19 Joanna: a Character Study

The teaching of Jesus for today is a radical call to live and think and feel in a way that is counter-cultural; i.e., that radically contradicts the prevailing culture within which we live. The lives we are to live are, however, a continuation of the spirit of those men and women who followed Him around Palestine 2000 years ago. They, too, were counter-cultural in their following of Him; they too walked out against the wind of prevailing wisdom and the expectations of those around them.

An Inversion Of Values

When we turn to study Joanna, we find ourselves right up against an example of this. Lk. 8:3 implies that the women who followed Jesus, and Joanna is named as one of these, basically supplied the funds and material backing for His mission. Male disciples had left their homes and families to manage economically without them, whilst they followed the Lord around Palestine. They evidently were generally poor. Yet their expenses were being met by a few wealthy women. Generally, the man was seen as the economic supporter of the woman, and this situation turned all that on its head. It must have been hard for those men to accept the ministrations of Joanna for them. It was almost a sociological impossibility that wealthy women should support illiterate men in such an itinerant lifestyle. But this was just the kind of inversion of values which Jesus sought to inculcate in the new community which He forged. Further, the wealthy simply didn’t mix with the lower classes; it was unthinkable for a woman to go travelling around with a group of lower class men (1), and women such as former prostitutes. It could only have been the compelling personality of Jesus which led Joanna to do something as scandalous as she did.

Joanna is introduced as “the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza” (Lk. 8:3). Yet as a married woman the right to dispose of her goods lay not with her but with her husband; and it’s unlikely that a man of such great social rank as Chuza would have allowed his wife to use his wealth like this. Thus if Joanna was married at this time, she “braved public condemnation by leaving [her] husband to follow Jesus”(2). The call of Christ is no less radical in our day, even if the scandal of it is articulated differently. Younger women who had wealthy families were still under the authority of their families, especially their father or uncles, until such time as they married. It is hard to understand, therefore, how Joanna got the right to use wealth in the way that she did. Perhaps she simply left her husband and insisted on taking some of their wealth with her. Perhaps he was supportive; but at such an early stage in the Lord’s ministry, this seems to me unlikely. And it’s equally unlikely that Herod’s right hand man would have allowed his wife to go wandering around the country with a crowd of working men. And it would have been a most a-typical 1st century marriage if the wife was allowed to spend the husband’s money like this at her own initiative. So I discount this possibility. Even if a woman made money from her own business, the money would be under the control of her husband. So we are left with the question, from where did Joanna get her money?

Joanna’s Marriage

The more likely option comes from an awareness of the practice of ketubba. This was a sum of money promised by the husband to the wife in case of divorce; it was part of the marriage contract(3). With this money she could attract a second partner if the husband divorced her(4). And this, I submit, is what happened with Joanna. Perhaps for the cause of Christ, her husband divorced her; and instead of using her money to attract a second partner, she instead spent it on the true passion of her life- the cause of Jesus and His men. There is evidence that if her husband died, she still was not free to use the money that might come to her independently; his family and her male relatives had a major say in the matter(5). The Mishnah says that a wife cannot inherit anything from her husband, since otherwise his ‘property’ in any sense might be alienated from the man’s family (B. Bat. 8.1). So it would seem that the only way a woman had large funds at her disposal would be if she were married to a wealthy man, who divorced her and gave her the ketubbah. Hence the significance of the way Lk. 8:3 introduces her as having been the wife of a wealthy man, and yet also in a position to financially support the ministry of Jesus.

Joanna had once been married to Herod’s “steward”. She would have lived with her husband in Herod’s court in Tiberias, not far from Nazareth. She would have heard of Jesus right at the start of His ministry; Lk. 8:2 comments how the Lord healed women of ‘demons’, and the possibility is that Joanna was one of those people, and perhaps her illness was another reason why Chuza divorced her. When Herod invited his “courtiers and officers and chief men of Galilee” to the birthday party at which he beheaded John (Mk. 6:21), this would almost certainly have included Chuza. Manaen was a suntrofos of Herod- a courtier (Acts 13:1), and he later became a disciple too. And one wonders about the ‘Herodion’ of Rom. 16:11- was he another of Herod’s courtiers, also from the palace in Tiberias? We can only speculate as to whether Joanna converted these two. And then there was the “royal official” of Capernaum who was converted by the Lord’s healing (Jn. 4:46-53); he too would have been one of Herod’s courtiers. There, in the heart of the despised court at Tiberias, an ecclesia developed! This was the very group known as the “Herodians” who so persecuted the Lord (Mk. 3:6; 12:13; Mt. 22:16). It’s rather like a Christian church developing in the drug dens of New York or cities controlled by Moslem fanatics such as Mecca or Kandahar. The point is, all things are possible. The personality of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel can penetrate anything. And further, one marvels at the wide range of people welded together by allegiance to the Lord. Their differences were significant and major. Only the power of His personality and the Truth that is in Him overcame them.

