The Chorus of Women

All the gospels mention the presence of certain women in the concluding phase of the passion of Jesus. The synoptic gospels refer to the presence of the women on three occasions:

  1. they observed the crucifixion;
  2. they observed the burial by Joseph;
  3. they went to the tomb and witnessed the resurrection.

John does not mention the presence of the women on the second occasion. The reference to their presence on the first two occasions is only a passing one in the synoptic gospels.

The identity of these women, present from the moment Jesus is marched away to the place of execution to the time of the resurrection, has created endless and insoluble problems for interpreters. A modern commentator wonders at the fact that the women suddenly appear, unheralded, as among those who habitually followed Jesus from the time of his ministry in Galilee onward. Why are they not mentioned before, and why are they mentioned at all?... Who are these women and why do they appear at this point?[1]

The three synoptic gospels first mention the presence of the women rather incidentally as a concluding remark at the very end of their account of the death of Jesus. Mark (15:40-41) relates:

There were also women observing from a distance, among them Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jacob the Small and of Joses, and Salome, who were following him when he was in Galilee, and were ministering to his needs, and many other women who had come up together with him to Jerusalem.

Matthew follows Mark with some significant changes, which indicate that the identi­fication of these women was a matter of concern or difficulty for the evan­gelists themselves. Concerning those who saw the crucifixion, Matthew states:

There were many women observing from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to his needs: among them was Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jacob and Joseph and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.[2]

Luke refers to the women in an even more off-hand fashion (23:49):

Further, there were standing there all those who had known Jesus for a long time, and the women who had followed him from Galilee seeing those things.

In the Greek text the participle seeing is in the feminine form and applies only to the women.[3]

The presence of the women in the last part of the passion narrative can be explained by referring to the arrangement of Seneca’s play: At the beginning of Act Three, Seneca brought onto the stage a chorus of mourning women. At the moment Jesus was led away from the stage to the place of execution, which was offstage, the chorus of Jewish leaders exited with him and was replaced by the chorus of mourning women. The coming of the mourning women completed the pro­cessional effect of the departing crowd that left with Jesus. This chorus formed the tail end of the procession and remained standing in the foreground of the stage, looking toward the place of execution at the left. By changing the chorus after Jesus’ sentencing Seneca obtained a most impressive dramatic effect.

In the first three acts the chorus was modeled on the chorus of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, hostile, mocking and relentlessly persecuting, whereas in the last two acts the chorus was sympathetic and expressing horror at what was taking place. In the last two acts Seneca was modeling his Nazarenus on two other plays of his, Hercules on Oeta and Troades, and their Greek antecedents. In Hercules on Oeta the death of Hercules takes place offstage. As Hercules leaves the stage to go to the funeral pyre, the chorus of the Oechalian women intones a long hymn; at the end of this choral interlude there appears Philoctetes, who relates the death of Hercules through a question and answer exchange with the chorus.

However, the evangelists did not understand the spirit of ancient tragedy in which the chorus is objectively an observer of the events, but dramatically and emotionally a most active participant in the action, if the word action is understood not in its physical but in its dramatic sense. For this reason the three synoptic gospels assign a passive role to the women, describing them as merely observing bystanders. A modern un­educated spectator of a Greek tragedy would make the same mistake, taking the chorus for some sort of an intruder on the stage. But because of the internal logic of Seneca’s presentation, we can reconstruct the movements of the chorus with a fair degree of confidence.

The chorus of women entered the stage from the right, following the chorus of Jewish leaders and mute characters who formed the stage crowd and who were exiting at the left.

It must be noticed that the exit of the chorus of Jewish leaders and the entrance of the chorus of mourning women is referred to by Luke who, speaking of the moment in which Jesus was made to march to the place of execution, narrates (23:27):

There followed him a large crowd of people and of women
who were weeping and wailing for him.

There was a moment when the women were coming onto the stage and Jesus had not yet departed on the left, since Luke reports (23:28):

Turning around towards them, Jesus said:
‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me
but weep only for yourselves and your children.’

These lines served to identify the chorus for the audience. They also indicate that the chorus entered from the right, the direction of the city. The chorus of mourning women, being on the stage, provided a running commentary, by words and gestures, on the agony and death of Jesus. This chorus remained on the stage for the last three acts of the play.

