A thread woven throughout the ministry and teaching of Jesus is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Prominently, God’s kingdom brings dynamic implications: healing for the sick, liberation for the subjugated, and joy to the dejected (e.g., Luke 4:18–19). In short, the kingdom of God reorients the way of life. This article will consider how the coming of the kingdom of God provides “an alternative ordering of society”1 regarding women in community and leadership. This article will indeed study Jesus’s ministry and teachings throughout the Gospels. But because Jesus was a Jew and the Torah was influential in his ministry and life, we will begin by analyzing how the OT speaks to a woman’s place in society.
Women in Ancient Israel
Written primarily by men and steeped in cultural patriarchy, the OT presents challenges in understanding the experiences women had in ancient Israel. However, we can sketch a portrait of life for a woman in ancient Israel. To begin, an Israelite’s life revolved around the family. Joanna Dewey explains, “The basic unit of ancient society was not the individual as in the West today, but the family or kinship unit. Individual needs and desires were subordinated to those of the family group under the male head of household.”2 This kinship unit defined the way each individual within the household fit into the greater society. According to Leo Perdue, the family unit existed in three spheres: household (bet av), clan or village (mispahah), and region or group of clans (mattah).3 The bet av or household consisted at least of one’s nuclear family. For an unmarried woman or man, the bet av was the household of his/her father. An example is Gen 50:8, where Joseph’s “house” refers to the nuclear family of which he is head. However, the bet av could also refer to servants, slaves, concubines, sojourners, and orphans receiving protection and provision.4 The mispahah was the clan or “residential kinship group” of several families. These villages were held together by kinship, marriage, language, economic collaboration, shared traditions and laws, and a common religion.5
The primary sphere of influence for an Israelite woman was the internal affairs of the household. William Loader notes: “Normally men ruled households, taking the major responsibility for handling all affairs outside the home and leaving domestic management, including of slaves, to the wife.”6 The normal duties for a woman included tasks such as grinding flour, cooking, spinning wool, and making and cleaning clothes.7 We see some of these duties highlighted in the celebration of a capable or valiant wife in Prov 31:10–31.
Beyond the Household
There are women throughout the OT whose leadership is displayed beyond the bet av. As a key example, Deborah stepped forward to lead the Israelites in victory over the Canaanites in a chaotic and violent time. Deborah was a prophetess who judged Israel (Judg 4:4). Deborah served as a powerful example to women in ancient Israel. Susan Niditch writes:
[Deborah] is a conduit to God, a vessel for divine communication of various kinds. It is this inspirited, oracular gift that allows her to “judge,” leading on and off the battlefield. That she is female and therefore not expected to lead in a military context only enhances the impression of the judge as one raised by God, inspired and unusual, beyond the workaday roles of men and women.8
In Micah 6, the prophet identifies Miriam as one of the three leaders sent by God to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt: “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Mic 6:4 NRSV). When we are introduced to Miriam in Exod 15, she is called a prophetess (Exod 15:20). According to the prophet Micah, Miriam was as an agent of God’s deliverance for Israel—an expanded role from the culture norms at the time.
During the reign of Josiah (ca. 649–609 BC), after the Book of the Law had been discovered in the temple, Josiah turned to a prophetess named Huldah for help. Huldah confirmed the authenticity of the book and brought forth prophecy concerning Israel and Josiah (2 Kgs 22:15–20). Scot McKnight explains that, “Huldah is not chosen because no men were available. She is chosen because she is truly exceptional among the prophets.”9 Noadiah (Neh 6:14) and Isaiah’s wife (Isa 8:1–4) are also described as prophetesses. So clearly, there are examples of women assuming leadership roles outside the bet av.
Generally, in ancient Israel, a father was responsible for arranging marriages for both sons and daughters. Abraham, not Isaac, sends for Isaac’s bride (Gen 24:1–4). Similarly, Samson asks his father and mother to get him a bride, and both parents objected to his choice of a Philistine woman (Judg 14:1–4). At the point of marriage, a woman would become part of her husband’s household. A woman’s primary role as a part of her husband’s household was bearing and raising children. Without children, a woman was often scorned and shamed. For instance, Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was despised by Peninnah, the other wife of her husband, Elkanah, for her barrenness (1 Sam 1:1–7). Sarai, because of her barrenness, despised her maidservant Hagar when she found out Hagar had become pregnant by Abram (Gen 16:4–5). Bearing and raising children was an important part of a woman’s household responsibilities. However, it is a misrepresentation of marriage in ancient Israel to conclude a wife was only valued for bearing and rearing sons. Numerous times throughout the OT, the wife who gave birth to sons was not the favored wife (e.g., Gen 29:32, 34; 1 Sam 1:4).
