A popular question has been posed for a while now in contemporary American society: “What would Jesus do?” The theology behind the question suggests that, perhaps, in the absence of explicit teaching, or as further explanation thereof, if one were to discern how Jesus reacts or handles a situation, because of the utter consistency of Jesus’s character and mission, one might find instruction for how to do likewise in one’s own life. It is based on the simple call and invitation that Jesus gives to his disciples: “Follow me” (e.g., Matt 4:19; Mark 2:14; Luke 9:59; John 1:43). Jesus proclaims good news: the kingdom of God is at hand. And, with that, a new world order is established. Those who follow him are called to demonstrate and embody the values, tenets, and principles of the kingdom. His followers often represent those who, transformed by the healing and restorative ministry of Jesus, then choose to commit their own lives to faithful service of Jesus Christ. These followers are also known as disciples. They not only learn the teachings of Jesus, but also fully embrace his teachings by applying them in their daily walk.
Because Jesus provided no explicit teaching with regard to the roles of women in ministry, his position on the topic can best be ascertained by observing his actions and listening to his words as he interacts with the women in his world. No doubt, he was regarded as a radical nonconformist in his treatment and elevation of women. But, upon close inspection, we see that Jesus’s actions fully align with his message of liberation and equality (Isa 61:1–3). In general, Jesus demonstrates fair and equitable treatment to women and men alike. He heals men and women alike. He delivers both women and men from spiritual bondage. And Jesus invites both men and women to serve in and actively participate as members of the kingdom of God being established here on earth.
Historically, most of the attention has been placed on the Twelve, those men whom Jesus hand-selected and who came to be emblematic of the twelve tribes of Israel. But there is another group equally committed and ever present in the ministry of Jesus simply known as the women “who followed him from Galilee” (Matt 27:55; Luke 23:49, 55). Luke brings them to everyone’s attention in the eighth chapter of his gospel. And, although Luke only records the names of a few, apparently they were many in number. These women were distinct from the crowds that often gathered around Jesus. They were disciples who followed Jesus literally from Galilee to Jerusalem. They responded to the teaching, preaching, and healing ministry of Jesus by answering the clarion call of “whosoever will” (Luke 8:21). They committed themselves to learning from Jesus and to serving him. Most notably, Luke comments that these women even chose to support Jesus financially out of their own means. And, while some would try to negate or minimize their role in the ministry of Jesus, Parambi Baby points out that these women characterize the unique nature of the discipleship of Jesus, including a “direct call from Jesus, an immediate and literal following behind Jesus leaving all earthly ties in keeping with doing the will of God [which] were considered basic features of the discipleship of Jesus.”1 And, while some may argue that their call was not imbued with the same specificity as the twelve apostles, neither was the call of those who comprised the “seventy-two,” of whom it is quite likely these women were a part.
So, who were those women who moved in the liberating freedom that they now found in the message of Jesus? A few names can be gathered in Luke 8:1–3, and a few others were recorded by the other gospel writers in their accounts of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Luke described some of them as women who had been cured of illnesses or delivered from evil spirits. Some were wealthy and some were poor. Some were single and some were married. They crossed the gamut of class, age, and status. Whatever the situation, these women committed themselves to living out and sharing the gospel message of redemption. So, who were some of the women disciples whose names have been recorded in the gospel narratives?
