Women in the Heart of God (6)
The Data From the Life and Ministry of Jesus
This period of time stretches from the birth of Jesus until the close of the NT revelation (probably Revelation).
The data of this period comes from the words and deeds of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, 1st chapter of Acts, and any subsequent post-resurrection appearances or disclosures.
We will have to treat the material in isolated passages (generally), and reserve our comments on the literary selection and arrangement of those units until our treatment of the apostolic circle.
There is a great deal of overlapping material from the Synoptic gospels, so I intend to treat the incidents as they occur in the standard NT arrangement (i.e. Mt, Mrk, Lk, and then John). Any differences between the parallel accounts, that might indicate special emphasis on aspects of our subject, will be noted in the section on the literary data.
We can arrange this material under the following categories:
Then we will briefly examine the question of how revolutionary this might have been in the context of first-century Judaism.
- The Roles women played in the ministry and teachings of Jesus.
- Their equal Responsibilities before God.
- His ministry to women.
- The Roles women played in the ministry and teachings of Jesus.
- He consistently used them as examples, and used illustrations from women's lives.
- Mt 13.33: He told them still another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough."
- Mt 15.21ff: Jesus only commended two people before His resurrection for their faith--a Centurian, and the Canaanite woman: Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted."
- Mt 24.40: That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.
41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
- Mt 25--the Parable of the Virgins--sex did not matter; wisdom DID!: "At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them.
4 The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. ...
- Jesus holds up the The Forever-Remembered Anointing as a model of something 'beautiful'--Mt 26.6ff:
6 While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper,
7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
8 When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked.
9 "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor."
10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.
11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.
12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.
13 I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."
Notice that (1) this is the ONLY physical anointing of Jesus noted in the gospels; (2) Jesus defends this woman; (3) Jesus applauds her act as 'beautiful'; and (4) He sets up an everlasting memorial in her honor! In the Lukan parallel, her act is described as being the result of 'loving much' and being 'forgiven much'.(7.36-50)
- The story of the Widow's Mite is commonly understood as an example of sacrificial giving (although it is understood by others as an example of the oppressive hegemony)--Mark 12.41f: Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts.
42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.
44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything -- all she had to live on."
- In Luke 13.16, the healed woman is called a "daughter of Abraham"--an exemplary term denoting Abraham-like faith: Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"
- In Luke 15.8ff, Jesus uses an illustration from a woman's life: "Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?
9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.'[We will return to this passage later.]
- In Luke 18.1ff, the disciples are instructed to pray like the Persistent Widow did--Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
2 He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men.
3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, `Grant me justice against my adversary.'
4 "For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, `Even though I don't fear God or care about men,
5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'"
6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says.
7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?
8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.
- They functioned as "patrons" of His ministry, traveling with the group and supporting them financially.
- Luke 8.1-3: 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,
2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out;
3 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.
- Mt 27.55: Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs.
56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's sons.
- Mark 15.40-41: Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.
41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.
- They were active in evangelism!
- Anna, a prophetess was the first "Jesus" evangelist! (Luke 2.36ff): There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,
37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
- They were the first witnesses to the resurrection! Luke 24.9-11: When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.
10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.
11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
- The Samaritan woman was a very effective witness for Christ--John 4.28-30, 39-42 :Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people,
29 "Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?"
30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.....Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I ever did."
40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days.
41 And because of his words many more became believers.
42 They said to the woman, "We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world."
- Even Pilate's wife "witnessed" to her husband, of Jesus uniqueness and innocence (Mt 27.19): While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him."
- Women are involved throughout the life of Jesus.
- Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna are key figures in the infancy narratives.
- Jesus' single pre-ministry incident that is recorded in scripture involves BOTH his mother and father, with more emphasis on His mother.
- Of the 30-plus recorded miracles, over 10 had major focus on women participants.
- They travel with Him (above)--even out into the wildernesses (cf. Origen, Adv. Cel. 3.10), and would have thereby participated in most of the events of the ministry.
- They were present at the Cross (Mt 27.55-56) and first to the tomb (Mt 28.1)
- They were spoken to by the angels at the tomb (Mt 28.5)
- Jesus actually used a woman as an example of God the Father!
