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Women's History Month

Women on the Way to the Cross

The significance of women on Jesus’s journey toward the cross is one of the most resilient features of the Gospel accounts. All four Gospels make sure that the faithful presence of the women in the story is not overshadowed by the role of the (remaining) eleven apostles. Indeed, in comparison to those who “deserted [Jesus] and fled,” the Gospel writers insist on highlighting the steadfast loyalty of Jesus’s women disciples.

It’s often observed that women were the very first witnesses of the empty tomb. It’s less often noticed that women were also among the last to linger at the foot of cross and the very last to leave the burial of their dear friend and beloved rabbi (Matthew 27:55-61).

And a few of these women played especially critical roles that are only rarely appreciated. In recounting the fateful night of Peter’s threefold denial, each of the Gospel accounts accentuates the pivotal role of a female in the courtyard. The synoptic Gospels recall that it was one or more young servant women who courageously confronted Peter (Matt. 26:69-75; Mk. 14:66-72; Lk. 22:54-62). In John, she was a woman guard (John 18:16). Whichever stream of the story one follows, it is crystal clear that it was a woman who boldly, even relentlessly, gave Peter the opportunity to confess his allegiance to the Lordship of Jesus. She gave him the opportunity to stand in solidarity with Christ and confirm his calling as a principal founder of the confessing church. Sadly, Peter failed to receive her accurate identification of him as a gift of grace and, as a result, he not only denied his Lord, but also his own identity.

To see the women on the way to the cross is to recognize that the good news truly embraces all humanity.

Another woman whose story often remains far in the background is the wife of Pontius Pilate. Though unnamed and unheard, Pilate’s spouse is an icon of the possibility of God’s Spirit speaking in and through those outside the parameters of church or synagogue. Pilate functioned as a leader of the Roman government and was likely of Italian origin and so presumably was his wife. Perhaps her life at the edges of Judaism and amid the birth pangs of Christianity stirred something in her about the true nature of God. However it occurred, Matthew tells us that she was sufficiently spiritually sensitive to hear the voice of God in a dream and courageous enough to attempt to rescue her husband from handing over Jesus to be crucified (Matt. 27:19). While she was unsuccessful in saving Jesus, several streams of Christian tradition hold that they themselves both embraced faith in Christ. Pilate is believed by some traditions to have been executed as a martyr by Emperor Nero. In both the Coptic and Greek Orthodox churches, Pilate’s wife is venerated as a saint.

Perhaps the most iconic of the Gospel’s witness to women on the way to the cross is its inclusion of those who are unnamed. They are there in Mark’s reference to “many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem” (Mk. 15:41). They are there in Luke’s recollection of women along the via dolorosa who were “beating their breasts and wailing for him” and whom Jesus called “daughters of Jerusalem” (Lk. 23:27-28). They are there among Jesus’s “acquaintances, including women, who had followed him from Galilee” (Lk. 23:49). They are there in Matthew’s reminiscence that these were the women who “had provided for [Jesus]” (Matt. 27:55).

Why are these unnamed women such a resilient feature of the Gospel story? It’s simply this: they are women. Every Gospel account concurs that the true story of Jesus passion, death, and resurrection cannot be told without including the women in the story. To see the women on the way to the cross is to recognize that the good news truly embraces all humanity. Without the inclusion of all people – women and men – the news cannot be good. But it does! And it is truly good news! Thanks be to God. 

a photo of Doug Cullum

About the author

Doug Cullum, PhD

In 1998, Dr. Cullum became one of the founding faculty members of Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College. Areas of special interest include Wesley and the Methodist tradition, Reformation theology and history, liturgy and liturgical theology, 19th-century American religion, and 20th-century neo-orthodoxy. Professionally, Dr. Cullum participates in the North American Academy of Liturgy and the Wesley Studies Group of the American Academy of Religion.