The first woman Luke mentions is Mary Magdalene, who, without a doubt, exhibited incredible devotion and leadership among this group. Because her “surname” (as we consider it), Magdalene or Magdala, is the name of her place of origin, historians assume that she is not married, or possibly divorced or widowed. Luke describes her as the one from whom seven demons had been cast out. The number seven may indicate the degree of her malady in that it had completely overwhelmed or overpowered her. Yet, her complete devotion to Jesus stands against her previous condition of bondage. She embodied faithfulness in service by staying close to Jesus and ministering to his needs.2
Mary Magdalene traveled with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry in Galilee, and her allegiance propelled her onward by his side to Jerusalem. She is placed by all four gospels at the crucifixion (Matt 27:55–56; Mark 15:40–41; Luke 23:49; John 19:25). Furthermore, she is noted as being at the tomb when Jesus’s body was laid inside and is one of the first at the tomb on the morning of his resurrection. Mary Magdalene has the unique distinction of being commissioned on that day by an angel, as well as by Jesus himself, to go and tell the others. Often called “the apostle to the apostles,” Mary was chosen by Jesus to see his appearance first and gave her a message to tell his brothers and the others (Matt 28:8; Mark 16:10–11; Luke 24:9–11; John 20:18). She “was the one woman disciple of Jesus who was universally known in the early church and most tenaciously remembered in the traditions as a witness of the empty tomb.”3 Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan notes that her name almost always appears first among the named women, “an indication of her position of leadership with regard to women, at least.”4 Her life vividly illustrates the restorative power of Jesus Christ across all dimensions of one’s life. For Mary Magadalene, as well as for many others, healing by Jesus resulted in “faithful ministry as well as social reintegration, leadership, and recognition.”5
Another prominent woman within the group of female disciples is Joanna, the wife of Chuza (Cuza). Her husband was an administrator of the household estate of Herod. As members of the aristocracy, they served within the Herodian court at Tiberias, the city that Herod Antipas had founded.6 Luke 9:7–9 indicates that news about Jesus was spreading all around the tetrarch’s court. Whether Joanna was merely influenced by the talk or actually helped to spread the message of Jesus is not known. What is known is that she chose to follow Jesus, to travel with him, learn from him, and commit financially to him. The social cost this aristocrat woman endured for the sake of the ministry of Jesus is almost unfathomable. Richard Bauckham notes the ignominy:
Joanna in the Romanized Herodian court at Tiberias, and to gauge the remarkable nature of the step she took in associating herself so closely with a group of people, Jesus’ disciples, who were in the eyes of her social circle, almost despicably inferior, while at the same time in their eyes, she deserved not the esteem given to social superiors but contempt given to this particular ruling elite by ordinary Galilean people.7
Yet, she remained committed to Jesus until the end. Luke records that Joanna was one of the women who witnessed the empty tomb on resurrection morning, saw the angel inside the tomb, and reported with Mary Magdalene to the Eleven and to all the others (Luke 24:1–10).
Joanna most assuredly was one of the women who supported Jesus’s ministry financially. But, as a patron of the ministry, she carried out her role in a fashion atypical of patron-client relationships. Instead of Jesus Christ being beholden to her, she committed herself to serving him completely. Her discipleship is truly emblematic of the radical role reversal between those who rule and those who serve that Jesus speaks of in Luke 22:25–27. One should note that a patron who serves represents the order of the new kingdom of God on earth.8
As a side note, some scholars contend that Joanna’s role in ministry continued on into the early life of the first-century church. Some have speculated that Joanna is also the same person as Junia, who is mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:7. Then, Chuza would probably be Andronicus, indicating that he too was converted to “the Way.” Joanna may have followed the practice—common for Hebrews during that time in an effort to assimilate more fully with the dominant Roman culture—of taking on Latin names that tended to sound similar to their Jewish names.9 Whatever the case, Joanna’s discipleship demonstrates that the kingdom of heaven is available to all who are willing to place themselves in humble submission to Jesus and to serve one’s fellow humans.
Susanna, Mary of Clopas, Mary mother of James, and Salome
The third woman mentioned in Luke 8:3 is Susanna. Apparently, she, too, followed Jesus from Galilee. Sadly, not much is known about her. Her name was unusual in that day, which may account for why the gospel writer did not add any additional descriptor or “surname,” and many scholars assume that she was also among the aristocracy. Nevertheless, it is important to affirm that the ministry of Jesus depended on the generosity and courage of women like Susanna who chose to do more than simply state their belief, but also committed themselves wholeheartedly to the work of the kingdom.
The next three women appear in the Synoptics looking from a distance at the cross of Jesus. Yet, John 19:25 states that Jesus’s aunt, Mary of Clopas, was standing near the cross next to his mother and Mary Magdalene. Linguistic idiomatic analysis suggests that she is either the wife or unmarried daughter of Clopas.10 The likelihood of her being unmarried is slim, because Jewish customs would not have permitted an unmarried young woman to be in such a public place. Clopas, an extremely rare name, is possibly Jesus’s uncle, the brother of Joseph. Hegesippus, a second-century writer, notes that the successor of James as head of the church was Simon, son of Clopas.11 Bauckham speculates that Clopas is probably the same person to whom Luke alludes, a companion of Simon on the road to Emmaus, to whom Jesus appeared.12 Jesus’s family members were prominent in the leadership of the early Christian movement.
