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Commentary Theology

How Paul Helped Elevate the Status of Women

Few people, outside of Jesus, are more celebrated, dissected, and scoffed at than the Apostle Paul. When it comes to gender roles in the church, this is especially true. Historian Beth Allison Barr, in her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, notes many of her students often say, “I hate Paul!”[1] because of how Christians have understood his take on women. 

But what if Paul wasn’t anti-woman, but very much pro-woman? What if he didn’t seek to restrict women, but free them? What if he didn’t seek to silence them but to empower them to speak the wonders of the gospel? What if he partnered with them, as he did with men, to get to the gospel to the ends of the earth? 

This post begins a series of posts on Paul and specific texts he wrote that deal with women. In the first two posts, I’ll give an overview of how Paul viewed and interacted with women. This post will look at the environment Paul ministered in and how two elements of his theology elevated women. The next will highlight several of the women we meet in Paul’s ministry and letters.

The goal is to help us see that Paul was not universally restrictive of women, contrary to what most complementarian theologians teach. In certain places, it sure seems like Paul was quite hard on women! I will address those texts specifically. But when we look at the bigger picture of Paul’s theology and ministry we’ll see a different story.

What if Paul wasn’t anti-woman, but very much pro-woman?

Let’s start with a glance at Paul’s environment and its view of women. 

An Open Door for the Liberation of Women

Paul lived in the Roman Empire in the middle of the first century AD. Roman culture and its philosophy was “thoroughly grounded in the tradition of Greek philosophy.”[2] Aristotle (d. 322 BC) was one of the most influential philosophers. 

In Politics, he suggests a sociological structure for the state. And he has quite a bit to say about women. In one place, he writes, “[T]he relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.” A bit later, “The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”[3]

It’s impossible to know if Aristotle’s words were floating around in the minds of the average Roman citizen in the first century. But his influence goes without saying. It’s more than likely that these degrading ideas about women permeated Roman thought. 

As a friend of mine (a PhD in philosophy) commented recently, “Greek philosophy, in general, was in the drinking water of the [Roman] culture.”

Even with this Greek influence, a woman’s place in the Roman world was a mixed bag. Yes, they were often mistreated, abused, and given in marriage far too young (and without choice).[4] To the Romans, a woman’s role was to support her husband, birth babies, and manage the home.[5] 

But there were positive developments. Roman women had much more freedom than Greek women. They were not meant to be invisible and completely relegated to the domestic sphere (like in Greece).[6] They could own property or a business, inherit an estate, make a will, and even buy and sell slaves. 

By God’s sovereign design, this subtle, positive shift served as a launching pad for the church to give prominence and authority to women unlike anything before.

Two Key Values that Elevated Women 

The Roman context opened up the door for the church to elevate women. In this section, let’s focus on two key elements in Paul’s theology that set women free and give them equal status with men. To use a modern category, you can think of these elements as Paul’s ministry “values.”

In Christ: The Gospel Levels the Playing Field

I’ll call the first value “in Christ.” Anyone who has read Paul understands that this is one of his favorite phrases. The reality of being “in Christ” for Paul is foundational to everything else. Life, virtue, ministry, and anything good flows from being “in Christ.” 

What does it have to do with women in ministry?

One passage that egalitarians are quick to point to is Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Complementarians argue that the context is about salvation. I agree, and so do egalitarians. But does Galatians 3:28 have any sociological implications?[7]

There are two other passages that use the “in Christ” phrase that look and sound a lot like Galatians 3:28. 

  • “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor 12:13).
  • “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col 3:11).

There’s also Ephesians 2:15, which is similar: 

  • “By setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two [Jew and Gentile], thus making peace…”

These three passages are representative of each other and probably interchangeable.[8] Paul is looking at areas of social inequality and showing how the gospel brings a new identity “in Christ” that levels the social playing field. In the Kingdom of God, there are no second-class citizens.[9]

If Christianity were to spread across the globe, the Jew-Gentile problem was especially important to address. Jews needed to embrace Gentiles and vice versa. Otherwise, the news of Jesus would not have left Jerusalem!

If the church believed that being “in Christ” had social implications for Gentiles and slaves, why wouldn’t it mean the same for women?

This is part of Paul’s genius. Yes, he was a deeply spiritual missionary. But he was also strategic. That’s why he tackled the ethnicity problem in almost all his letters. 

The church eventually “caught sight of the social ramifications of the Jew-Gentile equality”[10]. The proof is that Christianity spread across the entire Roman Empire. 

Later, Christians saw equality for slaves and worked out the implications over the course of church history. William Wilberforce in England is the most famous example of an abolitionist who believed slavery was at odds with the gospel.

If the church believed that being “in Christ” had social implications for Gentiles and slaves, why wouldn’t it mean the same for women?

To me, the issue here is urgency. In his short lifetime, what would Paul choose to focus on? He had a holy sense of urgency to get the Jew-Gentile problem corrected because of his desire to get to gospel to the entire known world. 

He chose not to press the women and slaves issue. Looking back on history, it’s easy to see how social/practical (not spiritual) liberation for these groups would have actually hurt the spread of the gospel. Society, as a whole, wasn’t ready for it yet, even if Christians were.[11]

But Paul still cared about women being elevated and valued in the church. His approach to this wasn’t as explicit as the gender issue. It was more subversive. His understanding and application of spiritual gifts help us see this.

Mutual Participation: Everyone Contributes in the Church

The second value is “mutual participation” in the church through spiritual gifts. Paul taught that everyone in the church has a part to play—even women. All who are “in Christ” share in the Spirit. This means everyone has spiritual gifts to contribute to the church’s well-being (see 1 Cor 12-14; Rom 12:3-8; Eph 4:11-16).[12]

The point here is that spiritual gifts are not “gendered.” Instead, the Spirit gives gifts to each person as he desires (1 Cor 12:11). And when everyone does their part, the body builds itself up in love (Eph 4:16). Everyone in the body is now an “ambassador,” speaking for Christ wherever they go (2 Cor. 5:20).[13] 

The unique thing about first-century churches is that they met in homes. Churches were more informal and participatory than our churches today. Gathering to hear one man speak for 45-50 minutes was unheard of.[14] 

Paul expected each person to show up to a church meeting with something to minister to others. People weren’t to only consume. They were to contribute. We get a glimpse of this in 1 Corinthians 14:26 when Paul says, “Each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

When Paul corrected the Corinthians in this same chapter about their worship gathering, he didn’t chide women for using a particular gift or even leading. We actually see women prophesying (a leadership activity) back in 1 Corinthians 11. Instead, he’s worried about the manner of how the gifts were being used.

