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Women in the Gospels: Jesus and His Female Benefactors

September 3, 2012

We often overlook the logistics of Jesus’ travels.  They aren’t much mentioned in the Bible and we tend to have a funny view whereby Bible people just don’t have to worry about the details that fill our lives.  The simple fact, though, is that Jesus had no source of income during his ministry and that if he owned any property it was located in Nazareth with his family or maybe in Capernum where he appears to have stayed frequently1.  For most of Jesus’ ministry he was dependent on donations to keep himself and his disciples fed and housed.  So, who fed and housed Jesus?  Well, several stories suggest that he was often invited to dine at the houses of community leaders (a hospitable gesture that they probably extended to most wandering rabbis and which may have included lodging for the night) but this only covers some of his time.  Thankfully, Luke addresses this issue straight on: in Luke 8:1-3 we learn that a group of women including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna traveled with Jesus supporting him from their own resources.

Luke isn’t the only one to mention these women in any way.  Matthew 27:55-56 mentions in passing that the women present at Jesus’ crucifixion had followed Jesus from Galilee to look after him and mentions Mary Magdalene again, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of James and John.  Mark 15:40-41 says the same thing except that it lists Salome instead of the mother of James and John.  Of course, perhaps this is the same person and Mark expected his audience to know her by name while Matthew expected his audience to need help placing her in the story.  Indeed, what’s surprising about this is that these people are mentioned by name despite the fact that they are virtually absent from the gospels otherwise.  Mary Magdalene is the best known of the lot of them but she appears in only five places in the four gospels: once in this mention in Luke and in every one of the gospels during the stories of the crucifixion and resurrection.  Some of these women are identified a bit further by placing them with husbands or children but some, like Susanna, are mentioned only by name and only here.  Why?

The best guess I have is that these women were known to the communities that received the gospels originally.  They did not need additional material about Susanna, they either knew her or knew about her.  In an earlier article I pointed out that there are women (probably these women) there with the disciples at the beginning of Acts (Acts 1:14).  My guess is that these women remained an important part of the early Christian community and were known to many of the first generation of Christians.

I also suspect that many of these women were older2.  Several are identified as “mother of so-and-so” suggesting that their adult children may also be known in the community.  In one case we know that the adult children in question are disciples3.  Rather than imagining that Jesus was followed about on his travels by a gaggle of women of marriageable age (something certain to raise eyebrows) or that Chuza, Herod’s steward, let his young wife go gallivanting about the countryside with the rabbi, it seems much more likely that a group of older women with some social standing from their age, some experience taking caring for people due to their experience in rearing children, and some leniency on social rules gained from passing through menopause followed Jesus and his disciples and helped them with some basic logistical tasks.  It’s also clear that they weren’t always there – Jesus clearly travels alone with the Twelve frequently and I’ve discussed the issues Jesus would have if he traveled that closely with women.  Perhaps they stopped by in major towns and helped out in places where they could find separate lodging or perhaps they simply skipped certain portions of the journey for reasons of propriety, safety, or age.  However, the text suggests that these women supported Jesus “out of their own means”.  Joanna is specified as “the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household”.  My suspicion is that this is meant to explain where those means of support came from.  We might expect Joanna to be a wealthy woman who could afford to give Jesus and the Twelve some cash for the parts of their journey when she wouldn’t be with them.

Two other women are important to Jesus’ ministerial logistics.  Being a rabbi means going to Jerusalem, at least if you want people to notice what you are doing.  Mary and Martha had a house in Bethany close to Jerusalem and it appears that this is where Jesus and his disciples often stayed when they visited the city.  It is unclear, again, how old Mary and Martha are, whether they have living families besides Lazarus, and whether Lazarus lives with them.  Luke describes Martha as the home-owner and Mary as the sister so perhaps an older Martha is taking care of several younger (but adult) siblings.  Perhaps Mary and Martha are older and widowed and Mary moved in with Martha (who was lucky enough to inherit a house) to have some family around.  What does seem to be clear is that, again, Mary and Martha are well known to the audience of the gospels.  For instance, John chooses to introduce Lazarus via his connection to Mary and Martha indicating that he thinks some of his readers will know of Mary and Martha but not Lazarus.

There are three stories that involve Mary and Martha.  One of these only involves Mary in John’s gospel and parallels stories in the Synoptic Gospels that do not name the woman involved.  I will treat these stories as their own group.  However, Mary and Martha appear in their own story in Luke and also in the resurrection of Lazarus in John.

