New College, University of Edinburgh

Jesus’ Female Disciples: The New Evidence (Minerva Media, Channel Four)


In this programme Helen Bond, Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh, and Joan Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, search for evidence of Jesus’ female disciples and their legacy.

The following resources are provided here for those who want to find out more about the content of this documentary.



For introductions to the historical Jesus, see:

Bond, Helen, Jesus: A Very Brief History (London: SPCK, 2017).

Bond, Helen, The Historical JesusA Guide for the Perplexed (London: T&T Clark, 2012).

Charlesworth, James H., The Historical Jesus: The Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008).

Ehrman, Bart D., Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Fredriksen, Paula, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).

Freyne, Sean, Jesus, A Jewish Galilean: A New Reading of the Jesus Story (New York: T&T Clark, 2004).

Horsley, Richard, A., Jesus in Context: Power, People, and Performance (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).

Sanders, E.P., The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).

Vermes, Geza, Jesus the Jew: a Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981).

Wright, N. T., The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering who Jesus was and Is (Downers Grove; Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)


Women in Second Temple Judaism

Ilan, Tal, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine: An Inquiry into Image and Status (Texte und Studien  zum Antiken Judentum 44; Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1995).

Kraemer, Ross S. and D’Angelo Mary Rose (eds.), Women and Christian Origins (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Taylor, Joan E., Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo’s ‘Therapeutae’ Reconsidered (Oxford: OUP, 2003).


Female Disciples of Jesus (and their presentation in the Gospels)

Women appear at times in the Gospels, and they are even named, but they can be read as passive and marginal. This is partly because the Gospel writers tend to hide the women among Jesus’ band of disciples for large parts of their narratives. They only appear when they are essential as witnesses, when the male disciples have gone into hiding. For example, in Mark 15:40-41, at Jesus’ crucifixion, it is said: ‘There were also women watching from a distance, among whom were Mary the Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the less and Joset, and Salome: women who when he was in Galilee served him (or: provided for him) and many others who went up with him to Jerusalem.’ We have to then remember they were with Jesus in Galilee when they were not previously noted.


Bauckham, Richard, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (London: T&T Clark, 2002).

Conway, Colleen M., Men and Women in the Fourth Gospel: Gender and Johannine Characterization (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999).

Corley, Kathleen E., Private Women, Public Meals. Social Conflict in the Synoptic Tradition (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993).

D’Angelo, Mary R., ‘(Re) Presentations of Women in the Gospels: John and Mark,’ Women and Christian Origins, ed. R. S. Kraemer and M. R. D’Angelo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 129-49.

D’Angelo, Mary Rose, ‘Women Partners in the New Testament,’ Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion6/1 (Spring, 1990),. 65-86.

Fehribach, Adeline, The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Female Characters in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998).

Levine, Amy-Jill with Maria Mayo Robbins, eds., A Feminist Companion to the New Testament Apocrypha (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2006).

Seim, Turid Karlsen, The Double Message: Patterns of Gender in Luke and Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).

Taylor, Joan E., ‘Two by Two: The Ark-etypal Language of Mark’s Apostolic Pairings,’ in Joan E. Taylor (ed.), The Body in Biblical, Christian and Jewish Texts (London: T&T Clark Bloomsbury, 2014), 58-82.


Ossuaries and Naming

The hills of Jerusalem are dotted with cave-tombs. In these tombs archaeologists have discovered hundreds of ossuaries, usually made of stone, in which the bones of the dead were deposited. On many of these there are names. About a quarter of all women named on these were called ‘Mary’, the Hebrew or Aramaic names Maria, Mariam, Mariamene or Mariamme. It is no surprise then that in the New Testament we find that a number of Jesus’ women disciples – and his mother – have the same name. Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, Jesus’ mother Mary, Mary the mother of John Mark, and so on.  Women were usually defined by their association with their husbands, fathers or sons. ‘Mary wife of Shimon’, or fathers, ‘Mary daughter of Eleazar’, so not distinctively on their own as a rule. However, they are occasionally given nicknames as a way of distinguishing them in a family group. Very rarely are they identified by their hometown. If they are, this would probably indicate independence of male guardianship.


McCane, Byron R., Roll Back the Stone: Death and Burial in the World of Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2003).

Ilan, Tal, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity Part I: Palestine 330 BCE-200 CE (Texte und Studien zum Antiken Judentum 91; Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 2002).


Mary Magdalene

In all the Gospels Mary witnesses Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, and she is then the foundational witness (see John 20). Prior to this, she is hidden in the Gospel narratives, as with the other female disciples of Jesus. She does appear with ‘many other’ women on the road with Jesus in Luke 8.2-3, where she is said to have been rid of ‘seven demons’. This most likely indicates she was suffering from illness of some kind, since Jesus is shown to heal people by ‘casting out demons’ frequently in the Gospel narratives. She is not to be confused with the unnamed repentant woman who wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair in Luke 7:36-50. This woman was conflated with Mary in Western (Catholic) tradition, as evidenced by sermons given by Pope Gregory in 591, but in Eastern (Orthodox) tradition she is remembered as Jesus’ foremost female disciple without any association with the unnamed woman.


