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The Beautiful Truth About Jesus and Women

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No figure had a greater influence on the treatment of women than Jesus of Nazareth. That may seem like a bold declaration, but history proves it. The interactions between Jesus and women viewed in their historical and cultural context show how transformative he was for the status of women. Jesus elevated them to a position that was unheard of in the first century and his treatment of women defied every cultural norm. In doing so, he laid the groundwork for future, positive change for women, the benefits of which many of us still reap today.

While it is an uplifting message for any woman, it is especially touching for women who still feel less than worthy or marginalized. If you are not a Christian and never looked at Jesus in this light, I urge you to take a chance and explore with me this first-century radical who turned a male-dominated world right side up.

Role of Women in First-Century Israel

To appreciate how Jesus empowered women, we need to look at the life of an average woman in Israel 2000 years ago. We know from historical writings that some classes of women had certain reproductive and property rights. However, only a small percentage of women were able to use those rights for their benefit such as obtaining wealth or autonomy (There are a few biblical examples). In other words, these women were the exception and not the rule.

The average woman had little in the way of rights or freedoms. In reality, Jesus was born into a world where most women were relegated to a position only a little better than slaves. So how was it possible then, having certain legal rights, that most women suffered as socially inferior?

The Hatred of Women

In First-Century Israel, there was an underlying message for women. She is the source of all shame. The writings of Ben Sira, a Jewish Sage who was popular during the Intertestamental period, prove the point:

” Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace” Ben Sira 42:14 NRSA

This viewpoint would continue to blossom in rabbinic writings of the first and second centuries. For example, Rabbi Eliezer wrote:

“Instructing a woman in the Law is like teaching her blasphemy.”

“Let the Law be burned rather than entrusted to a woman.”

“A woman’s wisdom is limited to the handling of the distaff.”

To say it plainly, women were not formally taught the scriptures nor other rabbinic teachings (It is important to note here that Rabbinic tradition does not equate to Biblical truth). They could not be disciples of a rabbi and they certainly would not have been allowed to travel with one.

These views of women were not limited to Jewish culture and society. Within the Roman Empire which was more liberal than Jewish culture, women were still second-class citizens, especially women of lower classes. In his book Dominion on page 99, Tom Hollands states poignantly, “Sex was nothing if not an exercise of power. As captured cities were to the swords of the legions, so the bodies of those used sexually were to the Roman man. To be penetrated, male or female, was to be branded as inferior: to be marked as womanish, barbarian, servile.” Not even aristocratic women could save themselves from the abuses of Roman men.

It is into this world that Jesus was born and where he conducted his earthly ministry. It is this ideology that he transformed.

Three Examples of How Jesus Elevated Women

Jesus had many interactions with women and he allowed them to participate in his ministry in ways that would have been socially unacceptable. We will look at three different examples to illustrate how Jesus elevated and empowered women.

(I highly suggest that before reading my narrative, you read the Biblical references first.)

Jesus and the Women Mary and Martha (Luke 10: 38-42)

In this record, Martha is fulfilling her role as a dutiful Jewish woman and would have been highly praised by the men in her culture. She is probably in the kitchen slaving away making sure there is enough for everyone to eat. After all, by this point, Jesus was a popular guy and her house could have very well been filled with people wanting to hear Him. At the very least, His disciples were there with Him listening to Rabbi Jesus teach and sitting at His feet, like dutiful students of the great teacher. (Note: sitting at his feet may not be literal, but an idiom to describe a formal Rabbi-student relationship.)

Everything is as it should be except for one small detail. Martha’s sister Mary is also sitting at Jesus’ feet listening, learning, and taking it all in, acting like a male disciple. Martha very predictably complains to Jesus that Mary has left her to serve alone and asks Him to intervene.

Her complaint is NOT coming from left field. Mary is the one behaving outside of the cultural norm and in the eyes of many, Martha’s complaint would have been valid. But what is Jesus’ response? He tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better way.

Now that you understand women’s role in first-century Israel, you can see just how revolutionary his response was. Often, when we read this record we get bogged down by poor Martha’s complaint against Mary and turn it into a discussion of Martha vs. Mary and whether serving is better than learning and vice versa. We fail to see the deeper meaning of the message that Jesus is sending not just to Mary and Martha, but to the culture at large. He might have directed His words towards Martha, but anyone in that room would have gotten the picture that their culture was out of sync with scripture. Why?

Because in the context of His time, finding a woman at the feet of a rabbi would have been unsettling. If there were other people there, and there likely were, they are probably thinking the same way as Martha. By His words to Martha, he is putting to bed any of their questions and concerns. By His words, He is saying loud and clear that this woman has a right to learn. And not just that she has a right, but that it is her responsibility. And in the context of the time, for Jesus to advocate for the spiritual education of women among his followers, equated to opening doors socially.

For a more detailed discussion, read “Jesus, Mary, and Martha: A Cultural Shift for Women.

