Losing Her Life and Finding It

August 27, 2015

The disciple Joanna was the topic of a post here a few months ago. I’ve learned so much more about her since then, and I’m excited to share with you the rest of the story. All the credit for this background goes to scholar Richard Baukham.*

First, let’s review what Luke 8:1-3 says:

“After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”

To first century readers, this passage would have read like a neon sign flashing “This is a situation loaded with meaning!” To people living within memory of the rule of Herod Antipas, here in a nutshell is what they might have ascertained about Joanna:

She was Jewish, probably from a wealthy Galilean family. She was married to a prominent official in Herod’s administration, lived in Tiberias—Herod’s capital city—and enjoyed a life of luxury, at least until she began following Jesus. Then, she probably lost her social standing but also would have struggled for acceptance traveling with people who were accustomed to viewing “Herodians” with contempt.

The Details

We have no way of knowing what malady Jesus cured Joanna of or how she initially met Jesus, but here’s what we do know.

1. Joanna is a Jewish name, the female equivalent of John. We can imply from Luke 23:49 and other accounts that she encountered Jesus in the region of Galilee.

2. Chuza (a fairly unusual name for the time) was likely the administrator of King Herod’s estate, which means he was essentially finance minister of the kingdom—a highly important position. The term in the original language could also mean that he was a steward of an estate of Herod’s—a lesser role but still well-paying. However, no evidence has been found that Herod owned any royal estates in Galilee.

Either way, Chuza would have been a man of some wealth. He and Joanna would have been members of the Herodian court, which resided in the city of Tiberias. Herod had founded the city, building it on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, named it in honor of the Roman emperor and made it his capital around 18 CE.

Mark’s description of the demise of John the Baptist mentions a group that Chuza was probably part of:

…On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. (Mark 6:21)

3. To have been eligible to marry a man of such status as Chuza, Joanna was probably from a wealthy local family that was pro-Roman and pro-Herodian. It follows that her family must have also been somewhat flexible in their attitude toward Jewish religion. Certainly, few Jews were both traditional and friendly toward Herod.

4. Knowing all this about Joanna, it is less of a surprise that, as a married woman, she was able to be traveling with Jesus, assuming Chuza was still alive. “There is the possibility that a mature woman of aristocratic family, especially in the Romanized court circles to which…Joanna belonged, might be used to more independence than most Jewish women of this time and place,” Baukham says.

[And speaking of her wealth, Joanna could plausibly have had her own money to devote to the common fund supporting Jesus and his disciples. Palestinian Jewish women of this period—especially upper-class women—had several possible sources of property they could dispose of independently. Those sources were more limited if they were married, but even then a woman could inherit if she had no living brothers. She could also have received what was called “a deed of gift” from a father or husband, which would give her full ownership rights.]

5. Joanna may have had the independence to gad about without her husband, but because she was a member of Galilee’s wealthy elite, her association with the lower class disciple group would have been considered scandalous by her peers. By choosing to follow Jesus she sacrificed her social standing.

6. Not only did she walk away from her rich friends in Galilee, but being a known supporter of Herod, she traveled with a group of people who would typically have seen her as in the same category as tax collectors–like a Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-8). Herod, the ruler of a Roman client state, had heavily taxed people in the surrounding villages both to build Tiberias and to maintain the royal lifestyle of his family and administration.

Interestingly, Jesus never went to Tiberias that we know of, and he was certainly no friend of Herod’s, referring to him in Luke 13:32 as “that fox.” In a speech supporting John the Baptist that, not coincidently, forms an immediate background for the introduction of Joanna, Jesus commented that “those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces”—of which Herod’s was the only one in the area (Luke 7:25). Clearly, this kind of lifestyle was alien to the folks listening to Jesus at the time, and they were not kindly disposed toward anyone who had attained their prosperity by cozying up to Rome.

Finding Life

So here’s where I really learned to admire Joanna. If she merely felt grateful to Jesus for healing her, she could have played the role of patroness or benefactor to Him and his disciples. She could have stayed comfortably at home, doling out support and maintaining the economic inequity to which she was accustomed.

Yet, she chose not only to sacrifice some money for Jesus. She also stepped down from her elite position of social superiority and became a follower, leaving her aristocratic acquaintances tittering aghast in her wake.

She then entered the fellowship of individuals who mostly would have viewed her “sort” with contempt.

“The kind of people [Joanna] would now come to know (probably as never before) were accustomed to resenting the luxury of her former lifestyle, the burden of taxation that financed it, and the pagan domination of their land that the Herodian court she belonged to represented for them,” notes Baukham.

It was another case story of the radical role reversal in the kingdom of God. When Jesus called Matthew, he was a tax collector and his only friends were other tax collectors and sinners. Joanna walked away from the rich, politically connected somebodies she had rubbed elbows with all her life.

She let go of her privilege, accepted as companions a class of people she has probably never interacted with before and was, in turn, accepted by them. This is the kind of revolutionary change the love of Jesus engendered then and can still engender now if we let it.

“My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice,” Jesus told a crowd a little later in Luke 8. He was forming a spiritual family where social standing and power are laid aside so that, instead, a cross can be taken up daily.

Who knew so much could be ascertained from so few words?!

(I have one more fascinating, but more speculative, tidbit about Joanna I’ll save for a future post!)


*See Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels by Richard Baukham (2002, Eerdmans).

2 responses to “Losing Her Life and Finding It”

  1. Linnea Spicer says:

    Wow! So much more to contemplate. She clearly was no slave to comfort and ease. Thank you for continuing to dig deeper, Lynn. Can’t wait to hear more.

  2. LynnBell says:

    Thanks so much, Linnea! Hope you are doing well. I’ve been thinking about you ladies and hope your 2015 retreat is/was great!

Leave a Reply