Another woman at the cross is Mary, the mother of James (the younger) and Joseph (also known as Joses). Because of the commonness of the name Mary, there is a great deal of confusion around her identity. Some have speculated that she is Jesus’s mother, because the list of the names of her sons is similar to that of Jesus’s mother in Mark 6:3. Others believe that she may be the same person as Mary of Clopas based on a reading of John 19:25–27. In Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40, she is mentioned as being present at the crucifixion. Though she was possibly a member of Jesus’s family, her familial relationship was subordinate to the spiritual relationship. The “family of Jesus” became synonymous with those who would follow him as opposed to those who might have claimed a natural familial connection (Luke 8:19–21; 11:27–28).13 Even within Jesus’s own family and in his ministry, he underscores that, within the kingdom of God, family values are reconfigured based on faith and obedience as opposed to bloodlines and patriarchal hierarchies.14
And, finally, Salome is also named as one of the women disciples. Mark 15:40 and 16:1 place her at the crucifixion and as a witness of the resurrection of Jesus. Quite enigmatic, she has inspired many speculations about her identity. Early church tradition and extracanonical literature would purport that she is either Jesus’s sister or the midwife who witnessed the birth of Jesus.15 Another legend asserts that Salome is the daughter of Herodias who danced for Herod, leading to the death of John the Baptist. If so, she demonstrates in her discipleship that characters can change. As F. Scott Spencer notes, “The bottom line resulting from Mark’s ‘composite and complex image’ of fallible followers is that ‘discipleship is both open-ended and demanding; followership is neither exclusive nor easy.’”16
One other supposition is that Salome may be the same person Matthew refers to as the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matt 27:56). If so, this is the first time she is named. Her discipleship could then be understood as a demonstration of the necessity of drinking from Jesus’s cup in overcoming her maternalistic ambition looking toward her own future heartache and the martyrdom of her sons (Matt 20:22).17 However, the text does not prescribe that Salome and the “mother of Zebedee’s sons” have to be the same person, nor does it dictate that she is not. The reality is that “many women” were present. One explanation for the difference between Mark and Matthew’s naming here may be “that Salome, though known by name to Mark’s readers, was not known to Matthew’s church.”18 Ultimately, the audience of that time would have understood that the inclusion of Salome’s name was a validation of the authority of her apostolic witness.
Significance of the women disciples
The phrase “many others” in Luke 8:3, and those mentioned in the crucifixion narratives of each gospel, indicate that the women disciples of Jesus were substantial. They were committed to travelling with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. Like the Twelve, they left the comforts of the familiar and the security of the traditions. Comparing Luke 6:13–16 and Luke 8:3, Bauckham states, “The principal point is what was said equally of the twelve and of the women: that they were ‘with’ Jesus as he traveled around proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.”19 Yet, the female disciples stand in sharp contrast at the cross to the male disciples who had scattered. The women continued to honor and serve Jesus as they prepared spices for his body upon burial. And the witness of the female disciples provides the connection from the cross, to the grave, and, ultimately, to the resurrection. Their own transformed lives connected them to Jesus and the kingdom in a powerfully liberating way that speaks volumes as to what Jesus would do related to women in ministry.
Each gospel writer expresses a particular nuance of the significance of Jesus’s interaction with women in general, and/or specifically with the women disciples. Looking first at Matthew, we see some women are highlighted as models of service, faith, and love by their actions that certainly align with discipleship, although, in the first twenty-six chapters, there is no distinct evidence of women “called” as disciples.20 Matthew 27:51b–56 would suggest that the presence of the women who followed Jesus to the cross from Galilee implies their discipleship.21 But the greatest evidence of the women’s significance as disciples is that they are entrusted with the primary witness to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.22 Bauckham notes that women receive revelation separate from the men at the resurrection. They receive it first. He explains, “The women’s priority is really a kind of positive discrimination that, by reversing the normally expected priority of one gender over the other, has the effect of ruling gender privilege out of the new order the resurrection appearances constitute.”23
Luke provides the most comprehensive view of the women disciples. While it may appear that their ministry is distinct and possibly less public than that of the men, it is no less ongoing and vital. Eventually, Luke’s gospel will show that the women have the same apostolic qualifications as the men. Luke provides a balanced view of male/female service, as Barbara Reid explains: “both women and men are fallible followers of Jesus; both women and men have gifts and qualifications to be engaged in the mission.”24 Luke conveys that, although they may be distinct in their service, the women are definitely part of the larger body of disciples that includes the Twelve who follow Jesus, as opposed to being simply a secondary support group. This inclusion principle continues in the cross and resurrection accounts. Again, Luke records that the women report to the Eleven and the rest, he includes them in the testimony of the travelers on the road to Emmaus as “some of our women,” and most certainly they are a part of those in Luke 24:33 who are gathered with the Eleven in Jerusalem. Bauckham maintains that, therefore, they do not need a separate commissioning, since “they belong fully to the whole group of disciples Jesus commissions.”25 Finally, literary analysis of the placement of Luke 8 before the parable of the sower indicates that Luke sees the women as those represented by the seed that fell on good ground.26 Of the four gospel writers, perhaps Luke is most in tune with the plight of women, as they are given greater prominence in his writings than in the other accounts.
