What did Jesus Teach Regarding Female Believers during His Ministry?
It appears to me that during his ministry Jesus directly refuted many of the common teaching and beliefs regarding women held by Jewish religious leaders of his day. A body of teachings he called “the traditions of men” which he stated they used “to make void the word of God.” I have often considered Jesus’ interaction with women and drawn lessons from those as many Bible students have done. But only as I became somewhat familiar with quotes from those traditions of men did I begin to see the possibility of a more direct action on Jesus’ part to refute their teachings. I suggest Jesus made a concerted effort during his ministry to teach and establish a new standard among his disciples. (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7: 9-13)
No Woman could make a vow solely on her own authority.
Oral tradition was a woman was under the control of a father until that control was transferred to her husband. And a husband could impose a vow on his wife or void one she had made. (Mishnah Ketuboth “Marriage Deeds” 4:5)
God’s Agreement was with Mary
However God sent his angel directly to Mary, the angel was not sent to her father or her husband. Only after visiting Mary does the angel warn Joseph not to question Mary’s decency but understand this pregnancy was from God. Joseph’s virtual “invisibility” thereafter suggests in allegorical terms that he understood Mary was primary in God’s plan for Jesus beyond the fact that a female had to give birth to the messiah. This is an interesting testimony of God’s trust in this woman. Contrary to Jewish practice when Mary made her “vow” no man on earth was allowed to nullify it. And even God Himself asked Mary for willing participation. Sending an angel before she was made pregnant suggests a freewill offering was sought not a vow imposed on her and her consent is on record. (Luke 1: 26-38; Matthew 1: 18-25)
Jewish Oral Teaching on Educating Women:
By Jewish tradition females were to be dedicated to domestic concerns. Their education was limited to enough of the Law to run a household and for bearing children and serving the needs of men. “The Sages commanded (tzivu) that men not teach his daughter Torah, because most women are not oriented to learn but rather transform Torah discussions into trivia due to the poverty of their intellect. The Sages said, ‘Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he has taught her tiflut (frivolity).’” (Talmud Study by Women: Rabbi Yehuda Henkin)
When Jesus began his ministry he called both men and women to be his disciples. By placing a female disciple at his feet he stated clearly her need to know and ability to comprehend spiritual matters were no different than that of male disciples. The radical nature of this action can be overlooked all too easily. Even Martha felt Mary’s place was elsewhere. Martha would have been taught from her youth that her duty to God rested in her domestic duty. She would always be managing her home in a way that made sure the males were able to learn the Torah. “But the Lord answered her, Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
It was virtually unheard of for a “rabbi” to publicly take this position. Now this example of inclusion took place in Martha’s home. But on another occasion Jesus interacts with a female in public. And he says to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.” Whether in private or public there is no ambiguity in Jesus’ approach, females learn alongside males no restrictions, no rebukes. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” For the true worship of God in not conducted in a place but in a heart.
Jesus’ meeting with this woman illustrated the same teaching. Those who seek God need only bring a mind searching for truth and a spirit ready to learn. Jesus’ willingness to engage in intelligent dialog and his waiting patiently as she went and witnessed to her brethren is a lesson to all potential disciples. Even though the disciples were astonished “they dared not ask him why he spoke to her.” The lesson here was clear, Jesus did not accept even the fundamental and universally accepted barriers Jewish leaders had set up, neither female nor gentile. (Luke 10: 40-42; John 4: 21-24)
Teaching and Learning
Jesus’ interactions with Martha and Mary at the event of Lazarus’ death reveals their in- depth understanding of resurrection. Mary’s anointing of Jesus to “prepare me for my burial” speaks to a comprehension of the messiah’s fate that even the 12 Apostles could not get their heads around. This is the result of being taught and instructed by Jesus but it is also an example of an ability to learn! This practice of Jesus to instruct these women alongside males on levels of higher learning was witnessed by all the disciples and it was revolutionary. This would have been daily exposure to a new way of thinking. Formal religious education for females was just not done (it was taught they were not capable of learning in depth). This was radical, but an undeniable standard set by the Lord.
Jewish Traditional thought on immorality.
Women are by their nature immoral and restless seeking the easiest satisfactions and are primarily accountable for tempting men to immorality.
Women are the source for sexual sins.
First Jesus teaches contrary to popular belief that “any man who looks at a woman lustfully commits adultery in his heart” condemning the rabbinic belief that it is the woman whose sensual weak nature provokes and distracts a man’s from his holy pursuits. He teaches here what James later repeats: “A man is lured and enticed by his own desire.”
A man is lured and enticed by his own desire (not just men)
Jesus allowed a prostitute to come near to him and accepted a very personal interaction without rebuke or revulsion. Jesus seemed to have no fear that this contact threatened him. Nor that contact with even a female prostitute posed any greater temptation for him than what was in his own heart. This was so outrageous to the religious rulers they were sure he was no prophet if he allowed such contact! In stark contrast Jesus praised her spiritual attitude, her humility and her perceptions about forgiveness. By this simple action Jesus dispels the common belief that a woman was the source of sexual temptation. He also defied the conventional wisdom that she was incapable of deeper spiritual thought or higher moral aspirations.