The value of mutual participation is also seen in the “one another” references sprinkled throughout his letters. Love one another. Encourage one another. Forgive one another. Correct one another. And so on.

Paul expected not only that women would teach men, but that it was completely acceptable in this environment for them to do so.

Consider Colossians 3:16: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (my emphasis).

This is about living in community together. But these things would happen within a worship service context. It begs the question. Why would Paul tell the whole church to “teach and admonish one another” if women could not teach men?

It seems obvious to me that he expected not only that women would teach men, but that it was completely acceptable in this environment for them to do so.

One more thought. Paul says that the word of Christ will dwell in us when we teach and admonish through “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” Paul knew then what science proved much later: music is a powerful medium for memory.[15]

My wife (the musician in our family) has said that most Christians learn more theology through songs than sermons. I agree.

If songs can teach in a way that helps the message of Jesus get into the hearts and minds of Christians, why would Paul encourage women to sing, if they were not allowed to teach? 

Consider the implications for us today. Taken to the extreme, the restriction “women cannot teach men” (from 1 Tim 2:12) would mean that a woman cannot lead musical worship. It would also imply that all women cannot sing out loud during a congregational meeting, since, in Paul’s mind, singing is a communal activity for mutual edification.[16] 

Paul wants believers to minister to one another, without regard for gender. It makes the most sense that Paul encouraged and expected women, like men, to use their spiritual gifts, including teaching, for the benefit of everyone in the early house churches.[17] 

Summing It Up

Paul lived during a major turning point in history. While still falling short of what we’d hope for today, female Roman citizens enjoyed more rights than previous cultures. This opened a unique opportunity for the Church to elevate women to an equal status with men. Paul’s teaching on being “in Christ” and the mutual participation of believers through spiritual gifts were foundational for the Church to treat everyone equally, including women.

The next post will show how Paul lived this out, as we do a brief fly over of his ministry relationships with women.

Paul wants believers to minister to one another, without regard for gender.


Notes

Feature photo: “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles” by Valentin de Boulogne (c. 1618-20).

[1] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001), 39.

[2] See “Roman Philosophy,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part V.

[4] Girls were often betrothed by age 10 and married in the late adolescent or early teen years, although some girls were married by 10 or 11. Mary Beard writes that Atticus sought out a potential husband for his daughter when she was only 6 years old. See Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright & Company, 2015), 311.

[5] Ibid., 304.

[6] Ibid., 307. 

[7] The general idea for this section comes from William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 85-87.  

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 48.

[10] Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, 86.

[11] When I have more time, I’d like to research how the Roman Empire and the Jewish Diaspora paved the way for a solution to the Jew-Gentile problem. In AD 70, when the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, it forced the entire population of that city to find new meaning and identity as a displaced people. But even earlier than that, in Acts 2, we saw that Jews were living all over the known world and would come back to Jerusalem for feasts. The Roman Empire was sympathetic to other religions—as long as they didn’t revolt. (That’s why Jerusalem was burned down!) The Roman road system also allowed for “interstate travel” (as we’d call it today). People were continually crossing paths with others who were different from them. In a nutshell, the Empire was a step toward a more global, multi-ethnic community. While advances were made for women, it was nothing in comparison to this. Women were still second-class citizens (with slaves beneath them).

[12] Spiritual gifts are ministries, activities, functions, etc. that edify and build up others people in the church. See 1 Cor 12:4-6.

[13] The word “ambassador” is connected to the idea of “image and likeness” from Genesis. An ambassador is someone who represents a greater authority, just like an “image” did in the ancient world. Earlier in 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul wrote, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Paul’s building an argument to help the Corinthians see that the ministry of Spirit is to transform believers into the image of Jesus and, therefore, serve as his ambassadors. It is a “new creation refresh” on the original creation account. Women share in this equally with men.

[14] Even in the Jewish synagogue context, one man would not lecture for the entire meeting. Instead, synagogue meetings were much more interactive and discussion-oriented. Consider the scene in Luke 4:14-30, where Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, read from Isaiah, made a very brief comment and sat down. Then the discussion continued (about him, of course!). The goal was communal learning and experience, not top-down communication. 

[15] On my blog and in sermons I’ve shared about the Psalms being what I call “felt theology.” In other words, the Psalms make the truth about God and life come alive in the emotions of the human heart. This is what Paul’s getting at in Colossians 3:16. 

[16] There are some traditions that do not permit women to lead musical worship. I hardly think any would forbid all women from singing out loud.

[17] Craig Blomberg (in a lecture I could not locate if I tried) talked about the importance of song for the oral transmission of the Gospels. Because singing helps humans memorize easily, Blomberg suggested that much of the oral tradition was passed down through song. It’s a fascinating thing to consider. Particularly because several scholars believe two of the most famous passages in the New Testament about Jesus (Col 1:15-20 and Phil 2:6-11) were actually hymns.

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Commentary Theology

The Difference of Pentecost

We come to Pentecost in Acts 2. It is, without a doubt, one of the most electrifying, motivating, and mystifying passages in the New Testament. 

It also helps us make sense of gender roles in the post-resurrection era of the Kingdom of God.

Think of this post as a sequel to the last two on Jesus and women. In those, we looked at how Jesus’ interactions with women changed the game on gender in the first century. Now, we’ll see how Jesus begins to carry on his work through his people, including women, by his Spirit.

What Happened at Pentecost?

Pentecost was a Jewish feast to celebrate the first-fruits of harvest. Because it was a religious observance, thousands of faithful Jews from other parts of the world made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God during the festival.

There were about 120 believers gathered together for prayer on the day of Pentecost. The group included both men and women (see Acts 1:14). Luke, the author, writes while they were praying a mighty wind rushed upon them. Something like “tongues of fire” came to rest above their heads and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.

