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The Status of Women in the Christian Gospels

Women in ancient Israel:
Dr. B.A. Robinson writes extensively about how women's status and freedoms were severely limited by Jewish law and custom in ancient Israel. Generally speaking they were restricted to roles of little or no authority they were largely confined to their father's or husband's home,  they were considered to be inferior to men, and under the authority of men, either their father before marriage, or their husband afterwards.

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." Their position in society was defined in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the interpretation of those scriptures. Their status was not unlike that of women in Afghanistan during the recent Taliban dictatorship.

Jesus' radical treatment of women:
Christ overthrew 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 main Jewish religious groups of the day: the Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees. "The actions of Jesus of Nazareth towards women were therefore revolutionary." Some examples are: He 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 major transgression for a man to talk to a woman other than his wife or children.

He 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, except within their own families. Jesus also helped a Canaanite woman, another foreigner, in Matthew 15:22-28. Although he described non-Jews as "dogs", he was willing to talk to her, and is recorded as having cured her daughter of demon-possession.

He taught women students. Jewish tradition at the time was to not allow women to be taught. Rabbi Eliezer wrote in the 1st century, "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." Jesus overthrew centuries of tradition. In Luke 10:38-42, he taught Mary, sister of Martha.

He used terminology which treated women as equal to men:

Luke 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." It seems to be a designation created by Jesus.
Luke 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.

He 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.

He appeared first to one or more women 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 1 Corinthians, which state that the first person to see Jesus was Cleopas, Peter or all of the disciples.)

Women were present at Jesus' execution: 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.)

He told parallel male/female 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:
     Simeon and Hannah in Luke 2:25-38
     Widow of Sarepta and Naaman in Luke 4:25-38
     Healing of a man possessed by a demon and the healing of the mother of Peter's wife, starting in Luke 4:31
     The woman who had lived a sinful life and Simon, starting in Luke 7:36
     A man and woman sleeping together in Luke 17:34
     Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11
     Dionysius and Damaris in Acts 17:34
     Lydia and the jailer's conversion in Acts 16:14-34, The book "Women in the Earliest Churches" lists 9 additional parallels.

He 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)

Divorce: In Jesus' time, a man could divorce his wife, but the wife had no right to divorce her husband. This practice is supported by seven references in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in which a husband can unilaterally give 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 neither spouse can divorce the other; he treats the wife and husband equally. 

In closing, Galatians 3:28 reveals Paul’s understanding of women, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

By God's Grace,