Shared Responsibility for Sin
When Jesus was presented with a woman “caught in adultery” he refused to prosecute one person for a crime that takes two people to commit. The belief that the woman was primarily responsible for men’s falling to sexual immorality was prevalent. And in this one particular lesson Jesus taught that it takes two to commit this sin. And clearly on some level even her accusers acknowledged that any one who had not sinned (this sin?) should not stay around and condemn her. Jesus did not condone the sin but he would not condemn her. The idea that only one was presented for this “crime” and it was the female was very telling about the wrong thinking of the day.
Attributing Base Motives.
Later when Mary came to Jesus and poured expensive ointment on his head and feet she received rebukes for her actions from the disciples. Jesus had just told his disciples that after two days he would be delivered up to be crucified. Someone was listening! So in an act of belief and kindness she took an action that Jesus describes as “beautiful” but his other disciples described as wasteful. “But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman, for she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.’”
This was a world where it was understood that women were considered immoral by their very natures, where Rabbis taught women had little else in them but lechery. Jesus condemns such thinking by making it clear “I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
If Jesus wanted this story told in her memory what should we be learning from it? Jesus called the act “beautiful.” It required her perception that he would indeed suffer death. It also proved she understood what the 11 disciples did not yet “get” or could accept. And it speaks to the humility of a believer who took on the role of a servant. Matthew says she anointed his head, John says she anointed his feet. Jesus said she anointed my body. It would seem she began by pouring ointment on his head and then ended at his feet wiping them with her own hair.
If the fragrance of this perfume filled the whole house, let the beauty of this act fill the whole world. The attention Jesus gave this action was one further attempt to make sure females were given the same respect for spiritual perception and service to their Lord as any male disciple. And it was in direct contradiction to the contempt afforded women by Jewish tradition.
The woman was the man’s property.
Jewish traditional teaching was that as Adam was made first and the woman came from his body, she was clearly made for his benefit alone as his possession. From creation she was intended to be subordinate to him by virtue of being “taken out of him.”
Little Explanation, Profound Truth
When Jesus was asked about disposing of wives as it suited the husband (divorce) Jesus drew from the creation of male and female in Genesis this simple lesson: They are “one flesh.” So much so he expounds that divorce should be considered a violation of God’s desire for men and women. He further points out that the TWO were to become “one flesh.” Such an action required full participation on the part of both. This type of oneness can not be imposed – it has to be mutual. This original result of this unity is described as “one flesh.” By allegory Jesus states that you can not “cut asunder” your own flesh. “One flesh” is the whole interpretation by Jesus. The simple and uncluttered exposition is in stark contrast to the long and convoluted “sages’” interpretation.
Reversal of Fortune
Using the sequence of the facts of Genesis the Mishnah’s rationale as to why woman coming from man’s body means she is “at his disposal” and subordinate to him is to say the least a complex set of reasoning. Jesus’ answer was by contrast very direct. Truly one flesh at least means completely equivalent is purpose and value. As very few would rationalize that one portion of your body has inferior quality or purpose to another portion. “One flesh” teaches the lesson that the two were exactly the same “one flesh”. God’s intent (as expounded by Jesus) had been completely reversed by men. By Jewish tradition the teaching became they were completely different two types of beings, one the image and glory of God the other the servant of men. (Matthew 19: 4-16; Genesis 2:21-25)
Jewish Legal Practice.
Females could not be used as witnesses in a legal procedure. They were weak in their nature and unreliable by their emotional makeup. In Josephus’s historical account they were “useless as children or slaves as witnesses.” Jesus notes: “In your law it is written that the testimony of two men is true.” (John 8:17)
The first eye witnesses to his resurrection were female disciples. Their faith and attentiveness had given them an understanding of resurrection and of the messiah’s first mission which was to suffer. When Jesus had been resurrected and visited his disciples he first rebuked them for not believing the eye witnesses. Nothing in the culture or religion of the male disciples taught them that women were dependable witnesses. Yet Jesus chose them for this and then rebuked those who failed to acknowledge their female peers’ testimony. Jesus revealed himself to those women, thus stamping them with credibility and reminding the other disciples they were eye witnesses of equal standing among them. A direct assault on the thinking of the day! These women being among those eyewitnesses gave them a place among all disciples. And it would prove as a reminder later of the status Jesus gave women during his ministry. (Mark 16: 14; Matthew 28: 1-10; Luke 24:1-12)
The final words of Jesus to his disciples (while on earth)
This is recorded of Jesus near the end of his earthly ministry: “After he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:2) Jesus presented himself alive to Mary and several other women. Later in Acts Peter speaks of God having chosen those who would be eye witnesses to the resurrection. And among these clearly were female disciples. Then he charged them to “wait for the promise of the Father,” which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” He tells his Apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So, who do we find waiting? “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place” (Acts 1:14) “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer together with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. Were these not “all” in Jerusalem awaiting the Gift of the Holy Spirit? “They devoted themselves to prayer together with the women.” I think it is important to see how radical a change this was for Jewish males. They understood the lessons the Lord had given them during his ministry. They prayed together, they waited together to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. And we note this is as Peter says at Pentecost during his discourse. “This is to fulfill what was spoken of by the prophet Joel. I will pour my spirit out on your sons and daughters”. (From Acts 1 and 2)
It is within this unprecedented framework that we move forward in the next study to take a look at what was being practiced by female disciples in the Epistles.