Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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 are identified.

~ Matthew identifies 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 other women (allai pollai) from Galilee were near the cross with them (Mark 15:40-41 cf. Mark 16:1).

~ John likewise lists three women: Jesus’ mother, 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 many other women with them (Luke 23:55-56 cf. 24:9-10).[4]

Travelling Town to Town

Earlier in his Gospel, Luke had mentioned certain women who had accompanied Jesus and the Twelve during Jesus’ 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 that there were many other women (heterai pollai) in this group.

In reference to Luke 8:1-3, Dorothy A. Lee notes, “The implication is that those accompanying Jesus are also participants in that proclamation. His companions fall into two parallel groups: the Twelve and the Galilean women.”[5]

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 were independently wealthy. These women, like the male disciples, had left everything to follow Jesus. They had left their families and the relative comfort of their homes and put their wealth at the disposal of Jesus’ mission. They travelled in rough conditions and seemingly disregarded cultural conventions in order to faithfully follow and serve their Lord.

There is little doubt Jesus welcomed these women and valued their ministry, including their ministry of being his witnesses to the people of Israel and beyond (Acts 13:30-31).

Jesus’ Female Disciples

A close reading of the Gospels reveals that at least some of the many women who followed Jesus were his disciples even though the Gospel writers never plainly call them “disciples” (cf. Acts 9:36).

We have seen that some of Jesus’ female followers had given up everything to follow Jesus, even their possessions and wealth. These women fulfilled the criterium for discipleship given in Luke 14:33: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (ESV, italics added).

Another pertinent text is Matthew 12:46-50:

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.” (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.[6]

On another occasion, Mary of Bethany was sitting at the feet of Jesus, taking the position of a disciple learning from their rabbi (Luke 10:39; cf. Acts 22:3 KJV). She was behaving just as a male disciple would behave. Jesus emphatically commended Mary’s decision to sit at his feet and to listen to what he was saying (Luke 10:42).[7]

Later in Luke’s Gospel, the angels say to the Galilean women at Jesus’ tomb,

“He is not here; he has risen! Remember how [Jesus] told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again’” (Luke 24:6-7, italics added.)

This is followed by, “Then they remembered [Jesus’] words” (Luke 24:8, italics added.) We are told that Jesus had only told his disciples what would happen to him; it is apparent that women were among these disciples. (See Matt. 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-29; Mark 8:31; 9:30-32; Luke 9:22; 17:25; 18:33-34.) These female disciples included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and others.

Finally, in John 20:16, Mary Magdalene calls Jesus “Rabboni” which is Aramaic for “my master-teacher.”[8] Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ closest female disciple as well as one of his patrons.

Jesus’ Female Friends

Jesus did not shy away from female company. He had several, perhaps 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.


Footnotes

[1] “Many women”: 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. Even though she is listed with the name “Salome” only in Mark 15:40-41 & 16:1, some believe she is also mentioned, but not named, in Matthew’s and John’s lists of the woman at the cross, By comparing the lists, it has been suggested that Salome is identified as the mother of the sons of Zebedee (James and John) in Matthew 27:55-56. This is plausible. What is less plausible is that she is the sister of Jesus’ mother mentioned in John 19:25, an aunt of Jesus. (This sister may be Mary the wife of Clopas.) Still others believe that the Salome in Mark’s list may have been one of Jesus’ sisters or a great aunt of Jesus.
If Salome was the mother of the sons of Zebedee, then she is the woman who asked Jesus that her sons James and John sit on either side of him in his kingdom (Matt. 20:20-23).
Salome was a common name for Jewish women, and a disciple of Jesus named Salome is mentioned in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, along with Mary Magdalene. This may be the same Salome mentioned in Mark’s Gospel. This woman had proven her fidelity and devotion by following and ministering to Jesus in Galilee and at the cross and beyond (Mark 15:40-41 & 16:1).

