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Published Date: September 14, 2023

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Jesus and Women: A Close Look At The Gospels

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As a biologist and theologian, I value details. Often, what sets one species apart from another are subtle details that require a trained eye to identify. It is the same when we talk about women in the Bible; a detailed look at the texts is important. When we think about Jesus and his disciples, we may picture an image of Jesus surrounded by male disciples, what J. Lee Grady calls “The Good Ol’ Boys’ Club.”1 This portrayal influences the way we look at the biblical text. Grady goes on to say, “I’ve heard people say, ‘If Jesus intended for women to serve in leadership positions, then He could have included at least one woman among the Twelve.’”2 I, too, have heard this, and it is what motivated me to study the Gospel texts to explore the relationship between Jesus and women.

The Gospels are narratives or biographies (not in the modern sense) of Jesus’s life. Each Gospel author carefully selected stories and teachings of Jesus, then skillfully arranged this material with well-defined theological goals. All four present the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus as central events, but differ on what other events they include, like his miracles, dialogues and teachings, details of his birth and family, and his relationship with the disciples.

With this in mind, what can we observe about the women in each of the Gospels? Mark, widely considered the earliest Gospel, presents some significant accounts about women, some of which are found in the other Gospels. The story of the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43–48), the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29–31), and the account of Jesus being anointed by a woman (Matt. 26:6–13) are a few. Matthew adds to his narrative the names of some of the women of Israel with “unconventional” stories in Jesus’s genealogy (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba), as well as the matriarch Rachel, connecting the narrative of Jesus with the narrative of Israel. Matthew also details the story of Mary’s miraculous pregnancy and the birth of Jesus.

Of the four Gospels, Luke undoubtedly features the most women and their stories. It begins with an extensive nativity account that includes Elizabeth, Mary, and the prophet Anna, along with the beautiful Song of Mary. Luke also includes various pairings of women and men in his narrative,3 like the appearance of the angel to both Zechariah and Mary, and the presence of Simeon and Anna at Jesus’s temple presentation in Jerusalem. In many cases, the women in each pair exhibit better attitudes or demonstrate more faith than their male counterparts. The Gospel of John also employs this pairing between women and men, albeit less frequently due to the extent of the narratives, as seen in Jesus’s dialogues with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman.4 John also reveals Jesus’s close friendships with the siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

Despite differences among the Gospels, all place women in crucial moments of the narrative of Jesus’s life, witnessing his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, and indicate the presence of women as disciples. Let’s begin with the detailed account provided by Luke (8:1–13) when it is said that Jesus traveled with the twelve and many women, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. There were women who participated in Jesus’s itinerant ministry. Each of these women had transformative encounters with Jesus, being healed and liberated. In response, they devoted their lives and contributed with their resources in gratitude and devotion to Jesus.

The Gospels of Mark and Matthew do not provide us with much information about these women disciples until the moment of the crucifixion. At this point in the narrative, both mention the women who witnessed the event, describing who they were and their relationship with Jesus (Matt. 27:55–56 and Mark 15:40–41). These accounts reveal that women, some named in the text, had accompanied Jesus from Galilee and were with him in Jerusalem.

Another interesting text is Luke 10:1: “After this, the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.”5 It is possible that the disciples may have been sent in pairs of men and women, which would be a good evangelistic strategy, considering that women would have easier access to exclusively feminine environments and contexts. We also see evidence of couples working together, like Priscilla and Aquila.6

The sisters Martha and Mary demonstrated on many occasions that they were familiar with Jesus’s teachings (John 11). Mary sat at Jesus’s feet alongside the other disciples to learn.7 John also records Mary Magdalene’s expression upon encountering the resurrected Lord: “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’)” (John 20:16).8

Most importantly, we have the presence of women witnesses in key moments of the narrative: the crucifixion (Mark 15:40–41; c.f. Matt. 27:55–56; Luke 23:49; John 19:25–27); the burial of Jesus (Mark 15:47; c.f. Matt. 27:61; Luke 23:55–56); the resurrection (Mark 16:9–11; c.f. Matt. 28:9–10; Luke 24:10–11; John 20:14–18). In a time when women’s testimony held little value,9 it was women who witnessed the most significant event in history.

