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, but as women, we need to be well-versed in it.
Jesus’ behavior towards women, understood in the context of His time on earth, reveals His extraordinary goodness and unhindered boldness. While it is an uplifting message for any woman, it is especially touching for women who 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 right side up.
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 suffered as socially inferior?
The Connection Between Religious Participation and Economic Well-Being for Women
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.Jesus' treatment of women defied all the cultural and religious norms of his time. Click To Tweet
Three Examples of How Jesus Re-Established the Role of Women
The following three accounts will demonstrate two things. First, how understanding cultural and historical context can open the scriptures up in amazing ways. Second, how reviewing accounts of Jesus and women illustrates how truly “radical” he was for that time period. (I highly suggest that before reading my narrative, that you read the Biblical references first.)
Jesus and the Women 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 the 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 Rosa Parks sitting at the front of the bus during the segregation era. If there were other people there, and there 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.
Jesus and the Woman at the Well (John 4:6-4:29)
Again, take yourself back to the first century. In this case, you will find yourself in the region of Samaria. Imagine you are a woman who has been married five times and is 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 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 might think. Secondly, they would have picked up on 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 the exact reason why the scripture says that His disciples “marveled” when Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman, although they knew Him well enough not to question His motives or 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. 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.” )
Jesus and the Women Who Touched His Garment (Luke 8: 42-48)
Imagine a woman in that time period suffering for 12 years of “an issue of blood.” In today’s world, that would have been frustrating because of the inconvenience, but back 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, 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 and revolutionary. While feminists may focus only on the fact that his twelve apostles were 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 shame into places of honor. 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, and 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 want to dig deeper into a Bible Study about Jesus and women, I suggest the one by Kristi McLelland.
Other Fruitfully Living articles about Jesus and Women that may be of interest:
Who is Jesus? A Broken Women’s Response
The Woman at the Well: A Study on Racism
Spikenard: Essential Oil Fit for a King
A Woman’s Place in the First Century
If you enjoyed this content, please share on!
This Post Has 33 Comments
Pingback: Raising a Christian Apologist • Fruitfully Living
WOW. This is incredible. What an awesome breakdown of some amazing moments regarding how Jesus treated women. I have to admit the hem of his garment made me emotional. I never realised how brave – how much faith it must have taken – for that women to touch Jesus. I was nearly in tears reading that. Thank you so much for sharing – it has made me see that moment in history in a new light. Blessings x
Rachel – Heart After God
I have learned so much too as I have studied to put this together. It was like my eyes were opened even more to the regard Jesus had for women. It is a beautiful thing.
Pingback: Spikenard: Essential Oil Fit for a King! •
Pingback: Because Girls are Warriors Too! •
Pingback: Woman, Gird Up Your Loins •
A very insightful post. Jesus has always understood the deeper needs of every person. In all of these stories, their faith was made whole and they were saved which I believe was the main goal.
Thank you Wendy!
I agree completely with your commentary and love the examples you provided. I have a Women’s Study Bible that has really affirmed these same principles, calling out the many amazing women in the Bible and the interactions between Jesus and women. Understanding the cultural context is very important to grasp the magnitude of Jesus’ actions. Thank you!
I am often reminded of a quote I once heard, “the Bible is not a Western book.” If we don’t look at the culture and historical context, we can miss so much. I have always loved Jesus since I accepted him years ago, but doing this study revealed so much to me about just how much he did while he was walking here on earth. Thank you for your comments!
Beautiful description of Jesus seeing each woman as a person! His amazing ability to cut to the heart of the matter was highlighted in these stories, as well. I appreciated the background information you provided so we could better see how Jesus was meeting these women right where they were and at the same meeting their deepest needs, regardless of their social status as a woman.
Thank you Melissa!
It is sad that Christianity is so often mis-portrayed as subjecting women to men. Nothing could be further from the truth! Great research!
You hit the nail on the head Susan! That is the irony of it.
Being a woman and heading up my own ministry I have been recently exposed to some very subtle but very real gender discrimination. It is rather said that it still goes on in Christian circles. But I know that just as Jesus empowering those women in Bible He is still empowering us to break through the boundaries of prejudice.
In am so sorry to hear that Galina, but I am not surprised. It is one of the main reasons I blog, to help encourage women in the face of subtle and sometimes not no so subtle gender discrimination. Thankfully Jesus still meets us at our every need.
