Did women follow Jesus?
Yes! Jesus Christ had a high respect for women, often including them as positive role models of faith and dedication in his teaching and parables (see, for example, the widow of Zarephath who fed Elijah, Luke 4:25-26; and the woman who gave her two mites into the treasury, Mark 12:42-44). Although the New Testament accounts of the women who followed Jesus are limited in their number and scope, it is still clear that they played a role in Jesus Christ’s ministry.
From the very beginning, Mary, Elizabeth and Anna understood who the infant Jesus Christ was and testified of his ministry. Mary received angelic instruction that she would conceive a son who “will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31-33). Elizabeth, when the pregnant Mary visited her, “was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!'” (Luke 1:42). Likewise Anna, when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, saw the babe and “gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Although we have no record of any further part Elizabeth and Anna may have played as followers of Jesus Christ, Mary is present at, and facilitates, Jesus’ first miracle of turning the water into wine (John 2:1-11), at the cross where Jesus commends her to the apostle John (John 19:25-26), and is numbered among the Jerusalem members who met after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:14).
Throughout his mortal ministry, we also find a number of other women following Jesus Christ. As Luke begins his travel narrative he writes, “Soon afterward he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom were seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means” (Luke 8:1-3). Mary Magdalene seems to have been the leader of the women disciples because she is always mentioned first in the lists of women (see also Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; John 19:25). The description that these women “provided for them out of their means” indicates that they provided material sustenance for Jesus Christ during his journey. The word translated here as “provided” (diakone?) is, however, also used by Luke as a noun to describe the apostles’ “ministry (diakonia) of the word” (Acts 6:4). This usage by Luke may suggest that the women also participated in the teaching of the word. These women disciples are also conspicuously present at Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb, with Mary Magdalene being the first person to see the resurrected Jesus and the one to announce the resurrection to the disciples (John 19:11-18).
In addition, the gospels describe a number of other women whose faith led them to seek Jesus Christ. The Syro-Phoenician woman, although a Gentile, implored Jesus to heal her daughter who was possessed with a demon. Her commitment to Jesus, despite the initial negative response by Jesus and his disciples, resulted in Jesus declaring, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was immediately healed (Matt. 15:21-28). The woman with an issue of blood for twelve years, reached out to touch Jesus’ garment, even though she knew such an act would render him ritually unclean. Jesus, recognizing that “power had gone forth from him” immediately stopped and sought out the woman. He declared to her, “Daughter, your faith has saved (s?z?) you. Go in peace and be healed from your disease” (Mark 5:25-34).
Lastly, both the gospels of Luke and John also mention two sisters, Mary and Martha. John records, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister [Mary], and [their brother] Lazarus” (John 11:5). Luke says that Martha received Jesus into her home during the travel narrative part of his gospel when Jesus was journeying to Jerusalem. Jesus went into that home fully expecting to be fed since he and his disciples relied upon the generosity of others during this journey (Luke 8:3; 9:58; 10:4). While staying in the home, Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet, and listened to his teaching.” Some manuscripts include a relative pronoun in the sentence which would then read, Mary “also sat at the Lord’s feet,” (italics added) indicating that Mary joined her sister in listening to Jesus. In John’s gospel both sisters are prominent disciples. Martha, along with Peter, is a quintessential example of people who have testimonies of Jesus as the Christ. She declares, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who is coming to the earth” (John 11:27; cf. Peter’s declaration in John 6:68-69). Mary shows her devotion to Jesus be attentively listening to his teaching (Luke 10:39) and by anointing his feet with expensive ointment and then wiping his feet with her hair. Although Judas criticizes her actions, “Jesus said, ‘Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me'” (John 12:7-8).
After Jesus’ death, women continued to play an active role in his Church. Lydia and Chloe may have been patrons of house churches in Philippi and Corinth (Acts 16:14-15; 1 Cor. 1:11). Luke records that a significant number of women joined the Church (Acts 5:14; 8:12; 17:4, 12). Priscilla participated alongside her husband Aquila in teaching the gospel to Apollos (Acts 18:24-26; see also Rom. 16:3; 1Cor. 16:19). Although at times Paul chastises women members of the Church for their behavior (1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2:9-15), women do contribute through prayer and prophesying (1 Cor. 11:5; see also Acts 21:8-9), and it is a woman, Phoebe, “a servant of the Church which is at Cenchrea,” to whom Paul entrusts the carrying of his pivotal letter to the Romans (Rom. 16:1-2).
Ben Witherington III
“Jesus’ views of women and their roles do not fit neatly into any of the categories of His day. He was not a Qumranite, nor was he a traditional rabbi in these matters, though he had certain things in common with both groups. His use of women, both fictitious and real, as examples of faith for his followers, and His teaching on honouring parents, is not without precedent in rabbinic literature. His calling of men and women to radical commitment to God, in view of the breaking of the Kingdom, has certain affinities with the teachings of both John the Baptist and Qumran. Yet, on the whole, and especially in view of His Jewish context, Jesus appears to be a unique and sometimes radical reformer of the views of women and their roles that were commonly held among his people. Perhaps this is the very reason why the Third and Fourth Evangelists take pains to present various women as religious models for their audiences.”
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: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 126. Dr. Witherington III is Professor New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.