Jesus' treatment of women defied all the cultural and religious norms of his time. Click To Tweet

Jesus and the Woman at the Well  (John 4:6-4:29)

Again, take yourself back to the first century. In this case, you will find yourself in the region of Samaria. Imagine you are a woman who has been married five times and is now living with a man, unmarried. For that reason, you are most likely an outcast and that is why you are on your way to the well all alone at midday. All the other women go to the well in groups, in the cool of the morning, but to keep yourself from gossiping mouths you brave the hot sun. As you approach, a man is sitting at the well who proceeds to ask you for water and then has an amazing conversation with you.

What would have been the normal reaction of any other man in that culture? First of all, if they were “pious” they would not have been caught dead talking to you, a woman, alone. Men at that time didn’t even talk to their sisters in public alone for fear of what people might think. Secondly, they would have picked up on the clues and immediately determined that you were an outcast. A woman alone at a well at midday was a clear sign that she was less than respectable. It is probably the exact reason why the scripture says that His disciples “marveled” when Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman, although they knew Him well enough not to question His motives or actions.

But Jesus was not just any man. His actions prove it. He allowed himself to talk to a woman who was not chaperoned. He wasn’t worried about what other people would say or think. Rabbinic literature tended to hold the view that women were the ones to blame if a man faltered. In other words, if a man had impure thoughts, it was the woman’s fault for being, well, a woman. They were the source of indiscretion and it was best to just stay away from them. But clearly, that was not Jesus’ view.

He didn’t see a source of temptation that must be shunned, cast aside. In all honesty, what He did was scandalous in that culture, but He saw a person, a person with feelings and emotions and hurts. It is a beautiful thing what He did and a beautiful lesson for his male disciples.

(For a detailed discussion read, “Jesus Empowers The Woman at the Well” and/or download my Bible study on the subject. )

Jesus and the Women Who Touched His Garment (Luke 8: 42-48)

Imagine a woman at that time suffering for 12 years of “an issue of blood.” In today’s world, that would have been frustrating because of the inconvenience, but back then, her problem would have affected her relationships and livelihood. Because of Biblical law and religious tradition, this woman would have been considered ceremonially unclean in perpetuity. It was bad enough that she could not participate in any religious activity, but she could not touch anyone, otherwise, she would make them unclean as well. People would have reviled her as an untouchable. She was most likely an outcast who was either unmarried or divorced and that pretty much would have relegated her to a life of poverty.

Then she hears of this Rabbi who could perform great miracles in her town. Imagine the courage it took for her to work her way through a crowd knowing that she would be rubbing shoulders with strangers making each and everyone unclean. What if someone recognized her? What would they say? But this was her chance so she took it probably making every effort to conceal herself. When she finally reaches Jesus and touches His garment, she is instantaneously healed. He, of course, being Jesus, recognizes what has happened and asks, “Who touched me?”

The woman now knows she has been outed. The record says that she came trembling and confessed everything to Him. Why was she trembling? I would venture to say that because any other rabbi, Pharisee, or person would have chastised her for actions unbecoming of a good Jewish woman. How dare she, being in a state of uncleanliness dare to touch anyone, much less a rabbi? But Jesus does not respond that way, he praises her faith and tells her to go in peace.

This woman did not just walk away with the joy of being healed and finally being able to take part in Jewish life. She must have also walked away with a sense of worth that only the love and compassion of Jesus could bring.

For a more detailed discussion read, “The Woman with the Issue of Blood” and/or download my bible study on the subject.

Jesus, the Radical.

These three accounts are only a small sampling of the way Jesus empowered women. Jesus also:

Allowed female disciples to travel with him.

Allowed women to help finance his ministry.

Allowed women to be “evangelists” of the Gospel.

Included women in many of his parables and stories.

Jesus was also never married and never had sexual relations with women. He talked about an afterlife where there would be no marriage and therefore no sex. He stands in stark contrast to religious leaders like Muhammed who not only married but had multiple wives and had sexual relations with young girls. Or Islam’s heaven, which is the fulfillment of men’s lustful fantasies.

While feminists may focus only on the fact that his twelve apostles were all men, Jesus pushed way past the bounds of his culture for the sake of women. He was bringing women out of the shadows of shame into places of honor. He was showing them that God also created them in His image and that they also had the right to the living waters. He paved the way for women who would play a central role in not only the growth of Christianity but in movements worldwide that would promote the rights of women.

So when the topic of Women’s Rights comes up, remember, that none of it would have been possible without Jesus.

Want to dig deeper into this topic? Download my Bible Study “Jesus Empowers Women.” .

Other Fruitfully Living articles about Jesus and Women that may be of interest:
References:

A Woman’s Place in the First Century 

Women in Ancient Israel 

Women in Rabbinic Literature

Jesus and Women by Kristi McLelland

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E Bailey

Dominion by Tom Holland

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