Enter Joanna, a disciple of Christ, who is mentioned in a mere two verses of the Bible. As typical of many women during the Biblical era, virtually no background information is written about her. We don’t know whose family she came from, what village she grew up in, or if she had any children. What we do know, according to the Bible, is that Joanna: 1) was married to King Herod’s steward; 2) was healed by Jesus either from an evil spirit or disease; 3) personally financed Jesus’ missions; 4) was present when Jesus’ tomb is rolled away after the crucifixion; and 5) served as a witness to the 12 apostles upon Jesus’ resurrection. And even though she is included in only two lines in the New Testament, Joanna becomes a huge force in Jesus’ ministry. To glean who she was as a person and what constituted a major portion of her life, we must first study her through the reflective mirror of the men that encompassed her life: King Herod, her husband Cuza, and Jesus Christ.
The King during Joanna’s lifetime was King Herod (Herod Antipas), tetrarch of the Galilean territory during Jesus’ ministry between 4 B.C.- 39 A.D. However, this was not the same Herod who rebuilt the Jerusalem temple and had all boys under the age of 2 executed for fear that the “King of the Jews” would take over his reign. Instead, that was Antipas’ ruthless father, King Herod the Great.
King Herod the Great, crowned by emperor Caesar Augustus to rule over Judea, invariably happened to be of Jewish descent (albeit not a practicing Jew), which was the primary reason for his appointment to the throne. The region was an unsettled cacophony of Roman and Jewish citizenry, with tensions running at an all-time high. King Herod was Augustus’ experiment to forage peaceful negotiations between the Roman legions and the Jewish nation. Although Herod’s prolific building – especially the reconstruction of King Solomon’s temple – and extensive military campaigns were successful aspects of his reign, Herod the Great is most known for his murderous, authoritarian rule. Herod even had his own son Aristobulus killed for fear of a conspiracy against his throne. During his lifetime, King Herod the Great had six sons by 4 different wives, and Herod Antipas, the one who ruled and ordered Jesus’ crucifixion, was one of these sons.
Herod Antipas was not nearly as ruthless as his father, and was quite arguably a weak, indecisive figure who was easily influenced by those around him. Herod divorced his first wife and married Herodias, his niece who was also his sister-in-law, under the disapproving eye of his father King Herod the Great. This second marriage leads to disasterous consequences of the Roman territory as his ex-first wife’s family leads a huge military campaign against the Roman territory as retribution. The region is chopped up into four quarters, and Herod is slapped with the small region of Galilee as punishment in his father’s will.
Herod Antipas’ reign was unremarkable for his building efforts, which is usually a testament to his effectiveness as a ruler. Antipas notoriously constructs the town of Tiberius atop a Jewish cemetery and unwittingly offends the Jewish people he is trying to please. Like his father King Herod the Great who had erected pagan statues inside Solomon’s sacred Temple, Herod Antipas seems to have inherited his father’s insensitivities and/or ignorance of the Jewish culture he is supposed to rule. Instead of brokering peace between the two nations, Herod Antipas instead drives a permanent wedge between them. To make matters worse, Herod Antipas’ second marriage to Herodias, though legal under Roman law, flies directly in the face of Mosaic law and brings the wrath of the popular evangelist John the Baptist upon them. It is this marriage that the John the Baptist directly denounces by saying “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”(Mark 6:18)
But Herod Antipas does not yet execute John the Baptist for these words of sedition, as his merciless father would have, since he at least recognizes this would further instigate a rebellion against him (see Josephus’ Antiquities Book 18, Chapter 5, Paragraph 2). More importantly, King Herod “feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled and liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20) While Herod was defenseless under his the manipulations of his wife Herodias, Herod can at least be merited with recognizing the truth of John’s teachings. Unfortunately, he does not have the strength or character to stand up for this truth. Herod Antipas even went so far as to suspect Jesus was a risen John the Baptist, after he had reluctantly ordered John the Baptist beheaded. Jesus himself nailed King Herod’s true character by calling him a fox (Luke 13:32) – cunning, sly, untrustworthy , and worse than a dog. Herod ultimately commits the fatal act of condemning Jesus to death through his minion Pontius Pilate in 33 A.D.
