Leadership Roles of Women in the Johannine Community

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2008 »Volume 45 2008 Number 2 »Leadership Roles Of Women In The Johannine Community

Peter Hongliang Xing

Peter Hongliang XING is a graduate of Shanxi Catholic Seminary, Peoples’ Republic of China.  He took the one-year Pastoral Renewal Program at EAPI in 2003 and then moved to Loyola School of Theology, where he obtained his master’s degree in theology.


Even a cursory reading of the Fourth Gospel shows that Jesus interacts equally with men and women in his public life.  All are called to discipleship through faith in Jesus as Messiah and Savior and through this faith find life to the full.  Some characters are depicted as already having a relationship with Jesus when they make their appearance in the gospel; others are shown in their first encounter with him.  The women in the gospel fall into the same pattern.

It must be remembered that the gospel does not emphasize or focus on a leadership group like the Twelve.  Although the Twelve are mentioned, the circle of the Twelve plays no role in the Fourth Gospel.  Pastoral responsibility is conferred on only one person, Simon Peter, in John 21.  But in spite of the commission to feed Jesus’ lambs and sheep, the task of safeguarding the revelation of Jesus is entrusted to the beloved disciple, who is given no pastoral responsibility by Jesus.  A closer examination of Peter’s commission shows that the foundation of all service of the community is a personal commitment to Jesus, who alone is light and life, the way and the truth (Jn 14:6).

In this context, what can be said about women, their role, and possible leadership function in the Fourth Gospel?  To answer this question is the precise purpose of the present study.  The investigation into the possible leadership roles of women will bring out the following:

  1. Jesus interacts equally with men and women.  Men and women both have access to Jesus and to the revelation he brings.
  2. Men and women are both called to discipleship.
  3. There are possible leadership roles for women in the Johannine community.

Jesus Interacts Equally with Men and Women

A very quick overview of the Fourth Gospel will make clear that Jesus interacts equally with men and women.  In John 1:19ff. Jesus gathers his first disciples: Andrew, an unnamed man, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael.  In John 2:1-11, the mother of Jesus takes the initiative in calling the attention of her Son to the need for wine in the wedding party.  She is instrumental in getting her Son to provide the best wine in superabundance.  The passages of the interaction between Mary and Jesus will be analyzed in detail below.  It is sufficient here to simply point out the interaction.  In John 3, Jesus attempts to explain the requirements for eternal life to Nicodemus.  In John 4, Jesus takes the initiative in leading the Samaritan women to wonder whether he could be the Messiah.  In the last section of John 4, he leads the royal official and his household to faith by healing the official’s son.  In John 5, he cures both physically and spiritually a man lame for thirty-eight years.  In John 9, Jesus heals and leads to faith in him a man born blind.  In John 11, the sisters Mary and Martha seek Jesus’ help for their brother; Jesus takes the initiative to lead Martha to deeper faith in him.  In John 12, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet.  In John 20, Jesus leads Mary of Magdala to faith in the resurrection and commissions her to proclaim his triumph to the disciples.

In each of these encounters, the woman in question is invited and called to take another step in faith in her relationship with Jesus.  The mother of Jesus is called to move from being a mother to becoming a disciple; the Samaritan woman is led to take the first hesitant steps of faith and to witness to it to her own townmates; Martha is asked to put her faith in the resurrection at the end of the world in Jesus present now; Mary of Bethany is led to join his hour in advance; Mary of Magdala is led to recognize the risen Lord and subsequently to become his messenger.

Women and Men Are Called to Discipleship

Schnackenburg’s definition of Johannine faith can also serve as a description of the meaning of “disciple” in the Fourth Gospel.  Schnackenburg writes:

It [Johannine faith] is the reception of the revelation proclaimed by Jesus, the personal acceptance of this unique revealer and savior, personal union with him in a growing understanding, open confession, and active love according to his commandments and example.1

If one takes the above as a description of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, all, whether men or women, are on the road toward discipleship, with the exception possibly of the beloved disciple.  No special demonstration is necessary in the case of the men, who begin to follow Jesus in John 1.  The first followers were disciples of John.  Simon Peter and Nathanael become followers through the instrumentality of Andrew (Jn 1:41) and Philip (Jn 1:45), respectively.  The entire gospel depicts their gradual growth in faith and discipleship.  Although its says in John 2:11, “They saw his glory and believed in him,” it is only Simon Peter in John 6 who confesses Jesus as the Holy One of God and Thomas at the very end of John 20 acknowledges Jesus as “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28).  Even after the confession in John 6, where Peter speaks for the Twelve, one of that circle betrays Jesus and Peter himself denies him three times.  It is only in John 21 that Peter finally affirms three times that he does love Jesus and only then is he entrusted with the sheep of Jesus (Jn 21:15-19).  Becoming a disciple is a gradual process.  The same is true with the royal official, who becomes a believer with his household after putting his trust in the word of Jesus (Jn 4:50,53).  The man born blind and healed by Jesus sticks to what has happened to him and finally is led to full faith through the personal encounter with Jesus (Jn 9:38).  For both the royal official and the man born blind, coming to full faith and becoming fully disciples is a process.

It is no different with the women.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, is led from her role of mother to that of disciple.  The Samaritan woman is carefully led to wonder about the possibility of the man at the well being the long-expected Messiah and so with the rest of the women characters in the gospel.  In what follows, we shall look at these in greater detail with a view of determining whether or not the text leaves an opening for leadership functions in the Johannine community.

