As Luke records the annunciations, he is aware of a new epoch commencing in the lives of various individuals.


Presumably, Mary has been nurtured with the stories and psalms of the Old Testament. Thus, when she speaks, it is the Spirit who enables her to draw together varied similes, which connect vibrant themes of the Old Testament that mirror her own story (Luke 1:46-55). She also possesses similar qualities that characterize the godly women of the Old Testament.5 She exhibits a contagious excitement when she meets Elizabeth and they tell their stories; each simply must share the good news with her relative. The parallels between the Old Testament texts and the Magnificat demonstrate that the new event of the incarnation is positioned within the best of Old Testament piety.6 Mary responds to Gabriel with a description of God as her savior (1:47). Marshall states, “The hymn of praise is modeled in general terms on 1 Sam. 2:1-10, but the phrases used are paralleled in many passages, and the hymn gives the impression of being composed by someone whose mind was steeped in Old Testament piety.”7 In answer to Hannah’s prayer, she is given a son, which occasions her song of praise; Mary’s Magnificat is a song built on the language of the Old Testament. Each is voiced in the context of a miraculous birth. Hannah conceives a son; Mary, a virgin (1:27, 34), is assured by Gabriel of a birth in language similar to the virgin passage in Isaiah 7:14 (Septuagint, or LXX) and the assurance to a fleeing Hagar (Gen. 16:11 LXX). She accepts her high privilege to be the mother of the Son of God, yet accepts impending shame in being a mother out of wedlock. Both Hannah the barren wife and Mary the virgin (Luke 1:27, 34) conceive sons. Luke presents the theology of the incarnation in a way so holy and congruent with Old Testament sacred history that any comparisons with pagan mythology seem utterly incongruous. Instead of the carnal union of a pagan god with a woman producing some kind of semi-divine offspring, Luke speaks of a spiritual overshadowing by God himself that will produce the “holy one.” The language is delicate and reserved.

Luke is not merely interested in selective details of people, age, gender, character, and responses; rather, he positions the incarnation in the context and ethos of the best of Old Testament piety. The new dispensation begins with the speech of the old. Mary’s faith response to the angel Gabriel (1:38) and her rumination on the divine promise (2:51) depict Mary as “the model disciple.”8 As such, her language is not merely that of an excited mother-to-be. Mary is responsive to the word of God; conversely, God is dependent upon her faith response to him. The generation gap is bridged; indeed, it is a huge gap between the teenage Mary and the aged Elizabeth (in her 70s or 80s?). The angel gives no direction to Mary to go to Elizabeth, though a suggestion is made by informing Mary that her kinswoman—aged though she is—is in her sixth month, bearing a miracle son. Mary makes the choice to see her. The teenager wants to learn something from the senior citizen. As for Elizabeth, she is humbled that the special person comes to her—and she is speaking of a teenager. Discipleship occurs through an intertwining of old and new, young and old, prophetic inspiration, a trust response in the miraculous. Discipleship also expresses itself through the confession by both women; Elizabeth is the first to confess Jesus as “my Lord,” and that even before He was born—long before Mary Magdalene’s “Rabbouni” and Thomas’ “My Lord and my God.” Her committed discipleship is all the more remarkable in that Mary says nothing at the moment about her own impending miracle birth, as though to say in response to Elizabeth, “He is not only your Lord, He is my Savior.” In boldest relief, discipleship is linked to the miraculous activity of the Holy Spirit.

The Magnificat is a collage connecting Mary’s story with the story of Hannah—each birth occurring amid impossible circumstances (cf. the narrative in 1 Sam. 2:1-10). Each song is coupled with psalms and various blessings scattered through the Old Testament. These texts then parallel her story of a divine conception by the Holy Spirit (1:38).


