Women of Faith: In the Gospels (Part 1)
May 10, 2016
by Peter Amsterdam
Women of Faith: In the Gospels (Part 1)
(This is part of a series of four articles that explore the role of women within the New Testament, in order to shed light on the significant part they played in the beginnings of Christianity, as well as the importance of their role in the church today.)
Throughout the Gospels we read of Jesus interacting with people from all walks of society—male and female, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, religious and nonreligious. As God’s Son, the way Jesus interacted with others, and what He said to people or did with them, reflected His Father’s outlook.
For example, when we read that Jesus said the Spirit of the Lord had anointed Him to proclaim good news to the poor,1 or how He told the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor,2 and told the one who invited Him to dinner that he should invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind,3 we come to understand that Jesus’ words and actions reflect God’s concern for the poor.
So when we read in the Gospels about Jesus’ interactions with women, we are seeing His, and therefore God’s, attitude toward them. We see how He speaks with them, heals them, has compassion on them, teaches them, and reveals aspects of His nature to them. Women were portrayed as good examples in the parables, were witnesses to His death, and were the first to find the empty tomb after His resurrection. The difference between Jesus’ attitude toward women and that of the culture of the day is outstanding when we look at the position that women held within society in first-century Palestine.
A brief overview of a woman’s place in the overall Roman/Mediterranean world of that time, as well as in Israel in particular, shows how outside the norm Jesus’ interaction with women was. The Mediterranean world of that day was patriarchal—meaning, literally, “rule of the father.” In a social system, this refers to the mandated rule of males over females and the control of females by males in personal life, home, marriage, religious institutions, and society overall. While Mediterranean men participated in public life by engaging in commerce and politics and socializing in public meeting places, the women’s place was limited to the private sphere and they were largely confined to the home.4
Similarly, in Jewish society, Jewish women held inferior status to men. Jewish writings of that era present a consistent negative view of women as inferior in all matters, and required to be submissive to men. Jewish men prayed a prayer in which they thanked God that they weren’t born as a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. Within the rabbinic writings, it was made clear that women were considered more sensual and less rational than men, and women were considered to be seducers; therefore men avoided social contact and conversation with them outside of marriage.
Though Scripture taught that all Israelites were to hear the Law,5 women generally received minimal religious instruction. Their role in worship was restricted in that they couldn’t enter the inner section of the temple, and they couldn’t function as priests. Neither could they be rabbis. Their primary activities were domestic, and they were considered by men as having little to offer in public or religious life.
The degree to which women were treated as inferiors varied somewhat by location. Philo, a Jewish writer who lived in Jesus’ day, described Jewish women in the city of Alexandria, telling us that women were kept in seclusion, never even approaching the outer door. As for the maidens, they remained confined to the inner chambers (the women’s quarters), and for modesty’s sake avoided the sight of men, even of their closest relations.6 While many (but not all) women in Jerusalem, the capital of ancient Israel, lived similar restrictive lives, married women in rural Palestine were able to move around in public with more freedom, as they often had to help their husbands in agricultural work and commerce. However, it was not customary for a man to speak with a woman he didn’t know, and women were not supposed to work or travel alone.
When describing and quoting from what early Jewish writings had to say about the life of Jewish women of that time, author Joachim Jeremias wrote:
The wife’s first duties were household duties. She had to grind meal, bake, wash, cook, suckle the children, prepare her husband’s bed and, as repayment for her keep, to work the wool by spinning and weaving. Other duties were that of preparing her husband’s cup, and of washing his face, hands and feet. These duties express her servile relationship with her husband; but his rights over her went even further. He laid claim to anything his wife found (in this she resembled a Gentile slave), as well as any earnings from her manual work, and he had the right to annul her vows. The wife was obliged to obey her husband as she would a master.7
He goes on to say:
Like a non-Jewish slave and a child under age, a woman has over her a man who is her master; and this likewise limits her participation in divine service, which is why from a religious point of view she is inferior to a man… We have therefore the impression that Judaism in Jesus’ time also had a very low opinion of women. [They were] kept as far as possible shut away from the outer world, submissive to the power of her father or her husband, and where she is inferior to men from a religious point of view.8
When we read about Jesus’ relation to and interaction with women in the Gospels, it’s clear that He had a very different perspective. Jesus saw women as complete persons with dignity and worth and spirituality. This is seen in His healing of women, as well as His forgiveness and acceptance of women who were considered ritually unclean and socially undesirable.