Possible Leadership Roles for Women

A study of the Jesus movement depicted in the synoptics shows that Jesus calls the Twelve and sends them out on mission equipped with his power (Mk 3:14f.; 6:7).  The Twelve are also known as apostles.  Within the circle of the Twelve, Jesus also chose a group of three to witness to special manifestations of his power (Mk 5:37; 9:2).  However, in the Fourth Gospel, the term “apostle” is never used and the Twelve do not have special authority.  The gospel also does not give enough information to say anything definite about leadership structures or offices in the community for whom it was written.  Even though in John 20 and 21, where Mary Magdalene and Peter respectively are commissioned by Jesus, they are not the guarantors of the revelation of Jesus.  That guarantor in the Johannine community is the beloved disciple who never received any explicit commission but whose authority seems to be the love of the Lord for him and his love for the Lord (Jn 19:35; 21:24).

Leadership in the Johannine community is founded on love for Jesus and service to the community.  It means to bring others to Jesus; to have others obey his word; to accept his revelation and to live in accord with it; to commit one’s life to him; and to lay down their lives for the sheep.

The Mother of Jesus (Jn 2:1-12; 19:25-27)

A Disciple from the Beginning to the End— From Cana to the Cross

The first woman encountered in the Fourth Gospel is Jesus’ own mother, and she is also the first character introduced in the story of Cana.  The singling out of this character hints that she may have an important role to play in the narrative that follows.  As the mother of Jesus, she appears not only at the wedding at Cana (2:1-21), but also at the crucifixion (19:25-27).  This makes her the only character who is identified at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and thus the only witness to both the first and final revelation of Jesus’ glory.  Her identity is always established by her relationship to Jesus.

Mother and Son: Discipleship as Relational to Jesus

The mother of Jesus, Jesus, and his disciples were guests at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee (Jn 2:1-11).  Verses 3-5 are crucial for understanding not only the pericope, but especially the relationship between Jesus and his mother.  In verse 3, she tells Jesus that “They have no more wine.”  Note that she makes no request.2  She merely states the fact that the wine has run out.  Jesus’ answer surprises her.  In the NIV it reads: “Dear woman, why do you involve me?  My time has not yet come” (2:4).3  More idiomatically, Jesus says equivalently: “This is none of your business, woman, my hour has not yet come.”  The answer of the mother of Jesus surprises even more.  She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5).  Jesus then proceeds to change water into wine and give the wedding party an abundance of excellent wine, far better than the one that ran out.  The question that needs to be asked is this: What has happened in that conversation between the statement of need and the advice to the servants that changed Jesus’ refusal to a willingness to work a miracle on behalf of the wedding party?

The key words to an understanding of what is unsaid are “woman,” “hour,” and “do whatever he tells you.”  Without stopping to be the mother of Jesus, Mary becomes the spokesperson of the wedding guests, or better, the spokesperson of Israel in need of a redeemer.4  “They have no wine” means equivalently, “we lack life, joy, in short, redemption.”  This seems to be what Jesus hears and he responds that the time set for this gift, “the hour,” has not yet come, but if she and Israel follow Jesus faithfully as disciples, they will come to the hour and receive what they really want.5  When the mother of Jesus turns to the servants and bids them do what Jesus will tell them, she shows that she herself has begun to follow him in obedience to his word.6  The proof is that her second appearance in the gospel is under the cross of her son at the fulfillment of the hour (Jn 19:25-27).  As a sign of the beginning of the Messianic age, the Messianic wedding banquet, and the wine of the fullness of life that will flow from the pierced heart of Jesus on the cross,7 Jesus then changes water into an abundance of the best wine.8

Mother as Faithful Disciple

Jn 19:25-27 is the only other scene in which the mother of Jesus appears and it takes place at the foot of the cross.  This scene is closely linked to the wedding at Cana through the key words “mother of Jesus” and “woman.”  Jesus takes the initiative to speak to the woman who was the first character in the narrative to commit herself unconditionally to his word (cf. 2:35), and tells her to accept the beloved disciple as her son; and then, he turns to the beloved disciple and commands him to accept the mother of Jesus as his mother.

This short scene is set in the context of Jesus handing over his spirit (Jn 19:30) and blood and water flowing from his pierced side (Jn 19:34) and seems to symbolizes the birth of the Christian community.9  It is the hour of Jesus’ fulfillment of his mission and return to the Father.  An unnamed disciple and woman stand under the cross to emphasize their symbolic or representative character.  In the Fourth Gospel, characters are first concrete individuals that take on additional meaning.  This is true here.  The beloved disciple is first of all an individual and the woman is the mother of Jesus.  Both, however, take on, as already said, symbolic meaning.  The woman becomes representative of all redeemed and may well signify “Mother Church.”10  In a similar way, the beloved disciple represents all disciples called to follow their Lord in loving obedience.  The beloved disciple is given a new mother; he is adopted into a new family of Jesus and becomes a brother of Jesus.11  The woman is entrusted to the care of the beloved disciples.  Most important, the scene fulfills what the mother of Jesus longed for when she stated: “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3).  Here at the cross, through the beloved disciple’s care, she receives what the water changed to wine then only foreshadowed.  However, she is not only given what she wants, she is also given a new role: mother of all the disciples of Jesus represented by the beloved disciple under the cross.12  The Collegeville Bible Commentary expresses this very well:

The Fourth Gospel may be presenting Mary beneath the cross in a double role: a) as feminine symbol of mother church, caring for, and placed in the care of, Jesus’ disciples, who become her children and, consequently, Jesus’ brothers and sisters; b) as woman of the victory, emphasizing the feminine contribution to salvation.  The negative biblical portrait of Eva has been replaced by that of the life-giving Ave.13

Leadership Role: Service in Love

Before discussing a possible leadership role for the mother of Jesus in the Johannine community, one needs to be clear of the range of exercising leadership.  First, leadership could be seen as a service or office entrusted to an individual by the community, which the individual exercises because of having been commissioned or ordained for it by the community.  Leadership can also be understood as taking the initiative in answering a need, but without any commissioning.  In this case, the individual acts in his/her own name and not in the name of the community.  When 1 Timothy talks about the qualifications of overseers and deacons, it is talking about a church office and official leadership function.  When Paul sends greetings to many coworkers in Romans 16, he is referring to people who are active in various needed services, but more authorized for the service by charismatic endowment rather than church commissioning.  It seems impossible to determine any church offices in the community behind the Fourth Gospel.  What is easy to see is that both men and women respond to needs and evangelistic opportunities.  What is clear is that love for Jesus and love for one another is a fundamental requirement for service and for exercising leadership.14

