Chinese Theological Review 17

Women Disciples of Jesus

Chen Kuanrong

Three women appear in the gospel of Mark in the description of Jesus' passion and this is the first time so many women are introduced in Mark by name (Mk.15:40). From the beginning of this gospel right up until this point, the writer describes a number of women, but except for Herodius, who plots the death of John the Baptist (6:14-29), and Mary, Jesus' mother (6:3), they are not named. Most of these women are mentioned in conjunction with their menfolk: Simon's mother-in-law (1:29), Jairus's daughter (5:23), the daughter of the chief priest's servant (16:16), etc. Some others are mentioned because of their special circumstances: the woman afflicted for twelve years by the flow of blood (5:25), the widow who gives her two mites (12:42), the woman who brings the jar of costly ointment (14:3), etc. Why doesn't Mark name these women? Mainly because he was deeply influenced by the male-cen-tered biases of the society of the time, and perhaps also because he planned to highlight the special character of the male disciples in his writing. 1 Munro goes further in saying that there are in fact many lively examples of women in the gospel, but that Mark deliberately suppresses and hides women. 2 Her view may be exaggerated. I think Mark was simply limited and influenced by his times. It is hard to imagine the people of Mark's time accepting a Jesus who interacted with women and had women followers. To enable people to hear and accept Jesus' good news, he had to adapt to the standards of his time and culture.

The first time Mark introduces these women is when Jesus has been nailed to the cross and he goes on to mention them three times: when Jesus is being nailed to the cross, they are standing far off watching (15:40); when Jesus is buried, they keep watch over the tomb (15:47); early on the first day of the week, they see the risen Lord (16:1). They were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, along with Salome. The Bible tells us that the Lord had once banished seven devils from Mary Magdalene (Lk.8:2; Mk.16:9). As for the other Mary mentioned here, James may be Alphaeus' son, and thus the James the younger who was one of the twelve. Some believe that this Mary is Mary the mother of Jesus, for James and Joses are also mentioned among Jesus' brothers (Mk. 6:3). Salome is very probably the mother of the sons of Zebedee mentioned in Matthew 27:56. But who were these women really? I won't go too much into this. They are not mentioned at all in the first portion of Mark's gospel. We cannot know what their relationship to Jesus was, or their backgrounds. At the conclusion of Mark's gospel, the author simply says, "These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem" (Mk.15:41).

Here we see that these women who have been named must be the core persons of this larger group of women, as Peter, James and John were the core of the disciples (see Mk.5:7; 9:2; 14:33). This may suggest that these three women had a similar status and reputation to the three male disciples. Dewey asks why Jesus did not appoint these women as disciples. Perhaps because in preaching his message so that people would hear and accept it, he had to adapt to the cultural standards of his time. 3 From the time Jesus began to preach until his death, in many incidents in his life, Mark records his relationship to women, but in nearly every case, we see nothing of their responses or speech. In Mark's general sense of followers, there were certainly both males and females, those who "followed him," and "surrounded him" certainly included many of both genders. However, as Jesus walked to the cross, it was only the women who risked their lives to accompany him. Mark uses the term "disciple" forty-six times, at times specifically to mean the Twelve, but in the majority of cases to mean the followers of Jesus. Thus, the gospel suggests that Jesus did not only have twelve disciples, but a host of them, including women. Jesus' women disciples are part of this group. As Jesus' life is coming to an end, Mark mentions these women three times in a row; if this is not consistent with what has gone before, it is because Mark is conscious of the fact that they are extremely important to the resurrection event. They are eye witnesses to Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. We can say that they are the most authoritative witnesses to the incarnate Son of God, Jesus. I will discuss their roles further below.

Watching over Jesus

"There were also women looking on from a distance, among them were ... and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem" (Mark 15:40-41).

When the Lord Jesus was filled with authority and glory—in healing the sick, driving out demons and teaching the crowds—the male disciples were much in evidence, following closely beside him. When he prophesied his death three times, they strongly denied Jesus' destiny on the cross. They could not face reality; in fact they wanted to avoid it. When Jesus was put upon the cross, they fled. They could not measure up to the women, who watched and saw clearly. Some of them had not even seen what had happened yet. But this group of women, because they had been following Jesus closely, saw when Jesus was nailed to the cross (15: 40); saw when he was buried (15:47); saw that the stone at the door of the tomb had been rolled away and saw a young man there (16:4-5); they saw the place where Jesus had been laid (16:6); and they saw the risen Lord (16:9). They saw the most significant times in Jesus' life: when he was crucified, died, was buried and rose again. These crucial times happened to be those which formed the core of the disciples' preaching, the core of Christian faith, as Paul said, "...Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures" (1Cor.15:3-4).

