by Hannele Ottschofscki | 25 April 2023 |
We generally think of the Bible as a book written by men, about men, and for men. It is as if the church has tried to make women invisible in the Bible. And yet they exist—and not only as marginal figures and nameless persons. We need to rediscover them and read the Bible through their lens.
We are aware that Jesus was surrounded by twelve men. Yet the women who followed Jesus together with his disciples have often escaped our notice. Luke mentions by name several who were with Jesus and the twelve disciples.
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 Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
We read the three women’s names. But it also says “many others”—women who followed Jesus and supported him financially. Why do we think of the seventy disciples who followed Jesus as only men? And women who had stayed with Jesus from Galilee to the cross were the first at the tomb on resurrection morning.
When we look at Jesus’ ministry, we see that he treated women quite differently than was customary in his culture. Jesus was willing to challenge cultural norms. God had created man and woman equal to each other; Jesus wanted to restore this equality in the kingdom of God.
Jesus ignored the restrictions placed on women, and allowed them to follow him. He publicly demonstrated that women were valuable in the sight of God. He had close friendships with them. The women recorded in the Gospels were strong women, and Jesus supported them as they supported him. They proclaimed the good news that had freed them from oppression and given them back the value God intended for women.
The Gospels tell of some surprising encounters Jesus had with women. With the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, he talked about salvation and even took her arguments seriously, showing that he valued her knowledge and intelligence! He had a theological discussion with Martha about resurrection. It was a woman who Jesus commissioned to tell the disciples that he had risen. He had healed her physically, mentally, and spiritually and showed compassion.
Jesus treated women as human beings made in the image of God. For him, they were not temptresses against whom men had to protect themselves, or sex objects as they are often viewed today. For him, they were precious human beings. About the woman who had anointed his feet, Jesus said,
She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.
Jesus noticed women and wanted them to be recognized and seen—even the woman who anointed his feet, who so embarrassed the others, he wished to be acknowledged and remembered throughout history.
The rabbis taught only male disciples. The Talmud says, “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her obscenity” (Sotah 20a). Jesus encouraged women to follow him as disciples and to use their gifts.
Mary of Bethany, for one, is said to have sat at Jesus’ feet like all the other disciples. The traditional role of women was to serve the family, but when Martha pointed out to Jesus that Mary was not fulfilling her feminine duties, Jesus defended Mary’s decision. In doing so, he affirmed the role of women as full disciples. Jesus was not afraid to reinterpret traditions and laws: “You have heard that it was said, ….But I tell you….”
This reinterpretation of the Talmud included how Jesus accepted women as equal daughters of Abraham.
In the early church
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, women were involved in the meetings of his followers as a matter of course:
They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
The early church was a community of open houses, economic sharing, and communal meals. Women were the heart of the community. Of course, men played an important role as well. Men also play an important role in the church today because all are called together in Christ to form a new family.
In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter quoted the prophet Joel:
“And afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”
The disciples were convinced that this prophecy was being fulfilled at that moment. The Holy Spirit descended on all who were in the room.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place….They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
We often forget that the Bible says this, and think only of the apostles speaking in tongues. But Peter explained why even the women preached, quoting the prophet Joel in the Old Testament. The idea that women should not participate in the church had not yet arisen. Now the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all confirmed their calling.
Breaking bread in the homes certainly involved women. Many of these house churches were led by women such as Lydia and Priscilla. The apostle Paul shows his appreciation for his female co-workers in his greetings to the church in Rome by mentioning several women by name in Romans 16: Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae; Priscilla; Mary; Junia, the apostle; Tryphena and Tryphosa; Persis, the mother of Rufus; Julia, the sister of Nereus; who were involved in preaching the good news.
The New Way, as the movement was initially called, was a faith that liberated women from the shackles of the oppressive cultural conventions of the time. It is no wonder that Christianity was especially attractive to women in the Roman world, which was highly male-oriented.
We are so accustomed to the Church’s being led by men today that we do not notice that women were involved in liturgical leadership in the early Church for several centuries. Early manuscripts, artifacts, and frescoes from the earliest times show women performing liturgical ceremonies, with hands raised in blessing or carrying the censer.
The 5th-century image of a woman named Cerula, which was found in 1971 in the catacomb of San Gennaro in Naples, shows her surrounded by open, flaming books and gospels, symbolic of the role of a bishop.
So when did women lose their voice and leadership role? Many church fathers did not comment at all on the ordination of women. Clement of Rome, however, taught that the apostles elected only men as their successors.
Yet in A.D. 494, in response to reports of women serving at the altar in southern Italy, Pope Gelasius I wrote a letter condemning the participation of women in the celebration of the Eucharist and argued that these duties were reserved exclusively for men.
Finally, the Council of Laodicea (A.D. 363-364, canon 11) prohibited the ordination of women to the presbyterate.
The example of Jesus
For me, this question arises: if God created man and woman as equals, why isn’t the church a pioneer of equality? Surely those who follow Jesus and take him as an example should also learn from his relationship with women. The real task of the church should be to bring the good news in the sense of Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
This unity also means freedom from oppression for all, including women. The church by its example should empower and promote women, and lead them back to the God-ordained equality of all humankind.
How I wish the world could be a world for men and women, where both genders are valued and respected, and where they work together to care for the world entrusted to them at creation! We should learn from Jesus, who gave us a wonderful example of inclusion and came to save all who believe in him.
Hannele Ottschofski writes from Hechingen, Germany.