Luisa, thank you so much for this thoughtful and well-studied post! How encouraging, as a woman, to know that Jesus went out of His way (and very much against the cultural grain) to stand up for the rights of women to learn and speak out for Him!
Thank you Brianna! I am so glad that you were encouraged. I was too as I was studying it and putting it together. It is the reason I just had to write about it and share it.
Thank you for highlighting the context in which these events took place.
I hadn’t thought about why the women was alone at the well and why she chose the middle of the day. These details make all the difference in understanding just how challenging Jesus was of Social Norms then and now
Thank you Bob! Cultural context can make a huge difference in picking up subtleties in scripture.
Thanks for sharing.
This was an interesting perspective on the rights of women.
After reading this, I came to think of what we do, blogging. It seems that women are MUCH better to network, and take advantage of the Internet than men are, and we see the same tendency in schools. Women are better at taking an education than man are.
I think it’s not about men vs women. It’s about who’s best suited for what needs to be done.
I’ve always loved the story of the Women at the Well.
Thank you Edna! Yes, it definitely not about woman vs. men as both were created in His image. Each has a purpose and every person will have a calling and role. But I focus a lot on women when I write because there are still subtle and sometime not so subtle messages sent in Christian circles that leave women feeling like they are not good enough because of their gender (not good enough to study theology, not good enough to lead certain ministries, etc.) My goal is to break through the stereotypes, and just get back to what the Bible actually say about women.
Luisa, this is a topic that is near to my heart. My wife and I have 2 kids, 2 of which are daughters. We have grown frustrated with the lack of empowerment of women in the church. I’m trying not to get on a soapbox here, but women have been largely marginalized in the Church under the patriarchal teaching of men.
The Lord desires men and wkmwo serve and lead. He has equipped us both to work in his Kingdom. What a tragedy that poor teaching has effectively cut off half of all disciples by relegating them to a lesser role than men! My daughter wants to be a pastor, and I’m going to foster those gifts in her to whatever end the Lord has for her.
Thanks for the great post!
Thank you Chip. I also have two daughters and they drive me to dig into the scriptures and define what it means to be a woman from God’s perspective. What I have found is what you say, that the real narrative is different than what is portrayed in many Christian circles. My mom is an associate Pastor at a small church in Laredo, TX. She is a woman that walks in faith and is in charge of the community outreach. They don’t formally ask for money, and yet somehow they are able to finance numerous expensive projects. I see how gifted she is at preaching, mentoring, and just plainly taking a vision and making it happen. God obviously makes it happen, but He has given her some amazing talents. Kudos to my dad who is the head pastor for recognizing her talents. That is my goal with this blog, to help encourage women to step outside of Christian stereotypes and just be who God called them out to be.
Pingback: Breaking Free: Overcoming Sexual Abuse • Fruitfully Living
Pingback: When Jesus Broke Racial Barriers: The Woman at the Well • Fruitfully Living
Pingback: The Proverbs 31 Woman, a Woman of Valor. • Fruitfully Living
It’s great that we have bloggers like you who have that focus 🙂
Pingback: How to Make a "Unicorn" Rose Swirl Cake • Fruitfully Living
Pingback: Pro-Lifers: Are you pushing women away from the Gospel? • Fruitfully Living
Pingback: Pornography Victims in our Pews • Fruitfully Living
I became a christian after a lifetime of suffering at the hands of men…from the age of 3 till just this year 2019…52 yrs later…i am amazed at the capacity of God…whom i am now able to call “Dad”…and Jesus who are the kindest, most kind individuals there are…to love women…to protect love…care for us in ways that many of us unfortunately have never had. My first experience with His love came from a book called His Princess love letters from your King written by Sheri Rose Shepherd…i cried the better part of the day…God is sooooo amazing…and its because of Him that Im learning that not all men are dark and evil…now i have a ministry that will be starting soon…and sharing the good news with women like myself is a mission i cant wait to start…Love Light and Dads blessings to you all…Donita
Donita, Thank you for sharing your story. I am excited for your ministry. As you know, so many women are still suffering, not knowing there is a great God out there who loves them more than they can imagine. God wants laborers that can reach these women so thank you for taking on that ministry. I had not heard of the book, His Princess, but I will look into it. I always like having resources on hand that I can share with other women.