So what does this have to do with Joanna? Remember, Joanna is married to Cuza – the manager of Herod Antipas’ household. Cuza would be considered Herod’s chief financial officer in today’s world, and essentially controls the treasury and property of the court. Cuza, and by extension Joanna, could have been either Jewish or Roman, since there nothing in history that states their lineage in either respect. Typically King Herod would have surrounded his court and advisors with other Romans as was likely in this case, but Herod was also trying to mesh the cultures together and could conceivably have hired a Jew to run his finances. Joanna is decidedly a Jewish name, but that does not mean she was one in practice. Regardless of Jewish or Roman descent, we know that Joanna is not a mere peasant, but rather a rich wife of a very important officer of the kingdom. She is a member of high society, and has free reign to wander and speak her mind inside the palace walls.
Most assuredly, Joanna has heard Herod and Herodias’ contentious quarrels over John the Baptist. She probably also heard John’s teachings either directly or indirectly since he was the iterant preacher of the time. She knew that Herod befriended John in prison, and that he held great respect for John. Accordingly, Joanna was at least introduced to the coming Messiah through John’s teachings in and out of prison, and would be curious of this new Rabbi preacher they called Jesus.
The Bible states that after John the Baptist was beheaded by King Herod (due to the trickery of his wife Herodias), Joanna was healed by Jesus. We don’t know what she was healed from, whether it was from evil spirits or disease. But we know that since Jesus was obviously not present in King Herod’s court, Joanna had to seek Jesus out for herself. Clearly she has heard of Jesus’ healing miracles, and that her previous attempts to hire the physician pagan priests, a customary practice during that time, were unsuccessful. Leaving the palace would have been easy enough as she had the funds and wherewithal to travel where she pleased, but Joanna must have discreetly inquired where Jesus would be preaching next, and not be obvious about her destination. She was determined, however, to meet Jesus.
Joanna purposefully places herself in Jesus’ listening audience and stands out like a sore thumb amongst the rubble of Jewish peasantry in hopes that Jesus will take mercy on her. Here, in this moment, Joanna demonstrates her courage as a great woman and her unwavering faith in Jesus even before he heals her. She knows that her presence here could lead to her execution by King Herod or Herodias, especially since she is demonstrating a betrayal of his court. Dying by some infirmity or dying by execution, Joanna decides to choose the only path that can give her life, and thus becomes one of the many healed by the Savior.
Joanna subsequently dedicates the rest of her life to following Jesus, and earns her place as one of the rare women disciples mentioned in the gospels. She doesn’t give Jesus money as payment for her cure, as if he were a mere palace witch doctor. She instead wholeheartedly gives Jesus her life and her soul and her entire wealth to his ministry, as she knows her body’s health was pale in comparison to that of her eternal happiness.
Did Joanna return to King Herod’s court after her healing? Probably, because that’s where her husband resided and she likely wanted to show him her miraculous recovery. And since Joanna has already demonstrated strong courage by merely attending Jesus’ sermons, she could easily return to court without really caring if anyone discovered where she had been. Joanna would not hide her healing, and permitted herself to be a light in a dark land. Quite possibly, she gained King Herod’s ear, since he was known to be sympathetic to John the Baptist’s teachings. And Joanna now had direct evidence to prove their worth and validity. Moreover, King Herod’s foster brother Manaen (Acts 13:1) was also a teacher in the church. It’s easy to speculate that perhaps Joanna converted either one or both of these men to Jesus’ teachings. Ultimately she leaves the court and decides to follow the man who healed her.