Care for widows was common in ancient Israel. Within the patriarchal system that birthed ancient Israel, widows often struggled to provide for themselves—hence the narrative of Ruth. As another example, Num 27 indicates that, if a widow had children of her own, her husband’s estate would have passed on to them. However, if a widow had no children, the nearest of her husband’s kin would have received his estate. The custom known as levirate marriage, by which a male relative provided an heir for a childless widow, was designed to ease a widow in this situation (Deut 25:5–6).
There has been abundant debate regarding the status and value of women in ancient Israel. Some have argued that the OT treats all women as property in full subordination to their male authority figure. For instance, in the Ten Commandments we read: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod 20:17 NRSV, cf. Deut 5:21). Here, the wife seems to be classified as her husband’s property—listed with the slaves and work animals. It is significant that there is no command to wives, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s husband.” Jacob Neusner writes: “In effect, just as a farmer acquires a slave or an ox or real estate, so the householder-husband effects possession of, and gains title to, a woman.”10 Laws against adultery (Exod 20:13, Lev 18:20, Deut 22:22) also contribute to the perspective of women as property. Judith Wegner writes:
The law of adultery prohibits intercourse between a man and another man’s wife but not between a married man and an unmarried woman. Scripture perceives adultery primarily as a violation of property and for this reason alone an offense against morality.11
A daughter is understood to be property of her father. In cases of marriage, seduction, or rape, the father collects a bride-price from the man (Exod 22:15–16, Deut 22:28–29). In the words of Wegner, “The bride-price compensates for loss of the daughter’s virginity, treated as the father’s economic asset.”12 Undoubtedly, the laws of inheritance, betrothal and divorce were heavily biased in men’s favor.
Others, however, have argued that while women were disadvantaged in ancient Israel, they were not treated as property. Israelite women did garner rights and respect. In Exod 20, for example, we read: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (20:12 NRSV, cf. Deut 5:16). In Lev 19:3, the command is altered: “You shall each revere your mother and father. . .” (NRSV). Note that one’s mother comes first in this command, thus bolstering our view that mother and father are revered equally in an Israelite household. A wife is entitled to maintenance or sustenance from her husband: “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife” (Exod 21:10 NRSV). A daughter has a right to inherit from her father if he has no living sons (Num 27:1–11). Daughters, wives, widows, and divorced women are able to make binding religious vows (Num 30). And in certain circumstances, a wife can proceed with a divorce from her husband.13
In regard to worship, Alice Bach writes:
Leadership . . . appears at all times to have been in the hands of males (though with differing patterns and sources of recruitment into the leadership group). Women, however, were not excluded absolutely from cultic service or sacred space, though increasing restriction is suggested, correlated with increasing centralization, specialization and power (at least in Judah) under a royally sanctioned Zadokite priesthood.14
Men held the positions of greatest authority and honor, performing many tasks that required technical skill and training. Men were responsible for the presentation of sacrifices and offerings, the interpretation of the sacred law, and pronouncing blessings. The priestly office in Israel was reserved for men. This brief overview is one necessary building block in understanding Jesus’s perspective on how the kingdom of God reorients family and women in God’s unfolding story.
Next, we will look at writings from the Apocrypha and certain non-canonical Jewish texts, focusing on the spectrum of attitudes towards women.
