Women of Faith: In the Gospels (Part 2)
May 17, 2016
by Peter Amsterdam
Women of Faith: In the Gospels (Part 2)
(This is part of a series of four articles that explore the role of women within the New Testament, in order to shed light on the significant part they played in the beginnings of Christianity, as well as the importance of their role in the church today.)
In the previous article we looked at Jesus’ healing of women; His interaction with the Samaritan woman who became a witness; and His relationship with two sisters, one who sat at Jesus’ feet as a disciple and the other who acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. Now we’ll move on to read about other incidents which were indicators of Jesus’, and therefore His Father’s, attitude toward women.
Beginning with His portrayal of women as positive examples in His teaching, followed by depictions of the women who traveled with Him as disciples and were present at His crucifixion, and the women who were the first witnesses of His resurrection, we will see that women played significant roles in Jesus’ ministry.
In many of Jesus’ teachings, including the parables, female characters were featured as positive examples of those who responded to God with faith. In the parable of the unjust judge, He used a widowed woman’s persistence as an example of prayer and faith even when the answer doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. It’s interesting that He used this example, as Ben Witherington explains:
The aspect of this woman’s behavior that Jesus focuses on (her perseverance or persistence) is a characteristic that in a patriarchal society was often seen as a negative attribute in a woman.1
The disciples were told that being persistent in their supplications to God, as they waited for His return, would be rewarded with justice, as God would hear their prayers. Jesus made His point by using an example of a woman who persevered.
The parable of the lost coin,2 in which a woman loses one of ten coins in her house and seeks diligently until she finds it, is a parallel or “twin” to the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in order to find the missing one.3 In these two parables, the actions of both the man and the woman represent the actions of God as He seeks out those who are lost. Jesus considered the work of both people in these stories to be equally good analogies to describe how God finds the lost, and by using a woman as an example, He conveyed the message in terms women could relate to.4
In Matthew 13, we find analogies which show that men’s and women’s roles can be used equally as examples of the kingdom of God. In the parable of the mustard seed, a man sowed mustard seeds—which, though they are very small, produce a plant that grows large.5 Its twin parable, which follows directly after it, is the parable of the leaven, in which a woman puts a little leaven in three measures of flour, causing it to expand.6 Here again, Jesus uses two illustrations to make the same point: one that relates to men, and the other to women. Once again, He equates the work of both sexes to that of spreading the gospel, and portrays them as equal in value.
In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins7 (also known as the parable of the ten bridesmaids), Jesus commends some women (the wise), and condemns others (the foolish). This parable is directly followed by the parable of the talents, in which some men are rewarded and others are condemned. In the story of the talents, the judgment is based on the men’s labors; in the story of the wise and foolish virgins, it’s based on what is and isn’t done during the waiting period. While all of the women sleep as they wait for the bridegroom, upon hearing the cry, Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him,8the five wise women who had taken flasks of oil with them went into the marriage feast; while the unprepared women, who had to go buy more oil, were not let in. Jesus used the wise women as good examples and the foolish as bad examples. A similar judgment was made against the man who didn’t invest his talent. Jesus treated the subject of judgment with equivalent examples of both men and women.
Besides raising the son of the widow in Nain, as seen in the previous article, we read of His ongoing concern regarding widows when He was exposing the sins of the scribes whom, He said, “devour widow’s houses.”9 Witherington explains this phrase this way:
To devour a house is a technical phrase in extra-biblical Greek sources for bilking someone of their funds or property. How were the scribes doing this? The most common suggestion is that the scribes were taking advantage of the kindness and hospitality of well-to-do widows beyond all reasonable bounds. A more likely view holds that these scribes, as a trade, were legal managers of well-to-do widows’ estates, and were taking more than their fair share of the expenses for the tasks … The widows’ trusting nature is contrasted to the scribes’ deceitful and avaricious practices. Jesus is stepping forward as a strong advocate of oppressed or abused widows.10
One day, while sitting in the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus watched people putting money into the offering box. He saw many rich people putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins. Jesus specifically called His disciples over and drew their attention to the woman, saying:
Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.11
It’s understood that He wished to use her as an example of self-sacrifice. He may also have been highlighting the relationship between material possessions and discipleship, which He also addressed in other instances, such as when He told the rich young man to sell his possessions and give to the poor if he wanted to follow Him,12 when He instructed His disciples to not lay up treasures on earth for themselves,13 and said that those who don’t give up their possessions couldn’t be disciples.14
All four Gospels tell of a group of women who followed Jesus in Galilee, and on to Jerusalem, and were present at His crucifixion.
