Women in the Life and Ministry of Jesus

The popularity of The Da Vinci Code has forced Christians to realize that their beliefs are open to challenge. As a result, many Christians are interested in subjects that used to draw yawns. A few years ago, no one wanted to hear about the Gnostic Gospels and why we reject them, for example.

One issue raised by The Da Vinci Code is Jesus’ relationship to women. We can easily surmise that the Mary Magdalene nonsense of The Da Vinci Code is bogus, but what was Jesus’ real attitude toward women?

On the one hand, He established the church by training her basic leaders, the apostles. Only men were chosen as apostles, and the concept of male leadership in the church is consistent throughout Scripture: the Old Testament priests had to be male (according to Moses) and Paul teaches that church leaders who teach doctrine or Bible to men must be male, as must elders (1 Tim. 2:9-15, 3:1-2).

On the other hand, God used prophetesses as a channel of divine communication (e.g., Miriam, Deborah, in the Old Testament and the daughters of Philip in the New), and both men and women were encouraged to prophesy in the early church (1 Cor. 11:3-11).

Most of us understand that the reasons for these restrictions on leadership have nothing to do with competence or ability. Most of us know strong, capable godly women who have mastered the Word, as well as not-so-godly Christian men who have not. Nor are these restrictions justified on the basis of ancient culture (and thus no longer relevant). Instead, they are anchored to the order of creation and the events of mankind’s fall into sin (see 1 Tim. 2:9-15), past events that do not change (as does culture). The leadership of men in the home or in the church rises or falls together since they are mandated with similar justification. However, it takes quite a stretch to translate this concept into the political or work world.

Jesus’ high regard for women

Just because Jesus did not appoint women to positions of leadership does not mean that He did not hold women in high regard. In fact, the Jews had a long heritage of respecting womanhood. The Pharisees are often given a bum rap for thanking God daily that they were not born women. But what is typically left out of the discussion is why they were thankful for this.

Jewish women were not required to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for the three festival seasons, as were men. Since many women would be pregnant or caring for young children, such a demand could have created a serious hardship. The Old Testament Law allowed women to make the trip (and many did, including Mary when Jesus was a boy of 12), but did not require them to do so. The Pharisees were glad they were men so they could better observe the Law without exemption and thus obey more mitzvot (commands). Neither they nor Jesus looked down upon women.

We read about some important women in the Kingdom of God in Luke 8:1-3 (NIV):

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

Please note the crucial ministry these women embraced. Some of these women had been demonized and delivered. Others were independently wealthy. Amazingly, these women helped finance Jesus’ ministry. Ponder that. Most Christians are unaware of this almost invisible group of supporters. Since the entire Jewish culture was bent on encouraging Jewish men to leave their vocations for a while to follow a rabbi—and thus “enter the Kingdom of Heaven”—it was probably not unusual for wealthy Jewesses to help finance such missions. When traveling, the women would caravan together with the other women and make a separate camp. Presumably, many of these women probably followed Jesus for brief times.

When Yeshua addressed the crowds, these women took in His teaching. They probably counseled women and children, baptized female converts, and, in a sense, were the forerunners of the office of deaconesses. We do not know this as a fact, but it would fit the scenario well.

Although fictitious stories about Jesus being involved with or married to Mary Magdalene are popular right now, not only was Jesus never romantically involved with any woman, but also His closest friends were two sisters and a brother, Mary (not Magdalene), Martha, and Lazarus. This Mary was the woman who sat at Jesus feet while her sister Martha fussed in the kitchen.

Mary of Bethany was the only disciple who really seemed to comprehend that Jesus was actually going to die. Although earlier an immoral woman (possibly Mary Magdalene) had expressed repentance by anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary of Bethany prepared Christ for burial by anointing His head with perfume (Matt. 26:6-13) the day before His crucifixion. She was the only one of the disciples—male or female—who really knew how to listen. She was the only believer who comprehended what was about to happen. Ponder that as well.

Women and the Kingdom

Women have always played a prominent role in the Kingdom of God. Sarah certainly influenced Abraham, Deborah served as a reluctant judge (“like a mother to Israel,” Judg. 5:7) and military strategist, and it appears that Aquila would not have been very aggressive without the initiative of his wife, Priscilla (who is usually mentioned first) in Acts 18:18-28.

Jesus’ view toward women—and the view of the original church He established—is neither the put-down view we inherited from medieval culture nor the feminist perspective. The biblical perspective is more like, “we’re in this together.” God created both man and woman in His image (Gen. 1:27), and we are more alike than different. Since the genders are different in other areas, it is like comparing apples and oranges.

In the Kingdom of God, men’s influence may seem more overt, but women may have had as much or even more influence. How can you measure the invisible Kingdom of God?

Perhaps the best summary was written in 1 Corinthians 11:11, “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.”