Women in the Apocrypha and Other Ancient Jewish Texts
One attitude toward women in these texts is a posture of fear. Women were believed to have uncontrollable sexual appetites that would lead themselves and others into sinful behavior. Ben Sira15 reveals a deep-seated fear of women’s shame—their infective, sexual, and immodest will that threatens the honor of a man:
Do not be jealous of the wife of your bosom, or you will teach her an evil lesson to your own hurt. Do not give yourself to a woman and let her trample down your strength. Do not go near a loose woman, or you will fall into her snares. Do not dally with a singing girl, or you will be caught by her tricks. Do not look intently at a virgin, or you may stumble and incur penalties for her. Do not give yourself to prostitutes, or you may lose your inheritance. Do not look around in the streets of a city, or wander about in its deserted sections. Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman, and do not gaze at beauty belonging to another; many have been seduced by a woman’s beauty, and by it passion is kindled like a fire. (Sir 9:1–8 NRSV)
First Esdras16 speaks of a similar fear. Chapter 4 explores the power and influence women have over men: “Many men have lost their minds because of women, and have become slaves because of them. Many have perished, or stumbled, or sinned because of women” (1 Esd 4:26–27 NRSV). Throughout some of the Apocryphal writings, there is fear of the “strange” or “foreign” woman. For instance, Tobit warns his son against marrying a foreign woman. Instead, he should marry a woman from his “father’s tribe” (Tob 4:12). Ezra confronts the men of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin: “You have broken the law and married foreign women, and so have increased the sin of Israel” (1 Esd 9:7). As a result of such fear, Ben Sira suggests that fathers should keep their daughters under lock and key:
Keep strict watch over a headstrong daughter, or she may make you a laughingstock to your enemies, a byword in the city and the assembly of the people, and put you to shame in public gatherings. See that there is no lattice in her room, no spot that overlooks the approaches to your house. Do not let her parade her beauty before any man, or spend her time among married women; for from garments come the moth, and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness. Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace. (Sir 42.11–14)
Third Maccabees, another text of the first century BC, pictures the restricted lives of young women in Jewish households. According to this text, daughters were expected to be veiled and “enclosed in their chambers”; the author speaks of their “proper modesty” (3 Macc 1:18). Brides were kept in the “marriage chamber,” away from public view (3 Macc 4:6).
Judith, the main character in the apocryphal book that bears her name, is a perfect example of the kind of woman glorified by Ben Sira and other writers from the same era. Tal Ilan notes:
Although Judith is a very public heroine who goes out among men and beats them at their own game, when she is not required to act in an emergency she “was a widow in her house three years and four months. And she made her tent on the roof of her house and put on sackcloth upon her loins and the garments of widowhood upon her, and she fasted all the days of her widowhood. . .” (Jdt. 8:4–6). This woman voluntarily confines herself to exactly the sort of spaces recommended by Ben Sira.17
Non-canonical Jewish Writings
In some non-canonical writings, however, the role of Bible women expands. Jubilees, a rewriting of Israel’s origins most likely from the second century AD, embellishes the character Rebekah more than any other character. Randall Chesnutt explains:
Although Isaac is treated sympathetically in this text, he is not presented as having any particular quality that makes him heroic or worthy of emulation. Rather, it is his wife [Rebekah] who assumes the mantle of leadership in their marriage and provides the bridge from Abraham to Jacob.18
In Jubilees, the reason for Rebekah’s preference for Jacob over Esau is given. Abraham commands Rebekah to favor Jacob so that God’s plan may be accomplished through him (Jub 19:15–31). The text then justifies Rebekah’s favoritism by noting her blessing as divinely inspired (25:14–23). And after the death of Abraham, Rebekah takes the mantle of leadership. She strongly discourages Jacob from marrying a Canaanite woman (25:1–3) and performs the parental blessing over Jacob (25:11–23). Rebekah’s matriarchal blessing is without precedent in the biblical text. According to 25:14, her speech during the blessing is inspired as the “spirit of truth” or “spirit of righteousness” descends upon her. Rebekah lays hands upon Jacob—an act no woman performs in the Bible. Throughout all of this, Isaac is seemingly absent. In Jubilees, Rebekah is uplifted as exemplary, to be emulated by other Jews. Chesnutt concludes:
As a moral example therefore, as well as a familial leader, Rebekah takes her place alongside the patriarchs of Israel. . . . Taking the leadership role that her unassuming husband did not, she conveys the election from Abraham to Jacob and assures the continuity of salvation history.19
In the Testament of Job, the reader experiences a spectrum of attitudes towards women. Chapters 1–45 portray women as spiritually ignorant and thus easily deceived by Satan. As John Collins puts it: The function of these women is as “a foil to show of Job’s superior handling of the situation.”20 However, in chs. 46–53, there is a significant shift. In ch. 46, as Job gathers his children together to pass on to them their inheritance, he only distributes goods to the men. Angry with their father’s decision, the daughters said to Job, “Our father, sir, are we not also your children? Why then did you not give us some of your goods?” (46:2). Job replies by assuring his daughters they have not been forgotten and promises them a better inheritance than the one given to their brothers. He then gives each of his three daughters a “multicolored cord” that would benefit them in this world and “lead [them] into the better world, to live in the heavens” (47:3–4). As a result, each of the daughters is transformed, “disregarding earthly matters and praising God in angelic languages.”21 Job’s role in the remainder of the book is minor, and the daughters’ brothers and uncle are described in unflattering ways. As Chesnutt puts it:
In a reversal of the stereotypes prominent in the earlier chapters, the “feminine” lack of perception attributed to Job’s maidservant and his wife is here ascribed to the helpless male characters. The men are not only unaware of the glorious fate of Job’s soul, they even assume the typically “female” role of expressing the lament. The women, on the other hand, are now the knowledgeable ones who, like Job, do not become distraught over earthly afflictions but take comfort in heavenly reality.22
The Apocrypha and non-canonical texts described above provide a spectrum of thought regarding women in Jewish life. And as a faithful Jew, Jesus surely knew of these traditions and perspectives. Another factor that must be addressed in better understanding Jesus’s perspective on women in light of the kingdom of God is the rabbinic writings included in the Mishnah, Philo, Josephus, and findings from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Jewish Literature on Women in the First and Second Centuries AD
The Mishnah is a compilation of rabbinic teaching from the first and second centuries AD. It is second only to certain NT writings in its value for understanding the Judaism, especially Pharisaic Judaism, of Jesus’s era.