When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the child leaps in her womb. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit (1:41) and speaks a prophetic blessing upon Mary for an event to which she had not been privy (1:45), i.e., when Mary had believed in Gabriel’s promise. The blessing draws together two women in this prophecy. Elizabeth, with a Spirit-inspired awareness of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit, likewise confirms Mary’s pregnancy by the Holy Spirit (1:35). The scene is tender and moving, describing the stirring of the unborn child, which also grounds Elizabeth’s prophecy with reality. She speaks with a prophetic awareness of the One within Mary, and confirms Mary’s believing response (1:45). Her joy at the coming of Mary must be a joy already present in her life, since she had conceived in her old age and was bearing in her womb the forerunner of the Savior. But her joy is compounded by the arrival of “the mother of my Lord” (what a marvelous prophetic word!) and joy in the one who has believed God’s promise (i.e., Mary). Mary is initially contrasted with the male Zechariah in his disbelieving response to Gabriel, narrated through the response, “How shall I know this?” (1:18). The disbelieving challenge for a sign or proof is answered, but in a negative manner: “You will be dumb and unable to talk until the days these things take place, because you did not believe” (1:20). Both the young Mary and the aged Zechariah receive promises of a birth in impossible circumstances, and they respond with similar words; however, one is noted as believing and the other as unbelieving. We can only conjecture about their body language or the way in which they made a response—tone, inflection, and rising and falling of the voice. When Mary wonders how this will occur, Gabriel states:

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)

The Holy Spirit is mentioned here in parallelism with the power of the Most High.9The verb “overshadow, cover” (episkiazō) parallels the verb “come upon” (eperchomai). The verb “overshadow, cover” is used of God’s presence that rests upon the tabernacle in the cloud, likewise protecting the people of God.10 The verb is also used of the cloud that overshadows Jesus and the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:34 par.). The reference to the transfiguration is significant in that in both instances (chs. 1, 9) theovershadowing of God’s presence and power identifies Jesus as God’s Son:

Luke 1:35: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

Luke 9:34-35: “While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered [overshadowed] them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’”

The verb “come upon” (eperchomai) is frequently used by Luke,11 most notably in Acts 1:8with respect to the Pentecost event:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (italics added)

C.K. Barrett argues in convincing fashion that the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit finds allusion to Genesis 1:2 in an Old Testament setting, which is contrasted with some of the Greek myths of divine begetting:

The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Gen. 1:2)

The Piel feminine participle “hovering, brooding” (merachepheth) in Genesis 1:2 envisions the brooding or hovering of a bird12 over a nest in creating, vivifying, and nurturing activity. The text of Genesis 1:2 led John Milton to the paraphrase:

On the watery calm,
His brooding wings, The Spirit of God outspread,
And vital virtue infused, and vital warmth,
Throughout the fluid mass.13

Milton expresses the feminine activity of nurture and infusion of virtue and warmth.

The activity of the Spirit is linked to creation and divine speech at the beginning of time. A new creation, comparable with that of Genesis 1, occurs in the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Barrett states, “The central, biblical, idea with which we have to deal is that the entrance of Jesus into the world was the inauguration of God’s new creation and therefore has its only true analogy in Genesis.”14

Elizabeth is likewise pictured as a “righteous woman” (1:6), faithful along with her husband, and she is barren. She is also the believing woman in contrast to her disbelieving husband. When she conceives, she expresses her thanks: “‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people” (Luke 1:25). Since women were considered to be the faulty ones in the case of barrenness, she states that the Lord has taken away her reproach, i.e., her barrenness:

Barrenness canceled what was regarded as a woman’s main function in life, the bearing of children—especially sons to her husband; it denied her the highest status and security a woman might achieve. Barrenness was thought of as the woman’s fault (as here in 1:7), a punishment for sin or at least a result of God’s “forgetting” the woman. (1 Sam. 1:11)15

She has received no major promise directly by an appearance of Gabriel as her unbelieving husband received; the message she initially receives is the secondhand report of her husband, colored by his skepticism. We can only conjecture about the means of communication—through Zechariah’s “sign language.” But, yet, amidst the seemingly impossible circumstances, she believes and is able to speak prophetically to her relative Mary (1:42-45). The angel Gabriel echoes the language of Sarah’s angelophany, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14). In the Old Testament, Sarah similarly experiences a promise of an “impossible” conception, after she has passed through menopause. Elizabeth is portrayed as a Christian model of discipleship through her believing perseverance—in the midst of tremendous obstacles (old age, menopause, uncertainty of her future in the light of her barrenness). No doubt, the temptation to anger was ever present, since she and her husband are noted as especially devout for the duration of long lives, and they are not rewarded with the gift of children (Luke 1:5-7). It is striking that Elizabeth is the first person in Luke’s Gospel who makes a christological confession of Jesus’ Lordship: “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). As Getty-Sullivan notes, “Luke’s purpose is Christological rather than Mariological.”16Mary answers the angel Gabriel, “‘I am the Lord’s servant. . . . May it be to me according to your word.’ Then the angel left her” (Luke 1:38). Getty-Sullivan notes that “the handmaid theme will appear again in Mary’s canticle (Luke 1:48). It is inspired by Samuel’s mother, Hannah (1 Sam. 1:11). Luke also anticipates the final age of history when, with the gift of the Spirit, God’s servants and handmaids alike will prophesy (Acts 2:18; a fulfillment of Joel 3:1-5).”17

