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The women who supported Jesus' ministry

Feb 15, 2014

After Jesus’ mission trip to Nain, He apparently returned to the cities around the Sea of Galilee to continue preaching and teaching. Although He was probably most successful in that area, and large crowds gathered wherever He went, He still said that those cities remained in unbelief.

Luke omits these statements, but Matthew 11:20-24 says this:

20 Then He began to reproach the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. 21 Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida… 23 And you, Capernaum….

This reproach is introduced by the word “then,” indicating that this took place shortly after His testimony about John. In speaking to the cities surrounding the Sea of Galilee, it is most likely that He was actually speaking in that area, rather than from afar. Bethsaida was the home of Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael. Capernaum was His ministry headquarters, where He often taught in the local synagogue. And yet they remained in unbelief in spite of seeing miracle after miracle.

We are not told exactly what it was that they did not believe. We do know that the Pharisees, who were respected religious leaders, continually opposed Him and tried to trap Him in His own words many times. They criticized Him for ignoring their traditional views about what constituted “work” on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:2). When He did miracles, they attributed it to “Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:24). In spite of His miracles, they still demanded a sign from Him (Matthew 12:38).

Signs and miracles in themselves do not impart faith to anyone. They can never be a substitute for the Holy Spirit who speaks and works within the heart. Faith comes only by hearing and is manifested by a genuine response from the heart. Crowds of individual common people did believe in Him, of course, but it is likely that Jesus was reproaching the religious leaders who represented the cities themselves.

It is in that context that Matthew 13 records Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom, beginning with the parable of the sower. This, too, is where Luke picks up the story, having skipped the reproaches and Jesus’ war of words with the Pharisees. But first, Luke 8:1 introduces this parable by telling us of the women who supported Jesus’ ministry:

1 And it came about soon afterwards, that He began going about from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God; and the twelve were with Him,

Whereas Matthew says “then,” Luke says “soon afterwards.” This marked an expansion of Jesus’ scope of ministry. We are not told if He remained in Galilee or went beyond Galilee into Judea. But Luke 8:2, 3 now tells us that there were women who accompanied Jesus and the twelve men.

2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses; Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means.

The “women” disciples of Jesus were mentioned only in passing in Matthew 27:55, 56 and in Mark 15:40, both times in connection with Jesus death and resurrection. But Luke gives these women prominence during the time of His ministry, telling us that they even supported Jesus’ ministry financially. They must have been well off by the standards of the time.

We know nothing about Susanna, but Joanna is identified by name as the wife of Chuza, King Herod’s steward. Chuza held the highest and most trusted position in the royal household. Chuza had married the daughter of Theophilus, to whom Luke’s gospel was addressed. No doubt King Herod had heard of Jesus early into His ministry and had assigned Chuza to send spies to determine whether or not Jesus was a threat. It appears that Chuza’s servants reported the miracles that Jesus had done, and that Joanna had gone to see Jesus for herself. She had then become one of His disciples and supported Jesus’ ministry from her allowance or perhaps on behalf of Chuza himself.

A few years later, when Jesus was on trial, Pilate sent Him to Herod after hearing that Jesus was a Galilean. Luke 23:6-8 says,

6 But when Pilate heard it, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who himself also was in Jerusalem at that time. 8 Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him.

Luke’s gospel implies that Chuza had kept Herod informed about the miracles that Jesus was doing throughout His ministry. No doubt his wife kept him well informed, and so Herod knew also that Jesus had no political aspirations or revolutionary plans.

Of course, the wife of Herod’s steward would not have followed Jesus by herself. She would have had some servants with her, and perhaps Susanna was one of them. But she also became close friends with Mary Magdalene.

This is the first time that Mary Magdalene appears by name in the gospel of Luke. We learn that Jesus had cast out seven demons from her at some earlier date. Was she the one who had anointed His feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee? Luke himself does not say, but we do know that Jesus said that her sins had been forgiven, implying deliverance in a previous occasion. Hence, also, Jesus did not ask her name, for He already knew her.

Scripture does not tell us much about Mary Magdalene, probably to shield her from criticism. But she does play a prominent role in later Church history. Many records have been lost over the centuries, but in the early third century Origen of Alexandria appears to have given a homily (teaching) about her that was recorded by his scribes.

A treatise known by the title, Life of St. Mary Magdalene, was compiled by Rabanus Maurus, the Archbishop of Mayence, who lived from 776-856 A.D. This manuscript is reportedly in the Magdalen College Library at Oxford University. No history is known about this manuscript, but it is obviously written by a professional scribe. At the close of this compilation, the writer transcribes Origen’s homily on Mary Magdalene in 50 chapters.

J. W. Taylor was given access to this manuscript and quotes it at length from page 80-101 in his book, The Coming of the Saints.

From its Prologue, the book tells us that Mary Magdalene was the same as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Chapter 1 begins by telling us,

“In the territory of Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives, at fifteen stadia to the east of the Holy City, is situated the little town of Bethany, the country of Mary Magdalene, of Lazarus and of Martha. Here was born the blessed Martha, the venerable hostess of our Lord.

“Her mother, whose name was Eucharia, was descended from the royal family of the House of Israel. Her father, Theophilus, was a Syrian prince and governor of the maritime country.

