One of the ways Jesus demonstrated the Kingdom of God was by calling unusual disciples. He called twelve Jewish men in order to show that God was reconciling himself to the sons of Jacob (Israel) by a New Covenant. Though these disciples may be the most familiar to us, they weren’t the only people Jesus called to be his disciples.
Many tax collectors and other sinners also followed him (see Mark 2:15). By repenting and believing in the gospel, they represented Jesus’ divine mission to forgive sins and gather up the “lost sheep of Israel.” But not everyone recognized Jesus’ inclusive approach to discipleship as redemptive. Some of his contemporaries accused him of being a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19).
Jesus also called women to be his disciples. Based on Jesus’ other choices of disciples, what does the presence of these women in his circle of disciples teach us about the Kingdom? Before addressing this question, we must show that Jesus actually had women disciples, since not everyone would agree.
The women who followed Jesus
Women were present in Jesus’ circle of disciples toward the beginning of his ministry:
And his mother and his brothers come. And while standing out-side [of the house] they sent to him, calling him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they say to him: “Behold, your mother and your brothers and your sisters are seeking you out-side.” And answering, he says to them: “Who is my mother and my brothers?” And looking around at those who are seated with him in a circle, he says: “Behold, my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, this is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31–35; scripture citations are the author’s translation throughout)
Jesus’ teaching on divorce shows that women were not merely spectators, but received instruction like the men:
And in the house the disciples again were asking him about this. And he is saying to them: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another is committing adultery against her. And if she, after divorcing her husband, marries another, she is committing adultery.” (Mark 10:10–12)
Though Jewish women were not permitted to divorce their husbands, there is evidence that wealthy wives who were not dependent on their husbands could initiate divorce under Roman law. In first-century discipleship circles, the question of women divorcing their husbands would be irrelevant. But since Jesus’ circle included women, he applied this teaching to men and women equally.
Some of the women disciples who traveled with Jesus and the Twelve during his ministry were wealthy enough to provide for his mission:
And it came about afterward he also was traveling to city and town, preaching and proclaiming the goods news of the Kingdom of God. And the Twelve were with him, and women, some of whom were healed from evil spirits and illnesses: Mary, who is called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna and many others, who provided for them from their possessions. (Luke 8:1–3)
Many of these women remained with Jesus to the end:
Now there were also women looking from a distance, among whom also was Mary, the [woman] from Magdala, and Mary, the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, were following him and were serving him. And also there were many other [women], who came up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40–41)
Although Mark sometimes uses the verb “to follow” (akoloutheō) in a literal sense (6:1, 10:32, 14:13, 15:41), this word also describes the activity of discipleship. For example, after Jesus called Peter and Andrew, they immediately left their nets and “followed him” (1:18; see also Levi’s call in 2:14). The context and verb tense of “to follow” in Mark 15:40–41 suggest that the women at the crucifixion had left their homes and had been continually following Jesus on his mission.
But not all of Jesus’ women disciples were called to leave their homes:
Now while they were traveling, he entered into a certain village. Now a certain woman named Martha received him. And with her was a sister called Mary. She sat before the feet of the Lord, and she was hearing his word. But Martha was being distracted with much serving. Now having approached [them], she said: “Lord, is it of no concern to you that my sister left me to be serving [the meal] alone? So tell her to come help me!” But having answered, the Lord said to her: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things. But one thing is necessary. For Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:38–42)
In this passage, Mary assumes the posture of a disciple (Acts 22:3; m. Avot 1:4) and is praised by Jesus. She does not let domestic duties dis- tract her from learning about the “good part,” which in the narrative context (9:51–19:28) is Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom.
Based upon the Gospels, then, Jesus called women to be his disciples. Some left their homes, while others were challenged to think differently about their identity and roles in the home. By choosing to include women into his discipleship circle, Jesus clearly differentiated himself from other Jewish teachers, which undoubtedly made him vulnerable to criticism.
First-century restrictions on women disciples
Women faced prejudice
Pious Jewish women did have opportunities to learn about God and his will. They could attend the local synagogue on the Sabbath to hear the Law and Prophets as well as a sermon. But there is no evidence that first-century rabbis included women in their discipleship circles.
Their exclusion may have been partly the result of sexism. For example, Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, claimed that women were inferior to men (Against Apion 2.25). Philo, a first-century Jewish philosopher in Alexandria, believed women were weak and should stay at home (Op. Mund. 151– 52; Spec. Leg. 3.169–77). And in a notorious prayer from the later Rabbinic work, the Tosefta, a man thanks God for not making him a woman (Ber. 7.18).
But it would be unfair to claim that all Jewish male rabbis, except for Jesus, were prejudiced against women. Two significant barriers, which were not necessarily related to the attitudes of the rabbi, prevented the inclusion of women in discipleship circles.
Women were considered morally impure
First, it was considered culturally inappropriate for a man to spend time with or speak to a woman other than his wife. Such intimacy would lead to (at least the perception of) sexual impropriety. With such a reputation, a male religious teacher would quickly lose honor in his community.
