Episco-Fact #77
January 18, 2018

This week's Gospel reading has further details about Jesus calling his disciples. All of the disciples you have mentioned so far are men. Were there any women counted among the disciples?

Officially and Biblically, no women are named in the list of the twelve. That does not mean there were no women disciples, just none labeled as such. There are a number of factors which might have influenced this lack of designation. One of the most important is the history and culture of the time of Jesus, both Jewish and Gentile. In that time, women were not normally given leadership roles. Yes, there was Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt and the Ptolemaic Empire less than a century before Jesus' ministry. But she was portrayed in Roman writings, Rome being the dominant political and cultural force in the Mediterranean in that period, as something of a seductress and a bad influence on the once noble Anthony. Jewish culture, though matrilineal with regard to the ethnicity of the children, was also very conservative about acknowledging female leadership roles officially.

Women were, however, prominently part of Jesus' inner circle, and this configuration of his followers scandalized some, probably a lot, in the Galilean and Jerusalem communities. Do not forget, though, that Jesus in his reconstituting of Israel was also calling into his orbit the lost sheep of Israel including tax collectors, prostitutes, and notorious sinners. In short, those who were forgotten or ignored. Another note is that Jesus' followers included more than the twelve, in Luke he sends 120 disciples, two-by-two, on a mission to call the lost sheep, to heal, to exorcise, and more. Therefore, there are the twelve, there are "Disciples," and there are "disciples."

At a minimum, the following women were either "Disciples" or disciples. 1) Mary Magdalene (Mt, 27.56; 28.1, Mk.15.40,16.1; Lk 24.10; Jn. 19.25), who was recorded as having followed Jesus to the Cross and was there to anoint him on Sunday morning, the day of the resurrection, and she was the primary witness to the disciples of the empty tomb, encouraging some to call Mary the Apostle to the apostles. 2) Mary, the mother of James and Joseph (Mt. 27.55), the other Mary (? Mt. 28.1); mother of James the younger and Joses (Mk. 15.40) mother of James (Mk16.1); the mother of James (Lk. 24.10); [Jesus'] mother's sister, Mary, wife of Clopas (? Jn. 19.25)—all probably the same person, though the attributions confuse the identification. 3) the mother of the Sons of Zebedee (Mt. 27.55), who may also be 4) Salome (Mk. 15.40, Mk. 16.1). 5) Mary Martha and Mary of Bethany, sisters of Lazarus (Jn. 11). 6) Mary, the mother of Jesus (Jn. 19.25 ff., Acts 1.14)?

As with the twelve, the lists of women are similar but not precisely the same. But these women followed Jesus, provided him housing, food, and comfort, and were loyal in ways that his twelve were not. The woman who heads the list is Mary Magdalene, the woman from who seven demons were exorcised (Mk. 16.9, Lk 8.2), and who is named at the cross or at the tomb in all the Gospels. As stated above, she was the witness attested to in the Gospels as the first to the empty tomb and the one to whom Jesus first appeared. So, yes, by any measure these women should be included as disciples, even though they are not labeled as such in the texts.