Mary’s name ‘the Magdalene’ derives from the Aramaic word magdal, which means ‘tower’. There were many places called ‘the Tower of something’ in the first century, but no one locality just called ‘the Tower’, Magdala, though many places could be dubbed this by locals for short. It is likely Mary came from a place called Magdal Nuniyya, the Tower of Fish, a fishing village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, identified in the earliest literature just north of the city of Tiberias. Later on, in the 5th-6th centuries, Christians identified another nearby locality – probably the ruins of Tarichaea – as Magdala and developed it as a pilgrimage site, with its name continuing until today. The question is whether calling Mary ‘the Magdalene’ (Aramaic: Magdalaitha) is a kind of nickname indicating both her independence and also her status: it means, literally, ‘the toweress’, or the ‘tower-woman’.


de Boer, Esther A., Mary Magdalene: Beyond the Myth, translated by John Bowden (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997).

de Boer, Esther A. The Gospel of Mary: Beyond a Gnostic and a Biblical Mary Magdalene (JSNTS 60; London and New York: T&T Clark, 2004).

Brock, Ann Graham, Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle. The Struggle for Authority (Harvard Theological Studies 51, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).

Griffith-Jones, Robin, Mary Magdalene: The Woman Jesus Loved (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1998).

Hartenstein, Judith, ‘Mary Magdalene the Apostle: A Re-Interpretation of Literary Traditions?’ Lectio difficilior 1 (2007).

Haskins, Susan, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (New York: Riverhead, 1993).

King, Karen, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Women Apostle (Oregon: Polebridge Press, 2003).

Schaberg, Jane, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene (London: Continuum, 2002).

Taylor, Joan E., ‘Missing Magdala and the Name of Mary “Magdalene”,’ Palestine Exploration Quarterly 146 (2014), 205-22.



Unlike Mary Magdalene Joanna has not elicited the same attention, probably because she is only explicitly mentioned in Luke 8:2-3. Here she is called ‘Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward’ who was one of many women on the road with Jesus who ‘served (or provided for) him from their resources’. This raises many questions about how a woman associated with the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas’ court (the Greek word for a ‘steward’, epitropos, indicates an important administrator) could end up with other women on the road with Jesus, ‘providing for’ or ‘serving’ him. The word used here diakoneo, is one often associated with specifically Christian ministry, from which we get the term ‘deacons’, Greek diakonoi, and implies activity and engagement. The resources mentioned implies the women had independence enough to use their own possessions for the good of the movement. It is indicated in the passage that, like Mary Magdalene, other women disciples were especially motivated to accompany Jesus on the road, despite its many dangers and discomforts, after being healed. This is clearly a Lucan expansion of Mark 15:40-41) but there is no reason to suppose it does not contain additional authentic memories.


The elegant theatre of Tiberias, built by Herod Antipas, provides a fitting location for considering her role in the Jesus movement.

Atrash, W., ‘The Roman Theater at Tiberias,’ Qadmoniot 45:44 (2012), 79-88 (Hebrew).



Also mentioned in Luke 8:2-3 as one of the female disciples on the road serving or providing for Jesus is Susannah. We know nothing about her.


Salome and the Salome Cave

Mark 15:40 mentions Salome without any further information, as if readers would know who she was. She was one of the women who witnessed the empty tomb (16:1). Mary Magdalene and Salome appear together as foremost female disciples of Jesus in literature of the 2nd-3rd century (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of the Egyptians, through to the 4th-century Questions of Bartholomew) but in the Protevangelium of James, another 2nd-3rd century text, Salome is associated not with Mary Magdalene but with Mary the Mother of Jesus, when she doubts the testimony of Mary’s midwife (while in the later 7th-8th century Gospel of Ps. Matthew Salome is even identified as a midwife). In the tradition of another late text, The History of Joseph the Carpenter, she accompanies the holy family to Egypt. In mainstream tradition she was blended with Mary the wife of Cleopas and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Salome seems to have been reconfigured in different ways in Christian memory, and she never made it to the status of a saint in mainstream tradition. However, in 1982 a mysterious cave came to light in excavations near ancient Maresha. This cave was covered in graffiti in Greek, Syriac and Arabic testifying to a long veneration of a ‘holy/Saint Salome’, not recorded anywhere else. The excavators associated the Salome of the cave with the late textual evidence of Mother Mary’s midwife companion, but she is here prayed to as a healer. This recalls the fact that the early apostles (envoys) of Jesus among his disciples were supposed to spread his message and heal (Mark 6:6-12). It was originally a Jewish burial cave, and its adaptation probably took place no earlier than the 3rd century, with continued use through to at least the 7th century, though the dating remains unclear.


Bauckham, Richard, ‘Salome the Sister of Jesus, Salome the Disciple of Jesus, and the Secret Gospel of Mark,’ Novum Testamentum  33 (1991), 245-75.