The women said to have been present at the last part of the passion story are not mentioned anywhere else by Mark and Matthew. Luke refers to them briefly as following Jesus during his preaching in Galilee, but this reference is evidently an interpolation, based on the account of the passion. Luke relates (8:1-3) that in Galilee Jesus was

...marching through every city and village, preaching and bringing the good tidings of the kingdom of God, and the twelve [were] with him and some women who had been cured from evil spirits and diseases, Mary, the one called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, wife of Chuza, the agent of Herod, and Susanna, and many others, who were ministering to their needs from their own resources.[4]

In relation to the chorus in the passion of Jesus, we must consider in parti­cular those ancient tragedies in which the chorus of women from a distant place explains that they have come because of their role as providers of service. In the Phoenician Women of Euripides, the chorus enters reciting (lines 202-203):

I came, leaving the wave of Tyre,
like an offering to the god,
from the island of Phoenicia
to be a servant of Apollo.

Even more relevant are the chorus’ opening words in Euripides’ Bacchae. The Asian women who have followed Dionysus in his march to spread his new religion to Greece say (lines 64-67):

Out of the land of Asia,
Down from holy Tmolus,
Speeding the service of the god,
for Dionysus we come.

On the basis of this parallel it appears that Mark’s information that the women were following him when he was in Galilee, and were ministering to his needs, comes from Seneca’s play.[5]

John mentions the presence of the women only in relation to an early stage of the crucifixion, when the soldiers were attaching Jesus to the cross:

The soldiers were doing these things; meanwhile there stood near the cross of Jesus his mother and the sister of his mother, Mary of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Now Jesus, seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing by, says to his mother:
“ Woman, here is your son.”
In turn he says to the disciple:
Here is your mother.”
From that time the disciple took her as a member of his family.

The episode of Jesus entrusting his mother to the disciple, although mentioned only by John,[6] must have been part of Seneca’s play, because the presence of Alcmene, Hercules’ mother, was part of the dramatic tradition of Hercules’ death.

In Seneca’s Hercules on Oeta, Alcmene is present to comfort her dying son Hercules, to mourn his death, to put his ashes in the funeral urn, and to witness his ascension to heaven. In this play Hercules, before going offstage to mount the funeral pyre (after line 1517), addresses his son Hyllus with the last request of his life, asking him to provide for Hercules’ mistress, Iole, by marrying her, in order also to take care of Hercules’ child she is bearing; Hyllus shall consider this child as his own (lines 1488-1496). Next, Hercules addresses his mother, asking her to stop the death-wail for him, because he is achieving the glory of heaven (lines 1497-1517):

Dry now your tears, my mother;
proud you shall be among Greek women.

This episode is substantially similar to that of Jesus addressing his mother and the beloved disciple.

One rather weighty problem has bedeviled interpreters: Who were those who heard and preserved the words of Jesus on the cross? A modern conservative interpreter has concocted the theory that the friends of Jesus approached the cross under the cover of the darkness that descended upon the earth at the time of the crucifixion.[7] Rather recently one scholar has gathered evidence to the effect that at times in Roman crucifixions the executed would be surrounded in his agony by relatives and other bystanders.[8] This is most probably true of Roman executions in general, and in any case is true according to the account given by the gospels, which indicates that Jesus on the cross was surrounded by soldiers, Jews, and other bystanders. The Greek text of John clearly indicates that the episode of the mother of Jesus standing by the cross was contemporary with the action of the soldiers described in the preceding verses.[9]

The place of execution, as required by conventions of ancient tragedy, was beyond the view of the audience, but could be seen from the center of the stage. From the point where the women were on the stage they could observe the crucifixion at a distance, since the crucifixion was understood to be taking place offstage to the left. For this reason Mark says (15:40): There were also women observing from a distance. Although the execution took place just offstage, the audience could hear the cries of Jesus: It was a common procedure in ancient tragedies that, whereas the bloody deed had to take place offstage, the shouts that accompanied it were heard on the stage. Meanwhile the chorus of Jewish leaders and the associated stage crowd, together with the soldiers who had marched off with Jesus, were understood to be offstage around the standing cross.

That the audience was allowed to hear some of their words from offstage is indicated by Mark and Matthew, who record the mockery of the crucified Jesus by Jews, saying:

‘Save yourself and come down from the cross.’ ...
Also the chief priests mocking him with the scribes and the elders, said:
‘He saved others; himself he cannot save.’