In Jn 2:1-11, Mary exercises leadership by taking the initiative in presenting the need of the wedding party to her son.  Verse 5, “Do whatever he tells you,” expresses not only an unyielding certainty that her son will act, despite his obvious refusal, but also her conviction that doing what he says or, in other words, following him as a disciple, is the only proper way of relating to Jesus.  In the pericope of the wedding at Cana, her role is complete when she has brought the servants to Jesus, willing to obey him.  By following Jesus’ instruction, the wedding guests are gifted with an abundance of the best wine.15

Section Summary

The mother of Jesus begins her journey of discipleship at the wedding at Cana.  Her journey brings her to the cross of her Son and although she is not mentioned during the public life of Jesus, she is present at the end, firm in her personal union with Jesus, standing by him with the beloved disciple, when most are conspicuous by their absence.  She surely exemplifies what Schnackenburg says about the true Johannine faith and ipso facto about discipleship.16

At the wedding, she also exhibits leadership in the sense that she sees a need and acts on it by calling her Son’s attention to it and instructing the servants to listen to him and to obey him.  She is a true disciple and lays a leadership role through her loving service of being a bridge between Jesus and the servants in the community.  Under the cross, she receives a greater mission: the beloved disciple and with him, all who love and follow Jesus in obedience, are entrusted to her care in her function as Mother Church.

The Samaritan Woman (John 4:4-42)

An Invitation to Discipleship

Jn 4:4-42 depicts the meaning of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  The conversation begins with a request made by Jesus, “Give me a drink” (Jn 4:7).  She initially sees in him only a Jew (Jn 4:9).  The discourse continues, and when Jesus unveils preternatural knowledge of her personal life, she concludes that he is a prophet (Jn 4:19).  After further dialogue, she begins to ponder if Jesus might be something more than a prophet, and when she mentions the Messiah, Jesus openly claims “I am he” (Jn 4:26).  The Samaritan episode concludes with a confession that the Samaritans believe in Jesus as the savior of the world (Jn 4:42).

In what follows, the manner in which Jesus leads the woman to faith in him and thus to discipleship will be traced in detail.  As the story opens, Jesus is alone at Jacob’s well at noon, when a Samaritan woman arrives to draw water.  Jesus says, “Give me a drink.”  The woman answers sarcastically, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman.  How can you ask me for a drink?”  An editorial comment explains that Jews do not associate with Samaritans (Jn 4:7f.).17

Rather than being put off by her rejection of his request, Jesus catches her interest by posing a riddle, which holds a marvelous promise.  The woman has to find the answer to two questions:

  1. If you knew the gift of God?
  2. Who it is that asks you for a drink?

Promise: He would have given you living water (fresh flowing well water)

The woman is intrigued.  She knows, of course, that Jesus has nothing with which to draw water.  She then asks whether he is greater than the Patriarch Jacob, who gave to his descendants the well where they are (Jn 4:11f.).  Jesus then explains that the water he will give will take away all thirst.  In fact, the water will well up within the person into eternal life (Jn 4:13f.).18

The woman heard only one thing: that anyone who drinks from his water would not thirst again.  Thus she would not have to come to the well of Sychar anymore to draw water.  She, therefore, asks him for this magic water (Jn 4:15).  Jesus now tells her to call her husband and come back.  This is when she confesses that she has no husband.  In this she speaks the truth, but not the whole truth.  Jesus then reveals to her that he knows the situation she is in, that she has had five husbands and was living with someone who was not her husband (Jn 4:17f.).  It is at this point that the woman confesses Jesus as prophet (Jn 4:19).  She seems to ignore Jesus’ explanation of her question about where to worship and simply says, “When the Messiah comes, he will explain everything to us” (Jn 4:25).  Then Jesus makes a most surprising statement revealing himself to the woman as the Messiah: “I who speak to you am he” (Jn 4:26).19

Discipleship as Relational: To Know Jesus (vv. 12, 19, 25-26)

These verses present the gradual self-revelation of Jesus to the Samaritan woman and the gradual or progressive discovery of the mystery of Jesus by the Samaritan woman.  In v. 9, Jesus as a stranger happens to meet her.  In v. 12, the woman thinks that Jesus is a prophet, after he reveals her marital situation.  Finally, Jesus identifies himself as the Messiah, after the woman stated that she knows the Messiah is coming.  In the gradual self-revelation of Jesus and the gradual realization of the woman of who Jesus is, it is important to notice that this woman comes to a beginning of faith in him, not because of signs but simply because of Jesus’ words.  Unlike the disciples who in the miracle at Cana saw his glory and believed in him (Jn 2:11), this woman’s hesitant faith is simply a response to Jesus’ words.20

The most significant verse in this section is v. 26.  In this verse, Jesus identifies himself as the Messiah.  After the disciples have arrived, the woman returns to the town, but leaves her water jar behind, making it possible for them to drink from the well.  She then invites the townspeople to come and see a man she encountered, who revealed to her the secrets of her life.  She then concludes with a question: “Could this be the Christ?” (Jn 4:29).21

Bringing Others to Jesus (vv. 31-38, 39-42)

Like the mother of Jesus in Jn 2:3-5 and Andrew and Philip in Jn 1:41-42, 45-46, the Samaritan woman takes the initiative to invite the people of Sychar to come to Jesus.  In this way she surely plays an important role in the town’s coming to faith in Jesus as the savior of the world.  We read in Jn 4:39 that many believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.  However, at the end of Jesus’ two-day stay, the Samaritans confess that they no longer believe because of the woman’s testimony, but because they have themselves encountered Jesus and his revelation and have come to faith in him (Jn 4:42).  This final verse does not denigrate the role of the Samaritan woman, but brings out an essential aspect of faith in the Fourth Gospel and eo ipso of discipleship, namely, that full faith comes only from a direct encounter with Jesus.  All human cooperation can only consist in what the Samaritan woman and others before her have done, namely, inviting people to come and see.