The disciples began sharing “the wonders of God,” and everyone heard what they said in their native language. The crowd was quite confused. Some even said that they were drunk.[1]

Joel foretold of a day when God would pour out his Spirit on all who believe without regard to status, ethnicity, or gender.

But Peter stood up to explain that they weren’t drunk. (It was only 9am!) This was the fulfillment of what the prophet Joel had written centuries before. His speech is found in Acts 2:14-36. His opening words in Acts 2:17-18 (quoting Joel 2:28-30) are the most important for our discussion. Here it is in the NIV:

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.

In the Old Testament, God poured out his Spirit for certain occasions and on particular people. No longer. Joel foretold of a day when God would pour out his Spirit on all who believe without regard to status, ethnicity, or gender (cf. Acts 2:39).

At Pentecost, that day had finally come. God now lives in and with his people–men and women–for good.

What Does Pentecost Mean?

Pentecost means a whole lot. As it relates to gender roles, I’ll mention three important take-aways:

1. Pentecost means God has come to dwell with both men and women, equally.  

This was the goal of creation all along. In the beginning, God dwelt with humanity in perfect fellowship. The story of the Old Testament is God’s pursuit of his people Israel to dwell with them in spite of their sin. Nothing is a permanent solution. 

Until Jesus. 

All who believe in him become the place where God’s presence dwells on earth. We are God’s temple—his sacred space.

Jesus is God’s sacred space—the “place” where God dwells. He calls himself the temple to prove the point (John 2:19-21). He is where heaven and earth meet. 

And through his life, death, and resurrection, he reconciles people back to God and gives them his Spirit. Now, all who believe in him become the place where God’s presence dwells on earth. We are God’s temple—his sacred space.[2] 

This is a major theme in the New Testament, and it was foundational for the early Church’s understanding of what it meant to be God’s people. (see 1 Cor 6:18; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 2:5). 

This has nothing to do with worshiping in a building or particular liturgies or churches operating as organizations. It has everything to do with being a people-movement energized and empowered by God’s Spirit for a specific identify and function: being with God as his people and being his witnesses to the rest of the world.

2. Pentecost means men and women are both his authoritative witnesses to the world.

Because God now dwells in us, we represent him to the world. This was, again, God’s intention from the beginning. He created man and woman in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-28), meaning they represented God in their activity in the world.

Sin did not entirely remove God’s image from humanity. But it brought destructive effects so that we sought to rule ourselves, rather than joyfully represent God as we were created to. 

Women, along with men, are authoritative witnesses for God because they, like men, have the Spirit.

Pentecost reverses this curse. The indwelling Spirit brings redemption and restoration to whoever believes in Jesus. Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 call the Church “a kingdom…and priests to our God,” echoing the language of image and likeness from Genesis.[3] Believers in Jesus can now fulfill humanity’s original intent.

Peter’s choice of the Joel passage especially highlights the mutuality between men and women in this new era of the Spirit. To prophesy in the context of Pentecost means to speak on God’s behalf with his authority. Women, along with men, are authoritative witnesses for God because they, like men, have the Spirit.[4]

There’s no hierarchy here. There’s no male-only leadership. The Kingdom of God, through the event of Pentecost, ushers in a new ministry paradigm in which men and women labor side-by-side in the work of the gospel.

3. Pentecost means the Church previews the world to come.

Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated the new creation. But it didn’t end with him. He is called the “firstborn” of a new creation (Col 1:15-20; cf. Rev 1:5). Now, whoever has the Spirit dwelling in them is “in Christ” and is, therefore, a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).[5] This will take its full effect when we are with Christ and receive our resurrected bodies in the new creation. 

As “new creation” beings, we are a “sneak peak” of the “coming attraction.” We’re a preview of what it will be like when we will reign with Jesus in the new heavens and new earth.

We do this in many ways, don’t we? We fight sin, pursue Christ-centered community, give justice to the disadvantaged and oppressed, care for the environment, bring hope to the hopeless, healing to the hurting, food to the hungry, and so on.

All of these are a faint whisper of life without sin, brokenness, and death.

In other words, we fight the curse.

Why wouldn’t we do the same with gender hierarchy? 

If men and women will live together in a redeemed world serving God equally as a kingdom and priests, shouldn’t we align our beliefs and practices with that reality now? Shouldn’t our ministries reflect the equality and mutuality God gave men and women at creation and in redemption?[6]

For me, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

If men and women will live together in a redeemed world serving God equally as a kingdom and priests, shouldn’t we align our beliefs and practices with that reality now?

What’s Next?

Now, on to Paul. In the next post, we’ll look at how Paul included women in gospel ministry. We’ll also consider some of his general teaching that should help us set a “baseline” for how Paul would think about women in ministry.

After that, we’ll start to dive in to the specific, controversial texts by Paul on women’s roles in the Church.


Notes

[1] For our purposes, what this language phenomenon actually was isn’t important. I have my own take. But that’s for another post. 

[2] If the concept of “sacred space” is new to you, please read my previous posts on Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 for context. 

[3] This is a major theme in 1 Peter. I’ll also show in the next post on Paul, that it’s a significant reason for his focus on the entire body of Christ contributing to its growth through spiritual gifts. Which, as we know, are not gendered.

[4] Of course, Peter, a man, takes the lead in his Pentecost speech. But as I’ve shown previously, we can’t overlook the fact that Jesus’ closest disciples were male for cultural reasons. Jesus accommodated himself to the culture he came to live in.

[5] A literal translation of 2 Corinthians 5:17 goes something like this, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ—new creation!” (2 For 5:17). There is no gendered pronoun in the verse. When a committee translates this passage as “he is a new creation,” we may know that Paul is talking about a generic person, but the gender bias damage has already been done. The focus of the verse is not “he” but “anyone” (Gk tis). Why is this text important for gender roles? Because it’s in a section where Paul talks about the ministry of reconciliation. If anyone is in Christ and is therefore a new creation, Paul writes, they have the distinct role of being his ambassador—to preach the message of Christ to a lost world. This ministry is for men and women. The theology of Acts 2 is no doubt in the forefront of Paul’s mind as he writes these words to the Corinthians. We have to ask ourselves: why would any woman be able to have this high identity and calling of “ambassador of Christ” to the world and yet not be a local church elder/pastor?