While there is some diversity among the rabbinic sayings included in the Mishnah regarding women, it is clear that women were treated as inferior to men and were expected to use their influence primarily within the household. The Order of Women, which is one of the six Mishnaic divisions, shines light on the expectations of women in first and second century Judaism. To begin, it is important to note that not all women were treated equally. In the Mishnah, women were divided between “dependent women” and “autonomous women.”23 The three classes of dependent women were minor daughter, wife, and levirate widow. The three classes of autonomous women were adult daughter, divorcee, and widow. All dependent women were reliant upon the male authority in their life. For instance, in the case of a minor daughter, her father is the male authority. A father would arrange his minor daughter’s marriage (Ketub 4:4). If the minor daughter was raped, a penalty would be paid to her father (Ketub 4:1). For an autonomous daughter, she is responsible for her own marriage (Qidd 2:1) and if raped, penalties are paid directly to her as the victim (Ketub 3:6). According to Wegner, “a woman’s biological function is an economic asset, as witness the formalities for transferring women from one man to another.”24
While there are some circumstances in which women are treated as sexual chattel, other aspects of Mishnaic law expand a dependent woman’s rights and personhood. A husband is unable to sell his wife’s property without her consent (Git 5:6). A wife is entitled to maintenance and provision in exchange for her work within the household (Ketub 5:5, 9). Wives can engage in transactions for their own business (Git 6:1) and step in as their husbands’ representatives to sell goods (Ketub 9:4). While such was the case, an autonomous woman’s rights are further expanded from those of her dependent counterpart.
Generally, the Mishnah excluded women from the study of Torah and specified prayers. For example, a disagreement arises between two rabbis. Rabbi Ben Azai said, “A man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah. . . .” In response, Rabbi Eliezar said, “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is considered as if he taught her foolishness” (Sotah 3:4). For women to gather to study Torah together was prohibited (Pesah 8:7). In short, women were deprived from many opportunities to be challenged intellectually and spiritually from study of the Torah. Some rabbinic sayings even linked women to witchcraft (Abot 2:7) and licentiousness (Sotah 3:4).
It is impossible to detail every aspect of a “woman’s place” as put forth by the Mishnah. However, Wegner provides a helpful summation:
The Mishnah clearly depicts a society that expects women to spend their lives largely in the domestic realm. Systematic restriction of a woman’s options and even her physical movements in the public domain of the culture made it virtually impossible for women to choose an alternative lifestyle, even had societal pressures not sufficed to preclude such a choice.25
Numerous times in the writings of Philo, a first century AD Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, women are treated as inferior to men. Philo describes men as more complete than women, the male as superior to the female.26 He depicts women as passive and irrational, while men he regards as active and rational. Throughout his writings, Philo attributes a variety of evils to women. He writes that a woman is a:
selfish creature and one addicted to jealousy in an immoderate degree, and terribly calculated to agitate and overturn the natural inclinations of a man, and to mislead him by her continual tricks; for as she is always studying deceitful speeches and all other kinds of hypocrisy, like an actress on the stage, when she is alluring the eyes and ears of her husband, she proceeds to cajole his predominant mind after the servants have been deceived.27
Philo draws a distinction between the different portions of the soul. Richard Baer writes: “Whereas the male element in the soul is directed towards God, the female part of the soul ‘clings to all that is born and perishes, stretching out its faculties like a hand to catch blindly at what comes its way.’”28 For Philo, a woman’s sexuality is a constant threat to men—even within the confinement of marriage. Because of this threat, Philo, much like Ben Sira, advises:
A woman, then, should not be a busybody, meddling with matters outside her household concerns, but should seek a life of seclusion. She should not show herself off like a vagrant in the streets before the eyes of other men.29
Philo’s perspective on women is rooted in his understanding of creation. To Philo, creation consists of a hierarchy of gender which acknowledges women’s position as inferior and submissive to men.