This explains why Jesus’ own (male) disciples were so shocked when he spoke to the woman at the well (John 4:27). The later Rabbinic work, Avot de Rabbi Nathan (ch. 2 A), probably expresses their cultural value:
Let no man be alone with any woman in an inn, even with his sister or his daughter or his mother-in-law, because of public opinion. Let no man chat with a woman in the market place, even if she is his wife, and, needless to say, with another woman because of public opinion.
In other first-century works, we find the rather surprising—at least from a modern point of view—assumption that women were inherently adulterous and could not be trusted. It is therefore significant, as David Scholer observes, that Jesus places the blame for lust on men (Matt. 5:28). In any case, Jesus does not allow his disciples—whether male or female— to project their own lust upon others. But Jesus lost considerable honor among his contemporaries because of such equal associations.
Women were considered ritually unclean
A more significant barrier, however, was niddah or “menstrual impurity.” According to the Mosaic Law, if a man touched a menstruating woman or whatever she had touched, such as a bed, he would become ritually impure (or unclean) along with the woman (Lev. 15:19–33). Pre-menopausal women, then, were conduits of impurity approximately one quarter of the time.
For this reason, women were often excluded from communal religious life. Josephus assumes menstruating women were forbid- den to enter the Temple (Against Apion 2.103–104; War 5.227). It is likely that they were also excluded from the synagogue during their periods.
Today, Christian women are hardly conscious of their menstrual cycles when attending church. But in Jesus’ social world such impurity was a major concern. In order to ensure that women’s ritual impurity remained contained, Rabbis apparently were called upon to inspect menstrual rags.
Jesus as the source of forgiveness and cleansing for everyone
Not surprisingly, Jewish teachers at the time of Jesus pursued moral and ritual purity in their discipleship circles. Both were prerequisites for God’s presence. Jesus’ inclusion of women presumably offended their religious sensibilities. A group of women would have been perceived as conduits of ritual impurity. By coming into contact with these women or whatever they touched, Jesus would, from their perspective, be in a constant state of uncleanness!
But Jesus never betrayed an awareness of being ritually unclean. Instead, he appears to have perceived himself as a conduit of both forgiveness and ritual purity. This divine power is poignantly expressed in Jesus’ healing of a hemorrhaging woman:
A woman, who had had a flow of blood for twelve years—and had suffered much at the hands of many physicians and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all but had grown worse—after hearing about Jesus, came up in the crowd behind [him] and touched his outer garment. For she was saying that “If I just touch his outer garments, I will be saved.” And immediately the flow of her blood was dried up. And she felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. (Mark 5:25–29)
According to the Mosaic Law (Lev. 15:25–30), this woman would have been ritually unclean for over a decade, and therefore had been unable to participate in the religious life of her community. The Law also stipulated that her touch made Jesus unclean. But instead, a healing, cleansing power went out from him.
Jesus’ contagious purity was an expression of the cleansing work of God’s Spirit through the offering of the New Covenant (see Ezek. 36:26–27). Jesus fulfilled the Law’s demand for purity and therefore was free to redefine purity for his disciples as entirely a matter of the heart:
What is coming out of a person—that [is able to make] the person impure. For out of the heart of people is coming evil thoughts: fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, [thoughts of ] greed, [thoughts of ] immorality, deceit, lack of self-control, the evil eye, dishonor, pride, foolishness—all these things are coming from within and [make] a person impure. (Mark 7:20–23)
While Jesus was not the first to emphasize moral purity, his claim was unprecedented in Jewish faith, and led to the setting aside of the Mosaic kosher laws (Mark 7:19). But this redefinition of purity, I would suggest, also had a profound impact upon Jesus’ women disciples. Their communal worship would no longer be contingent upon their ritual cleanness. Women could now be clean all of the time.
So what is Jesus trying to teach his contemporaries—and us—about the Kingdom of God through his calling of women to be disciples? Consistent with his ministry to tax collectors and other sinners, it was important to Jesus that everyone—not just righteous men—experienced the forgiveness and blessings of the New Covenant.
The community of men and women Jesus called was the same community who received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and began to prophesy (Acts 1:14). At that time, Peter cited the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s prophecy:
And even upon my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy. (Acts 2:18)
Jesus’ redefinition of purity makes this post-Pentecost reality possible. Jesus also attacked the fundamental barrier between God and his people— the evil heart. Women were not to be distracted from this problem by a preoccupation with their domestic roles or menstrual cycles. Men were not to be distracted by projecting their own lust upon women, as if the women they objectified were the problem. Instead, Jesus called women and men equally to repent from their former way of life, to believe in his gospel, and to join his family and mission.
But this post-Pentecost reality must be protected today. Jesus was willing to suffer dishonor by his contemporaries in order to honor those who had been marginalized. Jesus took a risk for women, and invites us to do the same.