[6] I have heard some complementarians argue that there will be gendered hierarchy in the new heavens and new earth, based on the fact that there was a hierarchy built into the original creation. I have not found an actual article or book that explains the idea of “gender roles” in the new creation, however. Still, I remain unconvinced by this argument based on my conviction that Genesis 1-2 does not teach men are inherently “over” women as leaders. If there was no hierarchy in the Garden, it doesn’t make sense to me that there would be in the new creation. See my posts on Genesis 1, 2, and 3 for more on this. Other complementarians may argue that if a gender hierarchy is the result of the fall, that’s “just the way world is” and we should live with it. I may write an interlude post soon responding to the issue of birth order and whether or not we should fight against the curse. 

Categories
Commentary Theology

Jesus and Women (Part 2)

In this second post on Jesus and women, I’ll focus on three specific interactions Jesus had with women: the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syrophoenician woman, and the women at the empty tomb. 

I’ll provide a brief commentary on each of these passages. My goal is to help us see the cultural implications these stories reveal.[1] Then, I’ll offer summary statements to help us consider how these interactions should influence gender roles today. 

Here’s what we’ll see:

Jesus violated the cultural expectation of how women were to be treated to pave the way for their full inclusion in the life and leadership of the church.

We’re going to cover a lot of ground. To keep this post at a reasonable length, my commentary will be selective. I assume you are familiar with these stories (at least at a basic level). If you aren’t, I encourage you to first read the passages in their entirety.

The Samaritan Woman

The story of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4 is one of the most well-known and beloved in Scripture. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well after a long journey. He initiates conversation by asking her for a drink. By the end of the story, the woman is the one who’s had a soul-quenching drink of living water. 

Jesus shatters all the norms in this passage. First, he talks to a woman. Recall from my last post that self-respecting rabbis did not talk to women in public. Not even to their wives! We see the disciples’ surprise in after they return from getting food. “Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ Or ‘Why are you talking with her?’” (4:27, NIV, my emphasis).

The disciples don’t have the guts to say what they were thinking. But John, the author, was there and is likely recalling the group’s disposition.

The first question has the connotation of, “Would you like us to get rid of her for you?”[2] Disciples were like Secret Service detail for their rabbis. They’d defend him at any cost.

The second question exposes the disciples prejudice. Like us, they were products of their culture. Jesus conversing with a woman was not only a waste of time. It was wrong and scandalous.

That Jesus uses a woman, not a man, to bring the truth about Messiah to this Gentile village was unthinkable. 

Second, Jesus asks a Samaritan for a drink. Jews did not interact with Samaritans because of “smoldering tensions” that began 500 years before due partly to race, religion, and politics.[3] To uphold the expected norm, both Jesus and the woman should not have acknowledged each other’s existence. The woman expresses her shock that Jesus asks her, a Samaritan woman, for a drink (v 9). 

John helps his readers understand the context with a parenthetical note, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (v 9b). The Greek word translated “do not associate” in NIV (or “no dealings,” ESV) is sygchraomai. It can also mean “to share a vessel in common”–like a cup or dish.

Late in the conversation, the woman recognizes Jesus is a prophet. She asks him a question about the true place of worship (vv 19-20). Jesus doesn’t debate. Instead, he completely rejects the notion of location-centric worship. True worship about who is worshiped and the manner of worship. (vv 23-24). He reveals himself to be the Messiah (v 26), placing himself at the center of true worship. 

As the disciples return to find them speaking, the woman abruptly leaves. Jesus’ word about his messianic identity struck a nerve in her. She runs to tell her whole village about Jesus. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (v 30).

This Samaritan women is the first female Christian preacher in history.

Her testimony resonates with the villagers. The people begin to make their way to Jesus. This would have startled the original readers. That Jesus uses a woman, not a man, to bring the truth about Messiah to this Gentile village was unthinkable. A woman’s testimony was not allowed in a first-century Jewish court.[4] Yet Jesus believes she is a trustworthy witness. 

We find out that “many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (v 39). They urge Jesus to stay with them for two more days and, in that time, more Samaritans come to believe in Messiah. 

This Samaritan women–we don’t even know her name–is the first female Christian preacher in history.[5]

The Syrophoenician Woman

The second snapshot is Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. On the surface, the story seems to disprove everything I’m arguing for. Jesus comes across as misogynistic and ethnocentric. But when we understand the cultural context, we discover the complete opposite.

This time it’s a Gentile woman—a Syrophoenician, according to Mark—who violates social custom by initiating with Jesus. She calls him “Son of David” (v 22), showing she has familiarity with Jewish messianic expectations.[6] Her daughter is sick and she knows Jesus can help. Mark tells us she asks Jesus to drive out a demon (Mk 7:26). Matthew notes that she asks Jesus to have mercy on her (Matt 15:22). 

Jesus is ready to administer a rabbinic exam to test the woman’s faith. And he will expose the deeply rooted misogyny and ethnocentrism of the disciples.

Our western eyes focus on the woman as an individual with a need. But we must remember that Middle Eastern rabbinic contexts are communal. Jesus will deal with the woman. But he also interacts with his disciples, who are present (v 23).[7] He’s ready to administer a rabbinic exam to test the woman’s faith. And he will expose the deeply rooted misogyny and ethnocentrism of the disciples.[8] 

As a rabbi, Jesus knows he’s not supposed to respond to this woman’s plea in public. So he “did not answer a word” (v 23a). The disciples encourage Jesus to send her away (v 23b). This is reminiscent of their unspoken question in John 4 (see above). 

Jesus finally speaks, but only because the disciples are the ones who demand, “Send her away! She won’t leave us alone.” Jesus plays their game and pretends to send her away, pointing out he has only come for Israel (v 24). It doesn’t drive her out; it draws her in. She begs, “Lord, help me!” (v 25). 

Jesus could have given in to her request and helped. But remember the cultural context. He’s still dealing with his disciples. They believe this woman isn’t worth the time of day because of her ethnicity and gender. Jesus says what they are thinking: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (v 26). 