Josephus, a first-century AD Jewish historian, made various remarks regarding women and discussed how women found their place in Jewish and Roman history. In his work Jewish Antiquities, Josephus discourages women from bearing testimony in a dispute. He writes:
But let not the testimony of women be admitted on account of the inconstancy and presumption of their sex; nor let servants be admitted to give testimony, on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment.30
Throughout Jewish Antiquities, Josephus gives slight critiques directed at women throughout Jewish history. When mentioning Potiphar’s wife and the vengeance she would outpour upon Joseph for rejecting her sexual advances, the idea of accusing Joseph for initiating the sexual encounter seemed to her “alike wise and womanly” (Antiquities 3:5). In Josephus’s version of the story of Samson, he attributes to Samson the remark that there is nothing “more deceitful than a woman who betrays our speech to you” (Antiquities 5:294). While the majority of Josephus’s writings are particularly negative towards women, it is striking that he portrays Abigail from the narrative in 1 Sam 25 in such a positive light (Antiquities 6:195–309).
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed a collection of many Jewish documents encompassing various subjects, including the role of women in Jewish life. One scroll, called the Damascus Document, gives certain women the responsibility of examining women whose virginity prior to marriage had been questioned.31 Numerous texts indicate that women were expected to be present during rituals and an integral part of daily community life:
When they come they will assemble all who come, including children and women, and they will recite in [their hear]ing [a]ll the statues of the covenant and instruct them in all their commands lest they stray in their errors.32
With this brief overview of first century Jewish literature regarding attitudes towards women in Jewish life, let us now turn our attention to Jesus, the kingdom of God and the implications for women in the four Gospels.
Jesus, the Kingdom of God, and Women
In McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy, he explains five features of the kingdom that shape the story of Israel: a king, a rule, a people, a land, and a law. Jesus serves as the king, the people are those who follow Jesus as king, the land is the place where the citizens will embody the kingdom of God, and the law is the “law of Christ” or “life in the Spirit” of God.33 With the arrival of the kingdom of God, a new community or citizenry is birthed around the lordship of Jesus as king (e.g., Mark 3:20–35). This new family created by the kingdom of God threatens accepted societal norms and hierarchy. When Jesus calls James and John to leave their father, Zebedee, and follow him, he invites them to participate in this alternative community—which would clash with ancient society’s most essential building block: the family or kinship unit (e.g., Mark 1:19–20). In Matt 8, a man desiring to follow Jesus requests to bury his deceased father before he embarks on this journey. Jesus offers a radical response to his request: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt 8:22b NRSV). Craig Keener describes how Jesus’s invitation to this alternative family contends with the prevailing family structure:
The offense lies not in the immediacy of the demand but in the priority the demand takes over family obligations. Many Jewish people considered honoring parents the supreme command, and regarding burial of one’s parents as one of the most important implications of that commandment regardless of the circumstances (Tob 4.3–4; 6.14; 1 Macc 2.70; 4 Macc 16.11). . . . Jesus scandalously claims the supreme position of attention in his followers’ lives.34
One of the distinctions of this new community ushered in by the kingdom of God is the treatment and status of women. Throughout the accounts in the Gospels, Jesus’s treatment of women is without parallel in first-century Palestine. In the words of Thomas Schreiner: “Jesus’ treatment of women was revolutionary in that he treated them with dignity and respect.”35 Jesus defied the accepted cultural norms towards women and put forth a new reality which his followers were called to participate.
