Gospel Women Who Followed Jesus

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In the Gospel of Mark, the first written notice that there were women who followed Jesus to Jerusalem actually appears near the end (15:40, 47; 16:1). Mark notes the presence of such women as silent witnesses to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

However, Mark mentions women witnessing Jesus’ teaching and miracles from the beginning of the gospel. For example, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law on the first busy day of miracles in Capernaum (1:30-31). And surely the woman with the issue of blood (5:25-34) and the parents of the young girl who was raised from the dead (5:21-24, 35–43) did not let Jesus simply fade out of their lives but “followed” him, at least in the figurative sense that he had permanently changed their lives. Also, the woman who anointed Jesus must have been one of his followers, since her prophetic act honored him and was done, Jesus said, in preparation for his burial (14:3-9).

The mention at the end of Mark’s Gospel of women who had followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem makes explicit an implication that runs like an undercurrent throughout this gospel: that is, despite the obstinate refusal to listen and even the rejection by many, some did hear and accept Jesus and follow him. By worldly standards these may have seemed like an insignificant few—the frightened and fickle Twelve, a smattering of lowly women, the odd bystander who took pity on Jesus and offered him wine on a sponge, or a lone centurion who only recognized Jesus when it seemed to be too late to matter. But Mark is writing for an audience almost overwhelmed by its own powerlessness and fear. They are challenged to identify with the vulnerable band that made up the first generation of disciples and who made all the difference in spreading the message of Jesus and faith in his messiahship. And Mark’s church would draw strength, encouragement, inspiration, and grace from the power of the example of such as these lowly ones who formed the core of Jesus’ first disciples.

The women at the cross, burial, and tomb of Jesus perform a number of functions that Mark associated with discipleship. They have followed Jesus despite hardship and suffering. They listened (Mark 4:3) as Jesus taught the people through parables and miracles and repeatedly told his followers what was in store for him—and them. These women heard and integrated Jesus’ predictions about the cross, so that when they came to pass, they were neither scandalized nor repulsed by it. Jesus’ last word to his disciples before the passion was “Watch!” (13:37, RSV). His followers were to remain vigilant and alert (13:23), demonstrating their faithful awareness that what Jesus said would, in fact, take place. The women who followed Jesus looked on and witnessed (15:40) Jesus dying. They saw (16:4) that the stone had been rolled away where he had been buried. Their purpose in bringing spices to the tomb was to attend to Jesus’ anointing (16:1) and thus minister to him one final time.

Luke does not name those who were present at Jesus’ cross but refers to them simply as “the women who had followed him from Galilee” (23:49). Earlier, in the midst of the journey as Luke tells the story, the presence of women in Jesus’ entourage and their contributions are expressly noted. Luke says in 8:2-3 that with Jesus were “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom 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 resources.” In saying this, Luke implies that these women, who had been cured of infirmities, followed Jesus and ministered to him and to others as a way of showing gratitude. Or perhaps Luke means that their discipleship is the result of experiencing Jesus’ compassion. Their discipleship goes beyond the receiving of a simple cure, however, to actively participating in the mission of Jesus. Luke also suggests that the women who followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem were respectable people of some means and that they were well-known by name in the Christian community. This information about such women is consistent with their indispensable support for the mission of the early church that Luke emphasizes in Acts (for example, Acts 1:14; 12:12-17; 16:1,13-14; 17:4, 12, 34).

The generosity of such women would have had a very dangerous dimension. Luke also makes a tantalizing suggestion in mentioning women with powerful connections, such as “Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza” (8:3). It is tempting to wonder if the news about Jesus, which must have spread around Herod’s court, put such women as well as their husbands and families at risk. Women were supposed to remain at home, under the authority of their husbands. Thus, Herod’s steward, a powerful man, would perhaps, have been open to strong criticism and much worse because of his wife’s activities ministering to Jesus. Other passages show how paranoid and cruel Herod and his family could be. If Herod feared whether Jesus was John raised from the dead (Luke 9:7-9), he probably would have been interested in interrogating members of his own court that knew Jesus. Herod would have been acting in character if he had threatened their lives, just as he so cruelly treated John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29; Matthew 14:1-12).

There is no way to harmonize the names or identify further how many women followed Jesus to the cross and who they were. But it is noteworthy that across the spectrum of all four gospel accounts, women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee were doing what disciples were supposed to do: following and being with Jesus, witnessing, ministering, and testifying to Jesus and to their faith in him.

Excerpted from Women of the Gospels: Missionaries of Love by Mary Ann Getty Sullivan (The Word Among Us Press, 2010). Available at wau.org/books