That’s a horrific statement. Why did Jesus say this? Listen to Kenneth Bailey:

Jesus here gives concrete expression to the theology of his narrow-minded disciples who want the Canaanite woman dismissed. The verbalization is authentic to their attitudes and feelings, but shocking when put into words and thrown in the face of a desperate, kneeling woman pleading for the sanity of her daughters. It is acutely embarrassing to hear and see one’s deepest prejudices verbalized and demonstrated.[9]

Jesus simultaneously tests the woman’s faith with an insult and exposes his disciples’ sin. She acknowledges the insult but has the courage to respond despite the mounting shame. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v 27). 

What an answer! She passes the test. She knows Jesus is the Savior of the Jews, but she also trusts his compassion is endless. He has come for all people. There is enough left over for her—a “little dog” in the eyes of Jews, even Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus acknowledged her great faith and granted her request. She goes on her way transformed. The disciples were rebuked and corrected. But their story is not over. “An enormous amount of sophisticated spiritual formation is taking place” in their hearts, too.[10] The story of the early church after Jesus’ ascension proves this.

The Women at the Empty Tomb

The final snapshot is from the first Easter morning. At the end of every Gospel, we see women, not men, who meet Jesus at the empty tomb (Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18). The men, afraid because their leader was just executed publicly by Rome, are hiding. The women face the risk and go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. 

They don’t find Jesus’ corpse. They find the stone rolled away and an angel who’s as bright as lightning. After the initial shock and fear that followed, they meet the resurrected Jesus.[11] It changes everything. 

A woman becomes the first apostle of the resurrection.

Jesus says to the women, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. They will see me there” (Matt 28:10). John’s account spotlights Jesus’ interaction with Mary Magdalene. Jesus tells her, “Go…to my brothers and tell them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary obeys and has the privilege of being the first person to say, “I have seen the [risen] Lord!” (20:18).

But the men don’t believe the women (Lk 24:11). This isn’t surprising given their context. Remember that a woman’s testimony was not considered legitimate at that time. Knowing this, we would expect Jesus to appear to men so that they would be the first witnesses of the resurrection.

Not so. Jesus flips the world’s values upside down again. A woman becomes the first apostle of the resurrection.

What Does All This Mean?

I’ve done my best to give you a brief synopsis of the cultural significance of these three interactions Jesus had with women. But what does it all mean for us today?

Three themes stand out to me. I alluded to them in my commentary, but here I’ll provide a summary statement with an explanation for each. 

1. Jesus breaks down the social barriers of gender and ethnicity. 

That Jesus crossed both gender and ethnic barriers at the same time is significant. It reveals how closely they are related in Jesus’ mind.

Jesus confronts the disciples’ prejudices in the first two interactions above. He isn’t harsh with them. He understands the water they swim in is dark. But he confronts them nonetheless. 

Why didn’t Jesus simply say, “Let’s end our patriarchy today” or “Women are equal footing in ministry with men”? That would have been more clear to us. Giving formal, propositional statements to make a point, however, is a very modern and westernized expectation. If we demand this of Jesus, we’d be asking him to be someone he wasn’t when he lived in this world. 

Jesus lays the foundation for the early church to embrace the truth that in Christ there is neither “Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Instead, Jesus confronts them as a Jewish rabbi would–through modeling, interactive teaching, and communal learning. He overcomes the social barriers not by ameliorating institutional norms or statutes (which he did not have the opportunity to do anyway). Instead, he embodies a new kingdom norm in how he treats and talks to women and Gentiles.

Jesus also goes further than just breaking norms. He’s forming his disciples in a new, better way. A Kingdom of God way. He lays the foundation for the early church to embrace the truth that in Christ there is neither “Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” (see Gal 3:28; cf. Col 3:11).

Objection: Of course we should overcome misogyny and ethnocentrism to respect women and people who are different than us. But that doesn’t mean women should be leaders/pastors, etc. in the church.

My response: There are many complementarians who respect women, of course. But Jesus didn’t elevate women so they’d be “respected,” important as that is. To me, it seems he goes much further (as I argue in my last post). His is goal was to redeem and restore women to their original purpose: serving God as his representatives equally alongside men. The next theme reveals why I think this.

2. Jesus empowered women to be his authoritative witnesses.

No matter how we slice it, the Samaritan woman and the women at the empty tomb were preachers and missionaries. In fact, Mary Magdalene holds the prestigious status of being “apostle to the apostles,” as she’s known in some traditions.[12] 

In the world’s eyes, Jesus should have first appeared to men to give credibility to his fledgling movement. But reason he appeared to women was to bolster the reliability of the message. It’s astonishing that women would be given this honor in the context. The account is even more credible–no man would have written this unless it actually happened.

But there’s more. I also think it was a profound display of the reversal of the curse. Women are now on equal standing with men in the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not buy in the argument that women were unreliable witnesses. He rejected it in full. To Jesus, what qualified someone to speak and minister on his behalf was not gender, but their connection to him. The testimonies of the Samaritan woman and Mary prove this.

Objection: This has nothing to do with women being pastors in local churches

My response: That is true…to an extent. But Jesus did not come to start an organization with a hierarchical structure. (In his kingdom, the first are last and the last are first. Jesus’ elevation of women is one example of that value.) Instead, he came to inaugurate his Kingdom—a people-movement empowered by his Spirit to continue his work until he returns. If Jesus can launch his movement by sending a woman to preach to his male disciples, why can’t he send a woman to preach to men and women in churches today? I’m going to make the case in the coming posts that we cannot use 1 Timothy 2:12 as a reason.

3. Jesus ushers men and women into the presence of God.

This point may be one of the most important. It’s most obvious in the John 4 passage, but resurrection implies it, too.

On the surface, I assume most Christians would agree to this statement no matter their position on gender roles. But I want to go much deeper. So let me rephrase it: Jesus is God’s sacred space and, when people are connected to him, they become God’s sacred space. 

Deep breath. Hang with me. 

Think back to my posts on Genesis 1 and 2. I made the case that in the Garden, God set up his sacred space. In the ancient world, sacred space is the place where the divine dwells with his people who, as image bearers, represent him to the world.  

Sacred space is temple space. In the Garden, Adam and Even functioned as priests. In whatever they did, they mediated God’s presence to the world. 

Sin and the curse destroyed this. The rest of the Old Testament–from Abraham to tabernacle to temple–is the story of God pursuing a people for his own possession so that he might dwell with them. 