One of the ways Jesus’s treatment of women radically clashed with first-century Jewish standards was his disregard for ritual impurity laws. In Mark 5, Jesus is approached by a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. The language in Mark 5 brings to mind the purity laws found in Leviticus (Mark 5:25; Lev 12:7, 15:25). Jewish tradition and law were greatly apprehensive over contamination by contact with blood. However, regarding Jewish purity laws, “unclean” did not suggest sinful behavior or social repulsion. M. Eugene Boring clarifies:
[“Unclean”] does not connote dirtiness or disgust associated with bodily liquids and functions, but is a matter of the power associated with blood and with reproductive functions and organs, a power that must be safeguarded—somewhat as we speak of “contamination” and “decontamination” from radiation.36
Certain parts of the Mishnah speak directly to safeguards that were put in place in cases of menstruation and irregular bleeding.37 The community would be sequestered from such impurity. We read in Mark 5, however, that in a crowd, the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years reaches out and touches Jesus’s clothing—hoping that by touching his clothes, she would experience healing. After the woman falls before Jesus to confess that she was the one who touched his garment, he replies, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34b NRSV). In this interaction, both the woman and Jesus challenged Jewish societal norms. Boring concludes:
Her faith had caused her to violate conventional social constraints by appearing in public and especially by touching the revered holy man (to touch someone’s garments is to touch the person). Jesus too transgresses the customary norms by stopping, touching, and talking with a woman.38
Jesus also parts with conventional Jewish practice by speaking with foreign women. As mentioned previously, some writings warned Jewish men to avoid foreign women (Tob 4:12, 1 Esd 9:7). In John 4, Jesus engages in a conversation with a Samaritan woman. Ben Witherington explains the Jewish perception of Samaritans:
It appears that by Jesus’ day, Samaria as a land was regarded by many of the religiously observant Judean and Galilean Jews as unclean, and contact with these people, especially their women, or sharing a meal or common cup with them was widely held to render a Jew unclean. m. Nid. 4:1 records a saying that appears to go back at least to the middle of the first century A.D. which reads “The daughters of the Samaritans are menstruants from the cradle,” in other words they are unclean from birth.39
Here, Jesus’s attitude toward women is further exposed by the way he treats a woman most likely considered immoral and unclean by his Jewish contemporaries. First, as a man, Jesus is not supposed to be speaking with foreign or “strange” women in public. Second, as a Jew he is not to engage in conversation with Samaritans—leading to the Gospel writer’s note: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9b NRSV). The word translated “share things in common” (sunchrōntai) could refer to Jesus sharing a cup of water with the Samaritan woman. Because of this conversation, the woman bears witness among her neighboring Samaritans that Jesus had told her everything she had done (4:29, 39). The Samaritans then left their city and came to meet him. Witherington describes the significance of this narrative: “‘The hour is coming and now is’ when even women, even Samaritan women, even sinful Samaritan women, may be both members and messengers of this King and his Kingdom.”40 With the new community and new King provided by the arrival of God’s kingdom, even “sinful” Samaritan women are given an invitation to participate.
Jesus also steps over social boundaries by his acceptance of women as disciples. In first century Palestine, rabbis considered the study of the Torah an exercise exclusively for men.41 However, in Luke 10, Jesus celebrates and blesses a woman named Mary who “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (Luke 10:39b NRSV). Luke 8 describes the inner-circle of Jesus’s followers. This community consists of twelve male disciples and an unspecified number of female disciples (including Mary called Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many others). Joel Green points out the significance of both men and women serving as travel companions with Jesus: “Luke’s summary identifies the twelve and these women as companions and witnesses of Jesus’ ministry (cf. 23:49; Acts 1:21); they are being prepared for involvement in mission (cf. 9:1–6; 10:1–11). . . .”42
In the Greco-Roman and first-century rabbinic world, it would have been extraordinary for women to participate in the ministry and teaching of a traveling teacher or rabbi. Jesus breaks the mold of his time by forming a new community around himself—and incorporating women into that community. Like the male disciples, women disciples were being prepared to become active agents in the mission of God. While these women were recipients of the grace Jesus extended them, they were also benefactors of his ministry. When describing the women surrounding Jesus as he traveled, Luke mentions that these women “provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:3b NRSV).
