Women’s ministry in the early church
A leading academic explores the New Testament for clues to women’s involvement in Jesus’ ministry.
The Easter story is full of women. It’s women who remain faithful to Jesus as he dies an otherwise lonely death on the cross, women who warily follow the council member as he inters the body, and women who discover the empty grave on the Sunday morning. Embedded within the tale are a number of strikingly female-centred vignettes: Jesus’ mother clasping the Beloved disciple at the cross; the women fleeing the tomb in abject terror at the angelic figure and his announcement; and Mary Magdalene’s joyful recognition that the man she took to be the gardener is actually the risen Lord.
Yet the strong focus on women at the end of the story seems strangely out of step with the earlier part of Jesus’ ministry which – at least at first blush – seems decidedly male-centred. Jesus apparently maintains little contact with his family in Nazareth and talks instead of his heavenly Father. He chooses twelve male disciples and travels around Galilee in their company, engaging male opponents in public debate. Only an inner group of men appear to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter, Jesus’ heavenly transfiguration, or the final agony in Gethsemane. And if women were present at the last supper, none are mentioned.
But we need to be a little sceptical about this male-dominated picture. The gospels are books of faith, written to strengthen their audiences in their Christian commitment, not social histories. They focus on Jesus, not his disciples. Given the patriarchal times in which they were written, we should hardly be surprised to find that women’s actions and experiences often go unnoticed. And there were good reasons why the evangelists might want to tone down the presence of women in the movement. Religions with too many women were often thought of as suspicious, morally dubious, and even potentially threatening to traditional ways of life. Where we get clues to women’s involvement, then, we need to take them very seriously indeed. When we do so, we may find that the earlier part of Jesus’ ministry is as full of female disciples as the Easter events.
The first clue to women’s involvement in Jesus’ ministry comes almost at the close of Mark’s gospel, where he acknowledges that a number of women remain faithful to the end. Almost in passing, the evangelist notes that these women had followed Jesus from Galilee. Straight away this changes our whole mental picture of Jesus’ ministry: no longer is he surrounded only by twelve males, but now there are a group of women too (Mark says there were ‘many’ of them). We’re encouraged to imagine a large body of disciples, male and female, making their way from one village to another, and, at the end, embarking on one last pilgrimage to Jerusalem. These women even have names: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joseph, and Salome.
Luke mentions a group of women too, though he acknowledges their presence much earlier on (Lk 8.1-3). He highlights Mary Magdalene again, but adds two new women, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna. Tantalisingly, Luke adds that these women ‘ministered’ to Jesus and his disciples from ‘their own resources’. Exactly what was involved in the women’s ‘ministering’ goes unexplained, though many scholars think that their activity has something to do with financial support. Joanna in particular may have been a woman of some substance; did she and the others pay for bread or lodgings when none was freely offered? And was their ‘ministering’ and discipleship any different to that of the men around them?
Of all of these named women, Mary Magdalene stands out as the one female disciple to be mentioned in all four gospels. Stigmatised for centuries as the penitent prostitute (for which there is not the slightest evidence!), Mary is more commonly now seen as Jesus’ wife (thanks to Dan Brown). Yet this view is also problematic. When Mary is depicted as little more than the ‘love interest’, she can too easily be dismissed – a la Maid Marion – as owing her place in the Jesus movement solely to her status as the boss’ girlfriend. Instead, we’d do better to consider what the text actually says about Mary. Strangely, she is never identified by a significant male (whether father, husband or son) but only by her home town of Magdala, a thriving fishing port on the Sea of Galilee. She may have been a widow, perhaps with a measure of wealth and independence. Luke suggests that Jesus cured her of seven demons (what we might now describe as mental health issues) and presumably joined the Jesus movement out of gratitude.
But why is she remembered, when so many others have been forgotten? When we think about ancient Mediterranean culture, one very obvious reason presents itself. In the highly patriarchal world of first century Galilee, men and women led largely segregated lives dominated by the need to maintain personal and family honour and to avoid shame. Rather like some traditional societies today, it would not have been possible for women to interact closely with men to whom they were not related. Jesus, for example, would not have been able to sit and talk to a group of women in public – still less to enter their homes (remember the disciples’ shock that he speaks, alone, to the Samaritan women at the well). The only way to evangelise women was through other women, through female disciples such as Joanna, Susanna and various Marys. Quite possibly Mary Magdalene’s name was remembered because she was the head of the women’s mission, the one who organised them all – in effect, Jesus’ right-hand woman.
