The women who watched Jesus die.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 April 2019

Mark 15.40-41, Matthew 27.55-56, Luke 23.49, John 19.25.

Various Christians like to point out, “There were actually two groups of people following Jesus: There were the disciples, and there were the women.” Though y’notice they seldom bring up the women till we get to one of the stories in the gospels about the women.

With some due respect to these Christians, there were not two groups following Jesus; there was one. His students. The people who supported him, served him, and listened to his teachings. The Twelve were a special group of students whom Jesus singled out, and of course there were plenty of students who didn’t stick around after Jesus taught something too hardcore for them. But everyone who followed him, he considered a student. That includes the women.

Yes, history describes Pharisee rabbis as only instructing young men—and I remind you in Jesus’s culture you were “a man” at age 13, which is why I keep referring to his students as kids. That was their expectation, anyway: If men were gonna live under the Law, they needed to be trained, while still young, how Pharisees interpret the finer points of the Law. But let’s be blunt: The rabbis taught ’em all the Pharisee loopholes. This way they could appear religious, but not have to struggle all that hard when it comes to the things which really tempt people. It’s what Jesus called straining out the gnats, but swallowing camels. Mt 23.24 Basically lessons in hypocrisy. And as we know, Jesus taught no such thing; he totally expected his students to be authentic God-followers. Still does.

But rabbis didn’t just get teenage students. Friday nights, when they held Sabbath synagogue, people of any age showed up. And sometimes throughout the week, these same people might show up and listen to a lesson. And bring questions.

Synagogues segregated women in the back, and in open-air classes like Jesus taught, they’d still customarily sit in the back or on the sidelines. Ostensibly they were waiting for their brothers or spouses or kids, or were only there to tend to the rabbi’s needs. In reality they were also getting an education. They weren’t permitted to ask questions, and in so doing spoil the cultural illusion. They weren’t allowed to sit up front with the boys, like Mary of Bethany totally did, Lk 10.39 and be overt students. But Jesus was totally fine with Mary’s behavior. Lk 10.42 And most rabbis approved of the women listening in. (After all, mothers were expected to raise good Pharisee kids, and how’re you gonna do that if you don’t know what Pharisees teach?)

So the women were Jesus’s students too. Same as the boys. So they weren’t among the Twelve; why should this stop anyone from likewise sharing Jesus with the world? Or stop Jesus from sending ’em on their own missions?

Okay. This said, I oughta point out the women who were at Jesus’s cross, the women who watched him die, were not necessarily students. One certainly was: Mary the Magdalene. But the others who were listed by name, were actually Jesus’s family members: His mother and aunts.

Mark 15.40-41 KWL
40 There were women watching from far away,
among them Mary the Magdalene, Mary mother of little James and Joses, and Salomé.
41 When in the Galilee, these women followed Jesus and served him.
Many other women had traveled with Jesus to Jerusalem.
Matthew 27.55-26 KWL
55 There were many women there, watching from far away,
who followed Jesus from the Galilee, who served him.
56 Among them was Mary the Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Joses,
and Salomé mother of Zebedee’s children.
Luke 23.49 KWL
Everyone who knew Jesus were standing far away, watching this,
including the women who followed him from the Galilee.
John 19.25 KWL
Standing by Jesus’s cross were his mother, his mother’s sister Salomé,
Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary the Magdalene.

So according to John, Jesus’s mother was there. And according to all the gospels, so was Mary, the wife of Joseph’s brother Clopas, the mother of his apostle James “the less”; and Salomé (some ancients called her “Mary Salomé,” maybe mixing the aunts together), Jesus’s mother’s sister, the wife of Zebedee and mother of his apostles James and John.

Yep, family. Now you see why they stuck around.

Watching from afar.

Since various Christians don’t recognize the family connections, they make various other assumptions as to why the women stuck around but the men didn’t. And maybe—maybe—there’s some legitimacy to some of them. But probably they’re just reading their own cultural assumptions into things.

Fr’instance cracks about their level of commitment. Because the boys all fled, or pretended not to even know him, but the women stuck around. So people like to make statements about the women’s loyalty, devotion, boldness, fearlessness… traits we do honestly see more often among female Christians than male Christians. But this casual observation misses and ignores several things in the gospels. First of all Jesus wanted the kids to get away, Jn 18.8 and not be arrested and crucified with him. Second, some of the boys did stick around to see what happened, like Simon Peter, John, and Judas Iscariot; and possibly others. And third, the women’s loyalty wasn’t based on what they believed; they were family. They didn’t have to believe in Jesus (though they did); they’d be there for him regardless, because that’s what family does. Should do, anyway.

I’ve heard people claim the men had to go into hiding lest the Romans suspect them of being fellow revolutionaries; but the women could be out in the open because the Romans would never suspect them. It’s a profoundly naïve statement. Have none of them read about Yaél?

Judges 4.17-22 KWL
17 Siserá fled by foot to the tent of Yaél, Khevér the Qeyni’s woman.
(There was peace between king Yavín of Khachór, and Khevér the Qeyni’s house.)
18 Yaél went out to meet Siserá, and told him, “Master, come in; don’t fear.”
He went inside her tent. She covered him with a rug.
19 Siserá told Yaél, “Please give me a little water to drink; I’m thirsty.”
She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him again.
20 Siserá told Yaél, “Stand at the tent door.
If a man happens to come and ask you—to say, ‘Is there a man here?’ you say no.”
21 Then Yaél, Khevér’s woman, took a tentpeg, and put a hammer in her hand.
She came to Siserá quietly, and pounded the peg through his temple into the ground.
He was sleeping soundly, and weary. He died.
22 Look, as Barák pursued Siserá, Yaél came out to meet him,
and told him, “Come. I’ll show you the man you’re seeking.”
He came into her tent, and look: Siserá lay dead, the peg in his temple.

If you’ve never read the apocrypha, it’s understandable if you’ve never heard of Judith, who likewise killed an enemy general. Women make some of the fiercest insurgents. The Romans had plenty such women in their own history, and would’ve been stupid to disregard them. That’s why the women wisely kept their distance. Frankly those people who think the women were beneath noticing, are letting their own sexism distort their interpretation.

The women wisely stayed back, not just ’cause of the Romans, but because they likely knew themselves: They‘d want to intervene, interfere, and get killed for their efforts. All they could really do was stand back and watch the horrifying spectacle.

It had to be hard for Jesus to know they were watching. He knew the end of the story—and really so should they, ’cause he foretold it more than once. But like his other students, the women likely didn’t believe it. And either way, watching Jesus die had to be awful. Christians who watch Jesus movies are fully aware how the story ends, but watching movie-Jesus die still makes us weep. ’Cause that’s someone we love getting beaten to death. So how much worse was it for the women who knew Jesus best?