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Women's roles in the Bible

The status of women in the Christian Gospels

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Women in ancient Israel:

Women's status and freedoms were severely limited by Jewish law and custom in ancient Israel, as they were in essentially all other cultures at the time. Generally speaking:

bulletmost were restricted to roles of little or no authority,
bulletthey were largely confined to their father's or husband's home,
bulletthey were considered to be inferior to men, and under the authority of men -- either their father before marriage, or their husband afterwards.

From the Second Temple period, women were not allowed to testify in court trials. They could not go out in public, or talk to strangers. When outside of their homes, they were to be doubly veiled. "They had become second-class Jews, excluded from the worship and teaching of God, with status scarcely above that of slaves." 1 Their position in society was defined in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the interpretation of those scriptures. More details.

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Change in status: Jesus' radical treatment of women:

Christ overthrew many centuries of Jewish law and custom. He consistently treated women and men as equals. He violated numerous Old Testament regulations, which specified gender inequality. He refused to follow the behavioral rules established by the three main Jewish religious groups of the day: the Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees. "The actions of Jesus of Nazareth towards women were therefore revolutionary." 1 Some examples are:

bulletHe ignored ritual impurity laws: Mark 5:25-34 describes Jesus' cure of a woman who suffered from menstrual bleeding for 12 years. In Judean society of the day, it was a major transgression for a man to talk to a woman other than his wife or children.
 
bulletHe talked to foreign women: John 4:7 to 5:30 describes Jesus' conversation with a woman of Samaria. She was doubly ritually unclean since she was both a foreigner and a woman. Men were not allowed to talk to women, except within their own families. Jesus also helped a Canaanite woman, another foreigner, in Matthew 15:22-28. Although he described non-Jews as "dogs", he was willing to talk to her, and is recorded as having cured her daughter of demon-possession.
 
bulletHe taught women students: Jewish tradition at the time was to not allow women to be taught. Rabbi Eliezer wrote in the 1st century CE: "Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman...Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity." 5  Jesus overthrew centuries of tradition. In Luke 10:38-42, he taught Mary, sister of Martha.
 
bulletHe used terminology which treated women as equal to men:
bulletLuke 13:16 describes how he cured a woman from an indwelling Satanic spirit. He called her a daughter of Abraham, thus implying that she had equal status with sons of Abraham. "The expression 'son of Abraham' was commonly used to respectfully refer to a Jew, but 'daughter of Abraham', was an unknown parallel phrase...It occurs nowhere else in the Bible." 4 It seems to be a designation created by Jesus.
 
bulletLuke 7:35 to 8:50 describes how Jesus' forgave a woman's sins. He refers to women and men (i.e. "all" people) as children of wisdom.
 
bulletHe accepted women in his inner circle: Luke 8:1-3 describes the inner circle of Jesus' followers: 12 male disciples and an unspecified number female supporters (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and "many others.") It would appear that about half of his closest followers were women.
 
bulletHe appeared first to one or more women after his resurrection: Matthew 28:9-10 describes how Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" were the first followers of Jesus to meet him after his resurrection. (However, this account is contradicted by passages in 1 Corinthians, which state that the first person to see Jesus was Cleopas, Peter or all of the disciples.)
 
bulletMostly women were present at Jesus' execution: Matthew 27:55-56 and Mark 15:40-41 describe many women who followed Jesus from Galilee and were present at his crucifixion. The men had fled from the scene. (John 19:25-27 contradicts this; the author describes John as being present with the women.)
 
bulletHe told parallel male/female stories: The author of the Gospel of Luke and of Acts shows many parallel episodes: one relating to a woman, the other to a man. For example:
bulletSimeon and Hannah in Luke 2:25-38
bulletWidow of Sarepta and Naaman in Luke 4:25-38
bulletHealing of a man possessed by a demon and the healing of the mother of Peter's wife, starting in Luke 4:31
bulletThe woman who had lived a sinful life and Simon, starting in Luke 7:36
bulletA man and woman sleeping together in Luke 17:34
bulletAnanias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11
bulletDionysius and Damaris in Acts 17:34
bulletLydia and the jailer's conversion in Acts 16:14-34

The book "Women in the Earliest Churches" lists 9 additional parallels. 3 Author Ben Witherington III quotes H. Flender:

"Luke expresses by this arrangement that man and woman stand together and side by side before God. They are equal in honor and grace; they are endowed with the same gifts and have the same responsibilities."

Some theologians have speculated that the author of the Gospel of Luke might well have been a woman.
 

bulletHe expressed concern for widows: Jesus repeated the importance of supporting widows throughout his ministry. The Gospel of Luke alone contains 6 references to widows: (Luke 2:36, 4:26, 7:11, 18:1, 20:47 and 21:1)
 
bulletDivorce: In Jesus' time, a man could divorce his wife, but the wife had no right to divorce her husband. This practice is supported by seven  references in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in which a husband can unilaterally give his wife a bill of divorce. There were no references to a woman giving her husband such a bill. In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus overthrows this tradition and states that neither spouse can divorce the other; he treats the wife and husband equally. 