In this episode, the woman plays an important role in the conversion of her townspeople, but can we say as, for example, Boers and Fiorenza think, namely, that she played an important role in the earliest Christian mission in Samaria?  At this point, Boers states:

[The woman] is the sower, who is not identical with him who is about to reap the harvest that is ripe in the fields, but she rejoices with him in the harvest. … She is Jesus’ coworker in an unprecedented way, more concretely even than John the Baptist, in the sense that John merely pointed to Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:92).  The woman participates actively with Jesus in doing the will of his Father.22

Fiorenza thinks that the “others” of v. 38 refers to the Samaritan woman, that the verb “labor” describes her missionary work, and therefore, that “the woman is characterized as the representative of the Samaritan mission.”23 In this regard, her activities are perhaps better classified as “quasi-apostolic.”24

A closer examination of the interchange of Jesus with his disciples is crucial.  Jesus refers to Samaria as fields ripe for harvest.  He tells the disciples that they will reap what they have not sowed.  Others have done the hard work (Jn 4:36-38).  Jesus seems to be talking about the Samaritan evangelization, which apparently was not done by his followers.  In this context, it is perhaps possible to ascribe to the woman and to others like her a major role in the foundation of the Samaritan Christian community.  There is, however, nothing in the saying of Jesus that would point to community offices or official church commission.  Probably the reference is to women and men who saw an opportunity and proclaimed Jesus to those who were open to listen.

The Samaritan woman leads her villagers to Jesus.  As a result, many more hear the word of Jesus and come to understand him in the fullest sense as the “savior of the world.”25  The villagers’ words to the Samaritan woman do not downplay the significance of her role as witness, as much as they signal the villagers’ personal encounter with the words of Jesus.26

Section Summary

In the Fourth Gospel, discipleship means a personal relationship with Jesus, which implies an active faith response to Jesus’ word, without any visible “sign,” and belief in him.  What is more important in this pericope is that even someone who has just taken the first step in faith and possible discipleship can become active in bringing others to Jesus and thus be involved in the work of evangelization.  One does not have to wait till one has grown to maturity in faith before one can serve and participate in the mission of bringing Jesus to others or others to Jesus.  She acts similarly to Andrew and Philip in John 1,27 who after their first encounter with Jesus brought someone else to him.  It is clear that in the Fourth Gospel men and women take the initiative in the work of evangelization and this was probably also true in the Johannine community.

Martha of Bethany (Jn 11:1-44)

The Disciple Jesus Loved

 John 11 is commonly entitled “the raising of Lazarus,” but it is noteworthy that the greater part of the story seems to focus on Jesus’ conversation with Martha, although the raising of Lazarus is crucial.  In fact, “of the forty-four verses that constitute this story, only seven of them take place at Lazarus’ tomb” (Jn 11:38-44).28

The emphasis falls on Martha, in spite of the fact that Mary is also mentioned.  In the Lazarus episode, Mary does not add anything over and above Martha.  Her act of anointing Jesus for his burial in John 12 will be treated separately below.

Moreover, the naming of the characters in this story seems to show that greater importance is given to the two women characters.  Although Lazarus is named first in Jn 11:1, his village, Bethany, is identified with Mary and Martha.  The next verse explains who Mary is, namely, the one who has anointed Jesus (Jn 12:3).  In John 11:3, the sisters send word to Jesus about the sickness of Lazarus.  Finally, in v. 5, Martha is mentioned first and Lazarus last, as three people loved by Jesus.  Concerning this detail, some feminists say: “Perhaps the evangelist is intimating that these women were closer to Jesus than Lazarus was, or were more prominent or important than Lazarus in the eyes of the evangelist.”29  If one looks at the text carefully, one notices that each one of the three is mentioned first once: Lazarus in v. 1, Mary in v. 2 and Martha in v. 5.  It is thus impossible to play off the sisters against their brother as being closer to Jesus or more loved by Jesus.  There is not enough evidence in the text for such statements.

What interests us in this episode is the interaction of Jesus with Martha.  She apparently already has a discipleship relationship with Jesus, because along with her brother Lazarus and sister Mary, she is characterized as someone Jesus loves.  Similar to other encounters, however, Jesus leads her to a deeper faith commitment to him and thus to becoming a more mature follower.

Growth in Discipleship

A careful reading of the text reveals where Martha is at in her relationship with Jesus.  First of all, one is told that she takes the initiative to meet Jesus as soon as she finds out that he was approaching Bethany (Jn 11:20).  She is convinced that God hears the prayers of Jesus and grants whatever he asks for (Jn 11:22).  That is the reason why she is also convinced that Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had been present.  She reveals her faith in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, when Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again (Jn 11:23f.).