Three women: Jesus’ life

The woman of Samaria—a contagious evangelist-disciple (John 4:4-42)

In no passage besides John 4:4-42 does Jesus invest so much time in dialogue with a woman. In this Samaritan setting, the woman is the victim of racial, religious, and gender prejudice. She lives in an apartheid setting. The initial questions and subsequent dialogue are positioned within a context of exclusion: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (4:9). The term “Samaritan” expresses racial and religious prejudice, while the term “woman” expresses sexual prejudice. Such sexual prejudice is also conveyed by the disciples when they return from their trip into Samaria: “Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. . . . ‘Why are you talking with her?’” (4:27; italics added). However, this unspoken blame was internal and unvoiced; no one had the courage to force this silent and cold accusation into a verbal question to Jesus. What is clear is that Jesus “breaks open boundaries in his conversation with the Samaritan woman: the boundary between male and female, the boundary between ‘chosen people’ and ‘rejected people.’ Jesus’ journey to Samaria and his conversation with the woman demonstrate that the grace of God that he offers is available to all.”18

Since Jesus is thirsty, he stops at a well of Shechem in Samaria, while his disciples go on a brief shopping excursion into Samaria. The actual dialogue begins with Jesus’ request for a cup of water from the Samaritan woman: “Will you give me a drink?” (4:7). The ensuing dialogue uses the language of misunderstanding to lead this woman to become an evangelist to the men native to Samaria. The short account reveals that the woman is capable of solid theological reflection; she understands the relevant history of the Jews and the Samaritans, the traditions of the Jews and Samaritans, Messianic expectation, and the relevant worship sites, Jerusalem or Samaria. She would be aware that the Jews would publicly curse the Samaritans and would certainly not handle a utensil handled by a Samaritan.19 “When Jesus tells her that she is living with one who is not her husband, she shows no anger. When Jesus says that salvation will come from the Jews, she remains open-minded and attentive.”20 She wins over the readers through her lively challenges without defensiveness or anger. In a real manner, she is open to Jesus’ searchlight as he reveals the heart and expectation of this woman. Through the dialogue, there is a discernible movement in terms of this woman’s understanding of Jesus:

Jesus as a Jewish man (John 4:9)


Sir—a title of respect (4:11)


A prophet (4:19)


The Messiah (4:25)

“I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (4:26)


(The woman becomes an evangelist who says . . .)

“Come, see a man who told me everything 
I ever did.” (4:29)

“Could this be the Messiah?” (4:29)


The Savior of the world (4:42—proclaimed by the Samaritans)

What an amazing progression of the woman’s faith response and its result during an ordinary encounter at a well!21 And this woman’s faith is not dampened by the cold reception or sexist comments from the disciples. She reveals that she understands her mission; she becomes a vibrant witness, even an evangelist without a preparatory catechism class. What an irony that she grows in faith in one day, while the disciples over months of association do not understand Jesus’ inclusive acceptance. They will need to understand the love of God for all (3:16), irrespective of race, religion, or gender. Jesus shows that he maintains no distinction between clean and unclean; he ignores the Jewish warning about speaking to a woman:22 “Jews viewed Samaritans with distaste, and in fact the rabbis especially shunned Samaritan women, whom they viewed as perpetually unclean, menstruants from the cradle (see Mishna Niddah 4:1).”23 This is also a message to John’s church of its need to reflect God’s inclusive concern. The bitter irony is that Jesus is rejected by the Jewish leaders inJohn 5, but is accepted by the hated Samaritans, and this by the sole witness of an outcast Samaritan woman.

We also find an implicit contrast between the Jews of John 2:23-25, who at best give evidence of partial and superficial faith, and the Samaritans’ eager responsiveness. The Jews evidence an unsatisfactory faith based upon a superficial excitement and awe of the miraculous, i.e., “. . . many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name” (2:23). The Samaritans, by way of contrast, have not witnessed a “sign,” but come to genuine faith based upon Jesus’ word. And they confess that Jesus is the Savior of the world. It has been a conversation with a woman at a Samaritan well that has prepared the way for the triumph of the Word of God at Samaria.