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There are 12 Comments

skjnoble's picture

I appreciate you taking the time to write this article. Women in the bible are fascinating to me, particularly because I'm a woman Smile but also because I have a very young daughter whom I desire to teach the correct, biblical, full counsel view from Scripture, unlike what I learned when growing up. I just had a quick question:

In fact, the Jews had a long heritage of respecting womanhood. The Pharisees are often given a bum rap for thanking God daily that they were not born women. But what is typically left out of the discussion is why they were thankful for this.

My understanding is that this "bum rap" comes from a Jewish prayer book that specifically calls Jewish men to thank God that they were not made a woman, a slave or a Gentile. It would seem that this prayer would definitely have a negative connotation to it which in turn would set the legacy for a "bum rap."

I realize it's a sub, sub point, but I wanted to get your thoughts on it.

Thanks Ed!

Kim Noble Smile

Ed Vasicek's picture

skjnoble wrote:
I appreciate you taking the time to write this article. Women in the bible are fascinating to me, particularly because I'm a woman Smile but also because I have a very young daughter whom I desire to teach the correct, biblical, full counsel view from Scripture, unlike what I learned when growing up. I just had a quick question:

In fact, the Jews had a long heritage of respecting womanhood. The Pharisees are often given a bum rap for thanking God daily that they were not born women. But what is typically left out of the discussion is why they were thankful for this.

My understanding is that this "bum rap" comes from a Jewish prayer book that specifically calls Jewish men to thank God that they were not made a woman, a slave or a Gentile. It would seem that this prayer would definitely have a negative connotation to it which in turn would set the legacy for a "bum rap."

I realize it's a sub, sub point, but I wanted to get your thoughts on it.

Thanks Ed!

Kim Noble Smile

No, Kim, that prayer is what I am addressing. This has been one of the great misunderstandings of all times about the Pharisees, probably because of the church's propensity to think the worst of them and lump them all together. Here is a quotation from a footnote in my book, "The Midrash Key:"

Quote:
Because many of us may not understand the passion devout Jews had for obeying mitzvot (commands and precepts), non-Jews often assign wrong motives to rabbinic statements. For example, devout Jews would bless God that they were not "born women." This fact has been misused to imply that the men looked down upon women, but this is far from true. Women, for example, were not required to make the journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals (Deuteronomy 16:16). They could, and often did, but not when limited by pregnancy or small children, for example. In The Essential Talmud, Adin Steinsaltz writes, "The fact that women were not obliged to perform many of the positive precepts was regarded as an exemption rather than a ban. Men persisted in regarding themselves as the more fortunate sex, privileged to fulfill a greater number of precepts; this is attested to by the benediction recited each morning in which a man praises God for not having made him a woman" (p. 139).

In Rabbinic Judaism, the more mitzvot (commandments) you were postured to obey, the better. Thus a priest was more blessed because he had more mitzvot that applied to him. Since there are more mitzvot that apply to men, they felt more privileged than women. This is the opposite of the modern view that says the more restrictions and obligations, the less blessed you are. The rabbis generally had great respect for women, similar to that of Jesus.

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Ed.. what about the slave and gentile in that prayer, though? Does the same thinking apply? i.e., "I thank God that I am not a slave or a gentile because as I am I have more commands to obey"?

Seems awkward, but not impossible.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Ed.. what about the slave and gentile in that prayer, though? Does the same thinking apply? i.e., "I thank God that I am not a slave or a gentile because as I am I have more commands to obey"?

Seems awkward, but not impossible.

Yes, precisely. To the Jewish mind, Israel was especially blessed because God gave her the Torah. A gentile did not have the Torah, nor was it meant for him. A slave was disadvantaged in obeying all the mitzvot because of his lack of freedom; he could only do what his master allowed.

Since to the Jewish mind, God's most gracious act was giving Israel the Torah (which was created before the world and upon which the world was founded, in Judaism). Thus it was a challenge for the early Christians to convince Jewish believers that the coming and atoning work of Jesus was even more gracious.

It is a very different way of thinking, but that is how they thought. Here are a couple of interesting Jewish quotations:

Quote:
"It was taught: He who has no wife dwells without good, without help, without joy, without blessing, and without atonement." (Bereshit Rabbah 17,2)

"It once happened that a pious man was married to a pious woman…they arose and divorced each other. The former went and married a wicked woman, and she made him wicked, while the latter went and married a wicked man, and made him righteous. This proves that all depends on the woman." (Bereshit Rabbah 17,7)

"The Midrash Detective"

Ed Vasicek's picture

Under the prophetesses, it should read, "daughters of Philip." Agabus was another prophet. Sorry about that Smile

"The Midrash Detective"

skjnoble's picture

Hi Ed,

What about reports that rabbis would not address women in public or the stoning of the adulterous woman in John 7 where only she is brought out, but not her partner? Is it a myth that he was not brought out in public based on the rabbis' negative, chauvinistic biases against women, in general?

Thanks Ed.