Di Segni, Leah and Patrich, Joseph, ‘The Greek Inscriptions in the Cave Chapel at Horvat Qasra,‘Atiqot 10 (1990), 141–54, 31*–35*.

Drori, Joseph, ‘The Cave Chapel of Horvat Qasra: The Arabic Inscriptions,’ ‘Atiqot 10 (1990), 137–39, 30*.

Kloner, Amos, ‘The Cave Chapel of Horvat Qasra,’ ‘Atiqot 10 (1990), 129 -15429*-30* (in Hebrew and English summary).

Naveh, Joseph, ‘The Cave Chapel of Horvat Qasra: The Syriac Inscriptions,’ ‘Atiqot 10 (1990), 139, 30*.


Mary and Martha

Mary and Martha appear in both the Gospel of Luke and in the Gospel of John as key female disciples of Jesus. In Luke 10:38-42 Mary’s role as a disciple who prioritises listens to his teaching, prior to ‘service’, is strongly validated. In John they are defined as the sisters of Lazarus who recognise Jesus as Christ (John 11), and address him as their teacher. They appear to have a house in Bethany where Jesus stays, and Mary is identified as anointing him (John 12:1-4). The memory of their important role is preserved in the earliest Christian art of sarcophagi (see below), and in a cave outside Jerusalem, a 4th-century pilgrimage site that was remembered as being part of their home.


Reinhartz, Adele, ‘From Narrative to History: The Resurrection of Mary and Martha,’ “Women Like This New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World, ed. Amy-Jill Levine (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991).

Taylor, Joan E., Christians and the Holy Places (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 180-192.

Yamaguchi, Satoko, Mary and Martha: Women in the World of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002).



The Legacy of the Female Disciples

In the early churches there was enormous diversity, and female leaders are found in most traditions (among the Marcionites, Carpocratians, Gnostics and Montanists, for example). Their claims to authority could not have sprung from nowhere, and the evidence of important women disciples of Jesus and their role as (at the very least) witnesses to the resurrection suggests that they functioned as role models for centuries. In the mainstream tradition, the question of women bishops and presbyters is much debated on the basis of both New Testament and early Christian texts. One of the problems is that surviving literature has been selected in a way that promotes a type of Christianity that triumphed in the 4th century under the auspices of the Roman emperor Constantine, a military leader who adopted Christianity with a view to conquering land and defeating his enemies, given that one branch of the faith had become increasingly popular with his soldiers. Despite the dominant discourse that would marginalise women at this time, fragments of texts, inscriptions, art and archaeology can enable us to catch a glimpse of women still exercising leadership roles, on the basis of the precedents they knew, through to the 6th-7th centuries.


Clark, Elizabeth A., Women in the Early Church (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1983).

Cooper, Kate, Band of Angels: the Forgotten World of Early Christian Women (New York: Atlantic Books, 2013).

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. 10th anniversary ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1994).

Miller, Patricia Cox ( ed.), Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts  (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005).



  • CSCO Team,
  • 8th April 2018


  • Revd Dr Andrew Misiura, 10th April 2018 at 10:51 pm | Reply

    A very watchable programme with some interesting theories about Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Salome. However, somewhat incomplete in its failure to mention the role of women as deacons in the early church. As deacons women would have been ordained and carried out sacramental duties such as baptism, preached from the gospels as well as assisted at the altar. They could have had specific leadership duties also and would have been expected to not only fund themselves but contribute what they could to the emerging church. The deacon has a special role in directly assisting the bishop and so the ‘two by two’ notion fits with the 12 Apostles being accompanied by women in a diaconal role. The role of Pope Galasius and Emperor Constantine in masculinising the christian faith and especially the clergy is not incompatible with the diaconal theory. Parts of the Christian Church today has already ordained women as deacons (and subsequently as priests and bishops).

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  • Phoebe Knopf, 16th June 2021 at 6:27 pm | Reply

    Thank you for this wonderful exploration of Jesus female disciples. I heard (on Youtube) the compelling discussion with Helen Bond,
    Joan Taylor and Andrew Carwood. Is there some way for me and other interested people to view
    the film at this point?
    Thank you for considering this question.

  • Phoebe Knopf, 16th June 2021 at 6:29 pm | Reply

    ( For some reason I keep getting a message that I’ve already asked the question below, but I haven’t. I hope my message goes through this time.)
    Thank you for this wonderful exploration of Jesus female disciples. I heard (on Youtube) the compelling discussion with Helen Bond,
    Joan Taylor and Andrew Carwood. Is there some way for me and other interested people to view
    the film at this point?
    Thank you for considering this question.

  • Sebastian Samuel, 13th November 2021 at 7:05 am | Reply

    This would seem to have put them at a distinct disadvantage at becoming a disciple. You are invited to attend the Jesus’ Female Disciples Lecture Series where you’ll hear.

  • Dylan Jayden, 16th April 2023 at 7:53 am | Reply

    In this programme Helen Bond, Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh, and Joan Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins. So far this New Evidence on Jesus’s Female Disciples is not that new.

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