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I’m currently reading Kevin Giles’ book entitled Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians, and am learning some interesting things about apostles in the early church. For example, did you know that Jesus’ twelve disciples are rarely referred to as “apostles” in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and not at all in John’s Gospel?[1]

Today I read this paragraph in Kevin’s book which contains some interesting observations and thoughts about women and apostolic ministry:

[T]he Synoptic authors agree that it was women who first found the empty tomb. And Matthew and John record that Jesus first appeared to women. The encounter between the risen Christ and the women is drawn as a commissioning scene. The Lord says, ‘Go and tell my brethren’ (Matt. 28:10 cf. John 20:17).  The women are chosen and commissioned by the risen Christ as the first to proclaim, ‘He is risen’.

Raymond Brown believes it was John’s intent to give ‘a quasi-apostolic role’ to these women. Taking up Pauline qualifications for apostleship, John shows that the women fulfil the two basic requirements. They see the risen Lord and they are sent forth by him. (John never calls the Twelve or anyone else ‘apostles’.)

Brown also refers to the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4. In this narrative, he sees the Fourth Evangelist bestowing apostolic missionary status on this woman. She is depicted as the founder of the Samaritan church. He argues that the terminology is deliberately chosen: we have here ‘the most important use of the verb apostellein in John’ (4:38), as well as the comment that the Samaritan men believed because of the woman’s witness.[2]

In his book Gospel Women, Richard Bauckham likewise argues,

I think we can discern not the roles of Christian women in general, but the role of the specific women who witnessed the empty tomb and the risen Lord. These women, I think we can say, acted as apostolic eyewitness guarantors of the traditions about Jesus, especially his resurrection but no doubt also in other respects.[3]

I have commented elsewhere that I don’t think it was a coincidence that the first person to see Jesus alive after his resurrection was a woman. With Jesus’ death and resurrection, a new era began. A new creation was now possible (2 Cor. 5:17). In the new creation, the old paradigm of patriarchy and male primacy gives way to equality and unity of all people.

It is interesting that women played a part in some other significant kingdom firsts. As far as we know, the first Samaritan convert and evangelist was a woman, and the first person in Europe converted by Paul was a woman, Lydia. Women were involved in all kinds of influential ministries in the New Testament church, some as leaders, some as quasi-apostles, others as real apostles.


[1] The Greek word apostolos, transliterated as “apostle” in English New Testaments, means “messenger, ambassador, envoy.” The Twelve are referred to as “apostles” (apostoloi) only a few times in the Gospels: once in Matthew, once in Mark (twice in the Textus Receptus), five times in Luke, and never in John. (See Matt. 10:2; Mark 3:14 TR; Mark 6:30; Luke 6:13; 9:10; 17:5; 22:14; 24:10.)
“Many scholars [e.g. W. Schmithals (1969:98–110)] in fact argue that Jesus did not at any time call the twelve ‘apostles’ during his lifetime. … Did Luke introduce the title ‘apostle’ in his role as editor of the historical sources he used, or was it already there?” Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians (Collins Dove, 1989), 155, 157.
The word “apostles” is used many times in Acts, also written by Luke, where it sometimes includes, or refers to, more than the Twelve (e.g., Acts 14:14). I’ve included a list of all the New Testament people called apostolos in a postscript, here.

[2] Giles, Patterns of Ministry, 167. Giles refers here to Raymond E. Brown’s paper “Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel”, Theological Studies, Vol. 36 (1975), 688–699. Dr Brown’s paper can be read online here.

[3] Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids; Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2002), 295.

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Amber Rose Revah plays Mary Magdalene in the empty tomb scene in the 2014 movie Son of God.

Explore more

Women and Theology: “Jesus said to her …”
Apostles in the New Testament Church
What was the Job Description of Jesus’ Apostles?
Who was Mary the Magdalene?
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (John 4:1–42)
Jesus had many female followers – many!
I have articles on women who were church leaders in the New Testament, here.

11 thoughts on “The Apostolic Ministry of Gospel Women

  1. Is it possible that they were never called apostles in the way we use it today. Rather it may have more reflected that they were the 12 disciples who were specifically chosen as an inner circle of Jewish believers who were sent to spread God’s Good News to fellow Jews and the world and lay the foundation of the early church. Others of those sent by the Lord through the Holy Spirit were also sent to preach and gather believers and organize Christian communities. But the first 12 specially represented the whole of Israel recognizing the promised Messiah, believing in Him and following Him to do His first works within the New Covenant. I don’t see this as an office, which is the way it is presented today.

  2. I think you have a point there, TL. They drew lots to replace Judas but then never replaced James once he had been killed.

  3. yes, my pastor just noted that last Sunday. Has someone else spoken or written about that lately. Kind of interesting that both of you said almost the same thing. 🙂

  4. From what I’ve been reading, it is possible that Jesus never called the twelve disciples “apostles”, but that the church began calling them “apostles” later. The gospels were written decades after the events they record, and Luke may have used the word “apostle” anachronistically.

    I like this line from P.W. Barnett, “As to the ‘the Twelve’ we should regard them as a bridge between the beginnings of the ministry of the historic Jesus and the establishment of early Christianity . . .”
    “Apostle” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) p.47.

    More about the Twelve here.

  5. “They drew lots to replace Judas but then never replaced James once he had been killed.”

    OK now that is two people within 2 weeks that has said the exact some thing in almost precisely the same words. So who else has said this lately. 🙂

    Yes, Marg, that sounds reasonable. Good quote by Hawthorne and Martin too.

  6. I don’t know who has been saying it lately, but I include this info in an article on the Twelve which I posted in May 2012:

    “There is an obvious symbolism with the number twelve. Jesus himself makes a connection between the twelve disciples and the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:19-30). Jesus may have chosen twelve as a way of showing that his message, ministry and New Covenant was for all of Israel. When Judas died, his place was filled to keep the number of the apostles at twelve. But once the New Covenant had been inaugurated, and when the church age began with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and as more and more Gentiles joined the church, the significance of the Twelve was no longer relevant. After the death of James (Acts 12:1-2), there was no attempt to replace him in order to keep the number of apostles at twelve.”

  7. Yep, I’m familiar with these women and they’re entrepreneurial capacity to work in their communities to bring the gospel. It seems that complementarians read the scriptures with such blinkers on their thinking that they miss huge and obvious indicators of women ministering.

  8. Scholars who know their Greek should see the indicators in the language that these women were commissioned for ministry. Jesus is still commissioning women, as well as men, with his message.

  9. […] The Apostolic Ministry of Women in John’s Gospel […]

  10. […] (31) Be an eyewitness of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, and tell others about it: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Salome, and other Marys, etc. […]

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