“St. Martha had a sister of great beauty named Mary and a young brother called Lazarus. All these were noted for their fine character and intelligence, and for their knowledge of the language of the Hebrews, in which they had been well instructed.” (p. 83)

J.W. Taylor goes on to say,

“In the 2nd chapter we are further told that they possessed a rich patrimony of lands, of money, and of slaves, that a great part of the city of Jerusalem (beside the village of Bethany) belonged to them, and that they also had lands at Magdala (on the left side of the Lake of Galilee), and at another Bethany (or Bethabara), the scene of the preaching of St. John the Baptist.

“The Three lived together, and Martha as the eldest of the family had the administration of their property. As the younger sister grew up she moved from Bethany and took up her residence at Magdala, either on her own property there, or as the wife or mistress of one of the rich inhabitants who dwelt on the borders of the lake.

“There, for a time, she lived a life of sin, in conscious disobedience to the command of God and to the wishes of her family until aroused by the preaching of our Lord and pardoned by Him in the house of Simon the Pharisee.

“The latter is said to have been related to St. Martha ‘by the ties of blood and of friendship.’ (If this means that Martha, who is described as being much older than the other children, was only half-sister to them and specially related to Simon, it is interesting to note that Mary, in coming to his house to see the Saviour, was also, at the same time, in a certain sense returning home.) ….

“In the tenth chapter we are told that it was at Magdala, at the estate of Mary Magdalene, where Martha and Mary Magdalene entertained our Lord and His disciples as recorded by St. Luke (10:38).” (pp. 83, 84)

Taylor says that in the 22nd chapter of Origen’s homily he relates how Jesus stayed with them in Bethany during the Passion Week. After Jesus was crucified, He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, who is called (in the manuscript) a nobilis decurion, that is, the Minister of Mining for the Roman government. (He owned the tin mines in Cornwall in the south part of England.)

Taylor continues,

“The 34th chapter contains the narrative of the day of Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Ghost. It also tells of the life of the early Church, and of the honour and esteem in which St. Mary Magdalene and the holy women, with whom she had been so much associated, were held by the Apostles. In doing this, reference is made to the dispute recorded in Acts 6:1, as arising from some jealousy of the preference accorded to these by the holy Apostles. It was for this reason (in the first place) that the seven deacons were appointed—Stephen and Philip, Parmenas and Timon, Prochorus, Nicanor and Nicholas.

“This and the succeeding chapter narrate how Lazarus, Martha and Mary sold their properties in Jerusalem, Magdala and the Bethanies, the house at Bethany near Jerusalem alone being preserved, and brought the amount to St. Peter as chief of the Apostles.” (p. 87). [Note Acts 4:34, 35]

We learn also that Lazarus became the first bishop of Bethany for a short time, until they were forced to leave by the persecution which arose in Acts 8:1. He, then, went to Cyprus and became its first bishop. Martha committed herself to the care of St. Parmenas, the deacon, while Mary came under the care of St. Maximin. These left Judea by sea and moved to Marseilles in southern Gaul (now France) at the mouth of the Rhone River. There the sisters parted, each going in different directions as the Spirit led them, preaching the gospel with signs following wherever they went.

In chapter 44, recording events toward the later part of their lives, Martha sent a letter to her sister, begging her to visit her before she died. She replied, promising to visit her, if not in this life, then after she was dead. Martha was said to have prophesied a year in advance the very day of her death (from the date of the revelation). Toward the end of Martha’s life, she developed a fever, during which time she received revelation that her sister had died, for she “suddenly saw a choir of angels bearing the soul [spirit?] of her sister Mary Magdalene to heaven” (Taylor, p. 97).

A week later, we are told, in the middle of the night, the candles were blown out by a rushing wind, and Mary Magdalene appeared to her, holding a torch with a heavenly light. She approached the bed of her sister and said, “Hail, sainted sister!” They conversed briefly, with Mary inviting her sister to come and take her crown of life. Martha died eight days after this visitation. Chapter 48 tells us (as Taylor says),

“So meditating she came in the spirit to consider how Christ had expired upon the cross at the ninth hour (as she had herself formerly witnessed), and bethinking her of the book of the Passion of Christ, written in Hebrew, which she brought with her from Jerusalem, she called St. Parmenas to her, gave him the book, and prayed him to read it to her so the tedium of her expectation [of death] might be lightened.

“On hearing him read in her own language of the Saviour’s sufferings—of which she had been a witness—she burst into tears of compassion and began to weep, and forgetting for a time her own departure, she fixed her whole attention on the passion of her Lord. When the recital came to the passage where Christ, committing His Spirit into the hands of the Father, ‘gave up the ghost,’ she gave a deep sigh, and directly expired.

“St. Martha thus slept in the Lord on the fourth day before the kalends of August, the eighth day after the death of her sister, St. Mary Magdalene, or the sixth day of the week, at the ninth hour of the day, and in the sixty-fifth year of her age.” (p. 98, 99)

This account of Mary and Martha apparently was sent to the church in Alexandria, Egypt, where Origen ministered in the first half of the third century. It shows, among other things, that Mary and Martha were wealthy and supported the ministry of Jesus and the disciples.


This is part 37 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Luke


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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