Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Bible, liturgy concur: women were there

Bible, liturgy concur: women were there

by Marjorie Reiley Maguire

National Catholic Reporter, June 5, 1998; here re-published with permission of the author.

Marjorie Reiley Maguire is a theologian and attorney in Milwaukee.

The most compelling reason the Vatican gives for denying ordination to women is the example of Jesus. Jesus instituted the sacrament of ordination at the Last Supper, the reasoning goes, only for 12 male apostles.

Suppose, however, that the 12 male apostles were not the only followers of Jesus at the Last Supper. Could the exclusion of women from Holy Orders then be justified?

Recently, a word I had never before noticed in the Mass caused me to look anew at scripture and tradition regarding the Last Supper. My conclusion is that it has been the common and constant teaching of the church, as found in scripture and the church’s liturgical tradition, that both disciples and apostles of Jesus were at the Last Supper. Moreover, it seems abundantly clear that some of those disciples were women.

Although I have attended Mass for over 50 years, I recently heard, as if for the first time, the celebrant say at the consecration, “On the night he was betrayed, Jesus said to his disciples ... ” I could have sworn that the word had always been apostles. On any other occasion, if I had noticed the priest using the word disciples at the consecration, I would simply assumed that the priest was using inclusive language. This particular Sunday, however, the celebrant was my local archbishop, and I know that archbishops do not fool around with the words of Consecration. Thus, I knew disciples had to be the official word.

If most Catholics take a moment to repeat the words of consecration to themselves, of course they realize it is disciples. However, whether I ask a priest, a theologically educated Catholic of a new convert with little theological training, their quick, unreflective guess is that the word used at Mass is apostles. It seems that most Catholics have been hearing what artists trained us to hear in their depictions of the Last Supper, showing Jesus sitting at the table with 12 men. But scripture and tradition do not support the idea that only the 12 male apostles were at the Last Supper.

LAST SUPPER by Bohdan Piasecki.
Click here or on the image for enlargement.

Scripture scholars tell us that the earliest recording of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper is in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I Corinthians 11:23-26, which scholars say was written about 57 A.D. However, St. Paul does not give us any details about who was at the Last Supper. He simply repeats Jesus’ words.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all begin their story of the Last Supper by telling us that Jesus wanted to share the Passover with disciples. Significantly, the evangelists do not say Jesus wanted to share the Passover with his apostles or the Twelve, although all three writers knew and used these words in the gospels. All three evangelists also tell us that Jesus actually did share the Passover with his disciples.

While all three evangelists say that Jesus’ disciples were at the Last Supper, they also note the special place of the apostles. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus reclines at table with the Twelve. In Mark, Jesus arrives with the Twelve. Mark does not explicitly say that only the Twelve were at Jesus’ table, but Mark can be read to imply that.

Apparently, it is from the detail about the Twelve being at Jesus’ table that the assumption developed that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper only with the 12 apostles. Though some scripture scholars would today argue that the notion of an inner core of followers composed of the Twelve is unhistorical, what is important here is to note that the gospels do not restrict attendance at the Last Supper to just this group.

On closer examination, it seems that the purpose of the detail about who was at Jesus’ table is to show that the betrayer came from among Jesus’ inner circle, from among those who shared the same table and dipped in the same dish with Jesus. If the evangelists gave this detail to show that only the Twelve were at the Last Supper, it would not make sense that the three gospels used the word disciples in the very beginning of the story to describe who was at the Passover meal. Moreover, there would have been no need for Matthew and Luke to mention that Jesus shared a table with the Twelve, if it was obvious that the Twelve were the only ones in the room.

Immediately after the section about who was at Jesus’ table, the three evangelists tell us about Jesus’ words over the bread and wine. Matthew is the only one of the evangelists who directly answers the question of whether Jesus said the eucharistic words to all his disciples or only to the Twelve at his table. Using almost the same words as the consecration of the Mass, Matthew explicitly states that Jesus addressed the words over the bread to his disciples (Matthew 26:26), Mark and Luke are more ambiguous, but neither clearly excludes the disciples.

Although John’s Gospel does not recount the institution of the Eucharist, it does not have a long account of the Last Supper. Like the other three evangelists, John also supports the idea that there were other disciples besides the Twelve in the room. In his account of the supper, John uses only the word disciples, never apostles or Twelve. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. He shares food with his disciples. And he gives his final discourse to the disciples. John does not even say that Jesus shared his table with the Twelve, although John does tell the story that the betrayer was the one to whom Jesus handed bread from his table.

John’s Gospel has an interesting detail, which further supports the argument that other disciples besides the Twelve were present. During Jesus’ final discourse, John says that “Judas, not the Iscariot” asked Jesus a question. (John 14:22) This person may well have been a disciple who was not one of the Twelve.

