What? Women disciples. Mmm…yes. He was quite the revolutionary when it came to women’s rights.
Here is the thing about history- even ancient history colors our lives, our thoughts, our opinions, our viewpoints, even our theology. That is why it is so important to look back, and evaluate how our past impacts our present.
We actually have some powerful examples of women in the Old Testament. Ruth was an example of courage, faithfulness, and honor. Deborah was a warrior and prophetess, and what about Jael? She lured the enemy into her tent, gave him milk to drink to get him sleepy, and they drove a tent stake through his temple!
But the Intertestamental Period was hard on women and we see a real digression in the writings of the Rabbis concerning them during this time. Rabbis like Ben Sirach move to limit women’s inheritance rights, and teach that to have a daughter is a tragedy. The teachings begin to reflect the opinion that the ideal woman is quiet and remains at home, out of sight. Where did this come from? Perhaps they were swallowing a bit of Hellenistic culture which believed in duality in nature. If there was dark there must be light therefore, man was good and…woman must be evil. The ideal Roman woman was out of sight, at home. Silent.
Then Jesus came.
The word disciple actually does appear in the New Testament as a feminine describing Dorcas in (Acts 9:36). Jesus also did the unthinkable by allowing women to travel with him and support him out of their means. The implication-He had male and female disciples.
But my favorite example is the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 8:1-3. In first century Jewish culture, to “sit at the feet” of a Rabbi was to take the place of a disciple, and where to we find Mary? At Christ’s feet. What is more, when her big sister, Martha, is upset by this Jesus defends her right to be there. He says she chose the “better” portion.
For a full explanation of these matters, please read Dr. Kenneth Bailey’s Women In the New Testament at Theology Matters.