Hidden Disciples: Rediscovering the Female Disciples of Jesus | Magazine Features
It is undeniable that our earliest Christian literature emerged from a deeply patriarchal culture that tended to neglect women. At the same time, there was a general assumption in the ancient world that too many women in a religious movement – especially a new one – was a bad thing.
The pagan philosopher Celsus knew exactly what he was doing when he caricatured Christianity as a movement of beggars, women and children. Given this, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the gospels shine their spotlight most brightly on the actions of male disciples and missionaries.
But that’s by no means the whole story. Once we look carefully at the biblical texts, it is clear that Jesus also had a large number of female disciples. A clear example is found in Mark 3:31-35, where Jesus’ family arrived to take him home. Surveying the crowd gathered around him, Jesus declared that his true family were those who did the will of God – they were his “brother, sister and mother”.
The references to sister and mother here are striking and indicate that Jesus included women in the growing kingdom of believers around him. This is reinforced by the fact that Jesus frequently teaches women, heals them of infirmities and visits their homes.
More remarkably, there is evidence that women accompanied Jesus as he moved through Galilee from village to village. In Mark 15:40-41, Mark notes that many women went to Jerusalem with Jesus and followed him to Galilee.
Three of them are named – Mary Magdalene, another Mary and Salome. All of this suggests that we need to change our mental picture of Jesus and his disciples. You should no longer imagine him surrounded by only twelve men, but rather accompanied by a much larger mixed group.
In Paul’s day, there were certainly female and male apostles. In the first-century gendered world, a mixed group made sense: a man could not approach women easily, so it was best to share the work and for female followers to seek out other women in their homes, markets, or washing by a stream.
Most likely some of the women were related to her male disciples, or even to Jesus himself (tradition remembers Salome as her sister, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee appears in one story).
The prominence of Mary Magdalene in all the Gospels and her first place in the lists of women suggest that she may have held a particular role, perhaps as leader of the female disciples alongside Peter’s role as as leader of men.
As we enter the period of the early Church, the evidence of female disciples and leaders becomes even more striking. Women were missionary partners but also teachers, messengers, house church leaders, and interpreters of Paul’s letters.
That they assumed such roles implies that there were precedents among Jesus’ early followers, although specific details have not been recorded.
Prisca’s story is scattered throughout Acts and Paul’s letters. She is almost always mentioned alongside her husband, Aquila, but notably her name is often listed first. Although it hardly elicits comment today, it was highly unusual in antiquity and undoubtedly indicated its most important position within the Christian movement.
We first see Prisca in Corinth, caught up in an expulsion of Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2). She and her husband started a tent-making business and began spreading the gospel.
They greeted Paul when he arrived. Although the apostle later claims to have “planted the seed” in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:6), it is clear that Prisca and Aquila had already plowed the ground.
This pattern – of Prisca and her husband preparing the way for Paul – seems to have been replicated twice more. Around AD 52, the married missionaries set out for Ephesus, again making tents and leading a church from their home, only to be joined later by Paul (1 Corinthians 16:19,8). In Ephesus, Prisca met an educated Jew named Apollos.
She and Aquila began to teach her more about Christ, and strikingly the fact that his name is mentioned first suggests that she took the lead in his education. Such actions could easily have been frowned upon – educated men weren’t in the habit of taking lessons from women of lower status – but it’s a tribute to Prisca’s tact and diplomacy (and perhaps to the humility of Apollos) that everything seems to have gone well.
The last time we see this energetic and gifted woman, she is back in Rome, leading a house church and preparing once again for Paul’s visit (Romans 16:3-5). Prisca’s moves match Paul’s so perfectly that it’s hard not to imagine a distinct missionary strategy at work.
She and her husband often had to put themselves in harm’s way, and we can only guess what lies behind Paul’s tantalizing note that the couple “risked their lives” for him (Romans 16:4, ESV).
If it weren’t for Romans 16:1-2, Phoebe would be completely unknown, but clearly she was another incredibly important church leader at this time. Paul was planning a visit to Rome, and his letter to the Roman Church was one of the most important he would ever write.
He sets out his thoughts in a clear and comprehensive way, hoping for a warm welcome from the congregations there. In the last chapter he provides a list of people he knew in the Church, hoping they would vouch for him (Prisca and Aquila appear in v3-5). The list, however, begins with a commendation of the person who delivered the letter – Phoebe.
Older translations tend to downplay this woman. She is described as an “assistant”, which gives her the air of a supportive assistant. A better translation from the Greek attributes it to the deacon of the church of Cenchreae.
That this was a leadership position is suggested by Paul’s comment that she was a “benefactor to many”, including himself. She was obviously a wealthy and well-connected Christian disciple (“sister”) and leader.
Given Paul’s lackluster (and undeserved) reputation for women, it’s pretty amazing that he chose to send one of the most important letters he’s ever written from a prominent female leader. .
Paul asked the Church to welcome her and give her everything she needed. Phoebe’s duties would not only have included delivering the letter, but presumably reading and explaining Paul’s meaning.
Paul had to trust that she had a good understanding of its meaning, and that she would be able to convey it appropriately to others. The first Pauline interpreter was therefore a woman.
Where Phoebe and Prisca’s contributions were overlooked, Junia was nearly obliterated. A brief reference to her can be found hidden in Paul’s list of acquaintances in Romans 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my parents who have been in prison with me.
They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.
It is clear that Junia was a missionary woman, along with her colleague (perhaps her husband?), Andronicus. For Paul, Junia was an apostle. It was an important title for Paul, who saw himself as an apostle of Christ, sent by Jesus with a specific commission.
What is striking is not only that Paul called her “outstanding among the apostles,” but that she had followed Jesus longer than he had and had also been imprisoned for her faith. Did she know Jesus during his lifetime, perhaps?
Older Bibles have obscured Junia’s presence. Although early Christian scholars recognized that Junia was female, from the time of Martin Luther onwards translators have struggled to imagine that the individual here could be female.
Their strategy was to change gender, replacing the common female name “Junia” with an entirely made up male name, “Junias”. Nowadays, this is recognized as a glaring example of bias and Junia has returned to her original gender.
However, this bizarre story highlights just how fragile the record of women’s participation can be – and how easily they can be swept away.
Part of the reason women were able to play a full role in the life of the early church was the shared sense that the end of the world was approaching. “Millennial movements” like the one that formed around Jesus are often characterized by a more egalitarian structure.
It was important to get the word out as quickly as possible, and all workers were welcome.
Over time, however, the Church increasingly needed to look respectable in order to ingratiate itself with society at large. It is in this period – at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century – that we find texts limiting the activities of women (e.g. 1 Timothy 2:11-15) and interpolations in the letters of Paul making same (like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35). These are the texts that are regularly quoted when it comes to women’s participation.
But it is important to remember the multitude of female disciples, apostles, teachers, prophets and deacons whose work ensured the spread of the first message.
If their stories are glossed over, it is not because they played a lesser role, but because the culture of their time allowed – and even encouraged – their contributions to be forgotten. Once we get the big picture and look for clues, we might be able to remember it again.
Joan Taylor and Helen Bond are the authors of Remembrance of Women: Female Disciples of Jesus (John MurrayPress)