He went on through cities and villages, proclaiming 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 seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.15
Mark’s Gospel speaks of the women present at Jesus’ crucifixion, and says of them: When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him.16 The Greek word akoloutheō, translated here and 75 other times in the Gospels as follow, most commonly means following in the sense of being a disciple.
For a Jewish woman to leave home and travel with a rabbi (teacher) was unheard of. The fact that women, both respectable and not, traveled with Jesus and His male disciples was scandalous.—As were many of the things that Jesus said and did. Yet scandalous or not, these women followed Jesus as His disciples.
As seen above, Mary Magdalene is generally listed first when female followers of Jesus are mentioned by name.17 She therefore seems to have been prominent among the women who followed and served Jesus, from the onset of His ministry in Galilee to His death and beyond.18 Joanna was a woman of some means and prominence, being married to the household manager of King Herod. Nothing is known about Susanna. Luke’s listing of only three women is understood as saying that these three were the most prominent, but not the only women disciples who traveled with Jesus.19
It’s interesting to note that it wasn’t the twelve apostles who were the witnesses to Jesus’ death (it seems only one was there), but rather Jesus’ women friends/disciples. All four Gospels attest that the women were present:
There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.20
The Gospel of John is the only Gospel which mentions a man being present, and it’s in connection with a woman. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!”21
In the Gospel of Mark, the discipleship status of the women who were at the cross is shown in three ways: they followed Him when He was in Galilee, indicating that they had been disciples for the most part of His ministry; they ministered to Him; and by being at the cross and at His tomb, they were witnesses of the most crucial events in Jesus’ life—His death, and later His resurrection. By portraying their discipleship, Mark is showing that these women are among the reliable witnesses to the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
All four Gospels report that some female disciples of Jesus were the first to visit the empty tomb, and the first to be told that Jesus had risen. Mary Magdalene and another Mary saw which tomb Jesus was laid in.22 After the Sabbath, on the first day of the week, they returned to the tomb with spices to anoint Jesus’ body.23 They found the stone rolled away, Jesus’ body was gone, and an angel told them He was risen.24
In three of the four Gospel accounts of the resurrection, Jesus first appeared to women.
So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.25 [Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.26 Having said this, [Mary Magdalene] turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus…. Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).27
All of the earliest disciples were witnesses to Jesus' resurrection in that they saw Him alive after His crucifixion, but women were the first. The fact that the Gospel writers told of women being the first to discover the empty tomb is often cited as being a significant argument for the Gospel accounts being true. Since women were generally not considered reliable witnesses in the first century, the Gospel authors wouldn’t have drawn attention to women as witnesses unless their testimony was true.
Throughout the Gospels, we see that Jesus overturned the view that a woman’s place was limited to the home and put forward that they had a place in both public and religious life as well. We read of His interaction with women, how He featured them as positive examples in His teaching, of women being proclaimers of His message, of their correct understanding of who He was, and of their witnessing His death and resurrection. All of this lays the foundational understanding that in the eyes of God and in His kingdom, and in spiritual matters, women are equally valued and have equal standing with men. Through Jesus, the old patriarchal religious order was beginning to move aside and be replaced by the new kingdom understanding of the value and equality of women.
This concept was understood by Jesus’ early followers, and was promoted and enacted in the early church. From Pentecost forward, women played important roles within the church, as is seen in the book of Acts and the Epistles, which we will cover in the next article.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 37.
2 Luke 15:8–10.
3 Luke 15:4–7.
4 Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 39.
5 Matthew 13:31–32.
6 Matthew 13:33.
7 Matthew 25:1–13.
8 Matthew 25:6.
9 Mark 12:40.
10 Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 17.
11 Mark 12:43.
12 Matthew 19:21–23.
13 Matthew 6:19–21.
14 Luke 14:33.
15 Luke 8:1–3.
16 Mark 15:41.
17 Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47, 16:1; Luke 24:10.
18 J. D. Barry et al., eds., Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2015).
19 Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 118.
20 Mark 15:40–41. See also Matthew 27:55–56; Luke 23:49; John 19:25.
21 John 19:25–26.
22 Mark 15:47.
23 Mark 16:1.
24 Luke 24:1–9; Mark 16:4–7.
25 Matthew 28:8–9.
26 Mark 16:9.
27 John 20:14,16.