Not long ago I was having a conversation with a young man about Jesus. He was not at all impressed with my savior and he was letting me know about it. He claimed that Jesus was sexist. I tried to get clarification, but there was hardly any available. He had heard somewhere that Jesus mistreated women or something like that; maybe called one a dog. Although his defense was foggy, there is quite a lot of information concerning Jesus and women. My view is quite the opposite of this young man, and luckily historians who understand the social conditions of the time agree. It really is an absurd claim. It’s like accusing Gandhi of overeating. It’s contrary to the truth. To see why we need to build a working understanding of what life was like for women when Jesus arrived on the scene.
In the Roman era, which is the time of Christ, women belonged to men. That’s right, ‘belonged.’ They were treated like talking property. They were in a slightly higher position than slaves and servants, but only slightly. Cattle were treated better than the average woman in much of history. Every female of any age was expected to have a man as a legal guardian. Before marriage, her father was her guardian, and her husband when married. Even widows were under the watchful eye of some man after the death of her spouse. Women were not trusted to take care of themselves. One of the Roman rulers passed a law that limited the amount of money a woman could carry, presumably because of a lack of self-restraint in the marketplace. They generally couldn’t go out of the home without being supervised by a man, at least not if they were to be respected.
The female half of the population were depicted as half-witted inferiors who were incapable of controlling their fancies, engaging in politics, or partaking in anything intellectual. Not only were their bodies considered weaker than a man’s but their minds as well. Proper education was rare for girls even in places where boys were schooled. This lack of education perpetuated the idea that women were unintelligent. It was not because they actually were, but because they were disallowed to study. In the Jewish synagogues, there was a section in the back for women. They couldn’t sit with the men, and why should they since they could hardly understand what was being said, in the men’s opinion.
In the Greek and Roman world, it seems that everything was the fault of women. The Romans inherited the Greek Mythologies which taught that death and evil were introduced into the world when a woman named Pandora opened a box because of her uncontrollable curiosity. The Jewish Scripture has Adam, the first man, blaming a woman for the world’s introduction to sin. If there was an opportunity to blame a woman, you can bet that men would do so. I guess some things never change, it’s just that the Romans did it on a massive scale.
In the Roman world, if a man lusted after a young lady and was enticed into indecency, then it was the woman’s fault, not the man’s. For a woman to commit adultery was a criminal offense. Corporal or even capital punishment could legally be administered to the female adulterous. If her husband had indiscriminate sex outside of marriage, it was something like a misdemeanor and he often wouldn’t be bothered with consequences. Even in the New Testament, we have a situation where a woman is about to be stoned to death for committing adultery, but the man is nowhere to be found. This was the type of unbalanced injustice that permeated the Roman era.
We don’t know how often it happened, but there are recorded cases of men beating their wives to death, in one case because she drank wine. The husband was not even required to answer for the crime. In Jewish tradition, the school of Hillel taught that a man could divorce his wife for any cause he deemed worthy, even burned toast. Divorce, for a woman, came with a heavy price. If no one else would marry her, she could possibly be taken back in by her Father’s family. If that didn’t work, there was always prostitution.
Marriage was one of the few things that women might have to look forward to. I say ‘might’ because it was not always a joyous occasion. These marriages were arranged. Caesar Augustus mercifully set the minimum age for girls to get married to 12. Before that, there was no limit. Some Roman sources indicate that most girls were married a few years after puberty, to men who were much older. It was not uncommon for a fourteen-year-old girl to be forced to marry a thirty-year-old man. Once married the household responsibilities began immediately. Carrying water, cooking, and other homemaking duties kept women busy.
Outside of being a source of free manual labor, wives were chiefly expected to provide a male heir to the household. If there were no children provided by a marriage it was a shameful thing for the woman, because she was supposedly solely to blame. It was apparently her fault as well if she couldn’t provide boys. The husband was never implicated, even though modern science has shown that the determination of the gender comes from the father, not the mother. How many daughters of Eve have been blamed for something a man did? Millions, no doubt.
