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Women Disciples

Women Disciples

by Ann Mary Clement
Focus 17 ( 1997) pp. 255 - 260
Published on our website with the necessary permissioon

This study of women in the NT makes us aware of the many women who followed Jesus and served him and his disciples. They were truly disciples who were followers of Jesus and were witnesses of his death and resurrection. The author teaches Scripture at the Pastoral Institute, Multan.

All the faithful who are joined to Christ are called his disciples. Through baptism they become one with his body, the Church. The differences of gender, race and social status which usually divide us are all transcended as we are one in Christ (Gal 3:27-28).

In the parish, all without any distinction, are called together to be one community in which man and woman have to play equally an active role. This makes us think about the role of woman in the Church and society which is a current issue of our day and a question for Christians to know its basis in Scripture. Returning to our biblical roots is always a source of renewal for the Church. Often the questions which draw us to the scriptures do not get answers because we cannot find the exact material we want. The Bible speaks about the particular in a particular way, not in an individual or limited sense, but broadly.

Therefore to research from the Bible a particular issue one needs to recast and reform the question in order to reflect on its meaning. The New Testament especially speaks of many aspects of a woman’s life and role but the subject ‘woman’ is not a conscious concern of any of the New Testament writers, neither do they speak about the theological nature of man or woman, with the exception of the theological saying of Paul in Gal 3:27-28, that all natural distinctions including that of sex are transcended by the unity of the baptised in Christ. Besides this there are a few Pauline and other Pastoral Letters (1 Cor 11:1-16, 14:34-35, I Tim 2:11-12) in which there are disciplinary instructions whose relevance is limited to the culture, time, place and people for whom they are formulated. Otherwise the New Testament does not pay regard to age, sex, race or any socio-religious status of believers. Everything in the New Testament that refers to ‘disciples’ is for man and woman equally.

The Gospels are the most important source on the question of women in Jesus’ movement. We see Jesus announce his ministry programme in the synagogue of Nazareth (Is 61:1-2), which is fulfilled in him (Lk 4.18) serving the poor’ the sick, outcasts and women.

Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, broke through restrictions and rejected categories; he offered freedom and strength to overcome oppressive rules and limiting roles. He empowers the powerless and strengthened his disciples with this spirit that his and their mission is not to lord it over others but to serve them (Mk 9:35, 10:43-45, Mt 20.26-27, 27:55, Lk 22.24-27, Jn13:12-15).

Jesus uses the verb ‘to serve’’ diakonein’ to identify his mission, and to describe what he expects of his followers (Lk 12.37, 17:X, 22:26-27). In his life he served many people but besides Jesus only angels and women are listed as the subject to this verb, and angels and women minister to Jesus himself (Mk 1:13: Lk 22.43, 8:3; Mt 8:15). Jesus asked for and accepted services in public from women although it was not allowed traditionally for a Jewish man in his day (Jn 4:17). Certain women followed Jesus, looked after him, assisted him and his followers out of their own resources, (Lk 8:3). Jesus not only accepted this service from women but performed miraculous healings which enabled women ‘to serve’ him (Mt 8:14-15; Lk 4:38-39; Mk 1:29-31).

Women as well as the apostles accompanied Jesus, going with him on the eventful journey from Galilce to Jerusalem (Lk 8:1-3, 24:10. Mk 15:40-41, 16:9; Mt 27:55-56; Jn 19:25). , The road to Jerusalem, the death-point; was the way of suffering, and those who were with Jesus on this way were his followers. In the gospel of Mark where the term is used to describe a group temporarily following Jesus (Mk 3:7, 5.24. 11:9), the context indicates the actual relationship to Jesus.

The term ‘to follow’ connotes following Jesus as a disciple. In Mk 15:40-41 the women who followed Jesus from Galilee would have a continuous relationship of discipleship and companionship to Jesus although neither in Mark nor in the other gospels is a woman explicitly described as a disciple of ‘Jesus.’

The great lesson of discipleship is the cross. If anyone would come after me let one deny oneself, take up thc cross and follow me (Mt 16:24-25, Mk 8:34, Lk 9:23-24). In fact the response of the women who accepted the invitation to follow Jesus, to be with him ‘on the way’ and in his suffering, is a relief from the otherwise consistent emphasis on the failure of the disciple. How difficult must have been this gospel challenge to the women after the disciples had left Jesus alone Mk 14:50-5I ).

In the gospel of Mark women are first identified explicitly as followers of Jesus in the context of the crucifixion, yet at the same time their relationship with Jesus is described as serving him (Mk 15:41-42). They stood firm witnessing to the crucifixion (Jn 18:15-18, 25-27, 19:25-27; Mt 27:55-56; Mk 15: 40-41; Lk 23:49). They watched Jesus’ burial (Mt 27:61; Mk 15:47; Lk 23:55).

The significance of women as disciples holds true in connection with the burial of Jesus, especially with Jesus’ resurrection (Mk 15:47, 16:1: Mt 28:7-10; Lk 24:5-10; Jn 20:11-18) particularly as the first witnesses to the resurrection (Mt 28:1-10; Mk 16:9; Lk 24:1-11, Jn 20:1-8). The early Church verbalised a criteria for witness of Jesus: those who have accompanied Jesus during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us (Acts 1:21-22). Women fulfilled this requirement for they accompanied Jesus and his disciples on that decisive last journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (Mk 15:40-41).

