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Commentary Theology

Jesus and Women (Part 1)

Jesus’ radical departure from Jewish gender norms must influence how we see women in ministry today.

There is no one in the ancient world who did more to raise the status of woman than Jesus. He esteemed women. He gave them back their dignity. He talked to them. He touched them. He treated them as equals in a period when no one else did.

The next two posts will focus on how Jesus viewed, interacted with, and empowered women. In this first post, I’m going to look at the common views of women in Jesus’ day and then consider the significance of Jesus having female disciples. 

Anyone who has read the Gospels knows that Jesus related to woman with respect and tenderness. My goal isn’t merely to show that this is true. I want to help us see the cultural and theological significance of what Jesus was doing and why it matters for us today.

How Women Were Viewed in Jesus’ Day

Reading about Jesus’ interactions with women may not be all that shocking to you and me. But to Jesus’ contemporaries, what he did was absolutely revolutionary. 

In fact, it was downright offensive. Especially to religious leaders.

To realize this, we need to know how Israelites thought about women during this era.

Kenneth E. Bailey, a biblical scholar who lived in the Middle East for much of his adult life, notes that Old Testament Israelite women were held in high regard.[1] But Bailey points out that during the period between the Old and New Testaments, an unfortunate shift took place. It was because of a different Jesus—Jesus Ben Sirach.

Jesus Ben Sirach (Ben Sira for short) was a Jewish sage who lived and wrote in Jerusalem around 200-170 BC (about 150-200 years before Jesus was born). 

We don’t know much about Ben Sirach. But we do know what he thought about women because of his book, Wisdom of Ben Sirach (also called “Ecclesiasticus” or “Sirach”). 

Here’s a sampling:

  • “Worst of all wounds is that of the heart, worst of all evils is that of a woman. Any wound, but not a wound of the heart! Any wickedness, but not the wickedness of a woman! No poison worse than that of a serpent, no venom greater than that of a woman.” (25:12-14)
  • “In woman was sin’s beginning, and because of her we all die.” (25:23)
  • “Keep a strict watch over an unruly wife, lest, finding an opportunity, she make use of it.” (26:10)
  • “My son, keep a close watch on your daughter, lest she make you a laughingstock for your enemies.” (42:11)
  • “Better a man’s harshness than a woman’s kindness.” (42:14)

Not exactly a glowing endorsement of women.[2]

In public, rabbis did not talk to women, including their wives.

By the time Jesus of Nazareth came onto the scene, Jesus Ben Sirach’s “wisdom” pervaded Jewish culture. 

In general, Jews had come to believe that women were inferior to men in every way.[3] This was despite the fact that they inherited a rich theology of gender equality from the creation account.

In public, rabbis (Jewish teachers of Torah) did not talk to women, including their wives.[4] This meant that rabbis could not have women disciples. In fact, to teach Torah to women was to desecrate it. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, one of the most well-known Jewish sages in the first and second centuries wrote, “The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women.”[5]

Now, against this backdrop, let’s see what Jesus does.

Jesus, Discipleship, and the Radical New Departure

As I mentioned, Jewish rabbis did not have female disciples. Even though Jesus’ closest twelve disciples were men, the Gospels are clear that Jesus did have women disciples. 

In doing this, Kenneth Bailey writes that Jesus inaugurated a “radical new departure” from the Jewish rabbinic norm. Jesus obliterated cultural expectations and restored the mutuality of men and women in ministry. 

Let’s look at the texts that make this explicit.

Jesus’ Real Family

Jesus introduced them to a completely new paradigm for gender roles. It challenged everything they knew.

First, Matthew 12:46-50. While Jesus teaches, some people arrive to tell him that his family is outside and wants to speak to him. The text says, “Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’ For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (vv 48-49).

Bailey points out that a Middle Eastern man can look at a group of men and say, “Here are my brothers, uncles, cousins, etc.” But he cannot say “Here are my mothers, sisters, and brothers!”[6] 

The shows that there are men and women in the group listening to Jesus’ teaching. 

Jesus, unlike his rabbinic colleagues, welcomed and encouraged women to learn Torah. This was unprecedented. Can you imagine how valued, respected, encouraged, and empowered these women felt? And can you imagine how confused, shocked, and even angry, the men around Jesus felt? 

Jesus introduced them to a completely new paradigm for gender roles. It challenged everything they knew.

The Women Who Followed and Funded the Movement

Next, Luke 8:1-3. We’re told that Jesus traveled from town to town with his twelve disciples and women. Luke mentions three women by name: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. These were women he had healed in some way. Their healing led them to devote their lives to Jesus as his followers. It wasn’t only these three women. Luke also notes that “many others” traveled with Jesus and the twelve. 