Jesus teaches the disciples by way of metaphor. He wants them to know the wonder of this day. Jesus borrows a popular proverb, which speaks about the usual practice of farming. When one goes out into the backyard and plants a garden, it is normal and expected that there will be a period of delay between putting the corn and spinach seeds into the ground and the actual time in which the corn is mature enough to eat as corn on the cob and the spinach has grown large enough to be used in a tossed salad. Normally and universally, there is a period of waiting between the actual sowing of seed and the growth and subsequent harvest. The two most important words of this first metaphor reveal an important contrast. Those two words are “four months” and “already.” In the Fourth Gospel, the metaphor is used to stress the immediate ripeness of the harvest. There is no period of waiting. It is an incredible situation: “Even now those who reap draw their wages, even now they harvest the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together” (4:36). The sowing and reaping both occur on this day. The sowing is the witness of Jesus to a woman, and the fruit of the initial harvest is the woman at the well. As another sower, the woman, in turn, has just left the well only to return with crowds of Samaritan people (4:30,41-42)—the greater harvest. She is sower and reaper—at the same time. Thus, the Samaritans invite Jesus to remain24 with them (4:40). The woman is thus a reaper of a harvest that she has already started to sow. Correspondingly, there has been no period of waiting or delay between the sowing and the harvesting. One of the most striking statements in the story is found in verse 38: “Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” The plural “others” (alloi) must refer to more than one person besides Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Who are they? What is important is that Jesus arouses the inner thirst in the woman’s life by sowing, and he effects the rapid growth and harvest of the sown seed. The woman then becomes the sower to the people of Samaria, and she likewise experiences the joyous harvest.

The Syrophoenician woman and her daughter—a witty disciple (Mark 7:24-30 par.)

A foreign woman pleads with Jesus for her demon-possessed daughter. The paragraph immediately strikes the reader with its threefold accent of the non-Jewish nature of the woman’s ethnic background: 1) Tyre (7:24), 2) “The woman was a Greek” (7:26), 3) “born in Syrian Phoenicia” (7:26). Thereby, Mark demonstrates how Jesus meets the needs of Gentiles as well as Jews. News about Jesus spreads, which occasions this woman’s desperate request (7:25-26). At first, it appears that Jesus is totally disinterested in this woman and her request: “First, let the children eat all they want, . . . for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (7:27).25 Jesus borrows the familiar Jewish insult for Gentiles, i.e., “dogs.”26 The woman is not put off by this “hard saying,” for she answers, “Lord, . . . even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (7:28). She accepts Jesus’ verdict, while she further tests him with her lively, high-spirited and no doubt humorous rejoinder. Within her argument is a contrast between the statements by Jesus and by her regarding the children and their bread; in Jesus’ statement, the children must first be fed bread (7:27), and the bread that the dogs eat is taken away from the children. In the woman’s argument, the children are still fed; what the dogs eat are crumbs, which fall under the table while the messy children continue to eat their bread (7:28). Her answer reveals that she acknowledges Israel’s privilege and does not rebel against God’s temporal choice. In no way does she wish to diminish Israel’s privileges, but she desires only a crumb. She simply appeals to Jesus’ kindness in an unconditional manner.

Jesus honors the woman’s reasoning, “For such a reply, you may go” (7:29; italics added). Mary Ann Tolbert observes, “Indeed, she is the only character in the entire Gospel of Mark to best Jesus in an argument . . . and continues on to stand his metaphor on its head.”27 No doubt, Jesus responds with a smile that accompanies his argument. Jesus’ word concerning the demon’s exit (7:29) is verified by the narrative of verse 30: “She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.” Her faith seizes Jesus’ promise and leads to her wise saying, which Jesus respects. Her response as a woman is affirmed and is also contrasted with that of Jesus’ male disciples, who reveal a deep-seated apartheid for this nuisance of a woman: “So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us’” (Matt. 15:23).

Jesus’ affirmation of Mary—a learning disciple (Luke 10:38-42)28

On the surface, the story in Luke 10:38-42 appears to be a situation of sisters’ rivalry. Jesus is a guest of both sisters in their house, and it may appear that both sisters compete for Jesus’ full attention. Martha is engaged in the hospitality issues of preparing food for a meal, while Mary sits at his feet. The point of tension appears to be Martha’s complaint against her sister and her complaint to Jesus that he does not care about the seeming inequity: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” (10:40).