The Bond Of Fellowship

Being associated with Chuza and Herod’s court would have placed Joanna in a category of people that were very unpopular to ordinary Jews- for she would have been allied to the ruling class who so cruelly taxed and impoverished the ordinary people. Herod’s “steward” was basically the chief thug who made sure that the heavy taxations were paid by the populace. The disciples were thus being supported by a woman from the class they had naturally hated. It must also be recognized that Tiberias was a new city, built by Herod on a Jewish cemetery despite their protests. It had only been built about 10 years at the time of Jesus’ ministry. Tiberias was one of the “aggressive acts of Romanization by Antipas”(6); the result was that the people of Galilee hated those who lived there, especially the courtiers. Yet one of those women courtiers was to travel with those Galilean fishermen and give up her financial security to support them! The city had been built from funds raised by years of excessive taxation of the people who lived around it. “The décor on the Herodian palace in Tiberias [which included depictions of animals despite the Torah’s prohibitions] symbolized the alien culture that had suddenly intruded upon the Galilean landscape along with the “in-your-face” city built so visibly from revenues regularly taken from the threshing floors and olive presses of Galilean villages by officers [e.g. Chuza- D.H.] who lived lavishly near the palace”(7).

Worse still, Joanna is a strong Jewish name; she had as it were betrayed her people by siding with the Gentile conquerors, and had perhaps married one of them. The band of people around Jesus were thus as diverse as could possibly be. They had every possible tension and background difference and resentment between them, just as the present ecclesia does. Men like Simon the Zealot had been fighting this very class, probably trying to assassinate Joanna’s [former?] husband. And we pause to reflect upon the composition of our ecclesias and community. Our extreme diversity matches the diversity of those whom Jesus gathered around Him when He first began to build His ecclesia. The Lord came to save all [types of] people; and hence there is this strange and compelling diversity and unity, so extraordinary, so unusual, that the Lord said that it alone had the power to convert the world.

Reversal Of Status

And so Joanna stepped out from Herod’s court, over to the ranks of the Galilean poor. For her, conversion was radical. Not only did she give up her financial security, she gave up her social standing, and walked out so totally against the wind, like Moses walking out of Pharaoh’s court to suffer affliction with God’s people. Like him, she likely had to do it alone. In this, she is our pattern. Not only for those who feel they are all too caught up in the courts of Herod, but for those who find a true unity with their brethren almost impossible. She would have eagerly memorized the Lord’s parables, and have perhaps nervously joined in the Lord’s display of solidarity with the poorest of the poor in village after village which He visited. And there is no reason to think that the 70 who were sent out in pairs were all male; Luke’s account of this in Lk. 10 has been prefaced by the explanation in Lk. 8:2,3 that the Lord had many female disciples too. In any case, Joanna would have spoken to the women they met at wells, retold the parables of the Lord to groups of women in the villages in which they stayed. And she would have known the pain of rejection, the hurt of being rejected for who you once were rather than being accepted for who you now are.

We read that Joanna “provided for them out of [her] own resources” (Lk. 8:3). ‘Provided’ translates the Greek diakoneo. It has been commented that the word “refers almost exclusively to the menial labour of women and slaves, performed for the people of higher rank on whom they were economically dependent”(8). And now you see the wonder of it all. The others were economically dependent upon Joanna; but she served them as if she was the one dependent upon them. She would’ve been used to Galileans serving her; but now she served them. She perhaps more than most had heard and learnt and obeyed in hard, concrete reality the Lord’s teaching: “The kings of the Gentiles have lordship over them; and they that have authority over them are called Benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is the greater among you, let him become as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For which is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? But I am in the midst of you as he that serveth” (Lk. 22:25-27). The radicality of the Lord’s teaching about the utter reversal of status for those in Him had been mastered and practiced by this extraordinary woman. When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He made the very actions which were understood as the duty of women and slaves to be emblematic of the leaders in His community. It was through this utter reversal of status that the Lord removed the distinctions between slaves and free, male and female, rich and poor within His community. And if we are truly His people, we will seriously and practically aspire to this spirit. Joanna crossed the huge gulf between aristocratic lady and humble serving woman, inspired surely by the example of the Lord with whom she walked. Her example leaves us a piercing challenge to follow.

