The Status of Women in the Gospels
Women in Palestine
Women's status and
freedoms were severely limited by Jewish law and custom in Palestine.
were restricted to roles of little or no authority,
were largely confined to their father's or husband's home,
were considered to be inferior to men, and under the authority
From the Second
Temple period, women were not allowed to testify in court trials.
They could not go out in public, or talk to strangers. When outside
of their homes, they were to be doubly veiled. "They had become
second-class Jews, excluded from the worship and teaching of God,
with status scarcely above that of slaves." (1) Their position
in society was defined in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the interpretation
of those scriptures. Their status could be compared with that of
contemporary women in Afghanistan during the Taliban dictatorship.
many centuries of Jewish law and custom. He consistently treated
women and men as equals. He violated numerous Old Testament regulations,
which specified gender inequality. He refused to follow the behavioral
rules established by the three Jewish religious groups of the day:
the Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees. "The actions of Jesus
of Nazareth towards women were therefore revolutionary." (1)
Some examples are:
taught women: Luke 10-38:42 describes his visit to the home
of Mary and Martha; where Martha chose to be taught by Jesus
rather than help her sister make a meal. Jesus praised her for
ignored ritual impurity laws: Mark 5:25-34 describes Jesus'
cure of a woman who suffered from menstrual bleeding for 12
years. In Judean society of the day, it was a terrible transgression
for a man to talk to a woman other than his wife.
talked to foreign women: John 4:7 to 5:30 describes Jesus'
conversation with a woman of Samaria. She was doubly ritually
unclean since she was both a foreigner and a woman. Men were
not allowed to talk to women, with the exception of their wives.
Jesus also helped a Canaanite woman, another foreigner, in Matthew
15:21. He is recorded as curing her daughter of demon-possession.
taught women students: Jewish tradition at the time
was to not allow women to be taught. Rabbi Eliezer wrote in
the 1st century CE: "Rather should the words of the Torah
be burned than entrusted to a woman...Whoever teaches his daughter
the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity." (5) Jesus
overthrew centuries of tradition. In Luke 10:38-42, he taught
used terminology which treated women as equal to men:
13:16 describes how he cured a woman from an indwelling
Satanic spirit. He called her a daughter of Abraham, thus
implying that she had equal status with sons of Abraham.
"The expression 'son of Abraham' was commonly used
to respectfully refer to a Jew, but 'daughter of Abraham',
was an unknown parallel phrase...It occurs nowhere else
in the Bible." (4) It seems to be a designation created
7:35 to 8:50 describes how Jesus' forgave a woman's sins.
He refers to women and men (i.e. "all" people)
as children of wisdom.
accepted women in his inner circle: Luke 8:1-3 describes
the inner circle of Jesus' followers: 12 male disciples and
an unspecified number female supporters (Mary Magdalene, Joanna,
Susanna and "many others.") It would appear that about
half of his closest followers were women.
appeared first to a woman after his resurrection: Matthew
28:9-10 describes how Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary"
were the first followers of Jesus to meet him after his resurrection.
(However, this account is contradicted by passages in the other
3 gospels and in 1 Corinthians, which state that the first person
to see Jesus was Cleopas, Peter or all of the disciples.)
were present at Jesus' death: Matthew 27:55-56 and Mark
15:40-41 describe many women who followed Jesus from Galilee
and were present at his crucifixion. The men had fled from the
scene. (John 19:25-27 contradicts this; the author describes
John as being present with the women.)
told parallel stories: The author of the Gospel of Luke
and of Acts shows many parallel episodes: one relating to a
woman, the other to a man. For example:
and Hannah in Luke 2:25-38
of Sarepta and Naaman in Luke 4:25-38
of a man possessed by a demon and the healing of the mother
of Peter's wife, starting in Luke 4:31
woman who had lived a sinful life and Simon, starting
in Luke 7:36
man and woman sleeping together in Luke 17:34
and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11
and Damaris in Acts 17:34
and the jailer's conversion in Acts 16:14-34
book "Women in the Earliest Churches" lists
9 additional parallels. (3) Author Ben Withernington III
quotes H. Flender:
expresses by this arrangement that man and woman stand
together and side by side before God. They are equal
in honor and grace; they are endowed with the same
gifts and have the same responsibilities."
expressed concern for widows: Jesus repeated the importance
of supporting widows throughout his ministry. The Gospel of
Luke alone contains 6 references to widows: (Luke 2:36, 4:26,
7:11, 18:1, 20:47 and 21:1)
There are two passages
where Jesus deviates from his usual practice of treating women equally:
disciples: We have been able to find only one instance in
which Jesus did not treat women equally. The 12 disciples that
he selected were described in the Gospels as being all male.
He later selected a total of 70 disciples; the gender makeup
of the latter group was not recorded.
Marriage: In Mark 12:18-27 Jesus answered a question posed
by some Sadducees. They described a woman who was widowed and
required to marry her brother-in-law. This was called a "Levirate"
marriage. Their first-born son will be considered to be the
son of the deceased husband. In this case, they imagined that
seven brothers-in-law married her in succession without having
a son. Jesus could have used the opportunity to preach on the
unfairness of this requirement of Jewish law (from Deuteronomy
25:5-10). After all, the woman was not allowed to refuse to
marry any of the brothers, even if she despised some of them.
But Jesus is not recorded as having condemned the practice.
In Jesus' time, a man could divorce his wife, but the wife had
no such right. This practice is supported by seven references
in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in which a husband
gives his wife a bill of divorce. There were no references to
a woman giving her husband such a bill. In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus
overthrows this tradition and states that either spouse can
divorce the other; a wife can divorce her husband.
Treatment of Mary
Magdalene by an Angel:
In Matthew 28:1-7,
after Jesus' resurrection, "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary"
receive the first apostolic commission of any human - to tell the
good news of the resurrection to the disciples. This is reinforced
by Jesus' appearance before the two women. The two Marys were the
- B.M. Metzger
& M.D. Coogan, "The Oxford Companion to the Bible",
Oxford University Press, New York, NY, (1993), P. 806 to 818
for Biblical Equality are an Evangelical Christian group,
which opposes the vast majority of conservative Christian denominations
by promoting gender equality. Their essay: "Statement On
Men, Women and Biblical Equality" is at:
- Ben Witherington
III, "Women in the Earliest Churches", Cambridge University
Press, (1988), Page 129
- Frank Daniels,
"The Role of Woman in the Church." part of the Religious
Heresy Page at:
- Rabbi Eliezer,