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The Galilean Women at the Cross and at the Tomb

adapted from the book Women in the New Testament
by Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan


Women from Galilee provide the link between the ministry of Jesus and his passion; their presence at the cross, the burial, and the resurrection of Jesus is significant. These women have been with him from the beginning of his ministry; they have heard his words and seen his actions.  They are witnesses not only to the earthly ministry of Jesus but to its meaning as understood in the light of the resurrection.  In simple terms, the story of their fidelity cuts across all four Gospel acounts. Their story is inextricably bound up with Jesus' own.  Since all four Gospels attest to the presence at the cross of women who had followed Jesus from Galilee, we start there:  Mark 15.40-41; Matthew 27.55-61; Luke 23.49-56; and John 19.25-27.

All four Gospels place women at the tomb to become the first witnesses to the resurrection.  The evangelists tell that part of the story here:  Mark 16.1-8; Matthew 28.1-10; Luke 24.1-12; John 20.1-3, 10-18.

On the third day after his crucifixion, the women who had followed him all along are commanded to tell the other disciples that he is not in the tomb; rather Jesus is risen and would appear to them in Galilee.  "There you will see him, as he told you" [Mark 16.7]  The course of the Gospel leads readers full circle, following Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, from miracles to the cross, from power to powerlessness; and then, after the resurrection, to return to the beginning and finally to "see" Jesus as he is, for who he is.  He had told them all this previously, although they had not understood.  But the resurrection changed all that.

While all four Gospels are unanimous in saying that women were at the cross and also that they bore witness about the resurrection to the male disciples, the evangelists are not unanimous in their identification of the women.  Nor do they all agree in tellling us how many women were present.

Mark, the first Gospel to be written, names three women at the cross:  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and Joses; and Salome (see Mark 14.40 and 16.1].  Matthew tells us that at the cross were "Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee" [Matthew 27.56].  A few verses later, [v. 61], Matthew says that two of these, "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained there, facing the tomb." These are the same two who came to "see the tomb" as the first day of the week was dawning; they discovered that it was empty and they heard the announcement that Jesus had been raised [Matthew 28.1].

Luke describes the women as those who "had followed him from Galilee" [Luke 23.49; see also 21.53-55] and names them in 24.10 as "Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James."  In Luke 8.1-3, Luke also named women as prominent among those who had followed Jesus in his journey throughout Galilee and then to Jerusalem.  Luke further refers to "others who accompanied them,"  all of whom were supported by the women.  John tell us that "standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala" [John 20.1-2, 11-18].  In all the lists of the women from Galilee except in John 19.25, Mary Magdalene is named first, an indication of her leadership role in the early Church, at least among the women.

In Mark's account, these women link the cross and the empty tomb.  Although the women appear to have obeyed the command to inform the others of what they have seen, Mark utilizes his "secrecy motif," with its Christological implications, to the end.  The "secrecy motif," as it is sometimes called, is a literary device allowing Mark to assert that Jesus is truly the Messiah, the Son of God, while insisting that this truth can only be known through faith.  So for example, no human being can recognize who Jesus truly is until the centurion confesses, at Jesus' death, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" [Mar 15.39].  Mark challenges his readers to realize that even Peter stumbled when he acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah but balks at Jesus' prediction of his passion [8.29-33].  At the very end of his Gospel, Mark includes even the faithful women among those who falter until they return again to Galilee, to the beginning, to see and to interpret the whole of Jesus' life and ministry, in the context of his resurrection.

Thus, the original ending of Mark says that the women all ran away from the tomb, telling no one anything, "for they were afraid" [18.8].  In Mark, Jesus's disciples, including the women, do not yet understand, even after the resurrection.  They must return to Galilee, to the beginning, before they will grasp the mystery of it all.  Then, with the experience of both the cross and the resurrection informing their vision and their hearing, they will at last be disciples of faith.

In contrast to Mark, the other Gospels tell us that the women did as they were told, adding that the male disciples heard the news from the women.  Thus, historical and theological necessity appears to finally prevail over literary license; alternative endings were added to make Mark conform to the consensus that Peter and the others heard the report of Jesus' rising from the women.

Mark and Luke link the crucifixion with the resurrection by having the women note the place of Jesus' burial so that they could go, prepare the spices,and, after the Sabbath, return to anoint the body.  But Matthew took literally Jesus' prophecy that the unnamed woman who had anointed him "for burial" [Matthew 26.12], so that no further anointing was necessary.  Thus, in Matthew the women go to the tomb "to watch" -- the action of the disciple, the same action the women performed at the foot of the cross.  Jesus' last words before the passion were a command to "watch" and be prepared for the terrible events that would accompany the destruction of the Temple as well as the end of time [Mark 13.37].  The disciple is to be on guard, on alert, to watch!  This is the posture of the women of Galilee....