By Rachel D. Levine

"Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus' feet and heard his word.  But Martha was cumbered about much serving and came to him and said, 'Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me alone to serve?  Bid her therefore that she help me.'  And Jesus answered and said unto her, 'Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things.  But one thing is needful, and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.'"

Every Bible-reading person is familiar with this story from Luke, Chapter 10.  And the usual picture conjured up on the reader's mind is of Jesus sitting in a chair, Mary sitting on the floor at his feet, and Martha rushing about the kitchen trying to get dinner ready on time.  Right?  Wrong!

This passage and several others from the Synoptic Gospels prove that women were active members of Jesus' movement and could be called his disciples.

Before analyzing this and related scriptural verses, it is necessary to first discuss the meaning of the term "disciple."  Too many people today believe that the terms disciple and apostle are synonymous.  It is only when we translate the Gospel back into Hebrew that we understand the true meaning of each.  Apostles, in Hebrew are shalichim, which means "messengers," and disciples are talmidim, which means "students" or "pupils."

The Hebrew word meaning messenger has the connotation of one who has authority; the word meaning student or pupil has no additional indicators.  Therefore, all of the apostles were among the disciples, but they had been singled out for additional responsibilities in the movement.

In the Jewish culture of Jesus' day, the disciple, or student, left home to study with his or her teacher, either in one location or following the teacher if he traveled about.  In Hebrew, there are two ways of saying one is a student.  The first is to make the simple statement and the second is to use an idiom that means "to sit at the feet of."

It was also customary for one of the children, usually a son, to be sent away to study.  The family supported his endeavors and was rewarded both in community approbation and in satisfaction at the performance of a mitzvah, or commandment.  The efforts of the one accrued benefits to all.

If a travelling teacher came to a village that was the home of one of his pupils, it would be expected that he would stop for a meal and possibly stay overnight or even longer if necessary.  The householder would consider it a great honor to have him and no expense would be spared in providing for his comfort.

Indeed, this custom persists among Jews today, to whom hospitality is a commandment.  In fact, stories have been related about Jews who nearly came to blows in their efforts to secure visiting dignitaries as their guests so they would be able to fulfill the mitzvah.

And now, let us return to Martha and Mary and their house.  Now it is possible to understand what is truly happening.

Jesus has stopped at the house of the two sisters.  Mary is one of his students.  Martha takes this opportunity to talk to Jesus and complain because Mary has left the household to join his movement--not just as a follower, which Mary was, but as one of his pupils.  Martha is upset and feels that Mary should be at home helping her to keep the family going.  Jesus acknowledges that Martha is very upset, but he tells her that he will not send Mary away from his group nor tell her that she should reconsider what she is doing.  Mary, he declares, is fulfilling a great commandment and she should continue as his disciple.

A careful re-reading of the passage will bear out the above explanation.  Of course, without knowledge of the Hebraic background, it is easy to misconstrue the meaning.

Several other passages in the Gospels also attest to the presence of women among Jesus' disciples or students.

Before examining these, it is necessary to put several things into the perspective of the first century.  Within Jewish sources dating from that time, we can get a picture of the life and customs of the people.  When a group like Jesus' was on the move, each member was given a task to perform for the general welfare.  There are many allusions to this in the Gospel narrative.  The daily tasks relating to food and shelter had to be addressed as well, and since it was customary in those times for women to be responsible for food preparation, of necessity women had to be among the group.  Indeed, the account of the crucifixion in Mark speaks of the women who followed him and came with him to Jerusalem (Mark 15:40-41).

Both Matthew (27:55) and Luke (23:49,55) attest to the presence of women among Jesus' followers.  Indeed, it was the women disciples who discovered the empty tomb and spread the word to the rest of the company.  Luke expounds at great length on the women who came to the tomb after the Sabbath with those things necessary for a proper burial.  Here too the women were getting ready to fulfill an important commandment, that of providing a decent burial for the departed.  To this day, this commandment is followed and women are active in its performance.

Following their report of the empty tomb, Peter goes to see for himself.  Later that day, as two walked on the road to Emmaus, one of them, named Cleopas, in explaining what had befallen Jesus (not knowing to whom he was speaking), said "...certain women also of our company...," thereby again acknowledging the presence of women among the disciples (Luke 24:9-24).

One aspect of all these Gospel accounts that is most striking is that the presence of women in these situations is reported as a normal happening and not an extraordinary situation.  Parallel to these accounts are the Jewish traditions of women seeking out certain scholars and teachers and studying with them.

The inclusion of women within Jesus' movement in an equal relationship to men is also apparent from further readings of the Gospels.  If there was anything unusual about this, it was never commented upon by contemporaneous writers.  It was only after several centuries had passed and the Church had abandoned her Jewish roots that a different view of women was expressed, little or no attention being paid to passages like those cited above.  Indeed, if scholars did comment, it was usually along the lines of the first (albeit incorrect) exegesis of the passage from Mark.  Some scholars have gone as far as to say that the Gospels did not mean what the plain meaning could be shown to be.

Fortunately, modern scholarship, both textually and in the field of archaeology, has combined today to cast more light upon this subject.  With the entry into theology of women scholars, a new perspective is being given to the Judeo-Christian traditions.  Much, however, remains to be done, especially in disseminating this information among the general public at large.  It is my sincere hope that those who have read this will now return to their Bibles with a new understanding of the role women have played.

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Rachel D. Levine is a resident of Miami, Florida.  She is currently working on a Ph.D. in Judaic Studies from Union University, Cincinnati, while studying for the Rabbinate under the aegis of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalom, spiritual leader of the P'nai Or movement of Jewish renewal, Philadelphia.

She has a B.A. degree from the University of Miami and an M.Ed. from Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton.  Levine has an extensive background in religious and archaeological studies, having participated in excavations in Tel Aviv in 1973.  She has done additional studies with the Biblical Archaeology Society.

In addition to her academic pursuits, Levine has written extensively on little-known aspects of Jewish tradition and conducted workshops on the history and development of liturgy at national gatherings.  She conducts classes and gives lectures in the Miami area and serves as lay leader at Temple Beth Or.

Her major field of interest is in women's roles in Judaism during the early centuries of the Common Era, and she will be writing her doctoral thesis in that field.

Yavo Digest, Vol. 1, No. 5, 1987

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