The first-century Middle-Eastern world that Jesus experienced in the flesh was a patriarchal culture several millennia old. Although Jewish patriarchy had been shaped by the Law of Moses early on, its views about women had become distorted over time in its oral traditions, or midrashim, and were often influenced by neighboring cultures such as that of the Greeks.
Women in early first-century Palestine were generally viewed as inherently inferior to men. They were denied a full education, relegated to a secluded life in the household, and ranked just above slaves. Jesus was certainly aware of these cultural values yet did not appear to share them.
Unlike some other rabbis of his day, Jesus never mentioned stereotypical characteristics of women, either positive or negative, nor did he delineate gender roles for women in the home or synagogue. What the Gospels report is a broad variety of interactions between Jesus and women that were remarkably countercultural. Jesus engaged women in ways that transcended the patriarchal culture of his day.
She is More Than…Her Physical Appearance
Instead of ignoring or objectifying women, Jesus seemed to go out of his way to notice and call attention to them. He never commented on their appearance. As a matter of fact, the Gospels do not note the physical appearance of any woman, unless we count the description of a “bent over” woman whom Jesus healed (Luke 13:10–17).
Propriety prohibited a first-century Jewish male from spending time or conversing with a woman who was not his wife, especially in public. Yet, Jesus never seemed to miss an opportunity to interact with or on behalf of women. Many times he made a point to stop, talk, and listen to women, communicating to them that their lives and needs mattered to him. In fact, one of the longest dialogs in the Gospels is the recorded conversation Jesus had with a lonely Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:4–26).
Four times in the Gospels, Jesus noticed and responded to women in tears: The widow of Nain as she followed her son’s funeral bier (Luke 7:11–15); Mary, as she mourned the death of her brother Lazarus (Jesus joined her in weeping, John 11:32–36), the women wailing as he climbed toward Golgotha (Luke 23:26–31), and Mary Magdalene outside his empty tomb (John 20:11–16).
Jesus also noticed a surreptitious touch on the hem of his robe, which prompted him to bring a chronically bleeding woman out of her obscurity, make note of her faith, and heal her (Matt. 9:20–22; Mark 5:25–34; Luke 8:43–48). And, he noticed a destitute widow dropping her last coins in the temple treasury and celebrated her extreme generosity (Luke 21:1–4; Mark 12:41–44).
Another woman Jesus commended was a Gentile mother whose daughter was possessed by a demon. The disciples wanted her to go away, but Jesus knew what she risked by asking a Jew to heal her daughter. He let her demonstrate her fortitude and couldn’t help but admire her quick-witted rejoinder about the dogs under the table eating the children’s crumbs. “Woman, you have great faith!” he responded (Matt. 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30).
This Gentile mother was not the only woman who found herself supported by Jesus when other males were dismissive, critical, or condemning. For example, when Mary the sister of Lazarus poured an entire bottle of perfume over Jesus’ head (or feet, depending on which Gospel you read), the disciples were outraged because it represented a year’s worth of wages. “Leave her alone.” Jesus told them. “She has done a beautiful thing for me” (John 12:1–8; Matt. 26:6–12; Mark 14:1–9). Jesus rewarded her faith and honored her great sacrifice.
She is More Than…Her Sexual History
The Pharisees and teachers of the law certainly did not see it coming when Jesus shielded an adulterous woman from their condemnation (John 8:1–11). Nor did Simon the Pharisee expect Jesus to commend a prostitute who crashed his dinner party (Luke 7:36–50). In their legalistic view of the world, not only was sexual sin unforgiveable, but it was also always the fault of the morally inferior “seductress.” Imagine their dismay when Jesus told the Pharisees that prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God ahead of them (Matt. 21:31–32).
Some readers may see male privilege in the fact that the Gospels reveal the sexual misconduct of three of the women Jesus encountered (the two mentioned above plus the Samaritan woman who was cohabitating) because nothing is said of the sexual history of the men he also met. I propose a broader perspective. It is the retelling of these histories that allows the writers of the Gospels to highlight Jesus’ countercultural priorities.