Kenneth E. Bailey states, “The place of women in the church has rightly received significant attention from global Christianity in recent years. Essential to this analysis is the way Jesus treated women.”10 The way Jesus treated and interacted with women and other marginalized groups was countercultural; he saw women, even those no one else saw. He healed women and allowed himself to be touched by them, like the woman with a twelve-year hemorrhage who was ceremonially impure. Jesus directed his teachings toward women, which can be seen in how he told parables (see Luke 15:4–10). Additionally, Jesus frequently used examples that included both women and men as he taught (see Luke 14:26). He used everyday scenes involving women to illustrate his stories (Matt. 13:33).11 All of this leads us to think that Jesus, being an excellent teacher, always aimed to include his entire audience and captivate the hearts of both women and men.

Jesus cited women as examples of faith and virtue, such as the offering of the poor widow (Mark 12:41–44). Jesus demonstrated concern for women and their vulnerabilities. When some men questioned him about divorce (Mark 10:2–9), Jesus responded by pointing to God’s creational purpose in Genesis, where women and men have equal value.12 Jesus also cared for widows, as seen in his compassionate encounter with the widow of Nain (Luke 7:13).

Jesus demonstrated the value of women when he healed the woman on the Sabbath (Luke 13:16) and then called her a daughter of Abraham. Similarly, when he healed the woman with the issue of blood, he called her daughter (Luke 8:48), restoring her dignity, rehabilitating her physically and socially, and asserting her kinship.13

Jesus had significant dialogues with women, as in John 4, where he broke protocol by speaking alone with a woman–and a Samaritan at that. Jesus never belittled her, and after their conversation,14 the woman returns to evangelize the Samaritans with great success. Additionally, we have the dialogue with the Canaanite woman who recognizes Jesus as “Lord, Son of David” (Matthew 15:22). Jesus’s initial response could have been seen as discouraging, but she perseveres, responds to Jesus with great wisom and faith, and receives a miracle. It’s also worth mentioning the dialogue between Jesus and Martha when Lazarus is about to be resurrected (John 11). He asks her, “I am the resurrection and the life . . . do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26). In response Martha declares, “‘Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world’” (John 11:27). This was a declaration of faith similar to Peter’s response (Matt. 16:16). All these women were able to recognize Jesus’s messiahship.

Jesus also publicly praised the actions and faith of women, such as in the case of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:28 (“Woman, you have great faith!”) and the woman who anointed his head with expensive perfume, when he said, “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matt. 26:13). The action of this woman is remembered even to this day!

And finally, Jesus chose women as heralds of the most important announcement of all—the resurrection.It was Mary Magdalene who could declare to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). Moreover, it was the women who remained with Jesus until the end, even when the twelve failed.

But now we come to an important question: why did Jesus choose twelve male disciples? First we need to understand that twelve is a symbolic and representative number (representing the twelve tribes of Israel and twelve patriarchs).15 It’s worth noting that throughout his ministry, Jesus symbolically assumed the role of Israel, which is particularly evident in the Gospel of Matthew. Therefore, if Jesus’s choice of the twelve was in some way restrictive for leadership selection, then only free Jewish men could be pastors and leaders in our churches. Although Jesus did not call women to be part of the group of the twelve, there is ample evidence in the Bible indicating that women were part of his circle of disciples, playing an important role in his ministry and learning from him.

In fact, Jesus’s attitude toward women laid the foundation that would guide the new community of believers in the values of the Kingdom of God. This can be observed in the early Christian communities, with the presence of women acting as leaders and serving with various spiritual gifts. Women were mentioned by Paul in several of his letters—the same Paul who declares, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”(Gal. 3:28).

