The Significance of the Women Followers of Jesus [2000 words]
Jesus had a large group of men and women followers, who went with him all over Palestine, learning from him and following in his ways. According to both Luke and Mark the women in this group helped to support and care for the group from their own means. I will discuss whether these women should be regarded as true disciples and where they would have evangelised; what their support consisted of and their socio-economic status; and who some of them were and what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. In conclusion, I will also briefly discuss how their behavior may have been viewed by first-century Hebrew society.
One of the most significant factors about Luke 8:1-3 and Mark 15:40-41 is that it was ‘revolutionary, for that time, that women should follow a master.’ These men want their ‘readers to know who paid for “the Jesus movement” when it was small and vulnerable.’
As shown by the Q tradition, Jesus took the initiative in both deciding who would be his disciples, and in summoning women as well as men. While it was common for a ‘would-be male student to seek out an esteemed rabbi to teach him Torah,’ it was unusual that he called them to not only follow him physically, but to ‘leave behind home, family, and other comfortable ties.’
Meier believes that Luke ‘preserves a valuable historical memory in 8:1-3: certain devoted women followers accompanied Jesus on his journeys around Galilee and finally up to Jerusalem.’ Both men and women ‘who are naturally known to be his disciples’ were travelling with Jesus. While there are no explicit calls to women, ‘such devoted, long-term following is inexplicable without Jesus’ initiative or at least his active acceptance of and co-operating with the women who sought to follow him.’ A number of passages indicate the women followers were the equivalent of disciples, and there are multiple attestations of women also being present at the crucifixion. Although these women were undoubtedly genuine disciples, they may not have been called such because there was quite literally no feminine noun to describe them, either in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Koine Greek. Luke later uses the feminine form μαθήτρια to describe the devout Christian woman Tabitha, but not in relation to the women in 8:1-3.
Another text that confirms the presence and status of women as disciples is Matthew 12:46-50, where the crowd is addressed by Jesus as consisting of both males and females. As Bailey says, ‘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” because this would be culturally discontinuous.
The essence of discipleship is identified as being ‘to accompany Jesus and to witness his ministry,’ with the further expectation that they were to speak publicly about what they had seen and heard, which these women were doing. Female disciples ‘were expected to be faithful and attentive students, something which was expected of, but rarely fulfilled by, the male disciples.’
It is likely that these women would have had many opportunities to proclaim the good news, and capture the hearts and imaginations of ‘other women as they met with them around village wells, in market squares, and in the homes of Galilee.’ At these times and locations they would undoubtedly have passed on the images and parables Jesus used ‘to communicate his message to his women listeners on as deep a level as to his male followers.’ As can be seen, these women were as much disciples as the men were.
The women’s financial support of Jesus’ ministry was vital, and enabled the movement to continue. There has been much discussion regarding the meaning of the words used by Luke.
Luke 8:1-3 and Mark 15:40-41 attest that a number of women accompanied Jesus in his travels around Galilee and up to Jerusalem, providing the necessary economic support for both Jesus’ itinerant ministry and that of the twelve disciples, who would have had no opportunity to work, and so no income of their own. Most of the male disciples appear to have come from the lower socio-economic strata of Galilee. Sim proposes that most of the women were also from the ‘lower and poorer strata of Jewish society … the majority of them were probably single (unmarried women, widows, divorced women and, with less certainly, former prostitutes)’ who would have had some personal and economic independence. He further posits that ‘a general pooling of resources took place, each woman contributing what she could to a common fund.’
Sim argues that the phrase ‘these women were helping support (διηκόνουν) them out of their own means (ἐκ τῶν ὑπαρχόντων αὐταῖς),’ when taken in context, has the clear sense of the women providing financial support from their own possessions, rather than its usual meaning of ‘serving’ or ‘ministering’. Cohick identifies διηκόνουν to be ‘tightly connected with the idea of serving under orders, functioning as a go-between or emissary,’ not an inferior or demeaning activity, and being used here in a purely profane manner, not connected with ‘ministering’. Bauckham argues that Luke makes a generalised statement that focuses on the many women (πολλαί) who could and did share their possessions and material resources. While Witherington comments that ‘some of these women could give only their time and talents, perhaps in making meals or clothes,’ and some of the women may have made other sorts of contributions, this is ignored by Luke. It is unlikely that these women, having given up their traditional roles to follow Jesus, would have the inclination or supplies to be making clothes or working a loom.
