If you were going to make up a story but wanted to make it credible, you wouldn’t choose women as the first public witnesses. Jewish women could offer testimony in domestic, family, and private law but would not function this way as public witnesses or public spokesmen.
The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that even the witness of multiple women was not acceptable “because of the levity and boldness of their sex.”
Celsus, the second-century critic of Christianity, mocked the idea of Mary Magdalene as an alleged resurrection witness, referring to her as a “hysterical female . . . deluded by . . . sorcery.”
The fact that the Gospels describe women as discovering the empty tomb is a pointer to their historicity. Again, if this was an apocryphal legend, they would not have invented women as the first witnesses and responsible for telling the men.
It can sometimes be difficult to remember or even sort through who all of these women were. It doesn’t help that four of them (!) have them name Mary (Μαρία), and two of the Marys have sons with the same names (James and Joseph/Joses). This illustrates the commonality of certain names in first-century Galilee. The name Mary, in particular, was exceedingly common in first-century Palestine, hence the need to distinguish them by way of their hometown (Mary Magdalene) or in association with their husband (Mary of Clopas) or sons (Mary mother of James and Joses).
If you’d like a guide to the women associated with Jesus’s burial and resurrection, the following is based on the glossary in The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Justin Taylor with Alexander E. Stewart (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014).
1. Joanna (wife of Chuza)
- Among the first women to discover the empty tomb (Luke 24:10)
- Her husband was Chuza, the household manager or steward of King Herod Antipas (Luke 8:3).
- She was a follower of Jesus and helped to provide financially for Jesus’s ministry, along with Susanna and many others (Luke 8:3).
2. Mary Magdalene
- She was a Galilean, probably from the town of Magdala (on the west bank of the Sea of Galilee).
- Jesus delivered her from seven demons (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9).
- She became a follower of Jesus (Matt. 27:57).
- She was a witness to the crucifixion and burial (Matt. 27:61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; John 19:25).
- She was among the women who went to the tomb on Sunday (Mark 16:1; John 20:1).
- She was the first person to see Jesus alive (Mark 16:9).
- She told the other disciples about his resurrection (Luke 24:10; John 20:18).
3. Mary (mother of Jesus, widow of Joseph of Nazareth)
- She gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, moved with her son and her husband Joseph to Egypt for a couple of years, then moved to Nazareth where they raised him.
- She was present at Jesus’s execution and burial, and she witnessed his resurrection life.
- From the cross Jesus entrusted his (apparently) widowed mother to John’s care, and she went to live in his home ( John 19:25-27)—perhaps because Mary’s other sons were not yet believers (John 7:5; see also Matt. 13:57; Mark 3:21, 31; 6:4).
- Mary had at least six other children (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:2-3; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:4-5; Gal. 1:19), including four sons—James (author of the biblical book of James), Joseph/Joses, Simon, Judas/Jude (author of the biblical book of Jude)—and least two daughters (Mark 6:3).
4. Mary (mother of James and Joses/Joseph)
- She was a witness of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection appearances.
- Her sons were named James the Younger (hence her husband must have been named James) and Joses/Joseph (Matt. 27:61; 27:56; Mark 15:40, 47).
5. Mary (wife of Clopas)
- She was a Galilean witness of Jesus’s crucifixion.
- In John 19:25, it seems most likely that grammar indicates “his mother’s sister” = “Mary the wife of Clopas,” rather than two separate women being referenced (“his mother’s sister” + “Mary the wife of Clopas”).
- According to Hegesippus, as quoted by the historian Eusebius, her husband Clopas was the brother of Joseph of Nazareth (Hist. Eccl. 3.11; 3.32.6; 4.22.4). If so, Jesus was Mary and Clopas’s nephew.
- Their son Simeon (Jesus’s cousin) became a leader of the Jerusalem church succeeding James the brother of Jesus.
6. Salome (mother of James and John)
- She was one of Jesus’s followers in Galilee.
- She witnessed the crucifixion and went to the tomb on Sunday (Mark 15:40; 16:1).
- She is likely the mother of the sons of Zebedee (i.e., James and John).