Mary chooses the good portion (10:42), which infuriates Martha. She misunderstands true hospitality and receptivity to Jesus with her workaday ethic and industrious activity, and fails to see the priority of Mary’s choice to sit at the feet of Jesus “listening to what he said” (10:39).29 She attends to the Lord without distraction (1 Cor. 7:35). The key question concerning eternal life (Luke 10:25), which leads to the parable of the Good Samaritan, also leads into the next paragraph in that eternal life is “the good part” (10:42) that must be chosen and will be a permanent possession.

The paragraph on the Lord’s Prayer (11:1-4) affirms that the “good part” is listening to Jesus and learning from him through prayer. Thus, he becomes the “host” who provides for the well-being of his people.

Some popular interpretations of the text (10:38-42) relativize the roles of Martha and Mary and interpret the text as indicative of the best and the second best, i.e., the contemplative life versus busy service. Even though the majority of the story focuses upon Martha (Mary is voiceless), Mary’s choice is based upon her knowledge in that she has chosen to listen to his word and is sitting at his feet, which is a technical term for “being a disciple.”30 Luke intends that his readers understand that Mary is a disciple whose activity is to be imitated. The setting itself is extraordinary in that it was unheard that a Jewish rabbi would enter and “teach” in the household of women who were not relatives. Jesus defies what is expected of a man and a woman. Jesus does not provide the answer that Martha expected. He does not devalue Martha’s role of hospitality, nor does he question women’s “traditional role.” Instead, he focuses upon Mary’s choice of discipleship, i.e., learning from him. This is the main issue of discipleship for both women and men. Martha is concerned with “many things,” which may indicate many dishes being prepared; perhaps Jesus indicates that one dish is sufficient for Jesus now. While her activity is not “wrong,” in the context of proper discipleship, “learning from him” allows one to be a genuine hostess. True service must be preceded by the non-sexist response of genuine discipleship. The response of faith and listening to Jesus are universal in nature and provide the common and equal ground between women and men. This is Jesus’ radical message, which effected changes in Christianity in the first century a.d. Women, as well as men, are summoned by Jesus to responsive “discipleship” to Jesus’ words. The Jesus story could not be told without a realistic narration detailing the women who were touched by the radical Jesus; they surely belong to the company of disciples.

One woman at the empty tomb

Mary—an apostolic disciple (Mark 16:1-8; Matthew 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-3, 10-18)

Even though it is difficult to reconcile the different identities of the women who saw the resurrected Jesus, the four gospels are unanimous in affirming the presence of women at the empty tomb. The women also bear witness of the resurrected Jesus to the male disciples. In a real sense, they serve as witnesses and apostles. Mary has seen the resurrected Jesus and has been commissioned by him to serve as “a sent one.” John 20:1-3reads . . .

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (italics added)

Jesus has a special encounter with Mary Magdalene in 20:11-18:

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb. . . . Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means, “Teacher”). (italics added)

The resurrection event had transformed Mary from her former disillusionment and hopelessness to become an early witness (apostle) to the male disciples. To her, the meaning of the Easter event had been revealed. The women who were present at the cross are now immediately present at the empty tomb, and thereby become commissioned with a message of hope. The most dramatic is Mary’s encounter with Jesus, whom she supposes is a gardener: “The power of the scene comes from the reader’s anticipation of Mary’s moment of recognition,”31 after Jesus pronounces her name, “Mary” (20:16). Further, the lesson she learns from Jesus is that she (and other believers) cannot hold on to Jesus in the way that they did in his pre-resurrection form.32 Thus, Mary is the first to see the resurrected Jesus and is the first to be commissioned as a witness, and thereby is the first “apostle” commissioned by the risen Jesus.


