There is an old saying: “Behind every successful man there is a good woman helping him.” When thinking of Jesus Christ, one probably remembers his disciples, all men, mentioned in the Scriptures, who followed him and helped build his ministry. One may be surprised to find that women played a part, not only in his ministry—but his life.
According to Women in the Ministry of Jesus, by Ben Witherington III, during the time of Jesus, “a woman’s sphere of influence was confined to the connection to her family, her faithfulness to her husband, and her domestic responsibilities.” The status and cultural view of women, at the time, can be summed in a prayer that reads: “I am glad that I was not born a woman.”
Throughout the gospel of Luke there are examples of how Jesus, in his treatment of women, defied tradition.
• Chapter 8:1-3, he accepts women into his inner circle.
• Chapter 10:38-42, the story of Mary and Martha, he teaches one sister while the other struggles to fulfill her traditional domestic obligations.
• Chapter 13:17, he calls a woman, whom he has just healed of an eighteen year infirmity, a “daughter of Abraham”. Although Jesus’ critics reprimanded him for healing her on the Sabbath, he does so in order that she might hold a place of honor where the “sons of Abraham” ruled.
In the fourth chapter of John, which describes Jesus’ encounter of the Samaritan woman, He violates three traditional rules of the time by 1) not possessing a cup or bucket when he stops at a well, 2) talking to a Samaritan when Samaritans and Jew were considered enemies, 3) and most significantly, talking to a woman in public—especially a women who has had five husbands.
The Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John list women who followed Jesus during his ministry. According to Luke, these women had been healed by Jesus and helped support him and the disciples “out of their own means.” These Gospels lists Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleophas, Joana the wife of Herod Antiphas’ steward, Chuza, Sussana, and many others not named who followed Jesus’ works and preaching.
It is not clear what the “means” these women had. They probably had domestic roles such as cooking, serving food, and getting water from wells. Though women are not mentioned in particular Scripture passages, they probably helped when it came to the feeding of the five thousand. Women possibly served in other ways such as speaking with other women and tending to children who shyly came with questions.
Women may have provided financially to Jesus ministry. Donating money to rabbis was not uncommon. Where and how these women would have owned money and property is not clear. Single women would have had better access to these resources than married women, whose husbands and fathers would have had to support them. Jesus’ charismatic power as a preacher would be proved, if it inspired women to go against the norms they had been taught, sell their valuables to provide monetary funding, and then followed him.
Though women are seldom mentioned during Jesus ministry, they are mentioned in each of the four gospels at his crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection.
Each Synoptic Gospel, at the crucifixion, mentions women at the foot of the cross.
• Matthew lists Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the
mother of Zebedee’s children.
• Mark also denotes Mary Magdalene, names Mary the mother of James the
younger and Joses, and a woman named Salome followed him to Jerusalem,
were in his presence.
• John lists Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary (his mother’s sister) the wife of Clopas,
and Mary Magdalene stood by his side until his death and through his
• Luke simply says “the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee who mourned for him, prepared spices and perfume, but rested on the Sabbath.”
Each Gospel mentions women, witnessing Jesus’ empty tomb, along with the presence of Mary Magdalene. Though she alone is mentioned in John, she is named with Mary the wife of Clopas in Matthew, with Mary the mother of James and Salome in Mark, and with Joana and Mary the mother of James in Luke.
Finally, there is the proof of Jesus’ resurrection: his appearance. In Matthew, he appears to Mary Magdalene and Mary the wife of Clopas. In John and Mark, he appears to her alone.
The fact that Jesus appeared to any woman after his death is significant for two reasons: women of the time were not to be taken seriously as reliable witnesses and Mary Magdalene has been established as a controversial figure—a prostitute.
Gives the traditions of the time, Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene seems contradictory. Since she is mentioned soon after Luke’s account of an unnamed sinful woman’s acceptance of forgiveness (Luke 7:36-50) from Jesus, a few early priests concluded Mary Magdalene was this same woman and this idea became popular with fourth century evangelists—though there has been no other evidence found in Scripture support it.
The most specific information given about Mary Magdalene, in the Synoptic Gospels, is that she is mentioned fourteen times more often that any male follower and that she was a “woman whom seven demons were chased out.” These gospel writers do not tell how these demons were driven out or what these demons were, though the number “seven”, a number associated with mysticism, is suggestive.
After witnessing the empty tomb, encountering the angels, and seeing his body missing, the disciples are summoned. They see for themselves his body is missing and then go back to their homes. The story could end with disciples, the men, as witnesses to these events–but doesn’t.
It suggests that, perhaps Mary Magdalene was destined to play a starring role in Jesus’ life. Maybe there was a reason she was emptied of “seven demons,” to be filled with the life transforming love of God through His son as she walked with Him on the roads to Galilee.
It would not be wrong to say that she, unbidden, out of love, made the journey to the tomb, to properly prepare him in funeral arraignments as a final token of her gratitude for accepting her when other, during her life hadn’t. Imagine the horror and heartbreak she must have felt when she saw his body missing. Imagine her joy when she witnessed the risen Lord himself as he told her to give the message, to his disciples, that he was in fact alive, though they themselves had seen the empty tomb–a role that does not fall on one of the twelve disciples—but on a woman.
No mention of the women in Jesus life would be complete without mentioning Jesus mother, Mary. Though prominent in the story of Jesus birth, mentioned at the foot of the cross with “the disciple that Jesus loved,” and worshipped by the Roman Catholic Church, there is little information in the Scriptures about her. According to tradition she is renowned for prompting her son’s first miracle and remembering all the things that the shepherds had reported to her on the night of his birth.
Denying that women were part of Jesus ministry, when the Synoptic Gospels say otherwise, would be foolish. Jesus thought that women should be treated equally in this world–and the next. From this, we can conclude that Jesus ministry were not only open to a select few—but to everyone. The women devoted to Jesus were good women who supported him, loved him—and obviously thought he was a good man.