One example of healing was when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law on the Sabbath:
He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.9
Such an action toward the mother-in-law of a disciple may not seem particularly outstanding to us today, but as author Ben Witherington wrote:
Though there were precedents for rabbis taking the hand of another man and miraculously healing him, there are no examples of rabbis doing so for a woman, and certainly not on the Sabbath when the act could wait until sundown.10
Jairus, a leader of a synagogue and the father of a young girl who was dying, pleaded for Jesus to come to his house. As they were on their way there, someone met them and told them that the daughter had died. Jesus went to the house anyway and took the girl’s hand, saying, “Child, arise.” And her spirit returned, and she got up at once.11 Even a young girl had value to Jesus. He went as far as breaking the Mosaic Law to heal her, as touching the dead made one ritually unclean—yet Jesus touched her anyway.
While Jesus was on His way to Jairus’ house, there was another healing event:
a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.12
Here again, Jesus shows love and compassion toward a woman by disregarding the Law. A woman with a flow of blood was considered ritually unclean, and being touched by her would have technically made Jesus unclean. However, He placed her healing above the ritual cleansing rules.
On another occasion, while Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath He saw a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years.
She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself.13Jesus said to her: “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God.14
The ruler of the synagogue indignantly objected to Jesus having healed her on the Sabbath, stating that:
“There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”15
Jesus responded by calling him a hypocrite, pointing out that people do the work of untying their donkeys and leading them to water on the Sabbath. He said, Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?16
Jesus called this woman “a daughter of Abraham.” Nowhere else in Scripture nor in rabbinic literature is this phrase used. In calling her a daughter of Abraham, Jesus echoed the commonly used phrase “son of Abraham,” and in doing so made the point that she, as a woman, was a child of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, and should be treated as such. She should be looked upon as a complete person and be valued as such; whereas the typical interpretation of the Sabbath laws, as per the synagogue ruler’s rebuke, was essentially that a mere pack animal was worth more. Jesus not only healed this woman, but also restored her dignity. By using the title “daughter of Abraham,” Jesus was implying the broader point that a woman, a daughter of Abraham, was as worthy of His concern and healing as any Jewish man, and had as full a claim to her religious heritage.17
When approaching the town of Nain, Jesus encountered the funeral procession for an only son of a widow. Upon seeing the weeping mother, Jesus had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.18 We see Jesus’ concern for this grieving mother and His act of mercy toward her. Jesus restored her son, thus securing her means of support as well as returning joy to her life. Here we are given an example of Jesus’ and thus His Father’s concern for women who have lost their husbands and sons.
Jesus not only showed respect for and interacted with Jewish women, but also foreign women, as seen in His encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. When passing through Samaria during a trip from Judea to Galilee, He came to a town called Sychar. He stopped outside of town around noon while His disciples went into town for some food. He sat down by a well which was in a field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. A Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well, and Jesus asked her to give Him a drink. The woman was surprised that Jesus made this request for two reasons—because He was a man (who at that time didn’t normally speak to women they didn’t know), and because He was a Jew—and the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans.19
Jesus had a conversation with the woman, and in that discussion He revealed that He knew that she had been married multiple times and that the man she was living with wasn’t her husband. As the discussion progressed, Jesus told her that He was the Messiah. When Jesus’ disciples returned, the woman rushed into town and told everyone about Jesus:
“Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”20We’re told that many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. When the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word.21
Jesus spoke to a foreign woman, a Samaritan, whom the Jews had a strong prejudice against, who was living with a man who wasn’t her husband. As such she was unclean on two accounts, being a Samaritan and an adulteress. Yet Jesus not only spoke to her, but revealed to her that He was the Messiah. She then became a fruitful witness to others. Through this description of Jesus’ actions we learn that a woman—and not only a woman but even a non-Jewish, ritually unclean, and sinful woman—is eligible to share God’s message with others.
