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Apostle to the Apostles:
The Women Disciples of Jesus

Shawna R. B. Atteberry

While we most often focus on the twelve disciples as followers of Jesus, we sometimes overlook others who followed Jesus. Of course, there were the crowds that are often mentioned in association with Jesus. But there were others that are specifically mentioned as being Jesus’ followers. Luke tells us that there were a large group of women who were also followers of Jesus. In fact, Luke lists the women along with the disciples.

8:1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 8:2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 8:3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Mark tells us that the women at the cross were among those who followed Jesus and provided for him.

15:40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 15:41 These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

Matthew also tells us of women followers at the cross and later at the tomb (cf. John 19:25).

27:55 Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. 27:56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. . . . 27:61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

Mary Magdalene is one of those women, along with Mary the mother of James and other women named in the various accounts. Mark also tells us that a great number of women had come with Jesus to Jerusalem. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) all describe the women as those who had followed Jesus. The Gospel writers use "follow" over 75 times to show that following Jesus means being a disciple of Christ (for example, Matt 4:19, Mark 1:18, Luke 5:11, 27-28).

The twelve weren’t the only disciples who followed Jesus as he traveled through Galilee and Judah teaching, healing, and proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. This apparently large group of women also followed and witnessed Christ’s miracles and preaching throughout the region.

These women also "provided for them out of their resources" (Luke 8:3). "Provided" [Gk: diakoneo] means "to serve, wait on, minister to as deacon," and it was used in the early Christian community to describe "eucharistic table service and proclamation of the word" (Jane Schaberg, Women’s Bible Commentary, 376). These women supported and served Christ throughout his earthly ministry. They too were in service to the kingdom along with Jesus and the twelve.

Mary Magdalene "was a prominent disciple of Jesus who followed him in Galilee and to Jerusalem. She is always listed first in groups of named female disciples" (The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 884). She is mentioned in all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. Mary was one of the women Luke named in chapter 8, not only following Jesus, but serving him from her own means. She stood at the cross with the other woman and saw where Jesus was buried. She was the first to see the Risen Christ. She became known as the apostle to the apostles.

In all the Gospel accounts women are the first to the tomb Sunday morning, and they are the first to see the risen Christ and commanded to carry the good news to the disciples.

Mark 16:1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. . . . 16:5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 16:6 But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 16:7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you."

Matt 28:1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. . . . 28:6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." 28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Luke 24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they [the women who had come with him from Galilee] came to the tomb, . . . 24:3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 24:4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 24:5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 24:6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 24:7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." 24:8 Then they remembered his words, 24:9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 24:10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.

John 20:1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 20:2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."

In all four accounts different women are named, but one name is constant in all four gospels: Mary Magdalene. In John 20 she is the first to the tomb on Sunday morning, and the first person to whom Christ reveals himself after the resurrection.

After Mary discovers the empty tomb she runs to where the disciples are staying and reports that someone has removed Jesus from the tomb, and she does not know where they have put him. Peter and the beloved disciple then run to the tomb where the beloved disciple stoops down and looks in, and Peter enters the tomb. Peter sees the linen wrappings and the head cloth then the other disciple enters and sees the same thing. After seeing the linen and cloth the beloved disciple believes but does not understand because he does not realize the reality of the resurrection. Peter and the beloved disciple then leave.

John 20:11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 20:12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 20:13 They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." 20:14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 20:15 Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." 20:16 Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher).

Mary remains at the tomb weeping. She leans down and looks in to see two angels who ask her why she is crying. She answers, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him" (John 20:13). She then turns and sees Jesus but does not recognize him. Jesus asks her, "Whom are you looking for?" (v. 15). The first words Jesus said at the beginning of John were to the disciples of John: "What are looking for?" (John 1:38). Looking for Jesus is "one of the marks of discipleship in John." The repetition of the question in this chapter "establishes continuity between Mary and the first disciples of Jesus" (Gail R. O’Day, Women’s Bible Commentary, 389). Mary still does not recognize Jesus until he says her name. In something as simple and intimate as saying her name "the reality of the resurrection is revealed," (O’Day, 390) and Mary becomes the first person to see the risen Christ.

John 20:17 Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" 20:18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Apparently she tried to hug him, but Jesus tells her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father" (v. 17). It is not as harsh as it sounds. The relationship between Jesus and his disciples cannot remain as it was. Jesus cannot be held on earth–he must ascend to God, so that God’s plan to build his kingdom through the church can begin. Only when Jesus ascended to God would the Holy Spirit come and give his followers the fullness of life that Jesus had promised them. They could not hold him down with any preconceived notions or ideas–he was raised from the dead, and the possibilities of what he could accomplish through his believers were infinite.

Jesus then commissions Mary to proclaim his resurrection: "Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’" (v. 17). Mary obeyed. She returned to Jerusalem to proclaim, "‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her" (v. 18). She was the first preacher of the good news of the resurrection to the same men who had just been at the tomb before Jesus appeared to Mary.

In fact in all four gospel accounts Jesus appeared to women and commissioned them to go proclaim his resurrection to his male disciples. The tradition that Christ appeared first to women was well established by the end of the second century when Celsus, a pagan critic, discounted the gospel and resurrection by saying that an account given by a hysterical woman could not be trusted (cf. Luke 24:11). Origen, an Early Church Father, responded by saying that there was more than one woman who witnessed the risen Christ, and that none of them were hysterical in the Gospels.

It is ironic with the low status of women in that day that Jesus chose to appear to Mary and the other women, and that "the first Christian preachers of the Resurrection were not men, but women!" (The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 883). Jesus did not first appear to the "vicar" of the church, Peter, or even to the beloved disciple. He appeared to Mary and the women who followed him and served him. Mary saw him first, and she received the central tenet of the Christian faith: "He is risen!" She was the first to proclaim the good news, or gospel, of the resurrection. Jesus could have just as easily appeared to Peter and the beloved disciple, or to the disciples cowered behind locked doors. That he appeared to Mary first can only mean that this was by divine appointment and was a deliberate act on his part. Women as well as men were credible witnesses to the gospel and were commissioned to preach it to all with whom they came into contact. And the women were faithful in proclaiming the Gospel, even to the disciples.


Shawna Renee Bound, "Women in the Gospels" in Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (Copyright 2002 by Shawna Renee Bound).

C. S. Cowles, A Woman’s Place? Leadership in the Church (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1993).

Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

Gail R. O’Day, "John" in the Women’s Bible Commentary, exp. ed., eds. Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).

Virginia Stem Owens, Daughters of Eve: Women of the Bible Speak to Women of Today (Colorado Springs: NavPress Publishing Co., 1995).

Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992).

Jane Schaberg, "Luke" in the Women’s Bible Commentary, exp. ed., eds. Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).

Gerard Sloyan, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988).

Aida Besancon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Peabody, MA: Hendricksen Publishers, 1985).

-Shawna R. B. Atteberry, Copyright © 2018, Shawna R. B. Atteberry - All Rights Reserved
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