[3] Because of the Greek grammar (kai X2) there are three people in this list, not four: Mary, the wife of Clopas, is the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Some speculate that Mary and her husband Clopas/Cleopas were the two on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-33, esp. Luke 24:18). But I have 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] The named women were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ death and burial (entombment), named women were also the first witnesses of his resurrection (cf. Deut. 19:15). Richard Bauckham suggests the variations between the lists are because the Gospel writers “were careful to name precisely the women who were known to them as witnesses to these crucial events in the origins of the Christian movement …” Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Second Edition (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006), 51. (Google Books)

[5] Dorothy A. Lee, The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 47.

[6] Kenneth Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Theology Matters, 6.1 (Jan-Feb 2000): 2. (This paper can be read free and online here.)

[7] Mary and her sister Martha were not Galilean; they lived in Bethany near Jerusalem and may have hosted Jesus many times. Also, in John 11:28, when Martha tells Mary that Jesus has arrived in town, Martha says, “The Teacher (didaskalos) is here.” Jesus was their teacher; they were his students, his disciples.

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

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Postscript: More disciples than just the Twelve

Some readers have baulked at the idea that Jesus had more disciples than the Twelve, let alone female disciples. But Jesus had many more disciples while he was on earth than the twelve disciples who are listed in Matthew 10:1-4, Mark 3:14-18 and Luke 6:13-16.  His twelve (male) disciples are usually referred to in the Gospels as either the “Twelve” or the “twelve disciples”, or, less specifically, as “disciples,” and, apart from Judas Iscariot, they would have a special role as being witnesses of Jesus. But the word “disciples” can also refer to a larger group of devoted followers who were trained by Jesus.

Luke indicates that Jesus chose the Twelve from this larger group of disciples: “When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles” (Luke 6:13). A few verses later Luke refers to a large crowd of disciples who had come to listen to Jesus (Luke 6:17f).

Some disciples are named in the New Testament, others like the person in Matthew 8:21 are not. Some disciples stopped following Jesus (John 6:66) but many stayed true. And a crowd of presumably more than twelve disciples enthusiastically welcomed Jesus when he entered Jerusalem a few days before his crucifixion (Luke 19:37, 39).

Furthermore, Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias, who we don’t hear anything of except in Acts 1, must have been disciples of Jesus. Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:23-26). Also in Acts, Ananias (a man) and Dorcas (a woman) are plainly called disciples (Acts 9:10, 36).

The author of Acts refers to many people as disciples. The word may be used in a less technical sense in Acts than in the Gospels. Nevertheless, Jesus had many disciples, and some of them were women. Jesus even had more than twelve apostles.

Image

Excerpt of The Crucifixion by Nathaniel Currier c. 1849 (Wikimedia)


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8 thoughts on “Jesus had many female followers – many!

  1. And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him. 28 But Jesus turning unto them said , Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.

  2. Thanks for this, Judy. I’m wondering, though, whether Jesus said this to his own female followers, who were mostly from Galilee, or whether he said this to other, local women who had come to see the spectacle of the cross. I can’t see that Jesus would tell his female disciples to weep for their children. Perhaps the women from Jerusalem were professional wailers (Luke 23:27ff). Later in chapter 23, Luke singles out the women from Galilee. These women were at the cross but stayed clear of the ruckus, and they later prepared Jesus’ body (Luke 23:49, 55-56). Just a couple of thoughts.

    Another thought: Considering that there were many women who accompanied Jesus during his earthly mission as disciples, I think it entirely likely that some of these women were among the 72 in Luke 10:1ff.

  3. I think it entirely likely that some of these women were among the 72 in Luke 10:1ff.

    I have ALSO wondered about that…not much attention is given to the 72…

  4. Me too! I believe there were likely women among the 72. Jesus stopped to teach women like the woman at the well and the Syrophoenician woman, and his parables always included the women. Of course there were women who wanted to follow Jesus!

  5. Marg, I know this is an older post, but I want to comment on it. I was reading the end of Luke today, and wondered about the unnamed disciple with Cleopas. On a side note, Cleopas is another example of another disciple in addition to the twelve disciples (and the unnamed person is also called a disciple). I read in your notes that you don’t think the unnamed disciple is Cleopas’s wife. But I am wondering if it’s possible that the unnamed disciple really is his wife. Assuming that Cleopas and Clopas is the same person, then Clopas’s wife was at the cross.

