JESUS Christ had prominent female disciples who made his religious mission possible, but their pivotal role was wiped from history.

Mary Magdalene who, despite popular culture, was not a prostitute, a noblewoman named Joanna and a healer called Salome were among his close circle.

And Joanna, who had been married to an official of Judaean Roman leader Herod Antipas’ noble clique, funded Jesus’ itinerant travelling band.

Biblical historians Joan Taylor and Helen Bond have undertaken new research which convinces them that the 12 disciples actually travelled in pairs with their female partners.

And by forensically examining the New Testament, the pair unearth a trail of clues they believe will rewrite the origins of faith for millions of Christians around the world.

Taylor and Bond believe that Mary Magdalene became an important figure in a town on the Sea of Galilee.

They also say that Joanna fled Herod’s court and financed the disciples’ spreading of the word and healing.

And the reason the traditional story of the birth of Christianity is dominated by men is that one Roman emperor sought to erase them for his own political fortunes.

“For 200 years the story of Jesus and his twelve disciples has been a very male affair,” the historians’ TV series, Jesus’ Female Disciples: The New Evidence says.

“It’s a story in which women play minor supporting roles, as pious onlookers or repentant whores.”

But as the two Bible experts expound in their update of the “greatest story ever told”, the truth is very different.

“We know now there were many women, disciples of Jesus. It’s very important to the Jesus movement. Women weren’t just bystanders to the greatest story ever told, but the ones who made it all possible.”

Taylor, professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London and Bond, Edinburgh University’s Christian Origins and New Testament professor, went on the road to investigate their theories.

The two-part series, which screened on Compass and is available on podcast, took them to Rome, and Israel probing tombs, catacombs, Roman theatres and around the Sea of Galilee.

On the road trip, the pair re-examine the four most important Biblical sources for Jesus’ life, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,

Below the statues of male saints in Rome’s St Peter’s Square, Taylor and Bond muse on the fact that the Catholic Church has allowed only men as priests, based on Jesus choosing only men as his Apostles.

“When you look at the texts, you start to notice that there are actually little references to women,” Bond says.

“Apart from ‘the twelve’ there was Mary called Magdalene, Joanna and Suzanna.

“Luke’s gospel says the women were providing for Jesus’s disciples ‘out of their own resources’.

“It sounds like they are paying for them.”

Traditionally known as a prostitute, Mary Magdalene had been portrayed in films and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar as beautiful; and “in love with the boss”.

“There is no evidence in the Bible for Mary Magdalene being a prostitute,” Taylor says.

“The gospels simply say ‘Mary was healed by Jesus’ and after his death she is the first witness to the Resurrection.”

To investigate Mary’s true identity, the historians visit an ossuary outside Jerusalem which houses hundreds of stone coffins of women from the time of Jesus.

Berlin Free University’s Jewish studies professor Tal Ilan says that in the first century after Jesus Christ, Mary was the name of almost a quarter of the female population.

Several towns by the Sea of Galilee had the name Magdala, which means “tower” in Jesus’ spoken language, where Taylor and Bond find the origins of a town called Migdel Nunya, which means “tower of fish”, and which lies where Jesus based his early mission.

Taylor believes like the nicknames that Jesus gave his male disciples — such as Saint Peter (Simon The Rock), Mary may have been named “the tower”.

“He used these nicknames, like the ‘Sons of Thunder’ for James and John,” Taylor says.

“She’s always called Mary the Magdalene, never Mary from Magdala, so it wasn’t just about where she came from it was also about who she was.

“She’s strong, she’s a towering figure in some way

“The fact she’s remembered in this way makes me thinks she was equal to the twelve male disciples.”

Taylor and Bond believe Mary was just one several female disciples who not only followed Jesus, but may have bankrolled the entire movement.

The Gospel of Luke mentions a group of women, among them Joanna who was the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza.

