Women in Christianity: Women around Jesus

In bona fide has produced a mini educational video series Women in Christianity under the project financed by Global Fund for Women.

Women around Jesus
Author of text: Ela Magda Džafić and Lana Bobić
Editor in chief: Lana Bobić
Production: Natko Stipaničev

When we talk about people who followed Jesus and who were his disciples, most often we think of twelve men, the Apostles. 

Patriarchal tradition of interpreting biblical texts tended to focus on the importance of men, and disregard the role of women. 

However, if we free ourselves of prejudice and go back to the Gospels, we will see that among Jesus followers there were women, who had an equally important role in his ministry and life. Who were constantly present in his life, especially in the most important moments. 

The Gospels weren’t written as a testament to Jesus’ relationship with women. However, every encounter between Jesus and women carries in itself a message of the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Disregarding those encounters, or interpreting them exclusively through tradition, that is through millennia of theological prejudice of various groups of men, would mean disregarding a large part of human experience and a large part of the story of God’s plan to renew the world. That is why it is important to see who were the women around Jesus, and how can we find out more about Jesus, about God’s kingdom and his plan for the world and people, through women’s presence in the Gospels. The Gospels are full of stories about Jesus’ encounter with women, and it is impossible to mention all of them here. 

Christian tradition holds Jesus’ mother, Mary, in high regard. The Gospels testify, that, in spite of great and understandable fear, Mary readily accepts God’s call to give birth to a son, who will come from David’s royal lineage, who will be called “Son of the Most High”, and whose kingdom will be eternal. With the decision to accept the role, which at that time could have meant social rejection on many levels, Mary becomes an active participant in God’s great plan of salvation of his people, and subsequently, all people. However, her greatness is not in her motherhood. Namely, her motherhood is a consequence of her readiness to be obedient to God’s word. The Gospel writer, Luke, points out how Jesus doesn’t glorify her role as a mother, but to a woman’s cry, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave birth to you’ (Lk 11,27), Jesus responds, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’

For Mary, Jesus’ mother, obedience meant accepting to carry God’s son; for Mary from Bethany, obedience meant being a disciple, sitting at Jesus’ feet, in spite of her culture’s expectation to do household chores. We remember the story of the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead, but we probably disregard the fact that, in that story, Lazarus is not the main character. Through the story of death and resurrection of their brother Lazarus, Jesus teaches Mary and Martha about important issues of faith and resurrection. Gospel writer John, ascribes a faith to Martha, that some Gospel interpreters say is equal or even stronger to the faith Peter had. While Peter says, ‘You are the Messiah – Christ!’ (Mk 8,2), Martha says, ‘I believe you are the Christ, Son of God, the one who comes to the world!’ (Jn, 11,27) The Gospel writer John, rejects the traditional image of women, and depicts Martha as wise, active, piercing, an apostle, equal to Peter. 

Jesus’ death and resurrection are the central part of the message of the Gospel, and the basis of Christian faith. Given that in that time women weren’t seen as reliable witnesses, it is interesting that the Gospel writers allow the witnesses of those events to be precisely and fore mostly women, and that the disciples take a secondary role. They are the ones witnessing the crucifixion, they are at the tomb, and they are the ones Jesus appears to first. In spite of the diminishing of the importance of women and their authority in the Christian tradition, these things show women’s indisputable and indispensable role. 

A woman that is mentioned by name during Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, is Mary Magdalene, whom people will often identify as the converted adulteress. How did tradition come to talk about Mary Magdalene as a converted adulteress, rather than an apostle, even though there are no evidence in the New Testament pointing to the fact that she was in fact an adulteress? 

In chapter 8, Luke writes how Jesus exorcised seven evil spirits from Mary Magdalene. Even though we can’t reliably know how to interpret demon-possession because some illnesses were seen as possession, the number seven points to the fact that her condition was serious. Today it is widely accepted within theological circles that sin and possession cannot be equated. However, traditional interpretation of possession as sin, especially sexual, favored identifying Mary Magdalene with the nameless ‘sinful woman’ that washed Jesus feet with her tears, in Luke, chapter 7. 

Mary Magdalene wasn’t only identified with this nameless ‘sinful woman’, but also with other Marys or women who anointed Jesus head or feet, or who were caught in adultery. All that broadened the misunderstanding in the interpretation of her character, and even diminished her importance. Some texts replaced her with Peter, or Mary, Jesus’ mother, with the purpose of accentuating Peter’s authority. For example, while Mark, Matthew and John write about the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, Luke doesn’t mention the resurrected Jesus appearing to women, but to the disciples and Peter. 

The status of Mary Magdalene is conditioned by the patriarchal understanding of the role and status of women; an understanding in which Christianity was immersed during the time of its origin. The patriarchal hierarchizing of the Church strategically diminished the importance of Mary Magdalene due to her gender. This strategic diminishing of the importance of women served the purpose of denying women’s authority and justifying the exclusion of women from church ministries and leadership roles.

Besides the Twelve who were following Jesus, in chapter 8, Luke mentions Mary Magdalene, Susana, and Joanna, wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household, as well as many others who had been cured of demon possession. Luke claims that they were giving from their possessions. We can conclude that these women had left their families to follow Jesus, and organized themselves according to their possibilities, to serve Jesus. They, just like the Twelve, followed Jesus and were his disciples. 

The Gospels know many unnamed women. Their anonymity tells more about the context that doesn’t appreciate women, than about Jesus’ attitude towards women. In Mark’s Gospel (14,9), Jesus states that, where ever the Gospel is preached, the woman who anointed him before his death, will also be remembered for what she had done. And while the disciples protest the woman’s wastefulness, Jesus reprimands them, because she is the one who understood his end was coming, and she was preparing him for burial. 

In the context of Jewish tradition, she is doing more than that. In ancient Israel, when a king was chosen, his head was anointed by prophets, “men of Judah”. In Mark’s Gospel, this role is taken by a woman, who, as a prophetess, announces a new time in which old values will be reevaluated, a time in which a king will soon die, so that the Kingdom of God will be established. 

God doesn’t only have sons. He had daughters he meets, with whom he speaks, and whom he heals. They testify to his birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection. Even though tradition often clouds our insight into their true roles, looking at the Gospels brings us to conclude that women are an indisputable and indispensable part of the establishment of the Kingdom of God, in which men and women are equally called to participate.