His regard for them was unusual for his time—even scandalous
by Douglas Groothuis | July 31, 2002
World religions have been charged with not only permitting, but also with perpetuating ingrained patterns of sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny. These religions, it seems, must either change or be left behind by all who believe that women and men are equal in their rights, abilities, and potential. Some charge that Christianity demeans and marginalizes women, that it is a male religion in which men are given the preponderance of power, prestige, and influence. But what did the founder of Christianity teach about women?
Jesus And Women’s Dignity
In the ancient context of Jesus’ day, women typically had little social or cultural influence. Their roles were usually limited to domestic life, and in the home and family they had very little control over money or possessions apart from their fathers or husbands. A Jewish man would pray three benedictions each day, one of which thanked God for not making him a woman—al-though nothing like this is contained in the Hebrew Scriptures. Though written within and for patriarchal cultures, the Hebrew Scriptures present several women as leaders worthy of respect, especially Deborah, who was a prophet and judge over Israel (Judges 4-5). Other women, such as Miriam, Huldah, and Esther, play important roles as well. While some women in ancient Judaism enjoyed some opportunities for leadership and respect, this was more the exception than the rule.1 Within this cultural context, Jesus’ respectful regard for women was unusual and sometimes even scandalous to those around him.
Although the New Testament is often assailed for being sexist and patriarchal, it fares far better than other ancient documents. Consider Gnosticism. Elaine Pagels champions the Gnostics as proto-feminists who had a higher regard for women than did writers of the New Testament.2 This conclusion is quite speculative and probably based on spotty evidence and selective quotation.3 The last saying of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas expresses contempt for women:
Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” 4
Spiritual gender switching is not required for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom. Philip Jenkins’s comment is apt: “Though women play so crucial a role in Gnostic texts, the religious system as a whole had nothing good to say of women.”5 Women were held in low esteem because of their close connection with physical procreation, which the dualistic Gnostics detested. Men of Jesus’ day typically viewed women’s seductive behavior as responsible for most (if not all) sexual sin.6 Jesus never did so. While he never condoned immodesty, Jesus judged sexual lust as a man’s individual responsibility: “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). Further, Jesus tightened the restrictions on divorce, not permitting men to divorce their wives for frivolous reasons (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:1-12), which, in a patriarchal setting, would leave women vulnerable and outcast. While the consensus was that only women could commit adultery against their husbands, Jesus insisted that a husband could commit adultery against his wife; it was a sin for both sexes.
Jesus startled his hearers by proclaiming to the religious establishment that reformed prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before they.
I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John [the Baptist] came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (Matt. 21:31-32) [All Scripture quotations are taken from the NIVI.]
Jesus identified the two most despised kinds of people and claimed that their repentance and faith would make them heirs of God’s kingdom. On several occasions, prostitutes, the most scorned of women, received Jesus’ commendation—not for their way of living, but because of their response to God’s message through Jesus. They found hope in this remarkable man.
A woman who was called “a sinner” (someone guilty of a serious and scandalous sexual sin) anointed and kissed Jesus’ feet while weeping. This occurred in the home of Simon, a Pharisee. Jesus accepted her actions as demonstrating her gratitude and love, and he announced that her many sins had been forgiven. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50).
Jesus showed compassion for women by healing them of various illnesses. He evidenced his willingness to disregard social and religious customs by not objecting to being touched by a woman who pressed through a crowd to reach out to him. Jesus healed her of a twelve-year flow of blood (Matt. 9:18), a malady that would have made her ritually “unclean,” and thus untouchable according to levitical law. After healing another woman, who had been crippled for eighteen years, Jesus referred to her as “a daughter of Abraham.” This showed respect and commendation, because Abraham was the father of the Jewish faith. “Son of Abraham” was common, “daughter of Abraham” was not; but Jesus affirmed her claim to Abraham’s religious heritage. Jesus also healed various other women, including Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14-17) and the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:40-56).
Jesus referred to women as worthy examples in many of his teachings. When he watched people deposit their gifts into the temple treasury, he saw the wealthy contribute large amounts, but he was most impressed by a poor widow. “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others” (Mark 12:41-44). In Luke chapter 15, Jesus tells three parables about God’s rejoicing over repentance. There is the good shepherd who finds the lost sheep and the father who receives back his prodigal son. He also says this:
Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:8-10)
In another parable, Jesus lauds the persistence of the widow who implores an unjust judge for justice in her cause (Luke 18:1-8). Millard Erickson notes that “in all these instances, Jesus tacitly shows that a woman can represent the activity of God or a righteous individual equally well as can a man.”7
Jesus shows no gender favoritism in his examples of praiseworthy behavior. Other parables speak of foolish women and men as well (Matt. 24:40-41; Luke 17:34-35). Although Jesus tells his disciples to pray to “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9), the teachings discussed above—along with other teachings in the Scriptures—show that he is speaking of God metaphorically, not of a gendered male being.8
While decrying the spiritual obliviousness of one of his audiences, Jesus said that at the final judgment two witnesses would be brought forth against them: those who repented at the preaching of Jonah, and an ancient Gentile woman. “The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42). This reference to the Queen of Sheba was remarkable because at that time rabbis did not typically accept the legal testimony of a woman. Yet Jesus predicted that her word—against that of the male religious authorities—would be determinative in the final scheme of things. Jesus, the “one greater than Solomon,” sides with her against the male religious elite. This was unheard of in his day.
