Jesus and Women

Let’s leave the 21st century behind for a moment, and think about the sayings and doings of Jesus of Nazareth as if we, like him, were 1st century Jews. Several New Testament scholars have noted that there’s no instance in which Jesus belittled, or stereotyped women. On the contrary, he sought to liberate and affirm women. Let’s look at two clear examples of this.

One day Jesus encountered a Canaanite woman whose child was ill and who asked for his help. He explained his mission was “only to the children of Israel”, and therefore it wouldn’t be “right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”. The woman rose to that challenge, and her immediate and spirited reply turned that argument on its head, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s leftovers!” How many men, of that time and of all times, feeling they’d been ‘bested’ by her, would have reacted with anger, and sought a reply that would put her ‘in her place’. Jesus admired her for sticking to her guns, respected the practical wisdom and moral force of her reply and, treating her on an equal basis, took her point and immediately gave her his help.

On another occasion, while his disciples were off buying food, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman drawing water from a well, and asked her for a drink. She was most surprised, since Jews were not supposed to use “the same cups and bowls” as non-Jews. Jesus then entered into a wide-ranging, give and take, ‘religious’ discussion with this woman. The current norm was for women to be, at best, subordinate to men and, at worst, subservient to them. Even if occasionally seen, they were rarely to be heard, and their opinions unlikely to be sought, let alone heeded. No wonder we’re told that when Jesus’ disciples came back, “they were greatly surprised to find him talking with a woman.”

In 1st century Judaism, women were segregated from men in Temple worship; excluded from testifying in court; not to be seen in public unless doubly veiled; not to speak to strangers; not to be taught the Jewish Law, nor educated at all. As the Oxford Companion to the Bible puts it, “They had become second-class Jews, excluded from the worship and teaching of God, with status scarcely above that of slaves.” It is in this context, that the attitude and actions of Jesus with respect to women can be seen to be indeed ‘revolutionary’. To him, just as Jewish men were ‘the sons of Abraham’, Jewish women were ‘the daughters of Abraham”, of equal value in the eyes of the Jewish God.

Those individuals and churches that claim to follow Jesus should be in the forefront of those demanding, for men and women, equal value, rights and opportunities – no ‘ceilings’, glass or otherwise. How sad and disheartening it is, that the misogyny of twenty centuries has still not been fully addressed and eradicated. 

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