Jesus had many female followers - many!

Women at the crucifixion of Jesus (source unknown)

This article is also available in Hungarian (Magyarul)  here.

Women Near the Cross

I read Matthew 27:55-56 this morning and saw something I had not noticed before. There were many women at Jesus’ crucifixion—many (Greek: pollai).[1] I had previously imagined that only a few women had accompanied Jesus and made the trip all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, usually a journey of several days.

Even though many women were in this group, in each of the gospels only three women near the cross, or at the tomb, are named.

Matthew identified Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the unnamed mother of the sons of Zebedee.
Mark, in his parallel account, lists Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Salome[2], but he adds that many (pollai) other women from Galilee were near the cross with them (Mark 15:40-41 cf. Mark 16:1).
John likewise lists three women: Jesus’ mother, and her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas[3], and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25).
Luke does not mention women at the cross, but at the tomb, both before and after the resurrection. Luke also identifies just three: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother, or wife, of James, but he notes that there were other women with them (Luke 23:55-56 cf. 24:9-10).

Travelling Town to Town

Earlier in his gospel, Luke had mentioned certain women who had accompanied Jesus during his itinerant teaching and healing ministry. In Luke 8:1-3, he wrote that women travelled with Jesus and provided for him out of their own resources. Here Luke again identifies just three of the women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza, and Susanna—but adds (in verse 3) that there were many other (heterai pollai) women in this group.  

Many women were dedicated followers of Jesus during his ministry on earth. Some of these women seem to have been independent of fathers and husbands, and some were independently wealthy. These women left the relative comfort of their homes, travelled in rough conditions, and seemingly disregarded cultural conventions in order to faithfully follow and serve their Lord. There is little doubt that Jesus welcomed these women and valued their ministry, including their later ministry of being his witnesses to the people of Israel and beyond (Acts 13:30-31).

Jesus’ Female Disciples

The women who followed Jesus were his disciples. This fact is not always clear in the gospels, but it is spelt out by Jesus in an incident recorded by Matthew.

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
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.” Matthew 12:46-50 (Italics added.)

Kenneth Bailey comments on this text.

“In our Middle Eastern cultural context, a speaker who gestures to a crowd of men can say, ‘Here are my brother, and uncle and cousin’. He cannot say, ‘Here are my brother, and sister, and mother’. The text specifically affirms that Jesus is gesturing to ‘his disciples’ whom he addresses with male and female terms. This communicates to the reader that the disciples before him were composed of men and women.”[4]

On another occasion, Mary of Bethany sat at the feet of Jesus, taking the position of a disciple learning from their rabbi. Mary was behaving just as a male disciple would behave, and Jesus clearly approved (Luke 10:42). Near the end of his gospel, John records Mary Magdalene calling Jesus “Rabboni”, which is Aramaic for “my master-teacher” (John 20:16).[5] Mary Magdalene was not just a patron of Jesus, she was his disciple. She was also his friend.

Jesus’ Female Friends

Jesus did not shy away from female company. He had several, perhaps even many, female friends, women such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and Martha and Mary of Bethany. And he continually showed kindness and respect to the many other women he encountered during his ministry.

I’ve often pictured Jesus roaming around Galilee with just the Twelve, but on several occasions, at the very least, there were many women with him also. How many is many? 10, 20, 30, 40, or more? Did the women disciples outnumber the men? We can only speculate as to how many women were among Jesus’ followers (cf. Acts 1:13-14). One thing is certain, throughout the last two millennia, many more women have continued to follow Jesus and serve him. And Jesus continues to welcome their company and value their ministry.


Endnotes

[1] The Greek word here, pollai, is the feminine plural form of polus. This word means “much”, “many”, “plentiful”, etc.

[2] The identity of Salome is unclear and debated. She may have been the mother of James and John (the sons of Zebedee). Some believe she may have been one of Jesus’ sisters. Still others believe she was an aunt or a great aunt of Jesus.

[3] Some speculate that Mary and Clopas/Cleopas were the two on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-33, esp. Luke 24:18). But I have my doubts. What is more certain is that after the death of James (Jesus’ brother and the first bishop of the church in Jerusalem), a man named Symeon, who is identified as the son of Clopas, became the second bishop of Jerusalem. If Symeon’s father was the same Clopas as the husband of Mary, then Symeon was related to the Holy Family. When he was 120 years old, Symeon was tortured and martyred for his Christian faith. (Eusebius, Church History, 3. 32. 1-4)

[4] Kenneth Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Theology Matters, Vol. 6 No. 1 (Jan-Feb 2000) 2. (This paper can be read free and online here.)

[5] Rabboni (or rabbouni) is rabbon + a suffix which mean “my”. Rabbon is the highest title of honour for a teacher in the Jewish schools. Wesley Perschbacher, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990) 361.

Image: The women at the crucifixion (from a pageant put on in Sydney).


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