This would have made Joanna a rich woman of high status living in the city of Tiberias, playground of the wealthy elite on Galilee’s western shore in the first century.

Luke, chapter eight, says that Joanna “had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities” and accompanied Jesus and the Apostles, and “provided for Him from their substance”.

Thereafter Joanna, like Mary Magdalene, joined the Jesus movement but the difference was Joanna was a woman of wealth.

“It would have been a huge scandal she’s given it all up to live with a rabble of holy men and peasants,” Bond says.

“You wonder how a group like that could have managed on the road otherwise.

“And without women like her, whether the Jesus movement could have progressed as it did.

“This overturns centuries of Christian thought about these women. They’re bankrolling the whole movement. That’s incredible.”

Both Bond and Taylor, who can read Ancient Greek, look at original versions of the Old Testament, in which in the Gospel of Mark the disciples are said to have gone out “duo duo”.

The same words are used for the animals, male and female, in the story of Noah’s ark.

“[It refers to] male and female pairs of envoys sent out by Jesus, not just 12 men, but 12 women disciples working together by pairs,” Taylor says.

“This was an age when relations between the sexes was highly regulated.

“Women have entry to gatherings of women that an unknown man cannot just knock on the door.

“Anointing with oil, you need a woman there, otherwise it would be outrageous for a man to heal women in that way.

“And baptisms, full immersion naked, couldn’t have happened.”

After visiting the tomb of Salome, a disciple of Jesus and a healer south of Jerusalem, the historians go to the Italian city of Naples.

In catacombs beneath the city, they see a fifth century fresco of female bishop called Cerula.

The wall painting was hidden for a thousand years, discovered in 1971 and recently restored.

Cerula is painted with her hands raised, and the “chi-rho” symbol of Christ over her head.

Crucially, she is surrounded by open volumes of all four gospels, suggesting that she had influence and responsibility, and the books shoot forth tongues of fire.

Dr Ally Kateusz, an expert in Early Christian art, says: “Bishops were associated with the gospels.

“Bishops, and bishops only, had open gospel books placed over their heads during their ordination ritual.

“The flames of the holy spirit would come out of the gospels and inspire the bishops in their preaching.

“The timing of when it was painted corresponds to the year 495 when Pope Gelasius wrote to the bishops in southern Italy and complained women were ministering at the holy altars and doing all the other things that men did.”

The pope demanded women stop.

This was obeyed and by the sixth century, women were no longer acceptable as ministers of the church.

Dr Kateusz shows Taylor and Bond images of sarcophagi, or carved stone coffins for rich Christians which are held in the Vatican museum in Rome.

They all depict the scene of the same gospel story, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in front of Lazarus’ sisters.

The sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary of Bethany were close to Jesus who was their teacher.

On the earliest sarcophagus, dated around 280, from the third century, Jesus and Lazarus are in the tomb and Mary is kneeling by Jesus with Martha behind him.

The women are the same size as Jesus and Lazarus and bareheaded.

On a fourth century sarcophagus of the same scene, Martha has disappeared completely and

Mary is veiled and bending down and subservient to Jesus.

On a later sarcophagus of the Lazarus scene, Mary has become just a kind of “footstool on the left”.

Then in the next version, Mary has disappeared altogether, and “it’s all about the miracle” and all trace of the woman in the gospel story have been erased.

This airbrushing from history of the importance of women in the story of Jesus coincides with the rise of Constantine.

Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, a move critical to the Christian church and its future popularity.

“In the first century, Christianity was diverse,” the series says.

“But Constantine’s problem was that his empire was fragmenting and mired in civil wars and he needed a single faith to unite it.”

To do this, Constantine made his version of Christianity that of a warrior like himself, and one that would be popular among his soldiers.

The fact that Constantine ceased the persecution of Christians by Romans was an early turning point for the Church, while the emperor funded and built many holy houses or basilica.

But it appears one sacrifice from the true story of Jesus has endured since.