In Luke 10:38-42 we are introduced to Mary and Martha and a visit to their home is described.  Martha, who seems to be the senior sister, is busy readying things for her guests.  Her sister Mary sits down and listens to Jesus teach.  Martha is understandably annoyed and asks Jesus to tell Mary to help.  Jesus responds by saying that while Martha is worried by many things only one is necessary and that Mary is doing that.

Obviously, Martha is playing the socially-appropriate role for a first-century Jewish woman.  While the men talk she is running about preparing the food and the house.  Mary is doing the wrong thing.  She is sitting down and learning from the teacher like a male disciple.  Our records of Jewish rabbinical disputes indicate that there was an ongoing debate at that time about whether women should even learn Torah.  The idea that a woman would sit down in the men’s discussion and listen to the male teacher would push boundaries.  What really pushes boundaries, though, is when the male teacher says that this is not merely acceptable, or even correct when a woman finds herself at loose ends, but that it actually takes great precedence over a woman’s social duties.  Jesus shows that he regards women as people with minds who should be receive education (a point of divergence with his contemporaries) when he rejects a supporting role for Mary.

Mary and Martha also have some important things to say in John 11 when Jesus comes to raise Lazarus from the dead.  Martha goes out to greet Jesus and immediately makes a statement of faith in him saying that she knows he could have prevented Lazarus’ death.  Furthermore, she says that she knows God will give Jesus whatever he asks even at this late date.  Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise from the dead and Martha hears this as an affirmation of the Jewish belief in a resurrection of the dead at the end of all things.  Jesus corrects her, stating that he is the resurrection and the life and asks if Martha believes this.  Martha not only does believe but appears to correctly understand what Jesus has asked her (which many people in John’s gospel do not) and says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”  Shortly thereafter Mary appears and makes a statement similar to Martha’s about Jesus’ ability to prevent Lazarus’ death.

The affirmation of Jesus’ identity is important.  John does not record Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ.  In John 1:44-51 Philip tells Nathanael that they have found the Messiah and brings Nathanael (who is doubtful) to Jesus.  Jesus rapidly convinces Nathanael who proclaims him the Son of God and the king of Israel.  These are the confessions we find in John: these very early ones (which are followed by Jesus saying, essentially, “Yes, but you haven’t seen anything yet”) and Martha’s.  Martha’s is especially interesting because John’s gospel has a concluding statement in 20:31 that says that the entire gospel is written so that the reader may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, so that this belief will give the reader life in his name.  The confession that appears in this concluding remark is the same as the one that Martha makes and the result (life in Jesus’ name) seems quite similar to the result we see in John 11 – Lazarus receives life from Jesus.

The fact that Jesus receives consistent support from women who travel with him, open their homes to him, and keep him on the move logistically is certainly interesting.  The fact that these women are also apparently well-known to the early Church is more than interesting.  It suggests that they are acting in a manner very similar to disciples.  There are cultural issues that prevent them from travelling as closely with Jesus but it appears that there are women who follow Jesus, listen to his teaching, and have an important enough voice in the early Church to be known by name to the original audiences of the gospels.  In an earlier article I asked why there were no women amongst the Twelve.  This article shows that the broader group of Jesus’ long-term followers did include women.

[1] I’ve seen suggestions that Jesus was actually spending the winter, or at least the parts that made travel difficult, in Capernum.

[2] Mary Magdalene might not be.  She appears to follow Jesus because he healed her but, even so, this makes more sense for an older woman with no family than for a younger woman who might hope to marry and have a family now that she was healed.  The fact that Mary Magdalene is often proposed as a lover for Jesus in a certain sort of bad literature no doubt contributes to our sense that she is supposed to be Jesus’ age but there’s no Biblical evidence on her age either way (and no Biblical evidence to support any sort of romantic relationship between Jesus and herself).

[3] However, this particular woman is never identified by name.  We could build a counter-thesis to mine in which she is not mentioned by name because she is the only older woman in the group and dies before she becomes well-known to the early church.  However, her age is not my only reason to believe that many of these women may have been older and so I believe it is still quite probable that most or all of them were beyond the age at which women normally married or re-married.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2012 4:55 pm

    Great post. Out of curiosity, do you think that there are any tensions between Jesus’s treatment of women in the Gospels and the teachings on women in the NT letters?

    • Eric permalink
      September 6, 2012 6:47 am

      Not really. When you look at Paul’s own interactions with women instead of just reading what he writes about women as a general topic his Epistles and the gospels look much more similar.

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