Women died on average 5 years before men, probably because of the toll that constant childbearing took on their body. It’s estimated that somewhere around 1 in 4 women would die in childbirth, and their babies as well. The high mortality rate might also have to do with the fact that women were generally expected to cook which kept them in close proximity to the smoke of open flame ovens much of the day. Certainly, many women died before their time, due to lung cancer and other related respiratory diseases. Many people in the ancient world burned to death in their homes because of their cooking flames and burning candles. Women were more likely than men to die in this way since they were expected to stay at home day and night.
Because they were considered mentally inferior a Woman couldn’t be trusted in a court of law. Her testimony could be easily overruled as long a man disagreed with it. An example of this was the Roman idea that if a woman was raped, she was in part responsible for the crime. It was thought that, had she really wanted to be saved from the incident she could have screamed loud enough to be rescued. Therefore, she was responsible for inciting the lust of the man, and for not resisting his advancement.
Politically they didn’t count and were not allowed to vote. They were barred from holding public office, and given no opportunity for advancement in any arena. They couldn’t be teachers, especially if it included teaching men. They couldn’t be disciples of Rabbis, because Rabbis were only men. The ancient world was incredibly cruel to the ladies. Compared to our modern standards of gender equality, the Roman era and the centuries that precede and follow were barbaric.
This was the gender-oppressed woman-hating misogynistic time that Jesus was injected into. Now that we have a basic understanding of how the world was treating women, let’s take a look at how Jesus treated them.
The first evangelist that resulted from Jesus’ ministry was a women. Even before he sent his male disciples out on local mission trips, he converted and employed a Samaritan woman he met at Jacob’s Well In Sychar to share the gospel. You can find this story in the fourth chapter of of John. Not only was she a woman, but she was a disreputable lady at that. She had been married five times and was currently living with a dude that she wasn’t married to. By Jewish law she could be stoned to death. However, Jesus wasn’t concerned with having her punished for her adultery. Instead, he spent time with her, talking. The result of their conversation was huge. She came to believe in him on the spot. She ran back to town and spread the word that the Messiah had arrived. As a result many other people became believers. She was Jesus’ first evangelist.
In today’s society this may not seem strange, but for the day in which He lived it would be a blemish on Jesus in the minds of the religious elite. He showed kindness and care to a promiscuous woman and then allowed her to be part of his ministry. Where was the condemnation he was supposed to heap upon her head? Where was the condescending attitude that he was supposed to display toward woman? It’s strangely absent for this first century man. This isn’t the only time Jesus acted in a counter-cultural way in terms of gender expectations.
Jesus had a few friends who lived near the city of Jerusalem. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were brother and sisters. One time when Jesus was hanging out at their house an interesting thing transpired. Martha was preparing a meal for everyone. She was rushing around like a busy bee while her sister, Mary, was sitting at the feet of Jesus.
It’s important to understand that sitting at a Rabbi’s feet is an honor. In Jewish culture, a Rabbi would sit while he was teaching, and his best and brightest students would sit in the closest position, at his feet. The fact that we find Mary at the feet of the teacher, a place that should have been reserved for Peter James or John, is remarkable. We would expect for her to have to stand at a distance if she was even allowed to listen at all. A prominent Rabbi named Eliezer lived around this time. He once wrote, “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.”1
No good Rabbi would let this happen. His disciples were to only be boys or men. At the feet of the teacher was no place for a female. What if they accidentally touched? That would be disastrous! What if she asked a question where other men could hear? The world would come unraveled at the seams! What if she learned something that the men didn’t know? The universe would implode on itself! However, Jesus allowed it. Actually, ‘allowed it’ is an understatement. He encouraged it. Jesus, what are you thinking? We don’t have to guess what he’s thinking, because he tells us in Luke chapter 10.
After Mary has been sitting listening to Jesus for a while, Martha bursts in and interrupts. She is mad that Mary is doing nothing, while she is preparing food for everyone. Martha expects Jesus to take her side, because even she had bought into the traditional role of woman. Martha believed, as most men of the time had forced her to, that the woman’s role was confined to household duties.