By reading the story of Jesus’ visit with Martha and Mary, we find out that women are not only eligible to share the message, as in the case of the Samaritan woman, but they can be disciples as well. When Jesus visited Bethany, Martha welcomed Him into her home. Martha had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.22 This bothered Martha, because she was preparing the meal and she expected Mary to help her. Jesus said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”23
Jesus’ response was not meant to devalue Martha’s efforts at hospitality, nor was He attacking a woman’s traditional role in keeping house; rather, Jesus was defending Mary’s intellectual and spiritual right to learn from Him, and said such learning was the most essential thing for those who wish to serve Him.24 The phrase stating that Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching is understood as a way of saying that Mary was doing what a disciple does. Paul used this phrase when he spoke of being a follower/disciple of the Jewish teacher Gamaliel before his conversion. I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel.25 Mary is portrayed as a disciple, sitting and learning at the feet of her Master. Jesus says Mary has chosen “the good portion,” implying that she and other women who do the same have a place as equals among His disciples.
In Matthew, we’re told that when Jesus asked His disciples “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”26This is understood to be a key statement in the Gospels, as Peter, representing all of the disciples, declares an understanding of who Jesus is. In the Gospel of John, when Jesus went to Bethany because Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus had died, Martha went out to meet Him. In the course of Jesus and Martha speaking together, Jesus told her that Lazarus would rise again. She responds with “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”27In saying this, she was expressing the standard view of the resurrection of the dead that the Pharisees taught. Jesus responded by revealing something about Himself and His nature when He said:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”28 Martha responded: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”29
Her response to Jesus revealing that He is the resurrection and the life was a statement of faith as strong as the one Peter made, and has, like Peter’s, resounded through the ages.
Martha’s being the recipient of such a profound statement from Jesus about Himself, and making a heartfelt definitive response as a believer, indicates that He was willing to teach women in the ways and mysteries of the faith, and that they are capable of responding in faith. In short, they are capable of being full-fledged disciples.30
So far we have seen that Jesus showed love and compassion for women by healing them or their loved ones. He also wasn’t particularly worried about becoming ritually unclean by touching those who were unclean due to illness, menstruation, sin, or death. He broke the Mosaic Law by healing women on the Sabbath, and rebuked a religious leader for objecting to His healing a “daughter of Abraham” on the Sabbath. He taught Mary as a disciple; and He revealed something dramatic about Himself and His nature to Martha, who responded with a statement of faith similar to that of the apostle Peter. These words and actions on Jesus’ part demonstrate that women are complete and equal persons in His and His Father’s eyes.
In the next article we’ll look at women in the parables, the women who traveled with Jesus as His disciples, and the women present at His crucifixion and as the first witnesses of His resurrection.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Luke 4:18.
2 Luke 18:22.
3 Luke 14:13–14.
4 Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 72.
5 Deuteronomy 31:12; Joshua 8:35.
6 Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: SCM Press, 1969), 360–61.
7 Ibid., 369.
8 Ibid., 375.
9 Mark 1:30–31.
10 Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 67.
11 Luke 8:54–55.
12 Matthew 9:20–22.
13 Luke 13:11.
14 Luke 13:12–13.
15 Luke 13:14.
16 Luke 13:16.
17 Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 72.
18 Luke 7:13–15.
19 John 4:9.
20 John 4:29.
21 John 4:39–41.
22 Luke 10:39.
23 Luke 10:41–42.
24 Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 101.
25 Acts 22:3.
26 Matthew 16:15–16.
27 John 11:24.
28 John 11:25–26.
29 John 11:27.
30 Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus. 109.