“And there were many women there who watched from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. With whom was Mary of Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”
“And there were also women there who watched from afar, with whom was Mary of Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James the Younger and Joseph, and Salome.When he was in Galilee, they followed him and served him and there were also many who traveled with him to Jerusalem.”
“But all the ones who knew him stood at a distance watching these things along with the women who had accompanied him from Galilee.”
“But, by the cross of Jesus were standing his mother and the sister of his mother, Maria the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdalene.”
The passage from John, we have already looked at, but included here so that we may talk about the women who faithfully stayed by our Lord’s side during his whole ordeal, for sometimes people see a disharmony here in the Gospel accounts. But, to begin with, let us recognize that there are two groups present in the account. There are the scoffing crowds, which includes the Roman Soldiers and the Jewish leaders who actually put Jesus to death. But then there is another group…one identified as having followed Jesus from Galilee. This group is described as including women, though the text does not suggest that this group was exclusively women. It only says that through the time of final suffering, this group stood at a distance from the events that were transpiring.
This is important in and of itself. Because the women are the only ones mentioned in this passage by name, it is often assumed that the Apostles had utterly abandoned Jesus at this point in time — except for John (see John 19:26-27). Yet, that need not be the case. It could very well have been that the Twelve were amongst this second group of people, gathered at a distance, arguably both for their safety and to be separate from the angry crowd. Such a reading would also be consistent with Acts 1:21-22, where in seeking a replacement for Judas, the primary qualification was that this man be one who had accompanied Jesus from his baptism to the day he was taken up…the events of the cross most certainly being included in that testimony. Interestingly, that qualification narrowed the playing field to two (Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias — note that there are no women listed here as one qualified to replace Judas, a reminder that the Apostles clearly understood God’s design for male leadership in the church).
Now, to replay the events somewhat based on what we know. Clearly from John’s account, Jesus’ mother as well as Mary Magdalene and Mary the wife of Clopas were close to Jesus as he was led up the Hill of Golgotha. Jesus gives John the responsibility of caring for his mother and it seems that John takes her away. It can be assured that Mary still wanted to be present until our Lord breathed his final breath, so John likely escorted Mary to the safety of the group of Jesus’ followers from Galilee, who stood at a distance.
That leads us to who is being spoken of. Notice that Matthew says that there are “many women” who were watching from a distance while Mark and Luke simply refer to “women” in the plural. The point is that there was no need to name all of these women by name, simply to say that there were women present. So, even if, some of these women are not the same person, we have no disharmony and no problem, it is only that each Evangelist sought to focus on a slightly different group of people.
At the same time, there is overlap. For example, Mary of Magdalene is mentioned in Matthew, Mark, and John. Assuming that “Mary the Mother of James and Joseph” is Jesus’ mother (see Mark 6:3 for a list of Jesus’ brothers, the first two were James and Joses, Joses being the equivalent to Joseph), then it would seem that Jesus’ mother, Mary was recorded by Matthew, Mark, and John as well. Many scholars would hold that Salome is the name of Jesus’ aunt (the sister of Mary), and then you have her accounted for by Mark and John. If, perhaps Salome’s husband was Zebedee, then Matthew records her presence as well. Finally, John records Mary, the wife of Clopas — in this case, probably an additional person to the mix. Again, we can infer some things from the parallel, but however you harmonize the text, we must be quick to point out that, in the words of Matthew, “there were many women” present.
Why is it important to wrestle through questions like this? The presence of skeptics in this world provides likely the most obvious answer. Even so, I think that there is a more basic answer to the question. God has given us inquiring minds and a curiosity to understand things that take place as well as to fill in the gaps of what we are explicitly told. Obviously, we need to be careful about speculation and not get dogmatic about the inferences we make, but at the same time, it is an exercise of the Image of God in which we are made to want to use our minds to better understand and to fill in the gaps of what we are told. And hence, it is important that we ask questions such as this so long as we approach the text in a sober and reverent way.