At this point Jesus reveals himself to her in a new way.  The resurrection of the dead, he claims, is already now effective in his person and presence (Jn 11:25-26).  Jesus then asks her whether she believes this.  She then makes her profession of faith and with it she grows not only in her understanding of who Jesus is but also in her following him as a disciple.  She says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who was to come into the world.”30  She makes the profession of faith that leads to eternal life according to Jn 20:30f.  This is the reason why Schnackenburg and Schneiders consider her profession of faith to be one of the most complete in the Fourth Gospel.31

Schnackenburg and Schneiders are correct if faith is understood simply as something that is expressed in words.  On that level, Martha has grown in her ability to follow Jesus, but there is further growth demanded of her.  She has to translate her faith, trust, and commitment to Jesus into concrete action at the tomb.  Martha wavers when she is asked to have the stone removed from the entrance of Lazarus’ tomb.  It is then that Martha hesitates. She is apparently not sure anymore of Jesus as resurrection and life.  She warns him of the stench of death after Lazarus’ body had been in the tomb for four days.  Jesus then reminds her that she would see the glory of God, if she believed.  Martha makes a further commitment to the self-revelation of Jesus.  She has the stone removed.  It is only now when intellectual assent and practical action flow together that Martha accomplished a giant step forward in following Jesus as a disciple.  Obeying his words leads to Lazarus’ coming back to life as a sign showing that Jesus is indeed the resurrection and the life.32

Finally, Jesus gives thanks to the Father, “for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me” (v. 42).  Jesus does this sign, not simply to restore a dead friend to life, but to convince the Jewish bystanders of his identity.  Martha is called to put her faith into practice before the Jews who had come to the funeral and to stand by the sisters.33

Section Summary

In sum, one can say that Martha in this episode represents the Johannine community making the full Christian confession of faith in Jesus.  It shows that she is a disciple Jesus loved (Jn 11:5) by her believing that he is the resurrection and life and by remaining in his word and obeying it; she shows herself a model of discipleship in the Johannine community, although she plays no obvious leadership role.

Mary of Bethany (Jn 12:1-8)

Mary is first introduced in Jn 11:1-2.  After describing Bethany as “the village of Mary and her sister Martha,” the fourth evangelist goes on to identify Mary as “the one who anointed the Lord with oil and dried his feet with her hair.”  By introducing her in John 11, the fourth evangelist signals in advance the importance of Mary’s role in the Johannine community.  Her closeness to Jesus is underlined when her name appears prior to Martha’s in Jn 11:1.  This section will investigate her role as a disciple of Jesus.

The Disciple Jesus Loved

To begin with, a look at the setting of the event will help one to better appreciate Mary’s role in this scene.  It was six days before the Passover, while Jesus was at dinner together with Lazarus and his disciples (Jn 12:2, 4), that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and wiped them with her hair.  When Judas Iscariot objects on the grounds that the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor, Jesus defends Mary’s action and says that she anointed him for his burial (Jn 12:7).

Before one pursues the symbolic meaning of Mary’s action or discusses any similarity with the footwashing in John 13,35something else needs to be pointed out.  The request of the sisters Mary and Martha that Jesus come to Bethany to help their brother Lazarus brought Jesus back to Judea and Jerusalem and thus into deadly danger (Jn 11:8, 16).  Mary, out of love, makes a similar offering to Jesus.  The perfume valued at more than 300 denarii would have supported a family of four to six in the countryside of Palestine for a year.36  By her action, Mary brings out another essential aspect of discipleship and faith.37  The presence of Jesus can only be “repaid” by a total gift of self.  In this she contrasts with Judas, who objects to her service of Jesus.  She loves and gives herself;38 Judas will betray him into the hands of his enemies.39

Mary and Jesus

In an extravagant gesture, Mary takes a pound of pure nard, and after anointing Jesus’ feet, wipes them with her hair.  First, it is quite remarkable that Mary anoints the feet of Jesus, because normally one anoints the head of another person.40  In this action, Mary anticipates Jesus’ own demonstration of this love when he washes the feet of the disciples and wipes them with a towel (Jn 13:1-11)41 and foreshadows the death and burial of Jesus as has been stated above.42

Discipleship as Action: To Keep His Love Commandments

Having established the relationship of the anointing with the burial of Jesus, one can say that Mary has performed a prophetic act that anticipates and prepares for the hour of Jesus.43  To focus further on the relationship between the anointing and the burial of Jesus (Jn 12:7), one can consider the link between Mary’s wiping of Jesus’ feet with her hair and Jesus’ footwashing of his disciples at the last supper.  The linking of the two episodes leads one to understand that Mary is an authentic disciple of Jesus.44  Moreover, one reads that after the footwashing in John 13, Jesus commands his disciples to wash each other’s feet in imitation of him, to love one another, and even to lay down one’s life for the brothers and sisters.  In this connection, one can say that Mary’s action is already a fulfillment in advance of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, and therefore, by doing so, she acts as a disciple.

Discipleship as Action: To Follow Jesus to the Cross

Just as there is a symbolic connection between the burial of Jesus and Mary’s anointing of his feet, as well as between the footwashing during the last supper and Mary’s wiping of Jesus’ feet, so also there is a symbolic meaning to the cost of the oil.  Indeed, the cost of the oil is linked to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the price one has to pay in following Jesus.  Janet Gaden and John Gaden express clearly the connection between Jesus’ death and the discipleship of Mary when they write, “this Messiah is one who must lose his life in order to bear much fruit and she is the servant whose precious ointment signifies the cost and total commitment of discipleship.”45

Section Summary

In the Johannine community, discipleship is a faithful living out the new commandment of love to serve the Lord and one another.  One can say that Mary of Bethany is not only a true disciple by serving the Lord, anticipating his “hour,” and keeping his love commandment, but she is also a perfect model of discipleship in the community even though she played no leadership role.

Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:1-2, 11-18)

A Disciple: The First Witness to the Resurrection

Jn 20:1-18 combines the traditional story of women coming to the tomb early on the first day of the week (Jn 20:1-2).  Mary Magdalene is the only woman mentioned.  It is only the plural personal pronoun in her news that reveals that she was not alone: “We don’t know where they have put him” (Jn 20:2).46  The story is then interrupted by Peter and the beloved disciple investigating the empty tomb (Jn 20:3-9).  After this the story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb continues (Jn 20:10-18).

