Today, many people see Jesus as a sort of fossilized embodiment of ideal virtue--a conservative trying to return the wayward to "traditional values." But the people of First Century Judea would not even recognize that portrait. In fact, they would probably have laughed incredulously at it. For the Jesus of the Gospels was far from being a mild, conservative teacher of pious platitudes.
The common people saw Him as a breath of fresh air, an energizing, if bewildering, force who swept through town healing and blessing and telling simple stories with messages so strange the people were often left scratching their heads, and just as often, exclaiming indignantly.
The religious leaders saw Him as a radical, a rabble-rouser, and a troublemaker--a breaker of ancient taboos and a killer of sacred cows--someone doing his best to undermine their traditional, righteous social structure--the ancient system of laws, regulations and social organization given to them by God Himself.
And nowhere was Jesus' radicalism more evident, and more shocking and disturbing to his contemporaries than in His interactions with women.
In First Century Palestine, women's status was only slightly above that of slaves. In fact, the lot of slaves was in many ways better. At a remove of over two millenia, it is nearly impossible for us to comprehend the severe repression and oppression women suffered in Jesus' world.
As a historian of the status of ancient women explains, in Jewish writings dating from the time between the Testaments, women were considered substantially inferior to men. "Male children were viewed as preferable to female children. Every morning each Jewish man prayed in thanksgiving to God that He had been created a man and not a woman."1
In Jewish writings from the intertestamental period, "women were generally portrayed as temptresses and evil sex objects. Men were strongly advised to avoid all possible contact with women except what was necessary for the procreation of children. Foreign women were thought to be especially dangerous." Moreover, Rabbinic literature described women not only as evil temptresses, but also as witches and nymphomaniacs.2
"Wives were generally to be confined to the home. In the presence of others their heads had to be covered and faces veiled. When male guests were invited women were not allowed to eat meals with their families."3
Men were strongly advised not to have conversations with women.4
Women were not permitted to receive any education.5 "Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, a Rabbi roughly contemporary with Jesus stated "Women’s wisdom is solely in the spindle,” and added, “The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women.”6 He also said, ‘anyone who teaches his daughter Torah, teaches her "lasciviousness’7
Women were not allowed to participate in worship. They were could not recite the prayers at meals, and could not be counted to make up a minyon, the quorum required to conduct a worship service. While in theory, any adult had the right to preach in the synagogue, because women were physically segregated from men during services, and because they were not taught to read, they were denied the opportunity to preach.9
Because we do not understand this culture, we are often oblivious to the revolutionary nature of Jesus treatment of women, expressed in numerous ways throughout the Gospels. By both teaching and example, Jesus openly rejected the rigid traditional structures of society that oppressed women.
1. Jesus traveled with women and allowed them to serve Him.
In a cultural setting where women rarely left their own houses and were not allowed to walk in public unveiled, several women were named in the Gospels as disciples who traveled in Jesus' entourage across Palestine and served His daily needs. 10 It may safely be assumed that there were other women, perhaps many of them, who were not mentioned by name.
2. Jesus spoke to women did not know--even foreign women
In a culture in which men were strongly discouraged from conversing with women, Jesus spoke to women regularly. Besides His own female disciples, He is recorded as speaking to multiple women. The Samaritan woman at the well; 11 the sinful woman who washed his feet; 12 the woman taken in adultery; 13 the woman with an issue of blood;14 and the Syro-Phoenician woman 15 were only a few of the women directly addressed by Jesus.
Even more extraordinary is that all these women fell into one of three "forbidden" categories, "fallen women," unclean women, or foreigners, making contact with them anathema for the observant Jew.
3. Jesus allowed women to be his disciples and learn from Him.
In an era when rabbis believed it would be better to burn the sacred books than to teach them to women, Jesus allowed women to join the groups who listened to his teachings. Even more striking, Jesus took the time to share his teachings with women in more private settings. We are told explicitly that He taught his friend Mary of Bethany, and encouraged her sister Martha to participate in study with Him rather than engaging in the traditional "women's tasks," cooking and hostessing.16 He initiated in an extended one on one theological discussion with the Samaritan women at the well. He even debated with the Syro-Phoenician woman who begged Him to heal her daughter.
