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Women Who Do: Female Disciples in the Gospels

Holly Carey
Published by Eerdmans in 2024

Holly J. Carey wants us to see the full picture of discipleship. 

In her introduction to Women Who Do: Female Disciples in the Gospels, Carey shares how she experienced the tension between her desire to study and teach theology and the messaging of her church upbringing. Carey’s church leadership allowed women to teach theology. Just not to anyone over ten years old. Sitting in her theology professor’s office in college, Carey asked him: “Can I do this?” to which she quickly adds clarification: “The question…would have been better phrased ‘May I do this?’ This was about permission” (p. 2). 

Carey began a journey familiar to many women in the church and in ministry, including me. Wrestling with her own sense of call, she delved deep into Scripture to listen for God’s answer to her question: “May I do this?” Carey’s answer came in the form of the rich and complex and varied stories of women in the Gospels: the stories of Elizabeth and Anna, Priscilla and Tabitha, the unnamed women along with all the Marys, and so many more. Their stories shaped not only her own faith and vocation, but also the academic work that became Women Who Do

Driven by the experience of having the scales drop from her own eyes, Holly J. Carey wants us to see the women we’re likely to overlook both in Scripture and in our churches when we consider what it looks like to follow Jesus faithfully:

“[W]e should acknowledge a through line that stretches from the positive portrayal of female disciples in the Gospels to the work of female disciples in our own contexts…[and] invite those stories into our conversations and allow them to inform our understanding of what women are capable of and what so many already do in the church” (ix).

With the zealous conviction of a convert to a new way of life and with the studiousness of a keen biblical scholar, Carey builds her argument – gospel by gospel – for a better and fuller picture of discipleship that includes the faithful and diverse lives of women. 

After a place-setting chapter on the roles and experiences of women in the first century, Carey spends a chapter on each of the four gospels with an additional chapter looking at the Book of Acts. Through a close reading of each gospel and engagement with current scholarship (especially in extensive footnotes), Carey unpacks how each gospel writer portrays faithful discipleship – primarily through their depiction of the twelve male disciples – and how the women in the gospels subverts or reinforces that portrayal. 

The picture of discipleship that emerges is one of action. Mark portrays women who pursue and serve and sacrifice in contrast to the Twelve who often act out of fear, self-interest, or confusion. Matthew tells the story of faithful women who protect God’s covenant when others fail to do so. Luke-Acts offers us female models of prophecy and leadership, whether obvious like Mary and Anna or when we have to peak around the corners of the text to find them. John, who understands discipleship to be a movement from misunderstanding to belief, provides us with theologically wise and astute women who catch on to Jesus’ teachings faster than others around him.

The mark of a good biblical studies book is whether or not the author drives their reader back to Scripture with renewed curiosity and interest. I often found myself putting down Women Who Do so that I could pick up my Bible and re-read the stories she excavates so well. 

Over and over again, Carey raises up the actions and descriptions of women throughout the gospels to the light in order to help us see how their stories model and reflect faithful discipleship for all followers of Jesus – whatever your gender. No one needs this ability to see more than preachers who shape their community’s understanding of faithful discipleship through story and Scripture week in and week out.

As a preacher I have crafted sermons on Jesus, Jairus, and the haemorrhaging woman in Mark but I will probably never preach it again without considering the contrast between how easy it was for Jairus to approach Jesus and how persistently the haemorrhaging woman had to pursue him in order to receive a healing they both needed. I see now how her pursuit of Jesus reinforces a contrast Mark makes between the discipleship of those expected to pursue Jesus with single-minded persistence (the Twelve) but who do not, and those who pursue him like the hemorrhaging woman, someone who isn’t expected to follow or even allowed to follow as a traditional disciple, but who does anyway. 

In her treatment of the gospels, Carey’s engagement with the Gospel of Mark stands out above the others. This is understandable once you realize that her academic work before Women Who Do focused on female discipleship in Mark. In this chapter, Carey strikes a helpful balance between a broad survey of the gospel with the granular exploration of specific passages. A balance that tips toward survey and broad themes in subsequent chapters and gospels. While still helpful, the later chapters lack some of the depth of her analysis evident in her engagement with Mark.

Whether you’re a preacher or simply looking to have your biblical imagination re-ignited with a different perspective, Carey’s work is an excellent companion for exploring the Gospels and for deepening our understanding of what it means to faithfully follow Jesus. Carey helps her readers understand that we can only truly see the full picture of discipleship when we see the female disciples then and now: 

“The overwhelming impression from the Gospels is that the women in Jesus’s life are women of action…Jesus’s teachings on discipleship are embodied by these women: they serve, sacrifice, demonstrate genuine faith, and are willing to risk their lives for the sake of the gospel. They are women who do, and that is something worth recognizing and emulating” (p.187).

Amanda Bakale

Amanda Bakale is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church. After living and pastoring in Kitchener, Ontario, Amanda now serves as the pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.

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