So, if you’ve come this far, I propose a challenge, something I did that helped me a lot. Take your Bible, gather colored pens and markers, and read the Gospels, making notes every time women are mentioned in the text. It may seem quite simple, but this exercise will certainly help us see the details present in the narratives, fostering a more attentive perspective on the Gospels.

Recently, Pastor Rick Warren wrote an article defending women’s ministry.16 A preacher who had engaged with the biblical text for many years, he altered his viewpoint not due to cultural pressure or theological liberalism but, in his own words, “What changed my mind was Scripture”.17 He is just one among numerous theologians and pastors who changed their views upon recognizing these details in the biblical text. Therefore, asserting that Jesus had female disciples isn’t about “feminism,” “liberalism,” or caving into culture; it’s about taking a close look at Scripture!

Notes

  1. J. Lee Grady, The Truth Sets Women Free: Answers to 25 Tough Questions (Lake Mary: Charisma House Book Group, 2014), 119.
  2. Grady, The Truth Sets Women Free, 124.
  3. Totaling twenty-seven instances, according to Kenneth Bailey. In Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus pela ótica do Oriente Médio: Estudos culturais sobre os Evangelhos – in English: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (São Paulo: Vida Nova, 2016), 191–192.
  4. Dorothy A. Lee, The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership (Ada: Baker, 2021), part 1, chapter 4.
  5. The Bible quotations are all from the New International Version.
  6. Nijay Gupta, Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2023), 66; Joan Taylor and Helen Bond, Women Remembered: Jesus’ Female Disciples (London: Hodder, 2022), 32.
  7. As stated by Witt, Mary is extolled as a model disciple of the Rabbi Jesus, a symbolic action that was subversive of the understandings of permissible roles for women at that time. In William Witt, Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2021), chapter 6. .
  8. Rebecca McLaughlin, Jesus Through the Eyes of Women: How the First Female Disciples Help Us Know and Love the Lord (Bannockburn: The Gospel Coalition, 2022), 164.
  9. Dorothy A. Lee affirms that any denial of the physical nature of the resurrection is a denial of the women’s testimony, which is particularly striking in a context where the witness of women was given little or no credence. In Lee, Ministry of Women, chapter 1.
  10. Bailey, Jesus pela ótica do Oriente Médio, 191.
  11. Bailey, Jesus pela ótica do Oriente Médio, 196–197.
  12. As Lucy Peppiatt points out, Jesus refers to the creation story in relation to marriage when he is questioned on divorce (Matthew 19:1–9). Here, though, rather than remind the Pharisees that a man can do as he pleases because he is the head of his wife, he cites Genesis 1:27b (male and female are both made in the image of God) and 2:24 (a man must leave his family and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh). Jesus’s use of the creation story is specifically aimed at highlighting the responsibility of husbands and the dignity of wives and directed toward protecting women from men’s capricious behavior. In Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019), chapter 2. .
  13. Lee, Ministry of Women, chapter 2.
  14. As highlighted by Kenneth Bailey, when he asserts that Jesus treated the Samaritan woman as a serious theologian, he unveils the most crucial teaching on worship in the New Testament. In Jesus sob a ótica do Oriente Médio, 212.
  15. Regarding this, William Witt states, “Jesus chose male apostles for the same reason he chose twelve apostles and Jewish apostles. Insofar as Jesus’ followers represent the new Israel, Jesus’ twelve apostles typologically represent the twelve tribes of Israel, and specifically the twelve patriarchs (sons of Jacob/Isaac) from whom the nation of Israel descended […] The twelve had to be free Jewish males, and not slaves, women, or Gentiles, in order to fulfill the symbolic function of their typological role.” In Witt, Icons of Christ, chapter 13.
  16. Rick Warren, “Rick Warren: Why I changed my mind on women in church leadership,” Premier Christianity, March 15, 2023.
  17. Warren, “Rick Warren: Why I changed my mind.”