The attitude of Jesus toward women
His life on earth was brief–just 33½ years. His ministry was briefer still–only 3½ years. Yet no one’s life and teachings have impacted history so much in such an immense manner as that of Jesus. What He taught and what He did have altered the course of history and have dramatically changed and continue to change millions of lives around the world. His teachings have affected every arena of life–religion, education, work, ethic, health, social justice, economic development, and the very art and science of human living.
One facet of Jesus’ mission that is less known but worth reviewing is His attitude toward women. This is particularly important in light of how the world of Jesus’ time treated women. Romans and Greeks, Jews and Gentiles, gave women nothing more than second-rank status: useful tools in a male-dominated society–cook the meals, bear and rear children, and play whatever role was assigned to them within the walls of their houses. Individual cases of leadership and bravery stand out here and there, now and then, but by and large women were under the dominion of men. They were considered property that was transferred from father to husband.
Into such a world as that, Jesus came and opened new vistas of human equality and dignity. He opposed human traditions and sought to lead men and women back to God’s original plan for humanity. This article will briefly review the attitude of Jesus toward women in his teaching and ministry contrasted with the status of women in first-century Jewish society.
Status of women in Jewish society
The synagogues of the first century kept records for men only. Men and boys could enter the synagogue to worship, but a screen walled off the section where women and girls were allowed to sit. Women did not count toward the quorum necessary for beginning worship.
Salvation. Tradition maintained that women had no right to salvation on their own merits. Their hope of salvation lay only through attachment to a pious Jewish man. Prostitutes were excluded as lacking such attachment, and widows had to be married to a pious Jew to enjoy that privilege.
Association in public. A man was forbidden to speak to a woman in public places. A rabbi would ignore a woman in public, even if she patiently persisted for some urgent spiritual counsel.
Responsibility for sin. In a funeral procession, the women walked ahead of the casket. It was assumed that they were responsible for sin, and therefore headed the procession, assigned the blame for what had happened. Men, not feeling responsible, walked behind the body.
Impurity. Women were considered ceremonially and socially unclean during their menstrual period. During this time, they were isolated. Even family members were not allowed to come near lest they be contaminated.
Child-bearing as key to value. A woman’s value in the eyes of society was linked to her ability to bear children. Barrenness was an awful social stigma. A woman’s duty was to bear male children who would thus perpetuate the father’s name.
Divorce. Initiating a divorce proceeding was a man’s privilege, which he could exercise based on considerations that today seem frivolous and laughable.
Legal status. A woman’s word, in court, had to be substantiated by at least three men; otherwise it had no value.
Education. A woman was not allowed into the synagogue to study; it was considered a waste of time.
Religion. In the temple, women were not allowed near the Most Holy Place. In Jesus’ time, there was a women’s court in the temple, located beyond the courts reserved for priests and for other men, and some 15 steps lower, indicating a woman’s subordinate status.1
A quiet revolution
Jesus did not start an open revolution against the system that placed women in a subordinate status. Nevertheless, His life made an eloquent statement. “In none of his actions, his sermons, or his parables do we find anything derogatory referring to women, such as can easily be found in any of his contemporaries.”2 Consider some examples of how Jesus related to women.
Jesus invited women to be His disciples. Contrary to contemporary expectations, Jesus welcomed women into His close circle of discipleship (see Luke 8:1-3). This attitude contradicted rabbinical stipulations. The women who followed Christ set at naught the presuppositions of the time. They became careful managers of their resources and supported the mission of Christ at critical moments (Luke 8:13). “It was one thing for women to be exempt from learning the Torah, and to be forbidden to associate with a rabbi. But it was quite another thing for them to travel with a rabbi and be responsible for handling financial matters.”3 This they did. Simply revolutionary!
Jesus accepted hospitality from women and taught them. The foremost example is that of Jesus’ association with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The Master found rest and fellowship in their home (Luke 10:38-42). While a Jewish rabbi would not so much as look at a woman, Jesus did not hesitate to speak to Mary and Martha in public or to teach them great truths about death and resurrection (see John 11).
To Jesus, women and men were equally important when it came to learning about the good news of His kingdom. At a time when it was said that “it is better to burn the words of the Torah than to commit them to the care of a woman,”4 Jesus indicated that among the choices open to women, Mary had “‘chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:42, NIV), thus indicating that education was not to be the monopoly of men and that women too were entitled to avail themselves of educational opportunities.
Another example of Jesus’ different attitude toward women was the revelation of His Messiahship to a woman. In the longest conversation recorded in the Gospels, Jesus revealed to the woman at the Samaritan well (John 4:4-42) some of the most profound doctrines of the kingdom: the nature of sin, the meaning of true worship, the universal availability of forgiveness to those who repent, the equality of all human beings regardless of Jew or Samaritan. Thus in a single conversation at the Samaritan well, Jesus shattered two prejudices: that of gender and that of race.
Jesus recognized that in God’s sight the family of Abraham includes both sons and daughters. In healing a woman crippled for 18 years, Jesus placed His hands on her and defined her tenderly as a “‘daughter of Abraham’” (Luke 13:10-17). By using this designation, Jesus gave public notice that women as surely as men inherit the rights promised to Abraham, and in the sight of God, there is neither male nor female.
