The Three Most Important Women in Mark’s Gospel—All Unnamed

Woman, Unnamed

Artist: Eric Longo, Photo: James D. Tabor

A well-known theme of the New Testament Gospel of Mark is the utter and complete failure of Jesus’s 12 male apostles—even up to the bitter end—to ever understand either Jesus’s mission or his message1 I am using “Mark” throughout this post as a reference to the author as he is traditionally known, without any identification of the author or authors with any known historical figures of the period. Indeed, it is entirely possible the book was composed by a woman—maybe even one who is anonymously mentioned in the book itself.

In Mark, Jesus’s mission was primarily about his role as a sacrificial servant whose suffering and death would be offered up “as a ransom for many.” This phrase is a clear allusion to Isaiah 53:12—the fourth “Suffering Servant Song” in Deutero-Isaiah.2Jesus’s message involved the “secret of the kingdom”—the meaning of which they continually missed. Jesus rebuked them repeatedly and with increasing discouragement and dismay as for their “hardened hearts” and their lack of “eyes to see and ears to hear” (Mark 8:17-18). In Mark, Jesus tells his inner group of 12: “To you have been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables” (Mark 4:11-12).3 However, the 12, despite being allowed by Jesus to see and experience the “inside” secret of the kingdom of God, consistently fail to “understand.” As the gospel progresses, Jesus repeatedly rebukes and admonishes them:

“Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? (Mark 4:13).

“… for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52).

“Then are you also without understanding?” (Mark 7:18).

“Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? … Do you not yet understand? (Mark 8:15-21).

In a similar manner, the 12 repeatedly fail to accept or understand that Jesus’s path to his crucifixion and death was a call to all of them to “take up a cross,” to make themselves “last” in order to be first, and to become a servant of all. Three times, on the road to Jerusalem that final Passover week, Jesus privately explains to the 12 what horrors of suffering and death are ahead (Mark 8:31-32; 9:30-32; 10:32-34). Mark emphasizes that “he said this plainly” but the disciples “did not understand and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 8:32). Following each of these three occasions, like clockwork, Mark directly juxtaposes their utter failure to understand:

Peter sharply rebukes Jesus and declares that as Messiah this can never be! Jesus replies to him, “Get behind me Satan, you are not on the side of God but of men.” (Mark 8:31-38).

The disciples have a dispute among themselves as to who is the greatest (Mark 9:33-37)

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask for the chief seats on the right and left of Jesus when he comes into his power and glory (Mark 10:35-45).

Each of these responses, indicating not just a misunderstanding but that they were on a completely different wavelength, is followed by Jesus patiently telling them once again what it means to serve not to be served, and to make oneself last and least.

This paradoxical “secret” of the kingdom—that these male disciples never get—is the reader’s challenge. Up is down, and down is up. The inside is what God sees, not the outside. The least and most humble servant becomes the greatest in the Kingdom. And yes, Mark, unlike any of our other gospels, does directly address the reader with the admonition: “Let the reader understand!” (Mark 13:14). So readers, then and now, can take a kind of test—it is almost as if Mark was written for that purpose—to determine who would see, hear, and understand the “secret.” The mystery and intrigue—which is always privately explained to the disciples in the “hearing” of the reader—functions then as an indicator of what Mark refers to repeatedly as “faith.” It is not merely believing something is true or that something happened—but rather a kind of committed “trust” that the paradox of service/suffering/death somehow leads to glory, power, and exaltation. Of course, such trust necessarily involves action—and results in an imitation of the “way of the cross” that Jesus pioneered as the Teacher.

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Many scholars hold the view that Jesus neither considered himself to be the Davidic Messiah nor anticipated his crucifixion and death. They argue that these predictions are put in the mouth of Jesus by the author after Jesus’s death, in an attempt to present Jesus as one who knew all things and steadfastly chose to die on a cross as part of his mission. I am one of the few scholars who thinks it is not only possible but likely that the historical figure of Jesus did claim to be the Davidic Messiah. That he deliberately went about a path that he found laid out for him in the Prophets that involved his suffering to the point of death, but with promise of future vindication (Isaiah 53:13).4 Whether that be the case or not is not important for this present analysis, but it might be something the reader would want to pursue further.

This sheer failure of the 12 male apostles comes to a climax in the shortest verse in the Gospel of Mark. When Jesus is arrested after midnight in the garden of Gethsemane we are told, “And they all forsook him and fled” (Mark 14:50). This is after Jesus three times begs them to stay awake and pray with him in the face of his coming ordeal of suffering—and each time they fall asleep. This failure is echoed then in Peter’s three-fold denial of even knowing Jesus, which Jesus had predicted (Mark 14:53-72). The 12 never appear again in Mark. He ends his gospel with the women who visit the tomb to anoint his body after the Sabbath. They find the empty tomb and are informed by a “young man” inside the tomb that Jesus is risen. They flee in trembling and fear, “saying nothing to anyone for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).5

Clearly in Mark the 12 male disciples are complete failures and are never presented as heroes, even at the end. However, what we do find in Mark, in stark contrast to this chosen group, are three unnamed women who become Mark’s heroines and carry the core message of the entire book for those readers with eyes to see and ears to hear.

First there is the “woman who had a flow of blood for 12 years” who is healed by touching the fringe of Jesus’s garment, in a crowd pressing about him, and is commended for her faith (Mark 5:24-34).

Second, there is the Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, whose daughter who was afflicted by an unclean spirit and asked Jesus to heal her. Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:24-30)—reflecting the common view of the Jewish culture that Gentiles were dogs! Jesus commends her wise reply—that even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. He declares, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” Her story becomes for Mark an affirmation of the gospel of the kingdom breaking out of cultural norms and prejudices and being preached to “all nations” as one of Mark’s main themes (Mark 13:10).