Jesus journeyed through towns and villages preaching and proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God. The apostles accompanied him and also some women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and many others (Lk 8:1-3). There is no example of unfaithfulness of these women in the gospels where as often apostles failed to follow Jesus. They denied and betrayed him although they were personally chosen by Jesus. These twelve ‘men’ represent the twelve tribes which symbolise the new Israel (Rev 21:12-14). In spite of Jewish non-acceptance of women’s witness all four evangelists have recorded Jesus’ choice of women.

In various gospel stories women are seen to fulfill the requirements of a true disciple since discipleship is the primary relationship to Jesus—it is to learn from Jesus, observe his teaching into a life pattern and teach others.

Mary of Bethany

Mary of Bethany joined herself as a disciple to Jesus. She sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching (Lk 10:39), in the attitude of a Torah scholar with a rabbi. She won approval from Jesus in the act of repudiating a woman’s role (Lk 10:40-42) Jn 12:3 describes her action of anointing the feet of Jesus with costly perfume and wiping them with her hair, representing her as a disciple of Jesus the teacher—a role generally forbidden to Jewish women. To wash the feet of one’s master was an act of serving by a disciple. Jesus at the last supper performed for his disciples an act that normally would have been performed by a devoted disciple for his teacher. It is also the act which Jesus commanded his disciples to perform in imitation of himself (Jn 13 :4-15). Her act is connected by Jesus himself to his burial and his imminent departure (Jn 12:7).


Martha must be counted a disciple of the Lord for she proclaimed the primacy of faith since her confession of faith, ‘Yes Lord! I believe that you are the Christ the son of God.’ Jn 11:20-27 is a response to the word of Jesus revealing himself as the resurrection and thc life, a role analogous to Peter as representative of apostolic faith. She also shared with Jesus his precious dialogue on the resurrection of the dead. Jesus challenges her with the word which must finally be accepted by anyone who wishes to belong to Jesus (11:25-26) that he is the resurrection and life.

The Samaritan Woman

This woman disciple presented within the life-time of Jesus, reflects the life of the Johannine Community. By speaking and learning from Jesus in a public place she broke the Jewish tradition (Jn 4:7). Jesus taught her the gift of inner life which led her to a state of conversion and declared him the Messiah (Jn 4:25-26), which is the content of Christian - faith . (20:31). She believed in him, leaving all things to hear effective apostolic witness to him among the Samaritans (4:28-29): she becomes a self appointed apostle blessed by the Lord. Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony (4:39). This woman apostle acted out of her belief in Jesus’self revelatory word and whose own witnessing word brought others to believe in him. Her apostleship is truly effective as indicated in Jn:41-42, according to which the Samaritans come to full faith in Jesus as Saviour of the world.

Mary Magdalene

Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene according to Lk 24:10; Jn 20:14-17; Mt 28.1. 9-10): and the Markan appendix (16:9-11).This is a primitive and authentic tradition. The early Church regarded the protophany as the manifestalion of the primacy of apostolic witness which is the foundation of the Church’s faith. The western church liturgy celebrates Mary Magdalene as ‘apostle to the apostles.’ The commission that Jesus gives to Mary is ‘go to my brothers, and say to them, I ascend to my Father, who is now your Father, to my God who is now your God’

(Jn 20:17). The message is addressed to Jesus’ brothers and sisters whom Mary understands to mean ‘the disciples’ (20. 18). Thus she is, without any doubt the disciple whose place in the paschal mystery is most certainly attested by all four gospels. Her claim to apostleship is equal in every respect to both Peter and Paul’s apostleship and we know more about her exercise of her vocation than we do about most of ‘the members of the twelve. Unlike Peter she was not unfaithful to Jesus during the passion and unlike Paul she never persecuted Christ in his members, but like both she saw the risen Lord. received directly from him the commission to preach the gospel and carried out that commission faithfully and effectively (Mt 28:8-10).

Certainly women were sent on the most important mission of all. They were commissioned by Jesus ‘to go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee and there they will see me’ (Mt 28. 10). The women remembered and conveyed his words (28:19). The origin of the announcement of the resurrection is linked to women since they were the first to find thc tomh empty and to have thc resurrection revealed (Mt 28:5-7). This resurrection tradition differs from that of I Cor 15:5-8 in which apparently only ‘men’ are cited as witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection.

Mark publicly acknowledged that women had already belonged to the Jesus’ movement in Galilee (MK 15:40-41) and first mentions them in connection with the crucifixion. He establishes the authenticity of these traditions (16:1-8) primitive tradition which could not have been disregarded. and transmits a

Jesus gives no hint of a repudiation of women as unable to hear or understand or remember his word. He testified to the discipleship of his own mother when he complemented her role of physical motherhood by universalising her relationship among those ‘who hear the word of God and do it’ (Lk 8:21, Mk 3.31-35).

We have seen that the women who appear in the gospels are mostly individual and original. They relate to Jesus directly without mediation, whose place is wherever Jesus calls them and whose role is whatever their love for him suggests. Their ministry to Jesus and to others in his name requires no approval of anyone. They are remarkable for their initiative and decisive action.

If leadership is the function of creative initiative and decisive action, the gospel women qualify well for the role which is made for all ages.

The word of God given to us in the New Testament is a word of liberation intended not only for first century Christians but for each succeeding generation of believers who will faithfully and creatively address new questions to the text in the wellfounded expectation that his word is indeed living and active. If we place the witness of women in the gospels at the service of our contemporary church it will help liberate both men and women who are called by Jesus to full discipleship and ministry in the Christian community.

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