We have some evidence for this in the New Testament. In Mark 6.7, Jesus sends out the twelve disciples ‘two by two’. It is often assumed that this means six pairs, but there could be another interpretation. Exactly the same phrase is used in Genesis 7.9 of the animals entering the ark, and there it clearly refers to male and female pairs. If women were part of the group (as we have seen), it may be that Jesus sent out each male disciple with a female ‘partner’. The man would speak to other men in the public realm while the woman evangelised to other women in their domestic environment. Such an interpretation also explains the missionary partners that we find later on in Paul’s letters and Acts, couples such as Prisca and Aquila (where the female – quite surprisingly – is named first), Andronicus and Junia, and quite possibly the two disciples on the Emmaus road.
If there were any doubt about the important role of women in the early Christian movement, we need only consider Romans 16, a curious chapter right at the end of the letter composed of a list of greetings. What’s most striking about this list is that it starts by asking the Roman church to welcome Phoebe, a deacon in the church at Cenchreae (the port of Corinth), who Paul says is a benefactor of many, including himself. The clear implication of this is that Paul has entrusted his letter – quite probably the most important letter he would ever write – to a woman! Not only would she have taken it to Rome, but it would have been her task to read it out to the assembled community (most of whom would be unable to read) and to answer any questions. Clearly Phoebe was wealthy, educated and completely reliable.
A second thing to note about the names on this list is that a third of them are female. We hear of Prisca, who has risked her life for Paul, and the apostle Junia who has been with him in prison, along with a range of other named women whose ‘work in the Lord’ can only be guessed at. Prisca and her husband have a church in their home, as does Chloe in 1 Corinthians and Mary the mother of John Mark in Acts. Given the prominence of women in domestic space, it is hard to imagine these women taking a back seat in the gatherings of Christian believers that met in their homes. At the very least, women like Prisca, Chloe and Mary must have organised gatherings and provided bread and wine. But why should they not have led prayers, preached the message, or even shared the eucharist with the assembled group?
If all of this sounds surprising, we need to remember that the earliest Christians expected the end of the world to come very soon. Millenarian movements, such as early Christianity, often tend to relativise gender and other social boundaries. If the end of the world is imminent, all hands are needed, and women’s labour is just as useful as men’s. In this context, there really is no male and female, slave or free. (This may also explain why Jesus has little to say about social change, to improve the lot of either women or slaves; there is no point in reforming society if it is about to be swept away).
But the end didn’t come, and church leaders realised that they were in it for the long haul. The freedom experienced by women in the first few decades was gradually curtailed as the church developed measures to conform to prevailing social codes. Women were expected to display modesty, to be silent in gatherings, to defer to their husbands, and generally to know their place. These views are expressed clearly in some of the later writings of the New Testament, such as 1 Peter and 1 Timothy (where women are saved through childbirth). Earlier texts were now altered to reflect newer views: I Cor 14.33-35, for example, is almost certainly a later addition to Paul’s letter (it makes no sense for him to allow women to prophesy in chapter 11 only to ban them from speaking at all in chapter 14).
Of course, the very fact that these later texts go to such lengths to curtail women’s freedom suggests that women were not keeping silent in the churches. And there is a large – and growing – body of evidence to suggest that women continued to act as teachers, leaders and martyrs for many centuries. We need only think of the charismatic Montanists with their female leaders, the martyr Perpetua, or the 5th century female bishop Cerulla from Naples. Whatever the ‘official’ line may have been, it’s clear that women’s ministry continued in some circles.
As early Christianity made its way out into the Gentile world, the significance of twelve male disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel and therefore national renewal, became irrelevant. The new faith was much more than a Jewish reform movement. The symbolism of twelve men was reappropriated, now pressed into the service of female exclusion: Jesus chose twelve men, not women. Yet the New Testament texts themselves give the lie to this, along with countless distant echoes of female ministry throughout the centuries.
Helen Bond is Professor of Christian Origins and Head of School, Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. Her latest book is out this month: The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 2020).