In Luke 15.1-10, two parables are used to symbolize God in His redemptive 'search and rescue' mission--a shepherd (1-7) and a woman (8-10).
Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him.
2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
3 Then Jesus told them this parable:
4 "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?
5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders
6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.'
7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8 "Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?
9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.'
10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
- Their equal Responsibilities before God.
- They were obviously expected to be "aggressive" disciples of the Lord. (
35 For I have come to turn
"`a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law --
36 a man's enemies will be the members of his own
37 "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Mt 10.34ff)
- "Jesus never stereotyped women. A woman's value is not determined by her domestic, maternal, or sexual functions, but by her relationship to God. On one occasion as Jesus was going through a crowd a woman shouted out, 'Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.' Jesus replied, 'Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.' (Lk. 11.27-28). Jesus refused to sentimentalize motherhood. The most important fact about any woman is her response to the gospel." (WS:ATW:151).
- Notice that in Mark 10.10ff, Jesus assumes that a woman could initiate divorce--and was equally guilty when done without the 'exception clause'--When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.
11 He answered, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.
12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery."
- The Samaritan woman in John 4 was obviously held responsible for her response to Jesus, as are Mary/Martha in John 11.
- Women are given instructions by the angels at the tomb, and expected to obey. (Mt 28:5ff):
5 The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.
6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: `He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you."
- The vast majority of Jesus' teachings would have been to mixed-sex crowds (e.g. Mt 14.21:The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children., also 15.38), or the mixed-sex group of the disciples (above). This would have made most of His teachings equally binding on the women.
- His ministry to women.
- There were a number of situations in which He cared for women.
- In Mt 9, he heals both a woman and a daughter. Notice Jesus' word choice in 9.20-22:Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak.
21 She said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed."
22 Jesus turned and saw her. "Take heart, daughter," he said, "your faith has healed you." And the woman was healed from that moment.--He calls the woman "daughter"! He only uses such a term of related-endearment one other time--He calls the paralytic "son" in Mt 9:2 and Mk 2.5.
- In Mark 1, He heals Peter's mother-in-law.
- We have already seen the healing of the Canaanite woman's daughter (Mt 15.22ff).
- He healed the Widow of Nain's son (Lk 7.11f)
- He healed the "daughter of Abraham" (Lk 13.16)
- His frequent use of illustrations from women's lives (noted above) indicate that women were in His 'target audience'.
- He consistently treats women as significant theology dialogue partners.
- The exchange with the woman of Samaria, resulting in many confessions of faith in the town, is one of the longer dialogues in all the NT. (John 4)
- The exchange with the Canaanite woman (in Mt 15.22f), resulting in His praise for her faith, is also a very detailed account.
- His exchange with Martha of Bethany (Luke 10.38ff) not only is significant, but his approval of the 'choice' of Mary as a student of His borders on being ground-breaking in Israel of the time.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.
39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said.
40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
41 "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things,
42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
- He later has another significant dialogue with Martha in John 11.17-27, culminating in Martha's confession of faith in verse 27: "Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.". This is one of the clearest expressions of faith in the NT, on a par with Peter's confession in Mt 16:16 (Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.").
- Closely related to the above is the fact that Jesus accepted women as disciples/students (after the rabbinical model)
- As we have noted above, women traveled with the group, were the recipients of teaching from Jesus, and freely moved about among the disciples (after the rabbinical model).
- In Luke 10:39, we have a woman "sitting at Jesus feet"--the traditional description of rabbinic students (cf. Act 22.3:
3 I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, at the feet of Gamaliel, instructed according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, (ASV))
- In John 20.16, Mary calls the Risen Lord "Teacher" (Rabboni). Although this does not necessarily mean that she was a 'student' of His after the rabbinical model, it may be significant that, with the exception of Mary/Martha, only men call Jesus "rabbi" or "teacher" in the Gospels. Women call Him "Lord" or "Son of David" or "sir". This MAY indicate an awareness of a more 'formal' relationship between Jesus and Mary--that of the student role, illustrated in Luke 10.39 (above).