Because women in first-century Palestine were considered property and because a high value was placed on their reproductive capabilities, they were expected to observe sexual restrictions that did not apply to males. Patriarchy inflated the value of celibacy for single women exclusively, and regarded women (but not men) who had sex outside of marriage as “fallen” or “damaged goods,” regardless of whether they had a choice in the matter.
The Gospels not only make a point of reporting the women’s sexual sins, but also of describing Jesus’s response. First, he did not permit the Pharisees to harm the woman caught in adultery or to be cruel to the prostitute weeping at his feet. Second, Jesus himself did not scold, shame, or rebuke any of the three, even though according to Jewish law they had sinned. Nor did he appear to equate their sin with diminished human worth. He never labeled them according to their sexual misconduct. Even the actual prostitute was referred to by Luke with the more general euphemism “a woman who lived a sinful life.” And, though Simon the Pharisee shuddered at the sight of the prostitute touching Jesus, Jesus welcomed her kisses on his feet and commended her love and faith.
The Gospels describe the sexual histories of these women and show how Jesus responded, conveying a hugely important point about the full extent of the Good News for women—that their sexual histories and cultural status do not define them.
She is More Than…Her Home/Family Role
Perhaps most surprising is the way Jesus seemed to ignore his culture’s traditional roles of women as wives, mothers, and keepers of the home. The three Mary and Martha narratives in the Gospels provide insight into this. In the most familiar of the stories, Martha complained to Jesus that Mary wasn’t helping with the preparations. Jesus seemed not in the least concerned about Mary returning to her “place” of domestic service, which would have been the cultural expectation of the time. Jesus said that Mary had made a better choice and could stay right where she was (Luke 10:38–42).
On the other hand, after Lazarus died, Jesus spoke at length with Martha, exploring her understandings of his identity. In the Gospel of John, it is Martha, not Peter, who bears the distinction of first confessing Jesus to be “the Messiah, the son of God” (John 11:20–27).
Mary and Martha appear to have both been unmarried, at least during the years of Jesus’ ministry. The Gospels connect them with no man other than their brother. They also apparently were disciples of Jesus while remaining at home in Bethany.
Other women did not stay at home but traveled with Jesus. They supported him from their own means and cared for his needs, applying their domestic skills to the ministry of Jesus (Luke 8:1–3; Mark 15:40–41; Matt. 27:55–56).
Some of these women were wives and mothers (Joanna the wife of Chuza, the wife of Zebedee, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph), while others appear unconnected with a man (Mary Magdalene, Susanna, and Salome). It was almost certainly considered scandalous for him to include them among his followers. Apparently, though, Jesus did not mind. He never told the husbandless women to get married, nor did he advise the married ones to go home and focus on their families.
To the contrary, Jesus personally gave women the significant role of announcing his resurrection to the men who would later work to build his church (Matt. 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; John 20:1–18).
And She is Much More…
A primary concern of Jesus’ ministry was spiritual transformation. He provided for us an ample body of interactions exemplifying how redeemed people should treat women, regardless of the culture in which they find themselves.
Women cried, sinned, and had bodily discharges. They asserted themselves on behalf of their children, and they displayed passion in their expressions of devotion. Jesus clearly challenged the patriarchal assumption that these characteristics made women weak or inferior.
He did not see women as sources of temptation or defilement, as intellectually or morally stunted beings, or as fragile porcelain dolls. Nor did he advance patriarchy as divinely mandated. The Gospels reveal the Son of God as someone who valued women as much more than possessions; more than beauties to be ignored, avoided, or objectified; more than household servants; and more than mere vessels of reproduction.
Jesus welcomed women to his ministry and treated women as capable disciples who had important observations to make and valuable ways to contribute to the advancement of his kingdom both inside the home and out. In any age and culture, if the church wants to claim that it follows Jesus, it must also adopt his view of women.