Changing Role of Women
in the Gospels
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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.
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.
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,1 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.
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, worth, and spirituality. This is seen in His healing of women,2 as well as His forgiveness and acceptance of women who were considered ritually unclean and socially undesirable.3
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. 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. 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.
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. Jesus’ words and actions demonstrated that women are complete and equal persons in His and His Father’s eyes.
Throughout the Gospels, we see that Jesus overturned the view that a woman’s place was limited to the home and put forward that they had a place in both public and religious life as well. We read of His interaction with women, how He featured them as positive examples in His teaching, of women being proclaimers of His message, of their correct understanding of who He was, and of their witnessing His death and resurrection. All of this lays the foundational understanding that in the eyes of God and in His kingdom, and in spiritual matters, women are equally valued and have equal standing with men. Through Jesus, the old patriarchal religious order was beginning to move aside and be replaced by the new kingdom understanding of the value and equality of women.—Peter Amsterdam
The one she followed
Mary Magdalene has been given a lot of publicity since her time, and like the tabloids, not much of it is true. Allegations that she was married to Jesus or founded a community steeped in Gnostic belief are unfounded historical claims when looking at the earliest sources. They have no basis in the New Testament and do not seem to have any foundation in traditions before the second century.
What we do know about Mary is that she was possessed by evil spirits—seven to be exact—before she met Jesus. Much speculation has been assigned to what this possession meant. Some have argued that she was a prostitute and thus was deemed filled with unclean spirits, though this is never stated. Regardless of whatever life she had come from, it is clear that everything changed when she met the one who healed her. Mary joined the ranks as a follower of Jesus, and she never left him, even to the end.
Scholars remind us that this says a great deal about Mary, but even more so about the one she followed… Jesus stepped into a world that largely discriminated against women. Women were forbidden to go beyond a certain point in the Temple; they were excluded from conversations in public and restricted to roles as spectators. Jesus not only rejected this practice, he radically acted in opposition to it. He shocked his disciples by talking to those who typically were rejected—a hemorrhaging woman on the road, a Samaritan drawing water at the well. He brushed aside every discrimination and injustice, and received the courageous women who were a part of every event outlined in the New Testament.
Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, which is an unfathomable statement to make about oneself. But it is not the only inconceivable statement he made. To study him, as one might a loose cannon in the crowd, we find one who is entirely countercultural, who affirms those who are rejected and overlooked, who gives women a voice and safe place to be heard, and who calls everyone to transparency, speaking toward a broken world with all its pain and shortfall, sickness and sin. If this is indeed the Son of God, he is a God who not only can handle our unedited stories—but demands them—because he himself did not hold back from standing in the midst of it all.
Mary Magdalene’s is one such story. She left behind the life she knew to follow the one who knew her. To this day, her story of faith and discipleship remains the one God has deemed worth retelling.—Jill Carattini4
Jesus’s countercultural view of women
For Christ, women have an intrinsic value equal to that of men. Jesus said, “... at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female.’”5 Women are created in the image of God just as men are. Like men, they have self-awareness, personal freedom, a measure of self-determination, and personal responsibility for their actions… Examples of this even-handed treatment of women by Jesus are found in the four Gospels.
First, Jesus regularly addressed women directly while in public. This was unusual for a man to do.6 The disciples were amazed to see Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar.7 He also spoke freely with the woman taken in adultery.8 … Similarly, Jesus addressed a woman bent over for eighteen years9 and a group of women on the route to the cross.10
A second aspect of Jesus’s regard for the full intrinsic value of women is seen in how he spoke to the women he addressed. He spoke in a thoughtful, caring manner. Each synoptic writer records Jesus addressing the woman with the bleeding disorder tenderly as “daughter” and referring to the bent woman as a “daughter of Abraham.”11 Bloesch infers that “Jesus called the Jewish women ‘daughters of Abraham,’12 thereby according them a spiritual status equal to that of men.”13
Jesus demonstrated only the highest regard for women, in both his life and teaching. He recognized the intrinsic equality of men and women, and continually showed the worth and dignity of women as persons. Jesus valued their fellowship, prayers, service, financial support, testimony and witness. He honored women, taught women, and ministered to women in thoughtful ways.—James A. Borland14
Published on Anchor September 2020. Read by Simon Peterson.
1 Deuteronomy 31:12.
2 Mark 1:30–31; Luke 13:11–12.
3 Luke 8:54–55; John 4:9.
5 Matthew 19:4; cf. Genesis 1:27.
6 John 4:27.
7 John 4:7–26.
8 John 8:10–11.
9 Luke 13:11–12.
10 Luke 23:27–31.
11 Luke 13:16.
12 Luke 13:16.
13 Donald Bloesch, Is the Bible Sexist? (Crossway Books, 1982), 28.