5. Jesus touched women and allowed them to touch Him.
At a time when physical contact between men and women was strictly proscribed, and limited even between husband and wife, Jesus touched women and allowed them to touch Him.
He took Jairus daughter by the hand when He raised her from the dead.17 Even more shocking, He allowed a ceremonially unclean woman who suffered from chronic menstrual bleeding to touch Him. 18 According to the law of Moses, this made Jesus ceremonially unclean until the evening, something good Jews avoided at all costs. 19
But Jesus' most outrageous and scandalous action, from a First Century viewpoint was allowing the sinful woman to anoint him at Simon’s feast. This was shocking to First Century Jewish sensibilities for multiple reasons: 1) the woman was a known prostitute; 2) she entered a room full of men alone and uninvited; 3) she unbound her hair, in public! 4) she poured very expensive perfume on his body; and 5) according to Mark, she kissed his feet. 20 Imagine the palpitations this behavior would have caused a good Pharisee in Jesus' time! It would raise more than a few eyebrows even today! And yet Jesus spoke of her admiringly and immortalized her act of devotion.
4. Jesus made women his evangelists
Jesus commissioned women to be evangelists. The woman at the well was probably the most successful evangelist in the Gospels. She converted nearly her entire town! And Mary Magdalene was arguably the first Christian evangelist, since Jesus deliberately chose her to be the first to share the news of His resurrection. 21
6. Jesus explicitly rejected the rabbis' teaching that women were the source of lust and sexual sin.
As one scholar explains, "Contrary to much Jewish thinking which tended to blame women for sexual sins, Jesus focuses all his attention on the male and the steps men must take to avoid falling into temptation. It is the man who looks at a woman lustfully in [Matt. 5] v. 28. It is the man who must tear out his right eye or cut off his right hand in vv. 29-30. It is the man who causes the woman to commit adultery in v. 32a or commits adultery himself in v. 32b."22
In a society that held women responsible for men's lust, Jesus laid the responsibility directly, not on "lascivious women" but on those to whom it belonged--those with lust in their eyes and hearts.
7. He rejected the common view on divorce.
In Jesus' time, Jewish teaching on divorce was divided into two primary schools, the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel. The Mishnah tractate Gittin explains, "Beit Shammai say[s], "No man shall divorce his wife, unless He found in her unchaste behaviour, as it is stated [Deuteronomy 24:1], 'Because He found in her 'ervat davar' [unchaste behavior].'" Beit Hillel say[s], "Even if she spoiled his food, because it is said, ervat davar". Rabbi Akivah says, "Even if He found another [woman] prettier than her, as it is stated [ibid.] 'If it happen that she does not find favor in his eyes.'"23
Of course, this is talking about a man's right to divorce. Women didn't have any! So according to the school of Hillel, a man could divorce his wife for whatever frivolous reason He could come up with.
In a society where wives were considered an expendable commodity, to be exchanged at will, for trivial reasons, or no reason at all, Jesus upheld the sacredness of the marriage bond, re-emphasized the equality of women in marriage, and reminded his hearers of God's original plan for marriage.
Jesus also reacted on a visceral level to the extreme injustice suffered by women who could be divorced by their husbands on the slightest pretext, and who had no right to divorce their husbands. Unmarried women in Jesus' time were economically helpless. They were not allowed to work and they were not educated, so they had few skills. Often, remarriage, prostitution or starvation were the only options open to them. And this does not take into account the social stigma and humiliation suffered by divorced women.
