By Sonja DeWitt | 26 September 2019 |
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 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. His messages were so strange and counterintuitive that listeners often were left scratching their heads or, sometimes, 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, the status of women was only slightly above that of slaves. In fact, a typical slave’s lot was in many ways better. At a remove of over two millennia, it is nearly impossible for us to comprehend the severe repression and oppression women suffered in Jesus’ world.
Isolated, Mistrusted, Excluded
Historian Elisabeth Tetlow has concluded that ancient women were considered substantially inferior to men. She writes: “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.”
In Jewish writings dating from the time between the Testaments, Tetlow finds that “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.”
Women had little opportunity to disprove such theories, because Jewish culture kept adult females isolated from nearly all adult males. Tetlow writes that men were strongly advised not to have conversations with women and that “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.”
Legally, women in Israel were considered the property of men. Their testimony was not accepted as evidence in court.
Furthermore, Jewish women were excluded from education and even from study of the Torah. The Jerusalem Talmud notes the opinion of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, a rabbi and scholar at the end of the first century and beginning of the second century, who stated, “Women’s wisdom is solely in the spindle,” and added, “The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women.” He also said that “anyone who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflut” [which is defined either as lasciviousness or as vanity and nonsense].”
Women were not allowed to participate in worship. They were not to recite the prayers at meals, and they could not be counted to make up a minyon (the quorum required to conduct a worship service). While any adult had the right, in theory, to preach in the synagogue, women were denied the opportunity to preach because they were physically segregated from men during services, and because they were not taught to read.
Jesus the Revolutionary
If we do not understand Jewish culture during the intertestamental period, we can be oblivious to the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ treatment of women, expressed in numerous ways throughout the Gospels. By both his 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 unveiled in public, several women were named in the Gospels as disciples who traveled in Jesus’ entourage across Palestine and served his daily needs (Mark 15:40-41). We can safely assume that other women, perhaps many who were not mentioned by name, also joined them.
2. Jesus spoke to women he 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 the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7-26); the sinful woman who washed his feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-40); the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11); the woman with an issue of blood (Mark 8:43-48); and the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:26-28).
What is even more extraordinary is that all of these women who were directly addressed by Jesus fell into one of three “forbidden” categories (women who were “fallen,” unclean, or foreign), making contact with them anathema for the observant Jew.
3. Jesus allowed women to be his disciples and to learn from him.
In an era when rabbis believed it would be better to burn the sacred books than to give religious instruction 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 that he encouraged her sister, Martha, to participate in study with him rather than engaging in the traditional “women’s tasks” of cooking and hostessing (Luke 10:38-42). He also initiated an extended one-on-one theological discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:10-26), and he debated with the Syro-Phoenician woman who begged him to heal her daughter (Matt. 15:21-28).
4. Jesus touched women and allowed them to touch him.
At a time when physical contact between men and women was strictly proscribed, and was supposed to be 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 (Luke 8:41-42, 51-56). Even more shocking, he publicly acknowledged that a ceremonially unclean woman, who suffered from chronic menstrual bleeding, had touched him (Luke 8:43-48). According to the law of Moses, physical contact with her made Jesus ceremonially unclean until the evening, something good Jews avoided at all costs (Lev. 15:19).
But Jesus’ most outrageous and scandalous action, from a first-century viewpoint, was allowing the sinful woman to anoint his feet. This offended 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 14:3-9, she kissed his feet. Imagine the palpitations this behavior would have caused a good Pharisee in Jesus’ time! It would raise more than a few eyebrows even today!
5. Jesus commissioned women to be evangelists.
The Samaritan woman at the well was perhaps the most successful evangelist mentioned in the Gospels (John 4:5-42). She told nearly everyone in her town about meeting Jesus, and many were converted (verses 39, 41). Mary Magdalene was arguably the first Christian evangelist, since Jesus deliberately chose her to be the first to share the news of his resurrection (John 20:1-18).
6. Jesus explicitly rejected the rabbis’ teaching that women were the source of lust and sexual sin.
In an examination of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, 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 [Matthew 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.”
In a society that held women responsible for men’s lust, Jesus laid the responsibility not on “lascivious women,” but on those to whom it directly belonged: those who lust with their eyes and hearts.
7. He rejected the common views on divorce.
In Jesus’ time, Jewish teaching on divorce was divided into two primary schools of thought: Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. “[Followers of] Beit Shammai say, ‘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].”’ [Followers of] Beit Hillel say, ‘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.”’”
In a society where wives were considered an expendable commodity, to be exchanged at will for trivial reasons or even 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. In addition to the social stigma and humiliation they suffered, divorced women were economically helpless. Unmarried women in Jesus’ time 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.
Reviving a Forgotten Truth
Jesus’ teaching on marriage represented an explicit rejection of all of the above-mentioned misogynistic beliefs. He went far beyond the conservative Beit Shammai teaching on divorce and thereby made his own teaching a sweeping proclamation of women’s equality. Buried within his revolutionary statements are multiple profound concepts that would have struck his hearers as shocking, even incendiary:
• By referencing the creation story, Jesus emphasized a forgotten truth: Women are equal to men. Both were created by God, and both were made in the image of God. This was in stark contrast to contemporary teachings that a woman was inferior, fit only to be a man’s servant and the mere receptacle of his seed.
• 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 he made it clear that breaking that covenant is a serious offense to God.
• By quoting the Genesis reference to a man “leaving his father and mother,” Jesus made a shocking countercultural statement. Modern readers can easily miss the fact that in first-century Palestine, as in most ancient cultures, a man did not leave his father and mother when he married. Instead, a bride left her family and came to live with her husband’s family (Matt. 19:3-10). Predictably, this was a painful, even terrifying, experience for a young girl and greatly contributed to unequal power in marriage.
Jesus is reminding his hearers that, according to the sacred writings of Moses, 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.
• In referencing the command that a man shall “cleave unto his wife,” Jesus is overtly rejecting the Pharisees’ teaching that women are the evil temptresses to be avoided. He is emphasizing the visceral, unbreakable emotional and spiritual bond that 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.
• 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. By referencing the ancient Jewish tradition expressed so lyrically and passionately in the Song of Solomon, and more earthily in Proverbs, Jesus incorporated the multitude of Old Testament passages that compare the intimacy of marriage to the relationship between God and his people.
“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” (Prov. 5:18-19, NIV).
The High Status God Intended
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 the Scriptures repeatedly use 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 who advocated 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.
- Elisabeth M. Tetlow, Women and Ministry in the New Testament (1980), pp. 5-29. ↑
- ibid. ↑
- ibid. ↑
- ibid. ↑
- ibid. See also the tannaitic midrash, Sifre Devarim, p. 46. ↑
- Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 3:4, 19a. ↑
- Babylonian Talmud, Sotah, 21b. ↑
- Tetlow, supra. ↑
- Gordon Wenham, “Divorce in First-Century Judaism and the New Testament,” paper presented in Belfast, Ireland, p. 8, available online at www.wisereaction.org/ebooks/wenham_divorce_first.pdf. ↑
- Mishnah Gittin 9:10, from www.Sefaria.org. ↑
- See www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ancient-jewish-marriage/ ↑
Sonja DeWitt is a civil rights attorney with over 20 years of experience handling Equal Employment Opportunity cases. She has a strong interest in religious liberty and has worked with the North American Religious Liberty Association, for which she received an award. She blogs about religion, politics and government, and social justice at www.voicesfromthewilderness.net,