Kim Smile

Ed Vasicek's picture

skjnoble wrote:
Hi Ed,

What about reports that rabbis would not address women in public or the stoning of the adulterous woman in John 7 where only she is brought out, but not her partner? Is it a myth that he was not brought out in public based on the rabbis' negative, chauvinistic biases against women, in general?

Thanks Ed.

Kim Smile

There was a "type" of Pharisee that was this way, but they were generally looked down upon by the other Pharisees. BTW, the Pharisees were their own worst critics, esp. Bet Hillel (school of Hillel); thus when Jesus laid into the pharisees, he was actually doing something that the pharisees themselves did. The idea that a Pharisee would not greet a woman probably came from such in-house criticisms.

Quoted in my book, "The Midrash Key:

Quote:
There is a passage, appearing in slightly different forms in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. This passage sheds light on the self-perception of the Pharisees. This passage describes seven different types of Pharisees. A paraphrase of the difficult Talmudic language describes the following seven: (1) The “shoulder” Pharisee wore his good deeds on his shoulder so everyone could see them. (2) The “wait a little” Pharisee always found an excuse for putting off a good deed. (3) The “bruised” Pharisee shut his eyes to avoid seeing a woman and knocked into walls, bruising himself. (4) The “humpbacked” Pharisee always walked bent double, in false humility. (5) The “ever reckoning” Pharisee was always counting up the numbers of his good deeds. (6) The “fearful” Pharisee always quaked in fear of the wrath of God. (7) The “God-loving” Pharisee was a copy of Abraham who lived in faith and charity.
Source: William C. Varner, "Jesus and the Pharisees: A Jewish Perspective" http://www.pfo.org/pharisee.htm, accessed 11-18-09.

As far as the adultery case in John, things are a bit more complex. Let me put it simply: Bet Shammai (the School of Shammai) was "in power" in Jesus' day. They were the nastier lot who had connections BOTH toward the Zealot terrorists and the politically powerful Herodians. They advocated forcing Rome out of Israel by hook or crook or any method possible. They were responsible for the Jewish revolts that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and dispersion of the Jews. The woman taken in adultery was a ploy (much like asking Jesus if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar) to force confrontation. The Jews were not allowed to stone under Roman Law (w/out permission), and they were trying to force Jesus to choose between loyalty to the Torah and obedience to the government. The School of Hillel (whom Jesus usually agreed with, more than not), said if the Jews got their spiritual act together and repented, God would bring in the kingdom without rebellion or man-originating force. So this was clearly a trap. I deal with this stuff in "The Midrash Key" as well. One last quote from my book:

Quote:
Jewish teachers avoided the harsh penalties of the Torah by making prosecution tedious or demanding monetary equivalencies in place of retribution. The conditions that needed to be met and technical evasions made capital punishment a rare event. In this way, Jewish authorities could claim to obey Torah while negating the less desirable mitzvot.... and the footnoe: For example, the rabbis avoiding stoning rebellious sons by creating a technical definition as to how rebellion is defined. The Babylonian Talmud reads, “If he stole of his father’s and ate it in his father’s domain, or of strangers and ate it in the domain of strangers, or of strangers and ate in his father’s domain, he does not become a ‘stubborn and rebellious son' — until he steals of his father’s and eats in the domain of strangers. R. Jose, son of R. Judah said: until he steals of his father’s and mother’s [Sanhedrin, Folio 71a ]." This sort of evasive interpretation is common in the Talmud.

"The Midrash Detective"

Ed Vasicek's picture

Sorry, Kim, I did not directly answer your question.

It is more or less a myth -- at least across the board for the Pharisees in general, although we do not know that much about the Pharisees of Bet Shammai. After Jerusalem was destroyed and the Bar Kochba revolt in the early 2nd century, the School of Shammai fizzled out (their viewpoint caused these disasters); so the Talmud (except for very early portions) reflects the viewpoint of Bet Hillel (from which modern Judaism descended).

I think the erroneous generality is taken from the exception and made the rule.

A man would not greet a strange woman alone and vice-versa, which is why the woman at the well incident would have been an eyebrow raiser. But that works both ways. Separating the genders was and is the norm in the middle east, although things actually grew more that way in time, esp. during Medieval times.

"The Midrash Detective"

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Ed Vasicek wrote:
Under the prophetesses, it should read, "daughters of Philip." Agabus was another prophet. Sorry about that Smile

Fixed.

Dave Barnhart

Ed Vasicek's picture

dcbii wrote:
Ed Vasicek wrote:
Under the prophetesses, it should read, "daughters of Philip." Agabus was another prophet. Sorry about that Smile

Fixed.

Thank you!

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

...electronic publishing. Easy, on-the-fly editing.
Thanks, Dave.

skjnoble's picture

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I guess I fall into the category of misrepresentation. I've heard it preached that way (the down on women view), and I believe it was even taught that way growing up in my religious background.

I'm definitely guilty of lumping Jewish rabbis of that day, as chauvinist!

Thanks for myth-busting. I guess I'll have to study it more later.

Blessings Ed.

Kim Smile

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