In the ancient world ‘women were economically more vulnerable’, so their contribution can be seen as a particularly significant expression of their faith in Jesus and his mission. A Jewish woman had ‘seven possible sources of independently disposable property’ as enumerated by Bauckham. While a married woman retained ownership of her possessions, her husband was granted the privilege of usufruct (mKet 4:4, 8:1), which restricted her use of it. In contrast, ‘women of single status were not so restricted’, and they enjoyed some financial independence. If an unmarried woman had no brothers she could inherit money or property, (Num 27:8, mBB 8:2-4) which she could then sell or give away as she desired (mKet 4:4, 8:1); Widows ‘were entitled both to be maintained by the husband’s estate (mKet 11:1, 12:3) and, more importantly, to the full amount of the Ketubah (mKet 4:2, 5:1) over which they had full control (mKet 11:2).’ ‘All divorced women … resumed the right of disposition of their own goods.’
A number of women, including Mary, mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Suzanna, and Mary and Martha of Bethany are clearly identified as being in some way single; they are either unmarried, divorced and not remarried, or widowed and not remarried, and who would have therefore had control over their personal possessions.
However there are also two women who were almost certainly married. The first is Joanna, wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, who was probably of aristocratic stock, and may have come from Tiberius. While Sim says she should not be considered representative of the women disciples, and was probably not able to contribute much to the cause, as her husband retained the right of usufruct, Luke obviously considers her to be a major contributor to the cause, as she is mentioned by name. There is no evidence to show whether Chuza accompanied his wife, or was a follower of Jesus.
Bauckham identifies Clopas and his wife Mary as ‘disciples of Jesus who travelled with him from Galilee on his final journey, and subsequently became prominent members of the early Jewish Christian community in Palestine.’ He believes it is plausible that given the existing social restrictions on the sexes mixing, ‘a husband-and-wife missionary team would find it easier to reach both sexes with the gospel.’ This couple would almost certainly have been included in the seventy-two, and may indeed have been the two disciples in the tradition on which Luke’s Emmaus story is based.
Mary and Martha of Bethany were two women who remained at home providing support and hospitality for Jesus and the twelve. Jesus taught them within the privacy of their own home. They and their brother Lazarus were among Jesus’ closest intimates. Mary is the only woman identified as having become a disciple of Jesus during his life: ‘And [Martha] had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.’ She is praised for having chosen the better portion (μερίδα) ‘because she chooses instead to sit (like a good disciple) at the feet of Jesus, listening to his word,’ rather than be ‘distracted’ (περιεσπᾶτο) from these teachings by her domestic duties.
Jesus replies to the meaning of Martha’s words in her complaint, rather than their content; her sister has chosen as her portion the ‘right to continue her “theological studies” with Jesus as one of his disciples.’ ‘Mary the sister of Martha represents for Luke one of the ideals of discipleship: listening to and treasuring the word of God.’ Bailey believes that in a Middle Eastern context Martha is probably more upset that her sister is breaking protocol and ‘is seated with the men and has become a disciple of Rabbi Jesus,’ than because she is not receiving help serving.
While Sim argues that hospitality ‘was probably the exception rather than the rule’ based on the Q tradition, and Bauckham states that ‘regular hospitality for all of the large following Luke envisages is unlikely to have been available’, other scholars believe that this would not necessarily have been the case for the women. While travel around the Galilee and environs would not have been quick or easy due to the challenging topography, geographically the area is quite small, and Cohick states that ‘the towns were as close as a day’s walk, and villages would open their homes for relatives. Female disciples would have found appropriate shelter.’ Dunn takes this further, saying ‘the larger the entourage, the larger the network of family relations’, and thus the greater likelihood that the women would have had a safe place to sleep overnight. While travel through Samaria could be dangerous, hence the use of the route through the Wadi Qelt to Jerusalem, ‘in comparison to Judea, Galilee during the adult life of Jesus was on the whole peaceful.’