Then Jesus comes as God in the flesh. Quite literally, he is God’s sacred space, the place where God’s very presence and glory dwells (see John 1:1-14). He represents God, speaks for God, and acts on God’s behalf. He is the true image of God (cf. Col 1:15; Heb 1:1-3). Those who saw Jesus saw the Father (John 14:9). 

In the story of the women at the well, a fascinating development takes place. Jesus reveals to the woman that geography is irrelevant when it comes to worship. Worship isn’t based on a place but in the Person of Messiah. True worship happens when we are connected to Messiah.

Believers in Jesus do not live or worship in sacred space. We are sacred space because his Spirit lives in us.

When Mary meets Jesus after his resurrection, he has inaugurated the new creation in himself. He is the first of a new creation (see Col 1:18). Now, he’s about to continue his new creation project of radically restoring men and women to their original function as representatives in his world. Whoever is in Christ participates in the new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Mary encounters the risen Messiah; she is face-to-face with the new creation sacred space.

The New Testament will make it clear that God’s people are now the temple of God because God dwells in them by his Spirit (see 1 Cor 6:18; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 2:5). God’s people represent him on earth. Paul will use the word “ambassador” to communicate this (see 2 Cor 5:20, NIV). Believers in Jesus do not live or worship in sacred space. We are sacred space because his Spirit lives in us.

When we see Jesus’ words in John 4 to the Samaritan woman in light of this larger work he accomplished, the pieces fall into place. His interactions with women are a part of a bigger reclamation project. He undoes the effects of the curse and raises women up to their original status, function, and authority as God’s representatives.

Objection: This seems like quite the stretch. 

My response: You may not be wrong. Please read my next post when I unpack this by talking about how Pentecost changes everything for women (and men) in the church. 

After that, we’ll get to Paul (finally!). I know that’s what you’ve been waiting for. 


Notes

Feature photo: “Christ and the Samaritan Woman” by Henryk Siemiradzki (1890).

[1] As I mentioned last time, Kenneth E. Bailey, who lived and taught in the Middle East for 40 years has been extremely helpful to me as I’ve learned about Jesus’ cultural context. I highly recommend reading his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.

[2] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 208-209. 

[3] Gary M. Burge, “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman,” John, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), on BibleGateway.com.

[4] The Old Testament says nothing about the qualifications of a witness. See “Witness” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (2008). However, Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian born a few years after Jesus’ death, summarized the common belief of the day: “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 4:219.

[5] Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, 212-213.

[6] Ibid., 220.

[7] Ibid., 219.

[8] Ibid., 220-221.

[9] Ibid., 223.

[10] Ibid., 225.

[11] Before Mark’s “extended ending” in 16:9-10 (which is probably not original to the text), the story leaves us hanging with the women’s unresolved fear. This doesn’t need to be in contradiction to other Gospel accounts. Bailey notes that Mark begins his Gospel by telling his readers he’s writing “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah” and Mark closes with “the end of the beginning.” The insightful reader knows that the women are not paralyzed by the initial shock. They overcome their fears. Matthew, Luke, and John reveal, tell the men about the resurrection at some point that day. See Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 197. I should also note that Mark’s Gospel was likely the earliest written and it leaves out details that the others, especially Matthew, include. I had a college professor who once quipped that Mark is the “Reader’s Digest” version of Matthew.

[12] It’s ironic that this title for Mary is most often used by the Roman Catholic Church since it does not allow the ordination of women as priests. 

Categories
Commentary Theology

Jesus and Women (Part 1)

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.  

Categories
Commentary Theology

Genesis 3: The Birth of Patriarchy

When did patriarchy–the system that puts men in authority over women–begin? Complementarians argue that patriarchy is embedded into creation. If that’s the case, then we should joyfully embrace it because it’s what God designed.

I’ve tried to show in my posts on Genesis 1 and 2, however, that hierarchical gender relationships are not embedded in creation at all.

What about Genesis 3, when sin enters the Garden?

Complementarians argue there are two main things going on here:

  1. The Fall itself was an inversion of hierarchy and that the serpent’s scheme was to subvert the man’s headship over his wife.[1]
  2. The Fall did not introduce hierarchy between men and women, but rather a harmful hierarchy.[2]

Complementarians maintain that Christianity brings male-female relationships back into proper order (men over women) but should work against harmful hierarchy through servant leadership.

In this post, I’ll make the case that the Fall is not about an inversion of male authority or the introduction of a harmful hierarchy. Rather, Genesis 3 is where we see the birth of patriarchy.

Seeing What Genesis Does Not Say

Genesis 3 is a strange world. Complete with a talking serpent. It’s interesting that while the serpent seems to play a main role in the Garden, the Old Testament doesn’t spotlight him (it?) at all after this episode. Instead, the Old Testament chooses to focus on the chaos and evil that is ushered into God’s world. (See note 1.)

The text records the woman as the one the who talks to the serpent because he addresses her. But it doesn’t tell us why he initiates with her.[3] It’s conjecture to claim that the serpent talks to the woman to subvert male headship, as Piper and others have written.[4] That could be the case. At best, though, it’s a guess.

This kind of interpretation projects back onto Genesis how Paul uses the passage for application with struggling churches. We’ll focus on this when we get to Paul.

Some complementarians argue that it was the man’s job to relay the command to the woman.[5] But the woman cites God in 3:3 as the one who gave them the command. That’s evidence she did hear the command from God, not via her husband. Of course, the addition of “you must not touch it” reveals she’s communicating her own version of the command.[6]

From verse 1 on, all the Hebrew verbs are plural, even when the serpent speaks to the woman. Her use of “we” also shows the couple is together. The phrase “who was with her” in 3:6 likely means the couple was together during the temptation.

Why didn’t he step in and speak up? Why didn’t he choke the serpent to death? We could argue that he wasn’t doing the male-leader thing he ought to have done. Perhaps this was an inversion of male authority, after all.

We could easily argue, however, that both people abdicated their priestly roles by not guarding the sacred space.

We can’t answer these questions with 100% certainty, because the text leaves them unanswered! A subtle hint that our modern gender debates are missing the point.

As the narrative unfolds there are clues that a hierarchical inversion is not what’s going on in the Fall but something else.

