Do you ever wonder why it was not considered scandalous that Jesus had private conversations with women? That Jesus had women traveling with him—and even supporting him financially? I mean, Jesus was also alone with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, and when his own disciples returned, they were surprised to see him talking with a woman (John 4:27)
Women with Whom Jesus Had Conversations
First of all, Jesus definitely broke with social convention where women were concerned. Consider Mary of Bethany sitting at his feet in the posture of a pupil with a rabbi when Martha objected to her sister’s neglect of her domestic duties. Indeed, Jesus was the first recorded rabbi to have a female student—and to defend her for making theology a priority. And Mary of Bethany was probably not married. She might even have been young. But his conversations with her happened when others were around. The same is true of his conversation with Martha when her brother died (see John 11).
But what about the woman with whom he was clearly alone—the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4)? This is where Hollywood and “Jesus Christ, Superstar” have probably wrongly influenced our images. Because someone who’d had five husbands was no nineteen-year-old.
Women with Whom Jesus Traveled
Like “the woman at the well,” the women who traveled with Jesus were probably older. And some of them were probably widowed. A young maiden would not have been traveling alone, and it is unlikely that she would have had her own cash. A woman with the means and freedom to travel was most likely accompanied by a male family member or a widow who had received an inheritance. Women did not typically inherit property, so a woman who did so was less likely to have sons.
A woman traveling with Jesus who did have living sons (James and John) was the wife of Zebedee. And she had aged enough to have boys old enough to decide on their own to follow Jesus. (She must have also had a very supportive husband, because apparently he kept the family fishing business going while they all took off from Galilee to do theology.) In Mark 15:40, we read that Zebedee’s wife is named as one of the women present at the crucifixion in Jerusalem. The parallel passage in Matthew 27 describes her as “the mother of Zebedee's children." She is also described that way in Matthew 20:20, in which we read the account of her petitioning Jesus to let her sons sit with him in Paradise. She was probably in Jericho (v. 29) when that happened. So we know she traveled quite some distance to follow him.
Luke records, “Some time afterward [Jesus] went on through towns and villages, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and disabilities: Mary (called Magdalene), from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Cuza (Herod’s household manager), Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their own resources” (8:1–3, emphasis added). And of the resurrection, Luke writes, “The women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it” (23:55).
If Jesus was in his early thirties, his mother was in her late forties or early fifties, yet we often see her depicted as young and beautiful as she traveled with him. But picture a world without modern dental care, sunscreen, contemporary hygiene, Botox, facelifts—these were not gorgeous young things following Jesus as groupies.
Women Who Supported Jesus
Did you notice the part about women supporting men financially? The idea that men, and only men, must fully support financially the women in their families while the females do only domestic duties is a western middle-class construct that would never fly in the developing world today and certainly was not true in Jesus’ time. Our Lord’s practice of receiving the financial support of women suggests that doing so does not undermine manhood. And conversely, apparently a woman’s femininity is not violated if she financially supports a man or men. In fact her doing so makes her a woman of hayil, a woman of valor, if her reason for doing so is because she wishes to bring glory to God.