Women in the Heart of God (6)

The Data From the Life and Ministry of Jesus

[updated 12/14/96]
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:

  1. The Roles women played in the ministry and teachings of Jesus.

  2. Their equal Responsibilities before God.

  3. His ministry to women.

Then we will briefly examine the question of how revolutionary this might have been in the context of first-century Judaism. .............................................................................

  1. The Roles women played in the ministry and teachings of Jesus.


  2. Their equal Responsibilities before God.


  3. His ministry to women.


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?

  1. 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).

  2. 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.")

  3. Jesus touched "unclean women" (e.g. the woman with the flow of blood in Mt 9.18ff); Rabbi's would not do so.

  4. "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)

  5. "Rabbinic parables pointedly avoided mentioning women, but Jesus often told stories relating to the life of women." (WS:WIB:48)

  6. Jesus often spoke to women in public; Jewish men shunned this (Aboth 1:5)

  7. Jesus conversed at length with the Samaritan woman (surprising even his disciples!); Rabbi's would not do so--Samaritan women were considered "perpetual menstruants"! (Niddah 4.1).

  8. Women were used as witnesses in the resurrection accounts; they were not allowed as witnesses (generally) under Rabbinic law [WS:JWGRP:163f].

  9. 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)

  10. 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)
  11. "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).

  12. 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.)

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:
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)

[Notes from above:

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.

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.


  1. Jesus consistently uses women as examples of virtue.
  2. Jesus consistently uses illustrations from women's lives in His teachings.
  3. Jesus accepts women as full-fledged members of the Abrahamic community.
  4. Women functioned as patrons of Jesus and the apostolic band.
  5. This patronage was not the "at arm's length" type of patronage; but involved travel, discipleship, service, and learning.
  6. Women were active and effective in evangelism.
  7. Women were the first at the tomb, and the last at the Cross.
  8. Women were chosen by God to be the first witnesses of the Resurrection.
  9. Jesus uses a woman as an example of God the Father.
  10. Women were expected to be aggressive disciples.
  11. Jesus focuses first on a woman's relationship to God.
  12. Women were equal in responsibility and guilt before God.
  13. Women are expected to obey revelation.
  14. Jesus devoted a lot of his healing ministry to women.
  15. Jesus' use of illustrations from women's lives indicates that He was preaching to them.
  16. 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!
  17. Jesus accepted women as disciples, in the rabbinical model.
  18. 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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