Cressida Connolly

Jesus’s female disciples remain women of mystery

If the Marys and Salomes are hard to distinguish, the word ‘diakonos’ and the vagaries of the Greek masculine plural are equally problematic

Jesus’s female disciples remain women of mystery
‘Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary’ by Henryk Siemiradzki. [Alamy]
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Women Remembered: Jesus’s Female Disciples

Joan Taylor and Helen Bond

Hodder & Stoughton, pp. 224, £16.99

Is there a patron saint of conjecture? Perhaps it is a name known only to Bible scholars, who have rich cause to guard it jealously. Even if such a saint is invoked by the academy alone, the petitioning must be pretty constant. Lucky, then, that this account of the early female followers of Jesus is jointly authored, for it takes more than one person to dream up the vocabulary required for 200 pages of guesswork. As Joan Taylor and Helen Bond admit in their introduction: ‘Sometimes there’s not much to go on and we’ll need to use our imaginations.’

In the 184 pages which follow, we find all the usual suspects: presumably; it is impossible to know; we don’t know; it seems unlikely; the strong likelihood; we might wonder; probably; maybe; perhaps; if we look carefully; it is difficult not to imagine, we may speculate. They’re all here.

The authors – both highly distinguished scholars – draw on all the available sources, especially the gospels of the New Testament, the Apocrypha and the accounts of such contemporary historians as Josephus. They provide plenty of context on everything, from women’s hairstyles of the time to the ancient fishing industry. As guides they are learned and spry. But there’s no disguising the slimness of the pickings.

We have all heard of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene and those of us who learned Bible stories as children or who practise the faith will also recall Martha and Mary and the widow with her mite; some may also remember the sick woman who was healed by touching Jesus’s robe. One of Jesus’s most radical pronouncements concerned a woman who was to be stoned for adultery, whose tormentors were brought up short when he told them: ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’

The present volume proposes a few more besides. Someone called Phoebe seems to have been entrusted by Paul to take his letter to Rome. There are later followers called Tabitha and Prisca. Surmise is required throughout. About a woman called Joanna, the authors wonder: ‘Did she feel something was missing from her life?’ Of another called Salome we are told: ‘Salome’s journey from confusion to acceptance must have been momentous.’

There are many famines in the Bible, not least a dire shortage of names. This provides welcome material for our authors. Were there two people called Mary at the Crucifixion or three? Which Mary is which? Their Salome, we learn, is not the same Salome who did the sexy dancing for Herod which resulted in the decapitation of John the Baptist. There are several pages about the possible meaning of ‘Magdalene’: was it a village with a tower, or did it mean Mary was a towering figure among the disciples? Or could she have come from a place whose name means ‘Tower of Fish’?

Much of the authors’ case rests on two points of semantics. In ancient Greek (the language of the gospels, though not the language spoken by Jesus) the masculine plural could stand for males and females. So, when the gospels relate that a crowd drew around Jesus and that ‘they’ followed him, this may have meant women were among their number. The second, and I would posit more contentious, word is diakonos, which meant serving, or ministering. It is the source of our word ‘deacon’. The authors propose that women like Martha, commonly supposed to have been involved in such menial tasks as serving food, may in fact have been ministering. I’d say that the merest glance into any household anywhere offers a powerful refutation of such an interpretation.

It would be a victory for feminist theologians if Martha had in fact been a deacon. The story of Jesus rebuking her for waiting on everyone while her pious sister sat at his feet is one of the most irking in the New Testament. ‘Did Martha feel put down and humiliated?’ the authors wonder. Furious, more like. Clearly her sister was both passive aggressive and attention seeking:

During the meal, Mary brought in a large amount of costly perfume and anointed Jesus’s feet, wiping them with her hair. She used so much perfume that the whole house was filled with fragrance.

It is not hard to imagine how maddening this performance must have been to Martha, as she slogged over the dishing-up.

In a spirit of good cheer, the authors sprinkle the text with exclamation marks: ‘the wine ran out!’;‘there were no paper or plastic bags in antiquity!’ Perhaps this is for the benefit of students, for whom this will surely become the authoritative work on the subject. Even so, I’d wager there are more exclamation marks than women disciples within these pages. Near the end, the authors admit to ‘the strong likelihood that we are not going to find perfect female role models’. They’re right.