Passages where Jesus apparently does not call for equality of the sexes:

There are two passages where Jesus deviates from his usual practice of treating women equally:

bulletSelection of his disciples: There are three conflicting lists of the names of the 12 disciples that Jesus selected. In all cases, the disciples were male. He later selected a total of 70 disciples; the gender makeup of the latter group was not recorded. Some might well have been female.

In his defense, he might have chosen only single people because he wanted disciples who were unencumbered with spouses. In first century CE Jewish culture, unmarried women traveling with men would cause so much criticism that the reception of Jesus' teaching by the public might have been impossible.
 
bulletLevirate Marriage: In Mark 12:18-27 Jesus answered a question posed by some Sadducees. They described a woman who was widowed and required to marry her brother-in-law. This was called a "Levirate" marriage. Their first-born son will be considered to be the son of the deceased husband. In this case, they imagined that seven brothers-in-law married her in succession without having a son.

Jesus could have used the opportunity to preach on the unfairness and sexism implicit in this requirement of Jewish law (from Deuteronomy 25:5-10). After all, the woman was not allowed to refuse to marry any of the brothers, even if she despised some of them. Levirate marriage often involved serial rape. But Jesus is not recorded as having condemned the practice.

Again in his defense, he might have criticized Levirate marriage at the time, but his words might not have been considered significant the Gospel writers who thus might not have recorded Jesus' comments. Alternately, they might have recorded Jesus criticism of Levirate marriage in the original, autograph copy of their Gospels. However, a later copyist might have deleted the passage. As archeologists are fond of saying: "Absence of proof is not proof of absence."

There is a passage in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) where Jesus is reported as having insulted a woman. He referred to her as a dog, implying that she was sub-human.

Interpreting Matthew 15:22-28 literally:

She was described as a Canaanite. However, Mark 7:25-30 identified her as Greek/Syrophenician. She had pleaded with Jesus to cure her daughter who she believed was possessed by a demon. He first ignored her, but then explained that he was sent only to bring the Gospel to the Jews, not to the Gentiles such as she. Jesus cruelly replied to the desperate mother that it was not right for him "to take the children's bread and to cast it to dogs." i.e. it is not appropriate to take the Gospel, which was intended only for the Jews, and offer it to Gentiles as well -- here described as sub-humans. (Observant Jews in the 1st century CE often referred to all Gentiles contemptuously as "dogs.") She quipped back to Jesus that even the "dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." Jesus relented and -- because of the mother's faith -- remotely cured the daughter of demonic possession.

Jesus' response to the woman was uncharacteristic for him. As noted above, he often deviated greatly from Jewish tradition at the time and treated women as equals. Here, he appears is that he rejected the woman because of her race or her culture of origin, not because of her gender. Another possibility is that he responded to her in a tongue-in-cheek fashion rather out of anger or callousness.

Treatment of Mary Magdalene:

In Matthew 28:1-7, after Jesus' resurrection, "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary" receive the first apostolic commission of any person -- to tell the good news of the  resurrection to the disciples. This is reinforced by Jesus' appearance before the two women. The two Marys were thus the first apostles.

Some of the gospels and epistles from the very early history of Christianity that never made their way into the official canon described Mary Magdalene and other women as holding leadership positions within the movement.

The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies comments:

"Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the Gospels as being among the women of Galilee who followed Jesus and His disciples. She was present at His Crucifixion and Burial, and went to the tomb on Easter Sunday to anoint His body. She was the first to see the Risen Lord, and to announce His Resurrection to the apostles. Accordingly, she is referred to in early Christian writings as 'the apostle to the apostles'." 8

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
  1. B.M. Metzger & M.D. Coogan, "The Oxford Companion to the Bible", Oxford University Press, New York, NY, (1993), P. 806 to 818
  2. Christians for Biblical Equality are an Evangelical Christian group, which opposes the vast majority of conservative Christian denominations by promoting gender equality. Their essay: "Statement On Men, Women and Biblical Equality" is at: http://www.cbeinternational.org
  3. Ben Witherington III, "Women in the Earliest Churches", Cambridge University Press, (Reprinted 1991), Page 129. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  4. Frank Daniels, "The Role of Woman in the Church." part of the Religious Heresy Page at: http://www.scs.unr.edu/.
  5. Rabbi Eliezer, "Mishnah, Sotah 3:4"
  6. Ross Shepard Kraemer, Mary Rose D'Angelo, "Women and Christian Origins," Oxford University Press, (1999). Read reviews or order this book.
  7. Karen L. King, "The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle," Polebridge Press, (2003). Read reviews or order this book.
  8. "Saint Mary Magdalene: 'The Apostle to the Apostles'," The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies, at: http://www.thenazareneway.com/

Copyright 1998 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Last update: 2012-JUL-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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