A Couple Acknowledgements

Before we get into curses, I need to acknowledge two things. First, God does seek out the man first and asks him, “Where are you?” (“you” is singular here and in 3:11). The text doesn’t tell us why God seeks out the man first. This could point to some kind patriarchy in the Garden. But it could be a foreshadowing of the curses and patriarchy that will result. (Everything at this point is happening after sin had entered the sacred space.) It could also be a function of the narrative structure.[7]

A decent explanation that’s worth considering is that the primacy of the male here may have more to do with the author and audience than with the people in the Garden. Remember, this was written much later (traditionally by Moses) for an Israelite audience, which was very much male-centric.[8]

Nevertheless, I’m willing to concede that this may tip the needle a tad toward the complementarian position. Yet, this argument depends on a lot of assumptions not directly addressed by the text.

Second, there’s this little bit about the man “listening to/obeying the voice of his wife” in 3:17. Certainly that shows the woman was created to be subservient to the man, right?

I acknowledge this seems like God is cursing the man because he abdicated leadership by listening to the woman. But the text doesn’t demand we read it that way. Remember, leadership isn’t the issue at hand here. This aspect of the curse is connected to the eating of the fruit (the second half of v 17).

The problem is not that the man listened to the woman because she was a woman, but that in listening to her, he disobeyed God. Like the woman, the man should have known better. (They both knew God’s command, see above.) Since he was with her at the temptation. He was also morally culpable.

On to the curse.

Cues from the Curse

Sin did not introduce a harmful hierarchy, but an original one.

Genesis 3:14-19 is a “curse oracle.” A curse oracle is a part of Scripture that uses powerful words to pronounce woes or harm on someone or an entire a nation. These are spoken by God or a human.

Now, several features of the curse oracle give us clues that hierarchy appears after the Fall–that sin did not introduce a harmful hierarchy, but an original one.

The features I find compelling are: 1) curses bring a change in status, 2) curses bring conflict, and 3) curses don’t prescribe, they pronounce.

Curses Bring a Change in Status

William Webb shows that in Genesis the blessing/curse formula carries a change in status on an individual or community.[9] Let’s look at three curses:

  • Noah pronounces a curse on his grandson Canaan, Ham’s son. Canaan would be “lowest of slaves” to his brothers, while Shem and Japheth are blessed/raised (Gen 9:25).
  • Isaac pronounces a curse on Esau, the firstborn, and indicates that he will serve his younger brother Jacob, who had already been blessed/raised (Gen 27:39-40).
  • Jacob pronounces a curse on his son Reuben, lowering his status from firstborn, and blessing/raising Judah in the process (Gen 49:3-4).

The woman is then cast down beneath her equal, the man. She is now subject to her source, man. The man is also cast down to be subject to his source, the ground.

Webb notes that the subordination in these curses “usually does not involve any particular abuse or distortion of hierarchy” but rather the formation of a hierarchy that was nonexistent before.[10]

In Genesis 3:14-19, we see this same thing throughout the curse oracle as all three involved parties are “lowered.”

The serpent is first cast down among the rest of the animals.

The woman is then cast down beneath her equal, the man. She is now subject to her source, man. The man is also cast down to be subject to his source, the ground.

Alice Mathews, a theologian at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, agrees:

This was the moment of the birth of patriarchy. As a result of their sin, the man was now the master over the woman, and the ground was the master over the man, contrary to God’s original intentional in creation.[11]

Curses Bring Conflict

Curse oracles often introduce a new tension of conflict between the one who rules and the one in submission.[12] We see this in 3:16 when God says there will be conflict between the woman and the man. Recall, too, that 3:15 says there will be ongoing hostility between the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman.

Let’s zoom in on Genesis 3:16, when God curses the woman. The important Hebrew word for us to know is tešuqa (pronounced tesh-oo-kah’), translated “desire.”

To the woman [God] said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.” (NRSV)

Tešuqa is only used three times in the Old Testament: here, Gen 4:7, and Song of Songs 7:10.

In Genesis 4:7, God approaches Cain, right before he murders his brother, and says, “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire (tešuqa) is for you, but you must master it” (NRSV). Here, it’s obvious that “desire” is a negative: “Sin wants you, Cain!”

Most complementarians take this understanding from Genesis 4:7 and use it to interpret Genesis 3:16. Susan Foh was foundational in advocating this view, saying that “desire” means the woman would “contend with [her husband] for leadership in their relationship. This desire is a result of and a just punishment for sin, but it is not God’s decretive will for the woman. Consequently, the man must actively seek to rule his wife.”[13]

But is male leadership even the point of the curse or wider context? It doesn’t seem so obvious to me.

Wendy Alsup, who is a complementarian, points out that this way of using Genesis 4:7 projects onto Genesis 3:16 something it does not say.[14] Tešuqa is a neutral word that means “to desire or long for,” and we need the surrounding context to help us understand what it’s communicating.

Let’s look at the Song of Songs reference. In 7:10 it says, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire (tešuqa) is for me” (both ESV and NRSV; the NIV also translates the second half as “and his desire is for me”). The context here is positive. It means the desire for romantic/sexual love. The woman knows her husband wants her.

So we have one negative use and one positive, both of which have to do with a basic desire–or instinct.[15] Sin’s basic instinct is to enslave someone. A husband’s basic instinct is his sexual drive toward his wife. What about the woman in Genesis 3:16?

The context is not leadership at all. In fact, there’s nothing in the text about leadership! The context is actually childbearing which will be painful to the woman (see v 16a).

It’s obvious that not only was there no conflict in Genesis 1-2, but that the man was never told to rule over the woman at all.

Taking this into consideration, “desire” in here may refer to the woman’s basic maternal instinct to have children.[16] John Walton points out the symmetry in the curse. “Just as chapter 2 established the basis for the man’s need of woman, chapter 3 establishes the basis for the woman’s need of man. Her needs [of childbearing] will put him in a position to dominate.”[17]

One more thing. It’s possible that tešuqa shouldn’t be translated as “desire” in the first place. Some believe “turn” is a better translation.[18] The idea behind this is that in giving in to the serpent’s temptation, the woman did not turn from her husband, but from God. Because of that, the curse pronounces that she would continually turn away from God toward her husband, who would “lord it over” her. This possibility is very compelling to me. (See note 18 below for more on this.)

