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Women at the Last Supper

It wasn't only men who were an important part of Jesus' ministry. Here's who may also have been in the Upper Room.

The roles of women in Christianity have long fascinated me. Growing up in China and seeing the roles of women there but knowing that Jesus loves men and women equally, I remember asking, "Daddy, why didn't Jesus have any girl disciples?"

My missionary father answered, "Why, of course he did." Then he showed me some of the gospel passages in his pocket New Testament about the "girls" and women who followed Jesus.

He read Matthew 27:55: "Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs." Then he turned the pages to Luke 8:1-3: "Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means."

"See?" he told me. "Jesus had many women followers and disciples."

Several years later, not long after my family escaped from China because of the Communist takeover, and settled safely in Taiwan, I saw a picture of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" painting in a magazine. I rushed to Dad and said, "Look, why aren't there any girls at the Last Supper?"

He answered, "The women were likely there. They just aren't shown in this painting." He didn't try to explain centuries of church theology and tradition. Instead he patiently showed me in the gospel accounts how the women were with Jesus and his 12 closest male disciples right before and after the Last Supper.

As I've studied the Bible more deeply, I've discovered women often weren't named. But that doesn't mean they weren't there—such as in the genealogies (with several exceptions in Matthew)—and we all know women had to be there.

So imagine my excitement when my husband and I traveled a few years ago to the Vatican and then the Louvre, and there viewed ancient, wall-sized paintings of the Last Supper portraying women and children along with the men!

Who Were These Women?

According to gospel accounts and Christian tradition, Jesus' mother Mary was one of his most faithful followers. She urged him to turn water into wine at a wedding feast (John 2:1-11) and stood at his cross when he was dying (John 19:26). It's likely she attended that last Passover, a family Seder meal, with her son.

Another Mary, from Magdala, was the disciple Jesus appeared to first after his resurrection (John 20:10-18). She was certainly in the vicinity.

A third Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, could have attended the Last Supper, sitting and listening one last time at Jesus' feet. Someone had to cook the meal. Perhaps her sister, Martha, filled that role (Luke 10:38-42).

Peter's wife could have been there. The gospels tell us the story of Jesus healing her mother, and Paul wrote to the Corinthians that she traveled with Peter (1 Corinthians 9:5).

Salome, another of the women mentioned in the gospels (Mark 15:40-41), was probably the wife of Zebedee and, according to some sources, the sister of Jesus' mother. If so, she was Jesus' aunt, and her sons James and John were his cousins.

Joanna and Susanna followed Jesus because he had healed them (Luke 8:3). Joanna's husband was Cuza, King Herod's steward, so Joanna had royal and powerful connections in addition to wealth.

Other possibilities? Perhaps Mary (the mother of John Mark) and her servant Rhoda, the woman healed of a 12-year hemorrhage, and Joseph of Arimathea's wife. She's not mentioned in the gospels, but Josephus the Jewish historian refers to her.

It's exciting to think that just because they aren't listed specifically in the Bible that doesn't mean they weren't there or around or involved with Jesus daily. After all, Jesus cared deeply for and about these women.

That's important to remember. And to help women today remember that Jesus had women disciples too, you may want to do what my church has daringly done. Honor the women of the Last Supper in your paintings and other portrayals. Nearly every year my church recreates a dramatic interpretation of the Last Supper—and each year women are in those scenes. For we believe that those women who faithfully followed Jesus were there.

Knowing about those women who were present at the important moments of Jesus' ministry, such as the Last Supper, has made a huge impact on my own journey of faith. Throughout my life, they've inspired me to live for Jesus, and to depend daily on God to work things out for his purposes, even terrible things. And just as Jesus long ago gave those women the hope of a glorious eternity, so today he still gives that same hope to all who follow him.

Millie Samuelson was born to missionary parents in Xian, China, and grew to become a missionary herself to Taiwan and then to South Africa. She and her husband now make their home in Indiana. She is author of Women of the Last Supper: We Were There Too. Visit Millie at www.milliesbooks.org.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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