Verse 10 tells us that the disciples returned to their homes.  In v. 11, Mary Magdalene is once more at the tomb.  The abrupt and unprepared presence of Mary points to the editorial work of the evangelist, who probably inserted the episode of the two disciples at the tomb between vv. 2 and 11.47  Mary Magdalene is disconsolate, because the body of Jesus has disappeared.  The presence of the angels in the tomb makes no impression on her, because her focus is on the disappearance of the body.  The same focus also blinds her to the presence of Jesus, whom she mistakes as the one in charge of the garden.  It is only when the Lord calls her by name that she finally recognizes him.48

Mary Magdalene is presented as one of the women who followed Jesus.  One is told nothing about her faith in him.  One knows that she was there at the cross and together with other women at the tomb of Jesus.  Two things are clear: (1) she loved Jesus and (2) whatever she may have believed about him.  The resurrection of the dead was not part of her belief.49  In the short encounter with Jesus, her faith is brought to completion and thus equipped for mission.  Jesus sends her to his “brothers,” the disciples, with the good news of his exaltation into God’s presence (Jn 20:17).  She fulfills her commission (Jn 20:18).50

Mary Magdalene: The Apostle of the Apostles

All the gospels report that a group of women came to the tomb early on the first day of the week.52  In Mark’s gospel, they are commissioned to bring the good news of the resurrection to the disciples by a man in white garments.  The women, however, flee in terror from the tomb and say nothing to anyone (Mk 16:1-8).  Matthew takes over the same story, but on the way to the tomb, Jesus encounters the women, who took hold of his feet.  Jesus then gives them the commission to tell the disciples that they will see Jesus in Galilee (Mt 28:1,8-10).  Luke, too, reports that the women at the tomb received the message of the resurrection from two men in shining garments, but when the women reported this to the disciples, they were not believed (Lk 24:1-11).  Luke then adds that Peter ran to the tomb, where he found the linen strips lying by themselves (Lk 24:12).

The Fourth Gospel draws on the same tradition as the Synoptic Gospels.53  The Fourth Gospel is also aware that a group of women came to the tomb, among whom was Mary Magdalene.  The Fourth Gospel proceeds and tells the story focused on just one woman, namely, Mary Magdalene.

Although the Fourth Gospel emphasizes only one woman, taking the entire tradition into account, one would have to say that women followers of Jesus were commissioned to be the first witnesses to the resurrection, to announce this good news to the men disciples.  With the exception of the gospel of Mark, the women and obviously Mary Magdalene faithfully fulfill their commission from the risen Lord.  In this way, they fulfilled a service for which they were authorized by Jesus.  Can we say more about a possible ongoing leadership role of these women arising from Jesus’ commission?

First, it must be stated that one hears nothing further about these women.  They disappear from the stage with their role fulfilled.  The Fourth Gospel, however, gives us examples of men and women, who without an official role or function, witness to Jesus and bring others to him.  To repeat what has been stated above, this is true of Andrew and Philip in John 1:41f. and 45ff.54 and of the Samaritan woman in Jn 4:29ff..  It can probably also be predicated of Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb, although the gospels are silent about this.

Section Summary

The fundamental aspect of discipleship in the Johannine community is to have a personal relationship with Jesus: “I know my sheep, my sheep know my voice” (cf. Jn 10:4,14,27).  Mary Magdalene seeks Jesus in the early morning; her name is called by Jesus; she recognizes him and follows the instruction of Jesus to tell his disciples.  One can say that she is a disciple, and by her proclaiming the risen Lord, she has played a leadership role in the Fourth Gospel even if one cannot point to her exercising such a role in an ongoing way.55  The gospel gives no evidence for that, although one can surmise, as already stated, on the basis of the example of other characters, that she and the other women kept on witnessing to the risen Lord along with the men, and thus played a role in the establishing of the Johannine community.


In this investigation of women in the Fourth Gospel, one clearly sees that all five of the women—the mother of Jesus, the Samaritan woman, Martha and Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene—are presented as disciples of Jesus.  In every single case, the women are called to accept Jesus in a deeper and fuller way either in who he is or an aspect of salvation offered.  In nearly every instance, the women respond by bringing others to Jesus: calling them to obey his word, encouraging them to come and meet Jesus himself, witnessing to their new faith before others as in the case of Martha at the tomb of Lazarus, or becoming a messenger of the resurrection as in the case of Mary of Magdala.

The mother of Jesus is characterized as a woman who has great confidence that her Son will act.  She commits herself to following him and she encourages the servants to follow Jesus’ word.  That she begins her journey as a disciple becomes clear when she is encountered under the cross.  She is there at the end just as she was there at the beginning.  The new community is born at the cross.  This new community is entrusted to her care, when Jesus calls her mother of the beloved disciples, and she is referred to the new community for the fulfillment of her longing for full redemption as evidenced when she as spokesperson of Israel tells Jesus at Cana, “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3).

The Samaritan woman makes her appearance next in the gospel.  Unlike the mother of Jesus, she has no prior relationship with Jesus.  He leads her step-by-step in recognizing who he is.  The most important discovery is that this woman, although totally convinced that Jesus is really the Messiah, is nevertheless instrumental in bringing the townspeople to Jesus and, through this encounter, to faith in him, evidenced in their confession that he is the savior of the world (Jn 4:42).

With Martha and Mary of Bethany, the presentation of women continues.  Unlike the Samaritan woman before her, Martha already has a relationship with Jesus.  She knows who he is at least in terms of the Jewish faith.  In her encounter with Jesus, she is led to make a deeper and more complete faith commitment in him as the now present resurrection and life.  This she does when she confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (Jn 11:27) and when she allows the stone to be rolled back from the tomb (Jn 11:39-41).

Mary, the sister of Martha, is a follower of Jesus prior to her appearance in John 11 and 12.  The investigation focused on her prophetic action in John 12, rather than on her presence in John 11, where her appearance seems to be just a doublet of Martha’s interaction with Jesus.

