The Gospel According to the Female Disciples

Saint Veronica wiping the face of Christ, Mattia Preti

During the weeks of Lent and Holy Week itself, the hymns are full of deep, dark confessions: was the one who crucified Christ. was the one who abandoned him. was the one who denied him. Just like his disciples.

That’s the narrative: we’re all terrible, faithless, sin-filled, wimpy people, just like Peter who denied Jesus on the third cock crow, just like the disciples who couldn’t even keep watch for one hour, just like Pontius Pilate who caved in to the crowd’s demands, just like the multitudes who chanted, “Crucify him!”

But that’s the male narrative.

The women? That isn’t like the women at all.

Mary anointed Christ’s feet and mopped it with her own hair, a foreshadowing both of Christ’s burial and of Christ washing the twelve disciples’ feet. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” Jesus told them. “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

Mary knew these things. She knew even without his example.

Pilate caved into the crowds’ unjust demands. His wife urged against this: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.”

There’s a common narrative about how the crowds cheering for Jesus on Palm Sunday were the same ones shouting for his crucifixion a few days later. This is absolutely not true. Luke records “a multitude of people and of women mourning and lamenting for him.” Christ even stops along the Via Dolorosa to address the women.

And while most of the male disciples had fled, the Gospel accounts go out of their way to place his female disciples at his crucifixion — not only the core band of women who had ministered to him along the way, but also a crowd of women who had followed him into Jerusalem. (Perhaps the same women waving palms and hailing him as the Messiah.) Several Marys and Salome stood by his cross. The only male disciple mentioned at the crucifixion is the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Whereas the twelve disciples couldn’t even keep watch for one hour while Christ prayed, the women kept watch over Christ even in death. When he was buried, there sat Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, watching opposite the tomb. And we all know the resurrection story — the women who had ministered to him in life came to minister to him in death and were rewarded with the first visit of the risen Christ. They were the first to believe and proclaim his resurrection, the first apologists, the first preachers.


You know, women, who are easily deceived and incapable of preaching, teaching, and leading in the church. Women, who need a spiritual covering from a man. Women, whom God saw fit to always place under the authority of another man because men are the real spiritual leaders.

If we’re looking at the numbers, the sex most faithful, most spiritually astute, and most blessed were women — the female disciples of Christ, the female followers of Christ. The (male) religious establishment persecuted and handed Christ over to death. The (male) political establishment ignored his sense of justice and crucified Christ. The (male) disciples fled in terror, denying Christ left and right.

But not the women.

There were many faithful men, of course. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus risked their positions and their lives by burying Jesus appropriately, and Mark notes Joseph’s courage in particular for doing so. John was evidently standing with the women, close enough for Christ to charge him with looking after his mother. The centurions believed after the earth quaked and the sky went dark: “Surely this was the Son of God!” And the crowds who followed and mourned Christ were comprised of many men as well.

But not one woman, not one female disciple, is mentioned as unfaithful. Not one female disciple denied him. Not one female disciple fled. Not one female disciple disbelieved the resurrection.

I’m not arguing for a matriarchal Christianity or the superiority of women. I’m pushing back against the ludicrous ideas that men by virtue of being male are more like Christ’s image, more spiritually capable, more suitable for guarding and guiding Christ’s church.

And I’m pushing back against this idea that there’s one spiritual narrative at Easter — the one where we’re all rotten, faithless deniers of Christ.

Maybe you are. But maybe your story at Easter is less like the male disciples’ and more like his female disciples’ — one of faithfulness, service, and love, of dashed hopes, of quiet mourning, of standing by and watching the reasons for your faith slip away, of watching God die.

Maybe you’re not like the alleged people who cried “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify him!” on Friday. Maybe you’re like the women who followed Christ into Jerusalem and then followed him down the Via Dolorosa.

