The First Disciple: A Woman?
A quick little quiz for you....
Who was Jesus’ first disciple?
If you had to answer that question, what would you say? Peter might come to mind, a fisherman who became one of Jesus’ most fervent disciples, and a prominent leader in the early Church. However, those who read the Gospels often point to Andrew as the first disciple. That seems to be the easy answer, if we assume Jesus’ disciples were the 12 men so familiar to us from Sunday school and Sunday sermons. That’s what I used to think. But the 12 weren’t the only disciples.
Jesus was a rabbi, or teacher, and to follow a rabbi involved “a literal kind of following, in which disciples often traveled with, lived with, and imitated their rabbis … The task was to become as much like the rabbi as possible, more like a traditional apprenticeship than a modern classroom” (Ann Spangler & Lois Tverberg in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus).
To follow a rabbi involved “a literal kind of following, in which disciples often traveled with, lived with, and imitated their rabbis…”
By this definition, who was the first disciple? Mary.
Mary was not only fully present before and at Jesus’ birth, but during key moments of his ministry, at his death, his entombment, shortly after his resurrection, and at the birth of the church in Acts. “Here am I, the slave of the Lord,” she said in Luke1:38.
How free were the women of the ancient world to engage in religious activities, travel, and potentially become a disciple?
Greek women were usually bound to the duties of home and farm. For example, in the Golden Age of Greece, 475-425 BC, an Athenian women of citizen class was not supposed to even show her face at the window or door. In many Greek households, women lived mostly apart, not allowed to converse with men.
Roman women had more freedom than Greek women to be out and about in the marketplace and civic endeavors, though they were bound throughout their lives to a male protector with ultimate power, typically the family’s father or grandfather.
Hebrew women married young, childbearing was dangerous, and raising children took up much time and energy. However, when they could, Hebrew women were out and about among the crowds, shopping in the marketplaces and participating in community life. Plus, in Jesus’ Palestinian world, private space scarcely existed at all in the small houses and apartments inhabited by families, so even unwittingly, women of all kinds were present, listening, learning, and participating in the events of the New Testament.
The Gospels show Mary out and about, along with many other Galilean women, both named and unnamed, who traveled with Jesus, served him, supported him, and were taught by him.
Mary had a symbolic function as a disciple who hears and responds to God’s Word before Jesus was even conceived. She continued that role throughout his life, and literally began to follow him with the other Galilean women, even to the cross. The venerable Anchor Bible Dictionary calls her “a model disciple.”
“Some traditional interpretations of Mary see in [her] words a model for all women, but with her words of compliance, Mary becomes not a model female, but a model disciple who consents to what is not yet fully understood” (Beverly Gaventa)
Jesus’ first disciple? Easy—it was Mary.
I’m super excited about my next newsletter. I’m on an academic research adventure in New York City, and I’ll be sharing about a very interesting ancient woman you’ve probably never heard of. I know I never had!
AND, she is the first known, documented, writer in human history.
Stay tuned for more….
QUESTION GIRL QUESTION: Is it mind blowing to think about Mary as disciple? (It is for me!)
By the way, this Substack is all about asking questions about women in the Bible or the Church. Do you have any questions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and your question may appear anonymously here on Question Girl!
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