Jn 12:3 describes her action of anointing the feet of Jesus with costly perfume and wiping them with her hair.  It recalls the act of Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciples and dried them with a towel and then commanded them to lay down their lives for one another.  Jesus interprets her action as a foreshadowing of preparing his body for burial.  Above all, her act is an act of love in response to the costly act of Jesus in raising Lazarus from the dead.  This deed will cost Jesus his life and Mary in appreciation of that is ready to give something very costly in return.

Mary Magdalene, representing the group of women who come to the tomb in the morning of the first day of the week, receives the commission of the risen Lord to bring the Easter message to the rest of his disciples.  She is depicted as faithfully carrying out that commission.

Regarding the possible leadership roles, in the Fourth Gospel, there are only one woman and one man who are commissioned by the risen Lord for a mission: Mary Magdalene is sent to the disciples to announce the resurrection of the Lord and Simon Peter after professing his love for the Lord is commissioned to feed the Lord’s sheep.  Neither Peter nor Mary Magdalene is the guarantor of the revelation of Jesus to the Johannine community; that role is reserved for the beloved disciple (Jn 19:35; 21:24).  The beloved disciple has no explicit commission; his/her authority is the love of the Lord for him/her and his/her love for the Lord.  Although we learn how Mary Magdalene carried out her commission, we learn nothing more about her, and from the gospel alone, one cannot say anything more about a possible leadership role she might have exercised in the community.  Unfortunately, one also learns nothing about how Peter fulfilled his commission.

Everyone else, whether man or woman, seems to have the same service to bring others to Jesus, to have others obey his word.  The gospel does not give enough information to say anything definite about leadership structures or offices in the Johannine community.  One lacks information to say how Simon Peter’s commission was to be realized.  One only knows Jn 21:15-19, in which Peter is asked three times whether he loves Jesus and only then were the sheep of Jesus committed to him.  However, if leadership is the function of creative initiative and decisive action, these five women in the Fourth Gospel qualify well for the roles which they played as disciples.  In other words, the relationship to Jesus is foundational for leadership and service in the Fourth Gospel.

For sure, the gospel clearly makes two very important assertions.  Men and women are equally called to be the disciples of the Lord.  Men and women are equally invited to make the Lord known to others.  Men and women equally share in the living out of the one commandment of the Johannine community to love one another as the Lord loved.


1.      Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to St. John, Vol. 1 (London: Burns & Oates, 1980), 567.

2.      Henri van den Bussche, The Gospel of the Word (Chicago: Priory Press, 1967), 38-39.

3.      The Greek translated literally says, “What to me and to you, woman?  My hour has not yet come” (τί έμοì καì σοί, γύναι; οϋπω ήκει ή ώρα μου).

4.      Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to St. John, Vol. 3, 278-79.

5.      Cf. Stephen Verney, Water into Wine: An Introduction to John’s Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1995), 33.

6.      F. J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina Series, Vol. 4, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, SJ (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998), 67-68.

7.      Cf. Adeline Fehribach, 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), 128-129; Raymond F. Collins, “Cana (Jn 2:1-12)—The First of His Signs or the Key to His Signs?” Irish Theological Quarterly 47 (1980): 86.

8.      The OT describes the joy of the final days with abundance of wine (cf. Amos 9:13-14; Hosea 14:7; Jeremiah 31:12).  Enoch predicts that the vine shall yield wine in abundance (10:19) and II Baruch 19:5 states: “The earth shall yield its fruit a thousand fold: each vine shall have 1000 clusters, each cluster 1000 grapes, and each grape about 120 gallons of wine.”  Raymond E. Brown, “The Gospel according to John: Introduction, Translation, and Notes,” The Anchor Bible, i-xii, xiii-xxi (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1966), 105.  Here Brown mentions Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, 5, 33:3-4.  The text of Irenaeus is as follows: “The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine.”

9.      Maloney, 505-06; André Feuillet, Johannine Studies (New York: Alba House, 1964), 285-288; cf. Bertrand Buby, Mary, the Faithful Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 106.

10.    Brown, i-xii, 108; cf. Schnackenburg, Vol. 3, 278; Collins, “Mary in the Fourth Gospel: A Decade of Johannine Studies,”Louvain Studies 3 (1970): 134; Judith M. Lieu, “The Mother of the Son in the Fourth Gospel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 117 (1998): 71; R. Allan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 133-134.

11.    Brown, “Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel,” Theological Studies 36 (1975): 698-699; Brown, “The Mother of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel,” in L’Évangile de Jean: sources, rédaction, théologie, ed. M. de Jonge, Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium XLIV (Leuven University Press, 1977), 310; cf. Robert J. Karris, “Jesus and the Marginalized in John’s Gospel,” Zaccheus Studies: New Testament, ed. Mary Ann Getty (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1990), 80; J. A. Grassi, “The Role of Jesus’ Mother in John’s Gospel: A Reappraisal,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 48 (1986): 73; Turid Karlsen Seim, “Roles of Women in the Gospel of John,” in Aspects of Johannine Literature, eds. Lars Hartman and Birger Olsson, ConB NT Series, No. 18 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1987), 62-65.

12.    F. M. Gilman, “The Women of John’s Gospel,” Bible Today 40 (2/2002): 93; cf. Collins, “Mary in the Fourth Gospel,” 132-136; Moloney, Woman in the New Testament (Pasay City: Saint Paul Publications, 1984), 133-134.

13.    Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris, The Collegeville Bible Commentary: Based on the New American Bible with Revised New Testament (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1989), 1013.

14.    Peter affirms his love for Jesus prior to receiving the commission to feed Jesus’ lambs.  In John 13, the disciples are called to emulate Jesus’ love for them as expressed in the footwashing.

15.    Colleen M. Conway, Men and Women in the Fourth Gospel: Gender and Johannine Characterization, SBL Dissertation Series, No. 167 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999), 74.