Much is made of just how shocking the behavior of Jesus’ female followers was, but it has to be asked if this was actually the case on the ground. The ideal notion of the educated elite, represented by the writings of men such as Ben Sira, Philo and Josephus, was that women were inferior to men, capable of beguiling, deceiving and seducing them. Their ideal was that ‘a woman’s sphere of influence or importance in the legal sense was confined to her connection to her family, her faithfulness to her husband, and her domestic responsibilities,’ and to tasks which were confined to the home. They prescribed similar ideal behaviour for men; to ‘avoid contact with women who were not their wives’, and avoid sexual relations with other women.
However it is likely that they present an idealised picture that ‘does not necessarily represent historical reality.’ That women were engaging in business outside the home, and coming into contact with men on a regular basis in the street and marketplace, was acknowledged by rulings recorded in the Mishnah, and as such, must be seen as a fairly normal part of daily life. Ilan lists a number of ways in which tannaitic-Pharisaic halakhah was ignored or bypassed in first-century Palestine.
While the majority of women would have accepted that their primary role and means of self-expression were child-rearing and homemaking, they and their husbands must also have seen themselves and their roles in a far more positive light than Ben Sira and his ilk, or they would not have passed on Torah traditions to their children as required by halakhah.
In conclusion, we can say that the Synoptic Gospels confirm the presence of women who should be regarded as disciples, both among those who travelled with Jesus and the twelve, and provided hospitality in their own homes. These women supported Jesus’ ministry from their own funds, and were with him at his crucifixion and resurrection. Part of Jesus’ teaching was to show a different way of looking at the world. It is likely that he was successful in this, as while the presence of the women followers would have caused the disapproval and condemnation of many, and been ‘contrary to the ethos of Ben Sira,’ Jesus’ disciples appear to know better than to question their rabbi regarding his interactions with women, as seen in John 4:27 – “But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
Bailey, Kenneth E., “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View.” Theology Matters. Vol. 6, No. 1, (Jan/Feb 2000).
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. IVP Academic, Downers Grove, Illinois. 2008.
Bauckham, Richard. Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids MI, Cambridge UK. 2002.
Cohick, Lynn H. Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI. 2009.
Dunn, James D. G. Jesus remembered. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. 2003.
Feldman, Louis H. and Meyer Reinhold. Jewish Life and Thought Among Greeks and Romans: Primary Readings. Augsberg Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN. 1996.
Ilan, Tal. Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine: An Inquiry into Image and Status. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody Massachusetts, 1995.
Lloyd, Jacqueline. “The Women Who Followed Jesus,” Stimulus. Vol. 20, Issue 2, (July 2013); Issue 3, (November 2013).
Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume 3: Companions and Competitors. The Anchor Bible Reference Library. Doubleday, New York, New York. 2001.
Meyers, Carol L. Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. Oxford University Press, New York, New York. 1988
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Neusner, Jacob. The Mishnah: A New Translation. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. 1988.
Ricci, Carla. Mary Magdalene and Many Others: Women Who Followed Jesus. Translated from the Italian by Paul Burns. Fortress Press, Minneapolis. 1994.
Sim, D.C. (1989), “The Women Followers of Jesus: The Implications of Luke 8:1-3”. The Heythrop Journal, 30:51-62, accessed 9 April 2014, http://dx.doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.1989.tb01112.x
Witherington III, Ben. Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A Study of Jesus’ Attitudes to Women and their Roles as Reflected in His Earthly Life. Cambridge University Press. 1984. Cambridge UK.
Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2. Fortress Press. 1996
FOOTNOTES [with comments from Alastair Brown]
 Carla Ricci, Mary Magdalene and Many Others: Women Who Followed Jesus. Translated from the Italian by Paul Burns. Fortress Press, Minneapolis. 1994. 53.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. IVP Academic, Downers Grove, Illinois. 2008. 193.
 John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume 3: Companions and Competitors. The Anchor Bible Reference Library. Doubleday, New York, New York. 2001. 50, 72.
 Ibid. 54.
 Ibid. 72.
 Ibid. 76.
 Bailey, Kenneth E., “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View.” Theology Matters. Vol. 6, No. 1, (Jan/Feb 2000). 2.