    1. It’s not impossible that Cleopas (Κλεoπας) and Clopas (Κλωπας) are the same person. But if they are, why is Mary, the wife of Clopas, mentioned among the group of Galilean women in John 19:25 with no mention of her husband? And if she was at the cross, was she not also among the Galilean women who went to the tomb and who discovered that Jesus was alive?

      I can’t imagine that Mary would have been downcast or sad (Luke 24:17b) on the very same day (Luke 24:13) that she had seen angels and been told by them that Jesus was alive (Luke 24:1-10). I imagine she would have been excited and hopeful.

      Luke 24:11 indicates that the men didn’t believe the women’s report, and Cleopas sounds unconvinced (Luke 24:22-24). But if Mary of Clopas was among the women, she would have known the report to be 100% true.

      All in all, I can’t quite connect the dots between Clopas and Cleopas.

      Also, the Greek word for “disciples” doesn’t actually occur in Luke 24, which is why I didn’t include Cleopas and his companion in my postscript. But they were probably disciples.

  6. I never realized that Jesus could have had female disciples! It always makes me thankful to think about how much Jesus valued and respected women. There is one thing I am wondering about though. I know Jesus told the twelve to preach, but do you think all of His disciples would have preached? I ask because I recently heard someone say that women are never described as preaching, but I wonder if Jesus’s female disciples might have. Or do you think it would have been impractical for women to preach, since not many people respected women?

    1. Hi Taylor,

      As a general principle, women have always been respected as prophetesses in Israel. Admittedly, prophecy and preaching are not the same thing, but the way many of us use the word “preach/preaching” is different from how the word is used in the New Testament.

      I’ve slowly been working on an article about “preach” words. Here’s a preview.

      ~ In the New Testament, only the apostle Paul and Noah are actually called “preachers.” The Greek noun that means “preacher”, kērux, literally means “herald” (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11; 2 Pet. 2:5).
      ~ The related abstract noun is kerugma. C.H. Dodd explains that the content of preaching (kerugma) was primarily concerned with the lordship and resurrection of Christ. Dodd defines preaching (kerugma) as “. . . the public proclamation of Christianity to the non-Christian world”. The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (Harper and Row, 1964), 261.
      Information on kerugma: https://biblehub.com/greek/2782.htm
      All occurrences of kerugma in the NT: https://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_2782.htm
      The proclamation of Mary Magdalene, “I have seen the Lord,” when the gospel was brand new, may be regarded as an example of New Testament preaching (John 20:17-18).

      ~ The verb for preach/proclaim, kērussō, and verbs with similar meanings, euaggelizomai and kataggellō, are used of the ministries of John the Baptist, Jesus, The Twelve, the Seventy-Two, Paul, and Paul’s unidentified companions, etc. (I need to find these verses back so I can cite them.)
      Information on kērussō: https://biblehub.com/greek/2784.htm

      There’s no doubt the Twelve preached. In Matthew 10, Jesus gives the Twelve several instructions including this: “As you go, preach/proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matt. 10:7; cf. Matt. 10:27). The Seventy-two were given the same message: Jesus told the Seventy-Two (which may have included women), “Tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:8-9)

      There’s no reason to think that when Paul says “we preached” it does not include women like Phoebe, Priscilla, Euodia or Syntyche who were his coworkers. Women such as Priscilla travelled with Paul. Women such as Euodia and Syntyche ministered with Paul in the gospel (Phi. 4:2-3). Women such as Phoebe represented Paul to others as his envoy (Rom. 16:1-2).

      Also, the way women were respected in the ancient world varied from city to city. In some cities, especially Roman colonies and cities in Macedonia, it wasn’t a problem for women to speak and lead in churches. Philippi was a Roman colony in Macedonia and we see women being leaders in the church. Philip’s daughters were highly respected in the church at Caesarea.

      Also, in at least some churches associated with Paul, men and women could contribute speaking ministries, sometimes spontaneously (1 Cor. 14:26 CSB; Col. 3:16.

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