This upstanding steward’s wife of King Herod’s court, ironically, is the one who finances Jesus’ ministry. As a woman and one who was married to Rome’s carpetbagger, she would have been very unpopular among the Jews. Jesus always did have a way of upending the customary ways of the world. But where did Joanna get her own money? She did not have free access to her husband’s income, besides the mere pittance he might have given her as an allowance. Cuza could have divorced her, in which case she would have had the ketubbah, or substantial dowry, set aside in case of this eventuality. And, Cuza would have had every right to demand a divorce since Joanna abandoned their marriage and accompanied Jesus and his disciples unchaperoned. But there is no evidence of a divorce, except that this would have been the tradition in Jewish households, if in fact they were Jewish to begin with.
Did Joanna acquire her means from King Herod as guilt money for his beheading of John the Baptizer? Not likely, but still within the realm of possibility considering King Herod never wanted to execute John to begin with, and now was being “haunted” by John’s risen ghost in the person of Jesus. Maybe Joanna was able to secretly draw on King Herod’s accounts and was left unchecked because of her social standing in court. Maybe as a convert, King Herod gave her the money to privately finance a ministry that he couldn’t publicly support. In any case, we know that she financially provided for Jesus through her own means, paving the way for his food, shelter, and hospitality and those of his disciples during the remaining part of Jesus’ three-year ministry.
As a woman, it was unheard of to travel alone, together with the fact that she immersed herself with the poorest and illiterate of society. But Joanna’s character was stronger than what people said about her. The only person’s approval that she cared about was the person who saved her, that of Jesus Christ. She willingly chose a life of wandering, discomfort, poverty and fear together with a life of generosity, courage, and faithfulness. She was there for all of Jesus’ sermons, and was able to listen to him intently, becoming one of the first women disciples. She honors the Lord with her property and wealth, and exemplified the concept of grace through giving.
Although the Bible does not state specifically that Joanna was present at Jesus’ crucifixion, she could easily have been one of the unnamed women who were there, one who had followed him and cared for his needs, and was watching at a distance. Joanna is, however, named at the site of the empty tomb of Jesus’ resurrection. Because of her support, she prepared many of the spices and oils that were to embalm Jesus’ corpse and sorrowfully accompanied Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James, to his sepulcher the third day after his crucifixion.
God has a special place in his heart for the women who gave their lives to him. And, notably, God divines only three women as witnesses to this resurrection event, and Joanna is one of these three. She declares to the apostles her meeting with the angels at the entrance of the tomb, and Jesus’ ascension into heaven – clearly a momentous period in history. She is an eloquent, confident, persuasive speaker that was well known to all the apostles by this time, and her accounting of the event could only be believable enough to override their incomprehension of what she told them. God knew what he was doing to place Joanna at this place, at this time in history.
Since Joanna continued to travel in the apostles’ company, she is quite possibly one of the women mentioned in the Upper Room during Pentecost (Acts 1:12-14), where the Holy Spirit came upon them and filled them with power to evangelize to the nations. As a witness to the resurrection and a proven faithful follower of Jesus, she would have been welcomed into their inner circle with these other women. In such case, she is one of the first woman missionaries. Scholars also conclude that the disciple Joanna is the same woman as the Christian Junia (the Roman name Junia is a form of the Hebrew name Joanna, presumably her adopted name after becoming a missionary) mentioned by Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (Romans 16:7). Paul states that she was in the Lord before him, so this had to have been before his own conversion in 34 A.D. And for Paul to give Junia such an accolade as a famous apostle, she had to have been a witness from Jesus’ baptism until his crucifixion. Only a few women deserve that title, and only one woman changed her name from Joanna to Junia. Legend has it that Junia was later imprisoned and persecuted for her Christian missionary work.
Joanna’s conversion was genuine, her love for Jesus was deep and unequalled, and her stewardship was faithful and uncompromising. Impossibly leaving a wealthy lifestyle to accompany illiterate men in an itinerant lifestyle was the hallmark of Joanna’s dedication to the man who healed her, saved her, and gave her the grace and power to become one of his most powerful disciples and evangelists the world has ever known. Two lines in the Bible are accredited to Joanna. But her life speaks volumes.