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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.
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 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, 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, and 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).
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 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 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
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 call them “disciples” (cf. Acts 9:36).
One 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.”
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).
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—Jesus had told these women (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 and Joanna, among others.
Finally, in John 20:16, Mary Magdalene calls Jesus “Rabboni” which is Aramaic for “my master-teacher.” 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.
 “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 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).
 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 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)
 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.)
 Mary and her sister Martha were not Galilean.
 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.
Postscript 1: 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.
Postscript 2: Papias of Hierapolis on the Four Marys in the Gospels
Papias was the bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia around the middle of the second century. He was a disciple of John the apostle who had lived in Ephesus in later life, and he was a friend of Polycarp the bishop of Smyrna. Papias wrote a five-volume work known as Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord which survives only as a small number of quotations (“fragments”) in other works. This is what he allegedly wrote about the four Marys in the Gospels.
(1) Mary the mother of the Lord; (2) Mary the wife of Cleophas or Alphæus, who was the mother of James the bishop and apostle, and of Simon and Thaddeus, and of one Joseph; (3) Mary Salome, wife of Zebedee, mother of John the evangelist and James; (4) Mary Magdalene. These four are found in the Gospel. James and Judas and Joseph were sons of an aunt (2) of the Lord’s. James also and John were sons of another aunt (3) of the Lord’s. Mary (2), mother of James the Less and Joseph, wife of Alphæus was the sister of Mary the mother of the Lord, whom John names of Cleophas, either from her father or from the family of the clan, or for some other reason. Mary Salome (3) is called Salome either from her husband or her village. Some affirm that she is the same as Mary of Cleophas, because she had two husbands.
Fragments of Papias, 10. (Source)
Excerpt of The Crucifixion by Nathaniel Currier c. 1849 (Wikimedia)
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