Women of Faith in the Gospels

June 8, 2020

By Peter Amsterdam

Audio length: 9:39
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Women played significant roles in Jesus’ ministry. In many of Jesus’ teachings, including the parables, female characters were featured as positive examples of those who responded to God with faith. In the parable of the unjust judge, He used a widowed woman’s persistence as an example of prayer and faith even when the answer doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. The disciples were told that being persistent in their supplications to God, as they waited for His return, would be rewarded with justice, as God would hear their prayers. Jesus made His point by using an example of a woman who persevered.

The parable of the lost coin in Luke 15, in which a woman loses one of ten coins in her house and seeks diligently until she finds it, is a parallel or “twin” to the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in order to find the missing one.1 In these two parables, the actions of both the man and the woman represent the actions of God as He seeks out those who are lost. Jesus considered the work of both people in these stories to be equally good analogies to describe how God finds the lost, and by using a woman as an example, He conveyed the message in terms women could relate to.

In Matthew 13, we find analogies which show that men’s and women’s roles can be used equally as examples of the kingdom of God. In the parable of the mustard seed, a man sowed mustard seeds—which, though they are very small, produce a plant that grows large.2 Its twin parable, which follows directly after it, is the parable of the leaven, in which a woman puts a little leaven in three measures of flour, causing it to expand.3 Here again, Jesus equates the work of both sexes to that of spreading the gospel and portrays them as equal in value.

In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, also known as the parable of the ten bridesmaids,4 Jesus commends some women (the wise), and condemns others (the foolish). This parable is directly followed by the parable of the talents, in which some men are rewarded and others are condemned. In the story of the talents, the judgment is based on the men’s labors; in the story of the wise and foolish virgins, it’s based on what is and isn’t done during the waiting period. While all of the women sleep as they wait for the bridegroom, upon hearing the cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him,”5 the five wise women who had taken flasks of oil with them went into the marriage feast; while the unprepared women, who had to go buy more oil, were not let in. Jesus treated the subject of judgment with equivalent examples of both men and women.

One day, while sitting in the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus watched people putting money into the offering box. He saw many rich people putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins. Jesus specifically called His disciples over and drew their attention to the woman, saying: “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.”6 It’s understood that He wished to use her as an example of self-sacrifice. He may also have been highlighting the relationship between material possessions and discipleship.

All four Gospels tell of a group of women who followed Jesus in Galilee, and on to Jerusalem, and were present at His crucifixion.

“He went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”7

Mark’s Gospel speaks of the women present at Jesus’ crucifixion, and says of them: “When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him.”8 The Greek word translated here and 75 other times in the Gospels as follow most commonly means following in the sense of being a disciple. For a Jewish woman to leave home and travel with a rabbi (teacher) was unheard of. The fact that women, both respectable and not, traveled with Jesus and His male disciples was scandalous, as were many of the things that Jesus said and did. Yet scandalous or not, these women followed Jesus as His disciples.

As seen above, Mary Magdalene is generally listed first when female followers of Jesus are mentioned by name. She therefore seems to have been prominent among the women who followed and served Jesus, from the onset of His ministry in Galilee to His death and beyond. Joanna was a woman of some means and prominence, being married to the household manager of King Herod. Nothing is known about Susanna.

It’s interesting to note that it wasn’t the twelve apostles who were the witnesses to Jesus’ death (it seems only one was there), but rather Jesus’ women friends/disciples. All four Gospels attest that the women were present.9 The Gospel of John is the only Gospel which mentions a man being present, and it is in connection with a woman. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!”10

In the Gospel of Mark, the discipleship status of the women who were at the cross is shown in three ways: they followed Him when He was in Galilee, indicating that they had been disciples for the most part of His ministry; they ministered to Him; and by being at the cross and at His tomb, they were witnesses of the most crucial events in Jesus’ life—His death and later His resurrection. By portraying their discipleship, Mark is showing that these women are among the reliable witnesses to the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

All four Gospels report that some female disciples of Jesus were the first to visit the empty tomb and the first to be told that Jesus had risen. In three of the four Gospel accounts of the resurrection, Jesus first appeared to women.11

All of the earliest disciples were witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection in that they saw Him alive after His crucifixion, but women were the first to see Him. The fact that the Gospel writers told of women being the first to discover the empty tomb is often cited as being a significant argument for the Gospel accounts being true. Since women were generally not considered reliable witnesses in the first century, the Gospel authors wouldn’t have drawn attention to women as witnesses unless their testimony was true.

Jesus’ interaction with women, His accepting them as disciples, and highlighting them as positive examples in His teachings and as faithful witnesses set the stage for women partaking equally with men in the ministry of the early church, which was a radical change in the first century. This concept was understood by Jesus’ early followers, and was promoted and enacted in the early church. From Pentecost forward, women played important roles within the church, as is seen in the book of Acts and the Epistles.

Originally published May 2016. Adapted and republished June 2020.
Read by Simon Peterson.

1 Luke 15:4–7.

2 Matthew 13:31–32.

3 Matthew 13:33.

4 Matthew 25:1–13.

5 Matthew 25:6.

6 Mark 12:43.

7 Luke 8:1–3.

8 Mark 15:41.

9 See Mark 15:40–41; Matthew 27:55–56; Luke 23:49; John 19:25.

10 John 19:25–26.

11 See Matthew 28:5–9; Mark 16:9; John 20:14, 16.

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