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). 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.
Many women were in this group, but in each of the four Gospels only three women near the cross are identified.
~ Matthew identifies Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph (or, Joses), and the unnamed mother of the sons of Zebedee.
~ Mark, in his parallel account, lists Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph (or, Joses), and Salome. And like Matthew, Mark adds that many other women (allai pollai) from Galilee were near the cross with them (Mark 15:40-41 cf. Mark 16:1).
~ John also lists three women: Jesus’ mother, her sister Mary the wife of Clopas, 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).
Mary Magdalene is the only woman included in each list.
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.
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. These women fulfilled the criterium for discipleship given in Luke 14:33: “In the same way, therefore, every one of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.“
Female Disciples in Matthew 12:46-50
Matthew 12:46-50 mentions female disciples.
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.
Mary and Martha and their Teacher
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 and learn what he was saying (Luke 10:42).
In a different story, Martha tells Mary that Jesus has arrived in town. Martha says, “The Teacher (didaskalos) is here” (John 11:28). John had previously explained in his Gospel that didaskalos (a Greek word) is a translation of rabbi (a Hebraic word) (John 1:38). Jesus was their teacher, their rabbi. Mary and Martha were his students, his disciples.
Galilean Women who Heard and Remembered
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.
Mary Magdalene and her Master-Teacher
Finally, in John 20:16, there is a touching scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. They speak together and Mary calls Jesus “Rabboni” which is Aramaic for “my master-teacher.” Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ closest female disciples.
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, Salome, 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.
 “Many women”: The Greek word here, pollai, is the feminine plural form of polus. This word means “much,” “many,” “plentiful,” etc.
 The identity of Salome is unclear and debated. Even though she is listed with the name “Salome” only in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 15:40-41 & 16:1), some believe she is also mentioned in either Matthew’s or John’s lists of the woman at the cross, By comparing the lists, it has been suggested that Salome is the mother of the sons of Zebedee (James and John) in Matthew 27:55-56. Others suggest she is the sister of Jesus’ mother mentioned in John 19:25, Mary the wife of Clopas, an aunt of Jesus. Still others believe that the Salome in Mark’s list may have been one of Jesus’ sisters. Salome was a popular name for first-century Jewish women, and a disciple of Jesus named Salome is mentioned in several apocryphal Christian documents. More on Salome here.
 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 overseer 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)
 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)
 In reference to Luke 8:1-3, Dorothy Lee notes that Jesus’s “companions fall into two parallel groups: the Twelve and the Galilean women.” Dorothy A. Lee, The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 47.
 “Whether as unmarried women or widows, or as married women operating independently of their household system, the women are present in the itinerant band of Jesus’ followers.” John T. Carroll, Luke: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 182.
 Both Luke 8:3 and Luke 14:33 contain a neuter plural participle of hyparchō meaning “possessions/ belongings.” (cf. Luke 12:33).
 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.)
 Mary and her sister Martha were not Galilean; they lived in Bethany near Jerusalem and may have hosted Jesus many times. (Mary of Bethany is often confused with Mary Magdalene in early Christian documents.)
 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, Luke 6:13-16 and Acts 1:13. 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).
In John’s Gospel, the word “disciple(s)” occurs frequently but only a few people are identified as disciples. One of these is Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38).
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.
Excerpt of The Three Marys at the Tomb by Peter Cornelius, painted between 1815 and 1822. Public Domain (Wikimedia)
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