In introducing their accounts of the mockery of the crucified Jesus, Mark and Matthew undoubtedly had in mind the words of Psalm 22; but in substance they followed the development of Seneca’s tragic plot. In the Prologue, Seneca’s portrayal of the agony in the garden was influenced by Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the only ancient tragedy known to us that deals with the subject of crucifixion. After Prometheus, who had saved mankind from death, is attached to the cliff where he is to suffer his unjust and cruel punishment, he is mocked by a vindictive character named Strength:

How are your mortals going to cut this knot for you? ...
You lack wisdom if you think you can wriggle your way out...
But a sympathetic chorus intones:
Having helped men to your own hurt,
do not neglect to save yourself from torment.

The  suggestion is a rhetorical one because the audience knows that Prometheus is quite powerless to extricate himself from his bonds. In a later play of Aeschylus Prometheus is released by Heracles, a mortal. Likewise in Seneca’s Nazarenus the challenge issued by the chorus when Jesus’ fortunes were at their lowest ebb will be redeemed in the final act. Aeschylus and Seneca use the mockery to which their crucified heroes are subjected in order to paint a picture of utter hopelessnessto make more appalling the injustice of the punishment, and more astounding the reversal of fortune when at last it comes.

[1] Winsome Munro, “Women Disciples in Mark?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44 (1982), 225-241.

[2] 27:55-56 The Greek pronoun which I have translated as “who” indicates the antecedent belongs in the class of the persons described in the relative clause: hence, to be very exact one should translate: “Many women... who were from those who had followed Jesus from Galilee...” This remark applies also to Mark and to Luke.

[3] The addition by Luke of those who had known Jesus resulted in a sentence that is grammatically awkward. Many interpreters have tried to understand the sentence of Luke in a way that makes it conform more closely to what is said by the other two evangelists: They were standing there at a distance, all those who had known Jesus, and the women who had followed him from Galilee, and they were seeing these things. J. B. Phillips translates the verse as: And those who had known him, as well as the women who had followed him from Galilee, remained standing at a distance and saw all this happening. But these and all similar renderings take an impermissible liberty with the text of Luke. The truth of the matter is that Mark had stated, There were also women observing from a distance (apô makrôthen)... Luke was impressed by the phrase apô makrôthen which in Greek may also mean from way back, for a long time, and understood it as a reference to Psalm 38:12: My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds; and my friends stand far away. It would seem that Luke was surprised at the fortuitous mention of the women in the other two gospels and tried to give a meaning to it by interpreting it as the fulfillment of a scriptural prophecy.

[4] A minority of the manuscripts of Luke read that they were ministering to his need, indicating that the drafters of these manuscripts had recognized the close dependence of this passage of Luke on his account of the passion, where Luke states (23:55) that the women had followed him from Galilee. If the women came from Galilee, the Christian audience had to search for their identity among the accounts of the Galilean ministry.

[5] The statement of Matthew, which is slightly different, to the effect that the women had followed Jesus from Galilee ministering to his needs, must be the result of an editing of Mark’s text according to Matthew’s own judgment. Luke follows Matthew in stating that they had followed him from Galilee, but places the ministering to his needs in Galilee (8:3).

[6] A. Dauer in an analysis of the episode of Jesus and his mother (Das Wort des Gekreuzigten an seine Mutter und den ‘Jungen den er liebte,’ Biblische Zeitschrift 11 [1967], pp 222-39; 12 [1968], 80-93) advances the hypothesis that originally John mentioned the presence of the women only at the end of the crucifixion and that it was shifted to an earlier moment when the remarks of Jesus to his mother and his beloved disciple were added to the text of John. Bultmann propounds a similar theory. Dauer and Bultmann can be classified as critical interpreters, but their dismissal of the episode of Jesus and his mother as a later addition fits the mood of traditional interpreters who have always been embarrassed by the reported presence of Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the crucifixion.

[7] P. Gaechter, Maria in Erdleben, (Innsbruck, 1954), p. 210.

[8] E. Stauffer, Jesus and His Story (London, 1960), pp. 111, 179.

[9] The Greek text makes use of the connective particles men and de. In my translation of John 19:25, given above, I have tried to render the meaning of these particles by using the adverb “meanwhile”, as does Raymond Brown in his translation in The Anchor Bible (p. 898).