Besides these gospel stories, there are also two other New Testament stories that seem to prove that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with more of his disciples that simply the 12 apostles. Acts 1:15-26 tells us that after the Ascension of Jesus, Peter proposed that they add another apostle to take the place of Judas. The standard Peter proposed for choosing the additional apostle was that this person would be one of those “who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.” Given this standard, it is very unlikely that the person would not have been at the Last Supper. There were two candidates put forward who met this standard. Thus, at least two disciples other than the Twelve must have been at the Last Supper.

The gospel story of Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus shows even more explicitly that there were other disciples besides the Twelve at the Last Supper. Luke sets this story on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, Easter Sunday, three days after the Last Supper. The two Emmaus disciples realize that their traveling companion is Jesus when they recognize him “in the breaking of the bread.” That phrase makes sense only if the two disciples were present at the Last Supper just a few days earlier. We know that these two disciples are not from among the Twelve because Luke gives the name of one of them and because the story ends by telling us that the two returned to Jerusalem that very day to tell “the Eleven” what happened.

Some scholars have suggested that the Emmaus disciple whose name we do not know is a woman. They suggest it is a husband and wife who were traveling to Emmaus. If so, that would be direct scriptural evidence that women were among the disciples who were at the Last Supper.

The scriptural truth that both the disciples and the apostles were present at the Last Supper has been preserved in the church’s tradition from the time of early Christianity. The ancient liturgical texts show this, and liturgy is the prime vehicle for handing on the church’s tradition.

The earliest form of the liturgy that includes the words of consecration is The Anaphora of Basil of Caesarea from about 357 A.D. It uses both words, disciples and apostles. It says, Jesus “took bread, blessed, sanctified, broke and gave it to his holy disciples and apostles ... ” This is the same formula used today by the Coptic and Orthodox church in the Liturgy of St. Basil and by the Orthodox church in its regular liturgy of St. John Chrysostum.

Similarly, the earliest complete liturgy uses only the word disciples at the Consecration. While this liturgy appears to have come from the church at Antioch, it is attributed to St. Clement of Rome. The liturgy is preserved in Book 8 of The Apostolic Constitutions, compiled in about the fourth century. At the Consecration, this liturgy says that Jesus broke the bread “and gave it to his disciples.” Since that liturgy also uses the word apostles elsewhere, the use of the word disciples at the Consecration must have been intentional.

The earliest versions of the Mass of the Roman Rite are traced to the works of St. Ambrose, who uses both apostles and disciples for his version of the words of Consecration. In his sermons, which are collected in a work called De Sacramentis, Ambrose quotes from the Canon of his time, which said that Jesus took the bread and “handed it when broken to his apostles and disciples.” The Canon also said that Jesus took the cup and “handed it to his apostles and disciples.”

Liturgical history, in other words, shows that the overwhelming faith of the whole Christian church is that Jesus said the words at the Last Supper to both his disciples and his apostles. Even the Roman church, which uses only one word, uses the word disciples, not the word apostles.

While I have found no test showing that women were among the disciples at the Last Supper, the evidence that the disciples of Jesus were present does a very important thing for the debate about women’s ordination. It shifts the burden of proof on the question.

If the 12 apostles were the only ones at the Last Supper with Jesus, as we have assumed for 2,000 years, then the Vatican would be correct to put the burden of proof on those who claim that the church has the authority to ordain women. However, if the disciples of Jesus were also present at the Last Supper to hear the eucharistic words and Jesus’ commission to “do this in remembrance of me,” then the burden of proof shifts to those who would say that there were no women among the disciples present. That seems an impossible argument to make.

It is undeniable that women are included among Jesus’ disciples in the gospels. One women disciple, Martha, is presented as making a confession of faith in Jesus comparable to Peter’s famous confession of faith, which caused Jesus to build his church on Peter. Would not Martha, then, have been one of the disciples invited to the Last Supper? Jesus’ women disciples were undoubtedly in Jerusalem at the time of the Last Supper, since they were there the next day to follow him to Golgotha while the male apostles hid. Women were the first to see Jesus after the Resurrection. It is inconceivable that Jesus would not have invited these women, especially his mother and Mary Magdalene, to join him at his last Passover meal, if he invited more of his disciples than 12 apostles. Moreover, both men and women disciples, including Jesus’ mother, were present in the upper room at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon all of them, men and women alike. If Jesus had chosen not to have women present among his many disciples in the upper room at the Last Supper, isn’t it likely that Jesus would also have chosen not to send the Holy Spirit down upon those in the upper room at a time when women were present?

Could the preservation of the word disciples in the gospel stories of the Last Supper and the eucharistic liturgies through out the ages be the Holy Spirit’s way of keeping Jesus’ original intention alive until God’s time for women’s ordination arrived?

Instead of viewing the question of women’s ordination as an issue that has arisen only to meet the needs of modern feminists, is it not possible that it is an issue that has arisen under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to meet the needs of both women and men in the church in the modern world, where the question of women’s place has finally surfaced and will not go away?

Perhaps the Jubilee Year 2000 could be the time for a new beginning in the church on this issue.

Read also the article by Suzanne Tunc: Meals of Jesus’ Community.

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.


Please, credit this document
as published by www.womenpriests.org!