Joanna In Later Life

But Joanna’s story doesn’t end here. Her name occurs again in the form of ‘Junia’ in Rom. 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives [i.e. fellow Jews] and fellow prisoners, who are prominent among the apostles and were in Christ before me”. The AV’s “Junias” seems to be rooted in a desire not to have a woman seen as an apostle. Junia was a common Roman woman’s name, the equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Joanna’. The Latin pronunciation of ‘Junia’ and the Hebrew ‘Yohannah’ would have been very close indeed. It would seem, therefore, that Joanna moved to Rome, changed her name to a Latin form, and married Andronicus, a Jewish apostle, who like her was an early convert- “in Christ” before Paul’s conversion(9). Given her background in the Roman court at Tiberias, Joanna would have been an ideal missionary to Rome; and thus she went, and was imprisoned. It could well be that ‘Junia’ was the Latin name by which she would have been known even in Tiberias. Note how there were other missionaries who changed their Hebrew names into the Latin forms when they went on mission work into the Roman world: Silas became Silvanus, Saul became Paulus, Joseph Barsabbas became Justus (Acts 1:23); and hence we read of “John, whose other [Latin] name was Mark” (Acts 12:12,25).

The Prominence Of Joanna

The Greek translated “prominent” means ‘marked out, distinguished, outstanding, prominent’. She was all of those words; there really was something exceptional about this sister. And we need not be phased by her being called an “apostle”, for Paul uses the word in a nontechnical sense to refer simply to a messenger of the ecclesias (2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25). The prominence of Joanna is perhaps reflected in the chiastic structure of Lk. 24:9,10. Notice how the first three lines each have a parallel in the last three lines- e.g. a) = a1). But the centerpiece is Joanna. Why, unless she was worthy of special mention? Work it out for yourself:

“a) They told all these things to the eleven [‘the apostles’],

b) and to all the rest [‘others’].

c) Now they were Mary Magdalene,

d) and Joanna,

c1) and Mary the mother of James:

b1) and the other women with them

a1) told these things unto the apostles”.

Note that the great commission to preach is given to “the eleven and those with him” (Lk. 24:33) (10), i.e. the women, including Joanna. Acts 1:13,14 speaks of “the eleven and the women”- the same two groups. She would have known that she as a woman had no credibility as a witness in her society; and yet she was bidden go witness. And she did, it seems, as far as Rome- to the ends of her world. This surely is an inspiring challenge to all who feel hopelessly unqualified to witness; it is our very lack of qualification which seems to make the Lord chose us. To have accompanied the eleven throughout the Lord’s ministry was a qualification to be His authoritative witness (Acts 1:21,22); and Joanna fulfilled that requirement, having been with the Lord from the beginning (Lk. 8:3) right up to the crucifixion (Lk. 24:9,10). Note how Paul argues that he is an apostle because he has seen Jesus the Lord; yet his words clearly allude to the way Mary simply said: “I have seen the Lord” (1 Cor. 9:1; Jn. 20:18). It is worth putting together two passages, both from Luke: “The women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after…” (Lk. 23:55); and Acts 13:30,31: “God raised him from the dead and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses”. Surely Paul and Luke have in mind here the ministering women. They had followed from Galilee to Jerusalem, the risen Lord had appeared to a woman first of all, and now those women were witnessing to the people. Perhaps 1 Cor. 15:3-7 is relevant here, where we read that the Lord appeared after His resurrection to the twelve, and yet on another occasion to “all the apostles”- perhaps referring to the group that included the women.