Watching expresses the women's care, concern and grief for Jesus, and shows us the depth of their relationship with Jesus. Even if they had not acted as they did, their relationship with Jesus would have been the same. But they risked their lives to keep watch, and this reversed the situation of grief and suffering of the (male) disciples. When they brought the good news of the resurrection to the disciples, the Twelve immediately began to give thanks and praise. Thus, the women were the first to spread the good news of Jesus' resurrection; of course, even more significantly, they were the first to see the risen Lord. How were these women superior to other people, such that the Lord treated them with such generosity and kindness? Mark tells us only that they were the ones who used to follow him and provide for him (15:41).

Follow the Lord

"... these used to follow him ...when he was in Galilee" (15: 41).

In describing the women following Jesus, Mark, usually uses the progressive form to show that from some time in the past, that is from the time they were called and saved, they began to follow the Lord, are still following him now and will continue to follow him. No matter how smooth or difficult the path, they will follow closely. For women to develop this close following type of relationship with a man was unusual in the first century Palestine of Christ's time, something difficult for for people to imagine. The commentaires say that in the society of that time, all rabbis were male and it was expected that those who became disciples of a rabbi would, at some point, also become rabbis. People expected that disciples of this sort would all be men. The disciples followed the rabbi wherever he went, studying the scriptures and the law to hasten the day when they themselves would be experts in explaining the traditional law. Jesus was called Rabbi, but his way of teaching his disciples was completely different. Here we see that in this, Jesus had already broken with the tradition of the times.

"Follow" has three meanings in the text. First, it means the crowds who followed Jesus (see Jn.18:15; 11:31); second, it means to accompany (see Mt.14:13; Jn.6:2); third, to follow someone in the sense of being a disciple (see Mk.2:14). For Mark, it always has this third meaning. To follow Jesus meant to deny oneself and take up the cross. Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mk.8:34). Here, on the one hand, Jesus hopes that more people will accept his invitation to follow him; and on the other, he sets a high standard for those who do. The original meaning of "deny oneself" is to negate and cast aside one's own plans and rights—to give oneself completely to God, taking Jesus as Lord, as king, following the Lord's heart in all things, and obeying his will. The first time Jesus prophesied his passion, Peter objected fiercely, earning Jesus' rebuke, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" (Mk. 8:33). Before this, Peter had acknowledged, "You are the Christ, the Son of God." Not long after, he denies Jesus' destiny and work. We can see that casual recognition in words is easy enough, but genuine action is very difficult. Though Peter acknowledged Jesus as Christ with his words, he did not apprehend the true meaning of the phrase.

In Rome in those days, the cross was the most painful and humiliating punishment for rebels and errant slaves. "To carry one's cross," meant to see oneself as dead before God, to give one's entire life over to God's will; it does not mean to take up all sorts of insults from society. When we meet with danger, we should, like Jesus, face up to it with courage and challenge it.

In chapter 1 verses 14-20, Mark records the scene in which Jesus begins to call his disciples. Jesus was walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee when he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets, and said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." They immediately put aside their own work and followed him. The text says followed to emphasize the immediacy of their action. They had not been following him, but now they did. Mark seems to foreshadow the disciples' eventual failure, because we can say that their following Jesus is superficial. They had taken the first step, and then stopped. Why say this? A reading of the whole gospel shows that Mark never uses the word "provided for" of the disciples, though this is not to say that they never provided for Jesus. Mark simply wants to say here that the disciples failed often on their path of following Jesus. They often thought of their own needs—authority, status, name, without regard for the Lord's desires. I will discuss this in more detail below.

" these...provided for him when he was in Galilee" (Mk. 15: 4).

In the Greek world, to "provide for" describes the work of a servant. It has two layers of meaning: 1) to greet and wait upon guests, to accompany them at table—usually the work of a male slave or servant; 2) the work of the female slave or servant, mainly to provide and prepare the food, to care and watch over the home and care for the children. In general it means to aid and support someone, to use one's own resources to provide for another. It can also mean to make a donation or to assist. Serving someone else suggests that one loses one's own freedom, or wealth, or exhaust's one's energy. Thus people would rather be served by others, than to serve.