Jesus did not annul family relationships, but he refused to endorse the common idea that women exist solely to be mothers and wives in the home. After Jesus gave a lesson about evil spirits, a woman from the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27-28). Instead of reinforcing the idea that motherhood is the primary or overriding purpose of women, Jesus put more value on being attentive and obedient to God’s word. This is an implicit endorsement of the right of women to be taught, which was not usually permitted in Jewish circles.
Women And Theological Instruction
Jesus’ affirmation of women as students of religious instruction is made more clear in the account of the sisters Mary and Martha, close associates of Jesus. After inviting Jesus and his disciples into their home, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching. Martha was distracted by all her chores of hospitality and said to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus does more than tell Martha not to be so hyperactive. He endorses Mary’s right to be taught, remarking that this is more important than the traditional province of a woman (preoccupation with domestic tasks).
In the account of the death of Martha’s brother, Lazarus, the same woman that Jesus had corrected for not listening to his teaching now affirms a vivid theological doctrine about him. In a discussion with Jesus about life, death, and resurrection, Martha makes a declaration very similar to the one given by the apostle Peter (Matt. 16:16). She says, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (John 11:27). She thus gives one of the strongest statements of messianic faith in the Gospels, and so becomes a model of theological veracity concerning Jesus.
Jesus’ willingness to interact without condescension with women, even the outcasts, is obvious in his encounter and long dialogue with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar (John 4:5-42). Fatigued from the journey, Jesus asks a woman, who had come to draw water, if she would give him a drink. The woman was stunned since she recognized him as a Jew, and Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans. The Jews held that Samaritans were “unclean,” and that a Jew would become unclean by touching a vessel handled by a Samaritan. Jesus uses the opportunity to discuss his mission. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” The woman is puzzled by this, and she wonders how Jesus could provide this since he has nothing with which to draw the water. Jesus responds, “All who drink this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman requests this water of Jesus, but Jesus says that she should call her husband and then come back. She replies that she has no husband. Jesus says that she has had five husbands and that the man she now has is not her husband. The woman, who must have been startled by the knowledge displayed by this Jewish stranger, declares that he is a prophet. She then says, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” To this Jesus offers a theological explanation and a prophecy.
Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:21-24)
The woman returns the theological volley and confesses: “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Jesus then declares, “I who speak to you am he.” This is the only time in the Gospels, prior to his trial and crucifixion (Matt. 26:62-65), when Jesus directly claims to be the Messiah. He says it during a theological conversation with a Samaritan woman. It is no wonder that John tells us that when “his disciples returned [they] were surprised to find him talking with a woman.”
The woman then went to her town and proclaimed, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” At her urging, many Samaritans came to Jesus. They convinced him to stay with them for two days, during which they heard his teachings. Many became believers. A social outcast of the oppressed gender was authorized by Jesus to tell others about him. He did not require a man to do it. Jesus’ theological discussions with women were remarkable because Jewish males would not discuss such things with women. Jesus, however, deemed both women and men worthy and qualified to converse on God’s ways with the human race.
Why No Women Among The Twelve?
Despite these accounts of Jesus’ teachings and actions regarding women, some still protest that he was not truly affirming and welcoming of women because he did not select any women to be apostles. Therefore, he did not see them as worthy of religious leadership. Several considerations mitigate this charge that he excluded women because he had a low view of them.
First, males dominated and outranked females in Jesus’ day to a degree we can barely imagine. Society was hierarchical in the spheres of state, religion, and the household. In the face of this, Jesus frequently underscored the virtue of humble service.
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27)
Such a radical pattern of humility and service would not allow for male exploitation of women. Jesus’ denunciation of those who preyed on defenseless widows was consistent with this countercultural stance (Mark 12:38-40).
Second, the Gospels report that women were among his close followers. Martha and Mary have already been mentioned. A group of women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and others—listened to Jesus and traveled with Jesus and his male disciples. “These women were helping to support them out of their own means” (Luke 8:1-3). The faithfulness of Jesus’ female disciples was most notable during the last days of his ministry. Unlike most of the male disciples, the women who followed Jesus were at the crucifixion (Matt. 27:55-56). Jesus’ burial was witnessed by at least two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (Matt. 27:61). All four Gospels report that women—including Mary Magdalene, “the other Mary,” and Salome—were the first to discover the empty tomb and to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection to the initially unbelieving male disciples.9
Third, given the highly patriarchal setting of Jesus’ ministry, it would have been unlikely if not culturally impossible for him to have ministered effectively with women in his innermost circle. As David Scholer notes: “It is remarkable and significant enough that women, at least eight of whom are known by name and often with as much or more data as some of the Twelve, were included as disciples and pro-claimers during Jesus’ ministry.”10
Scholer also observes that the original Jewish apostles did not continue to serve as the models for church leadership after the earliest days of the church at Jerusalem. Faithful Gentiles could be leaders as well. Moreover, despite a few local restrictions on women in some settings, there is evidence of women serving in leadership during the New Testament period.11
In light of Jesus’ words and deeds, novelist and philosopher Dorothy L. Sayers’s comments deserve full quotation.
Perhaps it is no wonder that women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made jokes about them, never treated them either as “the women, God help us!” or “The Ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no ax to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.12
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- David Scholer, “Women” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 880-81.
- Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), 48-69.
- See Kathleen McVey, “Gnosticism, Feminism and Elaine Pagels,” Theology Today, January 1981, 498-501.
- Gospel of Thomas, saying 114.
- Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 211.
- Scholer, 880.
- Millard Erickson, The Word Made Flesh: An Incarnational Christology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 582.
- See Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), chapter 4.
- Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-10.
- Scholer, 886.
- See Linda Belleville, Women Leaders and the Church: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 39-69, and R. M. Groothuis, chapters 5-10.
- Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 47.