Jesus and Women: Rebelling against Misogyny

Whereas modern Christian values might be used to instigate a so-called ‘War on Women,’ Christianity is not an outflow of a patriarchal society. Jesus, the founder of the faith, did indeed live in a male-dominated society, but he was radical in how he rebelled against the cultural values of his age. His treatment of women pushed far beyond his society’s boundaries to love and honor women in ways never before seen. The gospels tell of his extraordinary conduct towards women, which takes on a radical nature when considered in the context of the oppressive environment for women in the Ancient Middle East. By looking at Jesus’ actions through the proper lens, I want to demonstrate that Christianity was instituted with a profoundly pro-women attitude. The examples of Jesus’ charity are numerous, so I will focus on a few select situations showing how Jesus was dramatically radical in his treatment of women.[1]

Disciples and Sermons:

The gospels make it quite clear that Jesus permitted many women to follow him as his disciples, unheard of for a rabbi of that time. Even for his long travels, Jesus was followed by at least a few women. Luke 8:1-3 specifically mentions women playing an important role in some of these travels, “He journeyed from one town and village to another… Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women… who provided for them out of their resources.” Not only are women specifically mentioned as daily disciples, they are also notable for participating in and helping fund his travels. For any women to make extensive travels in the Middle East, even today, is extremely rare. Even more rare is allowing women to be sources of financial aid, as such aid usually created a social stigma.[2] These were among the various ways in which Jesus included and empowered women in his ministry.

The sermons Jesus preached are also extremely inclusive of women. His very first sermon mentions as an example two Gentiles blessed by God, one of whom is female, the “widow in Zarephath” (Lk 4:26). This particular teaching was so controversial that after the sermon the people of Nazareth drove him out of town and tried to hurl Jesus off of a cliff! [3] (Lk 4:28-29). Jesus’ parables are also frequently paired so that both of the sexes are equally represented. For instance, the parable of the good shepherd is followed by the one of a woman searching for the lost coin (Lk 15:3-11), and the parable of the mustard seed followed by one of a woman kneading bread (Lk 13:18-21). Through his sermons and his choice of examples, Jesus clearly taught that women were equal in standing to men. In one memorable case, he even shows a woman to be superior to men when Jesus singles out an impoverished widow who gives two coins to the temple as superior to the gifts of the rich. (Lk 21:1-4).

Teachings and indirect actions only go so far, however. Jesus’ direct actions towards women show even more clearly how transformative his actions were. I will look more closely at two specific cases that demonstrate his transformative action.

Samaritan Woman at the Well:

At “about noon” at a well in Samaria, Jesus says to a woman, “Give me a drink” (Jn 4:6-7). From our modern perspective, the tone of the start this story of Jesus’ conversation with the Woman at the Well is seemingly harsh and masculine – Jesus lazily asked a woman for water while being right next to the well himself. But when seen in the cultural light of the day, Jesus is being compassionate, and even controversially so, by talking to this woman. Not only is he asking for a drink from what would be the woman’s defiled Samaritan bucket, unacceptable for any Jew (“Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans” (Jn 4:9)); but he is also talking alone in public with a woman. This is astounding considering that it is improper for a man to make simple eye contact, much less talk, with a woman today in a typical Middle Eastern village.[4] Additionally, by virtue of the description that the woman is coming to the well during the heat of midday, she is described as a sinner, an outcast not accepted by the other women of the village who all go to the well in the cool of the morning.[5] So, amazingly, Jesus’ request for a drink is actually a strong act of humility and of acceptance and honor. In spite of her sins (she had five husbands (Jn 4:18)) and socially exiled state, Jesus offers her the everlasting water of life. Interestingly, he gives this powerful message to her alone, and then lets her spread that message to the rest of the village. Amazingly, the villagers receive the message from the sinful woman with open hearts: “Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified (Jn 4:39). Jesus, as a result, brings the gospel message to an entire town through one of the most unexpected sources possible: a sinful and outcast Samaritan woman.

The Stoning of the Adulterous Woman:

Following a radical statement made by Jesus in the temple the previous day, and a failed arrest attempt; the Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery (Jn 7:37-52). By bringing the adulteress to Jesus in the public temple area where Roman soldiers were close by,6 the Pharisees were attempting to put Jesus in an impossible conflict between Roman rule and Mosaic law. Impressively, Jesus both solves the problem and uses the situation to be even more dramatic himself, giving the adulterous woman forgiveness and mercy. “Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (Jn 8:4-5). If Jesus agrees with Moses, he is violating the Roman order for Jews not to put anyone to death on their own and would be arrested; however, if he refrains from acting because of that practicality, he would lose the respect of his followers and public as a Jewish teacher.[7] But Jesus finds a fascinating third solution with his response, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:6-7). Jesus affirms the law by affirming the penalty by stoning, but because he puts individual responsibility on each person within the growing mob planning to throw a stone, he protects the woman. So Jesus’ challenge for the sinless individual to cast the first stone proves to be even harder than the challenge of the Pharisees, and, slowly, the crowd quietly disperses.

Having saved the woman from certain physical death, Jesus continues to offer immense respect to this sinful woman. He is the first to actually address her (again, speaking alone with a woman in public), asking, “Woman… has no one condemned you?” This gives her the distinction and ability, for the first time, to speak for herself as she realizes her own salvation: “No one, sir” (Jn 8:10). His reply is a tremendous act of compassion (for he, by his own rule, is the only person capable of throwing the first stone, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and from now on do not sin anymore” (Jn 8:10-11). Without condoning her sin, Jesus allows her the dignity to go and live a life anew by her free choice. Again, Jesus tests and revolutionizes the social perspective on women. So much so that this particular story was omitted in some early New Testament texts and manuscripts. Even the early church saw Jesus teaching towards women as too radical.[8]

These are but a few examples of Jesus’ extraordinary treatment towards women. His approach was and still is revolutionary. When faced with oppressed women, Jesus did not accept societal norms, but he transformed them. He empowered the powerless and rescued the friendless. It is to be grieved that modern Christianity has to a great extent lost Jesus’ spirit of compassion towards women and all who are treated unfairly. Given the clear directive Jesus’ teaching and action embodies, we too must live a life with respect and compassion to all.

 

1 The evidence and arguments of this article are based primarily on the book Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, by Kenneth E. Bailey. Scriptural Evidence is given from The New American Bible.

2 Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008. 193.

3 This controversy also had a great deal to do with Jesus’ inciting reference of Gentiles in a sermon to a predominantly Jewish udience.

4 Bailey. Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. 203.

5 Ibid, 202.

6 King Herod built a fortress in that area specifically to keep track of possible Jewish uprisings (Bailey, 233)

7 Ibid, 233-234.

8 Jn 8:1-11 is not in some early found New Testament translations and was put in the gospel of Luke, possibly because the story was removed because some people would use it as approval for their own adulterous actions, but that is only one possible answer given for yet another highly contested field in Biblical studies (Bailey 229-230).

 

CJ Curtis ’14 is a Junior in Lowell House who likes baseball, fresh fruit, and Jesus. CJ is a staff writer for the Ichthus.

 

Photo credit: jdurham from morguefile.com.

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