WOMEN IN MINISTRY, VOLUME SEVENTEEN

Jesus and His Egalitarian Interaction with Women

I have shown that Jesus’ teachings elevated women. Jesus also held women in the highest regard in the way he interacted with them. [198] In fact, his treatment of women was so antithetical to the patriarchal culture of his day that he could only be characterized as egalitarian. [199]

Jesus and Women

 

There are four specific cases of Jesus’ interaction with women that deserve a more in-depth review.

 

The Women Who Traveled with Jesus

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases …” (Luke 8:1-2a).

 

The first case is the women who supported Jesus and traveled with him (Luke 8:1-3).

 

For a first-century rabbi to have female disciples would have been practically unheard of, but the fact that they traveled with him would have been considered scandalous in Jewish circles. [200]

 

Kenneth Bailey notes that social customs are more relaxed today than they were in the first century, yet he knows of no contemporary setting where women would be allowed to travel this way.

 

He writes: “Women can travel with a group of men but must spend their nights with relatives.” [201]

 

These female disciples and supporters of Jesus are an enigma primarily because “women were allowed to hear the word of God in the synagogue but they were never disciples of a rabbi unless their husband or master was a rabbi willing to teach them.” [202]

 

Luke reports that Jesus was traveling throughout the countryside surrounding the Sea of Galilee on a preaching and healing tour that featured Jesus, The Twelve, and a group of women (Luke 8:1-3).

 

Luke singles three of them out by name but makes it clear that they were not the only women in Jesus’ band of disciples (Luke 8:3b).

 

Susanna is mentioned only here, and we know nothing more about her. Mary Magdalene and Joanna, however, play a larger role in the narrative.

 

Mary Magdalene became important as a witness to both the crucifixion and resurrection. All we know of her is that she was most likely from the village of Magda on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee (as her name indicates) and that Jesus exorcised seven demons from her (most likely a symbolic number indicating that she was completely or perfectly possessed by the demons).

 

Obviously, the exorcism changed her life, and she became a devoted disciple of Jesus, following him all the way to the cross, and becoming a witness to the empty tomb (Matt. 28:1).

 

Joanna was also a first witness to the empty tomb (Luke 24:10). The only other information we have of her is that she was the wife of an influential member of the Herodian administration.

 

This implies that Joanna was both a person of financial means and that her husband most likely did not travel with her. [203]

 

Joanna had left her home and family to become a disciple and traveling companion of Jesus, just like his male disciples (Luke 18:28-30). [204] Apparently, there were women who, like the male disciples, responded to Jesus’ call to leave everything to follow him (Mark 10:28).

 

These three women were only the most prominent among many other women who followed Jesus. These women not only learned from Jesus, but they also provided financial support for his ministry.

 

It was not uncommon for women of high standing to serve as patrons for rabbis and sages.

 

Joanna, for instance, would not only have been able to provide financial support, but because she also traveled with Jesus, she would have been able to use her connections to the ruling Herodian family to ease the way in any conflicts with minor local officials. [205]

 

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4:7).

 

Another important case is Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4).

 

Jesus and his disciples were traveling from Judea to Galilee. They arrived in the town of Sychar, famous as the location of Jacob’s well.

 

While his disciples went into the village to buy food, Jesus remained alone at the well, which was located just outside the village. A woman from the village came to the well to draw water. Jesus engaged her in a conversation.

 

Jesus broke numerous social taboos in this scene (such as interacting with Samaritans), but I will only address those having to do with the male-female relationship.

 

When Jesus saw the woman approaching the well, protocol demanded that he withdraw to a distance of at least twenty-five feet to make it both safe and culturally appropriate for the woman to approach the well. [206]

 

Jesus didn’t do this. Instead, he spoke to the woman, asking her for a drink of water.

 

Her reaction reveals the radical nature of his actions. She asked incredulously, “Are you speaking to me a woman and a Samaritan woman?”

 

The repetition of the word Shamiriyah (Samaritan woman) makes it clear that the emphasis is not only on her ethnicity but also on her gender.