And finally, we have the poor widow who puts into the treasury in the Jerusalem Temple—during the last few days of his life—”two copper coins,” the proverbial widow’s mites. She is commended as having given more than the entire Passover crowd, streaming into the city for the festival from all over the world, bringing their offerings and gifts (Mark 12:41-44). This widow has three strikes against her. First, she is a woman not a man. Second, she has no husband. And finally, she has no money. Nonetheless, she “put in everything she had, her whole living.” This is precisely what Jesus, throughout Mark’s Gospel, is trying to convey to his disciples. What is least is the greatest, God sees the inside not the outside, and one must give one’s whole life in sacrifice to be a disciple. True to form, immediately after this story—which in many ways is the crescendo of Mark’s entire Gospel, the disciples exit the Temple compound, and looking back, declare, “What wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” (Mark 13:1). Such a juxtaposition between the poor widow with nothing who gives all, and the admiration of the disciples for Herod’s impressive buildings, says it all.

These three examples leave us with one more woman—whose ironic anonymity becomes the basis for the proclamation of the gospel to the entire world. This unnamed woman shows up at a dinner Jesus attends hosted by Simon the leper at Bethany—another “outcast” in Mark’s story. She pours costly ointment over Jesus’s head. She is reproached by the disciples for “wasting” such a costly substance when the money could have been given to the poor. Jesus rebukes them and says she has done a beautiful thing in “anointing his body beforehand for burying.” He then declares, “And truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:3-9). The irony of this statement can hardly be lost on the careful reader. This unnamed woman’s story will be told “in memory of her,” but Mark does not reveal her name! The implication is that Jesus is anointed by a woman—unlike King David who was anointed by the prophet Samuel—and that this messianic anointing is of a dead messiah, not a glorious inauguration of a king (1 Samuel 16:6-13). I have argued elsewhere that this woman is none other than Mary Magdalene—the mysterious woman who shows up at the cross of Jesus, is named at the head of the whole group of women who come from Galilee and stay faithful to Jesus even in his death, and goes early to Jesus’s tomb to anoint his body for burial. In contrast, all the male disciples have fled in fear (Mark 15:40-41; 16:1).

Regardless, it is “her story” that is in fact the gospel story—as illustrated by the three woman who precede her. Mark is clearly signaling to the perceptive reader that the three women in his story who illustrate true faith, the inclusiveness of the gospel to all nations, and the call to give all that one—even one’s whole life—in order to follow him, are its true heroines—not the male disciples. And it is the unnamed woman, who anoints him as a “dead messiah” before his death, whose story will carry to the whole world this gospel of the “secret” of the kingdom. I think it is entirely possible that the gospel of Mark was in fact written by a woman, but anonymously—much like “George Eliot” wrote Silas Marner. If I had to guess, I would think the most likely woman would be Mary Magdalene, who like the filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and Kenneth Lonergan, puts herself into the story in an anonymous cameo role.6

Dr. James Tabor is a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he is professor of Christian origins and ancient Judaism and served as Chair for a decade. His Ph.D. is from the University of Chicago. He previously taught at the University of Notre Dame and the College of William and Mary. Tabor has combined his work on ancient texts with extensive fieldwork in archaeology in Israel and Jordan. Since 2008 he has been co-director, with Shimon Gibson, of the acclaimed Mt. Zion excavation in Jerusalem. Dr. Tabor just completed a new book, The Lost Mary: From Jewish Mother of Jesus to Virgin Mother of God (Knopf, 2020). His blog is at

1 Here I mean particularly “the 12” who are and chosen and designated apostles by Jesus directly (Mark 3:13-19), and referenced as such throughout in this gospel: Mark 4:10; 6:7; 9:35; 10:32; 11:1; 14:10; 14:10, 17, 20. Other disciples are mentioned in Mark—as distinct from the “crowds,”—but the 12, and their failure, are the focus of Mark’s treatment (e.g. Mark 4:10).

2 See Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12. Quotations throughout are from the Revised Standard Version (1952; 1971).

3 Mark uses “parables” (a transliteration of the Greek word παραβολή, literally “to lay alongside”) to mean “riddles” or puzzling similes, that need interpretation.

4 See my blog post: “The Making of a Messiah: Did Jesus Claim to be the Messiah and Predict His Suffering and Death?”  for a summary of the arguments and my article “Are You the One? The Textual Dynamics of Messianic Self-Identity,” in Knowing the End from the Beginning: The Prophetic, the Apocalyptic, and their Relationships, Lester L. Grabbe and Robert D. Haak, eds., Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha Supplement (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2004), pp. 180-191.

5 Of course this abrupt ending, with no glorious appearances of the risen Christ, proved troublesome and unsatisfactory to later editors of Mark in the second and third centuries. As a result, various forged endings were appended to bring Mark into line with Matthew, Luke, and John. See my post, “The Strange Ending of the Gospel of Mark and Why it Makes all the Difference.”

6 Luke omits Mark’s story, replacing it with an earlier story in which a “woman of the city” (also unidentified) anoints Jesus’s feet, all the time weeping so that she must dry them with her hair. For Luke it becomes a story about forgiveness—the woman whose “sins are many” loves much more than those who are self-righteous and look down on her, but Luke clearly implies she is in fact Mary Magdalene (Luke 7:36-50, juxtaposed with 8:1-3). John seems to combine the two stories of Mark and Luke and identifies the woman as “Mary,” but “of Bethany,” the sister of Martha—but with a decidedly different message than Mark (John 11:1-2). See my posts, “In Memory of Her: Mary’s Forgotten Memorial,” ; “Mary Magdalene as First Witness and thus First Among the Apostles,” ; “The Most Important Ten Verses of the Gospels to Read Easter Morning.”

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