A disciple is an apprentice who learns from the master, and Jesus had women among the many who hung on his every word in his three years of earthly ministry, welcoming his teaching them in a new way about God. Luke 8 tells us there were women among those who travelled from Galilee with Jesus. Most of these female disciples were drawn from families of fishermen or subsistence farmers in the north of Palestine, but others such as Joanna and Susanna came from households with more resources and were an essential part of supplying his support team. As unusual as this was, it apparently gave no cause for scandal and illustrates how comfortable they and Jesus’ other disciples were in this mixed company, taking their cue from Jesus’ own attitude. It was some of these women disciples who were later entrusted with the earth-shattering good news of Jesus’ resurrection and commissioned to share it with the other disciples. Gospel writer John singles out Mary Magdalene as the first to encounter the risen Christ and give witness to his living reality (20:11-18). This was in a society where a women’s testimony was not acceptable in court. Moreover, Mary Magdalene was known to have had a chequered past.
Earlier in his travels, Jesus had already shown unusual acceptance of women – of the ‘sinful’ one caught in adultery, the haemorrhaging ‘unclean’ woman healed of a 12-year flow of blood who was not supposed to be out in public; the ostracised woman at the well in Samaria; the Gentile woman pleading with him to heal her child, the woman (maybe two) who let down their hair in public to anoint and wipe his feet. This was greatly countercultural in a strongly patriarchal society whose religious leaders modelled a very low view of women and ascribed to the Talmud teaching: ‘Do not speak excessively with a woman lest this lead you to adultery.’
In the episode in Samaria, we can see the surprise of Jesus’ disciples coming back from fetching lunch and finding him speaking at length to a disreputable woman. In his friendship with Mary and Martha, unmarried women living with their brother in Bethany, Jesus again challenged the contemporary view of women. He engaged Martha in theological debate and in one notable interaction he specifically commended Mary for wanting to learn at the feet of the Master. The ethos of the time said women should not be exposed at all to the holy Scriptures nor expect to learn in the same way men did.
First-century Palestine is not our world, and so we often do not notice how radical Jesus’ actions and words were. In a patriarchal society, he clearly did not treat women as second-class people or dangerous to his purity. He welcomed them into his circle and defied the restrictions his culture and the hyper-religiosity of the Pharisees imposed on them. He raised the eyebrows of those observing him. They were quick to see he was offering women a different way to think about themselves. His enemies even tried to use his known sympathy for women to trap him, expecting him to condemn the woman caught in adultery.
Mary, Jesus’ mother, followed Jesus’ public ministry, often puzzled by what he was doing. But she was clearly a disciple, at the cross silently witnessing the gruesome spectacle of her oldest son dying in a most shameful way. She was also with other women among Jesus’ loyal followers in the upper room praying after his ascension. Presumably, these women were also there when the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost.
Given the attitude of the founder of the Christian faith, it is not surprising that Acts records the early church having many women contributing to the rapid spread of Christianity as, under the impetus of the Holy Spirit, the church moved its focus from Jerusalem and the apostles’ leadership to Antioch and the rest of the Roman world.
Some commentators point to Jesus’ choice of males to be ‘The Twelve’, his inner circle. Having been present with Jesus in his early ministry, these apostles had an important role representing the 12 tribes of Israel in witnessing to his teaching and life-death-resurrection. But in the transition from a Jewish Jerusalem-centred faith to a whole world Gospel, other leaders emerged, most notably Barnabas, Paul, Silas, James (Jesus’ brother), Titus and Jude, to name some whose names we are familiar with. And among them were women leaders and teachers such as Phoebe, Prisca (Priscilla), Lydia, Junia, and Philip’s four prophesying daughters.
For further reading on women in the New Testament, see
Woman in the Bible: An Overview of All the Crucial Passages on Women’s Roles by Mary Evans (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2006)
Every woman in the Bible by Sue and Larry Richards (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999)
Questions in this series:
1. How do we read the Bible to decide what to do today?
2. What principles of interpreting Scripture should we apply to understand the passages that are used to limit women’s leadership in the church?
3. What roles did women play in the early church?
4. Did Jesus have female disciples?
5. Does the Holy Spirit give spiritual gifts to all Christians?
6. How can men pave the way for women to have greater opportunities in the church?
7. Why is it important to hear women preach and teach Scripture?
8. I am uncomfortable with the fact that women are restricted from leading and teaching men in my church. What advice can you give to help me raise this issue at my church?