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Published Date: November 10, 2021

Published Date: November 10, 2021

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Jesus’s Female Disciples…and Why They Weren’t Among “The Twelve”

Jesus was routinely controversial and countercultural. So why didn’t he confront the misogyny and patriarchy of his day when he chose his inner circle of disciples? The absence of female disciples is seen by many as an indication that it was not his will that women be in leadership. If it was his will that women be elevated to places of leadership, why were there no female disciples?

Jesus Affirmed Women as His Disciples

Well, first of all, there were female disciples. We see this in Matthew 12:48–50:

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

In a Middle Eastern cultural context, a speaker who gestures to a crowd of men cannot say, “Here are my brother and sister and mother,” but would say, “Here are my brother and uncle and cousin.”1 This text affirms that Jesus is gesturing toward his disciples whom he addresses with male and female terms.

Now we come to the question of just who were these female disciples? We find the answer in Luke 8:1–3:

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village 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.

Here, Luke names several women among the disciples who were part of Jesus’s group. Jesus was traveling from village to village with a group of men and women. This implies that they were spending night after night in strange villages. Though today’s standards are more relaxed than they were in the first century, even in contemporary Middle Eastern cultures, this social scene isn’t possible. If women travel with a group of men, they must spend the night with relatives.2 It’s highly unlikely that all these women had relatives in each town through which they traveled. Despite the fact that this is so countercultural, Luke, a man, doesn’t try to hide it but actually admits it in writing. Furthermore, he tells us that these women were paying for the movement out of resources that were within their own control.

Luke also writes of another woman whose place as a disciple Jesus affirmed and who deserves special recognition. In Luke 10, we read that Jesus entered the house of Martha, and “she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.” To sit at the feet of a rabbi meant you were a disciple of that rabbi.3 Mary had neglected to fulfill the role of a woman and had taken the role of a man! Luke says Martha was “distracted by all the preparations.” This isn’t about Martha wanting help cutting the vegetables or setting the table. In her Middle Eastern culture, she is upset over the fact that her sister is seated with the men and has become a disciple. Mary is not in her God-ordained role! And Martha is horrified! “How dare she! Women are not supposed to be disciples! That’s for men, not for women! What will everyone think? Someone needs to remind her where she belongs!” Indignant, Martha appeals to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” In other words, “Don’t you care that she’s not staying in her place…in the kitchen….rather than out here with the men?” But Jesus says that Mary has chosen the good and it won’t be taken from her. In a culture that believes teaching women the law was akin to teaching them obscenity,4 Jesus defends Mary’s choice to be his disciple, sit at his feet, and learn. He affirms her decision to go against culture, step outside her expected role as a woman, and do that which was culturally viewed as a “man’s place.”

But What About the Twelve?

Okay, yes, Jesus did have female disciples. But…they weren’t named among the Twelve.

No, they weren’t. But it had nothing to do with denying women a place in leadership roles. While Jesus was counter-cultural and controversial, confronting everything amiss in the culture was not what he was on earth to do. A large majority of the times he confronted culture it was a confrontation against other religious leaders and their hypocrisy. He was more focused on bringing the fulfillment of God’s covenants and kingdom.

To the Jews, the number twelve represented the government of God’s kingdom. That kingdom was founded upon the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve sons of Jacob. So the twelve named disciples correspond to the twelve tribes. Jesus was making a prophetic statement to the Jewish people, and specifically the religious leaders. The statement is not only in the use of the number twelve, but also in the gender. Jesus did not choose twelve men because men are superior or as a mandate for future leadership of his body but because the symbolism he was putting before the people has in it twelve men.

It’s interesting to note that after Acts 1, after the establishment of the new covenant through the blood of Jesus, the twelve disciples as “the Twelve” disappears from the landscape of early Christianity.

By choosing men, and not women, to serve as his twelve disciples, Jesus was not making a sexist statement, nor was he denying women a future leadership role in God’s kingdom. Instead, he was using prophetic symbolism the Jews knew well to give them the message that he was sent by the God of Israel, to call them to a new and living way of salvation. Just as old Jerusalem was founded on the twelve patriarchs, the new Jerusalem was founded on the twelve disciples.

Furthermore, the coming of the kingdom of God brought a new credential system. Forever expunged was the man-made notion that sons were the only ones to receive an inheritance or have authority in the name of God. In God’s kingdom, no longer would race, socio-economic status, or gender determine one’s place, because “. . . in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith . . . There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26, 28).

We are all chosen. We are all one in Christ. We are all disciples who have been commissioned to serve, vested with the authority of the King, and mandated to go and make disciples. When we realize that Jesus’s purpose in choosing who would be counted among the Twelve was not to create a model for church leadership, we are free to fully empower women to fulfill that commission and to serve in any capacity to which God has called them.


  1. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 192.
  2. Bailey, 193.
  3. Bailey, 193.
  4. “Mishnah Sotah 3:4,” Sefaria, accessed 28 October 2021.

Photo by Barney Yau on Unsplash.

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Setting the Stage for Equality: Welcoming Women’s Voices on Christian Platforms
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The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership