by Rob Stegmann
In Mark’s Gospel, the male disciples are frequently cast as a negative example of what it means to follow Jesus. Jesus’s male disciples don’t seem to be able to understand the demands of discipleship (see, 8.27–10.52 for a series of illustrative examples). In some ways, they epitomise (stereo)typical male responses to Jesus’ call to obedience and teaching on the suffering Human.
Fairly early on in Mark’s account, we have an episode in which Jesus unpacks what it would mean for his followers to embody the call of discipleship. In the episode (Mark 3. 13-19), Jesus ascends a mountain in the Galilee region. As he makes his way up the mountain, he “called to him those whom he wanted,” and we are told, “and they came to him.” So far, so good. In fact, we are not surprised either by Jesus’ calling of specific individuals or by the response of those called—“they came to him.”
Then Jesus issues a task (ποιέω) to the twelve—we are now given the number of those whom Jesus had called. The twelve are tasked, but they are also named apostles. Having named the twelve, Jesus unpacks the task and in so doing gives meaning to the naming. In other words, to be an apostle, in this passage, is to assume a role which Jesus is about to describe.
To be an apostle is to …
be with Jesus,
be sent out to proclaim Jesus’ message,
be authorised (ἐξουσία) to cast (ἐκβάλλω) out demons.
As Mark weaves his story of Jesus, the idea of being with, proclaiming, and being authorised to bring down oppressive regimes, serve as an amplification of ‘following’ and ‘serving’, the key characteristics of discipleship.
Having named them and issued their task, Mark has Jesus list each of them: Simon (Peter), James (son of Zebedee), John (brother of James), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddaeus, Simon (the Cananaean), and Judas Iscariot. They are all men. And, given the context and setting, we are not surprised here either. The long interpretive tradition of the church, however, has made much about these, and subsequent, (male) Apostles (now capitalised). In the process, that tradition has sidelined and silenced those whom Mark would have us see as truly embodying Jesus-discipleship: the women.
In a telling moment, when it mattered the most to Jesus who had just been betrayed after his agonising prayers in Gethsemane, Mark writes that “All of them [the (male) disciples] deserted (ἀφίημι) him and fled (φεύγω)” (14.50). With the exception only of Peter—for a brief moment for his denial of Jesus—the disciples don’t enter the story again. But the women are there. They have been there, silently, witnessing the crucifixion. They were with Jesus. And, even in his death, they are there, ready to serve—to minister—to his lifeless body.
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow (ἠκολούθουν) him and provided (διηκόνουν) for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem (15.40-41).
The two keywords here are ‘follow’ and ‘serve’—an amplification of all that is carried by the term ‘apostle’. To follow Jesus is to learn to serve. The three women mentioned in the passage, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome, followed Jesus from Galilee. These three women belonged to the marginalised villages of Galilee and have followed and served Jesus from the beginning. Moreover, we notice that these, and many other women, came up with Jesus to Jerusalem. Mark wants us to see that the women are the ones who accompany Jesus to Jerusalem, and who remain with him.
The women are the ones that get what discipleship is all about. They understand what Jesus is asking of the apostles, and they are the one’s who witness the empty tomb and are told to go and proclaim the news to them. Though they leave the tomb terrorised and amazed, saying nothing to anyone, we can be sure that after the fear subsided, these three powerful, faithful, women who were with Jesus throughout stood up and proclaimed the good news that oppressive would-be powers are on notice! The revolution has always been bubbling under the surface and present in the text. We’ve just chosen to silence particular voices and erase certain types of people from the text.
Short bio: Rob (Robert) Stegmann (PhD, Stellenbosch University, South Africa) is an educator, New Testament scholar, and a research fellow at Stellenbosch University. Rob has occupied a range of roles within the higher education landscape, including serving as Head of Department, Dean of Humanities, and more recently Head of Academic Planning and Development. More than any of these roles, Rob is passionate about the Bible and derives deep joy from being in the classroom with students.
Rob lives in South Africa with his beautiful wife, Nicki, and their two children.
Rob’s Blog: https://robstegmann.wordpress.com/
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the South African Theological Seminary.