One evident reason for Joanna’s prominence was that when the male disciples fled, it was Joanna and Mary who stood by the Lord during His crucifixion, knowing full well that they faced death by crucifixion for showing such solidarity with the victim. The importance of Joanna and the other women as witnesses lies in the fact that it was they who had seen Jesus buried, and therefore could vouch for the fact that the empty tomb was in fact the very tomb in which Jesus had been buried. This piece of evidence becomes more crucial the more one reflects upon it. An empty tomb was no proof that Jesus of Nazareth had risen- unless there were witnesses there present at that empty tomb who could testify also that it was in that very tomb that Jesus had been laid. And only women, not men, were witnesses of this. The Greek world placed great emphasis upon sight- “Eyes are surer witnesses than ears”, Heraclitus said. They related to the past visually; for a group of people to be eyewitnesses was considered conclusive. Hence the enormous significance of the way in which the Gospels repeatedly make the women the subjects of verbs of seeing (Mt. 27:55; Mk. 15:40; Lk. 23:49,55). They were the eyewitnesses.

Compelling Witnesses

The choice of women as the witnesses was made of course by God Almighty. Yet at that time, women were considered to be gullible in religious matters and especially prone to superstitious fantasy in religious matters. Celsus, a pagan despiser of Christianity, commented in mockery: “After death he rose again…But who saw this? A hysterical female…deluded by the same sorcery”(11). Yet it was females who were chosen by God as the primary witnesses; for He wanted to confirm His Son’s desire to turn human society upside down through the body of His Son. The servant was to become the leader; the marginalized at the centre of things from God’s perspective. And so it is today. A toothless old sister who doesn’t know English converts hundreds in Kazakhstan; the divorced and remarried ‘loser’ is seen as great in God’s eyes; the obscure old brother in isolation touches the mind of Christ as few have ever done. And of course, some men didn’t believe the women. The disciples didn’t; Peter has to go to the tomb to see for himself, after dismissing the women’s testimony as madness. In doing so, he was running parallel with Manoah, who according to a widely known Jewish midrash on the Judges record, wouldn’t believe his wife’s relaying of the message from the Angel because it was from a woman. The parallel is so exact! Surely Peter later reflected upon it.

The travelers on the road to Emmaus reported to the Lord what the women had told them about the empty tomb. They basically told Him that the women were right about the empty tomb, but were wrong in thinking Jesus had risen- because the men hadn’t seen Him. And what is the Lord’s response? He could have said ‘O foolish men for not believing all that the women told you!”. But instead He says: “O how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have told you!” (Lk. 24:22-25). The Lord cleverly parallels the women with the revered male prophets of Israel. He is teaching that in His new community, the witness of the women, the disbelieved, the marginalized, the ignored, the insignificant…was going to be as earth shattering as the word of God Himself. In writing this, I am not a raving feminist. I am seeking to inspire all of us who struggle with our dysfunction and inadequacies, to realize that we too can rise up and witness as the Lord intended; and it is through us that the Lord delights to work! So, let us rise up…


(1) J.M. Arlandson, Women, Class and Society in Early Christianity (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1997) p. 130.

(2) J.B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) pp. 318,319.

(3) Tal Ilan, Mine and Yours Are Hers: Retrieving Women’s History From Rabbinic Literature (Leiden: Brill, 1997) pp. 144-146.

(4) S.J.D. Cohen, The Jewish Family In Antiquity (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1993) pp. 133-151.

(5) N. Lewis, The Documents From The Bar Kochba Period In The Cave Of Letters (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1989) p.80.

(6) Sean Freyne, Galilee, Jesus and the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988) p. 147.

(7) R.A. Horsley, Archaeology, History and Society in Galilee (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1996) p. 57.

(8) L. Schotroff, Lydia’s Impatient Sisters (London: S.C.M., 1995) p. 205.

(9) This kind of speculation is foreign to some Bible readers. Yet the Biblical records are highly abbreviated, reduced to essentials, leaving the inessentials to be supplied by the reader / hearer. Ancient peoples were well used to doing this; modern readers are accustomed to novels or accounts which supply every detail, or to films whose visuality fills in such gaps. But, to me at least, the very nature of the Biblical narratives is different; they invite interpretation and ‘filling in the gaps’.

(10) Note how these references to Joanna, and the central placement given to her in the passage in Lk. 24:9,10, all occur within Luke’s writings. It would seem that Luke had an especial interest in chronicling the women who went with Jesus- his material accounts for two of the four parables that feature women (Lk. 15:8-10; 18:1-14), and he has seven passages / incidents where women are central (Lk. 7:11-17, 36-50; 8:1-3; 10:38-42; 11:27,28; 13:10-17; 23:27-31). And it is Luke alone who gives the impression that the Lord was not followed around Palestine by twelve men alone, but by a further group of ministering women.

(11) Quoted in H. Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1965) p. 109.

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