Martha comes to Jesus in a huff and says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone?” Without waiting for Jesus to respond she adds to it, as if the answer is obvious. “Then tell her to help me.” I can imagine her with sweat running down her forehead and her cheeks red. She feels like she has an airtight case. She knows what’s expected of women, and it hasn’t occurred to her that she could be wrong. She knows Jesus will side with her. However, that’s not what Jesus does. He defies three thousand years of gender inequality and responds with a simple statement.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
In it I hear the words of future suffragists. I hear the words of feminists. I hear the words of civil and women’s rights. Jesus challenges Martha’s preconceived idea. She has swallowed the generation’s old notion that the purpose of a woman is to serve men food. He points out that Mary’s concept of womanhood is so much better. He refuses to oppress Mary. He refuses to reinforce gender inequality. He refuses to treat Mary any different that his own male disciples.
I imagine that Jesus’ words must have hit Martha like a ton of bricks. Although the story doesn’t tell us, I like to image that by the end of the day Martha put down her cookware and took up a place next to Jesus’ feet. There are so many other places where Jesus shows his respect for woman.
In Matthew 26 and Mark 14 we find an interesting occurrence. A woman pours perfume on Jesus. It sounds strange to us, but it was not so uncommon in their day. Royals and noblemen and women would often be anointed with fragrant oils of various kinds. The woman that anoints Jesus gets some flack from the disciples. They gripe at her for her wasteful act. Jesus, once again, rushes to the defense of the woman; something men rarely did in his day.
He says, “wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” The fact that he’s making a prophecy here is worth mentioning, but it is beside the point. He gives this woman an incredible honor. She was brave enough to expend a very pricey commodity, and got scorned by the men who followed Jesus around. The disciples were acting in accordance with the idea of the day; that woman were lacking the mind for financial matters. They acted as if the woman was making a silly mistake.
Jesus’ correction and honor of the woman show that he highly valued the spirit and worship that woman brought to his ministry.
The list that could be made about Jesus and his love of both genders is too long for this chapter. It would no doubt include the fact that Jesus’ ministry was supported financially by a group of ladies. He often healed women by touching, even though men were forbidden to talk to women the than their wife, not to mention touch them. Jesus makes up a new phrase, “daughter of Abraham,” which had never been used in Jewish writings, although “sons of Abraham” was used often. Jesus prescribes mercy on the woman caught in adultery, when everyone else was determined to stone her. About half of Jesus’ followers were female. The Gospels tell us that even though the male disciples, except for John, were too scared to show up, that the it was the woman who stood by him in the hour of his death. When he told stories, he often told of female heroins, not just male as other storytellers of his time did. He advocated against the use of unjust divorce, which would always hurt the woman more than the man. He mentions the importance of taking care of widows often in the gospels. Jesus appeared to woman first after his resurrection. It was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who received the first, post-resurrection evangelism commission from Jesus. It was the women who first reported Jesus’ resurrection to the rest of the boys.
Woman were not only respected by Jesus, but they played a prominent role in his ministry. It’s my feeling that his female followers were more faithful in the service of Christ than the men. Woman have always been an important part of human history, however, until Jesus’ time they were hardly ever presented with positive characteristics. Jesus changed the way that the world thought about women.
Later Paul would write, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise”
He promises that your gender doesn’t matter to Christ. You can be heirs of equal status regardless of your sex. This was a foreign idea in the ancient world. It’s hard for us to understand how they could be so blind to gender inequality, but they were.
Often Christianity has been accused of being sexist. We should see that when Christianity is sexist, it’s not acting like Christ. The misogynistic tendencies of mankind doesn’t come from Jesus’ example, but from the example of other men. Jesus went out of his way and even broke the law to show women that they were as valuable as men. It was yet another reason, why Jesus seemed so strange to the people of his time.
We can hardly imagine what life was like for the people of his time. If you enjoy the modern situation of a more equal society between the sexes, that’s an idea that Jesus invented, and promoted.
1 Rabbi Eliezer, “Mishnah, Sotah 3:4“