When it comes to Jesus and women, he was ahead of his time. He elevated women to a position that was unheard of in the first century and his treatment of women defied every cultural norm. Unfortunately, this is a subject that is not often talked about outside of academic Christian circles. Maybe that is because those of us in the West have taken women’s rights for granted and expect it. Or maybe it is because many churches are still dominated by male world views that overshadow the value of women. I am not sure, but what I do know is that Jesus’ behavior towards women understood in the context of his times reveals his extraordinary goodness and unhindered boldness. It is something we should be talking about and highlighting, especially for those women that still feel less than worthy or marginalized. If you are not a Christian and never looked at Jesus in this light, I urge you to take a chance and explore with me this first century radical who turned a male dominated world upside down.
Role of Women in First Century Israel
To really appreciate how Jesus empowered women, we need to look at the life of an average woman in Israel 2000 years ago. We know from historical writings that some classes of women had certain reproductive and property rights. However, only a small percentage of women were able to use those rights for their own benefit such as obtaining wealth or autonomy (There are a few biblical examples). In other words, these women were the exception and not the rule. (For an in depth look at this, read here.) The average woman had little in the way of rights or freedoms. In reality, Jesus was born into a world where most women were relegated to a position only a little better than slaves. So how was it possible then, having certain legal rights that most women in that culture still had it so bad?
Today, things like our legal rights and professional development define our status as a person in our culture and society. Our society considers spirituality a private matter that has little to no effect on our social and economic status. The opposite was true in first century Israel. Their society defined a person’s status by their spiritual and religious participation and that was closely linked to economic well being. Based on the rabbinic writings of that time period, women for the most part were intentionally excluded from taking part in public spiritual and religious gatherings. To say it plainly, women were not formally taught the scriptures nor other rabbinic teachings (It is important to note here that Rabbinic tradition does not equate to Biblical truth). They could not be disciples of a rabbi and they certainly would not have been allowed to travel with one. To be excluded from the spiritual center of the culture meant that they were relegated to their homes and their economic well-being was tied to their husbands or fathers. If the husband or father failed to provide, then these women would be left destitute with little recourse.
The following three accounts will hopefully demonstrate two things. First, how understanding cultural and historical context can open the scripture up in amazing ways. Second, how Jesus’ treatment of women highlights how he was more than ordinary. (I highly suggest that before reading my narrative, that you read the Biblical references first.)
Jesus, Mary, and Martha (Luke 10: 38-42)
In this record, Martha is fulfilling her role as a dutiful Jewish woman and would have been highly praised by the men in her culture. She is probably in the kitchen slaving away making sure there is enough for everyone to eat. After all, by this point Jesus was a popular guy and her house could have very well been filled to capacity with people wanting to hear him. At the very least, his disciples were there with him listening to Rabbi Jesus teach and sitting at his feet, like dutiful students of the great teacher. Everything is as it should be except for one small detail. Martha’s sister Mary is also sitting at Jesus feet listening, learning, and taking it all in, acting like a male disciple. Martha very predictably complains to Jesus that Mary has left her to serve alone and asks him to intervene.
Her complaint is NOT coming from left field. Mary is the one behaving outside of the cultural norm and in the eyes of many, Martha’s complaint would have been valid. But what is Jesus’ response? He tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better way.
Now that you understand woman’s role in first century Israel, you can see just how revolutionary his response was. Often, when we read this record we get bogged down by poor Martha’s complaint against Mary and turn it into a discussion of Martha vs. Mary and whether serving is better than learning and vice versa. We fail to see the deeper meaning of a message that Jesus is sending not just to Mary and Martha, but to the culture at large. He might have directed his words towards Martha, but anyone in that room would have gotten the picture that their culture was out of sync with scripture. Why?
Because in the context of his time, finding a woman at the feet of a rabbi would have been unsettling. It would have been the equivalent of a Rosa Parks sitting at the front of the bus during the segregation era. If there were other people there, and there most likely were, they are probably thinking the same way as Martha. By his words to Martha, he is putting to bed any of their questions and concerns. By his words, he is saying loud and clear that this woman has a right to learn. And not just that she has a right, but that it is her responsibility. And in the context of the time, for Jesus to advocate for the spiritual education of women among his followers, equated to opening doors socially and economically for them as well.