Luke also utilizes male/female parallel narratives, both in his Gospel and in the book of Acts, to present women as equal participants in the new community birthed from the kingdom of God. Examples include Simeon, a man described as righteous and devout, and Anna, a woman described as a prophet, who both recognize the infant Jesus as the child that would bring about redemption for Israel (Luke 2:25–38). In close proximity, Jesus heals a man possessed by a demon and he heals his disciple Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:31–39). In Luke 7, Jesus demonstrates forgiveness to both the sinful woman who had anointed his feet with oil and to Simon (Luke 7:36–50). Helmut Flender argues that this parallelism in Luke is deliberate since these pairings are not found in the other Synoptic Gospels: “Luke expresses by this arrangement that man and woman stand together and side by side before God. They are equal in honour and grace, they are endowed with the same gifts and have the same responsibilities (cf. Gen 1:27; Gal 3:28).”43 Similarly, Jane Kopas concludes that, with the sensitivity of the Gospel of Luke towards women, Luke suggests a measure of equality that was unexpected in Jesus’s time.44 To put it explicitly, Jesus practices and embodies a “discipleship of equals.”45
Both Matthew and Mark describe women as following Jesus to his crucifixion at Golgotha. In Matthew, we read: “Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matt 27:55–56 NRSV). According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus’s male disciples had fled the scene. However, the Gospel of John contradicts this claim—arguing that “the disciple whom he loved” was present with the women at Jesus’s crucifixion (John 19:25–27). The resurrection of Jesus, the central event in human history, is revealed first, not to his male disciples, to the chief priests or Romans officials, but to a group of women who came to care for his body (Matt 28:1–20, Mark 16:1–9, Luke 23:55–24:10, John 20:1). Women are the first witnesses to the crucial moment in human history. In many cases, women in the first century were denigrated as witnesses—considered unreliable, open to persuasion and prone to exaggeration.46 In fact, in Mark and Luke, Peter and/or the other male disciples did not believe the testimony given by Mary Magdalene and the other women (Mark 16:11, 13; Luke 24:11). Mike Aquilina writes: “At a time when a woman’s testimony was inadmissible in a court of law, it must have seemed almost perverse for Jesus to trust that news to a female.”47 There is no doubt that the Gospels present numerous examples of Jesus establishing a new community in which the role of women stands in stark contrast to conventional first-century Jewish practice.
One potentially problematic element regarding Jesus and women is his conversation with a Canaanite woman in Matt 15 (called a Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7). Jesus appears to be tactless, perhaps rude, toward this woman as she asks Jesus to exorcise a demon from her daughter. To the woman’s request, Jesus replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24 NRSV). She is persistent in her plea, responding to Jesus by kneeling before him and saying “Lord, help me” (v. 25). Jesus replies, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matt 15:26 NRSV). It is true that “dog” was used by some within the Jewish tradition to refer to Gentiles in a derogatory manner.48 Many Jews considered dogs unclean and scavengers, similar to pigs.49 However, the word for “dogs” used in both Mark 7:27 and Matt 15:26 (kunariois) should be translated as “house dogs” or “domestic dogs” and is different from the pejorative term that compared wild dogs that roamed the streets with Gentiles. It is likely that Jesus is testing this woman, like many rabbis tested their disciples (e.g., John 6:6). Jesus could have also used this metaphor as a means of explaining his mission to Israel and the coming of the kingdom of God. Michael Wilkins writes: “Jesus used the metaphor similarly in the Sermon on the Mount to indicate that the holy message of the gospel of the kingdom must not be defiled by those who are unreceptive to, or have rejected, Jesus’ invitation (Matt 7:6).”50 In her faith, she responds to Jesus by saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matt 15:27 NRSV). This woman, who already humbled herself before Jesus, now presses him to share his blessings promised to the Gentiles. Wilkins concludes:
Although Israel receives the primary blessings of the covenant, Gentiles also were to be recipients of blessing through them (see Gen. 12:3). The woman draws on the promise to seek the aid of Jesus Messiah. She understands the program of God to go to Israel first, but she persists. In a sense, Jesus is testing her. Will she see through the salvation-historical distinction between Israel and the Gentiles and recognize that God ultimately desires to bring healing to all people?51
With this test, the Canaanite woman responds brilliantly. Jesus celebrates her faith, which is rewarded by the healing of her daughter (Matt 15:28).
After a brief overview of the role of women in ancient Israel, the Apocrypha, and other Jewish sources from the era, it is clear that, with the emergence of the kingdom of God, Jesus established a new community that had direct implications for the women of his time. This new family, centered around himself, consists of men and women who answer his simple, yet profound call: “Follow me.” In contrast with the cultural norms and attitudes of first and second century Palestine, which state that a woman’s primary sphere of influence is within the household, God’s kingdom liberates women to accept the invitation of Jesus to join God’s unfolding mission. Jesus invites women into his presence, he equips women in mission, and he commissions women to bear witness to the faithfulness of God. In short, the influence and role of women expands beyond what was culturally accepted at the time. Jesus’s overwhelming example of dignity and opportunity for women in first-century Palestine demonstrates that the kingdom reorients all aspects of life—including the role of women in God’s work. Jesus envisions a new family—one which practices “discipleship of equals” in the pursuit of God’s mission of reconciliation.