For example, one has to look to Mark’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection narratives for his best picture of the women disciples. While he highlights their presence versus the men who are obviously absent, the oldest manuscripts of Mark end abruptly with the women actually running away in terror. Do they ignore the command of the angel to tell the others? Some scholars suggest that this was only an initial reaction. Others suggest that their terror and silence speak to them falling back into their traditional roles as Jewish women. Furthermore, because they had lived a marginalized existence, silence may represent their most natural reaction.27 Yet, their fear at the end of this gospel account may actually point back to the beginning of Mark to show that there is no reason to fear, because Jesus has displayed within these women the power to heal, raise the dead, and set captives free. As Susan Miller comments, “He records accounts of women who live their lives in such a way that the kingdom of God is revealed in the earthly context.”28 Ultimately, women and men are contrasted in the Gospel of Mark to show a composite view of discipleship as having failures and successes. Women disturb the patriarchal honor and hierarchical authority, but, through their lives of service, they regenerate the community of faith.29
In John’s gospel, women in general have a more archetypal presence, with Mary Magdalene being the archetype of female discipleship. Jesus’s mother represents the community of believers who live counterculturally. So, when Jesus, on the cross, tells John to take care of his mother, he is really reaffirming John’s responsibility to continue Jesus’s work of establishing the kingdom of God on earth.30 Mary Magdalene would be expected to share in that responsibility as indicated by her presence. Jesus’s desire is that the relationship he has had with women, built on trust, openness, and respectful consideration of the other, be maintained as the ministry of the kingdom continues.31 Karen Thiessen states,
“We are left with an implicit commentary by John, who portrays women as active, innovative ministers of the Kingdom. . . the Johannine Jesus affirms them in roles that were unusual and often unacceptable within that culture. Jesus’s approach to women was in such contrast to that of his culture that we can assume a deliberate modeling of a new way of relating to women.”32
So, with respect to women, one might ask, “What is it that Jesus is doing in the gospels?” The answers are fairly straightforward, but have incredible reverberations in light of the cultural norms of his day. Jesus taught women and allowed them to participate in theological discussions. Jesus allowed women to travel with him and participate fully in his ministry as disciples, ultimately commissioning them as witnesses of his resurrection. Women were acknowledged by Jesus for their examples of servanthood, and Jesus affirmed their place in the kingdom as equal participants. Furthermore, without being demeaning or judgmental, he ministered compassionately to the needs of women. He treated men and women alike with respect to their shortcomings and encouraged them equally in their faith. Simply stated, Jesus talked to and befriended women.
But all of this must be placed in its historical/cultural context for one to begin to decipher how Jesus’s actions shattered the chains of the patriarchal systems of male dominance. Within the Jewish tradition of Jesus’s time, women were first and foremost considered to be the property of a man.33 They were typically excluded from any formal education, although some rabbis ignored the tradition and taught their daughters in private. Men and women ate separately, as conversations between the sexes were highly discouraged. The presence of women travelling with men was completely unprecedented.34 Counter to rabbinic tradition, Jesus freely associates with women. Jesus’s ministry clearly transcends the limitations placed on women by the Jewish culture.