The Woman at the Well (John 4:6-4:29)
Again, take yourself back to the first century. In this case we find ourselves in the region of Samaria. Imagine you are a woman who has been married five times and are now living with a man, unmarried. For that reason you are most likely an outcast and that is why you are on your way to the well all alone at midday. All the other women go to the well in groups in the cool of the morning, but to keep yourself from gossiping mouths you brave the hot sun. As you approach, there is a man sitting at the well who proceeds to ask you for water and then has an amazing conversation with you.
What would have been the normal reaction of any other man in that culture? First of all, if they were “pious” they would not have been be caught dead talking to you, a woman, alone. Men at that time didn’t even talk to their sisters in public alone for fear of what people would think. Secondly, they would have read the clues and immediately determined that you were an outcast. A woman alone at a well at midday was a clear sign that she was less than respectable. It is probably that same reason that the scripture says that His disciples “marveled” that Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman, although they knew him well enough to not question his motives nor actions.
But Jesus was not just any man. His actions prove it. He allowed himself to talk to a woman who was not chaperoned. He wasn’t worried about what other people would say or think. Rabbinic literature of the time tended to hold the view that women were the ones to blame if a man faltered. In other words, if a man had impure thoughts, it was the woman’s fault for being, well, a woman. They were the source of indiscretion and it was best to just stay away from them. But clearly that was not Jesus’ view. He didn’t see a source of temptation that must be shunned, cast aside. In all honesty, what he did was scandalous in that culture, but he saw a person, a person with feelings and emotions and hurts. And even though she had committed adultery and had had sexual indiscretions, he saw past that. It is a beautiful thing what he did and a beautiful lesson for his male disciples.
(For a detailed discussion on the racial elements read my blog, “When Jesus Broke Racial Barriers: The Woman at the Well.” )
The Hem of His Garment (Luke 8: 42-48)
Imagine a woman, suffering for 12 years of “an issue of blood” during that time period. In today’s world, that would have been frustrating because of the inconvenience, but then, her problem would have affected her relationships and livelihood. Because of Biblical law and rabbinic tradition, this woman would have been considered ceremonially unclean in perpetuity. It was bad enough that she could not participate in any religious activity, but she could not touch anyone, ever, otherwise she would make them unclean as well. People would have reviled her as an untouchable. She was most likely an outcast that was either unmarried or divorced and that pretty much would have relegated her to a life of poverty.
Then she hears of this Rabbi that could perform great miracles who is in her town. Imagine the courage it took for her to work her way through a crowd knowing that she would be rubbing shoulders with strangers making each and everyone unclean. What if someone recognized her? What would they say? But this was her chance so she took it probably making every effort to conceal herself. When she finally reaches Jesus and touches his garment, she is instantaneously healed. He, of course being Jesus, recognizes what has happened and asks, “Who touched me?”
The woman now knows she has been outed. The record says that she came trembling and confessed everything to him. Why was she trembling? I would venture to say that because any other rabbi, pharisee, or person would have chastised her for actions unbecoming of a good Jewish woman. How dare she, being in a state of uncleanliness dare to touch anyone, much less a rabbi? But Jesus does not respond that way, he praises her faith and tells her to go in peace.
This woman did not just walk away with the joy of being healed and finally being able to take part in Jewish life. She must have also walked away with a sense of worth that only the love and compassion of Jesus could bring.Jesus pushed way past the bounds of his culture for the sake of women. He was bringing women out of the shadows of the home into public life. He was showing them that God also created them in His image. Click To Tweet
Jesus, the Radical.
I hope that after going through these three accounts you will have a clearer picture of how Jesus’ treatment of women was so radical, so revolutionary. While feminists may focus only on the fact that his twelve apostles where all men, I hope you can see how Jesus pushed way past the bounds of his culture for the sake of women. He was bringing women out of the shadows of the home into public life. He was showing them that God also created them in His image and that they also had the right to the living waters.
Knowing this about Jesus, it is no wonder he had numerous female disciples, which the Bible mentions many by name. And I wish that churches and Christian circles would highlight this more often so that women in our culture could appreciate the love, respect, and care that Jesus has for our gender. I hope you walk away from this blog feeling valued, appreciated, and loved by the one that is the King of kings. And if you can’t yet see him as the King of kings, I hope that at the very least you can appreciate how he wasn’t an ordinary man. He was an extraordinary individual that pushed many boundaries, including the stronghold of sexism.
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