The text implies that Jesus and his male and female disciples stayed with each other in these villages overnight. In the first century, women could travel with men but couldn’t lodge with them. They would have to stay with family. Mixed gendered lodging with non-family is still taboo among conservative Middle Easterners today.[7] 

The women traveling with Jesus would not have had have family members in these towns. Perhaps the men and women stayed separate. Perhaps they were together. Whatever the case, even the implication is offensive. It suggests the equality of men and women is being restored in Jesus’ new movement.

But that’s not the most amazing part of this text. That comes in verse 3, when it says “these women were helping to support [Jesus and the twelve] out of their own means.” Some male disciples may have provided support to Jesus.[8] But we’re never explicitly told this in the Gospels. That Luke, a man, finds it important enough to admit women were funding the fledgling Jesus movement proves how valued they were. It also elevates their status in a world in which it was shameful for a husband to be supported by his wife.[9] How much more, the logic goes, by women who were not your wife!

The Better Meal

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is Luke 10:38-42. This is the famous “Mary and Martha” passage. Martha opens up her home to Jesus and plans to put on a feast for him. Her sister Mary, instead of helping with meal preparation, “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (v 39). 

“Sitting at the feet” is a Hebrew idiom that means someone is a disciple of a rabbi. That’s how Paul describes his relationship to Gamaliel (see Acts 22:3 in the ESV). Again, this was a privilege only for men.

Martha expresses worry about Mary’s behavior. Mary isn’t fulfilling the domestic responsibilities. She tramples the cultural expectations as she acts out of step with gender norms.[10] 

Martha presumes to tell Jesus to tell Mary to start helping. Jesus recognizes Martha’s stress about all the things that go into serving a meal. He points out that “only one thing is necessary” (cooking the roast isn’t it) and that “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (v 42).

Notice two things. First, in accepting Mary’s learning posture as a disciple, Jesus also violates cultural norms. Second, Jesus affirms Mary’s choice as superior to the role the culture expected her to fulfill as a woman.

It’s interesting that the word “portion” can also mean part of a meal.[11] It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Martha, I know you’re really worried about the meal. But Mary understands that she needs the meal that I’m serving right now. And no one—not even you, Martha—can take that away from her.” Jesus affirms Mary’s status as his disciple and her desire to continue her study of God.[12] 

As Luke closes the scene, we’re left wondering what Martha will do next. Will she join Mary at Jesus’ feet? Or will she continue to follow the cultural belief that women were not theological and ministerial equals with men? 

Why Is All This Significant? 

Will we let the women in our midst chose the good portion?

At the beginning, I said that I want to help us see the cultural and theological significance of what Jesus was doing and why it matters for us today.

In many ways, the same question that faced Martha faces us. Will we let the women in our midst chose the good portion? Or will we try to take it away from them? 

As I noted, for centuries, women were oppressed and not considered worthy to study the Torah. But here comes Jesus. Judaism said to women, “We’d rather burn the Torah than let you study it!” Jesus said, “Come to me and I will show you the ways of God.” 

It may be easy to dismiss all this and say, “Of course we want women to be disciples! We don’t want to take that way from them! They just can’t be leaders/pastors/elders, etc.”

If that’s you, consider this. Jesus elevated and empowered women to serve in the same ministerial status and capacity as men: disciples of the rabbi.

A rabbi’s goal was to impart his life and teaching to his disciples. The rabbi’s disciples would then do exactly what their rabbi did with them to another generation of disciples.

There were no greater levels of leadership. Jesus’ method for expanding his influence and seeing his kingdom come on earth was people–men and women.

By calling women his disciples, Jesus boldly declares, “Women and men will serve equally, side-by-side, as my representatives in my kingdom work.”

That women were included was astonishing. I’d argue that Jesus including women as disciples was much more culturally offensive than any complementarian church today inviting a woman to preach on a Sunday morning. 

It’s not even close.

By calling women his disciples, Jesus boldly declares, “Women and men will serve equally, side-by-side, as my representatives in my kingdom work.”

If Jesus wanted his future followers to maintain strict gender roles in ministry, he would not have included women in his band of disciples. 

But he did include them. As we seek to apply these texts, moving from Jesus’ culture to ours, his inclusion of women should greatly inform our theology and practice of gender roles.

Summing it Up

Jesus lived in a time when Israel did not think highly of women. They were not trusted or valued or seen as equals. Rabbis did not talk to women in public and did not have women disciples. But Jesus, of course, radically departed from these conventional views. As a rabbi, he encouraged women in their pursuit of God and theological studies. He called them “disciples,” giving them the dignity of holding the same status as their male counterparts. 