- It should also be noted in this connection, that the amount of disclosure given to the women dialogue partners, as well as the style of the interaction, approximates the rabbinical teaching methods of the day (cf. WWRJ:57-79).
How revolutionary was this in first-century Judaism?
Many of the more evangelical works on the subject of Jesus' treatment of women (e.g. WS:ATW, WS:WIB), describe His actions and attitudes as 'revolutionary' and posit so based upon a certain view of first-century Judaism. That is, IF we posit that the Rabbinic Judaism of the Talmud/Mishnah/etc. was the 'prevailing' Judaism that Jesus encountered, THEN His treatment of women WOULD HAVE BEEN appropriately labeled as 'revolutionary'. If, on the other hand, the later Rabbinic Judaism was only ONE SEGMENT of Judaism (to use Neusner's terms "formative" rather than "normative"), then His actions may have been less counter-culture than is often claimed.
We will assume in our discussion below that some proto-Rabbinic Judaism was present and probably dominant among at least the adversaries that Jesus developed during the course of His earthly ministry. [For a dissenting view of this, see Allan Black's chapter in WS:EWEC]. The presence of factions of Jewry, such as Essenes, Pharisees, etc., however, does NOT imply that there was a wide range of attitudes towards females. We know, for example, that women were generally isolated from the rituals in the Qumran community: "Nevertheless, we do have clear evidence, both in the case of the Essenes and those at Qumran, that they were sects whose views of the position of women were even more rigid than that of Judaism in general." (WS:WIB:37).
So, what did Jesus do re: women that was 'revolutionary' in His day and setting?
It must be remembered that what Jesus is being contrasted with here is the inter-testamental social structure and not that of the Old Testament. There was a decided degeneration of OT ideals throughout this period, and Evans summarizes this:
- He disagreed with the Rabbi's that association with women led inevitably to lust. The logic that led to segregation within Rabbinix found no place in Jesus' teaching. Jesus does not warn his followers against looking at women, but rather against doing so in lust. Women's association and traveling with the apostolic band was NOT to be restricted due to the "natural desires of men"! (WS:WIB:45-46).
- Jesus asserted that a woman could divorce her husband; the Rabbi's said only a MAN could initiate divorce (WS:JWGRP:143: "Thus far it should be clear that divorce was always the right and responsibility of the husband to initiate. Jewish law was asymmetrical in this respect, as opposed to Roman law, which grants the wife the right to divorce her husband.")
- Jesus touched "unclean women" (e.g. the woman with the flow of blood in Mt 9.18ff); Rabbi's would not do so.
- "Jesus not only spoke freely with women, healed them, allowed them to touch him and to bring their children to see him, he also allowed them to serve him. This was not, of course, unusual in a family situation, but it was unusual for a Rabbi, as the Rabbis strongly disapproved of women even serving them at tables." (WS:WIB:48)
- "Rabbinic parables pointedly avoided mentioning women, but Jesus often told stories relating to the life of women." (WS:WIB:48)
- Jesus often spoke to women in public; Jewish men shunned this (Aboth 1:5)
- Jesus conversed at length with the Samaritan woman (surprising even his disciples!); Rabbi's would not do so--Samaritan women were considered "perpetual menstuants"! (Niddah 4.1).
- Women were used as witnesses in the resurrection accounts; they were not allowed as witnesses (generally) under Rabbinic law [WS:JWGRP:163f].
- He allowed women to follow Him in His travels and ministry. "Jesus, too, knowingly overthrew custom when he allowed women to follow him." (Jeremias, cited in WS:ATW:138)
- Jesus taught women freely, and sometimes in standard Rabbinical "style" (e.g. Luke 10.38-42). Brown summarizes this contrast well:
Jesus' attitude contrasts with the sentiments of the rabbis. In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer declared, 'There is no wisdom in a woman except with the distaff.' One version adds, 'It is better that the words of the Law should be burned, than that they should be given to a women.' In the Mishnah the same rabbi made a similarly strong statement when he said 'If a man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law it is as though he taught her lechery.' Jesus broke with rabbinical tradition when he taught women and included them among his followers (WS:ATW:143)
- "He never used women as negative examples, as was so common in rabbinical teaching. He referred to women positively and used illustrations from their everyday lives to teach spiritual truths." (WS:ATW:150).