When Jesus was nailed to the cross, the disciples scattered. Though to their way of thinking they had followed Jesus, this was to fulfill their own needs. They did not proceed from God's point of view to accord with the mind of God. In this they resemble some people in the church today, who follow the Lord only to get things from him. They do not willingly give, nor are they willing to suffer humiliation along with the Lord, but are only willing to share in the Lord's glory. Jesus' words on true leadership within the community of faith were aimed at the disciples' desire for authority, position and reputation. Jesus taught them saying, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all" (9:35). The people of this world seek higher status, they want others to do their bidding. In their goings out and comings in, in all they do, they have many attendants following and waiting on them. But church leaders should serve the people. Jesus severely criticized the disciples' quest for authority, status and reputation and taught that they should learn to serve the people. He left us a good example in himself: Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, and wanting the disciples to imitate him: this is a very good model of service. He served others, but was not served by them. We might ask, who else did Jesus serve and how, apart from washing the disciples' feet? Why don't we find this in the Bible? From the gospels we see that Jesus' entire life was a life of serving. By his life he gave the word new meaning: he served people with his life. His service reached its apogee on the cross. He sacrificed his life to redeem all humankind. Some people think they deserve to be served by others, and never think of serving others themselves. But Jesus teaches them, "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mk.10:45).

Mark 1: 29-32 tells the story of the healing of Simon's mother-in-law. He uses the past tense here to describe the process of healing. When Simon's mother-in-law had been healed, she got up and began to serve them. Here, "serve" is in the progressive. By using this form the author is trying to tell us that not only did Simon's mother-in-law immediately get up to prepare everything they would need that night, she also served them frequently in the days that followed, providing things for their daily lives.

Did Mark deliberately put the calling of the disciples together with the calling of Simon's mother-in-law, using "follow" and "serve" separately in each story, to explain the role of the disciple? This is how Mark describes this group of women disciples, saying that they regularly followed the Lord and served him.

"Follow" and "serve" are the Lord's call and teaching; these are also the free choice of human beings. Because of the Lord's verbal call, the disciples put down their own work and followed him; because of the grace of the Lord's omnipotent healing, he called Simon's mother-in-law and so many other women to follow him, and they served him constantly. They received the Lord's call in the same way. But when the Lord suffered upon the cross, and the (male) disciples ran away, vacillating between belief and non-be-lief, trembling between success and failure, in the grip of depression and pain. The crowd of women, on the other hand, continued to follow him closely without regard for others' opinion. They continued to serve the Lord. As Mark writes, their "service" commences with Jesus' ministry. The service of Simon's mother-in-law, for example, continued until the end of the Lord's work in the world, when he was laid in the tomb. Jesus said, "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor" (Jn. 12: 26). The concept of "service" is shown to be extremely important to Jesus' teaching. Without following there can be no service, no watching. These women establish their status as disciples upon "following" and "serving"; therefore, no matter what circumstance they may meet with, their following the Lord and serving the Lord's desires never changes. And just for this reason, God gave them incomparable glory, allowing them to be the most authoritative witnesses to the risen Lord.

Following and service are what the Lord requires of his disciples. Jesus' women disciples truly received his teaching and put it into practice. When Jesus was preaching, they followed close at hand, serving him. When Jesus came into glory in his work, they were silently happy for him. When the Lord was crucified, they were silently sorrowful, suffering with him. After Jesus had been laid in the tomb, at dawn on the first day of the week, they came bringing spices to the tomb, to anoint him, but he had already risen. Thus they were the earliest to see the risen Lord. And thus we see that the following and service of the women disciples, in faith and practice, left an excellent model for later disciples. Their unity of faith and action has been has won the same respect and admiration through the ages as the humility of the virgin Mary.

Chen Kuanrong (Ms.) teaches in Anhui Theological Seminary. Nanjing Theological Review,No. 2 (2002): 53-56.

1 Hisako Kinukawa. Women and Jesus in Mark (New York, 1994), 91.
2 Winsome Munro. "Women Disciples in Mark," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44 (1982): 226.
3 Joanna Dewey. Disciples of the Way (Women's Division of the Board of Global Ministries, UMC, 1976), 132.