This is significant. It means that in ushering in his Kingdom, Jesus reversed the patriarchy that plagued humans for millennia. Both men and women would once again represent God to the world as they did back in the Garden. (We’ll come back to this idea in an upcoming post.)

If we want to model our ministry after Jesus, we need to take all of this very seriously.

The next post will take a closer look at three specific interactions Jesus had with women. They will continue to hammer home his radical new departure from gender role norms.

If we want to model our ministry after Jesus, we need to take all of this very seriously.


Post Script: Why Were the Twelve Only Men?

“But Jesus’ twelve main disciples were men! That has to say something about male leadership in church leadership!”

This is an objection I’ve heard and even used myself. Here are five quick thoughts to consider.

  1. In bringing God’s Kingdom, Jesus inaugurated a new covenant. In doing this, he fulfilled the Old Covenant. Jesus’ twelve disciples are a new covenant fulfillment of Israel’s twelve patriarchs (the twelve tribes of Jacob). As the twelve patriarchs represented Israel, so these twelve men represent a new movement of God. The old is gone and the new has come.
  2. Jesus was a strategic rabbi and missionary. He had twelve male disciples in his inner circle to accommodate the first century Jewish rabbinic culture. A man needed to have at least ten male disciples to be a rabbi.[13] Jesus did risk his reputation as a rabbi by having women disciples, but his closest twelve were males to provide legitimacy for his rabbinic ministry.
  3. The twelve have a primary role in the beginning and middle of the Gospels. But as we’ll see in the next post, the tide turns at the resurrection where the women are most prominent.
  4. Judas was one of Jesus’ disciples and he was a traitor. If one of Jesus’ disciples betrayed him, we should be careful to use the twelve as a model for pastoral leadership today. 
  5. Jesus did not come to organize (or even give instructions) on our modern church governments. (I’d argue Paul doesn’t do this either!) Instead, Jesus came to launch a people-oriented movement that began with the twelve and was carried on through to his larger discipleship network. After Jesus ascends, we see both men and women at Pentecost in Acts 2 preaching the gospel and living in community together. (We’ll address this passage in the next post.)

Notes

Feature photo: A woman is depicted at prayer in an ancient Christian mosaic seen in the Vatican’s Pio Cristiano Museum. Originally found here. From Wikimedia Commons/Miguel Hermoso Cuesta.

[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, “Women in the Old Testament,” New Testament Themes: A Middle Eastern Perspective online lecture series. I’m indebted to Dr. Bailey, as you’ll notice by looking at the notes, for much of my study of Jesus and women in the gospels. I highly recommend you dig into his cultural studies to better understand Jesus’ context. 

[2] “The harsh statements Ben Sira makes about women reflect the kind of instruction young Jewish males were exposed to in the early second century B.C. His patriarchal perspective is as unfair as it is one-sided.” New American Bible (Revised Edition), notes on Ben Sirah 25, on BibleGateway.com.

[3] Even in post-biblical Judaism (beginning around AD 70), “women were not viewed as equal to men or as full Jews. In this, Jews were no different from their various Greco-Roman, Semitic or Egyptian neighbors.” See Tal Ilan, “Post-Biblical and Rabbinic Women,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, December 31, 1999, Jewish Women’s Archive. When we get to our discussion of Paul and his broader Greek culture context, we’ll look at some examples from the Greek wisdom tradition of how it viewed women. 

[4] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008), 212.

[5] Rachel Karen, “Torah Study,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, December 31, 1999, Jewish Women’s Archive. “Torah” means “instruction” in Hebrew. It typically refers to the first Five Books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy). See Jerusalem Talmud Sotah 3:4 for the Hyrcanus quote.

[6] Kenneth E. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Theology Matters 6/1 (2000), 2. 

[7] Ibid.

[8] While rabbis could not accept payment for teaching, their disciples could provide for their rabbis needs in practical ways. It was common for disciples to do this as a way to support their rabbi’s ministry. See Joseph Shulam, “Rabbis and Their Disciples between the 1st Century B.C. and the 2nd Century A.D.” Renew.org blog. 

[9] “Harsh is the slavery and great the shame when a wife supports her husband” (Ben Sirach 25:22).

[10] Luke 10:40, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, on BibleGateway.com.

[11] Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Theology Matters 6/1 (2000), 2. The LSJ Lexicon—the most authoritative ancient Greek lexicon available—says that one definition of meris (“portion” in English) can mean “a portion of sacrificial meat offered to” someone. 

[12] Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 193-194.

[13] Ten adult males represented a “community of Israel” and thus a quorum for a synagogue meeting. So it was common practice for rabbis to have at least ten (male) disciples.