The willingness of Jesus to accept women and to teach and train them as disciples was seen as quite revolutionary. He demonstrates in his ministry that the kingdom of God did not operate according to the old patriarchal system, which tended to suppress women. As a social reformer, Jesus allowed women to expand and operate in new areas of giftedness, including leading, teaching, and serving together with their male counterparts. For those women and many women still today, the gospel message that Jesus represents is one of “liberation and equality.”35 One writer suggests that “Jesus, in contrast, showed little interest in direct action to modify social conditions of women—or of men, for that matter. Yet his teaching on adultery and divorce among other subjects, not only addressed moral issues in a radical way but in effect raised the level of women’s dignity and security.”36 Jesus’s primary concern was for the spiritual development of his disciples. For women, he taught that their true identity is found in God, not as the property of men. He validated their apostolic witness, which allowed men and women to share as proclaimers of the good news.37 And through the utilization of women as teachers and preachers of the gospel, Jesus demonstrates that the kingdom of God is breaking in and that a new world order is now in operation.
Therefore, as the kingdom of God is being realized daily here on earth, women and men are both called to share in the ministry as full participants. Their witness should speak to what it means to be re-created in the image of God with shared responsibility for serving each other and worshipping God through a life dedicated to obeying Jesus’s teachings. The lesson is the importance of mutual respect, compassion, kindness, and love that Jesus expects among his followers and between the sexes living as the children of God.
Angela Ravin-Anderson hosts the “Intersectionality: Where Race, Gender, and Religion Collide” segment of CBE’s podcast, Mutuality Matters. Check it out here and subscribe!
- Parambi Baby, The Discipleship of the Women in the Gospel according to Matthew: An Exegetical Theological Study of Matt 27:51b–56,57–61, and 28:1–10 (Rome: Gregorian University Press, 2003), 211.
- Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan, Women in the New Testament (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2001), 184.
- Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 237.
- Getty-Sullivan, Women in the New Testament, 183.
- Getty-Sullivan, Women in the New Testament, 185.
- Bauckham, Gospel Women, 137.
- Bauckham, Gospel Women, 161.
- Bauckham, Gospel Women, 163–65.
- Bauckham, Gospel Women, 165–86.
- Bauckham, Gospel Women, 205–07.
- Hegesippus, Fragments from His Five Books of Commentaries on the Acts of the Church, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/hegesippus.html, accessed March 2014.
- Bauckham, Gospel Women, 208–11.
- Getty-Sullivan, Women in the New Testament, 173–76.
- F. Scott Spencer, What Did Jesus Do? Gospel Profiles of Jesus’ Personal Conduct (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2003), 35.
- Bauckham, Gospel Women, 226–34.
- F. Scott Spencer, Dancing Girls, Loose Ladies, and Women of the Cloth: Women in Jesus’ Life (New York, NY: Continuum International, 2004), 49–51.
- Getty-Sullivan, Women in the New Testament, 176–77.
- Bauckham, Gospel Women, 236–37.
- Bauckham, Gospel Women, 112–13.
- Baby, The Discipleship of the Women, 100.
- Baby, The Discipleship of the Women, 134.
- Baby, The Discipleship of the Women, 163.
- Bauckham, Gospel Women, 278.
- Barbara Reid, Choosing the Better Part: Women in the Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1996), 132–34.
- Bauckham, Gospel Women, 282–83.
- Loretta Dornisch, A Woman Reads the Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1996), 91–94.
- Victoria Phillips, “The Failure of the Women who Followed Jesus in the Gospel of Mark,” in A Feminist Companion to Mark, ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2001), 234.
- Susan Miller, Women in Mark’s Gospel, (New York, NY: T & T Clark, 2001), 199.
- Hisako Kinukawa, “Women Disciples of Jesus (15:40–41; 15:47; 16:1),” in A Feminist Companion to Mark, ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2001), 190.
- Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary: Gospel of John (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998), 270.
- Jane Kopas, “Jesus and Women: John’s Gospel,” Theology Today 41, no. 2 (July 1984): 205.
- Karen Heidebrecht Thiessen, “Jesus and Women in the Gospel of John,” Direction 19, no. 2 (Fall 1990): 53.
- Vashti M. McKenzie, Not without a Struggle: Leadership Development for African American Women in Ministry, revised ed. (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2011), 7–12. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Lieffeld, Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present (Grand Rapids, MI: Acadamie, 1987), 45–47.
- Baby, The Discipleship of the Women, 214.
- Tucker and Lieffeld, Daughters of the Church, 46.
- Stanley K. Grenz and Denise M. Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), 71–77.