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

Women as the True Disciples and Apostles of Christ in the Gospel of Mark June 5, 2009

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.

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