16.    Schnackenburg, Vol. 1, 567.

17.    J. A. Montgomery, The Samaritans, the Earliest Jewish Sect: Their History, Theology and Literature (New York: Ktav, 1968), 158-159.

18.    Cf. Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971), 181-182; Brown, “The Gospel according to John,” 178.

19.    John Bligh, “Jesus in Samaria,” Heythrop Journal 3 (1962): 333.

20.    Ben Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity, ed. Ann Witherington (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 70.

21.    Mary Margaret Pazdan, “Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman: Contrasting Models of Discipleship,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 17 (1987): 148; Calum M. Carmichael, “Marriage and the Samaritan Woman,” New Testament Studies 26 (1980): 343-344.

22.    Hendrikus Boers, Neither on This Mountain or in Jerusalem: A Study of John 4, SBL Monograph Series, No. 35 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 184-185.

23.    Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 327.

24.    Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 189; cf. Bonnie Thurston, Women in the New Testament: Questions and Commentary (New York: Crossroad, 1998), 85.

25.    R. G. Maccini, “Her Testimony Is True: Women as Witnesses according to John,” Journal of the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, No. 125 (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 123: “For John, this faith on account of the woman’s word is not second-rank, not of lesser worth, not merely a first step towards faith based on the words of Jesus.  Nowhere in John is there greater and deeper faith than that depicted with the phrase, ‘They believed in him.’”

26.    Sandra M. Schneiders, “Women in the Fourth Gospel and the Role of Women in the Contemporary Church,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 12 (1982): 40: “In John’s perspective the witness of a believing disciple brings a person to Jesus but then the disciple fades away as the prospective believer encounters Jesus himself.”

27.    Cf. Seim, 160.

28.    Gail R. O’Day, “John,” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, eds. Carol Newson and Sharon Ringe (London: SPCK, 1992), 297.

29.    Witherington, 105.

30.    John Rena, “Women in John’s Gospel,” Theology Digest 34 (1987): 244.

31.    Cf. Schneiders, “Death in the Community of Eternal Life: History, Theology, and Spirituality in John 11,” Interpretation 51 (1987): 53; Schnackenburg, Vol. 2, 332-322.

32.    Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Herder & Herder, 1999), 106.

33.    Conway, 150.

34.    Mary obviously is not the only one Jesus loved.  Lazarus and Martha are included (Jn 11:3,5).

35.    E. E. Platt, “The Ministry of Mary of Bethany,” Theology Today 34 (1997): 37.

36.    Ekkehard W. Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century, tr. O. C. Dean, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 82-83.

37.    C. H. Giblin, “Mary’s Anointing for Jesus’ Burial-Resurrection (Jn 12:1-8),” Biblica 73 (4/1992): 563.

38.    Grassi, “Women’s Leadership Roles in John’s Gospel,” Bible Today 35 (5/1997): 316; cf. Dorothy A. Lee, “The Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel: The Interplay of Form and Meaning,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, No. 95 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994), 222.

39.    T. R. Kitzberger, “Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala—Two Female Characters in the Johannine Passion Narrative.  A Feminist, Narrative-Critical Reader Response,” New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 579-580.

40.    Cf. Brown, “The Gospel according to John,” 454.

41.    Schneiders, Women in the Fourth Gospel,” 42; cf. Fiorenza, 330; Grassi, “Women’s Leadership Roles in John’s Gospel,” 316; J. R. Michaels, “John 12:1-11,” Interpretation 43 (1989): 289.

42.    O’Day, 299.

43.    Rena, 244.

44.    Karris, 90.

45.    Janet Gaden and John Gaden, “Women and Discipleship in the New Testament,” The Way 26 (1986): 121.

46.    Brown, “The Gospel according to John,” 1000; cf. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (London: SPCK, 1965), 563; Schnackenburg,  Vol. 3, 308; Barnabus Lindars, “The Gospel of John,” New Century Bible (London: Oliphants, 1972), 600; Paul S. Minear, “‘We Don’t Know Where…’ John 20:2,” Interpretation 30 (1976): 126.

47.    Brown, “The Gospel according to John,”  988; cf. Jerome Neyrey, “The Resurrection Stories,” Zaccheus Studies: New Testament, ed. Mary Ann Getty (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1988), 66.

48.    Brown, “The Gospel according to John,” 1009-1010; cf. Conway, 195; Edward Lyn Bode, The First Easter Morning: The Gospel Accounts for the Women’s Visit to the Tomb of Jesus, Analecta Biblica: Investigationis Scientificae in Res Biblicas, No. 45 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970), 83.

49.    Schnackenburg, Vol. 3, 311.

50.    Schneiders, “Women in the Fourth Gospel,” 43; cf. Conway, 198.

51.    Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 95; cf. Fiorenza, 326, 332-333; M. Scott, “Sophia and the Johannine Jesus,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, No. 71 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 225; Witherington, 177, 280; Lee, “Partnership in Easter Faith: The Role of Mary Magdalene and Thomas in John 20,” Journal of Study for New Testament 58 (1995): 46-47; Grassi, 317; Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003), 60.

52.    Cf. Gerald O’Collins and Daniel Kendall, “Mary Magdalene as Major Witness to Jesus’ Resurrection,” Theological Studies48 (1987): 633; Pheme Perkins, “‘I Have Seen the Lord’ (John 20:18): Women Witnesses to the Resurrection,”Interpretation 46 (1992): 34-36.

53.    C. Setzer, “Excellent Women: Female Witness to the Resurrection,” Journal of Biblical Literature 116 (2/1997): 262.

54.    Holly E. Hearon, The Mary Magdalene Tradition: Witness and Counter-Witness in Early Christian Communities(Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004), 160.

55.    Mary R. Thompson, Mary of Magdala: Apostle and Leader (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 122.

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