 Meier. 78.
 Mark 15:40-41, 47; 16:1-8; Matt 27:55-56; Luke 8:1-3; 23:49, 55; John 19:25.
 The words ‘disciple’ and ‘disciples’ existed in Hebrew and Aramaic only in masculine forms: talmîd and talmîdîm in Hebrew; talmîdā and talmîdayyā (determined states) in Aramaic. In Koine Greek, mathētēs is masculine. [incorrect: talmidā is feminine]
 Acts 9:36.
 Meier. 79.
 Bailey. 2008. 192. [correct in Arab culture. Incorrect in Jewish culture – Hebrew plurals include both masculine and feminine, and to fail to acknowledge mother and sister, in that order, would have been, and remains to do so, is a minor violation of the commandment to honour ones parents - plural] NB Bailey bases his information on his experiences with Middle Eastern Arabs, particularly in the 1940’s and 50’s – the cultures are NOT the same].
 Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids MI, Cambridge UK. 2002. 112.
 Luke 12:8.
 D.C. Sim, (1989), “The Women Followers of Jesus: The Implications of Luke 8:1-3”. The Heythrop Journal, 30:51-62. , accessed 9 April 2014, http://dx.doi:10.1111/j.1468-2265.1989.tb01112.x.60.
 Jacqueline Lloyd, “The Women Who Followed Jesus”. Stimulus. Vol. 20, Issue 3, (November 2013). 27.
 Bailey. 2008. 194.
 Sim. 52.
 Ibid. 55.
 Ibid. 53. [But then Sim also discounts the fact there was at least one, if not more, women present from Herod’s own household.]
 Luke 8:3.
 Sim. 52-57.
 Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI. 2009. 312.
The use of this word meaning ‘serving’ can be seen in Luke 10:40, although Martha could also be seen as acting as the ‘host’ or ‘maître d'’ between the kitchen staff and her guests.
 Bauckham. 115.
 Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A Study of Jesus’ Attitudes to Women and their Roles as Reflected in His Earthly Life. Cambridge University Press. 1984. Cambridge UK. 193-196. [Bauckham and Witherington couldn’t make up their minds if they tried, and in fact Witherington changes his mind a number of times in this book, and others]
 Lloyd. Volume 20, Issue 3, November 2013. 30.
 Bauckham. 121.
The seven sources are: An inheritance from her father if he died without sons; a deed of gift; her kettubah; her dowry; maintenance from her dead husband’s estate; inheritance from the husband of a childless marriage; money earned by working for payment.
 Sim. 54.
 Ibid. 54.
 Ibid. 54.
 Luke 8:3.
 Bauckham. 137, 141.
 Sim. 52-54.
 Bauckham. 212.
 Bauckham. 217.
Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1. Disciples sent out in pairs.
 Bauckham 216.
 James D. G. Dunn, Jesus remembered. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. 2003. 536.
 Ibid. 535.
John 11:1-46; Luke 10:38-42.
 Tabitha (Dorcas) is called mathētria (disciple) in Acts 9:36.
 Luke 10:38.
Meier. 123 (n. 134) ‘See Luke’s description of Saul/Paul being educated in Torah at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), also in later rabbinic literature, e.g., m.ʾAbot 1:4.’
 Bailey. 194.
 Ibid. 193.
 Meier. 80. (cf Luke 2:19, 51; 11:27-28)
 Bailey. 2008. 193.
 Sim. 52.
 Ibid. 52.
Matthew 8:20 and parallels: Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
 Bauckham. 114.
 The total area of Lower Galilee was only about forty by thirty-five kilometres.
Lloyd. Volume 20, Issue 2, (July 2013). 11.
 Cohick. 222.
 James D. G. Dunn, Jesus remembered. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. 2003. 534.
 Meier. 618.
 Witherington. 2.
 Tal Ilan, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine: An Inquiry into Image and Status. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody Massachusetts, 1995. 226.
 Ibid. 226.
 Ibid. 186.
 mHal 2.7; tHal 1.8; yHal 2.7, 58d, mBQ 10.9, etc
 Ilan. 227.
 Meier. 54.