1. William Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality (Eerdmans, 2012) 339.
2. Joanna Dewey, “Women in the Gospel of Mark,” WW 26/1 (2006) 23.
3. Leo Perdue et al., Families in Ancient Israel (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) 38.
4. Perdue et al., Families in Ancient Israel, 238.
5. Perdue et al., Families in Ancient Israel, 177.
6. Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality, 12.
7. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003) 78.
8. Susan Niditch, Judges: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2008) 65.
9. Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Zondervan, 2010) 174.
10. Jacob Neusner, Making God’s Word Work (Bloomsbury, 2004) 179.
11. Judith Romney Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah (Oxford University Press, 1992) 13.
12. Wegner, Chattel or Person, 13; see also the article by Jessica Stefick on pages 3–6 in this issue of Priscilla Papers.
13. Ben Witherington III, Women and the Genesis of Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 1990) 6.
14. Alice Bach, Women in the Hebrew Bible (Routledge, 1998) 9.
15. An apocryphal or deuterocanonical book written in the early second century BC, various called Ecclesiasticus, The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach, or simply (Ben) Sira(ch).
16. An expanded Greek version of the OT book of Ezra considered canonical by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
17. Tal Ilan, “Women in Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha,” in A Question of Sex? Gender and Difference in the Hebrew Bible and Beyond (Sheffield Phoenix, 2009) 138.
18. Randall Chesnutt, “Revelatory Experiences Attributed to Biblical Women in Early Jewish Literature,” in “Women Like This”: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World, ed. Amy-Jill Levine (Scholars, 1991) 108.
19. Chesnutt, “Revelatory Experiences,” 111.
20. John Collins, “Structure and Meaning in the Testament of Job,” in Society of Biblical Literature 1974 Seminar Papers, ed. G. MacRae (SBL, 1974) 48.
21. Chesnutt, “Revelatory Experiences,” 119.
22. Chesnutt, “Revelatory Experiences,” 119.
23. Wegner, Chattel or Person, 70.
24. Wegner, Chattel or Person, 71.
25. Judith Romney Wegner, “Women in Classical Rabbinic Judaism,” in Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, ed. Judith R. Baskin, 2nd ed. (Wayne State University Publishing, 1998) 76.
26. Philo, On the Special Laws, Leg. I:200–201.
27. Philo, Hypothetica, 746.
28. Richard A. Baer Jr., Philo’s Use of the Categories Male and Female (Brill, 1970) 43.
29. Philo, On the Special Laws, III:171, 11.
30. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 4.8.15.
31. Sidnie White Crawford, “Not According to Rule: Women, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Qumran,” in Faculty Publications, Classics and Religious Studies Department (University of Nebraska, 2003) 138.
32. 1QSa I, 6–11.
33. Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Baker, 2014) 205.
34. Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans, 1999) 276–77.
35. Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, NAC (B&H, 2003) 150.
36. M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2006) 159.
37. Hannah Harrington, The Purity Texts (T&T Clark, 2007) 102.
38. Boring, Mark, 160.
39. Ben Witherington III, John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Westminster John Knox, 1995) 117–18.
40. Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity, 73.
41. Martin S. Jaffee, “Gender and Otherness in Rabbinic Oral Culture: On Gentiles, Undisciplined Jews, and Their Women,” in Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory, and Mark, ed. Richard A. Horsley, Jonathan A. Draper, and John Miles Foley (Fortress, 2006) 28–30: “It is a virtual certainty that Torah in the Mouth was taught exclusively by male masters to a body of disciples from which females were excluded.”
42. Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (Eerdmans, 1997) 317.
43. Helmut Flender, St. Luke: Theologian of Redemptive History, trans. Ilse Fuller and Reginald Fuller (Fortress, 1967) 9–10.
44. Jane Kopas, “Jesus and Women: Luke’s Gospel,” ThTo 43/2 (1986) 192.
45. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (Crossroad, 1983).
46. Sara Lipton, Judaism and Christian Art: Aesthetic Anxieties from the Catacombs to Colonialism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) 50.
47. Mike Aquilina, Mothers of the Church: The Witness of the Early Christian Women (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012) 68.
48. Larry Hurtado, Mark, Understanding the Bible Commentary (Baker, 1989) 118.
49. Keener, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 416.
50. Michael Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 2004) 539.
51. Wilkins, Matthew, 540.