Women as the True Disciples and Apostles of Christ in the Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark, written c. 65-70 C.E., is the earliest of the four gospels (even being edited and reused as a source text for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew), and offers a unique perspective among the gospels on the meaning of discipleship and following Jesus. [1]  Mark places heavy emphasis on the suffering(s) and death of Jesus, and understands true Christian discipleship in terms of literally following Jesus’ example through experiencing and enduring suffering and persecution for the gospel (Mark 8.34; 10.28). For Mark, Jesus’ suffering and death is brought about by Jesus’ “life-praxis of solidarity with the social and religious outcasts of his society” (317), and so a true Christian disciple in her effort to follow Jesus can expect the same types reactions and experiences.  Moreover, these persecutions and sufferings are not to be avoided or evaded, because these experiences, in turn, provide further opportunity for the proclaiming of the gospel.  Additionally, discipleship, and specifically the discipleship of community (church) leaders, according to Mark, is altruistic, where the “greatest” is really to be the least since she serves all others in the community (Mark 9.33-37; 10.41-45).  Community leaders, as represented by the twelve, are not to be rulers, but “children” or  “slaves,” the most powerless and subordinate positions in the ancient Greco-Roman household.  Jesus’ death is seen as the liberating “ransom” that sets “many” persons free.  Thus, ironically,  “Jesus’ death–understood as the liberation of many people–prohibits any relationship of dominance and submission.” (318)

Mark, however, consistently portrays the twelve as misunderstanding Jesus’ identity, his “suffering messiahship and his call to suffering discipleship,” and the altruistic “ministerial service” that is required in the community of disciples. (319)  After Judas betrays Jesus, the remaining eleven eventually forsake Jesus during his passion and flee for safety.  Even Peter, the leading member of Jesus’ inner circle of the twelve, denies him.

However, Jesus is followed during his passion by certain women followers.  The discipleship of these faithful women who are willing to suffer and endure persecution–and perhaps even death given their association with Jesus–powerfully contrasts with Jesus’ abandonment by the twelve.  It is the female followers of Jesus who take up the cross and follow him to his death (Mark 8.34; 10.28).  Mark presents these women as exemplifying true Christian discipleship over and against the twelve.  This is because these women have genuine “faith,” the power, according to Mark, that is necessary to enable one to persist amidst suffering and persecution for Jesus and the gospel. Mark 15.41 stresses the true discipleship of these women by utilizing two verbs used elsewhere in the gospel to characterize faithful discipleship.  In this verse these women “followed” him (cf. Mark 8.34; 10.28) and “ministered” to him (c.f. Mark 10.41-45; this verb, in fact, underlies the entirety of Jesus’ ministry, as well as the type of leadership required among God’s community).

The presentation of women as true disciples in the Gospel of Mark is further evidenced at the beginning and end of the passion narrative.  I conclude with the following quote by feminist biblical scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza:

It is a woman who recognizes Jesus’ suffering messiahship and, in a prophetic-sign action, anoints Jesus for his burial, while “some” of the disciples reprimand her.  Further, it is a servant woman who challenges Peter to act on his promise not to betray Jesus.  In doing so she unmasks and exposes him for what he is, a betrayer.  Finally, two women, Mary of Magdala and Mary (the mother) of Joses, witness the place where Jesus was buried (15:47), and three women receive the news of his resurrection (16:1-8).  Thus at the end of Mark’s Gospel the women disciples emerge as examples of suffering discipleship and true leadership. They are the apostolic eye-witnesses of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection…They preserve the messianic identity of the crucified and resurrected Lord which is entrusted to the circle of the disciples…Those who are the farthest from the center of religious and political power, the slaves, the children, the gentiles, the women, become the paradigms of true discipleship. (321, 322, 323)


[1] The following analysis is based on the work of  feminist biblical scholar Elisabeth Schusser Fiorenza.  See her book entitled In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1988), pgs. 316-323.

8 Replies to “Women as the True Disciples and Apostles of Christ in the Gospel of Mark”

  1. Those who are the farthest from the center of religious and political power, the slaves, the children, the gentiles, the women, become the paradigms of true discipleship.

    Me gusta means I like it. Thanks TYD.

  2. JTJ,

    I just listened to the relevant sections of Professor Ehrman’s statements from the link that you have provided.

    I don’t have much time at present so I will be brief. My initial reaction to what Professor Ehrman has said would be to suggest that the list of resurrection witnesses that Paul adduces in 1 Corinthians 15.3-7–which list contains no mention of the female witnesses of the resurrection, as Ehrman states–is a formulaic or stereotyped list that would have been used by Paul and other early Christian missionaries in their public proclamation(s) of the gospel message, and for this reason would most likely have kept women witnesses off of the list since in such public proclamation situations a woman’s testimony would have had little validity or credibility to many listeners. I think it is also historically significant that all of the gospels have a woman/women as first witness(es) of the tomb and resurrection. This is significant because both the Synoptic Gospels and John, which are literarily independent of one another, both contain this tradition.

    Best wishes,


  3. I would also add that historicity is beside the point in this case. Whether or not women really were the first witnesses of the resurrection (I think they were) or whether they really were more receptive than the twelve (if this is true then Mark probably overstates this), the point is that Mark makes a valid theological point about women being spiritually receptive. It’s not what women really did with Jesus but how women respond to the gospel message and their function in the kingdom of God.

  4. I sent this to a good friend who is a feminist, who has also studied women in the scriptures extensively, and she pointed out that this all goes a bit extreme — in the sense of making women better than the apostles.

    I think she makes good points, and so while I really did like the ideas of how much women were involved and how dedicated they were, I agree with my friend that it’s probably looking beyond the mark a bit to say that the women were better than the apostles. I hadn’t noticed that as much the first time I read.

  5. m&m,

    Nothing you said really interacts in any specific way with what the post says. Feel free to have your friend participate here if she/he is interested!

    Best wishes,


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