  1. K. Rengstorf, “mathētēs,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, v. 4 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1969), 416.
  2. K. Rengstorf, “mathētēs,” 432.
  3. Due to the content of this article, we will choose to focus upon the women of Luke 1-2. All Bible verses are quoted from the Today’s New International Version unless otherwise noted.
  4. See Luke 1:41, 67; Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 9:17; 13:9.
  5. Contra Jane Schaberg, who believes that Luke presents a dangerous text in that “it deftly portrays them as models of subordinate service, excluded from the power center of the movement and from significant responsibilities.” “Luke,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press), 363.
  6. Raymond Brown provides a clear parallel between Mary’s Magnificat and the Old Testament texts in “The Background of the Magnificat,” The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City, N.J.: Image Books, 1979), 358-60.
  7. Howard Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian (Aberdeen: The Paternoster Press, 1970), 97.
  8. Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus (Cambridge: University Press, 1984), 62.
  9. See also Luke 1:17, where John is to come “in the Spirit and power” of Elijah.
  10. Exodus 40:34-35: “Then the cloud covered (ekalupsen) the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled upon (epeskiazen) it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” See alsoPsalm 91:4 (90:4); 140:7 (139:8).
  11. Luke 11:22, 21:26; Acts 1:8, 8:24, 13:40, 14:19.
  12. Deut. 32:11: “As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions.” (RSV)
  13. John Milton, Paradise Lost, 7.234ff.
  14. C. K. Barrett, The Holy Spirit and the Gospel Tradition (London: SPCK Press, 1975), 24.
  15. Jane Schaberg, “Luke,” Women’s Bible Commentary, 371.
  16. Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan, Women in the New Testament (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 24. This position is somewhat striking in that Getty-Sullivan comes from a Catholic position.
  17. Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan, Women in the New Testament, 25-26.
  18. Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan, Women in the New Testament, 384.
  19. W. Bauer, W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingirch, and F. W. Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1979) (hereafter BAGD), 775a. The verb sugchraomai means “do not use vessels in common.”
  20. Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan, Women in the New Testament, 96.
  21. The movement is similar to the blind man in John 9 as he makes his way to genuine trust and worship.
  22. Jose B. Joezer of Jerusalem said, “Talk not much with womankind. They said this of a man’s own wife: how much more of a neighbor’s wife. Hence the Sages said: ‘He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit Gehennah.’” Aboth 1:4 (“The Fathers”). Herbert Danby, The Mishna (Oxford: University Press, 1889), 446. Cf. “Women,” Encyclopedia Judaica, 16.626. Also Louis J. Newman, Samuel Spitz, The Talmudic Anthology (New York, N.Y.: Behrman House, 1945), 479: “Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus said, ‘He who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he taught her frivolity’” (M. Sotah, 3:4).
  23. Bonnie Thurston, Women in the New Testament: Questions and Commentary (New York, N.Y.: The Crossroads Publishing Co., 1998), 83.
  24. This is a key verb in the Fourth Gospel, occurring fifty-five times, usually to express the permanency of the relationship and the language of mutual indwelling. Cf. Raymond Brown,The Gospel According to John, v. 1 (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966), 510-12.
  25. The dogs are “house dogs” (kunaria) not “wild street-dogs” (kunē). See BAGD, 457.
  26. See Deut. 23:19 in the Septuagint: In the Septuagint, “hire of a harlot equates with the price of a dog.”
  27. Mary Ann Tolbert, “Mark,” Women’s Bible Commentary, 356.
  28. There are six different textual variants of the paragraph. It is beyond the scope of this article to walk through the various issues of external and internal support for each of the six readings. We suggest that the most accurate reading conveys the idea of hearing and internalizing the word of God.
  29. In Jewish thought, “to sit at one’s feet” means “to be a pupil of,” e.g., Paul was brought up “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). In Pirke Avot 1:4, “Sit humbly at their feet” means to serve and to be a disciple of the Sages (Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, Pirke Avot[New York, N.Y.: UAHC Press, 1999], 4). Jane Schaberg does a fine job of tracing out the various positions taken on this commendation of Mary; however, her conclusions are faulty. It is more important to follow the logical sense of the text and where the text takes the reader than to import something alien to the context. See “Luke” in Women’s Bible Commentary,377-78.
  30. Cf. Acts 22:3; Luke 8:35, 39. Cf. Avoth 1.4 (Herbert Danby, The Mishnah [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933], 446).
  31. Gail R. O’Day, “John,” Women’s Bible Commentary, 389.
  32. The present imperative combined with the negative and the personal pronoun (mē mou aptou) carries the sense, “Stop touching me,” or “Do not hold on to me (in the same way that you did in my pre-resurrection ministry. Things are altogether different now.)” It does not mean, “Do not touch me,” as if there were something inherently wrong with a touch. After all, Jesus invited the ten disciples and Thomas to “touch him.”


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