Luke 8:1-3 says, “Soon afterwards [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” Mark 14:41 also says that the women at the cross were among those who followed Jesus and provided for him. Mary Magdalene is one of those women. Mark and the other Gospel writers use “follow” over 75 times to show that following Jesus means being a disciple of Christ. 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. There were also a group of women who followed and witnessed Christ’s miracles and preaching throughout the region.
These women also “provided for them out of their resources.” “Provided” or 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). Mary was one of the women Luke named in chapter 8 as, 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 of 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. 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 Christ reveals himself to. 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.
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, and does not, 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.
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 the 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. Origen, an Early Church Father (he translated the Bible into Latin), 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. Since Jesus could have just as easily appeared to Peter and the beloved disciple, or to the disciples cowered behind locked doors, that he did appear 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 they came into contact with. . .which is what they did.
Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002), “Women in the Gospels.”
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).