- Jesus accepted and valued women highly; the famous prayer of Rabbi Judah would not have been found on His lips: "Blessed be Thou for not having made me a Gentile, a woman, or an ignoramus." (Tosephta Berakoth 7, 18.)
As far as first century Judaism in general is concerned there is no doubt at all that the place of the woman was not equal to that of the man. Women were subordinate and inferior to men in religion, in the society in general and also in the home and family. There were exceptions, the practice did not always follow the theory, the country was rather more free than the town and the lot of women in Judaism was still somewhat happier than that of women elsewhere in the Orient. But, nevertheless, it is possible to see a dramatic decline in the position and status of women in every sphere as compared to the situation as described in the Old Testament. (WS:WIB:36-37).
The rabbinical standards, as expounded in their documents, are decidedly non-Jesus-like (WS:WIB:33):
There are occasions where women are described as hardworking, compassionate or intelligent (note A), but they are more often seen as lazy, stupid, garrulous, vain, having a tendency to the occult (note B), and in many ways, frivolous and unteachable (note C). Jeremias points out that disdainful opinions far outweigh those of high esteem (note D), and the picture is well summed up by Josephus, when he says, 'The woman...is in all things inferior to a man.' (note E)
These contrasts are between Jesus and the later Rabbinical writings, but as mentioned above would only be relevant IF the situation in which Jesus ministered was similar/identical to the attitudes expressed in those writings.
[Notes from above:
- Note A: Ket 30a; Meg. 14b; Nidd.45b
- Note B: Sanh. 7a; Shab. 33b; Kidd. 49b; Ket. 59b, 65a.
- Note C: Shab. 33b.
- Note D: J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Times of Jesus, p.375.
- Note E: Contra Apionem 24.201.]
There does exist a body of contrary data, that supports a 'higher' view of women in this period--in regards to religion, legal status, and even literary efforts. For the interested reader, I refer you to WS:EWEC, WS:WLT, WS:WWWP. There is even some 'relief' in the rabbinical writings-cf. WS:WWR:196-200.
- Jesus consistently uses women as examples of virtue.
- Jesus consistently uses illustrations from women's lives in His teachings.
- Jesus accepts women as full-fledged members of the Abrahamic community.
- Women functioned as patrons of Jesus and the apostolic band.
- This patronage was not the "at arms length" type of patronage; but involved travel, discipleship, service, and learning.
- Women were active and effective in evangelism.
- Women were the first at the tomb, and the last at the Cross.
- Women were chosen by God to be the first witnesses of the Resurrection.
- Jesus uses a woman as an example of God the Father.
- Women were expected to be aggressive disciples.
- Jesus focuses first on a woman's relationship to God.
- Women were equal in responsibility and guilt before God.
- Women are expected to obey revelation.
- Jesus devoted a lot of his healing ministry to women.
- Jesus' use of illustrations from women's lives indicates that He was preaching to them.
- His discussion exchanges with Mary/Martha/the Samaritan Woman/the Canaanite Women indicate that He considered women as significant dialogue partners, as able to understand his message, as worth the time and effort!
- Jesus accepted women as disciples, in the rabbinical model.
- Jesus' attitudes and actions toward women were revolutionary in comparison with Rabbinic teachings.
One can scarcely review this data and not notice how radical was Jesus' approach to the women He encountered. He neither romanticized them nor denigrated them. He neither doted on them, nor ignored them. Rather, He accepted them as 'real people' with real needs, and real talents/resources of use to His ministry. His attitudes of full acceptance of women as useful and responsible disciples was in marked contrast to those of the rabbis of His (or a later) day.
He did not make sex an issue, or allow it as an excuse--He focused on obedience, honesty, and loyalty to the covenant of God. He expected His daughters to shoulder His "easy yoke" as well, and in so doing, to find the rest their hearts sought (Mt 11.28-30).
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