Even if we are a bit perplexed by tešuqa, it’s obvious that not only was there no conflict in Genesis 1-2, but that the man was never told to rule over the woman at all.

Curses Don’t Prescribe, They Pronounce

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the text never says men should rule their wives. It tells us what will happen. That’s typical of curse oracles. They don’t prescribe what humans should do. They pronounce the woes or harm that will be present as a result of sin, but may be avoided through worship, obedience, repentance, reconciliation, etc.

Consider the curses pronounced on Israel if they fail to keep the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. Verses 56-57a say, “The most gentle and sensitive woman among you….will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears” (NIV).

No one in their right mind would say this is what a wife and mother must do! It’s simply what will happen as a product of the Fall. The underlying idea is that sin destroys families by turning its members against each other.

Curses don’t prescribe activity, they pronounce impending harm that is outside of God’s ideal. Genesis 3:14-19 is no different.

Summing It All Up

Genesis 3:14-19, as a curse oracle, displays a change in the status of the woman and the man (and the serpent). This change in status is typical of curse oracles in Genesis. The woman was once equal with man, but was then lowered beneath him because of sin.

The curse also introduces conflict between the man and the woman. The sin in the Garden was not a result of the woman subverting her husband’s leadership. It was a result of the woman turning away from God and going her own way. One aspect of the curse is that women will turn away from God toward their husbands. Another is that husbands will dominate their wives.

Finally, the curse does not prescribe what humanity should do, but pronounces what is as a result of sin.

All this leads me to conclude that patriarchy is a result of the Fall. The patriarchy we experience today is a result of the curse and something we must work against. We’ll come back to this idea in the future.

Even if you aren’t convinced by my interpretation of Genesis 3, I hope you’ll acknowledge there are other options than complementarian explanations–which depend on a lot of assumptions not in the text! My interpretation is still faithful to Scripture and the cultural context.

The next post won’t be as nerdy or detailed. We’ll scan the Old Testament to see how God has worked through women to move his people from the patriarchal norm toward a better gender ethic.


Notes

[1] John Piper, “Satan’s Design in Reversing Male Leadership Role,” Desiring God blog, December 19, 1983. Piper’s article makes the case that it was Satan’s design to attack God’s created order and subvert the gender roles God gave to the man and woman. Never mind that Genesis never identifies the serpent as Satan. That is a New Testament development (Rom. 16:20; Rev. 12:9; 20:2) that would have been foreign to the original audience. I should take this opportunity, then, to mention that the original Israelite reader, the serpent would have been considered a “chaos creature” from the non-ordered (i.e. morally neutral) realm who promoted chaos. Compare this with the chaos of the “deep waters,” an ancient symbol of chaos, in Gen 1:2, which God begins to put in order in Gen 1:3ff. (Later on, Isaiah 27:1 makes the connection between serpents and the chaos of the sea.) Now, I’m going way beyond the scope of this post–even this note! But the point is interesting to ponder: what if, as a chaos creature, the serpent did not bring “harmful hierarchy” into an already hierarchical world, but “disordered chaos” into a world that did not have hierarchy to begin with? If you’re interested in exploring this idea, see John Walton, “Proposition 14,” The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015).

[2] As an example, see Owen Strachan, “The Gender of Genesis and Ecclesial Womanhood,” 9Marks, July 1, 2010.

[3] John Walton comments, “Why does the woman do the speaking then? Because she is addressed (v. 1). Why does the serpent address the woman? The text does not say. Why does the man not correct the woman’s statement? Again, the text offers no explanation.” See John Walton, “Adam’s Role (3:6),” Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), on BibleGateway.com.

[4] See Thomas R. Schreiner, “May Woman Serve as Pastors?”, 9Marks Blog, July 1, 2010.

[5] Dave Miller, “Genesis 3: Temptation, the Fall, and Gender Roles,” SBC Voices, January 14, 2011, is representative of how most complementarians explain this.

[6] Walton, “The Temptation (3:1b-5),” Genesis.

[7] Notice the serpent-woman-man / man-woman-serpent / serpent-woman-man pattern in Genesis 3:

  • Serpent talks to woman.
  • Woman eats the fruit.
  • Man eats the fruit.
    • God speaks to man
    • Who blames woman
    • Who blames serpent.
      • God curses serpent.
      • God curses woman.
      • God curses man.

[8] This doesn’t mean what is written didn’t happen! But the author may have emphasized certain aspects of the story because of the audience to whom it was written. The Gospel writers did this often and that’s why we see multiple accounts with divergent details that appear contradictory at first glance.

[9] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 117-118.

[10] Ibid., 119.

[11] Quoted in Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 29.

[12] Webb, Slaves, Women, Homosexuals, 119.

[13] Susan Foh, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” in WTJ 37 (1974-75), 383. Even though this is from 1974-75, it has had incredible influence in the evangelical complementarian community over the past several decades. Piper says something similar here: “When it says, ‘Your desire shall be for your husband,’ it means that when sin has the upper hand in woman, she will desire to overpower or subdue or exploit man. And when sin has the upper hand in man, he will respond in like manner and with his strength subdue her, or rule over her” (Piper’s emphasis).

[14] Wendy Alsup, “Problems with a New Reading of an Old Verse,” TGC Blog, September 17, 2012. You can read another opposing, yet complementarian, view of Genesis 3:16 here.

[15] Walton, “Woman” (3:16),” Genesis.

[16] This doesn’t mean women only want children. It also doesn’t mean all women will want children.

[17] Walton, “Woman” (3:16),” Genesis.

[18] “Turn” is how Kaiser understands the word traditionally translated “desire” in Genesis 3:16. He notes, “It is in a curse passage that predicts what will happen when women ‘turn’ toward their husbands instead of turning to God.” See Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” Pricilla Papers 19/2, 2005. Allison Quient also observes that tešuqa was translated as “to return/turn” in the Septuagint (the Greek copy of the Old Testament, which was used by Jesus and the Apostles). In fact, there are seven uses of tešuqa in the non-biblical portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls and each time “turning” or “returning” makes more sense than “desire.” See Allison Quient, “Defining Desire,” CBE International, December 4, 2014.