 

Kenneth Bailey, marveling at this scene, notes that “in village society, a strange man does not even make eye contact with a woman in a public place.” [207]

 

Bailey admits that in forty years of living in the Middle East he never once broke this social taboo.

 

One of the oldest tractates of Mishnah states:

“And talk not much with womankind. They said this of a man’s own wife, how much more of his fellow’s wife! Hence the sages said: He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit Gehenna.” [208]

 

In stark contrast, Jesus not only talked to this woman, but he also talked to her about the most private matters of her life and engaged her in a theological conversation.

 

In other words, he treated her like a human being of infinite worth and dignity. He valued her ability to think and comprehend deep spiritual concepts.

 

His time investment in her paid off. She ran to the village to tell others about Jesus.

 

The irony of the story was not lost on the original hearers – this woman who was an outcast among her own people was the first to embrace and proclaim the message of the Messiah. She was the first preacher/evangelist among the Samaritans.

 

The unusual behavior of Jesus in speaking to this woman was noticed by his disciples. They marveled that Jesus had been talking to a woman, and they were stunned into silence (John 4:27).

 

Any self-respecting rabbi wouldn’t even talk to his own wife in a public place! [209]

 

As disciples they dared not question the actions of the rabbi, so they would never ask him why he was talking to a woman. They chose to live with an awkward silence.

 

When Bailey reflects on this encounter, along with the knowledge that women traveled with Jesus as his disciples, he concludes that “the radical nature of the changes in the attitudes toward women that Jesus introduced are beyond description.” [210]

 

Jesus and Mary and Martha

Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42b).

 

A third noteworthy relationship that Jesus had with women was his relationship with the sisters, Mary, and Martha.

 

Of particular importance is a scene that took place in their home in Bethany. Martha was distracted by the preparations associated with hospitality. Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him speak.

 

Martha asked Jesus to instruct Mary to help her with the preparations. Jesus refused, indicating that while Martha was concerned about many things, Mary had chosen the one necessary thing (Luke 10:38-42).

 

Mary had positioned herself in the learning position of a disciple.

 

A rabbi would sit or stand to teach while his disciples gathered around him, usually sitting on the floor “at his feet.” In fact, the phrase “sit at his feet” may have been a euphemism for being a disciple. [211]

 

In any case, Mary was clearly not sitting at Jesus’ feet to wash his feet or serve him, as some commentators indicate, for the meal had not yet been prepared, much less served.

 

Mary is described as listening to Jesus. Jesus was speaking, while Mary was in the learning position. This was clearly a description of a rabbi-student relationship.

 

Since Jesus was rarely depicted without his disciples, and since it would have been highly improper for Jesus to be in a home alone with two women, it is likely that at least some of the other male disciples were also in the room learning from Jesus.

 

Understanding both the context of this scene and the cultural mores in operation, Martha’s request takes on new meaning.

 

Martha was not only concerned with having enough help for her preparations, but she was also concerned for the reputation of her sister.

 

Mary was in a room alone with other men, taking on a role reserved for men. In some rabbinical circles, she would have been labeled “sinful.”

 

Martha understood this and approached Jesus saying, “Tell my sister to get over here where she belongs, in the kitchen with me. I need her help.”

 

And Jesus responded saying, “Martha, Martha, I know that you are worried about a lot of things” (Luke 10:41). In other words, “this isn’t really about the kitchen, is it? This is about the choices your sister is making. I know you are worried about your sister’s reputation.”

 

Jesus then said, “Mary has chosen the one thing that is best for her (being a disciple), and there’s no way I’m going to take that away from her.”

 

Jesus Compared to his Contemporaries

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery …” (John 8:3).