Nowhere in the Bible is it stated that men have an advantage over women in terms of access to salvation. Contrary to the rabbinical tradition that taught that a woman could be saved only by attachment to a pious Jewish man, Jesus invited both men and women to turn to God and accept the gift of salvation.
In another case, Christ’s defense and forgiveness of a woman taken in adultery revealed that His definition of sin and provision for salvation provided equal treatment for all, regardless of gender. When some religious leaders brought before Him a woman taken in adultery, Christ stood up for her. He knew that the Jewish leaders in making the accusation against the woman were themselves in violation of the law of Moses. The Levitical law stipulated that both man and woman should stand trial in such cases (Leviticus 20:10), but the critics of Jesus brought only the woman, and not the man involved in the alleged act. The law also required that at least two witnesses were to testify (Deuteronomy 19:15), but the Pharisees brought none. Christ’s response not only gave the accused woman the benefit of the law, but also showed to all those present that His gospel of forgiveness was open to all, based on repentance. Thus He made this remarkable statement: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7, KJV). In other words, Jesus told the men, if you have the courage to accuse her, first look at yourselves in the mirror.
Jesus allowed a sinful woman to anoint Him. When Jesus was invited to a feast in Simon’s house at Bethany, a woman known in the village for her poor reputation rushed forward and anointed Jesus’ feet. Those gathered at the feast, including His disciples, condemned the incident. How could a sinful woman touch the Messiah’s feet, anoint Him, and wipe His feet with her hair? An absolute offence to religious traditions! Those around Jesus could not understand, much less accept, the act of the woman or the attitude of Jesus in letting the woman do what she did. But Jesus said that the woman in so anointing did a beautiful thing, showing to generations to come that like her, all sinners can have the assurance of salvation by coming to the Savior and placing at His feet their lives in surrender (Mark 14:1-9; Luke 7:36-50).
Jesus used both men and women to symbolize God’s saving acts. In Luke 15 Jesus told three parables to illustrate the profound and timeless truth of God’s search for lost humanity. While the parables of the lost sheep and the lost son illustrate God’s search through male figures of the caring shepherd and the loving father, the parable of the lost coin reveals God’s search through the careful and persistent mission of a woman who does not slacken her task until she finds the coin and rejoices with her friends (Luke 15:8-10). For the legalistic ears of that time this must have sounded heretical.
Jesus elevated women as first witnesses of the greatest event ever to take place in human history–His resurrection. Rabbinical tradition considered women as liars by nature, deriving this concept from Sarah’s reaction on being told that she would have a child (Genesis 18:9-15). In their thinking, Sarah’s denial of having laughed was a lie, because God always tells the truth, and because of her, all women descendants were liars.5 No woman could stand as witness. Yet, Jesus rejected this perverse tradition and chose women as the first witnesses of His resurrection (Matthew 28:8-10), “constituting them not only as first receivers of the most important message of Christianity, but the first to proclaim it.”6 Jesus reproved the disciples for not believing the witness of these women (Mark 16:14), and thus challenged them to reject the prejudices of the past and walk in the sunshine of His kingdom, in which there is neither male nor female.
In the biblical account of the life of Christ, “women are never discriminated against.”7 There is nothing to support the cultural and religious view of His time that saw women as inferior. On the contrary, “the attitude and the message of Jesus signified a break with the dominant worldview.”8
Jesus “did not relate to women in harmony with the norms of the patriarchal system of his time, nor did He take part in a system that was, by definition, repressive toward women.”9 Openly but without fanfare, Jesus dealt a deathblow to the curse of tradition that denied dignity to women. Through His example and teaching, Jesus reclaimed for His new kingdom the blessings of His original creation, the equality of the two genders in the sight of God.
Miguel Angel Núñez (Ph.D., Universidad Adventista del Plata) teaches theology at Universidad Peruana Unión, where he also directs the program in pastoral theology and psychology. Dr. Núñez is the author of many articles and more than 20 books. This essay is based on a section of his book Cristología: Descubriendo al Maestro (3rd edition, 2006). His email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Joachim Jeremías, Jerusalén en tiempos de Jesús: Estudio económico y social del mundo del Nuevo Testamento (Madrid: Cristiandad, 1977), p. 97.
- Marga Muñiz Aguilar, Femenino plural: Las mujeres en la exégesis bíblica (Barcelona: Clie, 2000), p. 183
- Alcion Westphal Wilson, “Los discípulos olvidados: La habilitación del amor vs. el amor al poder”, en Bienvenida a la mesa (Langley Park, Maryland: TEAMPress, 1998), p. 185.
- Wilson, p. 180.
- Wilson, p. 386.
- Aguilar, p. 187
- Leonardo Boff, El rostro materno de Dios: Ensayo interdiciplinar sobre lo femenino y sus formas religiosas (Madrid: Paulinas, 1988) p. 83.
- Boff, p. 84.
- Aguilar, p. 18.