Maybe you’re not like the disciples whom Jesus said would betray and deny him. Maybe you’re like the disciples who went to the tomb on Easter morning, still serving, still watching, still faithful, and were rewarded with the greeting of their beloved Lord.

Maybe, this Easter, you’re like Christ’s female disciples.

// More good reflections on this topic: Mary, the Woman Who Led God by Dalaina May, and Did Jesus Really Spend His Time with Just Twelve Men?, by Gail Wallace

13 thoughts on “The Gospel According to the Female Disciples

  1. maygrrl

    I loved this so much, Bailey! This year was the first time I encountered the idea that there are no women in the Gospels who spoke or acted against Jesus. While I have no doubt that Jesus had some female opposition too, it is significant that the portrayal of women in these accounts are all positive. I love how you captured that truth just in the stories of the women in Holy Week.

    I also appreciate how you acknowledged that faith journeys run the gamut. I certainly identify much more with the women in Jesus life who speak of a faith that has ached as it watched God die and then sat by the tomb because there is simply nowhere else to go but stay and pray and hope for resurrection.

    Thanks for this beautiful and very thoughtful post!


  2. Gail

    Suggestion, Bailey: “while MOST OF THE MALE disciples had fled, the Gospel accounts go out of their way to place his female disciples at his crucifixion”


  3. Bob Schilling

    A patent point undermining whee the article goes is the fact Jesus chose 12 men, exclusively men, as apostles. This article represents the all too common error of “over-correction.” Yes, men have far too often abused their God-given authority in the church, but that doesn’t eliminate the clear teaching of the Word of Christ, the Word of God, that the eldership, the leading and teaching ministry of the Church of Christ is limited to men. Distinct roles, equality as image bearers of God – but a divine template in Christ’s Church – the leaders and teachers, aghast, are male.

    The references to unbelieving Jewish and civil authorities in the article are superfluous and not germane to the point.


    • Bailey Steger

      There is no clear teaching that the eldership and leading and teaching ministry of the church is limited to men. You’re inferring that because Christ chose twelve male disciples, only men can be leaders in the church. That is not a clear injunction that only men should be leaders, as Gail Wallace points out in her article that I linked at the end of mine. If we’re making inferences about who should lead from whom Christ called and chose, we’d have to include women. Women were apostles (Junia), prophets (the daughters of Philip, the women prophesying in Corinth), deaconesses (Phoebe), teachers (Priscilla, Timothy’s mother and grandmother), and disciples in his inner circle (such as Mary). Women were entrusted with traveling with Paul as his companions and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection (female disciples at the tomb).

      To the contrary, the fact that the all-male Jewish and civil authorities disbelieved in Christ is very germane. God didn’t choose the male, powerful, rich, educated, Jewish, religious leaders. He often chose the female, powerless, poor, uneducated, Gentile, and pagan. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female — in Christ, there is no hierarchy of spiritual preference based on religion, socieconomic class, or gender.

      Plus, it’s absolutely silly to me that God would pass over a whole class of people (women) who throughout the Gospels are proven to be faithful and spiritually insightful for a class of people (men) who throughout the Gospels are more hit and miss on those things. When women are the more faithful, it’s clear from these examples that there is nothing about maleness that makes one more qualified and nothing about femaleness that makes one less qualified. We should not be restricting spiritual gifts or judging spiritual competency based on gender.


  4. Kristen

    Thank you so much for this beautifully written point! The fact that men have denied and not believed the preaching of women since the women first told them about the empty tomb has been on my heart very strongly recently and I believe it grieves God immensely.


    • Bailey Steger

      Yes. One of the gospels reports that all the disciples, except Peter, thought the women were telling “idle tales.” I feel like our Christian culture, both men AND women, continue to dismiss or undermine women’s spiritual contributions past and present.


  5. Holly

    In 53 years I have never heard this. Never thought about this in this way. Thank you for giving such substance and depth to “our” stories. You’ve given me much eatbto chew on. Maybe we are not second clas citizens after all 😉


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