 

Now, compare Jesus’ attitude toward the intelligence and capabilities of women to that of the first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo, who speaking of Eve, said, “And she [Eve], without inquiry, prompted by an unstable and rash mind, acquiesced in his [The Serpent] advice, and ate of the fruit …” [212]

 

Philo continues, “For the judgments of women (ton gynaikon) as a rule are weaker and do not apprehend any mental conception (noetori) apart from what their senses perceive (Legat.319).” [213]

 

Philo concludes, “. . . woman is not equal in honor with man (QG 1.27).” [214]

 

Josephus speaking on the proper function of the justice system said, “let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” [215]

 

The Mishnah reports that Rabbi Eliezer said, “Whoever teaches Torah to his daughter is as if he teaches her sexual satisfaction.” [216]

 

Also from the Mishnah, “An unmarried man may not teach scribes. Nor may a woman teach scribes.” [217]

 

And Rabbi Judah said, “Whoever has business with women should not be alone with women. And a man should not teach his son a trade which he has to practice among women.” [218]

 

Considering these views of women held by Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, the equal access enjoyed by Jesus’ female disciples is nothing short of miraculous, and can only be characterized as egalitarian. [219]

 

In my next blog article, I will address the women who were witnesses to the crucifixion and resurrection and make some final conclusions about Jesus and the women who were an integral part of his ministry.

 

 

 

VOLUME ONE                       VOLUME SIXTEEN

 

 

FOOTNOTES

198. Whether it was healing an unclean woman (Mark 5:21-43), raising a young girl from the dead (also an act of touching that which was unclean, Mark 5:21-43), turning water into wine in deference to his mother (John 2:1-10), praising a sinful woman for washing his feet (Luke 7:36-50), protecting and forgiving a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), exorcising seven demons from a woman (Mary of Magda, Mark 16:9), exalting a woman for anointing him in preparation for his death (Mark 14:3-9), healing a woman with fever (Peter’s mother-in-law, Mark 1:29-31), healing a woman with scoliosis (Luke 13:10-17), raising a widow’s son from the dead (Luke 7:11-17), marveling at the faith of a Syrophoenician woman and healing her daughter (Mark 7:24-30), or caring for his mother from the cross (John 19:26-27), the gospel writers consistently portrayed Jesus as honoring women and treating them as equals.

199. Any time the word “egalitarian” is used with respect to the actions of Jesus, the hierarchist will quickly call it anachronistic; and to some degree, they are correct. When I use the word “egalitarian” here I do not use it in the same sense of its 21st-century manifestation. To make Jesus equivalent to a contemporary proponent of the women’s liberation movement, for instance, would be to miss the mark. Witherington rightly points out that “Jesus’ views of women and their roles do not fit neatly into any of the categories of His day.” (Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, p. 126). Neither do they fit neatly into any of the categories of our day. However, his teachings and actions were certainly antithetical to the prevailing sociological stratification of his day — with respect to women, as well as other marginalized groups. Jesus was surrounded by a strict male over female hierarchist culture and both his teachings and practices would have made him seem like an egalitarian in comparison. It is only in this narrow sense that I use the word “egalitarian.”

200. Ben Witherington, “Women in the Ministry of Jesus,” p. 117.

201. Kenneth Bailey, “Jesus Through Mediterranean Eyes,” p. 193.

202. Witherington, “Women in the Ministry of Jesus,” p. 100.

203. Ibid., p. 117.

204. Ibid., p. 117.

205. ibid., p. 118

206. Kenneth Bailey, “Jesus through Mediterranean Eyes,” p. 202.

207. Ibid., p. 203.

208. Ibid., p. 203

209. Ibid., p. 212.

210. Ibid., p. 203.

211. Witherington, “Women in the Ministry of Jesus,” p. 101.

212. Jeremias, “Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus,” p. 329.

213. Dorothy I. Sly, “Philo’s Perception of Women,” Brown Judaica Studies Publishing, 2020, p. 97.

214. Ibid., p. 97.

215. Flavius Josephus. “The Works of Flavius Josephus,” Translated by. William Whiston, A.M. Auburn and Buffalo. John E. Beardsley. 1895, J.AJ.4.219.

216. Witherington, “Women in the Ministry of Jesus,” p. 6.

217. Jeremias, “Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus,” p. 330.

218. Ibid., p. 331.

219. See footnote 199.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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