8. Jesus teaching on marriage represented an explicit rejection of all of the above misogynistic beliefs.
It was Jesus teaching on marriage which was the most revolutionary. In it are buried multple profound concepts which would have struck his hearers as shocking, even incendiary. 26 He went far beyond the conservative teaching of Shammai on divorce, and made His teaching a sweeping proclamation of women's equality. 24
1) By referencing the creation story, Jesus emphasized a forgotten truth: Women are equal to men--both were created by God, and were both made in the image of God. This was in stark contrast to contemporary teachings that a woman was an inferior order of being fit only to be a man's servant and a receptacle of his seed.
2) Jesus made it clear that marriage was not created as a convenience for men, which they could discard at will without guilt or responsibility. Instead, He presented marriage as a sacred Covenant made before God between two equal human beings, and made it clear that breaking that covenant is a serious offense to God.
3) By quoting the Genesis reference to a man "leaving his father and mother," Jesus made a controversial counter-cultural statement whose impact is lost on modern readers. As in most ancient cultures, in First Century Palestine, a man did not leave his father and mother when He married. A woman left her family and came to live with the man's family. 25 Predictably, this was a painful, even terrifying experience for a young girl and greatly contributed to unequal power in marriage.
Jesus was reminding his hearers that Moses taught that it was God's plan at creation that a man should also leave his parents, thus creating an independent nuclear household to which each party contributed equally.
4) In referencing the command that a man shall "cleave unto his wife," Jesus was overtly rejecting the Pharisees' teaching that women are the evil temptresses to be avoided. He was emphasizing the profound, unbreakable, emotional and spiritual bond which should exist between a married couple. As a measure of how shocking this was to his hearers, even his disciples were disturbed and upset by this teaching.
5) By quoting the "one flesh" phrase, Jesus was making a strong statement refuting the rabbi's repressive teaching that sexual pleasure is sinful, even within marriage. He was referencing the ancient Jewish tradition expressed so lyrically and passionately in the Song of Solomon, and more earthily in Proverbs.
"May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful deer—
may her breasts satisfy you always,
may you ever be intoxicated with her love." 26
Furthermore, Jesus was rejecting the misogynistic view that sexual intimacy was only for the purpose of procreation. He was reminding his hearers that from Creation to the Song of Solomon, to Proverbs and the Prophets, sexual intimacy within marriage, is elevated as a thing of joy and beauty and holy intimacy, an enhancement and celebration of life, whether the intent is to conceive children or not.
Jesus was also incorporating by reference the multitude of Old Testament passages throughout the Prophets, which compare the intimacy of marriage to the relationship between God and his people.
In light of the deep sacred meaning invested in the marriage relationship throughout the Bible, it is clear that Jesus had good reason for the depth of righteous anger He displayed at the mockery made of it by the "spiritually enlightened."
Since God repeatedly used the marriage relationship as a symbol of God's relationship to His people, it was a direct affront to God that men of His nation were misrepresenting the nature of His love, sacrifice and care for His people. By their harsh and inhumane treatment of the women who were supposed to be most precious to them, they were bearing false witness against the character of God.
Far from being a conservative teacher advocating traditional values, and keeping women in their place (in the home) Jesus' actions and teachings were intended to restore women to the high status God intended--as fully equal to men and as full partners in the ministry of restoring mankind to God's image.
1-5. Tetlow, Elizabeth, Women and Ministry in the New Testament, Paulist Press, 1980. pp 5-29.
6. Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 3:4, 19a.
7. Mishnah Sotah 3:4
8. and 9. Tetlow, supra.
10. Mark 15:40, 41
11. Luke 4:7-26
12. Mark 6:36-40
13. John 8:3-11
14. Mark 8:43-48
15. Mark 7:26-28
16. Luke 10:38-42
17. Luke 8:51-56
18. Luke 8:45-48
19. Lev. 15:19
20. Mark 14:3-9
21. John 20:1-18
22. Wenham, Gordon, "Divorce in First-Century Judaism and the New Testament"
23. Mishnah Gittin 9:10.
25. Matt. 19:3-10
26. Proverbs 5:18-19